During his lifetime, “King of Swing” Benny Goodman led one of the most popular groups in the country, and his 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall is regarded as the most important Jazz concert in history. He did so with an integrated band, and playing the clarinet - an instrument steeped in Jewish tradition.
A sold-out tribute concert at Xavier University on Jan. 11 attested to his enduring legacy. The concert was led by preeminent Russian Jazz artist Igor Butman, who appeared with the Moscow Jazz Orchestra at Xavier’s Gallagher Theatre.
Russian native and Xavier Piano Professor Polina Bespalko coordinates Jazz and Classical piano concerts on campus, and shares that Goodman’s work “is very interesting on multiple levels.” She explains, “first of all, being of Russian Jewish descent, a person who really shaped Jazz, is one aspect that is incredibly exciting. Definitely that he was one of the first musicians to hire African-Americans, putting them in his orchestra, as a civil rights advocate and leader. Also,” she continues, “that he was playing an instrument that was not used a lot in mainstream Jazz, the clarinet, creating the connection between his Jewish roots and bringing that flavor to Jazz.”
Bespalko was doubly excited about the tribute’s bandleader. “To us, in Russia, Butman is Jazz,” she emphasizes. This was Butman’s second visit to Xavier.
The band’s 20th Anniversary Winter Tour included the date at Xavier, followed by two nights in both New York and Los Angeles. The Rockwern Charitable Foundation, which provides grants to Russian Jewish artists and celebrates their artistic impact on American culture, made the concert possible.
And what a performance it was.
With overhead baby blue and merigold lights reflected in the brass instruments of world class players, every member of the Moscow Jazz Orchestra contributed dizzying virtuosity that both paid tribute to Goodman’s work and performed it (alongside others) with exuberance and youthful passion. Their first of two sets closed with a remarkable take on the traditional Jazz odyssey “Caravan,” with handfuls of passages quoting other renown melodies, much to the audience’s delight - even occasionally reaching into the Rock songbook. The second set featured a phenomenal medley of Goodman material and closed with an endearing take on the standard, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Three hours after it had begun, the audience was on their feet clamoring for more. Of the performance, Polina herself noted an “extra creative and driving energy. Butman is always like that, but I think he gave it more than possible that evening.”
Some of Goodman’s most beloved songs are “Sing, Sing, Sing (With A Swing);” “King Porter Stomp,” arranged by the talented Fletcher Henderson; and “Why Don’t You Do Right” for Stage Door Canteen, which launched the career of actress Peggy Lee.
Butman is highly regarded for the ways in which he’s contributed to the wild popularity of Jazz in Russia. In the 1990s he opened Russia’s first Jazz club, performed at numerous Jazz festivals, organized National Jazz Day and assisted artists like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Christian McBride to perform in Russia.
“Believe it or not,” Bespalko says, “in Russia, Jazz is more popular than it is here. In Russia, full houses are sold out. In the ‘90s, Butman played for President Bill Clinton, who said (Butman) was one of the best he’d heard. He was a leader who really shaped the Jazz community.” Butman’s production company organizes eleven annual Jazz festivals in Russia and abroad.
Butman immigrated to America in 1987, where he attended Berklee College of Music. Two years later he moved to New York and worked with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. Over the course of the following decade, Butman would perform at major Jazz festivals across North America. After returning to Russia, he became regarded as a bridge of sorts between Moscow and New York, and has been on nearly twenty recordings to date.
Other performers Bespalko has brought to Xavier include Chick Corea and Christian McBride. “It’s been a very rewarding experience,” she says, of bringing these acts to the stage. “I feel like the Jazz scene in Cincinnati is growing right now, and to be part of it is incredible.”
Goodman, who passed away in 1986, was raised in a family of 12 children that had left Russia to escape anti-Semitism. At the age of 10, he’d learned clarinet at Kehelah Jacob Synagogue in Chicago. At the age of 11 he joined his first band, and was a professional musician by 14.
In 1982, the Kennedy Center acknowledged Goodman’s lifetime achievements, and in 1986, he received a Columbia University honorary doctorate in music, and was awarded a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. This year would have been Goodman’s 110th birthday.
Butman and the Moscow Jazz Orchestra’s Xavier Concert Series performance not only celebrated proper tribute to the legacy of one of Jazz’s greatest players; it also did so with awesome chops and antics that thrilled the capacity crowd. “See you again, Cincinnati,” Butman enthusiastically promised from the stage at program’s end. “Or,” he suggested, with a playfulness for which he’s known, “come to Moscow!”