The sound of swing, which utterly dominated the American popular-music scene in the late 1930s and early 1940s, instantly evokes images of tuxedo-clad Big Bands and dance floors crowded with exuberant jitterbugs dancing the Shag and the Lindy Hop. While the roots of swing music clearly lie in earlier forms of jazz—and particularly in African-American jazz performance styles—swing as we know it may just have been born at a specific time and in a specific place, with an electric performance by one particular Big Band for one particularly enthusiastic audience. The time and place was August 21, 1935, at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, California, where Benny Goodman and his band emphatically opened the Swing Era with an exuberant performance witnessed by thousands of young fans in the live audience and millions more tuning in to a live radio broadcast.
Benny Goodman had been a successful featured soloist in various prominent bands and the leader of his own trio and big band for several years before making his breakthrough at Palomar. The ninth of 12 children in a large Jewish family in Chicago, Goodman had been sent by his father at the age of 10 in 1919 to the local synagogue for clarinet lessons in the hopes that a music career might provide him a way out of poverty. By his early teens, Goodman had proven his father correct by becoming a working professional, and by 24, he was successful enough to land his band a regular gig on a weekly radio program broadcast out of New York City called Let’s Dance. It was there that Goodman began performing “hot” arrangements by African-American bandleader Fletcher Henderson—arrangements that departed from the more romantic style of the day by employing loose, upbeat, syncopated rhythms that had been common in African-American jazz ensembles for years. Goodman’s band would often appear well past midnight, New York time, on Let’s Dance. And while this limited their exposure on the East Coast, Goodman would soon discover a huge new fan base when he took his group west to California.
Already familiar with Benny Goodman’s exciting new style from his Friday night radio appearances, a huge crowd of young people turned out for his Palomar Ballroom debut on this day in 1935. It was a promising start to an engagement Goodman hoped would salvage a summer tour otherwise judged a failure. But Goodman stuck to relatively staid, stock arrangements during the first part of that night’s show, and he began to lose the young crowd. Before their return from the first intermission, the band’s drummer, Gene Krupa, is said to have urged Goodman, “If we’re gonna die, Benny, let’s die playing our own thing.” It was at that point that Benny Goodman famously pulled out Henderson’s arrangements along with all the stops on his talented orchestra, to the crowd’s immense delight.