October 1, 2011

Tales of the Big Bands: Sidemen Stories

The previous parts of our Tales of the Big Bands focused on Ellington and Basie. In my opinion, Duke Ellington and his band represented the pinnacle of big band composition while Count Basie and his men achieved the essence of swing. I am constantly amazed, when I listen and read about the swing era, at the number of bands that existed and managed to find work, and the players who literally engaged in musical chairs, moving from one band to the next. Our last installment on big bands features a sampling of sidemen anecdotes and perhaps will include your favorite big band.

We’ll start out with arguably the most popular big band of all, the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Saxophonist Jerry Jerome was with Glenn’s band in 1937, a short-lived group that broke up and then reformed without Jerry. He never enjoyed the hits and the popularity of the second Miller band, but has no regrets:

JJ: George Simon had given me an A minus rating in the band [with the Cliquot Club Eskimos]. He said “George Seravo and Jerry Jerome would be the outstanding players in the band.”

MR: You mean in print he had done this?

JJ: Yeah. He was the editor of Metronome Magazine. So Glenn came over and said he liked my playing and would I like to join the band. I said “Glenn, what does it pay?” Because I was still interested in going back to medical school. He says “$45 a week.” I said “that’s that I’m getting with Harry Reiser.” And I couldn’t see any advancement that way. He says “yeah, we’re going to grow and I’m recording next week.” I says “really?” “Yeah” he says “recording at Decca.” “Oh, that sounds pretty good to me.” So I made my decision, I left Harry and went with Glenn. And this is a cute story, Monk. I went into the studio to record the first thing with Glenn. And I got to recognize some of the musicians: Manny Klein, Charlie Spivak, Will Bradley. This is the kind of players. I says “oh my God what am I doing here?” And Glenn says “now Jerry in ‘I Got Rhythm’ would you take 32 bars?” “Wow. I’m playing jazz? Hey, this is it. It’s worth the 45 bucks.” And I played my first record with Glenn with “I Got Rhythm,” with Hal MacIntyre. We were the only two people that had been with the new group that Glenn had gotten up, and I couldn’t figure what I was doing with this band, until I got up to Raymour Ballroom to rehearse for opening that job, there wasn’t any of these guys, just Hal and myself, and all new players. I said to Glenn “what happened to Charlie Spivak and Manny Klein?” “Oh” he says “they’re buddies of mine you know, and I wanted to make a real good record for my first big band record.” So he said they came in.

MR: He got the ringers.

JJ: I didn’t know. And then we went to work. And it was work.

MR: He was a task master?

JJ: Oh, unbelievable. I didn’t mind, you know it was all new for me you know. He was a task master but he wanted perfection. And he was also struggling for an identity. You know in those days, band leaders had identity, a hook.

MR: A sound.

JJ: A sound, something. You know even a guy like Kay Kayser would ... his sound was his personality. Just introducing the band, “Here comes sassy Sully Mason to sing a tune.” But that was how you could identify him. Or Shep Fields blowing water through a straw, you know a bubbling rhythm. Whatever pleases. And Glenn had trouble. He was not a trombone player like Tommy Dorsey. In fact he was rather pedestrian I thought. You know I didn’t think his jazz amounted to very much. And proof is, he never really fronted with his trombone, playing. He would lead the band up front and go back and play with the section. And so he had to use his arranging acumen.

MR: Because he wasn’t a really outgoing type personality, right? So he couldn’t push that part of it.

JJ: Oh, not at all. But Glenn was a great learning experience. I learned what playing notes properly is and how to really play by the mark. Glenn would say “crescendo — diminuendo” and he says “keep it under — keep it above.” But one thing that comes to mind that’s so cute, when I played my solo for “I Got Rhythm” with Glenn, I listened to it and it’s a chorus and you know you can do a thousand of those on a recording, you never do the same thing, you’re improvising, you know. So we went out on our first one nighter after we did our recording somewhere along the line, and I got out and played, and played a totally different chorus, which is a soloist’s preference I would think. Glenn came over to me and he said “Jerry, when you stand up and play your solo, I wish you’d play the one that’s on the record.” I said “why?” He says “well” he says “I consider that part of the arrangement. People expect it. They buy the record and they expect to hear that.” Oh, wow.

MR: I sometimes wonder, some of those classic trumpet solos in some of the Miller arrangements, were they improvised first and then someone actually wrote them out? You know like in “String of Pearls?” Even though it might have been improvised first, it became a part of the arrangements.

JJ: Without question. There have been a lot of Miller bands that have come along the line and I notice that most of them that stand up, play the solos that are on the record. And I think that’s for identity. It makes it sound more like the Miller band. So he had a point. But the Part B of that statement is when I joined Benny Goodman, and I got up and stood up and played “Undecided” on a one nighter, and I played what I’d played on the record, and Benny came over to me and he said “did you like what you played on the record?” “Oh,” I said “thank you, Benny.” Yeah. See that’s the difference. Benny didn’t — you know.

MR: Glenn Miller was not jazz band per se, it was more of a dance.

JJ: Yeah. And the best. Really he was great. His tempos were great, and he strove for an audience reaction too. What do you like? What can I play for you?

MR: Well you went from one tough leader to another with Benny Goodman.

JJ: Well that’s a relative word, Monk, “tough.” Because they weren’t tough as far as I’m concerned. I understood Glenn. I was a confidante of Glenn’s. Glenn and I were close. I might tell you this it’s an interesting bit of history from my point of view, and that is I stayed with Glenn until he broke the band up. I think it was New Year’s Eve that we had our last gig. And he said “I’ll call you when I reorganize.” He had to get some more money and get his second band started. He called me three months later in March, and I met him at the Rialto Bar in New York. I’ll never forget that, on 49th Street, which is sort of Musician’s Alley at that time. All the hotels where the musicians stayed and the bars and all of that you know, sort of a little place. And Glenn said “I’m reorganizing and I’d like to have you come back. But” he says “I want you to be a third partner with me and Chummy MacGregor” the piano player. He says “we’ll draw the same salary, put up a car, split gasoline ... the third bona fide partner.” And I had just joined Red Norvo. And I loved that band. Just a small band, I think it was nine men, but it had a lot of tenor saxophone playing, and playing with Glenn was very restrictive, it was reading a lot of music, and an occasional 32 bars, but he’d never let a guy blow. In other words if he’s cooking, forget about it, it was never a situation like that. I turned him down. And he was very crestfallen. He asked if I would come and rehearse the saxes for him at the studio that night, which I did. And in the sax section there was a kid who came out from I think Detroit at that time, was Tex Benecke. And he took my place in the section. And he was the right guy for that band, without question. He did better by getting Tex.

When I interviewed saxophonist and arranger Dave Pell in 1996 I could tell that he was a bit of a cut-up, a man who never lacked in confidence or the willingness to take a chance. Much of his early career was spent with a lower tier of big bands, but he and his sidemen always wanted them to sound as polished as possible. Their efforts to ensure this could even include upstaging the leader.

DP: Oh, it was fun. But a lot of players that you play with, I was in Bobby Sherwood’s band and I took Zoot Simms’ place. He moved to first alto and I played his tenor chair. Well I’m sitting next to Zoot all night. I mean what could be bad about that? We’re both kids you know. This was in the ‘40’s. And I quit the band I was with in the ‘40’s and stayed on the West Coast and got the job in the relief band. And Stan Getz, myself, you know, great players were sitting in the relief band, a Latin band. And we’re having a great time. But you’re learning from the guy, like Stan was the greatest dressing room player that ever lived. He’d get out front and he’d choke.

MR: No kidding?

DP: Oh he was terrible. He was so insecure and such an introvert that he couldn’t get up like me, no, I don’t give a damn, I’m going to get up and play you know.

MR: For our students that will watch this, can you explain relief band?

DP: A relief band is — the main attraction has got to go out and get a 20 minute break, and you had to have a live band on stage. And usually a different kind of band so that you could do the rumba, like we had a Latin band playing a Four Brothers type tenor book. And then we’d play Freddie Martin style and then we’d play Latin and then we’d do this and then the other bands, whoever the name band was at The Palladium, which was every four or five weeks, we’d just sit there and said hello the guys and you know it was great. But I stayed in L.A. and I didn’t have to go on the road so I really enjoyed it.

MR: And then you went with Tony Pastor later on?

DP: No I was with Tony Pastor getting there. And the story about Tony Pastor, I get to California and I say, “Gee Tony, this is great. Good-bye. I’m quitting.” He says ‘you can’t leave me in L.A., this is wilderness. There’s no guys.” I said “Good-bye.” And so he says “well stay with me until we leave California and then you can quit. So six weeks later I left the band. But I had fun with Tony because I’d run out the microphone to beat him to his own solos. Because he didn’t really like to play. But the only way I could get to play was to be a cocky kid and run up to the mike when he’s ready to play and I’m up there playing already. “Sorry, Tony.”

MR: Sounds like you didn’t lack for self confidence.

DP: Oh, no, I was a smart ass, it was just terrible. But that’s kind of a thing that you have to do. It’s almost like the sidemen on the band, they keep watching the leader. And watching all the mistakes he makes. And all the wrong things he does. Because in the back of his mind, I’m going to be a leader some day and I ain’t never gonna put myself — I mean Les Brown, I had a great time with Lester’s band and played on every tune, you know I had a great book to play, and we had [Don] Fagerquist and all the good players. And I remember as I went out every time to play a solo out front, we’d just didn’t stand up, we’d go out front — show biz. And I remember kicking over Lester’s horn at least once a night. “Oh, I tripped, ohhh, I’m so sorry, Oh, Les I’ll fix it later.” Well he didn’t play too well. And we didn’t like him playing in the band with us, because the saxes sounded so good. But when he played he played awful. And so if his horn didn’t work, he wouldn’t play. And Les after years and years he finally figured out I was doing it on purpose. You know, “I’m so clumsy, Les, I’m sorry.” But I was kicking over his horn so he wouldn’t play. Terrible, terrible. But I always wanted to be a leader and you know, even in the worst way, you want to be a leader somehow, and you want to be able to so “no, no, my tempo.” And then the drummer in the back says “no, Dave, that’s the wrong tempo, you’ve got to kick it up here.”

MR: Well when you became a leader I assume you kept your horn out of the way.

An elderly gentleman who often comes to my gigs goes into his own bit of heaven when I fill his request for “Intermission Riff.” He never fails to tell anybody around him that Stan Kenton was a genius. The Stan Kenton Orchestra probably was the most controversial of all big bands. Stan’s idea of what a big band should sound like didn’t necessarily include the basic parameters that were normally expected. Trombonist Eddie Bert spent time with Kenton and was shocked to learn what Stan wanted and didn’t want from his band:

MR: I wanted to play a little piece here — see if it jogs your memory.
[audio interlude]

EB: Well I know it’s Stan’s band.

MR: Yeah.

EB: It’s probably Maynard.

MR: “Cuban Carnival.”

EB: Oh yeah.

MR: And you’re on this, I think around ’46 or so.

EB: No, it must have been ’47.

MR: Okay.

EB: I joined him in ’47.

MR: All right. ’47. What did you think of his music?

EB: Well he featured trombones. That’s why I wanted to go with that band. And he was very popular. I mean guys were poll winners in the band, like Shelly Manne and Art Pepper. So I figured well let me go. Because Kai [Winding] had done great on the band and Kai and I were friends. So I went with the band. And it was like a family that band. He was a great guy to work for.

MR: Some people didn’t think he swung very good.

EB: No. That he didn’t. One night we played in Mankato, Minnesota. Mankato Ballroom. And generally Stan would like spread out. But this night the bandstand was small. So we were like this. And the band started swinging. And of course we all wanted to swing. So the band was swinging and he stopped it. He said “this is not Basie. This is Stan Kenton.” So we were looking at each other like — damn.

MR: That’s really curious.

EB: Yeah I don’t know, he just didn’t understand swinging.

MR: I never thought about it backwards though, I mean like at that point how would you stop swinging?

EB: I know. We all looked at each other like what is he talking about. I mean Shelly is a swinger. You know, Shelly Manne. Well we always used to go out after the gig and go blow somewhere, wherever we were. But when you get on the bandstand it was Stan Kenton.

MR: But people who came to Kenton expecting to dance, was that a problem?

EB: We used to play the “Concerto to End All Concertos” and that was like all different tempos. And I swear I’d see people dancing. I don’t know what they were doing but they were dancing. You know you’d have the crowd in the front they were all standing there, and then in the back would be people dancing. Well maybe they caught the changes, I don’t know.

MR: Interesting.

EB: But his band was very popular. He had like a machine. In other words, he had a guy that would go out a month in advance and set everything up, have pictures in all the music stores, have the records. It was his advance man. Then Stan would leave after the gig, wherever we were, he’d have his car, and he’d leave and do interviews and be on the radio in whatever city we were in, and it was like a machine. So it all kept rolling like that.

There certainly was rivalry between the big bands during the swing era. The competition for gigs and for the best sidemen were much like sports teams are today. Two of the most celebrated big bands were, interestingly enough, led by clarinet players. Their playing could be distinguished from one another, but they did share a certain lack of social grace. Trumpeter John Best is one of those musicians who made the rounds in almost all the best big bands. He was not a man who took kindly to insults, and may have landed in the wrong spot with Artie Shaw. He also speaks about the power of the Musicians Union during the big band era. George Simon’s influence in advancing a musician’s career is again shown here:

JB: I also enrolled in Duke that fall [1932] and I stayed there six weeks and left again. But Les [Brown] graduated from Duke four years later. In the meantime I went back to Chapel Hill, ten miles away, at the University, the campus. And I was playing with Les’ band and also a campus band, and that was the end of my schooling after that. I wound up going to Chicago in 1936 with some fellows that I had met with the Biagini band in Savannah, Georgia. Hank Biagini had a band down there. And I came down to join the band, but I had laid off for three weeks and I had no endurance. So I didn’t get the job. But I met all those guys — they were the nucleus of a band that was organized in Chicago that fall. That would be 1936. It was a pretty good band. It was reviewed. We played Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook. I got an honorable mention write-up by George Simon, and Glenn Miller was with George Simon and they came in there and that was the first time I’d met Glenn. I had heard him before and seen him before. But they heard me play and it was favorable mention.

MR: The first time that your name showed up in print as far as the music magazine?

JB: Yeah. And that band broke up at the end of ‘36. So I decided I’d try to get a New York card. You have to sit out six months time, residence. You are eligible to work after three months, certain type of work. So you’ve got to sweat it out. Well I was sweating it out for three months. And I got a knock on the door and a trumpet player that I had played with, Biagini. He had Artie Shaw with him. Well I had heard of Artie Shaw, in fact I had a record that I had bought of Artie Shaw, with strings on it, and Peg LaCentra sang the vocal on it. And a song called “I’ll Remember” I think it was. And Artie said he was organizing a new band. And he had had string bands and lost a lot of money on it, because the people just wouldn’t go for it. He was going to organize a band with the same instrumentation as Benny. And he had an opening for another trumpet. So I said well — maybe I shouldn’t say all this, Artie might listen.

MR: Please, do.

JB: Anyway well I’ll go ahead with it. I said “Artie, I’ve been here three months, you know, starving. And I don’t want to lose the three months time.” He said “I’m a personal friend of Jacob” — I don’t remember his name — the President of the New York Local [Musicians Union]. He said “I’ll see that your time goes on.

MR: Because if you left New York, then you’d lose your three months? Is that the idea?

JB: Right. If they pull that card out, the union card out, your transfer card. So I said well that’s fine you know. Well at the end of the six months, I asked the manager for my card. He pulled it out and it said withdrawn, March 31st. So that kind of upset me a little bit. It was a while there that I was pretty angry at Mr. Shaw. And in September of that year I left Artie and I went back to North Carolina.

MR: So you never at that point got into the New York Local. Because they just pulled your card and you had to start over?

JB: Well in a way I’m glad I didn’t because the way it turned out it was good. And you get mad — I got mad at Artie. He had a recording date and this was in the 1937 band, September. And I’d been in that band too. But after the union card thing, I was not too friendly. So he had one of those transcription dates in New York. Like we’d play in Wildwood, New Jersey, and there was a new tune out, I can’t remember the name of it, and my part had the release on the tune. So I played it, and the saxophone player, a good friend, Freddie Petrie, he turned around and gave me the “yeah!” you know, encouraging. I got through, sat down, and at the end of the thing Shaw said “John, is that the best you can play that?” I said “Artie” — at that time it was my best attempt. He said “I’ll play that tomorrow on the recording.” And I said “well, as of right now, Artie, you can play every other solo I have in the book.” And that kind of shook him up. He said “well what does that mean?” I said “two weeks or tonight, any way you want, either way I’ll leave tonight.” And I did leave in two weeks. I went back to North Carolina. Eight months, I worked in a furniture store and did local, you know, playing around Charlotte, Spartanburg, and a couple of colleges there. Eight months, and Artie had told me and some of those guys that I didn’t hear enough of the early Louis Armstrongs, which I didn’t. And meantime I had bought a lot of those records and listened to them and I finally realized what they were talking about. Like “Wild Man Blues” and all those old things. So I wrote Artie a letter somewhere in that time. He called me up and said “do you want to come back?” So I did, I went back to join him in Boston, to Roseland Square Ballroom I think. Billie Holiday was in the band. And I stayed in that band until I joined the Glenn Miller band. Three or more years.

Drummer Sonny Igoe could be listed as the definition of a journeyman musician. He held down the drum chair in many of the best bands of the era, reminding us that very few big band musicians ever got close to being rich. Sonny relates his experience with the other great clarinet player, Benny Goodman:

SI: I can remember when I started with Benny Goodman’s band, now we’re talking 19 — what would that be, — 19 —

MR: ‘48?

SI: ’48 and ’49. That’s right. I was going to say ’47. And there’s a long story concerned with this, and it’s the thing I told you before. You can’t do anything alone. Somebody’s got to help you. So I had come off the road playing with three what we would call back in those days B bands. They weren’t like the Benny Goodman or that sort of thing. They were like a guy named Tommy Reed who had a band that was made up of all ex-servicemen. I went out to San Francisco to play with him. And then I was with Les Elgart’s band at the Meadowbrook, and then I was with a lady bandleader named Ina Ray Hutton, I don’t know if you ever heard of her. She used to have a girl band but now she had a guy band. And then all those jobs fizzled out and then from one to another you get a call, “would you like to audition for Ina Ray Hutton?” Sure, because I don’t have a gig. And I wasn’t married yet or anything like that. So those bands, Tommy Reed, Ina Ray Hutton and Les Elgart were 90 dollar bands. That’s a week on the road with hotels and meals you had to pay your own.

MR: You had to pay your own.

SI: Yeah. And you know you wonder, 90 bucks, how did I ever do that? So okay now a long thing goes on, and I know that Benny Goodman is rehearsing a new band. And I had also heard that he was getting a drummer every day. He didn’t like anybody. So guys were telling me — there used to be a hangout in New York called Charlie’s Tavern, where everybody used to go because beers were a nickel and we could hang around there, drink beer, lie, you know tell a lot of lies. So anyway, this guy goes “hey Sonny, you ought to go up to Benny’s rehearsal” he said “he’s having trouble finding somebody he likes.” I said “he’ll probably hire Shelly Manne or somebody like that.” But I thought about it and it came to me that I had the acquaintance of a man who was an insurance executive who was a friend of Benny Goodman’s. He loved musicians. He loved to talk to us and all that kind of stuff. So I asked him. His name was Eddie Furst. And I said “Ed, do you think you could introduce me to Benny Goodman so I could audition?” He said “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that, I’ll call him.” So he called me the next day and said “we’re going up Thursday at 11:00” or whatever the heck it was. Right? So he takes me and we go up there and he’s rehearsing at MCA in New York. They had an auditorium. And they were rehearsing in there. And I had a very good ear. I memorize very quickly, luckily. It’s another lucky thing, you can’t teach it. So anyway we go up there and the band in playing and they were rehearsing this one tune three or four times through, five or six times through, whatever. And I’m listening to it. And I’m getting that down pretty good already, and I’ll see if I can play that tune. But you never know, you might have to go up there and sight read. So anyway I could read passably. But anyway they take a break. And so Benny said “Eddie, how are you?” And he comes over and shakes his hand. And he says “this is the young man I was telling you about, Benny.” And he said “oh, nice to meet you Sonny,” he said “why don’t you play the next set,” he says. He says “we’ll take a ten minute break” or something like that and he says “you play the next set.” The drummer was from Philadelphia and he was very inexperienced. Scared to death. Not that I wasn’t nervous, Benny Goodman, my God, this was a whole new strata for me. And this kid, I don’t think he played with anybody. But anyway he was so accommodating. I said “do you mind if I use your drums to play the next set” or something. He said “oh please” he said “please.” And we introduced ourselves and all that kind of stuff. A very nice guy. But he wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t sure I was, you know because I was going like this [taps], but I knew several guys in the band from Charlie’s Tavern and around town. So anyway okay I sit in. And they play that tune that I had sat through five or six times. And I had the part up, like I pretend I’m reading it. And so anyway I didn’t have to really read much of it, it wasn’t that complex, but there was a couple of starts and stops and a few things in it. And I went through it [claps] just like that. So Benny looked up like this. And he said “stay up there, Pops.”

MR: Pops. He called you Pops already.

SI: Everybody. Yeah he called everybody Pops. So anyway he says “stay up there, Pops.” So anyway I stayed up there and I played a few more tunes I got lucky enough to get through. And then he said “okay, everybody’s through, we’ll play with the quartet.” So he said “stay up there, Pops.” So Buddy Greco was the piano player and Benny, and bass player was a fellow named Clyde Lombardi. And so we played with just a small group for about an hour. And so then he packed up and walked out. He didn’t say a word to me, that was it. So oh he did say “come back tomorrow, bring your own drums in.” Something like that. So I go back tomorrow, and then I played the whole rehearsal. And then again at the end he goes through the small band, because he loved playing with the small group too. And we played that. And so it’s going on three weeks now. And I get a call from another clarinet player, a guy named Jerry Wald. You ever hear that name? Anyway he was going into the Paramount Theater. And he asked me if I’d be interested in doing the Paramount with him. And I said “I’m rehearsing with Benny.” He said “well did he hire you yet?” I said “I’ve been doing it for three weeks he hasn’t said a word.” He says “well listen, I can give you another couple of days and then I’ll have to get somebody else. He says, “but the job is yours if you want it.” And I said “okay, thank you, very nice of you.” So anyway the next day I’m at rehearsal with Benny, right? Now Benny used to walk around as I call tooteling all the time. He’d go [scats]. And he comes up to me and gives me a nudge, and he’s tooteling. Like this. He says “get your suit yet, Pops?” And I said “what do you mean get my suit yet?” He says, “you know, your uniform.” Because the band was going to Sacks Fifth Avenue for tuxedo coats. So I said no. He said “why don’t you get your uniform?” I said “nobody told me I was hired.” He said “nobody told you you were hired? You were hired the first day.” He said “nobody said anything?” I said “no, you never said anything.” He said “he’s supposed to — where’s what’s his name —” the manager. “Come up here. Talk to him.” So okay. Now the big decision of my life comes up, right? So the guy says “oh Sonny it was my fault,” he says, “I apologize.” He said “you got the job” and he said “you’ve got to get your uniform.” And he said “now how much money do you want?” Nobody ever asked me that before. Right? I can remember Gene Krupa saying “if you ever play with Benny Goodman he respects you if you ask for a lot of money.” But I didn’t feel as though I was that secure you know. But that ran through my mind. So I had come from these, like I said, these 90 dollar bands. Never made more than 90 bucks a week. So I kind of haltingly said “how about 125?” He says “well I think we can make that.” And I could almost hear him going chuckle-chuckle-chuckle. So anyway that’s the way that went. I was the lowest paid guy in the band. I would have swept out the bus, I don’t care. But I spent a year with Benny until he broke up the band. I spent a year with him. And I really felt as though I learned a lot, I came a long way experience-wise and how to really play in a band and gee to have somebody as good as him. A lot of guys said he used to be very bad on a lot of people. But he never once said anything to me about my playing. He never said you’re playing too loud, you’re rushing, you’re dragging, you’re doing this, you’re doing that. Never said anything. So that put me over the top from the standpoint of having to audition with other bands if I went with — so I went from Benny Goodman to Woody Herman, you know and that was my next step. But it was funny in those days the way everybody said you’ve got to watch “boy you’re working for Benny — did you get ‘the ray’ yet?” I have a story about “the ray” if you’re interested.

MR: I am.

SI: The thing is that he would, he even said to us one night at the Palladium in Hollywood he says “you’ve heard a lot about the ray” he says “I’m not really mad at anybody.” He said “sometimes I daydream and my mind wanders and I just happen to be looking in somebody’s direction. I’m not trying to stare them down or anything like that.” So now we’re in Canada doing a whole string of one-nighters in the hockey rinks. They used to put the boards down on the ice so people could dance, and then they would build this tremendous movie set for the band. They’d have the saxes down here and each section up. The drums were like up there. Way up at the top. You couldn’t hear anything. You couldn’t hear the band you were so far away. And so and Benny’s down there. So we play the first set and Benny, he’s looking around and puzzled. And he looks up at me, and I had another small set down in front for the small group. So he looked up at me and he goes — you know what that means. You come on down here and play down here. So not a word was said. So I pick up my sticks and brushes and go down to the other set. And I played a set down there and I’m in seventh heaven because the whole band is right here in my ear. Oh what a feeling that is. That’s why when people play music today all they do is turn up the bass. You hear bluh-bluh-bluh. It doesn’t sound like music. But when you have the brilliance of the brass and the saxophones right, oh man, it’s hi-fi, the original hi-fi. So anyway okay we take a break. Now we’re coming back up and I’m down front now and I got a little closer and got myself comfortable and I have my music stand here in case I need some charts. And Benny’s right over my music stand like this, eye level. I’m kind of kitty corner to him. If I look there, there he is. Now he had the habit of having his clarinet under his arm like this, holding it this way. So he was in that pose looking right at me. And I could hear some murmurs in the background, guys in the sax section saying “uh-oh, look’s like it’s Sonny’s turn in the barrel tonight” or something like that and all these kinds of things. So he’s just looking at me over the top of my stand. Just staring at me. And geez I’d had enough. So I stood up, and this is true, I stood up and I went like this in front of his eyes. He never budged. And the band, everybody’s having hysterics. They thought I’d get canned right then. He said “sit down kid, what are you doing?” He never knew I did it. So he says “okay let’s go.” And we went on to the next number. That story got around town in New York even. “Geez I heard what you did to Benny.” It was funny. He never even acknowledged it. But I did see him ride some guys sometimes and I felt sorry for them. I think it was one of those things that every once in a while if he got in that mood if he knew he could ride you he’d ride you.

In 1964, as a 14-year-old aspiring saxophonist, my parents took me to see the Glenn Miller Orchestra under the direction of Ray McKinley in a Rochester, NY auditorium. The band sounded much like the records I had come to know. I stood at the front of the stage staring up at the saxmen in their matching blue sport coats, picturing myself as a member. At the time it didn’t occur to me that I was born too late and had missed the era where such gigs were prevalent. Conducting these interviews for the jazz archive has enabled me to vicariously experience the thrill of the sound, the challenge of the travel, and first-hand stories of the colorful characters of the time.