Monday Notes

Benny Goodman & Pegge Lee, My Old Flame

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[Monday Notes No. 16] In the 1930s, Benny Goodman was called by the press the ‘King of Swing’. To obtain this vague title, the clarinettist was certainly favoured by the colour of his skin. Nevertheless, the musician was of the highest calibre. Let us listen to and analyse one of his renditions of My Old Flame with singer Peggy Lee.

Jazz already had its own nobility, King Oliver, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, President Lester Young and others, but American society could not accept a black king, and so the emerging reign of Swing was pinned on Benny Goodman.

For his part, the clarinetist was a virtuoso, a meticulous and severe musician with his collaborators, and not least of all, he was also a discreet businessman. In choosing his collaborators, however, he made no colour distinction, rather he demanded reliable and capable musicians.

In this 1941 recording of My Old Flame the orchestral arrangement is by Eddie Sauter. After the refined introduction of the woodwinds, the theme is sung by Peggy Lee, one of the best white singers of the time.

This is followed by a solo by trumpeter Cootie Williams (2’15”), a long-time collaborator of Duke Ellington. Benny Goodman then takes up the theme on clarinet, with subtle and effective variations (2’45”).

Benny Goodman, introduzione a My Old Flame
Benny Goodman, intro to My Old Flame

The coda of the piece is very interesting, Goodman plays an arpeggio on the D triad over an F7 chord, outlining a bold F13(b9) chord derived from the diminished scale. The first notes of the piece are also built on a diminished chord, this symmetry demonstrates the complex architecture of the piece.

Benny Goodman, finale su My Old Flame
Benny Goodman, coda on My Old Flame

In this piece, Benny Goodman does not exhibit his extraordinary qualities. The clarinettist was capable of fiery improvisations, but in this case the arrangement favours the ensemble and the main theme, without giving much space to the solos. A true virtuoso like Benny Goodman always knows how to put himself at the service of music.

Until next Monday

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