Wednesday, May 29, 2024

"Miles Davis, 'The Prince of Silence'" - Mike Zwerin [From the Archives]

 © -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Here’s the second in Mike Zwerin’s fine series Sons of Miles which he posted to Culturekiosque Jazznet.

“Miles Davis, "The Prince of Silence," was the last in the line of Kings, Dukes, Counts, and Lords who forged the basic vocabulary of jazz. He reigned with undisputed power, opening melodies like flowers, into the early 90s despite active nobles and young pretenders assaulting the throne.

He did not like to be called a "Legend." When he hit 60, he told me: "A legend is an old man known for what he used to do. I'm still doing it. Just call me Miles."

Whatever you call him, his treasury was overflowing. Money was every bit as important to Prince Miles as creativity. Or rather they were inseparable. He related to money and superstardom as integral to his art. They were evidence of communication, arts in themselves. Making record companies and promoters pay maximum dollar for his services forced them to invest heavily in promotion to protect their investment, which inevitably improved business and they paid even more next time.

What separated this Prince from most of his subjects is that he made creativity pay royally. ("I do what I do good. Better than good.") He divided his time between five-star hotels, a large apartment overlooking Central Park in New York and a million dollar villa in Malibu, California. He drove expensive sports cars. Money was part of what made him - whether he liked it or not - legendary.

"Don't play what's there," he told his young musicians: "Play what's not there;" and "don't play what you know, play what you don't know." Legends say legendary things. "I have to change," he said: "It's like a curse." He played key roles in the birth of bebop (with Charlie Parker), cool-jazz ("Birth Of The Cool"), modal jazz ("Kind Of Blue") and jazz-rock fusion ("Bitches Brew"). "I can put together a better rock 'n' roll band than Jimi Hendrix," he bragged.

In the 1960s, John Coltrane (who would become a legend too) was a perfect musical foil for Miles. With Philly Joe Jones, drums, Paul Chambers, bass, and Red Garland on piano, this was one of the best jazz bands in history. Trane's streamlined, full-blooded goosebump-raising "sheets of sound" on the saxophone contrasted the eloquent serenity of Miles' courtly, spacial trumpet (audiences would applaud his silences) - 20th century speed and complexity in tandem with elegant 19th century romanticism. Before leaving Miles to form his own band, Coltrane had been searching, a captive of his own intensity, playing 45-minute solos in the middle of what were supposed to be one hour sets.

"Can't you play 27 choruses instead of 28?" Miles asked him.

"I know I know," Coltrane replied:

"I play too long.

But I get so involved I don't know how to stop."

"Why don't you try taking the saxophone out of your mouth?" Miles advised. One legend to another.

Twenty years later, Miles was still having trouble with saxophonists playing what he called "duty shit, all the things saxophone players think they are supposed to do." He asked tenorman Bob Berg why he had soloed in a place where he was not scheduled and had never before played.

"It sounded so good," Berg replied, "I just had to come in."

"Bob," said the Prince of Silence, "The reason it sounded good was because you weren't playing."

Miles was regally relaxing in one of the series of grandiose hotel suites in which I interviewed him over the years. People waited on him, a young woman usually sat by his side. He was obviously accustomed to luxury, looking like he expected and deserved it. He reminded me of an African Prince in his chambers.

We were in a penthouse atop the Concorde-Lafayette Hotel at Porte Maillot. Paris was at our feet. Drinking herbal tea, he had the world on a string. I thought of when, not all that long before, he had ingested more potent substances.

For many years, Miles had been famous, or infamous, for one negative habit often associated with those who are considered to be "hip" - drugs. The black creators of that revolutionary urban American improvised music which came to be called "bebop" endured critics who said that their jazz was not really "music." While the sounds they invented were adapted by so-called "serious" composers, who were acclaimed by these same critics (all white). The composers' jazz-influenced works were performed in prestigious halls and on the soundtracks of big-budget movies while the creators worked in Mafia-controlled saloons and collected no royalties.

Bebop fathers fought alienation by constructing their own secret culture with it's own style and language - "bad" meaning "good" is vintage bebop argot. Drugs were part of the huddle; they seemed to cure alienation for a minute. Not coincidentally, drugs disappeared when respect - and money - arrived. Jazz was presented in Carnegie Hall, Clint Eastwood made a movie about Charlie Parker, Miles became a pop star. When Miles cleaned up his habit, he made it "hip" to be "square."

"What do you want to know?" he asked me, in that legendary rasp which has become an emblem of "hip" to generations of hipsters and hippies.

Remembering that he had once said: "Music is like dope. You use it until you get tired of it," I asked him if he had tired of cocaine, heroin and the rest.

He turned the pages of a large sketch pad, drawing flashy, fiery-haired bright-lipped women with an assortment of felt-tipped pens. Miles began to paint late in life. Since his death, neckties based on his paintings have become available in better stores everywhere, collectors pay high prices for his original works. He turned the pad around to show it to me:

"You like these chicks? These are Parisian women - sunken cheeks. Speaking French does that. They speak with their tongues out. Language forms your face."

Drawing more sunken cheeks, he began to answer my question: "I had to stop doing everything..."

He was wearing rose-rimmed dark glasses and an understated expensive trim white shirt. His hairline had receded but what remained was curly and luxuriant. Miles Davis was the first jazz noble to have a hair transplant. There was some weight on his bones for a change. It was difficult to refrain from staring at his healthy velvety jet-black skin-tone. He was a beautiful looking man who had affairs with Juliette Greco and Jeanne Moreau while in Paris recording the soundtrack for Louis Malle's film "Elevator To The Scaffold." (The soundtrack holds up better than the movie).

"Everything," he repeated: "Listen." His hoarse whisper sounded like there was a mute in his throat. "I was snorting coke, right? Four, five grams a day. Go out drinking brandy and beer around the clock. Get up at midnight, stay out the rest of the night and half the day. Smoke four packs of cigarettes. Using sleeping pills too. One day I wake up I can't use my right hand. Can't straighten it out. Cicely panics..."

Miles Dewey Davis III, son of a middle class dentist from Alton, Illinois, was married to the actress Cicely Tyson, who won an Emmy Award (the American TV Oscar) for the title role in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." The marriage ceremony was performed by Andrew Young, mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, at the home of comedian Bill Cosby. This was the cream of the African-American aristocracy. Cicely and Miles were later divorced. In his autobiography, he accused her of trying to pull out his hair-weave.

"Cicely panics," he continued: "Let's go see Dr. Shen," she says. Acupuncture doctor. Dr. Shen gave me, here, here. He gave me herbs to clean my body out. Chinese medicine. I shed my skin. A whole layer of skin fell out. Weird stuff came out of my nose. I didn't know which drug was messing up so I just decided to stop them all. Now I swim 40 minutes every day. The only habit I got left is sweets.

"Cigarettes are the worst of all. You're better off snorting coke than smoking cigarettes. I saw Wayne [Shorter] stand there and light a cigarette. I said, 'Why you doing that?' He said, 'I need something to do with my hands.' I said, 'Why don't you put them in your pockets? You got four pockets.'"

I asked him what he would have done if Dr. Shen had told him to give up the trumpet too.

"Change doctors," he shot back without hesitation. "I was told that once, when I was, like, sixteen. Sonny Stitt came to St. Louis, right? And he had his hair straightened. He showed me how to do it, did it for me. My hair was wet. I was running around trying to be hip, right? So then I had to come back all across town to go home. I got sick. Went to the hospital. The doctor said, 'What, you play the trumpet? You can't do that any more.' If I'd listened to him, I'd be a dentist today. Isn't that a bitch?"

Miles was not exactly healthy to begin with, the rest was self-inflicted. He went in and out of surgery for sickle-cell anaemia, banged up his Lamborghini ("Shit! Both ankles"), had an ulcer, bouts of insomnia (the coke didn't help), polyps were removed from his vocal cords. After a hip operation (Miles was so hip, he even had hip operations) forced him into a wheelchair, he insisted on being wheeled from limousine to boarding ramp after he was loping around stages like a gazelle. "That's just Miles being princely," his guitar player explained.

Miles was famous for turning his back on audience. I asked why he did that.

He lowered his head and stared up at me, glowering with narrowed menacing eyes, grinding his mouth like there was gum in it which there wasn't. Miles loved to play the devil, although I always thought it was just that - a game. When a woman once came up to him and said, "Mr Davis, I love your music,"he leered: "Wanna fuck?" (She did not think that was funny.) Now he hissed to me: "Nobody asks a symphony orchestra conductor why he turns his back on the audience." After 1970, when his "rock" period began with "Jack Johnson" and "Bitches Brew," Miles took to standing in the middle of his bubbling cauldron of binary electronic avant garde exploration on the cutting edge of distortion, signaling tempo and dynamic changes with an implied wave of his green trumpet or a pointed finger. At the same time, he denied the existence of signals:

"The music just does what it's supposed to do."

His most musical as well as commercial collaboration was with the older white arranger/composer Gil Evans, a father figure to Miles. On their albums together - which were, well, symphonic - Miles was at the height of his power. He was like a violin soloist playing a concerto with Gil's big band. Their "Sketches of Spain" was a big hit. Gil said: "Miles is not afraid of what he likes. A lot of other musicians are constantly looking around to what the next person is doing, wondering what's in style. Miles goes his own way."

Now there was a silence in the suite on top of the Hotel Concorde-Lafayette. When you're with Miles Davis, silence is not exactly silent. There was a palpable vibe in the air. He went on happily drawing away. Miles taught me whatever I know about silence, apparently not enough. I grew paranoid. I blamed myself for the conversational stagnation. I was the journalist, I needed a question - fast. Make me sound intelligent. Whatever came to mind: "Do you still practice?"

He had finished another drawing. He drew the way he once smoked and snorted - compulsively. Perhaps it was drug-substitute gratification. He turned it around, showed it to me and said: "Yeah. Practice every day. People know me by my sound, like they know Frank Sinatra's sound. Got to keep my sound. I practice seventh chords. Practicing is like praying. You don't just pray once a week."

"Do you pray?"

"I was on a plane once and all of a sudden it dropped. I had this medal Carlos Santana gave me around my neck.

It has a diamond and a ruby and a picture of some Saint on it.

I touched it.

I think that thing saved me.

Well, just say I pray in my way."

Jazz festivals will come to be divided into pre- and post - Miles Davis eras. For 20 years from 1971, Miles lent credibility to the rock backbeat. (He opened for The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane at The Fillmore.) His presence continued to hover, providing a sort of tacit legitimacy for rock bands on jazz stages. After his death in the Fall of 1991, it has become more difficult to rationalize. Miles did not play rock for the money. He was in search of communication, or, at worst, the fountain of youth. Sure, he wanted a large audience. He was no loser. But anything Miles touched can be defined as jazz, like Louis Armstrong. Now we're stuck with the youth without the fountain.

During the summer 1991 jazz festival season, Miles did something he said he would never do - look back. He led an all-star assortment of ex-employees - Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Jackie McLean, John McLaughlin, etcetera - in Paris. Quincy Jones conducted Miles soloing with a big band performing "Sketches of Spain" in Montreux. 'I cannot help but wonder," I wrote on the front page of the International Herald Tribune, "if this unexpected flurry of nostalgia at the age of 65 is some sort of last roundup." That same summer, Jack Lang awarded him the Legion of Honor. I wrote: "It seems somehow like final punctuation." Later, I realized that I had written his obituary two months early, which really spooked me. Because I also wrote: "Miles Davis is playing the soundtrack for the movie of my life and when he stops, the movie's over."

Well, I'm still here. But life post-Miles is not easy. There is nobody to remind us of the importance of personal sound and silence. The silent sounds of "Tutu," recorded in the late 80s, reflect the best of our contemporary urban experience - a peaceful garden in the middle of a polluted city, a warm café in winter, the metro when it is not on strike, walking streets, a friendly taxi driver, tree-lined empty boulevards at dawn. It has become much harder to ignore all the noise.

Miles was a regular at the "Grande Parade du Jazz" in Nice. Neighborly noise considerations forced a midnight curfew. When the stage manager waved off the band ten minutes early, Miles was furious. He wanted those ten minutes. He brought the band back until midnight on-the-nose. Money making as an art form involves doing what you want to do anyway even without the money.

Miles was also a master of the art of Good Publicity. His sparring with Wynton Marsalis in the press was a good example. Marsalis is the leader of the under-30 generation of tradition and blues-oriented players which has installed itself as the immediate future. It can be called a movement. They build on the past and one day may leap into the future.

Right now; though, most of them sound like other, mostly dead, people. They are intelligent, clean-living and highly specialized technocrats. Marsalis secured his influence on them through his post as Director of the Lincoln Center jazz program at just about the time Miles Davis died. There was a void, although I beg to differ with those who consider Marsalis to be Miles' heir. Marsalis is not "cursed" by change, and he has yet to learn the value of silence.

Marsalis accused Miles of deserting "true" jazz by playing rock. Miles accused Marsalis of ditto for playing European classical music. Back and forth, taking one to know one. Miles said: "Wynton is just doing a press number, which he is always doing. Music shouldn't be like two gladiators fighting."

Which of course made a great press number. Miles was photographed giving Wynton one of his drawings. They were both smiling like two heavyweights promoting a championship match.

So as we ride away into the sunset towards the future of jazz, we remember the words of the Prince of Silence: "When I'm not playing music, I'm thinking about it. I think about it all the time, when I'm eating, swimming, drawing, there's music in my head right now talking to you. I don't like the word jazz which white folks dropped on us. And I don't play rock. I make the kind of music the day recommends."”

Friday, May 24, 2024

Remembering Bill Holman [1927-2024]

According to Andre Previn as quoted in Leonard Feather's "Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz": "Bill Holman was a first-rate tenor saxophonist, but his true instrument is the orchestra, and he plays it with musicianship, honesty and brilliance."

Shadrack (1999 - Remastered) - Bill Holman Big Band

Bill Holman & His Big Band - Speak Low

In A Sentimental Mood (1999 Digital Remaster) - Bill Holman Big Band

AN AUDIENCE WITH MILT BERNHART - Part 2 [With Additions and Revisions]

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


This is a wonderful interview with Milt Bernhart [1926-2004], the late big band and studio trombonist who was resident in Los Angeles during the later years of his career. In order to make it easier to read, I’ve divided it into two parts.


It’s an important interview  because Milt lived through a nascent period in the development of big band Jazz both as an observer of its evolution and as a participant in its creation. It’s fun because Milt was blessed with a wonderful sense of humor and more than enjoyed a laugh or two as a storyteller.


This article originally appeared in “In Tune International” a UK-based magazine, in their December 2003 and January 2004 issues. The article was illustrated with photographs which cannot be reproduced due to the potential for copyright infringement. If there are errors in the text you can be sure they are from poor scanning and not from the In Tune original text.


This scanned limited-circulation copy has been made with the cooperation of Gerry Stonestreet, the Editor of In Tune.  Thanks are also due to Derek Edwards and the late, Gordon Sapsed.) 




On 29th May, 1996, before a large audience of Big Band enthusiasts, and several professional musi­cians, at the West Surrey Big Bands Society, Derek Edwards welcomed MILT BERNHART. This is a transcript of their conversation:  




DEREK E: Well everyone, when our guest of honour was last year introducing at the BBA Meeting the tribute to Billy May, he said that the surprising thing about Glenn Miller is that, when listening to the band, you often hear things that are not at all 'Miller‑ish'. And here's an example to start the second half. 

("Farewell Blues" The New Casa Lorna Orch) 

Milt, those marvellous albums of Glen Gray and the reconsti­tuted Casa Lomans, in which you played such a major part, are something which we Big Band lovers will always have, as part of our heritage. I remember saying to you this morning when we were talking together, that Billy May, when he was doing the Time‑Life series with Dave Cavanaugh, didn't bother to re‑record any of the items produced by that wonderful group. I'm sure we would be very interested to hear about your involvement in the Glen Gray Re‑creation series. By the way, that last track, Glenn Miller's "Farewell Blues', was arranged by Glenn Miller. 

MILT B: Yes, I'm certain that was Glenn Miller's arrangement, and that band (Glenn Millers) which is looked upon by musi­cians and others (so‑called 'purists') as a commercial band was, first of all, a swing band. It's curious that all the bands that are referred to as the great bands of the big band era, all were swing bands. It is interesting to remember that there were probably hundreds of bands in existence between 1937 and the beginning of 1950 ‑ hundreds!  

It was great, everybody was happy, musicians were working, people went dancing, and there were a lot of bands. But the ones they talk about will invariably be Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey, and a few more if there is time, if they had more than ten seconds to tell you. Harry James, Les Brown, etc. Glenn Miller rates high, and they were all swing bands. No 'Mickey Mouse' bands in that group, yet there were lots of those bands designed for people who didn't want the band to bother them while they were dancing: they used to say `the band becomes wallpaper'! But these we are talking about were band leaders who aspired to something better. And so Glenn Miller needs to be remembered because his was a swing band with good soloists, and his records probably made people like Benny Goodman very jealous, but that's neither here nor there ‑ Glenn's was always a great band with some great players and they were admired by other musicians, such as myself! 

Now, when they re‑created these things at Capitol Records, in albums to be listed as Glen Gray and his Orchestra, that for me was very special. Glen Gray's band was a favourite of mine from the very beginning; and it probably was the first 'hot' white band in existence. Before 1930, and I don't think there was any band of this kind then, before the others began to show. It was a very unusual band, with great players. You can imagine Glen Gray, long time retired, being brought back by Capitol Records; ushered down a long hallway in Capitol and brought in almost as if he were royalty. We treated him like that, and he was a gallant man, he looked great. I think I made a joke once about ...'They picked Glen Gray as leader of their co‑op band, because he looked the best from the back!" (Loud laughter). As a matter of fact it was either that or they got him out of the window of Saks, Fifth Avenue! But he was a great looking band leader, perfect, and a nicer man never existed. Usually, during these dates he was there, and just sat at the side and was a cheer‑leader. The arrangers, one by one, led the band. It was a pleasure to be there, in the company of the musicians, and a person like Glen Gray ‑ I thought I had died and gone to heaven, really! 

Something happened on one of those dates which I'll tell you about, because I remember it very clearly. As I mentioned be­fore, having to play somebody else's solos could be difficult, even for the best musician. Interestingly, it was not generally complicated jazz solos, it was often something beautiful and almost untouchable because the original player was so unique. In this case, we turned over from the number we had just recorded, and the next item was Charlie Spivak's theme song "Star Dreams". I don't know if everybody remembers that theme song. This is a commentary on where we are today for if you say Charlie Spivak, anybody under the age of 60, they'd say "Charlie who?". Great player, great, great trumpet player. The theme song required control, and very few people besides Charlie Spivak could play it that well. We found out that night that it was trouble, because the trumpet section was made up of Mannie Klein, Cappy Lewis, Shorty Sherock, Pete Candoli and Gozzo ‑there were five of them; all of them great, and remembered as such. 

So it was a matter of who should play it, and I think they were drawing straws ‑ short ones, and the first person to try it, of all people, was Gozzo, and I figured there was going to be trouble, for he wasn't that kind of a trumpet player. Well, we started, and it was an octave jump (Milt hums the phrase), so Gozzo right away wobbled horribly (Milt illustrates with his voice). He was a lead trumpet player, Derek, and lead trumpeters usually don't play alone, and they are very careful not to play alone (laughter). The position requires somebody who can lay it down and usually has a large number of people underneath him. So, playing this solo ‑ and it required a special mute, and the mute is hard to play in ‑ well, after about twenty minutes of Gozzo trying to make it, they had to say "give it to Shorty". Actually, no ‑ the second person to get it was Cappy Lewis, a very fine trumpet player, I think the moon must have been in its fourth quarter, for Cappy couldn't do it either! So the next trumpet player, you know, it's starting to look like an hour game comedy, anyway, it was Pete Candoli, and he was the worst of the bunch! And then Mannie Klein, who should have been able to play it, but I think, out of sympathy for the rest of them, he missed the note, I have the feeling he missed it on purpose. The last guy to get it at that point was Shorty Sherock, and I made a joke, I said `There must be a line out in the street of trumpet players waiting to play this!" (Laughter). Anyway, I remember we went through everybody in the trumpet section; but actually, nobody suffered as a result, because everyone knew they were all great players, and every­body has a moment like that, they all had it at the same time, I felt great because I realised that even the great ones can play off their best on occasion, God, I felt great! (Loud laughter). I'm not sure if the final one was Shorty Sherock or Cappy Lewis. 

DE: In fact, Milt, it was definitely Shorty Sherock.  

MB: Oh, was it? Good! 

DE: Talking of playing great, I wonder whether you remember this. It was recorded, as I understand it, either when Glen Gray was very ill, or after he'd gone. It's a Kenton number, and you play a lovely solo. 

(Stan Kenton's "Collaboration", arr. Larry Wagner for the new Casa Lomans with a Latin beat) 

MB: Well I know that very well, and it's the best I ever played it, and I played it perhaps five hundred times. It is full of traps, the trombone players here can hear that. There's one passage where it is quite easy to go one note higher than you're sup­posed to go. We were at the Paramount Theatre, doing five shows per day, and so I got used to it! We did five shows a day at the Paramount for about three months. We were there begin­ning before Thanksgiving in 1947, through Christmas and past New Year, and with five or six shows a day I think I've memo­rised that passage, but it is not trombonistic, really; that's what piano players write, that kind of melody, so Stan being Stan, and he was a piano player and had large hands ‑ and we used to live in dread of what the next melody was going to be (Loud laugh­ter). Now that album was something like "Glen Gray plays the hits in Latin rhythm". 

DE: Yes, I was going to ask you, whose idea was that, was it Larry Wagner's or Van Alexanders'? 

MB: No the producer was Dave Cavanaugh. He was a very good saxophone player and as far as I was concerned became Capitol's best and most sensitive producer. DE: How did he compare with Lee Gillette?  

MB: Favourably. (Laughter) For me, anyway. Dave Cavanaugh would say ‑ because he was compassionate ‑ 'You guys want to take a break?' or 'Are you tired? Well, let's take 10' or 'Let's come back tomorrow'. He was getting ready to say that when we did "Star Dreams" ‑ 'Let's come back tomorrow'. But Lee Gillette, for whatever reason, seemed to enjoy seeing blood flow! So I lived in dread of having him in the booth. He was that kind of a man. As a matter of fact he was Stan Kenton's A. & R. man, his producer. He seemed to have something on his mind about that, and when a whole bunch of us left Stan and came to Hollywood, he made sure for quite some time that we didn't do record dates for Capitol. Neither Shelley Manne, nor Bob Coop­er, or myself, or the rest of us ‑ certainly not Art Pepper ‑ it was something that had passed between him and Stan, but unfortu­nately, and we didn't know what it was all about, we were being kept from Capitol Records. It all ended on a date which June Christy did when she insisted ‑ she put her foot down ‑ so we played and we read and we showed up on time, and whatever he thought was going to happen, well it didn't; then he came over to me and said "Everything is great, kid", and I said "Yes, I guess it is" and I couldn't think of a come‑back. That's a curious sidelight because people who produced records in those days weren't really important. Maybe that was the reason that he (Lee Gillette) was frustrated. Stan said what was going to be record­ed, and named every artist. 

DE: You know Milt, whenever I think of anything to ask you, you always come out with something which is so interesting. We are so grateful, and it is such a pleasure to have such a warm hearted person, such as yourself, to tell us so many interesting incidents. (General applause). 

MB: Thank you very much, I wish my first wife had told me that! (Loud and prolonged laughter) 

DE: This seems a good moment for me to ask your forbearance and to let me play what is one of my favourite tracks in all those wonderful Glen Gray recreations. It is the Andy Kirk version, in which you, Milt, play a trombone solo, of 'Moten Swing'. 

("Moten Swing')  

DE: Did you ever meet Andy Kirk? 

MB: No, I guess he lived for a long time, he only recently passed away. But I didn't meet him, I never saw the band, actually. It was one of those bands that was kind of lost in the crowd, and you realised that there were quite a few of them, you hear this and realise there were bands doing things like that, which were pretty much forgotten, except by people such as you. I wish there were more of people such as you. Looking around us, I guess my first reaction is 'Gosh, I wish the younger generation would get with it'. And then my second reaction is 'The hell with them, I don't want them in our music.' (Laughter). I feel I'm protected, I don't want them to get near the music I'm crazy about. Let them find it for themselves. For sure, we were very lucky people when we were young; it was everywhere. You didn't have to go very far. But times change, will it come back? I doubt it. So what is the future? Well, maybe we shouldn't give a damn, but I know we do; that's part of why we're here, and yet you can't educate people in those things.  


The Big Band era wasn't planned, it just happened. It was a combination of a lot of things that all began around the same time. Radio, records, the ballrooms, and there had to be bands too. Put them all together and we had the Big Band era. Nobody in Congress, or in Parliament, sat down and said 'let's pass a law that there shall be Big Bands". You know, one day we all woke up and it was there. That's the way it happens. Will it happen again? Well it'll be an accident if it does! 

DE: We're very lucky, Milt, that we live in an age when there are all these wonderful recordings which preserve this music which we love so much, and we can still listen to it. If our grandfathers had experienced it, they couldn't hear it. I have to pay tribute to an old friend of mine now, all of this music we are hearing tonight, just barely scratching the surface of this great man's career, came from my collection, with one exception, and that was provided by my good friend George Hulme. I wanted to give you a vocalist, backed by Milt's own trombone (although you can hardly hear it), he doesn't play a solo, but he is in this fine band accompanying this singer. George Hulme kindly came up with what I wanted, namely, a recording of one of Bobby Darin's songs. Bobby Darin was what Bing Crosby would call ‘one of the newer fellas'. But he had a good voice, and with a fine arrange­ment by Richard Wess, and a guy like this in the trombones, this is the result. 

("Call me Irresponsible" Bobby Darin with Orch. cond., by Rich­ard Wess) 

MB: That reminded me of Matt Monro. We did some dates with him at Capitol. He was my idea of a really superior singer. He was very very good, musicianly and had the right sounds, and I was a big fan of his. Darin was another one, but the difference was that Bobby Darin was pretty brash and usually would swagger in ‑ it was an affectation. The first time he came into the studio, having been brought in from New York, he'd made a hit or two there, well, now he's in Hollywood and he walked in, and the first day that he came in the studio, and he was about an hour late, and he looked around at the musicians and said "Are you sure this is the way Sinatra recorded it?" And we all made that same sound ‑ we groaned! (laughter). But you know he won us over, for he was a very very compelling performer. He actually became a friend; I knew him and we talked occasionally, and in fact the only time I ever got a movie credit was on a picture he starred in called "Too Late Blues". It's a forgotten movie about a jazz pianist, and he was the one. In the credits I almost fell over when it said 'Jazz solos by Uan Rasey, Benny Carter, Milt Bernhart, Shelly Manne, Jimmy Rowles and whoever else on bass. We got credits, and I'd never seen that before in my life, my name on the screen! But the movie was lost; it's too bad, Bobby was very good and he handled it beautifully. The movie was made by Paramount. 

DE: Well, Milt, one of the interesting things, I think, in your career was the lovely work you did with Van Alexander. He produced an album for Capitol which is difficult to find over here called "Swing ‑ Staged for Sound" and in it Van Alexan­der wrote a series of pieces for two instruments, two pianos, two trumpets, two saxes etc., and when he came to two trombones he had Milt Bernhart and Dick Kenney. 

("Say it isn't so" Van Alexander Orch. from "Swing! Staged for Sound"LP) 

Van Alexander is still very much with us, probably many people don't remember, but he had a band, not for a very long time, but he had a band in the late '30s. It was a very good band, with a lot of fine musicians, Abe Most was with him, and Butch Stone, before he went with Les Brown, and Van was a great looking guy, quite like Glen Gray, and still looks the same, he's a fashion plate! He shows up at all the events in Los Angeles. He wrote a lot of T.V. scores and did well and is enjoying his autumn years. You'd be surprised to know his age, because he doesn't look like that at all. But I really haven't heard this piece since it was made, I really haven't heard it until now. Van calls me up from time to time. 

DE: Incidentally, he was Al Feldman, wasn't he? 

MB: Yes, his real name was Al Feldman, I don't know why he didn't keep that name. 

DE: And didn't he arrange "A‑Tisket A‑Tasket' for Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald? 

MB: Yes, he didn't just arrange it, he was a co‑writer. He was a young boy from the Bronx, in New York, in, say, 1935, and he opted to go to Harlem to hear music! Instead of the Roseland Ballroom, where all his friends went. He went to the Savoy, and it wasn't usual to see a white Jewish kid from the Bronx, standing in the crowd there.  


Eventually he approached the bandleader, Chick Webb, and asked if he could write an arrangement. He said 'I can do it'. And Chick Webb believed him and said 'bring it in', and he began to write for Chick Webb's band. And with the band then was Ella Fitzgerald, it was her first big appearance in the music world, and they got to be friends; and Van became a staff arranger for this band ‑all black ‑one day she said "Gosh, I've got a great idea, there's this nursery rhyme". And Van said "Are you sure? A Nursery Rhyme? ‑ that's what he told me ‑ 'Who's going to buy that?" Well, a lot of people bought it, she wrote the words and he wrote the music. She can take the credit, because whoever wrote it originally, was it Aesop? (Laughter) I don't know, anyway he was either long gone, or didn't have a lawyer! (More laughter). Ella was a great lady, I worked a lot with her. 

DE: Milt, you have been telling us this evening about how difficult this aspect was, and how you nearly fluffed that.... 

MB: I didn't fluff 'nearly', in music there is no 'nearly' (Laughter) You either hit a clam or you don't, They call them 'clams'! 

DE: Well, there's some wonderful brass playing coming up now, and they wouldn't have chosen you if you weren't mar­vellously capable. I wonder if you remember this? 

("Running Upstairs" Junior Mance and the Bob Bain Brass Ensemble & "Sweet Talkin' Hannah') 

MB: There isn't any doubt about the style of that last track, it's Count Basie, there's a distinct difference between the Basie style and anything else. I'm trying to remember who wrote the arrangement, does it say? 

DE: According to the sleeve notes it says it was arranged by Dave Cavanaugh. 

MB: Oh well, that accounts for it. Dave was not only a record producer, he was also a fine musician. You know something? Everything you are playing was on Capitol, I did work some­where else! (Laughter) but it's all been Capitol; which is an indication of what was going on at Capitol, but not at Decca. But the minute the Beatles showed their faces, it changed some! 

DE: That was Junior Mance, of course. 

MB: Junior Mance had a trio and I think this is the first time he had been recorded with a big band. You can imagine how glad he was about the whole thing. He plays a lot and at jazz festivals. You can hear he is a great player, and also, I have to say, overlooked. You don't hear his name mentioned an awful lot; Oscar Petersen all the time. But Junior Mance to me is very good, and an awfully nice guy. Bob Bain was a fine studio guitar player, glad you reminded me about Bob Bain, I had forgotten. 

DE: We're coming to the end of the evening, but we have about ten more minutes of time, and we've just got one more piece of music. So I'm wondering if there's anyone in our audience who would like to fire the odd question at you. 

1st Questioner: Who do you rate, apart from yourself, as being the best trombone player of them all? 

MB: I'm not very good at using the term 'best', but the one person that I wanted to play like was Tommy Dorsey. For obvious reasons he was, without question, the best trombone player of his time. Various people play in various styles, and nowadays the melodic style has changed somewhat. In Tommy's time the idea was that your playing should be as perfect as it could be. The melody had to be in tune, and without any misfirings, and that is not as easy as it sounds. You see the trombone is not much more than a couple of lengths of plumber’s pipe, and to make some kind of music come out of it is, for me, some kind of miracle. So those who have done it over the years have actually accomplished the unbelievable. To turn it into something even better than that goes beyond even that, it's sort of variable. So for Dorsey to have been able almost to approximate the human voice, and play these long phrases so perfectly in tune, well it was probably taken for granted, but never by me! There were of course others, Jack Teagarden was, in a different way, Mr. Great. He was a miraculous player, a great musician, and his playing was his own kind. Jack Jenney, who was with Artie Shaw for a while, had the most beautiful sound I ever heard. There have been a number of other great players, Urbie Green, and Jiggs Wigham played the other day and for me he was a classic player. Those that do it really deserve attention. It could be the most difficult instrument there is, I think. 

DE: Did you play with Murray MacEachen? 

MB: Oh yes, and Murray stands very high, and here's a sideline; Murray was very thick with Duke Ellington, they knew each other quite well, and for a good reason. Murray played saxophone as well as he played trombone, and was one of the few who could approximate to Johnny Hodges. There were a lot of people who tried. But only Johnny Hodges played like Johnny Hodges! But Murray came very close, and Ellington really admired him for this. I did a call once for Duke Ellington, I'll never forget it. Most of the Ellington band were there but, for whatever reason, his trombones weren't. Murray MacEachen was first call, and then I got a call, and then George Roberts, bass trombone player, and Vern Friley, who was an excellent player. This was for a movie and Duke Ellington wrote a solo for Murray, it was in this movie. It was a picture long forgotten, with Frank Sinatra, and it was a beautiful solo; I'll never forget, just before they turned on the red light and it began, Duke said, and it's important (I can understand why playing with Duke made all the difference) he leaned to­wards Murray and said "Break their hearts"! (Laughter) - and all these things sank in, indeed. On one other occasion Duke said something to me; he came in one day and passed out eight bars of music to each guy, just eight bars on a scrap of paper, and it was a riff. There was never a rehearsal for Duke Ellington. This band never rehearsed, it's well known.  

So Duke said to the official there "How much music do we need?" And the guy said "About eight minutes of music, Mr. Ellington". We had eight bars of music, it was going to last about eight seconds! Duke, and only Duke would say a thing like this, I was thrilled to be there ‑"Let's make it". So we're all looking at each other, and even Murray, and he looks quizzically at me and then at Vern Friley. So just because I had to, and because here was my chance, I walked over to the piano, just before the red light went on, and I looked down at those baggy eyes and said "What are we going to do?" I said it very quietly, and Duke looked up at me. and in words I'll always remember, said "You'll know". (Laughter)  

And this was the essence of Duke Ellington ‑ "You'll know". That's why that band was that band. And you know something, it did work. We played the first eight bars and instinctively we realised we had to repeat those eight bars, so we did, and this was the entire band; then Duke played a bridge on piano, an Ellington bridge (I almost stopped playing) and then we went back to the first eight bars, and finished the thirty‑two bars. At the end of that one of the guys stood up, as if someone had told him to, and played two choruses of pure jazz, and on the second chorus we made up a background with the trombones, it was just happen­ing. Then Duke played a few choruses of his own, and Cootie Williams was there and did some wah wah, and then we went back to the first thing we had done and did that. The tempo wasn't too fast and when we had done that it had taken about eight minutes. Duke finished it off with a few passages on the piano, and in the studio were a couple of arrangers, Bill Holman was one of them, Bill was there because it was Duke, and he was rolling around on the floor. But he couldn't believe what he'd heard, nor could anybody. There was no point in doing it again; Duke wouldn't have permitted it anyway, he was out the door (Laughter) "Goodbye". But the whole thing was an experience I never went through again. That's why, when Derek asked me what musician really stands out, this was the guy, Duke Ellington!  

DE: I'm sorry we haven't time for any more questions, as I'm sure Milt will be here for a little while. I'd like to thank Sheila (Tracy) for bringing Milt all this way over to Woking, and also thanks to all of you for coming along to listen to this marvellous man. It is always difficult to figure out how much time in these interviews for music, and how much for talking. I'm sure that we could go on talking to Milt, and one thing would lead to another, and I would almost like it to go on ad infinitum. It has been a real pleasure to have you Milt. (Long applause) 

MB: Derek, I'd like to say that I couldn't be more impressed with the way you've handled this and the tunes you've picked, I didn't ask you to find things that I wouldn't be embarrassed to sit through, there were maybe a couple of things where, if I'd known I'd have played better (Laughter) but I owe you a debt of gratitude for asking me. You and this entire group here have really done a job, and to be part of it is a great moment for me. We started with 'I've got you under my skin'. and I asked this guy who said he was putting together a new CD set of everything Frank Sinatra did at Capitol, did you have any additional out‑takes of 'I've got you under my skin'?  - because I've often wondered, maybe I'm kidding myself, it might have been better. You see there was nothing written, it was just chords; for four beats, do something sensational for all time. Really and truthfully I wasn't cut out that way, I played written music for the most part. I never felt I was a jazz player, and I think that if Frank Rosolino had been in town that night, probably he would have been the guy to play it! There were about 20 takes. I know that for the first five or six I gave it all I had. After that I was just hoping to live! (More laughter) 

DE: Well, we're going to finish with something your friend Van Alexander arranged for the Glen Gray lot. He did two albums which you'll remember 'Today's Best" and 'More of Today's Best" This is from the first album. It's the old Basie item 'April in Paris' but rearranged to the tune of 'What kind of Fool am I?” and you are playing the trombone solo. 

(“What kind of Fool am I?” by Glen Gray & the New Casa Loma Orchestra) 


The President of the West Surrey Big Bands Society made a presentation to Milt Bernhart amidst heavy and warm applause. 


Thanks to Derek Edwards for sharing this memorable evening with us