© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The title of this piece contains more than one element of a poor attempt at a pun on my part as Milt was both a journeyman trombone player during his career in music, and the owner of a travel agency once he left it.
Although Milt spent some time as a member of Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars in the early 1950s, Milt preferred big band settings and studio work.
He was an adept reader and was a first call player for many years particularly with composers involved in the very demanding work of producing soundtracks for movies and television programs.
Milt was on every contractor’s A-List and as a result he worked on numerous radio jingles and music for TV commercials which is where I first met him. Milt was the epitome of a professional musician: all business, all the time. He also expected everyone he worked with to also maintain such high standards. I learned a lot from him just watching him go about his work. He knew I was watching and although he never said anything about my tacit observations, I could hear him thinking: “That’s right kid, learn from the best to become the best.”
Many years later, Milt assumed a leadership role in the Big Band Academy of America and he served as emcee for its annual Big Band Reunions which were held at the Sportsman Lodge in Studio City, CA.
I attended one of these get-togethers, sought out Milt and shared with him how I always tried to model my behavior after his when we worked together. He smiled and said: “Someone taught me, too, early in my career. I was just passing it on. You can’t go to school to learn these things. There was only on-the-job training. In a way, helping you become a better studio player also made my life easier. It’s very demanding work and becomes more so when other guys can’t cut it.”
Before his death in 2004, Milt was an active member of a chat group that I also participate in which focuses on the West Coast Jazz circa 1945-65, and over time, I grew to enjoy his sparkling sense of humor and his deep understanding of the important qualities it takes to develop into a first-rate musician. In all of his comments and commentary, Milt certainly pulled no punches and was an advocate of the Howard Cosell school of "tell it like it is." The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember him on these pages with a multi-part feature.
The Journey: Milt Bernhart
Jazzletter, May 2002
“The role of coincidence in our lives always fascinates me. To call something a coincidence is no more to explain it than the term Carl Jung made widespread, synchronicity. To name something is not to explain it. Call it simultaneity. Who cares? It's comparable to saying that the reason something falls to earth is "gravity". Good. Now explain gravity. I have seen so much "coincidence" that at times it has become eerie.
The town in Canada where I spent most of my public and high school years, St. Catharines, Ontario, is about ten miles from the Niagara River and the U.S.-Canadian border. The famous big bands did not come to St. Catharines. They usually came to Niagara Falls, Ontario, where they could draw audiences from Niagara Falls, New York, and Buffalo, and even St. Catharines.
But one night when I was fifteen, the excellent but now-forgotten Teddy Powell band played at the St. Catharines Armory at Welland Avenue and Lake Street, and of course I went to hear it. And I did what kids were wont to do: got the autographs of everyone in the band. They were written on two sides of a sheet of my father's business stationery.
I mentioned all this recently to Milt Bernhart, of whom I first became aware when he was playing trombone with the Stan Kenton band, thinking that he would, like most Americans, have no idea what or where St. Catharines was. Milt said with about as much excitement as his low-key and unhurried voice can convey, "Then you've got my autograph."
"What?" said I.
"I not only played that job in St. Catharines, it was my first professional job. I joined the Teddy Powell band that night."
"I found that sheet of paper not too long ago," I told Milt. "But I don't recall seeing your name on it."
"That's because Teddy gave me another name," Milt said. "Teddy Powell was a semi-name band. It was well known at the time. I was seventeen. Teddy decided to Anglicize my name to Barnes. I was singing scat vocals, and one of them was a pop tune of the times called Deacon Jones, a hand-clapping carry-over from maybe Andy Kirk's band, and there were some semi-hip lyrics about Deacon Jones. I volunteered to sing it. I wanted to be seen. I was playing third trombone. So they gave me the name Deacon Barnes. My name was not on the list as Milt.
"Interestingly, Boots Mussulli was on that band. Later we were on Kenton's band. Boots always called me Deacon.
“Teddy approached me after about six months on the band when I was getting ready to register for the draft. He said to me quietly, 'You know, you don't have to go into the service.' I said, 'I don't?' He said, 'I can fix it. I've done it for a couple of guys who've been on the band.' One of them was a very good trumpet player named Dick Mains, who was featured on the band's theme, a kind of Randy Brooks type of thing. Many people imagined, listening to a broadcast, that Teddy Powell was the soloist. It was Dick Mains. Dick Mains got drafted anyway. Apparently he had signed to stay a year or two with the band, and Teddy could pull strings on Park Avenue at the draft board to keep you out of the service. He offered that to me. It whetted my interest. I didn't want to go in. Who did? So I gave it a little thought. I said, 'Let me think about it.' Meanwhile I talked to a couple of the guys in the band and everybody said, 'Steer clear, don't touch it.' So I told Teddy that I really couldn't do that. He said, 'Do you know what you're doing? You're going to be sorry if you go in.'
"I said,'It's illegal, Teddy.'
"What did Teddy Powell play?" I asked.
"He had played banjo with Abe Lyman's band. How's that? But sitting in the front row with Abe Lyman, he became kind of popular. He wrote a couple of songs. The only one I remember is still round, Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle, Gene Autry's thing. Teddy was the co-writer."
Teddy Powell, according to the ASCAP biographical dictionary, was born in Oakland, California, on March 1, 1906. The book says he was educated at the San Francisco Conservatory, but I can't imagine a course in banjo at a conservatory. He recorded for RCA Victor and Decca. The only record I remember is a slapstick satirical song called If I Were as High as the Moon in the Sky. But I remember from that one night in St. Catharines that Teddy Powell's was an excellent and swinging band, and Milt confirms this.
"Well," he said, "a couple of months elapsed before my draft notice arrived. And on my last day on the band, I was walking down Jefferson Street in Detroit, and a headline on a newspaper jumped out at me. It said, 'Band leader arrested.' Teddy had been arrested in his hotel room in Detroit. They had been following him for maybe months, tapped his phone, and moved in and arrested him that day. We played that night without him. He did about two years in, I believe, Danbury, Connecticut, a white-collar federal prison. And after he got out, it was not the same. Things had changed enough that there was no place for him in the music business. As I understand it he ended up in Florida, semi-retired, and occasionally doing a gig with a very Mickey Mouse band, not the swing band he'd had."
Milt Bernhart is one of the most fascinating men I know. He no longer is an active trombone player. He owns a travel agency that handles the nomad necessities of jazz musicians, some of whom — Bud Shank, for one — are still among his clients. Milt is president of the Big Band Academy of America, which is a repository of some of the lore of one of the most important musical movements in history.
And Milt is history. Living history. He has a phenomenally retentive memory and powers of analytic observation that I have rarely seen equaled. He has been through just about every phase of the music business, including the Hollywood studios. I find conversation with Milt invariably fascinating, and what follows is a distillation of talks I had with him over a period of about two weeks. It is more than an interview. It is a journey. The subject matter ranges from his youth in Chicago through the recording sessions of Frank Sinatra — the fierce trombone solo on I've Got You Under My Skin is Milt's — to Marlon Brando's role in bringing jazz into film scoring and how Milt came to be the owner of Kelly Travel Service. Milt talks in a low unhurried manner filled with a quiet irony that, alas, cannot be retained in print. But I hope at times you'll be able to catch a hint of the tone.
This is his story:
"My father was trained in Russia, family style, to be a tailor. He came to the U.S. with a wife and one child already. He went to Chicago where there were relatives, a Jewish family, but he didn't like it and heard that there was a small
town that sort of resembled the town he had lived in, the Fiddler on the Roof type thing, in northern Indiana. That's where they moved. The town was Valparaiso."
Milt was born there on May 25, 1926.
"The population was about 12,000, a farm town, My father was the town tailor, and a very good one. He died when I was about seven. So I hardly knew him. He and my mother had six children, and I was the last. All of the other five were gone, married and moved. My mother was ill, and then she passed away too when I was about ten and a half. I had brothers and a sister to live with. The eldest took me. They lived in Chicago, he and a wife and a son. My nephew, Arnold Bernhart, was a year older than I. He was studying violin at Lane Tech and had an accident and hurt a finger, and he switched to string bass. We gave up trying to explain that I was his uncle, and we called ourselves brothers. To this day, a lot of Chicago musicians think we're brothers.
"I was very lucky to go to Lane Tech. It was the best. It was open to every kid in Chicago. Originally it had been intended to be a junior college, about ten times the size of any high school, to be a vocational school in the '20s, for the children of immigrants coming over in large numbers to learn a trade. Eventually it was called a high school. It continues to this day. They had a music department. I was a four years music major.
"I got lucky with a teacher, a good one, named Forrest Nicola. Amongst his students were players who went in every direction. He was certainly a long hair and played most of his life in pit orchestras, but he appreciated jazz and insisted that I listen carefully to the jazz musicians. He made mouthpieces that were well known in the business. Harry James came by when he was in town, and the side men in most of the name bands. His walls were plastered with the likes of Tommy Dorsey. Some of his students were Ray Linn and Graham Young, and a lot of Chicago players who never left town but stayed and played in the studios. There were staff orchestras at local stations all over the country, very good ones in some cases. WMAQ, the NBC station, had a full-sized symphony orchestra conducted by Dr. Roy Shields, who had a countrywide reputation. That's where David Rose got started. They hired him when he was still a teen-ager."
David Rose was bom in London, England, but educated at Chicago Musical College, as were a number of musicians who later became prominent.
Milt said, "I learned from day one harmony, theory, counterpoint. I was excused from gym, so I had two hours of practice a day. The band and orchestra were national champions. I can look back now, sixty some years later. The orchestra was good enough to compete with smaller city symphony orchestras. A lot of people in the Chicago Symphony came out of Lane. A fiddle player called me last year and said it was a reunion. And a lot of the musicians I went to school with are still in the Chicago Symphony.
"Cass Tech in Detroit was our big competitor. And also Cleveland Heights. The concert band at the high school in Joliet, Illinois, was so good that they were eliminated from competition. The competition at these high schools turned music into something important. I got a start in composition, but I was too interested in playing. Jazz was not a word you could use."
I said, "Dusable was the other great music high school in Chicago. Milt Hinton said they didn't play any jazz there. It was strictly classical.'"
"That's true. That was the policy in every school everywhere. Nobody could bring up jazz because it was nasty. That meant that a certain group of us did our experimenting off the school grounds, and I got into a few kid bands. I made fifty cents a night at dances. It was a thrilling four years of high school, just great. The object for me in those days was to try to get into a symphony. I was taught the repertoire. I was getting that I could read anything. My teacher was purely legitimate. But he respected jazz. He got out his horn and played ragtime the way he had played it in '20s. I didn't care for it, but I didn't say so.
"But I learned a lot. Chicago was a great place.
"I met a kid in another high school, when we were rehearsing with a concert band one Sunday. He was the only kid there besides me. The rest were ex-Sousa players. It was a very good concert band. We were recommended by our teachers. His name is Lee Konitz. I saw him across the room, sitting in the clarinet section. We found each other. He went to Senn, where Bill Russo was going. Lee in those days was going the same direction I was, being trained to be a clarinetist, to be in a symphony. We got to be pals. He was hoping to make a living playing in clubs. He was in a vocal group for a while that did Louis Jordan stuff in a bar down on the South Side. He played Louis's solos and they sang. It's hard to believe.
"I had heard since I was a kid, working non-union jobs for fifty cents a night, that someone would show up from the union and throw your horns against the wall. It never happened, but when we finally joined the union, we met Petrillo."
Milt got into the union by chance. The Lane Tech band won a national competition, and one of the prizes was membership in the Chicago musicians union. Milt said:
"The first thing Petrillo did when you were ushered into his office was to get his Luger out of a drawer and onto the desk, and he'd say, 'This is the way it is.' He could hardly speak the King's English. He had been picked by Al Capone and company. All unions in Chicago operated with the good wishes of Capone. There couldn't be a union that didn't pay obeisance to Al Capone. None. It became the most active union town in America, the stockyards and everything else. It was all unionized and the unions belonged to Capone. I could write a book about Petrillo.
"Mitchell Ayers, who I worked for years later on a television series, The Hollywood Palace, came out from New York to Chicago and he got me aside and said, 'You guys are getting ready to have a revolution against the A.F. of M.' And we were. He said, 'I'm for it. Put me down for anything you need.' I said, 'Well I'm grateful. We're not getting that kind of response from bandleaders or anyone in management.'
"He said, 'I'll explain. In 1934, the Chicago World's Fair took place. And there was a lot of music.'
"All the hotels were going to have bands. So among the bands they imported was a band Mitch was on, Little Jack Little, to play at the Stevens Hotel. A danceable band of the period. Mitch was a violinist. Mitch said, 'We were excited. It was our first job out of New York. We arrived and settled down at a hotel. We were called and told we were to be at Mr. Petrillo's office the next day. We thought he was going to throw his arms around us.'" He was then president only of the Chicago local, not the Federation — he took that over later. Mitch said, 'We all got into his office, and he said, 'Which one of you guys is Jack Little?' 'I am, sir.'" Mitch began to turn as red as a beet when he told me this story. He had been a football player and bouncer. Big build. "Petrillo slammed his gun down on the desk and said, Tell me, Mr. Little, who booked your band into Chicago?' Jack Little, a very well brought up, literate, nice guy, said, 'A little outfit in New York called Columbia Artists.' They had just gotten started. Petrillo said, 'Sorry, they didn't book you here. The only outfit that books anyone into Chicago is MCA.' Little said, 'But Mr. Petrillo, we signed a contract, and they've seen us through hard times They gave us a little money to get by on. They gave us transportation to get here, and they booked the job.'
"Petrillo said, 'I don't care,' and then he picked up the gun. He said, 'If you want to work that job, tomorrow morning you're with MCA.' Little coughed and said, 'But sir, even if I could break the contract, it isn't in me to do that.'
Petrillo said, 'Then you're not working the job. Time's up.'" Outside, Mitch told me, they discussed it. As he talked about it, he got so animated that I thought he might wring my neck. He wanted to kill on the spot, he was that angry in thinking about that event.
"I said, 'What did you do?'
"Mitch said, 'We asked around the union office if he was joking. They turned white and said, "He never jokes." To a man, we decided to give up the job. We got the next train back to New York.'" It would have been a three-months job, with a nightly broadcast. And Mitch never, never got over it.
"Nobody made a decision but Jimmy Petrillo. And how did he do it? He hardly could play cornet. He'd been a street fighter.
"It was well-known in Chicago that Jules Stein, who was an eye doctor of sorts, was put in charge of MCA by Big Al. Later, when he was about a trillionaire, the word was spread that he was one of the great eye doctors of all times."
"And don't forget," I said, "that Joe Glaser, who was Louis Armstrong's manager, came out of Chicago, and he was also connected."
"Joe Glaser was also Teddy Powell's manager. Joe Glaser was a hard-nosed crook. Somehow Jules Stein got to be liked by Al Capone. And from that came Petrillo, the idea being that we'll organize the musicians and you'll book the bands, Music Corporation of America. And that's exactly what they did. And it worked so well that it was useless for any other big city to try to get anything else going, including New York. And MCA branched out. Lew Wasserman came in very early on, and was Dr. Stein's number one guy. He had been working in a department store. He became known as the man who put the bands on the road. They had most of the name bands. And then came the move to the West Coast, and they became personal agents, and from that they decided to be producers,and glommed onto television before anyone realized it was going anywhere, and became so large they couldn't be told not to do anything.
"And now MCA is out of the picture, since Vivendi bought it for untold sums."
Anyone who wants to know more about these sinister connections is advised to read Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA, and the Mob (Viking 1986) by Dan E. Moldea, a noted investigative reporter, who scrupulously chronicles Reagan's ties to Wasserman and other figures connected to organized crime, including the late mob attorney and fixer Sidney Korshak and Jackie Presser of the Teamsters. Reagan even appointed a union attorney, William French Smith, attorney general.
The late Spike Jones told George Maury, a special attorney for the Justice Department, "Stein's a member of the union, its Chicago local, and he's present at nearly every AFM meeting."
The fix was in early, and big.
His work with Teddy Powell may have been Milt's first full-time professional job, but it was not his first employment by a band of some reputation. He had previously played as a sub with the band of Boyd Raeburn, for whom he retains a great respect and affection. Milt said:
"I had played with Boyd Raeburn before I left high school. Boyd for years was someone that I looked down on, and my gang in Chicago, jazz kids, did too, because he had the house band at the businessman's nightclub in Chicago, the Chez Paree. It was a tenor band, like Freddy Martin's, three tenors, three brass, saxes, fiddles. And he played that kind of tenor tax, lead tenor. Then the word got around that he had left the Chez Paree and he was forming a swing band. It played at a place downtown, where you could actually stand outside and hear the music inside. It was the only way I ever heard these people. And he played at the Blue Note. I got the idea that Boyd Raeburn had gone hot. And there were a lot of good players around. I got a call from his manager, saying, 'We need a sub on Thursday. You've been recommended.' My trombone teacher had recommended me, thinking that I could do it.
"I was just in the middle of fifteen. Too young, and still learning. But I said, 'Okay.' What did I know? I showed up with dark pants, first time I'd ever gone into a nightclub. I'll never forget the smell of booze as I went down the stairs. It hit me like a ton of bricks. That odor. Beer and booze. Cigarette smoke. I was wondering even then, 'Am I over my head?' I looked around, and there was nobody there. Then the band started to arrive, and I recognized the players. The lead alto man was Ray Degaer. You'll see the name on a number of Charlie Barnet records. Good lead alto man. Hodges was his idol. He was on Teddy Powell's band later, a very good player but a hopeless drunk. He was a good example for me in a negative way. But I admired him as a player.
"The drummer was Claude Humphreys, nicknamed Hey Hey because he had a nervous tick of saying 'Hey hey' every couple of seconds. And the best drummer in Chicago. My tryout night, he walked in when they all started to arrive. He caught my attention immediately. He was indescribable. His face, from his habits, whatever they were, was everything. It was kind of a beet red, with a lot of lines in it. And he was young, but he'd seen a lot of time on the river boats. He played with Fate Marable on a riverboat as a kid. Somebody killed somebody in a stateroom he was sleeping in. After that, the nervousness set in, and he had this speech problem. They couldn't put a microphone near him. They went on the air that night. And it wasn't just 'Hey hey,' which was harmless. He did that in tempo. But he also said four-letter words, so they couldn't mike him. I noted immediately that he was a very good drummer, except that he said 'Hey hey,' and all night long I thought he was calling me. I kept turning around.
"The trumpet players, right behind me, were enjoying it immensely They were Chicago-brand swing trumpet players, awfully good. Most of them ended up on other bands. Ray Linn, for instance. Graham Young also.
"Boyd arrived, hardly noticed me. I had to wear a uniform, a tuxedo jacket. Whoever I was sitting in for must have weighed three hundred pounds. I looked ridiculous. The lead trombone player was on staff at NBC. There were a lot of local non-sponsored radio programs with house bands, so I could hear him every night. There was a guy named Bob Strong who had the house band at NBC. Good writers, and a very good band, playing Benny Goodman style swing. And they did sustaining programs. So I knew who this guy was. And right away, it began. Nervousness set in. Boyd looked around, and there wasn't much of a crowd, maybe two people. He called a number. Most of the book was stock arrangements. A lot of them I had played with a kid band I was in. So I should have been at ease about reading the book. Boyd called the first number, a Basie number, probably Down for Double. And I knew it. But instantly I was petrified. I went into a state of total, complete fear, the likes of which I never experienced again. He said, "Two bars." And the band started to play, and I couldn't lift my horn. It weighed a thousand pounds, and I realized at that I shouldn't be there, and it was mostly fear. Boyd noticed, and he came over, and I figured this was the end of it. He leaned over and he said, 'What's the matter?' I croaked out, 'I don't know.' He looked at me. He had a smile on his face. I never forgot it. He said, 'You're gonna be all right. Give it a chance.'
"To this day I thank Boyd Raeburn for giving me a chance. If he had tossed me out, if he had rejected me, I probably would have given it up. How many band leaders would have done that?"
I said, "Woody."
Milt .said, "Yes, Woody might have done that. Certainly not Buddy Rich. And with Benny Goodman, it would have been, 'Get out of here.'
"I got through. Within a minute or two the blood returned to my head and I started to play. And faster than I would have imagined, I got into the spirit of it. Before the evening was up, I was getting some valuable advice from the first trombone player about phrasing. When the evening was through, Boyd came over and said, 'Can you work next week?' So in my last year of high school, I was subbing with Boyd Raeburn in Chicago, and learning faster than anyone in my gang.
"Boyd started to build his library. The saxophone player with him was Johnny Bothwell. But Ray Degaer was better. Only Charlie Barnet would put up with him. For, as Billy May has said, in Charlie's band, there was no drinking off the stand.[!]
"Which brings up a Lawrence Welk story, and I won't try to do Welk's accent. There was a cornet player named Rocky Rockwell on his band, who sang vocals kind of like Butch Stone and had a following. He played traditional kind of cornet, not bad. But he drank like crazy. After he'd been on the band about five years, Welk fired him. A few years went by and Welk asked somebody, 'What happened to Rocky?' The guy said, 'Some friends have been working casuals with him. And he's doing fine.' 'He's not drinking?' 'No.' So Welk called him and said, 'Rocky, I hear you're not drinking.'
"Rocky said, 'It's true. It's been two or three years.'
"So Lawrence said, 'Would you like to come back with the band?'
"And Rocky said, 'Lawrence, that's the reason I was drinking.'"
Milt went from the Teddy Powell band into the Army. He was in the service for two years: "I got drafted in late '44, and by the time they sent us over, it was '45.
"One year a rifleman. I got to Okinawa just as the horrible campaign ended. I got in a band and the war ended, and we were set down in San Francisco at the Presidio. In the band were two ex-Kenton men, Red Dorris and a trombone player named Harry Forbes. They had been with Stan's first band. Stan was sending Harry rejected charts that he wasn't using. It was a pretty good swing band at the Praesidio. Eventually Jo Jones got in it. He and Prez went into the Army together, and Prez got thrown out. Jo was on his way overseas. He was a he-man figure, who was going to show them all. There wasn't integration, but we made such a fuss to keep him there that they put him in the drum and bugle corps.
"It was a revelation to play with him, and get to know him. Of course he had all kinds of Basie stories. We got to be good friends. Later, I would run into him at Charlie's tavern in New York. By then he was yesterday's news in New York.
"The first day we rehearsed with the Army jazz band, we thought we knew a lot. We had all the Basie stocks. Wes Hensel, the trumpet player who ended up with Woody Herman and Les Brown, was the head man. With Jo Jones, he just went out of his mind. The warrant officer was the leader, kind of square. We were going to play a Basie thing Jo had recorded. I couldn't believe it.
"The warrant officer said, 'Are you ready, Mr. Jones?' The man said, 'On two, one two three four.' And about four bars into it, Jo wasn't playing. The warrant officer said, 'I beat off the band. Didn't you hear me?' 'Yes, I heard you.' So he did it again, Jo's not playing. We all looked back. Jo was grinning ear to ear. The leader said, 'Aren't you going to play with us?' And Jo said, 'Let's hear how you do without me.' How's that? Up until that day, I never dared dream that any dance band could play without drums, although I guess I knew about Benny Goodman and The Earl. Benny fired Sid Catlett and went on and did one more tune on that record date."
I said, "I know that Tommy Dorsey would run a tune down and Buddy Rich would just sit and listen, and memorize everything. His memory was legendary. Buddy told me he thought the reason his memory was so good was that he couldn't read, and had to memorize."
"Bill Harris too," Milt said. "It wasn't that he didn't know music. He was born to play music. He didn't start playing trombone until he was in his twenties. He never seriously went to a teacher. He was driving a truck for a living. He stayed away from local bands, like Elliott Lawrence. He went to jam sessions where they didn't bother with music. His name got to be known because he was so good. From what I was told, it came out of the horn the first time anyone heard him. He played like himself. So he got his first job with a big-time band, Gene Krupa. He was on the band maybe about a week. A big yelling fight, and he was gone. Then Benny Goodman. Benny liked the way he played and gave him a chance. Bill would look at the general contour of the notes, and not play the first time through. The only person on earth who could handle this was Woody. The fact that they found each other, you have to wonder. Nobody could say, listening to the records, that Bill didn't play those things immaculately. The second time through he knew what to do. He and Buddy Rich were of a kind. Jazz at the Phil was Bill's last good job, and when he started to look around, he couldn't be hired because he couldn't read fast enough. Wes Hensel once proudly introduced us. I'd never met Bill.
"Wes had settled in Vegas. He talked them into hiring Bill for one of the pit jobs, but it was just impossible. The acts changed every week. I think Bill was the one who said, 'Forget it. This is painful for all of us.' And Bill went into business in Vegas. He opened or bought a swimming-pool supply firm. He could handle business. He had quite a mind. He did that, made some money, sold the store, and went to Florida, and he was around in the last years of his life."
I said, "He and Flip Phillips had a group there. Flip told me that he couldn't read very well either, and Benny was very patient with him. But getting back to your post-war experience
"When we were discharged, the war had been over almost a year," Milt said. "I went back to Chicago, thinking maybe I could find my way into something.
"Lee Konitz and I were still very much in touch. He had found Lennie Tristano. Lennie was a blind Chicago accordionist. I had heard of him, but never took it seriously. The word was that he had started out like Charlie Magnante, a virtuoso, and gradually he decided to play jazz, and switched to piano. When I got out of service, I called Lee and said, 'Are you still in that Louis Jordan type band?' Lee said, "No, I've found somebody that I'm studying with him, and you've got to meet him.'
"I met Lennie at his apartment. A very quiet man. Under-spoken but very opinionated. They set up for me to take a lesson. And I was never going to be a jazz player. I started out to be a symphony player. I was pretty square for a long time. I could fake, and that's the way it was. Reading chords and playing jazz never happened. I couldn't do anything but follow the chord changes and play one, three, and five — maybe seven — in a chord. But up and down. And I always thought that Bobby Hackett, because he had been a guitar player, played that way. His cornet playing was vertical. He played up and down chords.
"Lee was thinking nothing else but Lennie Tristano. His personality even started to change, because Lennie took one over. He had ideas about what you eat, and even though he couldn't see, what you wear. He was running the show, and he loved it."
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
If you have ever wanted to know anything about the mechanics of playing Jazz on the trombone, or what was so special about John Phillip Souza’s concert band, or why the Stan Kenton Orchestra adopted a “ 20th century Classical” musical personality or what made the sound of the Claude Thornhill band so unique, then the second part of this ongoing interview with trombonist Milt Bernhart is for you.
The Journey: Milt Bernhart
Jazzletter, June 2002
"I never liked Lennie Tristano's playing," I told Milt. "In fact I intensely disliked it.
I found it all icy intellect."
"I never thought about his playing," Milt said. "He was a teacher."
I said, "But I liked a lot of people who were influenced, directly or indirectly, by Tristano, such as Bill Evans. But Bill incorporated it into himself."
Milt said, "That's what happens — with the good ones. Who can imitate anybody? So many tried to imitate Bird that it became depressing. The business of wanting to be like someone else is hysterical and kind of tragic with the coming of Charlie Parker. The trumpet players tried to be Diz, but nobody ever successfully got close.
"Once in New York, on a night off, Dizzy was playing in a ballroom uptown. So a bunch of us from the Kenton band went up to see him. A buzz was around, Miles is going to be in tonight and he was going to sit in with the band. Naturally, that would be interesting. I was not taken with Miles from day one. He just didn't blow for me. Diz was in absolutely fantastic shape. It was the band with Ray Brown, and they were wailing. Miles had already begun to be noticed. He walked in with an entourage already. Diz maybe didn't decide to carve him to pieces before he got up on the stand, but he did. Diz played everything he could possibly play — perfectly. Miles stood there with his mouth open, and shortly after that he was gone.
"I got back to Chicago and took a lesson with Lennie. It was not going to go anywhere with Lennie. I couldn't even come close to reading changes as he wanted them. Mostly he would use pop tunes. The first tune he usually played with anybody was I Can't Get Started. It had enough changes in it that it wasn't going to be easy to get Lennie's appreciation. I knew that from the beginning. We had hardly said hello, and he said, 'Let's get started.' I heard his chording. His roots started on the ninths of the chords. I realized what he was doing. I just couldn't hear it, and I certainly wasn't going to be able to play those changes. He didn't have a lead sheet anyway. You memorized the original chords. 'You come to me and we go from there.' Lee was doing that. He was buying piles of pop tunes, standards. Later they got bored with that and they started doing originals. And very few people playing instruments could get close to Lennie and do anything, and that's why so few players were ever part of his entourage in New York.
"I began to see Lee in New York, but he was a different person. It's hard to imagine him on a bandstand above a bar with a blonde buxom girl rocking and rolling while the rhythm section and Lee did Ain 't No One Here But Us Chickens. And he did all of that — and pretty good, too. I thought that's where he was going, and I got him on Teddy Powell's band because of that. Now there were a few people in Chicago who were Lennie disciples that he never got excited about. One was Bill Russo. Bill took lessons from him, but Lennie never accepted him completely."
I said, "Bill had a mind of his own anyway, and still does."
"He was outspoken, always was. He came on Kenton's band eventually," Milt said.
"Phone rings one day in Chicago, and it was Kenton's manager, Bob Gioga. He also played baritone saxophone in the band. Very good. He could play and read. He was an old friend of Stan's. He took care of the payroll and Stan didn't have to worry about these things. So Stan was one of the few bandleaders who wasn't stolen from by the manager. That didn't stop Stan from becoming penniless before he died. Because after Gioga left, that's when the trouble started. Various people came in, and I know money disappeared in large amounts. And Stan would never go after anybody. Woody was taken from too.
"I had to take a train from Chicago to Detroit to audition. It was at Eastwood Gardens. Kai Winding was in the lead trombone chair. It was alternate lead that was being vacated, anything that wasn't jazz. There were still a lot of dance arrangements in the book. With four trombones, didn't have five at that time. Shelly Manne and his wife came over and introduced themselves. I felt good about it. Stan was very nice and said, ‘I’ll let you know.' I went back to Chicago. I was wondering if there were any other bands. In 1946, I didn't have a lot of contacts. I'd begun to wonder if I shouldn't look for a job in a grocery store. The phone rang, and Bob Gioga wanted to know if I could join the band in Indianapolis in about two weeks. And that's when I joined.
"Winding was the soloist. He was the star. He hadn't really counted on me being in the band. Found out later he'd been pushing for a kid in New York City, a friend of his who was well known to be, if not a junky, a hop-head. Stan was dead against this, and especially then. The valve trombone player, Gene Roland, had been in and out with Stan, and when he was out, he was in jail. Stan was not going to let that happen if he could help it.
"Stan was not drinking. Not so you'd notice. He was starting to get some recognition. He was determined to make it happen for himself. He had a routine that was punishing. We were doing mostly one nighters. Stan after the job jumped into a car — the band was in a bus — and drove all night to the next city. A long lonely drive all night. He knew enough not to take a swig out of a bottle. He looked great, and he was in pretty good shape. Arriving in the next town, he'd make the rounds to the radio stations and record stores on behalf of Capitol Records. They were very good to him. Some of Capitol didn't want him there in the first place.
"When I joined, Pete Rugolo had just started writing for the band. Stan was still trying to accommodate General Artists Corporation, who could only book him in dance halls. But Stan had always dreamed of concerts — like Artie Shaw. I don't think Duke cared that much. Duke would play his music anywhere, and it was Duke Ellington. I've given that some thought."
"Well," I said, "when I was going to hear bands, there were two groups in the audience. One group would stand close to the bandstand to listen."
"If there was anything to listen to," Milt said.
"And the other group would be out on the floor near the rear, dancing."
"Unfortunately," Milt said, "quite a few good bands of that period made records that were intentionally commercial. You know, Glenn Miller did have a swing band. He had players that were capable, for instance Billy May, Johnny Best, and Willie Schwartz. The rhythm section, never. The rhythm sections were there to play klop klop for the dancers."
"But the Miller Air Force band," I said, "didn't have to play for dancers, it played a lot for broadcasts in England, and Ray McKinley, who played drums in it, as you know, told me it was the best band ever to play popular music in American history."
"And that's interesting about Glenn Miller," Milt said. "It's what he really wanted. It's curious to try to consider what might have happened if he had come back. There were things that would have got in his way. Television, for one. And the bands were going out of business. There were a number of contributing factors. The kind of music was going to change. To say we weren't going to come to a fork in the road is just dreaming. Today, it's nostalgia for the Old Days. Nobody cares about the music, with very few exceptions. If you do, you're in the minority.
"The primary clients of my travel agency are jazz musicians. Lawrence Welk was also a client. We were sitting somewhere, when I had had the agency for about a year. Lawrence was Mr. Cheap. On this occasion, he said, 'The boys tell me that you were a musician.' Very sincere. Brainless. I said, 'That's right, Lawrence.' He said, 'What did you play?' I said, Trombone.' I could see a couple of the guys behind him covering their mouths. He said, 'Who did you play with?' I said, 'Well, Stan Kenton.' He stood up straight and he said, 'You know something? I never could understand what he was doing.' And I said, 'A lot of people couldn't.' He looked pleased. He said, 'I wanted to. Once we came into a town in North Dakota, which is my territory. The Kenton band was there that night. We had the night off. We went to the ballroom. The band was playing, and the people were standing around the bandstand. I could never figure that out, to this day. Why were the people not dancing?'
"I said, 'The music was intended to be concert music.' And a little look of perhaps understanding showed in his face, not much. I said, 'Actually, you noted that everything was played in a steady tempo from beginning to end, and could be danced to.' He said, 'Nobody was dancing.' I said, 'That was Stan's undoing. Because you made your money playing for dancers, didn't you.' And Lawrence looked quite satisfied and said, 'It's nice meeting you,' and that was that."
I mentioned to Milt that there was a legend about the Kenton band. Somebody supposedly went up to one of the musicians and said, "When are you going to play something we can dance to?" and the musician said, "When are you going to dance something we can play to?"
"Could have been Stan," Milt said. "The guys in the band wouldn't have said anything. Stan really ran in that direction, probably from the first day, although if you listen to the Balboa Beach opening, it was certainly a dance band. Very heavy time. The band came first, never accommodated the dancers. Even Benny Goodman picked that up. Artie Shaw said to me, 'I tried that, but I had a lot of trouble from the booking agents and the ballroom operators and some people on the dance floor. They were always in my ear.'
"I think it was Benny playing swing when it was not being heard by white bands that they began to find ways to dance to it. All those white kids didn't go up to Harlem to learn what they were doing. So how did they get it and start dancing in the aisles? Or was that set up?
"Stan loved dancers when they looked nice. He liked everybody. But he didn't
have a band to be potted palms in the ballroom.
"I had a very good experience with Stan. He was always very accommodating. He let us play the way we thought the music should be played on a given piece. He had certain ideas, but he rarely started in about the interpretation. He really figured, 'These people are doing better than I could ever begin to.' I got that feeling, and he transmitted it. On one occasion — and I was with the band five years — he approached me as we were going into a ballroom in Salt Lake City. I can still see it. We'd just gotten off the bus. He said, 'Milt, can I talk to you?' He said, 'There's something I've got to tell you about your playing. When you play a ballad —' which is what I was doing, what I was allowed '— play it jazz style, not straight melodic.' Before that he had mostly Tommy Dorsey trombone players. I was somewhere in the middle. 'When you play the melody, don't interpolate funny songs, nursery rhymes.' You'll remember that Bird did that a lot. Most bebop trumpet players were doing it. And I was influenced by them. Stan didn't want it. It made me mad at that moment. But I didn't do it after that. Stan was an authentic person. That's the way we looked at it. He exuded authenticity.
"The trombone solos, with very few exceptions, were Winding, playing the way he felt, and on any given night it could be different from the previous night. I had supposedly the lead book. There wasn't any reason for anyone to know it. I had a solo on the bridge of World on a String that was supposed to be straight melody. But mostly not. And I listened to Winding. When we added another trombone at the Paramount Theater a couple of months after I joined the band, we had five, and we started to get more ensemble trombones.
"Kai Winding always took the first part. He couldn't always play. He didn't have that kind of chops. This was a band where none of the trumpet players dreamed of one guy playing all the lead parts. Three of them at least. Yet Winding for quite a while made it very clear that he was going to play all the lead trombone parts. We got so we weren't speaking. Besides, he didn't want me on the band and rarely said anything friendly. We didn't get to know each other till many years later, when I was in business out here in California. I was still doing some studio calls. Kai migrated to the West Coast. Now he's Ky Winding. Pete Rugolo had a record date and he had both of us on it. And on this occasion, they put the lead part on his chair, and Winding said, 'I can't play this. Take it.' And we talked about it. I said, 'There was a time, Kai. . . .' He said, 'Was there?' He really didn't remember.
"He'd been smoking a lot of something. He'd been living in a crowd of up and coming beboppers. Bill Harris was the guy he was trying to play like. He could bebop. Bill couldn't. Bill played like Bill Harris. He played like nobody. But every young trombone player who was trying to be a jazz player was trying to play like Bill Harris. Then one day, at the Paramount — we were there for three months in 1946 with the King Cole Trio and June Christy — Kai came into the dressing room and said, 'I've gotta tell you. I heard a trombone player last night at the Famous Door.'
"I said, 'Do I know him?' He said, 'No, he just arrived. He was sitting in with Charlie Parker. J.J. Johnson.' I said, 'Good?' He said, 'I'm speechless.'
"And from that moment on, Jay became the absolute idol to Kai, and they found each other, and it worked out very well. Kai wasn't the kind of guy who could play studio calls. If you had a chase scene, he was not your guy. He didn't read that well either. He was trained. It's just that his sound was pure Kai Winding. Pretty wide vibrato. If we had to play like French horns, he couldn't do it. So he hardly ever played studio work in New York, which is where he'd settled. He got to be a producer of records and he wrote jingles and he did okay. But he's rarely mentioned today. He was certainly as pure a jazz player as I knew and a good one. And he drew crowds at Birdland."
"And," I said, "the group he had with J.J., Jay and Kai, was immensely
"They fitted each other's style. J.J. was pretty pure. The playing was so accurate. He wasn't trying to jazz it up at all. He was playing notes. He could do more than that, but what really caught me was the accuracy of his note selection and how fast he could play. He really was a ground-breaker for trombone. Kai never really tried to imitate him. He knew better. Pretty smart. I hear the records and for two guys and a rhythm section, they made a lot of music."
"Where does that kind of facile, high-speed trombone start?" I asked.
"Arthur Pryor," Milt said.
Bom in St. Joseph, Missouri, on September 2, 1870, Pryor was taught the trombone by his bandmaster father and made his solo debut in Kansas City in 1888. He joined the band of John Philip Sousa in 1891, and was soloist and assistant director until 1903. His band for many years made appearances at Atlantic City and Asbury Park, and he even made some early radio broadcasts.
Milt said, "Prior to Pryor, nobody had been able to get anything like speed out of the trombone. It lived up to the nature of its construction. You move the slide, and it takes a little time to go from one note to another, whereas with the trumpet and all other winds and the violins, they move their fingers, and they get notes. But with the trombone, you don't get anything with your fingers. You've got to make the slide go. If you're going to play fast, you try to stay within two positions of your mouthpiece. You've got to move it, man, and at best the instrument is sluggish.
"Pryor developed some tonguing, just on his own. The European players of the trombone, prior to about 1912, played ...." And he sang a glissando figure. "They smeared, even on a melody. You listen to the old Warner Bros and Paramount movies, the guy's smearing between all the notes. And that was considered, for a long time, the best thing about the trombone. It was sexy.
"Pryor started to write compositions for himself, played with the Sousa band, including Theme and Variations on The Bluebells of Scotland. There are old recordings of him. And one of the variations goes:" And Milt sang an extended rapid figure. "Nobody had ever heard anything like it. And he became such a famous man of that period that he started his own concert band. There was no other kind of band to start. But before he left Sousa, he had told him about a new kind of black music called ragtime. The first ragtime arrangements for an orchestra were written by Pryor for Sousa. He arranged Maple Leaf Rag for Sousa.
"His concert band, which was a big one, played for years in Central Park in New York. He had the house band in Central Park. And they came for miles to hear him play. Sometimes he featured a trumpet player named Herbert L. Clarke."
Though he was born in Woburn, Massachusetts, on September 12, 1867, Clarke spent much of his career in Toronto, where his father was organist and choirmaster at Jarvis Street Baptist Church. There is a certain irony in that. To those who have lived in Toronto, Jarvis has always been known as a street of whore houses.
Herbert Clarke learned violin and viola, but he taught himself to play cornet and at fourteen was a member of the twelve-man cornet section in the Queen's Own Rifles Band. He rapidly became known as a virtuoso and played with the Sousa and Pryor bands, as well as the orchestra of Victor Herbert. He became an enormous influence in music, including jazz, composed more than fifty marches and ten overtures for band, and wrote three volumes of studies for the cornet.
"Can you imagine what it was like?" Milt said. "Sousa ran the show. And when these people started to leave, there must have been hell to pay. Pryor's son, Roger Pryor, got to be a bandleader in the late twenties and into the thirties, and then went to Hollywood and became a rather prominent actor.
"It was Arthur Pryor that everybody listened to. I can assure you, Tommy Dorsey went to him. I never heard anybody say that they actually studied with him, but they certainly listened to him. Everybody, when I started the trombone, always mentioned him first. He was still in New York in the early thirties, not playing very much. One of the people he influenced was Miff Mole, who played with Paul Whiteman, and could get around the horn unbelievably.
"Dorsey never wanted to play jazz. He could play Dixieland. He had a small group called the Clambake Seven. He found out that if you move the slide in the other direction from you, there will be a click. The air chamber inside the slide does things that depend on what direction you are moving the slide. If you move it down, you're going lower, and the air goes with it. If you move the slide toward you, the air that's in there — that you've been blowing into the horn — moves in the other direction and doesn't want to smear. It comes to a certain place where it goes click. If you want to play a melody, and play it cleanly, you find out where the notes, the intervals, are going to be where those clicks will occur. And trombone, once you get above the lower register, has many positions to play a given note."
I told Milt a story. Once, in the London House in Chicago, I got into a conversation with Jack Teagarden about the nature of the horn. Jack got his horn from the bandstand and, very quietly, sitting across the table from me in a booth, played a major scale in closed position. He said the embouchure was everything; the slide only served to make it easier to make the notes. Legend has it that Jack learned all the "false" positions because when as a small boy he started playing the horn, his arm wasn't long enough to reach the extended positions.
"By the way, Milt," I asked, "did you know Jack?"
"I never met him, but I talked to him on the phone. I got his number and called him. He was a remarkable musician. I was speechless.
"To do what he showed you, the scale would have to be beyond the staff. As the notes get higher, you don't have to move the slide that far to get them. What an unbelievable device that had to be overcome."
"I'd presume the slide instrument comes before trumpet."
Milt said, "The first Roman trumpets, that they played in the Coliseum, had slides. First it was fixed, and could only play so many notes. But with a slide, they could play more notes. A lot of time passed before valves were thrown in, in Germany."
Having made the point that when you draw the slide toward you, you are pushing the column of air back to your mouth, whereas when you move the slide away, you are creating a partial vacuum, Milt said, "Now the player, if he had to deal with that, wouldn't know what to do. Nobody ever taught anybody, 'You're going to blow some air in there, and the notes that you're able to play now, which are low notes, are going to be moving away from you as you move the slide.' So you can put more air into it in the lower register. The horn can take it. But as you're moving toward yourself, the slide cannot accommodate blowing harder. Arthur Pryor first understood this. If I'm playing in the upper register — which Dorsey did mostly — then I'm wasting air. And they started using almost no air at all. To play without taking a breath was Tommy's style, and it came from Arthur Pryor. You're playing that melody, you don't need that air. If you fill your lungs full of air, you're going to run into this jam-up, especially if it's a pretty melody but the notes move."
I said, "What I still admire about Dorsey's playing is how clean it was."
"But he was slurring. You can only do that clean cut to the next sound if the slide is coming toward you. You know who told me that, because I'd never noticed? Ray Noble. I played with his band at one point. Most of the players teach themselves that part, from instinctive feel.
"J.J. Johnson was using that particular method. I don't think anybody showed him. I don't think he ever once thought, 'There's a suction when it's going down. So I've got to accommodate that. How do I do that? Well, I don't play those notes as often. If I play a low B-flat, I don't come from B-natural, which is seventh position to first position. It's gonna sound terrible.' Billy May recited all that to me. He knew. I'll bet you most writers who came from another instrument would look at you as if you were insane. I've run into certain arrangers who would write fast notes in the lower register, coming from extended positions to first positions. One arranger I know was always writing that kind of figure. I never wanted to hurt his feelings, so I never said anything, but his stuff was very hard to play."
"You know, Milt," I said, "I have a vivid memory of your period with Kenton.
"I was nineteen in 1947, and my first writing job was for a Toronto magazine devoted to the radio industry, The Canadian Broadcaster. There was some sort of hassle about broadcasting. The union wouldn't let Stan broadcast, as I recall, and I was sent to interview him and get his side of the story. I was a big fan of the band. I called and made an appointment and I knocked on his door at the Ford Hotel. He answered. He had just come out of the shower, and he wore only a big bath towel around his waist."
"And there was a lot of Stan," Milt said.
"Yeah, about six-foot-five of him. Anyway, he was very cordial to me, and I did my interview and went away."
Milt said, "I was there, I'm sure."
'Well," I told Milt, "something like twelve years went by, and I became editor of Down Beat. And I had some occasion to go and see the band, and, so help me God, without a hesitation, Stan said, 'Hello, Gene, how've you been?' I only met one other person with a memory like that for names, and that was Liberace."
Milt said, "Jerry Lewis too. Jerry's got it photographic. I worked for him for a while. He shouted my social security number across a waiting room in an airport."
"How did you come to leave Kenton and join Boyd Raeburn again?"
Milt said, "Stan was still traveling on his own, in a car, and who knew how long he had been doing it? One night about a year after I joined the band in '47, we were in Alabama, he got in front of the band one night, looking whipped. He said, 'Boys, this is our last night till further notice. We'll give you train tickets back home, wherever you've got to go, but I can't continue.' He could barely say it. A local doctor had looked him over and said, 'You're gonna be a goner if you don't stop.' He was having heart palpitations. So we played our last night there, and everybody went their way. I got back to Chicago and immediately the phone rang.
"It was Wes Hensel. He said, 'I'm with Boyd Raeburn's band in New York.' Boyd had left Chicago, and had that experimental band. He was going into the Paramount. He was elated, because he hadn't been working. George Handy and Johnny Richards were writing for him. It was some book. It was so hard to read. David Allyn was with the band. A beautiful singer. I'm a great admirer of his. He sang I Only Have Eyes for You with an arrangement by George Handy. George Handy was some sort of writer, but who's George Handy any more? Johnny Mandel came a little later.
"I could hardly wait. I got on the next train to New York. There were some friends on the band. Pete Candoli. Conte Candoli came on the band and, later, Buddy De Franco, featured heavily. Very good players. One of the Petrillo record bans was on when I joined. As soon as the ban was over, we rushed into the recording studio. These were commercial recordings. Ginnie Powell was the singer, Boyd's wife. I took a long walk the other day, listening to a tape of that band, and I was speechless.
'The band was a ball to play with. Very unusual instrumentation. Two French horns, tuba, six brass, a lot of woodwinds, including an oboe player and a bassoon player and a harpist. Every day was a musical experience. I came closest to being in a symphony orchestra I ever could. The bassoon player had been with John Phillip Sousa for a number of years, an older man who told us great Sousa stories.
"When we finished the Paramount, a three weeks run in the summer of '47, we went on an extensive break. He was supposed to be paying me. Then we did a week at Atlantic City, and I expected some back pay. I didn't get it, and at the end of the first week I gave my notice. Boyd cried and said, “I’ll do my best.' But nothing happened, and I caught a train back to Chicago, and almost immediately I got a call from Bob Gioga.
"Stan was reorganizing, and he had a new idea, Progressive Jazz. Stan was going to hold out for concerts. I asked “What about Winding?' I didn't want to be in the band if he was always going to be the soloist and we weren't going to be friends. He said Kai was doing the Perry Como show and couldn't make it. So I showed up in Hollywood at the appointed time. They put me on the lead chair. Eddie Bert came into the band. Several of the older people came back. Art Pepper, who had been elsewhere. Pretty much the same trumpet section. Buddy Childers. Shorty Rogers had come off Woody's band. Ray Wetzel. Chico Alvarez from the first band. Shelly, Eddie Safranski. It wasn't a swing band. From that point on, the music was semi-symphonic."
I said, "You know, there was a certain amount of tension between Woody and Stan. I tried to reconcile them, without success, because I liked Stan a lot."
"Sure," Milt said, "and Woody too."
"You know what Red Kelly said about them: 'Woody didn't trust anything that didn't swing and Stan didn't trust anything that did.'"
Milt said, "Stan's early jazz pleasure was Lunceford and Earl Hines. He adored both. His first band was sort of Lunceford. He was looking to have a swing band, but not of the Basie variety. But Pete Rugolo came into the picture. With his background of studying with Darius Milhaud, he had a lot to show Stan. And once Stan, who had not had a lot of exposure to the classics, became conversant, he decided that the sound of a symphony orchestra was what he wanted. He could listen to Beethoven and Brahms, but he got bored. And he heard Stravinsky and Hindemith and Copland, and he knew that if he could get anywhere near that, he would be a happy man. So he was going to turn what was being sold by General Artists Corporation as a dance band into the kind of band it became.
"We played dance jobs, with Stan telling people that after the first break, we're going to do a concert. Not many ballroom owners liked it, and I saw him get into vehement arguments, and once or twice we packed up. We limped along, and then they booked the first concerts, starting with Carnegie Hall. That was in '48. And that drew crowds. Stan was light-headed with exhilaration. He had just been hoping. We played the Civic Opera in Chicago. They had a Sunday open. A big big crowd showed up from all over the middle west. Stan had almost nothing but new, heavy, heavy music on the concert. And, God knows why, it was accepted with large ovations. The crowd yelled and made us play a couple of encores. I can never forget that. I was expecting to get booed off the stage. Maybe we did one or two numbers from the original book. Vido Musso was on the band and did Back to Sorrento. Stan was determined that this was the kind of music we were going to do. It started with the first band, Concerto to End All Concertos, which a lot of people thought was tongue in cheek. And maybe it was. I heard him play it for the first time when I was in high school, sitting next to Lee Konitz. We went and stayed two shows. It was Stan and the way the band acted on stage. It was unlike any other band. And we'd seen them all. It had a personality that came from Stan. Something about the man."
"I've never understood," I said, "how bandleaders could impose their personalities on the band."
"Stan could do it," Milt said, "and so could Woody. Woody bowed to the desires of the band. It didn't make him as rich as the King of Prussia, but it made him as happy as he ever was in his life."
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Notto bene is a Latin and Italian phrase that means - note carefully - with the implication being pay attention to this; it is used to underscore the importance of something to the reader; to emphasize something in the writing; to highlight an important point or fact.
As you read this third installment on the career of Jazz and studio trombonist Milt Bernhart, I would ask you to - Notto Bene! - because the world of work for a studio musician that he describes in it will more than likely, never come again.
Studio work for a musician during the era that Milt details in this feature was the ultimate in artistic risk-reward.
Drummer Irv Kluger once drew an analogy between studio work and brain surgery - “One mistake and you were gone!” - that how serious accuracy, competency and professional skill were in both environments.
The Journey: Milt Bernhart
Jazzletter, July 2002
"Stan organized the Progressive Jazz band," Milt said, "and we did concerts. The guys liked that, because it was shorter hours. A couple of hours. That was nice. And the idea of being on stage, and being pressed to play better, was better for everybody. The band was playing the music well. Not everybody in the band was crazy about it. There were those who were outspoken. Stan heard some of it, but he never said anything to anybody. Shelly was outspoken."
"Yeah, he said playing in that band was like chopping wood, and it made a headline in Down Beat."
"The moment Stan was off the stand for a while, we usually said to Shelly, 'What do you want to play?' We had some things by Neal Hefti, and they were immediately trotted out. Stan would usually return, but he didn't say, 'Who pulled that up?' But he wasn't happy. Sorry to say, it didn't move him. And here was a guy not brought up in long-hair traditional concert orchestra music, but a little Dixieland and black bands. Not too many white commercial bands. So where did he get this need to stay away from swing? He didn't want to sound like anybody else. I'm sure that was part of it.
"I got married at the end of '48. We were still touring. I began to think I can't do this traveling forever. Stan was very understanding. I tried Chicago. I couldn't get arrested. After about three months, I got a phone call from Lee Konitz. He had just started rehearsing with Benny Goodman, and he said, 'Do you want to be on the band?' Did I want to? He said it was a bebop band. Fats Navarro was in the band. Benny had heard Gerry Mulligan's Tentet on a record and went down to Birdland to hear the band. He hired everybody he could get, including the writers, and was having a new book written. It was hard to believe.
"I walked into the rehearsal on Seventh Avenue in New York. I looked around for Lee. No Lee. After less than a week's rehearsal, he had had enough of Benny. I looked around some more. No Fats Navarro. Gerry Mulligan was still there. He wasn't playing, he was writing. The band had about a dozen of his arrangements.
After about an hour of rehearsal, I realized I was auditioning. Nobody told me that. I thought I had been hired. Eddie Bert was on the band. Doug Mettome had come in in place of Fats. I had met Wardell Gray with a small Basie Band. The arrangements were new, mostly Mulligan's. They played nicely and I took to them. They were easy reading. He had ideas about interpretation — always, and rightfully. Benny never said anything. After the run-through the manager came over and said, 'Okay, you're on the band.' I feigned gratitude.
"Turned out that Lee had said something to Benny about an advance. 'Get away.' So Lee didn't come back. Fats Navarro was deep into drugs. The next day Benny fired Mulligan, in the middle of rehearsal. It was memorable. We had been rehearsing Mulligan, Chico O'Farrill, and a little Tadd Dameron, and a couple by Johnny Carisi. We were taking a break, and it looked okay. Suddenly Benny let out a terrible shout. He didn't have a good one. It sounded like Death Incorporated. And he followed that with, 'Get him out of here!' He shouted to the manager. We turned around, frozen. 'Get him out of here!' He was pointing to Mulligan. All I can figure is Gerry asked for an advance, or payment of any kind. Nobody did anything. Benny took handfuls of music and threw them on the floor. 'Get these things out of here. I don't want to see him any more!'
"Gerry was still new to the world. He had been writing for Krupa and Thornhill and Elliott Lawrence. It turned out Gerry had written most of the arrangements for those other bands. I was dumfounded and stunned. I didn't like Benny Goodman on the spot. But I needed the work. I did a week of rehearsing without pay. We did a week at the Paramount and then headed west.
"We got to Las Vegas. Benny had junked everything new in the book. A bunch of young kids were playing Don't Be that Way seven times a night. King Porter Stomp. Nothing wrong with that but that wasn't what we wanted to do. By the time we got to the Flamingo, which Bugsy Siegal had built, we were terribly demoralized. There were no hotels in those days. The band had one black musician. I liked Benny for having Wardell Gray. Wardell was heavily featured. Loveable guy, as sweet as could be. I roomed with him. We talked race. And it was very grown up. I felt like a man for once. But the city fathers in Las Vegas kept a very strict Jim Crow law. Did you know that?"
"Yeah. And I heard that Wardell was taken out into the desert and murdered."
'That was a couple of years later. Wardell was not allowed in the front door. He and his wife had to stay in a hotel on the other side of the tracks, and on the breaks he was not allowed to come out into the casino. And so we took turns in the band, sitting with him in the dressing room. We kept giving Wardell a pep talk. He said, 'I thought this band was going to make me something. At least I thought I'd be treated like the rest of you.' And we had to try to explain, but there was no way to explain.
"And it was Benny Goodman. I grew to hate him. The last night, Benny showed up for the last show looking mad as hell. I could pick this up. Nobody else ever looked at him. He was beyond-belief angry. The way his eyes were darting around, I figured the first person that does something wrong, there's going to be hell to pay. It turned out later that they'd given him his bill for roulette, and it was a big one, and it turned him into a monster. He wasn't crazy about the band, that's for sure. He was barking out the numbers. Wardell hadn't come out of the band room. He was drunk. Eventually he got out there and I whispered, 'Be careful. Benny is loaded for bear.' We played the theme song. But the first number, the bridge was Wardell, one of the old Fletcher Henderson charts. Wardell couldn't stand up too fast. So he didn't start playing for about a bar and a half. Benny stopped the band. A full house, on Saturday night, and screamed, 'Get off the stand, Pops!' And now everybody in the band realized that we've got troubles. It could have been anybody. Wardell was stunned. It took a minute for him to realize he was the one. Now Benny was screaming, 'Did you hear me?' The audience didn't know what to do. Gradually Wardell put himself together, managed to pick up his clarinet and sax, and wasn't able to walk too well.
"Before he fired him, Benny had personally given him a clarinet. He walked over and took the clarinet from him. Now he had a band that was completely torn to shreds. I should have said, and I think about it a lot, 'Then I'm gone too, Pops.' I couldn't get myself together to do it. Nobody had the guts. We played the show, God knows how. We went back to the band room, and Wardell was there, out of it beyond belief. I said to him, 'What are you going to do?' But it turned out that Benny had a contract with him, and it had about six months left. So Benny wasn't going to let him go. He put him on fourth tenor, no solos, and we played the Palladium in Los Angeles.
"I figured when I heard about Wardell's death that Benny had something to do with it. He was found 'way out of town in the desert about a year after he left Benny. Why Vegas? What Benny did to him was insufferable. I gave my notice as soon as we got to Los Angeles. I had to work out two weeks. He demoted me to third trombone right away. Why should I mind? But Benny thought he had done something to me. His mind was the smallest. His ability to make music only God could explain. You cannot deny that he could play. He didn't know much about anything else. He didn't have to. Why music? Why did it come so naturally?
"Anyway, I quit, and I was in Hollywood. There was about a year when I was around town, playing casuals. Jerry Gray's band. Once in a while a record date. I wasn't too welcome in the studios, because I was classified as a jazz player. I knew I could read and play a cue. But Alfred Newman at Fox didn't think so. Morris Stoloff at Columbia didn't think so. I was taking anything I could get and I had a day job for a while. I had a family and thinking of music as maybe a sideline. Stan had been on the road with the Progressive Jazz band. He came back and decided to form a big orchestra with strings. I went on that, and it was a challenge. Maynard Ferguson was with the band.
"We had heard him in Toronto in maybe 1948 with his own band. The union in Canada required a standby orchestra. Stan didn't mind. Some of the American bands wouldn't let them play. They just stood by and got paid. Stan wasn't like that. Some of those bands, like the Niosi brothers in Toronto, were very good bands. Maynard had a kid band. We almost walked out in the first intermission. I was in the doorway. We didn't know who he was. He started to unload everything he could think of. Everybody in the doorway stopped cold. When we came back from the break, and I said to Stan, 'Did you hear that kid?' Stan said, 'What kid?' He was upstairs in the dressing room. Maynard was the youngest bandleader in Canada. The number he played, knowing we were all still in the room — Buddy Childers was there, Shelly Manne was there — featured the high notes. We stopped cold. Then he played baritone sax. He played alto too."
"I knew he played trombone," I said, "but I didn't know he also played saxophones."
"Learned from his brother," Milt said. "His brother Percy played good saxophone. Maynard sat at the drums. He was going to show us. It was intense. Next set Stan heard him, and he took him aside and said, 'Can you come on the band?' But Maynard was under age. He made Stan a promise that he would call him The first American band he played with was Boyd Raeburn He played first with Jimmy Dorsey and Boyd Raeburn. When Stan organized the Innovations Orchestra, Maynard joined the band and was featured. Then we both left Kenton after a few months, about 1952. Shelly left, Buddy Childers left, Bud Shank left. Suddenly Stan was without anybody to speak of. That's when he reorganized a smaller, modern band, the one with Frank Rosolino, Lee Konitz, and good trumpet players galore. Conte Candoli. I believe Stan Levey was the drummer.
"I was on the West Coast, and I was nobody. Then Howard Rumsey called and said he had this jam session going at the Lighthouse on Sundays. So I went down and it was a ball, a lot of fun. Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Howard Rumsey, and a little later Bud Shank. We were all out of work. It was a big hit from the beginning and expanded to five or six nights a week, and we were getting twenty-five dollars a night. We weren't rich, but we were making a living. It went on for about a year.
"I had been out here two years before I saw the inside of a studio or sound stage, and I had almost given up.
"Some people from the studios came to the Lighthouse to listen, unbeknownst to us. About five of them from the music department at Columbia Pictures showed up on Sunday at the Lighthouse. They were not going to believe that we could read, and that we weren't dopies. They were dressed like the crowd. They watched us very carefully, took notes. Can these musicians read? Can we trust them to show up on time for the calls? After two or three weeks of showing up incognito, they made themselves known to Shorty
"Marlon Brando had heard an album of Shorty's small group on Capitol. He wanted it as source music from a jukebox in a picture that was coming up, The Wild One.
"Leith Stevens, a very nice man, music director at Columbia, gave Shorty a break. In the 1930s, he had been the house band on Saturday Night Swing Session with Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and others. He was proud of that. Leith Stevens wrote cues for music in The Wild One, but for any source music that was supposed to be jazz, Shorty was there. He didn't get credit but he got paid well.
"Shorty's writing fit a lot of films like a glove, especially films about boys in the big cities who were in trouble, druggies. It just seemed to work. It became modern west coast jazz. It became standard for pictures that Marlon Brando made that were modern. John Cassavetes, Paul Newman pictures. The young people who came out of the Actor's Studio in New York went for that kind of music. They loved Shorty. Then Rugolo.
"Because of that, Shelly, me, Bud, Pete Candoli, Conrad Gozzo, and anybody who could play bebop and read music started to get calls on motion pictures, because we could play that other music. And the door opened very quickly, and just like overnight I was very busy through the 1950s. The Wild One really broke the ice.
"One of the music directors was George Duning, who was really the chief writer at Columbia."
I said, "He shouldn't have been prejudiced, because he came out of the Kay Kyser band."
"He did. But was also completely trained to write for the concert orchestra. He had studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory. He had a doctorate. Mostly with Kyser, he wrote cues. He didn't write the dance-band music. I didn't listen to that band much."
"That band could swing a little," I said. "They did an instrumental called It's Sand, Man, which was quite nice."
Milt said, "I can't remember who wrote that chart. Good arranger who was playing in the band.
"One of the writers on staff with Kyer was Jerry Fielding. And Jerry Fielding was an original, if ever I knew one. It took him a while, too, to get into movies, and I worked for him quite a lot. He was called in by the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He had been doing the Groucho Marx show, You Bet Your Life. And he was very thick with Groucho. It was Jerry's first big job. He was a left-wing liberal. Outspoken. Quite bright. They were after Groucho, and they called Jerry in to ask about Groucho's activities. He wouldn't talk. He was run out of L.A. and didn't work for about five years. Then he worked his way back in, and I worked for him."
I said, "Hank Mancini knew him when they were both students in Pittsburgh. They were friends."
"Very much," Milt said, "and Hank might have had something to do with getting him back in."
"They studied with the same teacher," I said. "Max Adkins. He was leader of the pit band at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh. While Hank was studying with him, Adkins was also teaching Billy Strayhorn and Jerry Fielding."
"And Jerry used to speak of him in hushed tones."
"So did Hank. Some teacher."
"Anyway, in The Wild One, everything that came from the jukebox was by Shorty. Shorty wrote two thirds of the music in that picture. Leith Stevens said he couldn't possibly write that style of music, all the source cues."
A source cue, for those not familiar with movie music terminology, is music that comes from any source that is actually in the movie: a radio, a dance band, a jukebox. Underscore is music that the characters in the story do not hear; source music is music they supposedly can hear.
"Jimmy Giuffre and Bob Cooper, also working at the Lighthouse, also got that call," Milt said. "I believe it was also the first studio call that Joe Mondragon got. Shorty really loved Joe. So did I. A great time bass player. The best in town. So we did that movie, and played the cues.
"The guys in the orchestra were coming up and introducing themselves. Manny Klein was their lead trumpet player at Columbia. They all had it proven to them that bebop musicians — and I was on the fringe; that really wasn't what I could do — could read music, which I had been doing all my career, including the Kenton band. A lot of its music was semi-legit. Pete's stuff certainly fell into that category — modern American music.
"So with that, the phone started to ring and I started to work. Shortly after that a big picture came up, The Man with the Golden Arm. And that really got the word around. The composer was Elmer Bernstein, who to this day speaks lovingly of the guys who were in that band, whom he never met until that picture. On the call were a lot of the guys who had done The Wild One. The likes of Bob Cooper in the sax section. And he was playing some oboe. And Bud Shank started to get work. He played the flute beautifully. He was getting calls mainly for flute.
"I was, just like that, very busy. And because eventually I proved I could play in the symphony orchestra, I got calls from Miklos Rosza, for instance. I did work with the crowned heads. I got to know Hugo Friedhofer pretty darned well. Hugo loved the group, and Shorty."
I said, "Hugo once told me that he was so fed up with the movie industry, he wanted to go on the road with a jazz group, but unfortunately cello wasn't considered a jazz instrument. You know that line of his, when somebody called him the real giant of film composers? He said, 'No, I'm a false giant among real pygmies.' And instead of hating him for it, every composer in town quoted it."
"He came to Hollywood in the early 1930s," Milt said.
"Even earlier," I said. "He did the charts on Sunny Side Up, one of the first film musicals, in 1929. He loved jazz players. You do know, I presume, that the trumpet solos on his score for One-Eyed Jacks are . ..."
"Pete Candoli," Milt said. "I may have worked on that picture. Hugo was one of the older composers who took to the young jazz players. Another one was Dave Raksin. For him I had to play a ballad. Real hard, really tough. A lot of jumps of elevenths, big jumps. One of those. Slow, and a very tender ballad that was going to run throughout the picture. I was still working on chops that I had developed from the road. That went, after about seven or eight years. But the first five years in town, I had strong chops. Eventually I was no longer the guy who had played with Kenton. I was practicing every day, but I didn't have a four-hour-a-night lip. Everybody who had played with any kind of swing band had endurance. A two-hour concert was like a stroll in the park. But doing it every night, four hours of hammering, I could play eight hours. Boyd Raeburn's book was demanding. So everybody who was with Stan had what they called road chops.
"But studio work was going to be a trap for the likes of me. As the years passed, that kind of studio call that called for those chops came up about three times a year. I was now getting calls for pictures where I was playing Wagnerian, or quasi-French horn.
"Good reading was very much a necessity in the studios. You walk in, and you look at the cues for the day, and there would be a big stack. Manny Klein used to say, 'Don't look at the music. If there's something hard to play, you'll be thinking about it, and you'll be nervous.' So most everybody talked. And we began when the stick was tapped on the stand. And after one reading, the red light was on. One reading! In most studios. Eight o'clock in the morning we are recording it for posterity. Either you could do that or you were not going to be there. And these people wrought miracles on the stages with the expectation of that. The fiddle players! A bar of three, a bar of four, a bar of seven, a bar of four, going like wildfire. And playing it from the first run-through. You had better be that good or you were not going to make it. You won't get calls, that's all.
"I was practicing. I never got the time to practice with Stan. We traveled. What I had with Stan was endurance. And the music was tricky and it needed to be read. It hardly fit the bill on the West Coast. Previn wrote some pretty complicated things. He studied with Castelnuovo-Tedesco. A bunch of them did. Everybody who came here eventually went to him. The likes of Raksin and Previn and Hugo Friedhofer.
"I did a couple of pictures with Franz Waxman, who was a martinet. He could have been a U-boat commander. But he wrote scores that were great. Academy Awards. And I did finally do a serious score with him, a picture with Anthony Quinn. By the time I got there in the '50s, those great ones had seen their best days. New people were coming in, and jazz was edging them out. They were plenty angry.
"One of the new guys was Jerry Fielding. Fielding I really respected. It took me a while to get to know Mancini. I did Hank's first picture at Universal, the one he did with Orson Welles, Touch of Evil, which came out in 1958.
"It was early in my time in Hollywood. Mancini had been at Universal, learning the ropes, and finally came this Welles picture. Pete Candoli, me, Bud Shank, Shelly. We were hired to play with the Universal staff orchestra. All the studios in town had staff orchestras, paid weekly and handsomely. Big orchestras. The small studios had smaller orchestras. Columbia was always considered second run. But Columbia movies got to be cult pictures, like. It was that staff orchestra, playing Picnic and Leonard Bernstein's score for On the Waterfront and playing it damn well. Bernstein said to Morris Stoloff, the head of the music department, 'Never mind me conducting this. I can't do it. That's for you to do.' Morris Stoloff never got over that. He conducted it beautifully.
"Touch of Evil came and went. I really didn't know Henry Mancini. About six months later, the phone rang at home. And he said, 'This is Hank Mancini.' He said, 'I'm starting a television series.' And he mentioned Peter Gunn. He said, 'I'm not going to call you on it,' and he was apologizing. He didn't have to call me at all. I said, 'I'm pretty busy anyway.' And he said, 'I'm glad to hear that. But I wanted you to know why I'm not calling you, when I'm using most of the people who were on my big break at Universal. Ted Nash told me that his brother, Dick, needs some work. He just got into town. And I'm going to use him.'
"I said, 'That's great.' I was thrilled not to show any signs of regret. I was busy. So it didn't matter. And he hired Dick Nash. I had met Dick. He's, you know, a scarey trombone player.
"But then Hank called me again, and I'm on the Peter Gunn album. Dick and I trade some eights. I worked for Hank, and I worked a lot with Dick."
"How did you come to do all that work for Sinatra and Nelson Riddle?" I asked.
"When they started recording Sinatra at Capitol, I still was Mr. Nobody. They were looking for a new package. They went to Billy May, and the result wasn't bad. The trouble with Billy was that he had his own band and was committed to go on the road when Frank was set to record I've Got the World on a String, the record that began the new Frank Sinatra. And I got the call. Nelson Riddle led the band, but I didn't know him at all. I'd heard of him. So his first major-league job was standing in for Billy May. Billy's name was on the label when the record came out. A couple of other tunes we did on that date were by Billy, including It Happened in Monterey, conducted by Nelson."
"But," I said, "Nelson wrote for Nat Cole before he did for Sinatra."
"Yes, but he wrote as a ghost at first."
"For Les Baxter," I said.
"It was a well-known story. I asked Nelson. His story was that Nat did several dates with Les, who was on the Capitol label. He had those exotic things, Tambu and other things. Very nice to listen to. Turned out later to have been written by a man named
"Albert Harris," I said. "Wonderful arranger. He did all those Les Baxter albums, because Les couldn't write. The stuff he supposedly wrote for Yma Sumac was actually by Pete Rugolo. Les Baxter was one of the great four-flushers in the history of the business, but by no means the only one."
"I worked for Les Baxter a few times," Milt said, "and I soon picked it up that he couldn't read the scores. He had a Roger Gorman movie to do, a cheap picture, and he didn't get to see the film before doing the music. In class A movies, they ran the film. It was at Capitol. We had a stack of cues. He called the first cue. We played it. He couldn't wave his arms in time to the music. But everybody that knew whispered, 'Don't look at him, just play it.'
"It was crap. Somebody else had written it. Then we come to cue two or three. Now he's in a hurry and he doesn't want to pay overtime. He said, 'We don't need to rehearse this, do we?' And so the red light goes on, and it's standard stuff. Except that I'm sitting in front of the piano player, who's playing another cue. Entirely different music. We get to the end. I look to the piano player, and he shrugs. I said, 'This is cue M-6. Did you play that?' He said, 'No, I played M-8.' I said, 'Well we'd better tell Les.' So I ended up telling him, for which Les wasn't happy. Les said, 'It sounded great, forget it, next cue.' So that was the end of that.
"I was not on his call list after that. We knew then that embarrassing him was a mistake. Now the way Nelson told me is that he had written the arrangement for Mona Lisa. It was very simple, but it had good voicings for the strings, and nice little backgrounds. Les was conducting. Somewhere in the middle, Nat says to Les, 'Sounds like the chords on bar 38 just don't go with the melody sheet I have.' Now Les was in trouble. Nat didn't make a fuss, but he knew instantly that Les couldn't read the score. So when the date was over, Les said it had been copied wrong. But Nat knew and a couple of days later, he said to Lee Gillette that it was wrong and it would have to be done again. And Lee said, 'Well then I have to get in touch with Nelson Riddle.'
"And Nat used Nelson from then on. And he used him far more adventurously. Nelson wrote Nat's big hits in about an hour.
''When Nelson did the Nat Cole dates, he used largely a string orchestra, so I didn't see much of him. Then he got assigned to Sinatra, and he did the albums that made Frank a ringa-dinger. I got called, and I couldn't believe when I got there that every arrangement had my name on it as first trombone. And I didn't know Nelson from the man in the moon. The reason for me was Stan Kenton. Lee Gillette had been Kenton's a&r man [someone who matches the artist with the music they record]. They wanted to do something with Sinatra that would have the Kenton push. Lee dug out some of the Kenton records. One of the tunes was a thing Pete wrote called Salute. We did it on tour with the Innovations in Modern Music orchestra. And I was solo from beginning to end. It was melody, but it was declamatory. That was my style with Stan. It enhanced the melody. It was perfect for me, because I was not really a jazz player."
"Now," I asked, "what about your [famous] solo on Sinatra's I've Got You Under My Skin! Was it written, or were you just blowing?"
"I was playing from the chords. A while ago somebody in the Sinatra group on the internet implied that Nelson Riddle had written out that solo. We did seventeen takes. Before we were through, I was playing the same solo. But the earlier takes, I was looking for something to play, and I thought my solos were much better. I was playing jazz. I was answering the trumpet section. I was doing that on the Kenton band with Kai Winding. It was the only solo I played, but I played lead on that whole album.
"Nelson eventually became a client in my travel office. He was long gone from Sinatra. He was still certainly Nelson Riddle. He looked out my window overlooking Hollywood and Vine. He said something to the effect, 'It's really been a screwed-up life for me.' I said, 'Well, Nelson, you couldn't convince any of us. You're a huge name. You're big. You've made plenty of money. You're a star.'
"And he said, 'Yeah, but I only wrote arrangements for other people. I'd trade the whole barrel of them for one song that Hank Mancini wrote.' And then he looked out the window with this vacant, longing look .And he meant it. I said, 'Maybe Hank would like to have written some of your arrangements.' He began to realize that maybe I wasn't just a trombone player. He started calling me to come over for dinner. His wife, Naomi, was a Kenton fan anyway. In latter years, I saw a lot of Nelson. But by that time, I'm afraid he'd been drinking more. Then he got the call that restored his career, from a pop singer. Linda Ronstadt. He went on the road. If I'd still been playing, I probably would have done that, and the album. She wasn't bad. A little mechanical. She sang in tune, she sang the words. She was beside herself with thrills. Nelson became somebody that I think she fell in love with."
It was inevitable that I ask Milt about Frank Rosolino, as painful as the memory would be to both of us.
"Frank Rosolino, Milt said, "didn't play the trombone. He was playing Frank Rosolino. He rarely put the slide where the note was being played. All ear and instinct. I know the way he learned. His sister got a violin when he was about ten. And he wanted to play the violin. So he started sneaking it when she wasn't looking and teaching himself. She began to cry, there was a family scene. His father got a trombone cheap at some junk shop. There was no teacher, they couldn't afford one. It didn't matter. The fiddle was the instrument he was going to try to play like. In six months he was doing Perpetual Motion and Fritz Kreisler. And he could do it — without knowing where to put the slide.
"For that reason, he was not much good in a big orchestra call. That was one of the reasons for his depression. If they wanted Frank on a sound track, they'd call him, use him on those numbers, and not expect much on the cues. His sound wasn't like any other trombone player. He blew hard, but everything that he did came out of the mouth."
Frank Rosolino was one of the funniest men I ever knew, and everybody who knew him loved him. But as Roger Kellaway put it, "When somebody cracks four jokes a minute, we all should have known something was wrong."
In 1978,I attended the Dick Gibson jazz party in Boulder, Colorado. On the bus back to Denver, my wife and I were sitting in front of Frank, who was telling his live-in girlfriend he was going to commit suicide and take his two boys with him. I thought I was hearing wrong. And Frank was so funny on our night flight back to Los Angeles — Sarah Vaughan got up and moved to the back of the plane, saying she couldn't sleep for laughing —that I thought that surely we had misunderstood that chilling conversation on the bus. We hadn't.”
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Nobody ever talks about Frank Rosolino, the late Jazz trombonist. At least not willingly. The circumstances of his death are too painful for many of us to recall.
You’ll understand why when you read the introductory paragraphs to this fourth and final installment of our visit with Milt Bernhart, who, like Frank, was also a trombonist, but who moved into a wider musical circle.
Gene Lees said: “Few men in music have had the scope of experience of Milt Bernhart.”
After reading this concluding piece on The Journey of Milt Bernhart, one would be hard-pressed to disagree with him.
The Journey: Milt Bernhart
Jazzletter, August 2002
"Is it possible that drugs were involved?" he said.
"I don't know. Nowadays you always wonder that."
As it turned out, drugs were not involved. Frank had gone into the bedroom where his two boys — darling little boys, handsome and vital and smart and very good looking — and shot them. He had killed Justin and himself. Jason was alive, and as we learned later, permanently blind.
Roger Kellaway said, "I've had friends who committed suicide, but I never had one who killed his kid." Roger and I attended the double funeral. The two coffins were together. I couldn't face looking into them. Roger did. He leaned over Frank's coffin and said, very softly, "You asshole."
That kind of anger was general. Some years after that ghastly event, Milt wrote a piece in the newsletter of the Big Band Academy of America expressing his undiminished anger at Frank. Frank left a scar on all of us who knew him that simply will not fade away. I hadn't listened to one of his records since that date in 1978. But when Milt started talking about him, I got out one of the old LPs and played it, once again astonished at Frank's facility, brilliance, and humor. It had me on the verge of tears, and I took it off.
Some time after the killing Roger Kellaway and I were on our way to a record date. We saw a little lost boy, perhaps five, standing on a corner weeping. We stopped the car. I told
Roger to go on to the record date and I'd meet him there.
I took the boy's hand. We were in front of an apartment complex. We entered the grounds and I asked people if they knew the boy. A tall, quite handsome man, probably about fifty, approached and asked what was wrong. He said he was a police officer and suggested that we take the boy up to his apartment. He gave the boy a dish of ice cream, which calmed him and stopped the crying. The man called the LAPD, said he wanted a car immediately, and told them to put out word about the boy. The police soon located the mother: the boy had wandered off while she was grocery shopping, and she was frantic and had called the police.
I asked the man what he did specifically. He said he was head of homicide for Van Nuys. I asked then if he remembered the Frank Rosolino case. He did indeed. I asked about drugs. He said the coroner had found no trace of drugs in Frank. And then he said: "In this kind of work, you see all sorts of things and become inured. You have to. But that case really bothered us. Two of my guys went out there and saw what happened and they came back and sat down and cried."
A rumor circulated two or three years ago that J“One morning a few weeks later, I was lying half awake listening to the news on TV. I was jolted upright when the newscaster said that the prominent jazz musician Frank Rosolino had committed suicide after shooting his two young sons. Old newspaper reporter that I am, I picked up a phone, called the LAPD homicide office in Van Nuys, and asked who was handling the Frank Rosolino "case." After a moment a man came on the line and I gave my name and asked about Frank.
"Did you know him, sir?" the man said.
"Yes, I did."
"Then perhaps you can help us. We're just puzzled."
"So am I," I said, and told him about the Colorado trip.
ason, who was seven when Frank shot him, had died, the universal reaction to which was: "It's a mercy." But after Milt raised Frank's name, I did a little checking. Jason hasn't died. He is in an institution for the blind and retarded. He is thirty-one.
"Frank was one of the Cass Tech kids from Detroit," I said to Milt. "Along with Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams. A lot of good musicians came out of that school too, sort of like your Lane Tech, I guess."
"I know," Milt said. "Frank and I talked about that. Once when we worked together, a television special. I was just astonished by Frank. I watched him carefully. Frank sat next to me. Everybody was having a good time. He kept everybody in laughter. He used his whole book, his act. Finally, I said, 'Frank, I'm going to demonstrate something. You're gonna do it. Most of these guys don't know it. You don't need that trombone to play like Frank Rosolino. The mouthpiece will do." This wasn't something that was even in his line of thinking. The trumpet section was all the jazz guys. Everybody stiffened up. I said, 'I'm gonna prove it.' I got a pack of cigarettes from somebody and inserted the mouthpiece into it. I said, 'He's going to do Frank Rosolino. I've never heard him do it, but I assure you he will sound like Frank Rosolino.' I gave it to him and he went bu-diddlya-diddlya-whee," Milt sang in Frank's style. "Music is coming out. Enough so that it could have been recorded and it would be Frank. Somebody might say, CTJ? h°s a mute on it.' But it was buzzing. And he was to all intents and purposes humming before the sound left his mouth and turning it into notes. He couldn't understand that.
"I was sitting at home watching television one night. The contractor called. He said, 'Can you get to Radio Recorders fast?' Somebody hadn't shown for a studio call, The Cincinnati Kid. It was the first picture Lalo Schifrin wrote music for. He had called for Frank Rosolino. No show. So they called the nearest person. Dick Nash wasn't here yet. Dick would certainly have done it. It was the likes of Bud Shank and Bob Cooper on the date. Lalo had asked for people he had heard of. And he was doing juke-box jazz in the picture. I really wasn't going to do Frank Rosolino. I said to Lalo, right away, ‘I’ll play the changes, and pretty soon I'll close my eyes and fake 'em.' There were choruses for everybody. There were a couple of things I think I could do a little better than Frank. A pretty ballad. Frank really couldn't do that. Everything had to be twisted, had to have his style. I never heard him play a Tommy Dorsey solo. He couldn't move the slide in Tommy's click style. And so he would have to buzz it. The sound would come out of the horn, but it wouldn't sound pretty. And Frank was never bothered by this.
"The worst part was that he showed up after an hour, and the contractor wouldn't let him in. I could see him through the glass. Frank is out there, looking panicked. I finished the date and walked out and said, 'Frank, sorry.' And he looked downtrodden. And after that I got a lot of calls from Lalo Schifrin, who did a string of television shows.
"One thing leads to another, and I didn't want it that way. If you played badly on a date, you were given a chance. Not much. But if you were a no-show, you were through.
"And it just broke my heart about him. I said to him on more than one occasion, 'They're not going to call you, Frank, on a symphonic call for a picture. You're a big name. What are you doing in L.A.? You need a manager, of course.' He said,
'How do I get a manager?'
"I said, 'I don't know. But they're around. Drop a note to Norman Granz or somebody.' He didn't know how to do that. He knew how to play when the time came. Outside of that, he sat around the house moping. That led to using cocaine, I suppose. Occasionally, with the guys who did that. Because that's the way Frank went.
"At one time, my situation was good in the studios. And then came rock. My date book was getting thinner. I wondered about others. Some of them, Dick Nash was one, were getting calls, you can depend on that. Lloyd Ulyate, probably the number one call in town, along with Dick. Dick Noelle was one of the best lead trombone players. He had been with Les Brown. Dick Nash can do everything."
I said, "J.J. Johnson had been in Los Angeles for years, writing movie and television music. When things began to thin out for him, too, he decided to pick up his horn and go back out playing jazz. Same thing with Benny Golson. And J.J. called Dick Nash and asked if he could come over to see him. He brought his horn. He told Dick he wanted to play for him, and Dick asked why, and J.J. said something to the effect that he was a little frightened to go back to the horn after all these years. He said to Dick, 'I want you to check me out.' That is the kind of respect Dick commands."
"That's right," Milt said. "First time I heard him, he had been with Billy May and Les Brown on the road. Larry Bunker came by the Lighthouse and said, 'I just came back from a couple of weeks with Billy May's band. There's a kid who's Ted Nash's brother, Dick. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think he's just sensational.' I said, 'I've just got to hear him.' I thought, A new guy in town. That happened to me when I got here. I sat next to Sy Zentner in the studio, and he never spoke to me."
"He was an odd guy," I said.
"A prick," Milt said. "He played in a very strange style. He was not a jazz musician. Andre Previn was at MGM when they were doing musicals. I started to get calls on musicals. And I got some money. Sy was very much in the first chair at MGM, his name on the music stand. I followed him, once or twice. I had maybe four bars of blues, and Sy couldn't do that, and he hated me. Previn became very much one of our gang. He wanted to be the piano player on our dates.
"I'll tell you a story about that. The first time that any of us, including Shorty, met Previn was on a record date at RCA. Jack Lewis was a producer there. He got the brilliant idea of combining Shorty and Andre on an album, which is around. They were gonna take pop tunes, standards, and one of them write an arrangement on the melody with jazz choruses, and the other write an original on those changes. We had the first date. The band was Shorty Rogers' Giants size, tuba, trombone, French horn and saxes, including Art Pepper. Andre walked in and introduced himself. He was maybe eighteen or nineteen. We start to play. We play the chorus and come to a break, and the first solo is piano. It was kind of a finger-snapping bouncer. We were doing the run-through, then we start the first take. We come to the break, and Andre is alone. Rhythm stops. In two beats he's three beats ahead of the beat. I'll never forget the feeling. Tension. Nobody knew whether he was kidding." Milt sang a rising tempo. "He's running. We can't continue. We were speechless. Who was going to say, 'You're rushing!' We took another number that didn't have a piano break. We finished the first date. There wasn't a second date for nearly a year. And I found out later that Shelly got him on the phone a couple of days after the first date. You can't teach anybody not to rush. But Andre got over it! If there's a rhythm section, he's not pulling. Now Oscar Peterson can really pull."
"Well," I said, "when the trio with Ed Thigpen would play the London House in Chicago, Ed would sometimes stay at our apartment. He was and still is one of my close friends. Oscar was bitching to me at some point, saying, 'Ray Brown rushes.' And Ray Brown a few days later said, 'Oscar Peterson rushes." I mentioned this to Ed, who said dolefully, 'They both rush.'"
Milt said, 'When they had Barney Kessel in that first trio, Barney rushed somewhat too. He'd tap his foot, which I was forbidden to do. It made you a cornball. I did it on the Boyd Raeburn band, and I was told about it.
"Andre had never even played jazz. He just knew he could do it. He had ears. A genius. But when it came to time .... So Shelly invited himself over to Andre's and they had sessions together. And he told him, 'When you're playing alone, just think to yourself, 'I'm rushing,' and you won't. And so Previn began to be very dependent on Shelly and asked for him on every date that resembled jazz. And Shelly began to do all of Andre's pictures, and Hank's too. They thought the world of Shelly. He could do a lot of things on percussion that a lot of drummers wouldn't want to do.
"Andre went to the Pittsburgh Symphony as conductor in the late '60s. Shelly called me at my office and said, 'I need a couple of round-trip plane tickets to Pittsburgh.' I said, 'What for?' He said Andre's going to do an album with Itzhak Penman.' So I said, 'What? What kind of album?'
"Shelly said, 'It's going to be me, Jim Hall, Red Mitchell, Andre, and Perlman.'
When he came back, I said, 'How did it go?'
"He said, 'Well, the first date that Andre did with us, the same thing happened with Perlman. Andre wrote chord changes for Perlman. He didn't know what they were for.
He'd see C minor seventh and say, 'What do I do?' They had to call off the first date, and Andre wrote out choruses for Itzhak, which he played immaculately. The album's not bad, really. Shelly said — Shelly was great for this — 'Don't play every note with its exact value. Goose a couple. Fall off a couple. You'll know when.' Shelly could do that. I think if you mentioned his name to Perlman, he would brighten up.
"But as far as Andre was concerned, nobody but Shelly could keep time. He had him all over the country, and all over Europe. It wasn't really a surprise. Shelly was kind of a house mother. On Stan's band, he was not quiet about things he didn't like the band doing. He was outspoken. Nobody else said a word. Well, Buddy Childers had a big mouth. Shelly, we all figured, was a very, very, very talented fellow, and Andre was right.
"Talking about time, and the studios, I'll tell you a story about Ray Brown, and I wouldn't if he were still with us. At a certain midpoint in my Hollywood career, I got a call from Columbia Pictures, and I saw on the podium Quincy Jones, who was by now very well established."
"With the writing of Billy Byers behind him," I said.
"Mostly," Milt said. "But by the time I did this picture, Billy Byers and he had split. Billy told me while we were doing the Jerry Lewis show. Billy was writing an arrangement for somebody else while we were doing the show. The trombone section was one for the books. Me, Frank Rosolino, Billy Byers, and Kenny Shroyer on bass trombone. Byers brought his homework, and was writing arrangements for other people. In pen and ink."
"Yeah," I said. "On Dachon."[Similar to the crowquill paper that cartoonist use to make their pen and ink drawings.]
"He loved to show off," Milt said. "I said, 'Is this for Quincy?'
"He said, 'No, we're through.'
"I said,'Really? What's up.'
"He said, 'Well, something I thought I should have had a credit on.'
"I said, 'Well, I've heard a little of that. That's a drag. But obviously, you're not hurting."
"He said, 'No, but I thought we were better friends.'
"Anyway, I had this picture call with Quincy, and it was a Carey Grant movie. There was little or no jazz. It called for a lot of comedy cues. But somebody said, 'Hey, Ray Brown's on this call.' I said, 'What?' Ray had until shortly before been with Oscar Peterson for years. I guess it got into Down Beat that he was going to settle on the West Coast. Word got around fast among bass players. I heard that one of them said, 'Does he have to come here?
"And Ray immediately got everything. On this date, there were two or three bass players, because they've got legit cues. Everybody's looking at Ray with total adoration. I didn't know him well enough to go over and say hello.
"First cue, Quincy probably picked on purpose. He was so proud, he was beaming, that Ray was there. At Cue M-l, he said, 'Ray, this is yours.' This kind of music, a lot of the time, got done to click track. They've got cues to meet. And Quincy never could do that. He's got time, to be sure. He can snap his fingers in good time, he can do that. But to conduct an orchestra to meet cues on screen, he got the message early and he used click tracks. This cue began with eight bars of walking bass, alone. So they start the clicks, eight in front, and Ray plays. And he's rushing. We all hear the clicks, and we hear him. After a bar of playing walking bass, he's into the third bar. Another Previn. So the lights go on. And Quincy is going to excuse it. He's protective. He says to the sound cutter, 'Are the clicks on, or what?' Not too friendly. The cutter said, 'Oh yeah, didn't everybody hear it?' Everybody said, 'Yes.' Quincy said, 'Check your plugs, Ray,' doing his best to protect him. We go again. And Ray is even faster. He was a little nervous.
It's hard to think of Ray as nervous, but he was."
I reminded Milt of what John Clayton had recounted at Ray's funeral, which we had attended only a week or two earlier. When John, as one of Ray's young students, told him he wanted to do studio work, Ray unleashed a stream of profanity and said, 'Listen, studio work is ninety-five percent bullshit and five percent terror."
"It's true," Milt said. "Anyway, that cue never got done. It got passed. Quincy said, 'I've got to fix it up,' standing in the way of anyone faulting Ray. But everybody heard it.
"I don't know whether he went to somebody, or somebody like Shelly with Andre and took him in hand — and Ray was close friends with Shelly. Maybe Shelly said, 'Ray, you're rushing,' and 'rushing' wasn't the word. The time came when I worked with him again. And I noticed immediately. We were doing click tracks again, and he was on it. It was really the run-out from Oscar. Oscar could go."
I said, "In some of the London House live recordings, there's some rushing going on. But they did have the capacity to generate tremendous excitement."
"If they weren't playing time, to click-tracks. Herb Ellis [guitarist] was with them for a long time, and I don't think of Herb as a runner."
"Roger Kellaway said to me once, 'A lot of guitar players have flaky time.' I said, 'What do you mean by flaky time?'
And after a short reflection, he said, 'Well, they rush.' And Herb Ellis never rushed."
Milt said, "I think Herb held them."
"Now," I said, "how did you go into the travel business?"
Milt said, "In the early '70s, I began to read the handwriting on the wall. Fewer movies with large orchestras. By that time rock was everywhere. And the synthesizers. A guy named Paul Beaver was the first in town, with a synthesizer that took almost half the stage. And that's funny now. And it didn't sound like anything. But they were starting to use him more. All the guitar players were finding devices. And when the producers, especially the younger ones, discovered they could get the music much cheaper, they did it. There were spells where I didn't get a picture call for six months. Record dates, the trail ends. The only thing that kept us working were television variety shows. I did a string of them, the Jerry Lewis Show, which went for a couple of years and paid the bills, and Hollywood Palace, which had a very good band. And the most unlikely one of all, I got a call for the Glenn Campbell Show, which ran for three years. And the bandleader, you would never guess in a million years, was Marty Paich. He hit it off with Glenn. We never played much. Long tones. Marty didn't know a thing about sound chambers in the trombone. We had to play a lot of French horn notes, and almost always had to move the slide a mile. Most arrangers and composers had no idea. They taught themselves. So I worked with Marty for a couple or three years. It was basically cowboy music. Toward the end of the run, Sarah Vaughan was a guest, I can't imagine how. Marty had never written a note for her, and you never saw anyone more excited. And from that performance, he began to do a lot of her material, record dates, concerts, the Hollywood Bowl. He became a madman because Sarah was going to be there next week. And he wrote well. Marty was very good for the job, doing the job no matter what the music was, and if he saw anybody snickering, Get out. We're paying you.
"And also, he was very good for a certain kind of West Coast time jazz. But for strings, he surprised me. He had studied. Most of the arrangers had played with bands like Goodman or Kenton or Charlie Barnet and didn't know strings."
I said, "I remember Andre told me once that somebody wrote as if he thought strings were the world's biggest saxophone section."
Milt laughed, and then said, "Anyway, the work began to trail off. I wasn't out of business but it was nothing like it had been."
"How much did you work at the peak?"
"I'm getting a yearly payment for films that are now on television. It's a producer's share of a share. So it isn't big, but if you did a lot, it ends up money. So I look at the list, and think, I didn't do this! How could I? Let me read some of it to you. It's six pages. Airport, All the President's Men, Alvarez Kelly, American Beauty. How come? Because they used a record I was on. That got into the union contract, due to pressure from the guys here. Assault on a Queen, Back Street, Bad News Bears — with Jerry Fielding — Bad News Bears Breaking Training, The Ballad of Josie, Beach Red, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Big Mouth Billy Jack, Big Mama White Mama, Bless the Beasts and the Children, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Bullit, The Busybody, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cahill U.S. Marshall, Cancel My Reservation, The Carpetbaggers, Cat Ballou, Chisholm, The Cincinnati Kid. I'll stop here. That's alphabetical."
"But as I said, my date book was looking thin. So I began to look for a business. But what kind of business? There was a travel agency at Hollywood and Vine, Kelly Travel Service. It caught my eye. I thought, 'Why don't I talk to the lady who owns it?' And I said to her right out, 'What does it take to set up a travel business?' She said, 'You don't want to start from the bottom up. You want one that is in operation and has a couple of employees. What do you do?' I told her, and she was impressed, and she said a lot of her clients were people in film production. She was getting old, wanted to retire, but she hadn't started looking. She said she had a couple of employees that I should keep if I bought her business. And she figured that I could do it. I said, 'I've never been in business.' But I figured I'd better give it a go, because I couldn't see myself in the music business for much longer. New people were coming in, and they were all rock people.
"We talked some more, and I looked at her books, and brought in a lawyer friend, and she said, 'Make me an offer.' Her business was very good. She had companies in production at Paramount and especially United Artists. One thing I didn't learn until I took the business was that they don't pay you right away.
"After two weeks as the owner of a travel agency, I was looking at accounts receivable. And I realized that I'd be finished if I didn't get the money. And they were people like United Artists. I spent three or four days making the rounds of these companies, and I'd worked in pictures for ages. But I always got a check: there was a union. But now I don't have a union. I'm a vendor. They certainly used my tickets. And they liked to travel first class. I had names that we all know. Robert de Niro. You'd never heard his name at that time. First job that we had for a picture company was Godfather II. I did some fast talking to the treasurer of each company, and they didn't want to pay, because they had been trained to hold back on everybody they could. That's part of film production: you pay those you have to. And if you never need to pay the others, don't. And I fell into that category. So I was lucky enough to get what was owed me, which was five figures, big ones, the first two weeks I was in business. And I could have been tempted to continue.
"Now somebody calls me from James Bond. They're going to go to the Orient. It meant a lot of tickets and a lot of money. And I said, 'No.' And the man said, 'What? We've been dealing with your company!' I said, 'No, no, no. Sorry. You'll have to put money down in front, more than half — three quarters.' And they didn't want to do that, and word got around fast in the picture business."
"And you lost the studio business?"
"All of it. Now I kept my mouth shut among my friends in music. You know that if a guy gets into another business, real estate or something, it's the last thing guys want to hear. If you hand cards out at studio calls, it's a mistake. It says to them, 'Obviously he's panicked, and I won't use his business.'
"Irv Cottler [drummer] figured he was through with music. He wasn't getting many calls. So he bought a liquor store in the San Fernando Valley. But he didn't know enough to get a no-compete clause in his contract. And the fellow opened up another store across the street. And it killed the business. He had put fifty or a hundred G's into stock. Word was that Irv was getting ready to do himself in. His wife was frantic. But Frank Sinatra heard about it. I don't think Irv told him — he wouldn't. Frank said, 'What's the matter?' Irv told him. Frank said, 'Do you want to work for me? I'll pay you so much.' And that's how it started with Irv Cottier and Frank.
"It never got to that with me. We had other clients. In the building there were a couple of insurance companies, a number of lawyers. I began to realize that I shouldn't hand them a bill, I should ask for a credit card. Otherwise I'm supplying money for travel. A few musicians asked me to send them a bill. One of them owed me a couple of thousand bucks for a year.
"Ray Brown heard I was in this business and called me. He said, 'You mail the bill to . ..." I said, 'No I don't.' He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Ray, I can't have bills flopping around your office.' And you had to see his office: there was paper everywhere. He said, 'What do I have to do?' I said, 'You've got credit cards?' He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well that way it's paid to me immediately, and you won't be sent a bill for a while.' We went that way for the rest of our time together, which lasted until he died in Indianapolis .
"I was crossing Vine Street one day, and Benny Carter was crossing the other way. He walks me to my side of the street and says, 'Give me your card.' I hadn't seen him in ages, but I had worked a couple of studio calls with him. I said, 'I don't think I should. I don't want to solicit you, Benny. That's not what I do.' He said, 'Gimme the card!' just like that. And we began to transport him around. Mainly where he went was Copenhagen, South America, Europe. And he was then in his seventies. Actually, he went somewhere not too long ago.
"I became more and more a musician's travel agent. After a while, the wives began to know me. After I got the travel business, I kept my mouth shut and continued to get studio work. My son David runs the business now."
"And you run the Big Band Academy of America. How did that come about?"
"After I started in travel, a man knocked on the door and introduced himself as Leo Walker. He was a salesman for a paint company. But his lifelong passion was big bands. He wasn't a musician. He wondered what I thought about starting an organization that remembered.
"We went to lunch a couple of times. He wanted to get musicians and singers to join together once a year, and if it really hit it off, more than once a year, have a dinner, and talk about old times. I thought it was not a bad idea.
"We had the first meeting in the back of a restaurant in Tolucca Lake, maybe seventy-five people. The bandleaders ran the gamut. One was Les Brown. Another was Alvino Rey. I wondered why Leo never asked the jazz-band leaders. Stan was in town. Leo was looking for the great old names of yesteryear. Some Mickey Mouse. Art Kassel was one. He showed up, and Lawrence Welk, and Johnny Green. Johnny told the jokes at a dais.
"After about three years they moved it to the Sportsman's Lodge, which could accommodate six or seven hundred, although we never got more than three hundred. A dais but no band. Once Steve Allen was called in as emcee. The first thing he said was, 'How can you have a big-band reunion with no band?' The place came apart. Leo Walker was afraid of the bands. But he had a board of directors now, a nonprofit organization, hoping to get a newsletter, and draw people from around the country.
"A couple of years went by and I went to these get-togethers. Billy May would be there. Nelson Riddle didn't like the idea and he wouldn't go. I said, If you want the era back, you have to settle for everything that went with it. World War II, the Holocaust, the stock-market crash, the Depression.
"Most nostalgia people would settle for that. And I steered clear of it. And one day, Leo Walker said, 'I'm kind of sick, and I'm leaving town and I'm going to dissolve the organization.' Mainly at our board meetings we're sitting around listening to Leo Walker talk about Glenn Miller. And not even Glenn Miller. Blue Barren. And members of the board were people I had recommended. Billy May, Frank De Vol, Gilda Mahon who had sung with vocal groups.
"But on this afternoon that he was going to dissolve the organization, the board of directors didn't like that. They looked around. Is anybody interested in taking it over? Frank De Vol looked at me blankly. Wally Heider looked at me and said, 'Why not you?'
"I said, 'I've got a business. I really can't afford to do this.' Before the lunch was over, I began to think that maybe I could change the direction of the organization. And I could get up and say something — I've got an ego, like everyone — and also say something about those who never got a peep. We could do an afternoon or evening honoring somebody. Leo Walker had a baby over this. He tried to get a petition to prevent it. And so I began a newsletter in 1975-ish. I was going to do a mailing to everyone who wanted to join.
"I got it up to about three mailings a year, two pages.
"The membership is now two thirds out of town, just this side of five hundred members.
"I started to call local players and house bands. I tried it with Les Brown once. I started with Bob Florence. I had Bill Holman. We've done Billy May. We did Johnny Mandel. A band doesn't get a chance to play those things very often. Barnet's book is worth playing again. And Woody's."
Milt, then, is involved in honoring the music of an era of which he was a ubiquitous and invaluable part. Few men in music have had the scope of experience of Milt Bernhart, now seventy-six. It's odd to think of meeting him so long ago, when a boy of fifteen got the autograph of a boy of seventeen and each of them was embarking on a long journey.”