From his earliest years as a childhood prodigy until well into his seventies, Benny Goodman was the most technically accomplished clarinettist in jazz. His immediately distinctive tone, with a slight rasping edge that gave it an urgent jazzy quality, adorned not only hundreds of his own recordings, but dozens more that he made during his busy early years as a freelance.
He grew up in a large Jewish family in Chicago, and had his earliest lessons in a synagogue band. After playing in several amateur bands and studying with classical tutor Franz Schoepp, Goodman joined the Musicians' Union at 14, and at 16 joined drummer Ben Pollack's group.
He stayed with Pollack for some time, making records and playing prestigious jobs, eventually moving with him to New York, where he became a freelance. After five years of prolific activity, he formed his own big band, first playing at Billy Rose's Music Hall in New York, and then broadcasting weekly on the Let's Dance show.
This gave him thousands of fans across the nation, and when he toured to the West Coast in 1935, he received wild acclaim after playing his swing arrangements by Fletcher Henderson at the Palomar Ballroom, Los Angeles. This is generally regarded as the start of the swing era, of which Goodman became the 'king'. In 1935 he also formed his quartet with Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, and Teddy Wilson.
This group was the first racially mixed band to tour widely in the United States, making Goodman an early ambassador of racial equality in the entertainment industry. His popularity peaked between 1936-9. Health problems led him to retire briefly in 1940, but he re-formed his band several times thereafter - as a regular unit in the 1940s, and subsequently as a series of specially assembled groups for tours or concerts, such as his visits to Russia, Latin America and Japan in the 1960s.
He made several films (playing himself on the soundtrack of The Benny Goodman Story in which actor Steve Allen played Goodman) and was also an accomplished classical clarinettist, commissioning new pieces from Bartok, Hindemith and Copland.