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A Spell of Style


By George K. Sweetnam

FRIDAY NIGHT held promise. Two tickets to a Benny Goodman concert awaited me at Symphony Hall, and there were two of us to share them. We were both dressed with style--we were after weekend magic, looking to soar out of the grey world of dormitories and dining halls.

It was snowing heavily. Winter was having a last grand gesture before the vernal equinox arrived to formally announce spring. The snow glittered as it swirled around headlights and street lamps. It covered Cambridge clean and white beneath the black sky. The Square, too, swirled--with its overload of traffic, its wanderers, its happy groups, its solitary, carefully-dressed people whose hurry spoke of imminent rendezvous.

Below, waiting in the subway station, we found a dozen other pairs of weekend magicians dressed up to suit their urbane alter egos. We mingled and traded charms. When the train brought us all to Boston we scattered for a dozen different night spots. The two of us got on another car whose riders were all dressed to impress. An old couple on the bench next to us beamed. The woman said to her husband, "I hope you don't mind if I get up and start swinging in the aisles." He chuckled. They were going to hear Benny. I asked them if they knew what kind of stuff Goodman was going to play. The look on the husband's face told me I had asked a stupid question. "Great stuff," he replied simply. When we reached the Symphony Hall stop, the whole car emptied. The old people, the middle-aged people, the college students, the ten-year-olds--we were all going to hear Benny play his great stuff.

Goodman is 67 years old. He made his name playing clarinet and leading a big band in 1935, adding a contagious beat to the style of big band jazz and making it a rage. Goodman was among the first to send recordings to the top of the national hit charts when they became an institution in the '30s. The King of Swing still plays foot-stomping music with smoothness and style. His old fans have not forgotten him, and his name has not been lost on later generations.

We took our seats inside the hall. Three older men with short, neat hair sat in front of us. They smiled and eyed the crowd and joked with each other as though it were 1937. A handful of young kids leaned out over the balcony's ornate railing. A woman in her late twenties sat behind us with her date, making conversation about theater, art and life. A row of college students in blue jeans sat in the back, while those in tuxedos and evening gowns took the front seats. An old couple sat erect in the balcony, watching the empty stage with distraught, impatient expressions on their faces.

The lights went down and four of Benny's jazz sextet came out. The couple in the balcony did not look relieved. Bass player Percy Heath started plucking his big fiddle. The audience grew quiet. The guitarist, Cal Collins, jazzed in and out of the bass-line. A few heads in the audience nodded. Then pianist John Bunch took it alone for a little while, his hands roaming the keyboard like dancing spiders. The audience listened. Bunch stopped and drummer Connie Kay toyed with the beat. A few heads started bobbing. Then Kay stopped and all four jumped in. Heath plucked a bass line, Collins picked around it, Bunch's spiders danced on top, and Kay drove it along. More heads bobbed. Knees started bouncing up and down. The conversational woman behind us started tapping both feet. The foursome on stage had something going. But the couple in the balcony still did not look relieved.

By the time Buddy Tate brought in his alto sax and Warren Vache his trumpet, the audience was flowing with the beat. The last two fleshed out the beat and sailed it out into the hall. The sextet did not trifle with its tunes. Each man handled his instrument like a fifth limb and together they wove the beat into a spell. But the show was still Benny Goodman's, and they called intermission early to bring him on for the second part.

When Goodman came in, the audience stood. He looked tired but suave, with his thinning white hair, holding his black clarinet, in his black and white suit. The couple in the balcony sat on edge. Benny was not young. His hand did not look strong when it gave Bunch the tempo, and he took a few deep breaths before he put the clarinet to his lips. But he followed the beat in and when he started to blow, forty years made no difference. Goodman played strong and jubilant, and moved like the puppet of some demon beat he swallowed in the '20s. The audience clapped and stomped in rhythm. The couple in the balcony finally lost their anxieties and joined in.

Goodman played on into the night; I could not say how long. We got lost in a river of swing that night. When Benny played smooth, he conjured bright images of a giant ballroom, like the inside of a wedding cake, where ethereal couples foxtrotted and tomorrow never came. When Benny made his clarinet wail, he raised memories of dark, empty places--lonely spots where it seemed the sun would never rise. He played to the heart of Friday night, but he was always a perfect gentleman. When he came back for an encore, he told the audience in a charming, tired voice, "Thank you very much. You're most generous with your applause, but the pleasure has been entirely ours, I assure you."

When we got back to the Square, the snowfall was dying out and it was late, but it could have been the next day or forty years earlier for all we felt of time. The snow lay thick on the ground, although it was already melting. We had a drink, and slid in the slush, and threw a few snowballs. But our night would soon be morning, so we headed for home. The next day, I set back to work on papers and readings I had left undone, with one more daydream to distract me.

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