MILT BERNHART recalls a troubled tour with Benny Goodman
A troubled tour with Benny Goodman
Perez Prado - Voodoo Suite
Murray and Duke

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 trouble.

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, as expected. 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.


Published by kind permission of the author.