A History Lesson With Booze ®

The Birth of Swing and the Hep Benny

Turns out, “swing” wasn't always the thing. When legendary bandleader Benny Goodman played it on his band’s first tour, audiences threw bottles at him. But that all changed on the last stop of his tour, at L.A.’s Palomar Ballroom on Aug 21, 1935. Hear why the City of Angels thought the new sound was the bomb, and then take a swig of this ultra-cool cocktail.

Erich Auerbach / Hulton Archive / Getty

It was 1935 and Benny Goodman’s career was starting to swing. He had been a star jazz clarinetist for years, but now he was the leader of his own big band.

They even had a weekly gig in New York City, playing on a national radio show called “Let’s Dance.” Although, admittedly, the band performed after midnight, when the radio audience was mostly asleep. Regardless, now Benny needed new tunes to play every week, and he needed to sound different from other bands on the show.

He made a bold decision: to hire musical pioneers like Fletcher Henderson to write him arrangements in the super-rhythmic style called ‘hot swing.’ Hipsters had dug that sound for years.

Mainstream audiences were into milder, so-called ‘sweet dance’ music. They didn’t exactly embrace Benny’s new sound. His band’s first cross-country tour was a disaster. In Denver, audiences complained about the “noise” and demanded refunds. At another gig, the band played behind chicken wire while the displeased crowd hurled whiskey bottles at them.

Dejected, Benny figured he would finish the tour, then give up band-leading forever. But then, a miracle.

At L.A.’s Palomar Ballroom, the last stop of the tour, the audience went nuts for the hot swing numbers. The band’s three-week engagement was extended to six. Suddenly, Benny’s face was on the cover of every music magazine in the country. It’s widely considered the gig that launched the swing era.

Why did it happen in L.A.? Benny chalked it up to the three-hour time different between East Coast and West. In L.A., his sets on “Let’s Dance” aired at the prime time of 9:30 instead of after midnight, so Angelenos had actually been awake to hear Benny’s hot swing and to fall in love with it. The rest of the country soon caught on.

For the next ten years, swing was the most popular music in America.

The Hep Benny

Photo credit: Elana Lepkowski, stirandstrain.com

Conducted by Lindsay Mouat of R Bar in L.A., about a mile from where the Palomar Ballroom once stood.

In a cocktail shaker, with approx. 8 oz. of ice, add:

  • 1 oz Fresh Watermelon Puree (well-blended)
  • 1 oz Tellicherry Peppercorn Simple Syrup (see recipe below)
  • 1 oz Bombay Sapphire Gin
  • 2 oz Champagne

Shake to mix and chill (5-10 seconds). Strain mixture into champagne flute and fill glass with Champagne. Work up sweat on dance floor and consume. Delicious in any time zone.

Tellicherry (Black) Peppercorn Simple Syrup

  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to bring mixture to a simmer; cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Strain the cooled syrup and refrigerate it in an air-tight container.