Musical royalty in the person of Benny Goodman — hailed by The Daily Princetonian as the “King of Swing, Sultan of Syncopation and Rajah of Rhythm” — gave the Class of 1936 a spirited sendoff at Princeton’s senior prom June 15. The clarinetist and bandleader who, in 1938, would bring jazz to Carnegie Hall was a giant of the big band era and was instrumental in making swing a national sensation.
Young Princetonians were quick to succumb to what Goodman called “free speech in music,” and in the winter of 1936, the Prince observed that “the rage for swing music is sweeping the country and the staid Princeton atmosphere vibrates to the giddy rhythms of Benny Goodman and the rest of the bands.” That June, Reunions felt swing’s liberating influence. According to a report on the Class of 1935’s “Thirsty Firsty,” the “swing band was tremendously popular and will be in evidence again next year.”
Goodman’s 14-member band included jazz greats such as Gene Krupa, the “dynamic parchment pounder who,” the Prince declared, “is acknowledged the greatest rhythm percussionist in the world”; trumpeter Bunny Berigan; and pianist Jess Stacy. But it was vocalist Helen Ward, described by The New York Times as “essential to the Goodman band’s early success,” who was the most enchanting of the night’s performers. She did herself no harm by flattering her hosts. “Out West,” she told a star-struck Prince reporter, “the boys dance so ungracefully, hopping around and not being a bit smooth,” adding that “men here are so much more sophisticated and suave.”
Ward also captured the je ne sais quoi of swing: “I really don’t know just why I like swing music, except that it stirs me up and appeals to me more than any other kind of jazz. It just makes me sing.” The formally attired couples who danced beneath illuminated crystal balls in Princeton’s gym from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. expressed enthusiastic agreement with their feet.
John S. Weeren is founding director of Princeton Writes and a former assistant University archivist.