Of those legendary jazz artists who left their marks on the world, Benny Goodman was undoubtedly one of the greatest. Ask anyone who knows anything about jazz music, and they’ll most likely recognize Benny Goodman’s name when they hear it. Peanuts Hucko, on the other hand, is not likely to be name-dropped by any casual jazz enthusiast. Indeed, Peanuts Hucko (love that name) is one of the great unsung heroes of jazz clarinet, and jazz in general, on par with some of the greatest players jazz has ever known, and whose résumé includes playing with Louis Armstrong and the Glenn Miller band, to name but a few.
Fast forward to 1990, thirteen years before Peanuts Hucko’s death. He gets together a modest-sized big band to pay a tribute to one of the greatest figures in jazz history, and what a tribute it was. There are very few instances wherein a Big Band jazz show can be said to be both endearing and touching, while still swinging as any big band should, but Peanuts’ choices of songs and ability to convey emotion and soul with his playing bring forth a heightened sentimental value in the context of this particular show.
One can’t help but smile at the beautifully soulful “Memories of You,” the theme of The Benny Goodman Story film, and when Peanuts puts down his clarinet to sing an almost laughably peculiar and heart-warming duet with Louis Tobin (“When You’re Smiling”), you get an idea of just how truly personal and sentimental this event is. It feels not so much like a concert, but rather like a family getting together to celebrate the life of a lost loved one.
Even on the tracks that really swing, you feel a true sense of passion and closeness that Peanuts had for this project. As Peanuts and the band stomps and swings through such fantastic Goodman staples as the technically impressive “Let’s Dance” and the infectiously dance-able “Oh, Baby,” we’re taken back to a time when Benny Goodman still ruled as the unchallenged King of Swing.
One must not also forget, of course, that in order to put on a proper tribute to Benny Goodman, you need something very important: Chops. Peanuts and his band, despite their decrepit ages, could really play with the best of ‘em. With songs like “Stealin’ Apples,” “King Porter Stomp,” and the timeless classic “Sing Sing Sing,” Peanuts shows true proficiency as a musician, displaying speed, complexity, and fluidity in his playing. “Stealin’ Apples” has become one of my favorite versions of the song, played with some extremely catchy and impressive soloing by Peanuts, and at the end, one of the greatest buildups and crescendos that this song has ever known, leaving me with chills every time I listen to it.
Between the faster, more swinging tunes (“I Would Do Most Anything for You”) and the slower, more emotional tunes (“Just a Closer Walk With Thee”), Peanuts Hucko managed to create and bring together an incredible show, and overall, a tribute more than fitting for Mr. Benny Goodman, a great tribute for a great man whose music touched the hearts of many people, then and now.