Loren Schoenberg

John Robert Brown

I first got to know Loren Schoenberg several years ago. I founded a British Jazz Education Conference (now, alas, moribund), and I invited Loren, along with Dan Morgenstern, to contribute.

Both men were terrific. Between them they seemed to know every significant jazz musician in New York. To travel midtown with either of them was to see New York with new eyes. 'Benny Carter lived there', 'Cole Porter lived here', 'I worked for Benny Goodman in that building', and so on. I thought, and still believe, that such a tour with Dan or Loren, intercut with appropriate archive film, would make a wonderful TV documentary, if only television took its duties seriously. Even now it's not too late; it could still be done.

Loren not only played the saxophone brilliantly during that visit to Britain. He's a teacher at Juilliard; I shouldn't have been surprised that he lectured to amuse, energise and inform. He was witty and generous. In the process I was staggered to discover how good a pianist he is, truly a 'shining star and inspiration, worthy of a mighty nation'.

To my great good fortune both he and Dan became my friends. Over the last three years I have been thrilled as Loren has been appointed Executive Director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem. You can read about the progress of this project at the museum's website: www.jazzmuseuminharlem.org

In January this year, without any pre-planning, Loren and I encountered each other in California. In the makeshift café area adjacent to the trade stands in a music convention, against the clatter of diners and to the accompaniment of distant screech trumpet players trying out new instruments, Loren brought me up to date on the museum. But first he told me a little of his early years in New York.

'By the time I was 13, I had become a Benny Goodman nut, because of my local library. One of the few jazz records they had was the Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. Something about that record just excited me.

But for a thirteen-year-old in 1971, that was kind of unusual. I liked that record. And on that record was Lester Young. Little did I know, at the age of 13, that someday I would wind up working with Benny Goodman. So I became a member of a group of avid Benny Goodman record collectors.

The way that you would meet, back in those antiquated times, was that you'd actually meet at a record store, standing around the Benny Goodman bin, talking to people. I met collectors, and people who had Benny Goodman records. Then I eventually found a book in a library not far from my hometown, called 'BG on the Record', a bio-discography by D. Russell Connor.

I wrote letters to Russ Connor, asking questions. I don't think he was getting too many fan letters from kids at that point, with a book like that. It was relatively dry, but it's a wonderful book. And, in a kind of teenage obsessive mania, I kind of memorised the whole book. I was a pianist at that time. I was studying piano with Teddy Wilson, and also Hank Jones - informally studying, spending a lot of time with them, with my parents' approval.

At eighteen I wound up going to Manhattan School of Music as a music theory major, piano minor. I eventually switched to saxophone major when I studied with Joe Allard, the famous saxophone teacher. But I had a lot of disadvantages, because I was really self-taught on the saxophone. The piano I had studied, and practised the scales, and all that. The saxophone I wanted to play it like Lester Young.

It was through these various activities and interests that I eventually got to meet Benny Goodman. Teddy Wilson took me one night. My parents took me to hear him play at a place in New York, called The Cookeries. He said he was playing that night with the Benny Goodman Quartet. I couldn't believe it. This was 1972.

The occasion was a National Urban League Tribute to Lionel Hampton. They had Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, George Duvivier, and Illinois Jacquet - or was it Slam Stewart? I can't remember.

Teddy got me into it. I met Benny, shook his hand, and got an autograph.'

Was he all right to you?

'Yes...'

But all those Benny Goodman stories?

'I never understood the stories about Benny Goodman. Benny Goodman was no more eccentric than any other genius. He was, er, odd. But so was everyone else.

So - I was in New York, working with people like Jo Jones and Eddie Durham, Sammy Price, Dickie Wells, Russell Procope, all these great old musicians. It wasn't that I was such a great musician; I was the only kid who was around when they needed a substitute on piano or saxophone. I was always anxious to run and get my saxophone and play.

So I got a great education, in that kind of music, very naturally. Around the corner from my apartment in Manhattan, where I was living, was this place called the West End, where all these people were playing. So in the daytime I was studying music theory, studying arranging with John Carrisi and people like that, and at night I was out there playing with these musicians. And in my third year in college I got a phone call from Benny Goodman.

I assumed the phone call from Benny was to play with him. At that time he was using Zoot Sims or Scott Hamilton on tenor. I knew Scott. I assumed that Benny was calling me to play. How exciting.

But he wasn't. He was calling me to write the accompanying literature - it's called the provenance - because he was going to donate his music to the New York Public Library. And he had asked Russ Connor, who had written the book about him, to write the information to explain the music. But Russ was too busy with his job. So Russ said: 'There's this crazy kid in New York, 20 years old, who knows a lot about your music. Why don't you call him?'

'So I wound up being paid by Benny Goodman to go to his office and ask him about King Porter Stomp. It was a dream come true, unbelievable, that led to my becoming his personal manager within the course of a couple of years.

At that same time, 1980, I formed a big band in New York, and got a pretty good personnel: people like Jimmy Knepper, Mel Lewis, Danny Bank, came to play in the band, so it wound up being a really good band. We made a record. Benny heard the record. Eventually he wound up hiring my band to be the last Benny Goodman big band. We did the PBS television show called Let's Dance. He died about a year later. So I had a very strong association with Benny.

At the same time I had become acquainted with Artie Shaw, because I'd interviewed Artie Shaw for my radio show.'

Artie lived out here?

'Artie lived in California, but he was in New York. At that time he was fronting his band out of Boston, led by Dick Johnson, the clarinet player. Our friend Daryl Sherman sang in the band. They were on the road in New York, playing at the Old Westbury Music Fair. I was doing a jazz radio show on WKCR, the Columbia station. So, like you, I had a cassette machine. I went out to interview Artie Shaw and he gave me a wonderful, wonderful long interview and a very nice dedication in his book. And we became friends. He became like a literary mentor, because he wanted me to write liner notes. He was issuing records of his that had never come out before, from his last year of playing. He would edit the liner notes, and he became my literary mentor. He would say, 'You must read Lafcadio Hearn.' So my relationship with Artie was much more of an intellectual one. Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were opposites in many ways.'

Shaw was an autodidact. From where did his literary education come?

'Yes, he was an autodidact. But when one reads The Trouble with Cinderella you find out that in his early twenties he became aware of his intellectual deficiencies and, as an autodidact, taught himself about reading. But he also took courses at Columbia University in the early 1930s. Then, when he became famous, he got to know all the great writers. Because he was so smart he became a member of their circle. Eventually, as we all know, it was that writing career that usurped his musical career, twenty years later.

Benny was not an intellectual. A smart guy, though, with wonderful taste.'

Street smart?

'As Artie Shaw was, too. These guys were not wealthy children. Artie and I did a public panel discussion, for the Smithsonian in Washington, on 'Jews and Blacks in Jazz.' Artie and I were the Jews, and the blacks were Joe Wilder and Jimmy Heath. Artie turned it into a monologue. But he was so interesting no one cared!'

On the only occasion I saw him speak publicly, he came across as impatient, a curmudgeon, humourless. One can't live day-to-day like that...

'I was never an intimate friend of his. I was certainly never a peer of his, so I never saw him really laid back, having a drink and laughing. Artie, by his own definition, if you read the things he's written about himself, was a driven guy. I don't think he told jokes or anything like that. But that's what made him Artie Shaw. And what's fascinating about him is the improvisational style, his legato, flowing, harmonically adventurous. It would be fun at some point to contrast his approach his approach to the clarinet and Goodman's. Their articulation is very different…'

The tessitura...

' ...Artie took it higher. Benny was much more a high-note goal man. The high note was a climax. With Shaw it was integrated. It's really fascinating. They were both taken with Lester Young early on, and the even phrasing of Beiderbecke and Trumbauer and Lester. Even before Shaw heard Lester Young, there is this big breakthrough in Artie Shaw, around 1936 and 1937.

When you hear him on those record dates in 1933 and 1934, with Red Norvo, those small group records he made at that time. There's a fascinating record date that never came out on 78, by Wingy Manone and his Orchestra. The personnel is Wingy Manone, Dickie Wells, Artie Shaw, Bud Freeman, two pianists - Teddy Wilson and Jelly Roll Morton. Then there's this big sea change. Artie gets his own band, that first band with the strings, in 1936. I love those records. By that point he had avowed pretty closely to this more even eighth-note approach, compared to Benny, who was much more dotted and swinging.'

The effect of the rhythm section?

'They had very different relationships with their rhythm sections. Goodman was eventually saddled with Gene Krupa.

I wrote the liner notes for an album called The Complete RCA Small Group Recordings of Benny Goodman.

So I really put a microscope on that stuff. Gene was brilliant, but towards the end of his tenure he did overplay a little bit.

'

Wasn't Krupa's bad press - on the 1938 Carnegie concert - due to a quirk of the recording? The bass drum is terribly loud?

'But I must tell you: Hymie Scherzer was on the concert. I interviewed him thirty-two years ago. He said: "Gene did play too loud. It's not the recording balance at Carnegie Hall. If you listen carefully to the Carnegie Hall recording, what you'll find is that on tunes like Sometimes I'm Happy, on the coda of Big John Special, you can really hear that Gene did play too loud a lot, and that he could bring it down. He could play quietly. And he was bombastic. That was a month or two before he left the band. At that point there was a great antipathy between him and Goodman, I'm sure, and you can hear it. He did play too loud. He did.'

Within a couple of years of Benny's death in 1986 there were two substantial biographies published. Is that going to happen with Shaw?

'Richard Sudhalter tried, I think with Artie's approval, to get me to write a biography of Artie's while he was alive. I didn't. I regret that. But I knew at the time it was offered that I didn't have the time to do it. Now I could kick myself. I do know that he has been interviewed extensively. There was a guy who did a radio series, and he couldn't sell the damn thing. He did what all of us want to do, and he had the time to do it, to interview Artie on tape for eight days. He produced a radio series. I used to have the tapes, eighteen hours of Artie Shaw. Maybe someone will do it.'

I hope you do.

'I don't have the desire to write a biography. I could write 500 pages about Artie Shaw's music. But the life stuff, there are people who could do it better than I would do it. I'm not a biographer.'

'To tell how great Benny Goodman was, I would play Contrasts, from 1940. I would play the Mozart he did with the Budapest Quartet in 1938. I would play the Première Rhapsodie he did with Barbirolli in 1940. By the 1940s, when he studied with Reginald Kell, Goodman became very self-conscious as a clarinet player. He went to a softer reed. He did the double lip.

I think by the 1960s Benny was no more interesting as a clarinet player than most graduate students at a school. He did record some Mozart with George Szell, in Chicago in the 50s. That stuff isn't bad. But my favourite Goodman classical records are the ones from before 1945, and there are not that many. Then he got self conscious and began to think, and it got worse.

Now Artie's classical clarinet records are fascinating. He recorded Kabalevsky, Milhaud, Gould, and Shostakovitch. Not very much from the standard repertoire.

I don't know who could have played Contrasts like Benny did. It would be great to have a panel of contemporary clarinettists - Thea King, Gervaise De Peyer - and discuss this. It would be fascinating.'

And the proposed Jazz Museum in Harlem?

'Americans, Europeans, Asians and Africans cannot believe that there's not a jazz museum in New York City. There's a jazz museum in Kansas City, which is wonderful, and there are some others scattered around the world. But the fact that New York City in general and Harlem specifically, does not have a jazz museum, it's shocking. So we're trying to address that, and build one. It's a long project to try and build a grand museum. We feel that it would be a mistake to try and build a museum that was anything but as grand as the music is. So we're talking about a big place, a wonderful place, a world-class destination. It's been going on for over three years now, we're doing a lot of programming up in Harlem, and we've a fund-raising programme going on. I am the executive Director. The Chairman of the Board is Leonard Garment, and my Co-Director is Christian McBride, the bassist.

We're looking for support, for exposure. We have a lot of programmes going, a lot of educational outreach things going which we get funding to do. And I'd say by virtue of our good deeds over the last few years we are established, even though we don't have a museum up yet! I think that's quite an accomplishment.

It's inevitable. Watch this space!'

Watch the Bennie Goodman Orchestra playing "Minnie's in the Money"

First published in Clarinet and Saxophone magazine, Spring 2005.
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