By Cindy Mindell
This year marks the 80th anniversary of Benny Goodman’s famed Palomar Ballroom concert, the Los Angeles jazz performance broadcast coast to coast, that ushered in the “Swing Era” of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s and transformed American musical culture.
To mark the groundbreaking moment and the musicians behind it, acclaimed Israeli-born clarinetist Oran Etkin will present “Reimagining Benny Goodman” together with Steve Nelson, Matt Wilson, and Sullivan Fortner at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Sept. 13.
Etkin immigrated with his parents from Israel to Boston at age four. He began studying piano at age five, violin at age eight, saxophone at age nine, and clarinet at age 13. He remembers the precise moment when he first discovered jazz.
“My parents got two CDs, Mozart and Louis Armstrong, and the Louis Armstrong CD blew me away,” he recalls. “From age nine to 14, all I listened to was Louis and other musicians from New Orleans. That was what got me into playing music and understanding the power of it.”
Etkin began studying with renowned saxophonist George Garzone at age 14 and later with Yusef Lateef. He went on to the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied classical clarinet and composition as an undergraduate and received a Master’s degree in Jazz Performance. Now 35, Etkin is acclaimed internationally for his performances and albums, as well as for his Timbalooloo music-education method and award-winning children’s CDs.
Etkin sees a parallel between Benny Goodman’s background and his own.
“Benny was growing up in a Jewish immigrant home in Chicago – his parents had moved to the U.S. from Russia – and he fell in love with Louis Armstrong and Jellyroll Morton and all those great musicians who were coming up from New Orleans to Chicago,” he says. “So he had this dual identity thing going on: the traditional Jewish upbringing at home, and then checking out Louis Armstrong and the New Orleans tradition. In his music, he uses both those things as well as the classical music tradition. I relate to him very deeply in that sense.”
As a child growing up in Boston, Etkin visited Israel every summer with his parents, with whom he has always spoken Hebrew, and goes back to Israel regularly, sometimes to perform at jazz festivals. “Both identities were part of me from a young age,” he says. “The combination of the two shaped me.”
It’s not just Goodman’s music that Etkin finds inspiring.
“The social impact Benny had is something that really moves me and is really important to highlight these days,” he says. “With the Palomar concert, there were two really great things Benny did that changed the course of history,” he says. “He sparked the Swing era, which was kind of a spiritual awakening of the country in the midst of the Great Depression. He answered a difficult time with this collective experience of music and dance that connected people and brought communities together. He also presented America with its first interracial band and challenged the status quo of segregation – but did so through music, by presenting an amazing band [whose talent] nobody could argue with. That’s something I really respect about him and I see it as part of an ongoing process that continues to this day.”
Etkin himself uses his music for good. His last album, Gathering Light, is named for “The Shattering of the Vessels,” a kabbalistic story about the origins of tikkun olam, repairing the world. At the beginning of Creation, God sent 10 holy vessels filled with divine light to the world. But the vessels proved too fragile to hold the light, and they broke apart, scattering holy sparks throughout the world. The purpose of humanity is to repair the vessels meant to make the world a perfect place.
“Sometimes those remnants of light can be in the darkest places but it’s our job to find them and bring the bits of light together,” Etkin says. “That concept resonates with what I do with music. I find that in each person, there’s a lot of light and a lot of darkness and I think there are forces that can bring out the darkness and lead to conflict, war, hatred, oppression, and violence. But at the same time, there’s also the possibility to bring out the light in people and I think everybody has that element in them. Music is the easiest and quickest way I know to bring out the light in people and connect beyond cultures and political differences. Music brings people together within seconds. That’s really something I try to do with my music.”
Gathering Light was inspired by performances Etkin gave in Indonesia, China, Japan, and Israel, as he included indigenous traditional musicians in the creative process at each stop along the tour. The rhythms and melodies, along with encounters with local people, were all incorporated into the music on the CD.
That spirit of creativity will pervade the Sept. 13 performance, billed as a celebration of Benny Goodman’s essence. “We tell the story about the Palmar concert and a ‘love story’ with the music of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, and how that lives on today,” Etkin says. “But we’re not trying to present the music as it was then, in a lecture format; it’s part of a living process. Just like Benny Goodman was creating fresh, new music in his time, we’ll be creating fresh, spontaneous music in the moment.”
Later this month, Motéma Music will release What’s New? Reimagining Benny Goodman, produced by Etkin and featuring Etkin along with Sullivan Fortner, Steve Nelson, Matt Wilson, and Charenee Wade. The ensemble pre-released the title track on iTunes on Aug. 21, the date of the historic Los Angeles concert 80 years ago.
In honor of Goodman’s contributions to integration, Etkin composed one track on the CD, “When Every Voice Shall Sing,” and dedicated the new compilation to Goodman’s groundbreaking band.
“Reimagining Benny Goodman” featuring Oran Etkin (brunch and concert): Sunday, Sept. 13, 12 noon at Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge in Ridgefield. For tickets and information: ridgefieldplayhouse.org, (203) 438-5795.