Friday, May 24, 2024

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

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


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


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


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


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




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




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

("Farewell Blues" The New Casa Lorna Orch) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MB: Oh, was it? Good! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

("Moten Swing')  

DE: Did you ever meet Andy Kirk? 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DE: That was Junior Mance, of course. 

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

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

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

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

DE: Did you play with Murray MacEachen? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Thanks to Derek Edwards for sharing this memorable evening with us 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.