[Dixielandjazz] Milt Barnhart recalls a troubled tour with Benny Goodman

Steve Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Nov 18 16:41:26 PST 2007

A bit long, but a great read about one musicians' short life on the road
with the King of Swing.

Steve Barbone

MILT BERNHART recalls a troubled tour with Benny Goodman
Las Vegas, Nevada  - January 25 1950

10:45am. I open my eyes. Where am I? What town is it? What day? What year?
Slowly, the regular morning fog begins to lift in my head and the pieces
begin to fall in place.

I'm in Las Vegas...I'm on the Benny Goodman band....it's the last week of
January 1949 and tonight is closing night at the flashy new Flamingo Hotel.
So far in my 23 years on earth, except for basic training in the Army, this
has been the bottom.

But why? I'm with the "King of Swing". It's any young musician's dream come
true. And we've been in one place for two weeks and not in a bus. Las Vegas
is a quiet town in the west, something new for a kid practically raised on a
Chicago elevated train. So why the empty feeling inside? What's wrong?

Practically everything.

For starters, there's the Benny Goodman band. Benny had announced four
months ago that his new band would be a be-bop band...the latest thing. And
he had invited up-and-coming young players such as Gerry Mulligan, Zoot
Sims, Fats Navarro, Wardell Gray, and Lee Konitz to join him. Lee, a boyhood
friend in Chicago, had gotten me on the band. But after two weeks of
rehearsal, and a ton of stormy scenes, only Wardell was still there. And a
few lesser people such as myself. And what had started out as an exciting
new setting for Benny had come back to square one.

Benny was grim, the new music was out, and there was a big question about
whether we were going to be paid for a month of rehearsing. We weren't.

So here I am, several months later, broke and more than usually uncertain
about what happens next. Well, not exactly. Next, I get up, dress, pack my
suitcase (we leave for Los Angeles tonight after the last show), have
breakfast, check out of this flea bag, and try to occupy myself until we
start work tonight at 8:00.

That shouldn't be difficult in this cultural paradise.

12 noon. I no longer have a hotel room, and it's now that the emptiness
really grabs hold. What to do? Practise my horn?

Yes, but where? Not permitted at the Flamingo show room. I could walk out on
the desert and try it, but somebody said that rattlesnakes are never happy
about interlopers, especially trombone players. So that's out. Anyway
practice makes perfect, and I've decided I don't want to be like Benny
Goodman, a perfect player, but a bore.

2:00pm. I've walked downtown, about four or five miles, and I knew all along
I'd take in the matinee at the El Portal. What else? I'm thinking "Six hours
until the job starts" and I wish that time could just stand still for a
while. Give me a chance to figure something out.


5:00pm. Back in the lobby of the motel. Tonight we'll change clothes behind
the bandstand. I'd treat myself to dinner in the Flamingo Coffee Shop, but I
have two dollars on me until they pay us after the job tonight, so the truck
drivers' stop down the highway will have to do. It helps to have musical
talent on the road, but without a "cast-iron" stomach, you're done before
you start. 

The whole problem for me is in the way Wardell Gray has been treated here.
At the motel, he was told he had to stay on the "coloured" side of town.
He's a gentle, sweet man and he went with a shrug. I was there and I might
have gone with him, but I didn't. I'm not sure they would have let me
check-in on the "other" side of town, but I didn't even try, and I'm not
feeling very good about it. I don't want to be a hypocrite, but I come from
a long line of biased people.

How do you break the mould?

There's more. Wardell is billed as "featured sax star" with the band, but on
opening day, he was told that he couldn't enter the hotel by the front
doors, only through the back.

And between shows, he had to stay in a back room. No "mixing" with the
guests. I guess I had never heard that Las Vegas is such a bastion of Jim
Crow-ism, but I was certain that Benny would not allow a star of his band to
be restricted in such a demeaning way.

Surprise. Benny did nothing.

A number of the band members, Eddie Bert, Buddy Greco, Doug Mettome, Nick
Travis and myself, complained to the band manager, Bill Kratt. Nobody dared
approach Benny. That was an unspoken rule, no question about it. But we all
felt certain that Benny would clear things up, once told. After all, wasn't
this the same Benny Goodman that pioneered in breaking the colour line, with
Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton? True, they weren't actually in the band
then. But all the same, the pressures must have been immense. And Benny was
revered for his objectivity, and rightly so.

On this occasion, though, Benny did nothing.

And so for two weeks, several of us have taken turns keeping Wardell company
in the back room, trying valiantly to keep his spirits up, and our own in
the bargain. But it's been no use. Morale on the band has sunk out of sight.
The comedian on the bill, Pinky Lee, will probably never know why the band
has been so indifferent. Some of the guys have been playing wrong notes on
purpose all though his music. We're trying to make each other laugh, but at
his expense. We've come to this. Not too funny. I'm sure he thinks we're
just plain incompetent. What a complete drag.

Well, tonight is the finish of this depressing scene. As Scarlett O'Hara was
heard to say: "Tomorrow", something or other. I forget.

7:55pm. The first show is about to begin. Wardell has been drinking hard the
last few nights, usually later in the evening, but tonight he's started
early. He's weaving as he walks on the stand carrying his sax and the
clarinet that Benny gave him in New York. He has been very, very depressed
and I'm worried for him.

Benny enters and he brings a storm with him. I'm the sensitive type, and I
wish I weren't, but I pick up vibrations coming from Benny that spell

He's mad about something, still he just got here and we haven't started
playing yet, so it can't be us. All the same, I sense from the way he is
glaring around the bandstand, he is looking for a victim. Up to tonight, the
famous Goodman "ray" has been kept in check, but tonight is definitely the
night. The first person to make a wrong move is going to get it.

It's Saturday night in Las Vegas, the room is sold out, and the show begins.
We play "Let's Dance". How many times did I hear this piece as a kid and
thrill to it? This is a good band under any circumstances, but the thrill is
not there. We are all just bodies doing a job. I wonder if the audience has
any idea of this. Probably not.

Tumultuous applause. Benny says nothing to the audience. He beats off the
next number in a hurry, almost catching some of us unaware. I shouldn't give
a damn, but my heart is beating a little faster.

We are playing a not too demanding arrangement of "Memories of You", but
Wardell has a solo on the bridge, and I'm concerned about his condition now,
and whether he even knows what we're playing. It happens. Wardell's solo
comes up, but he doesn't play right away. He is slow getting up, and when he
finally begins to play, it's too late. He has played right into the lion's
mouth. All this has taken split seconds, but it seems like light-years have
gone by.

Benny stops the band. He is in an uncontrollable rage. I wish I were
surprised. I'm not. Wardell is still standing. "Get off this stand, Pops,"
he bellows. I've learned that "Pops" is not necessarily a term of endearment
from Benny. Wardell, glazed, is not sure who Benny is yelling at. "I mean
you!" A primal scream. The audience doesn't know how to take this turn in
the program. There are some nervous titters around the house. Most of the
band is in total shock. Your music teacher never warned you that things like
this would happen. 

Wardell picks up his sax and clarinet and unsteadily steers himself in the
direction of the wings. But before he gets there, Benny intercepts, and
takes the clarinet away from him. The coup de grace.

I wish I were any place on earth but here. We still have to play this show
and a second show, plus a dance set in between. Maybe I'll wake up from this
ugliness, and it was only a bad dream after all. I don't wake up. I am up.

1:00am. The evening is over. Not much is being said around the band, because
each of us is alone with his thoughts about what he is going to do next.

I've quit. Two weeks notice is standard, so I'll have to steel myself. And
anyway, I need the money, an ever-present factor in my life to date. Bill
Kratt, the manager, is at a total loss as far as an explanation of Benny's
outburst is concerned. Somebody must have said or done something that set
him off. Wardell just happened to blunder into the picture at the wrong
time. The fool. 

I found Wardell in the back room after the show, and he was in an
unreachable state that only alcohol and the big "scene" together could
create. He was mumbling that he didn't understand what Benny was so mad
about. I could offer no logical reason for the explosion. I told him I was
quitting. Maybe he heard me. Maybe he didn't. Does it make any difference?

Wardell was not in the band on the second show. His chair was removed and
the sax section went down to four. Eddie Wasserman played Wardell's solos,
but he didn't have to tell us that he would have rather not. Benny had
calmed down some, even tried to act amiable here and there. Swell.

It won't work, not for me. As much as I'd like to forget the events of this
night, I don't suppose I ever will. I have a bad taste in my mouth that I
didn't get at the truck drivers' cafe down the highway.

Not this time. We are on the bus, heading for Los Angeles. We will be at the
Palladium for the two weeks of my notice. Time to begin the search for
another band. Maybe Kenton again. When I left Kenton last year, I told Stan
that I had to get off the road for good. Stan didn't understand. He's one of
those rare birds that can exist happily out of a suitcase. He thrives on bus
exhaust. But I don't. Sorry.

Still, playing with Kenton was always exciting, and that never happened for
me anywhere else. And Stan is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. What
you see is what you get. I can use some of that.

3:30am. Thc bus just broke down.

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