Sunday, May 31, 2015

May the 30th...

When I was young, May 30th was Memorial Day. It was a special day; businesses closed, children visited local cemeteries to decorate with flowers the graves of family members and folks who had given their lives in service to their country. It was a time to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice, and give thanks. The U.S. Congress decided to float the day to the last Monday of the month, providing workers a three day weekend. The extra day was immediately coopted by retail "white sales" of sheets, towels, and blankets. The extra shopping day quickly grew in size to the point that retail stores stayed open, as did food emporiums. Those on the lower rungs of the economic scale did not get the day off. These days, the three day weekend is the marker for the official start of the summer season, celebrated with barbeques, the latest sci-fi special effects mutant hero spectacular, and other sundry commercial extravaganzas. There is usually a playing of terrible anthemic "glad to be an American" songs composed in corporate aligned country western pop; folks on social media attempt to outdo each other showing their support for our troops. Needless to say, this annoys me to no end.

Memorial Day is not veterans day, not 'show your pride in the military' day. There are people who died in the service of their fellow men and women in this country who deserve ot be remembered - including many who did not lose their lives in military excursions who, in my opinion, should also be remembered and honored; people like the Haymarket martyrs, hung for organizing a demonstration for the 40 hour workday; or Joe Hill, executed on trumped up charges for organizing dock workers and writing union songs. I'm no nationalist - every country has its honored dead, not just victors. No one should owe years of their lives, or their very lives, to the government of the real estate upon which they were born. In our world, a military is necessary; if a country doesn't have conscription where everyone serves, volunteers fill the bill. In our day, this has led to military families, some serving out of patriotism, but many, from lower economic classes, because it's a way to a decent living and leg up in the world - if you don't get killed, the benefits are good. Unless you need healthcare. Every time I think of professional soldiering as a job, I think of Rome or other such empires. Nowadays, we not only have professional military families, but special insurance, special retail programs, special homeowners programs, and etc. for military families and their descendants  - except, of course, proper care for the wounded of body and spirit. Hmmm, I think this this little diatribe has gone on longer than the couple of songs I played for the real Memorial Day.

The rest of the program is given to a celebration of Benny Goodman's birthday, also May 30th. Goodman was a poor 10 year old kid in Chicago when his father enrolled him in music classes at a local synagogue. By the age of 12, he was playing professionally. By this mid teens, he was playing with some of the best musicians in the country. At 18,he was recording with a band under his own name. He moved to New York and played as a session musician and in orchestras for a couple of Gershwin Brothers shows (also in the pit - Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa. It was a band put together by Goodman that played on Billie Holiday's first two recordings.

Goodman put his first big band together to audition for a Billy Rose show. They got hired. When the show closed, they successfully auditioned for the "Let's Dance' radio program. Benny's outfit was one of three bands on the show - their segment started at 12:30am. Most of what they played were arrangements in the new "swing" style of jazz, done by Fletcher Henderson, and African American whose own band hadn't been able to stay financially afloat. Benny even hired members of Henderson's band to teach his guys how to play swing. After 6 months, the sponsor pulled the plug on the radio show due to a strike at their plant. Goodman went on tour. It was a disaster. No one wanted to hear this 'new' music.

The last stop on the tour was a three week engagement at the Palomar, the largest ballroom on the West Coast, capable of holding 4,000 dancing couples. The first set was so poorly received that word went out that the rest of the engagement would be cancelled. It was August, 1935 and Benny was ready to call it quits. The band's drummer, Gene Krupa, spoke up. If the band was going to go out of business, at least they could go out playing the music they liked. Benny called for the Henderson arrangements. 8,000 kids went berserk. What no one had realized was that while their radio segment was on at 12:30am on the East Coast, it was only 9:30pm on the West Coast. The kids knew Goodman's band, they knew his music. It's regarded as the night that put swing over, the start of an era. And it was a lesson in the power of radio.


I hope listeners enjoy the show.