A Musical Milestone at Carnegie Hall (on January 16, 1938)

Garry Berman
10 min readJan 14, 2023


It was a night when Benny Goodman and his great swing band stepped onto the stage at Carnegie Hall for their historic jazz concert — the first jazz concert for the legendary venue — featuring some of the greatest musicians of that or any time.

The big bands and their leaders were the rock stars of their day, generating a growing excitement for swing music among young people all over the country, ever since the style took over the genre, largely credited to the Goodman band’s three-week run at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935. During that fateful engagement, the band eschewed many of the more genteel arrangements favored by audiences for the past decade and jolted them with more exciting treatments with faster tempos, stand-out solos, and jumping ensemble work.

By late 1937, swing bands were delivering the goods for the latest national craze in music. Goodman’s band in particular favored high-energy arrangements by the likes of Fletcher Henderson and Edgar Sampson that had music mavens dancing across ballroom floors and in the aisles at concerts, and earning Goodman the nickname The King of Swing.

This led to the unprecedented step of booking the band in the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Goodman himself was only 28 at the time, and found it difficult to envision himself and the band performing in the Mecca of classical music.

He recalled the concert in great detail over forty years later in an interview with veteran TV newscaster David Brinkley. “It was really a press agent’s dream. His name was Wynn Nathanson. And the first time he approached me, I said ‘you must be out of your mind, we’re used to playing to people who dance. They’re part of the scene!’ Just to play a concert - you could do that with Beethoven, or something like that, I don’t see how you could do it with ‘King Porter Stomp’.”

It was booked, nonetheless. “I was a little wary of this thing, and I remember getting a hold of [popular comedian] Bea Lillie and asked her if she would sort of ‘relieve’ the music with some comedy. Well, she was bright and said she didn’t want any part of it!”

When asked how long an intermission he wanted for the concert, his reply reportedly was, “I don’t know. How long does Toscanini have?” Trumpeter Harry James sounded considerably more awed by the circumstances when, before the concert began, confessed, “I feel like a whore in church.”

The band was at its peak, having spent the previous few years touring constantly, and trying out new numbers and arrangements, always gauging audience reactions. By January of ’38, the set list was about as reliable as Goodman could make it.

At first, however, there was no telling how the music would be received, or even how much of a crowd would turn up for the event. That matter was put to rest when it sold out well ahead of time, necessitating rows of overflow seats set up on the stage, within reach of the musicians themselves. “Then when it came time to get tickets for my family coming in from Chicago,” Goodman said, “I couldn’t get a seat! I think I had to pay scalper’s prices.”

The program for the evening presented a mix of numbers by the full band, Goodman’s trio (with Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums), and quartet (adding Lionel Hampton on vibes). It should be noted that, at a time of segregation across virtually all aspects of American society and culture, Goodman welcomed black musicians to his band, as well as those he brought on as guests that particular evening.

Hampton, Goodman, and Krupa.

Thus, the concert was greatly enhanced with appearances by Count Basie, along with his sidemen Walter Page (bass), Freddie Green (guitar) and the legendary Lester Young (tenor sax). A few members of Duke Ellington’s band — Harry Carney (baritone sax) and Johnny Hodges (alto sax) — joined in as well, although Duke himself was not present.

The concert kicked off with “Don’t Be That Way,” which, as some observed, began with the band playing rather tentatively, even shakily, due to a collective case of the nerves. Krupa, for the arrangement’s drum break, decided to surprise and wake-up his fellow musicians with a frenetic, all-out bashing — which did the trick, and thrilled the audience as well.

Goodman, however, didn’t recall it quite that way. “We rehearsed there two or three times during the week, just to get the feel of the hall. So, it came time for the concert, and I’m sure we weren’t uptight, not at all. That band was pretty confident, and probably I wasn’t. I didn’t know enough! I didn’t know what we were doing. It was so well-rehearsed and so technically polished. And I could tell very quickly, in the first or second number, if the band was ‘on,’ so to speak. I heard the first number and said, ‘boy, this is gonna be good!’ They were on.”

Other full band numbers such as “One O’Clock Jump,” Life Goes to A Party,” and “Swingtime in the Rockies” provided thrilling moments, with “Swingtime in the Rockies” in particular featuring a explosive, climactic trumpet solo by Ziggy Elman that fairly blew the roof off Carnegie Hall. The audience responded with an equally wild response.

Ziggy Elman.

Another point of interest was the improvised jam session, featuring Goodman, James, Krupa, and the aforementioned guests, using the Fats Waller favorite “Honeysuckle Rose” as its take-off point, and which included exquisite sax solos by Young and Hodges. Freddie Green, who served as the Basie band’s rhythm guitarist for 50 years without ever being given a solo, gets his turn here — although he basically offered his rhythmic style sans any flourishes. More than seventeen minutes after kicking it off, James brought the somewhat meandering final chorus to a lively conclusion.

The great Lester Young.
Here is the complete, 17-minute jam, including solos that were deleted on the original Columbia release.

There were quieter numbers scattered throughout, including those by the trio and quartet (although the foursome also let loose with selections like “Running Wild”), plus two vocals by Martha Tilton (her “Loch Lomond” rendition, nice but not spectacular, inexplicably triggered a series of five curtain calls).

But the grand finale came with the granddaddy of all swing arrangements, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” originally written by trumpeter and all-around showman Louis Prima, and expanded over time into the gargantuan arrangement Goodman’s fans had come to anticipate at his appearances. The main section of the piece gives way to a series of solos, and on this particular night, a surprise solo by band pianist Jess Stacy. Accounts differ on whether it was Goodman who suddenly gestured to Stacy to take his solo, or if Stacy himself found a split-second opening in the beat to jump in with the improvised creation on his own. Goodman even suggested years later that it was Krupa who deliberately gave room for Stacy to take his turn.

Either way, the plaintive, quiet solo created a sharp contrast to the band’s blasting musical adrenaline rush that had immediately preceded it.

Jess Stacy.

Goodman recalled, “Here were these stars — Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson — and everybody played a solo — occasionally Jess would play — and I think Gene gave him the cue that night, “Jess!”, and he played for about one minute or so, and I said, ‘My god, he’s stealing the whole show.’ And he did, practically, with that piano solo.”

Once Stacy’s 96-bar turn hit its soft, final note, the audience erupted into tremendous applause, briefly stopping the show. It’s a moment that has been discussed and written about by music historians ever since.

Goodman claimed, “He played that solo at the Hotel [Pennsylvania], which we could never record, ’cause we didn’t have tape in those days.” But he also agreed that Stacy had never played the solo quite that way before.

A few encores followed, the crowd went wild, and the swing era had reached an early peak. Dance halls, jazz clubs, and theatres found themselves stuffed to capacity whenever big names like Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and dozens of others appeared.

The best-selling record album of the historic concert happened in a roundabout way.

“We didn’t plan to make a record at all,” Goodman said. “Two or three days later I was walking in New York and I ran into a fellow named Alfred Marx [husband of former Goodman band singer Helen Ward], and he said ‘did you make an aircheck [acetate recording] of it?’ and I said no, I’ve got so many in my hotel room, and I know how the band sounds, especially the numbers we played. And he said, ‘Well I thought it was quite an occasion, and I had it recorded by Mark Warnow. Would you like a copy?’ Goodman agreed, so Marx sent him a box of the fragile lacquer acetates of the concert. Ironically, Goodman didn’t bother to listen to them for years, even as the box containing the disks moved with him from one residence to another.

In 1950, as he and his family prepared to move from their Park Avenue apartment, the box of disks were discovered. Goodman told two slightly differing versions of this story — the first being that his daughter found the box in the back of a closet, and his later version that his sister-in-law Rachel asked to take over the apartment following the family’s departure. Shortly afterward, she found the box, and called Goodman to ask him to come get it. He decided to call promoter John Hammond and a few other friends to get together and finally listen to the disks.

“We went to the Reeves Sound Studios, and by now the advent of tape had happened. So they started playing the acetates, and this music came out like gangbusters! I knew it was good — nobody was going to tell me anything else.”

They immediately transferred the acetates onto tape as they listened, fearing the disks might be good only for one play or so.

Goodman later asked a friend at Columbia Records to listen, who was just as bowled over by the performance. They made a deal quickly, and the concert was released as a double album (reissues on CD were first released in 1998, with the unedited concert in its proper running order, and with liner notes by jazz historian Phil Schapp).

As for swing music itself, it maintained its mass popularity through World War II, but the end of the war brought with it big changes in American lifestyles and culture…as well as the arrival of bebop.

But in January of 1938, the music— and Benny Goodman’s band— were the talk of the music world.

Until next time…

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Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.