Historians tell us that many major turning points in history can be traced to a decisive victory in a single military battle; for example, Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar. Changes in musical preferences and specific events signaling those changes, while culturally important, certainly do not alter the course of history, although I am sure there are some who feel that Elvis Presley’s 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show signaled the decline of the Western World. While the world didn’t really change after that performance, the fortunes of Elvis certainly did.
The difference between a cataclysmic defeat on a battlefield and a rock performance on TV doesn’t really merit an analysis. However, somewhere between these extremes are events that change peoples’ perceptions and therefore, the course of events thereafter. And so it was that a jazz performance in New York City on Jan. 16, 1938 forever altered the course of jazz history. The location was Carnegie Hall, the Mecca of classical music at that time, and some say the most important concert hall in the world. This was the citadel of high American culture – classical music.
To place the performance in the proper perspective, one has to remember that jazz was considered to be the stepchild of popular music. In the early 1920s, jazz was seen by many as the devil’s music, played by black musicians in bordellos and honky-tonk bars; it was perceived to be vulgar and low-class by the white establishment, but slowly it began making its way into the main stream of American life and culture. By the early 1930s, it had arrived with the Swing Era; young white kids were dancing to the music of the Big Band Era. Americans were beginning to take notice of the music, but no one would dare compare jazz to classical music. Jazz was PLAYED in clubs and in dance halls. Classical music was PERFORMED at concerts.
Today, many would agree that jazz is the American classical music of the 20th Century, but in 1938, to even mention jazz in the same breath as classical music was frowned upon by the purveyors of cultural correctness.
On that fateful night, Benny Goodman (the “King of Swing,” at the height of his popularity), his orchestra and some guests (Count Basie and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra) made their Carnegie Hall debut. Tickets sold out weeks before the show ($.85 to $2.75) and the show was broadcast live nationally. The performers were racially integrated (not a first by any means, Goodman had hired Teddy Wilson, an African American in 1935), but this was a very important venue for a public display of integration. In the coming years, jazz would go on to continuously shine a light on the sad reality of the separation of the races and by example, establish that the creative process of making music could rise above bigotry.
The result of the concert was astonishing. Jazz was elevated to the upper reaches of American music, acknowledged as an art form that deserved to be given recognition with the improvisational skills and virtuosity of its players to be admired and respected. The performance has now come to be regarded as the single most important public performance of jazz in the history of the music – legitimizing it and celebrating it. It was jazz’s coming out party, not in a club or a dance hall, but at Carnegie Hall. And it was presented as a CONCERT.
Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary season in 2019.