Jazz Institute of Chicago

Eric Schneider: Improvising With Benny Goodman

An alumnus of the Count Basie and Earl Hines orchestras saxophonist/clarinetist Eric Schneider was born on the South Side and started the piano at the age of six before switching to his instruments of predilection. Widely known as a sideman, Schneider only recorded thrice as a leader and his latest album dates from 1988 (Just Wild Enuf, a cassette-only release featuring Eddie Higgins, Charles Braugham, and Kelly Sill). His tribute to Benny Goodman will feature an octet that will include Bob Ojeda (tp), Bill Porter (tb), Ron Dewar (ts), Henry Johnson (g), Don Stille (p), Dick Bunn (b), and Charles Braugham (d).

JazzGram: What kind of tribute to Benny Goodman are you going to present at the Chicago Jazz Festival?

Eric Schneider: I am going to select some Benny Goodman's stuff or songs associated with Benny Goodman, but I haven't decided how organized I want [this tribute] to be: if there will be riffs written down that the guys can play to back other people's solos or if it will strictly be off the cuff.

JG: Are you going to stick to the clarinet during this tribute?

ES: It's possible I might play a little alto. People don't know this, but before Benny Goodman was a highly successful bandleader he also played saxophone. But I don't know if any records exist of that. It would be interesting to hear.

JG: Was Benny Goodman an influence on your playing or approach to music?

ES: When I was growing up, and to this day, my father would put on records by Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, or [Frank] Sinatra and when I took up clarinet in 6th grade, my grandfather bought me a bunch of LPs and my father bought me some LPs. My local record store had an album called Together Again recorded in the early sixties by the Benny Goodman Quartet and reuniting [Gene] Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton. I loved that and wore out my LP. I also had an Artie Shaw Greatest Hits LP which I also wore out. But even prior to that, when I had the dexterity to lift a phonograph needle to a 78 (I guess I'm showing my age now) I used to listen to records incessantly. I was knocked down by [Benny's] playing. Like with many musicians, the more you listen to him, the more you learn and discover what is actually there. I had the honor of playing with Benny Goodman in the early '70s, I believe: a one-shot concert for the city of Chicago. There were two stages: the B stage where I was led a band and the A stage where Benny was going to play the Mozart clarinet concerto and play some jazz. It was George Spink the Mayor's Office who told me: "How would you like to play with Benny?" I said: "Are you kidding? I would love to!" They kind of forced me upon Benny, but it was a thrill. I was shaking in my boots even though I had been with [Count] Basie and Earl Hines and played all over the world from Carnegie Hall to you name it. But all of a sudden, it's me with Benny Goodman and his rhythm section. When Benny was playing the melody I tried to contribute what I could in a way that I hoped would add and not detract. And then he indicated when it was my turn to solo on the alto and I had a fabulous time.

JG: What is your favorite Benny Goodman album?

ES: It's a toss-up. I love the 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert, a 3-LP set. That's one of my all time favorites. And then Together Again.

JG: What are your current projects?

ES: I'm traveling all over the country. I've just wrapped up something for the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Idaho, a meeting of movers and shakers from all walks of industry, from Bill Gates to Warren Buffett. This year LeBron James was there. You see a lot of actors and movie directors, commissioners of all major sports. Other than that, I love the life of a freelance musician. Every week is different. Sometimes I'm the leader, sometimes I'm a sideman, but what I try to do is to bring a little bit of Eric Schneider to a gig. Whether it's a bar mitzvah or something else there are ways you can inflect your own personality. So I try to fit the idiom and at the same time put a little bit of myself in there. And I think I'm successful because people keep hiring me [laughs].

JG: Do you still feel part of the Chicago scene with all that traveling?

ES: Oh, definitely. I don't travel as much as I used to. When I was with Basie, I was on the road some 40-something weeks out of the year. That was fun when I was in my 20s. Of course, travel then was easier and that was when Basie was alive. But, yes, I definitely consider myself as part of the scene although the last couple of years a lot of the places where I used to play on a regular basis I don't any more because of new management or ownership or new policy. Come forward, I hope to be playing more in public.

JG: Have you been impressed by any clarinet player lately?

ES: There are a lot of guys with great technical facility. My favorite clarinet player who passed away recently, unfortunately, was Kenny Davern. There are many guys who have amazing virtuosity but it doesn't move me the way Kenny Davern moved me, or Artie Shaw, or Lester Young. Most people don't think of Lester Young as a clarinet player. He had limited facility but his feeling and his notes have never been exceeded. Nobody has ever done something better than that. He was not the greatest technically but he was not looking at playing with the Chicago Symphony.

JG: Do you have a favorite memory of your time with the Count Basie Orchestra?

ES: We used to back up so many great singers: Ella, Sarah Vaughan, and Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr. Working with those people was always a gas. We did some festivals with Ella. One night Ella Fitzgerald asked me to trade fours and choruses with her. I grew up listening to records where she was trading fours with some fabulous players and here's Ella saying from the stage: "Hey, Eric Schneider! Let's trade fours." So, that was a dream come true. But, just playing with the Basie band was one of my dreams. I had never suspected that this would happen. My two favorite bands were Ellington and Basie. When I got the call to join the Count's band, it was a thrill. I can't tell you how thrilled I was. They swang like mad. They're a very self-disciplined unit. If the bus was supposed to leave at 9:30 in the morning and you got on the bus at 9:31 they would give you grief. You were on time, you were dressed correctly, you were ready to play, and you played your part. There was no drama, no mystery. It was just a very professional band and I don't mean slick or glib or overrehearsed by professional, no life, no soul. Every once in a while I had to pinch myself: "Hey, I'm playing with the Count Basie Band."

JG: You have a small recorded output as a leader. Don't you think that this has contributed to a lack of recognition?

ES: Yes, and I have no one to blame but myself. And I do intend to take care of that (to get a web site and record under my own name). But enough musicians and band leaders across the country know about me. It would be great if more people knew about me or if I was headlining at nightclubs. It's not the case right now, but I'm not bitter or upset because the only person to blame is myself. On the other hand, things have gone far much better than I ever had hoped. I thought I would be working at some advertising agency because that's what my degree was in. When I got the call to join Earl Hines and then Basie, by the time I got finished, nothing against people in the ad game, but how could I possibly have followed Basie with working at Leo Burnett or Jay Walter Thompson.

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