Preserving the 'King of Swing' on film: Rare footage shows Benny Goodman backstage and at home

The "King of Swing" is getting a second life on the silver screen thanks to an extensive preservation project at Yale’s Irving S. Gilmore Music Library. More than a hundred of jazz legend Benny Goodman’s personal film reels — including never-before-seen footage of rehearsals and home movies with the likes of Harpo Marx — have been saved from irreparable damage and preserved for generations to come.

“We have dozens of hours of commercial grade footage on 16 mm and 35 mm film, as well as the audio tracks on magnetic reels,” said Remi Castonguay, public services project librarian at the Gilmore Library, who spearheaded the project. “We quickly realized that the collection was quite special, including raw footage of trips that Goodman took to Brussels, Thailand, and Russia as a cultural diplomat during the Cold War.”

Goodman moved to Stamford in the 1940s and regularly visited and performed at Yale. He received an honorary degree from the university in 1982; that's when he first met Harold Samuel, Yale’s music librarian. It wasn’t revealed until after Goodman’s death in 1986, however, that he had left his vast musical collection to his adopted alma mater.

Among the Benny Goodman Papers are 1,500 musical arrangements, 5,000 photographs, 500 reel-to-reel audiotapes and recordings, 150 film reels, personal correspondence, scrapbooks, and memorabilia, including a plaster cast of his teeth. Goodman also donated master tapes of concerts, live performances, and studio performances that had not been published before, and gave permission for the library to issue previously unreleased recordings, for which it receives royalties. To date, Yale has produced 12 CDs from the material in the archives, all with support from the Goodman estate.

An archive at risk

According to Castonguay, the clock was ticking for the film reels. A recent Library of Congress report indicated that acetate films have a shelf-life of about 20 years before exceeding preservation capabilities. Too much or too little heat and humidity in storage areas produces acetate deterioration — also known as vinegar syndrome, due to the distinct acidic odor it produces — which can cause shrinkage, cracking, flaking, and other distortions.

The library team — including former arts-area digital librarian Francesca Livermore and Brian Meacham, archive and special collections manager at the Yale Film Study Center — invited Goodman scholar David Jessup to spend time at Yale to review films and assess their condition.

“We projected films for three days,” said Castonguay. “There were several things Jessup had never seen before that were completely unique to Yale, which helped us prioritize. We didn't want to digitize and duplicate films that already existed in 50 other places.”

Using that information, Castonguay successfully applied for Arcadia funds at the library, receiving $260,000 to preserve the films and create a detailed guide to the collection. Castonguay and Livermore began looking at every single film through a hand-crank machine, noting its physical characteristics, time codes, and where it was manufactured. The library worked with Colorlab in New York City, which copied the films onto a polyester material, considered much more stable than acetate. They also created a digitized version of each film.

“To a lot of people it may seem anachronistic, but film-to-film duplication is still the gold standard for preservation, as opposed to digitizing,” Castonguay said. “I’ve been told that in the right conditions it will last 500 years.”

Those conditions include cold storage at 55 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity of 30%, which exist at the library’s state-of-the-art storage facility, according to Suzanne Lovejoy, assistant music librarian for public services.

One particular challenge the team faced is that the magnetic audiotapes were not marked with their corresponding film footage.

“The inscriptions on the original film canisters were cryptic, or just wrong. We didn’t have any idea of what went with what,” said Castonguay, who added that a second grant-funded project could support matching up the audio and visual elements. So far, he’s managed to complete a few short clips on his own.

The "King of Swing"

The film footage in the Benny Goodman Papers shows how the trailblazing musician fits into the larger framework of U.S. and world history.

Born in Chicago in 1909, Goodman picked up the clarinet at age 10. He left home to become a professional musician when he was 16, performing for a while with another relative newcomer, Glenn Miller, in the Ben Pollack Orchestra.

Goodman formed his own big band in 1934 and, according to the library’s online guide to the collection, “achieved unprecedented success, acclaimed both for his dazzling clarinet solos and for the brilliance of his band.” In an era of segregation, Goodman was a pioneer in hiring without regard to race. His ensemble included outstanding black musicians, such as pianist Teddy Wilson, as well as leading white performers, like drummer Gene Krupa.

“Black and white musicians had performed together on radio and in studio sessions, but performing in public and on film was groundbreaking,” said Lovejoy. “Once when the band was scheduled to perform in the film 'Hollywood Hotel,' the producers wanted to pull Teddy Wilson and replace him with a white musician. Benny simply told them that if Teddy didn't play, the band didn’t play.”

Goodman’s career culminated in 1938 with a concert at Carnegie Hall, still considered a key moment in jazz history. While big band music gave way to new forms of jazz, such as bebop, Goodman continued to be one of the most popular musicians alive. His career saw a revival in the 1950s and early 1960s, and his was the first big jazz band to be tapped as a cultural ambassador for U.S. State Department.

Film footage shows performances from the 1956 tour he made of the far East, visiting Japan, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Burma (now Myanmar), and Thailand, where he jammed with the King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, a huge jazz buff and saxophone player.

“The New York Times ran a piece saying that Goodman did more to improve relations with Thailand than any other diplomatic mission at that time,” said Castonguay.

In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, Goodman performed at the Brussels World Fair. Silent B-roll footage shows the various national pavilions and the Atomium building, which still stands today.

“The Brussels engagement was organized in response to the Russians outperforming the Americans at the World Fair,” said Castonguay. “The Americans realized they needed to up their contribution, and Benny was part of that. Some of the most interesting materials to look at in the archive aren’t related to music.”

Four years later, Goodman made an unprecedented six-week tour of the Soviet Union and performed jazz in Moscow’s Red Square.

“The Cold War is a really important and interesting aspect of the collection,” said Castonguay. “It reveals cultural rivalries going on at the time. Kennedy actually thanked Khrushchev for attending Goodman’s concert.”

Beyond diplomacy

The archives also contain kinescopes and telecasts of Goodman performing on network programs like NBC’s “Swing into Spring,” and ABC’s “High Road,” with an episode titled, “Benny Goodman, Our Most Unusual Ambassador.” Castonguay notes that because the telecasts were commercial products, they are synchronized with audio tracks and fully preserved.

Other areas of the collection include Goodman’s home movies, which show his children playing with the family dog, a family outing at the beach, and Goodman enjoying one of his favorite pastimes, fishing.

One 1955 Columbia Studios recording session, shot for a documentary that was never produced, offers a behind-the-scenes look at Goodman’s small ensemble — including Buck Clayton (trumpet), Urbie Green (trombone), Aaron Bell (bass), Bobby Donaldson (drums), and Claude Thornhill (piano) — rehearsing in a smoke-filled room.

“It shows them behind closed doors, and we get to see musicians warming up and commenting during playback sessions. It’s the music-making process in action,” said Castonguay.

Goodman liked to experiment with all musical forms, including classical. According to Lovejoy, he commissioned work by contemporary composers, including Béla Bartók (“Contrasts,” 1938); Aaron Copland (“Clarinet Concerto,” 1949); and Paul Hindemith (“Clarinet Concerto,” 1947), who taught at the Yale School of Music. In fact, Goodman’s piano player, Mel Powell, studied with Hindemith in the late 1940s after stints in Glenn Miller’s Army Air Forces Band — which broadcasted weekly from Woolsey Hall during WWII — and at MGM in Hollywood. Powell went on to have a successful teaching career at Yale, which also houses the Mel Powell Papers in the music library, and at the California Institute of the Arts.

Preserving history

Building on the Goodman preservation project, the library will begin the first phase of a two-phase project to inventory its unique audio-visual collections this summer.

“Yale was an early leader in the conservation movement,” said Lovejoy. “I feel confident that when the survey is done, Yale’s library will have a complete picture of the collection and can make decisions and establish priorities.”

Castonguay, who is an enthusiast of 17th century French music and amateur harpsichordist, says he now listens to Goodman and big band music while cooking at home. As a foreigner, he noted, the films evoke an era in American history when there was a sense of optimism. He will be leaving Yale at the end of the month, but is proud of the work his team completed and of the programs that accompanied the preservation project.

“A month ago we did our own 'Swing into Spring' event at the library. This is really why we do these projects. Preserving in a vacuum is anticlimactic. Once you do the work you have to broadcast it, make noise so people know the collection is there and can be used,”  he said.