The Benny Goodman Orchestra

Sideman: Sideman is the first thing I ever wrote, once I decided that I wanted to improve my writing for prose, articles and even my technical documentation. It was a great journey to write about the time and subjects explored in Sideman and the research made me appreciate music and life just that bit more.

Four summers ago, my wife died.

She was always practical, taking care of herself as well those parts of life that intersected with mine. I took one chance after another, barbecuing and pickling myself regularly. Just a regular guy from our time.

We got old and by some quirk of fate, she went first.

Now I’m missing her love and I’m full of memories. There were good years and bad years. You hung together because you were a team, you had your quarter acre and your family. Ok as we got older, we’d bicker. Not seriously though. It was just like a play with the themes and dialog well established.

Mostly good and some grumbles.

We met in 1946. I was a soldier returning from the war; finished months before. It took time with so many to return home.

I’d been injured as well on my second posting. Hit on the thigh by a bullet or a bit of shrapnel. It really doesn’t matter. It hurt like hell once I actually noticed it and my leg went a bit numb. Could have been fatal if it hit the artery, or maybe if the Corpsman hadn’t been around and somebody came to finish the job.

It wasn’t that I didn’t take cover fast enough. Getting injured or killed was inevitable by that stage. Everybody was running an insane dash towards the trouble. We were going all out for victory.

They dragged me out of harm’s way and the front kept moving forward. When it was clear, then so was I and I was taken to the field hospital and evacuated.

Some short weeks later I was still in the hospital when it ended, and the Axis powers surrendered.

Time to go home.

Whoohoo “Operation Magic Carpet” it was called. A plan to move almost 8 million over 14 months from December 1945. Some guys managed it earlier; though for most, it was a lot of confusion and waiting.

Not only our guys. We had to send our prisoners back home as well. Poor disheveled souls returning to defeat and an uncertain future, though at least with a future. It was nuts!

For me, it ended up being another 5 months. I demobbed with a lift from the navy and went back home to a different chaos.

Straight into a repatriation centre on the West Coast, to fill in endless forms, get processed and be released.

The voyage, the paperwork, the delayed and packed trains; home seemed so close enough to touch and not. Locals were great though and their generosity made it bearable.

It was the lifting of a great weight. The homecoming seemed like it would never end, buoyed by the jubilation of the people. The pride of the nation swelled up and spilled over.

There were parades with ticker tape and confetti. Everyone was caught up in the euphoria of victory to cloud the horror that had been in its place.

I was intact, bit of a scar on the leg, covered by trousers. Others weren’t. Missing limbs, sanity or instantly switched off in their full blaze on the battlefield.

The public danced as they always had, changing the colour of their hearts back to peace and the hope of a better future. Well why shouldn’t they, it had been paid with the noblest currency, the blood sacrifice of a victorious nation.

In that victory; at a victory dance; I met my wife.

Trumpets blared, trombones countered, and saxes took up the melody, backed by the piano, bass, guitar and drums. The Swing sound. It grabbed you and you wanted to dance.

These guys were pretty good and swinging it up at the local hall, in this happy town. Soldiers of course were popular and just about every guy here was a soldier, even the band. Just repeat for probably every place that had a hall and a group of returning ‘citizens’ ready to let loose and locals ready to clap them on the back for it.

There were arrangements of whatever hits of the day, lots of standards. Some things I didn’t recognise, though I had been out of the loop for a while. Couples danced the foxtrot and some waltzes and some riskier dances as well.

I loved the sound, I always have and that brought back memories even further back than the war. In fact, I guess the war had taken that from me and I didn’t know who I was going to be now in my demob suit, finally a civilian again. I tapped along to the beat.

They had refreshments. Punch, self-severed by a ladle out of a big bowl. Bits of fruit floating in it. Sweet and acid refreshment.

“How are you soldier? Want some punch” a lady enquired having already served herself.

“How can you tell?”, I said.

“How can I tell what?”

“That I’m a soldier?”

“In that suit!” she said with a look of surprise, “Look around.” she gestured. A lot of us were in our new temporary uniform.

I laughed. She laughed.

“What’s your name?”

“June’‘, she said, and as she said it a miracle happened. The band played a foxtrot “By the light of the silvery moon”

“June, by the light of the silvery moon.”

She laughed at my corny joke and I asked her to dance.

She laughed and that was that for over 60 years.

Now that part of my life is over, and she’s gone. I have to do my own medicating or have the nurse come in. Blood sugar, injections, schedules and I can’t think straight. I’m old.

Sorry I’m rambling. You can see right what I’m trying to tell you? The music. That’s the key. The war took away my music and as soon as it came back, there was life again.

That Swing music where I met June was already special to me and had been years before.

Sure, I’d go into my study during our marriage, close the door, pour a Scotch (or three) and play my jazz and swing records. There was the later Jazz. Miles, Coltrane and even some stuff my son “turned me on to”. He bought me a stereo for my birthday, and I worked it out enough to play my tunes.

In the cupboard were some 78s and I had a lot of vinyl by the end. Even a few compact discs.

Swing was my thing.

I love Swing music in particular as I saw it transfix and change a nation. When I think about it, the tears come and then the other tears and then the other tears. My wife, the war, the accumulated journey and music.

This is the story of Swing, or at least my story of Swing.

I had been there on the bandstand. I know the thrill and the uncertainty of being on the road, the true reality of earning a paycheck and the feeling of power and rhythm from a really great tune.

I was a Sideman.

That’s one of the guys in a band that fills out the sound. I’m not the leader, I’m not the soloist. I play a part to make the thing whole. We are the steady musical shoulders that hold up the greats and propel them into the stratosphere.

I became a Sideman by the lure of the big city and the endless possibilities it represented.

Way back, I grew up in farming country. The town had a main street with a few stone buildings, town hall, library and small shops and stores. There was a dairy and other light industry to take produce, milk and more, to market.

I was getting near the end of my schooling and slowly getting more responsibility from part-time work at the dairy. My father worked there full-time and that’s how I got the job.

I helped lift milk churns, shovelled stuff and milked cows with a foot driven machine or sometimes by hand. My days consisted of doing chores, working some, suffering the perceived imprisonment of school and family life on our farm.

It was our own world untouched by outside events mostly………..except one.

October 1929 the stock market crashed, and life got harder.

There was less money and customers made smaller orders, (with some cancellations). The dairy needed less people and they let some go, my father being one of them. We had to fall back on our farm, our own cows and our town, where everyone knew each other. In that way, the land really protected us from the worst. My parents sometimes had a certain look in their eyes, that had a cold stone edge.

There was still optimism. Largely driven by the preacher and the good hearts of the people. Some had great desperation. Stills popped up due to prohibition, for those who wanted a drink more than ever.

The calendar kept happening and soon it was Armistice Day. No one played the bugle and as a senior my teacher volunteered me for the job. The town had one and some even said it was from the Civil War. I never had that confirmed. It was old and dented though, with a terrible brassy mouthpiece.

My teacher had a piano in the schoolhouse, and she played the notes. I had to work out how to blow it and that took some time. It was like being punished and trying to wrestle the devil with your lips. I had a week and had to ask her a couple more times for the tune.

After that I went out in the field and scared some cows practising the call, for as many times as it took, to try and get it right. The day came and I bluffed my way through it. There was a smattering of polite applause, or none as the occasion warranted, a couple of glares at the bad job and I became the town bugler. Not often, though often enough on every holiday.

Entertainment was a big deal and even though times were hard people still wanted to have some fun. People got together for food, card games and music. There was the radio. There was the rodeo and a local football team. The Church held socials.

One of the greatest things were movies. These were a rare and special treat. I was getting older and the movies and comic strips introduced me to the lives of the people in the big city. I experienced the adventures of pirates, medieval swordsmen and sophisticated city folk.

It fuelled my thinking. I wanted to be where that was happening. I was a selfish young man thinking about adventure without consequence.

My older brother did errands, driving our old truck between our farm and the next few. One day as I accompanied him, I got him to pull over near the highway. I just got out and started walking.

“Mum and Dad are going to go crazy.”, he said, and I felt bad about that. Still he looked like he wished he had thought of it first.

He drove off dejected and I felt the lowest I ever had, almost turning back. My Dad once said: “you have to be bad sometimes to be good”, I don’t know who he heard it from, though I hung him there by his own words and trudged on.

My parents never forgave me.

I walked a lot, I mean a lot. It was hard going, except when I got rides. There were questions, I guess ’cause of my young face. I shrugged mostly and nobody pressed too hard. Some lone drivers were just glad of the company.

The scenery got more filled in, with houses closer together, and the buildings taller. More people too, cars, dogs, less yards and trees. I was entering the city.

“Here you go son”, said my current ride and I got out thanking the man.

I had arrived. New York City. It moved at the speed of speed.

The depression continued and my move turned out to be stupider than even my brother could have imagined. I was often hungry, going without food and without the street smarts, I couldn’t talk my way into opportunities. A bit of soup kitchen, occasional bad work and then something worked in my favour. I was young and strong and I got hired by a restaurant to do whatever. I washed dishes, swept up, lifting boxes and some other nastier stuff. The hours were long, and the money was barely enough to survive.

I learnt the city and got smarter. In the midst of all the poor, some people still had money, a lot of it and weren’t afraid of spending it. I viewed them from the kitchen, in all degrees, the American middle class. It wasn’t a high-class place, though it did alright. From where I stood, that was the vision of success.

I guess it was a kinda classy, better than diner place, with nice tables and chairs, not booths, with tablecloths, though simple and uncomplicated. They served Italian or the version of it we have become used to, I didn’t know any different. It was all pretty foreign and strange to me. I liked it whenever I got to try it, which was not often, and it was a bit past sale when it got to me. There was coffee though, lots of coffee, black and hot, maybe to keep us up to the job. No booze, prohibition was still in effect. Imagine that. An Italian restaurant without wine.

People who cared for booze, knew where they could get it. By the time I was interested Prohibition had ended. I never really took to it.

I was eating better, though my soul wasn’t getting fed. Out in the world it was all glamour. Greco shoes, diamond clips and blue, silver or gold lame dresses. Maybe a number or two by Chanel or even the ‘Greek Revival’ style. To me it was just a blurred wonder. Everyone just looked richer and more interesting than me.

I got old enough to officially drive a small truck, a medium sized van with a cabin at the front and enough room in back to pick up crates and supplies. Back in my town I had been driving for a long time. Different rules in the city. No refrigeration, so deliveries had to be quick. Bringing back spoiled goods was not an option. I developed a kind of reckless driving style, favoured in gangster movies.

I was getting a few extra dollars now and could actually save or see a movie, I did a bit of both. I got to know the names of women I would dream about like Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford or Marlene Dietrich (for the more adventurous). Every woman wanted to be like them, every guy wanted to be with them.

People were starting to do better. Optimism was growing. Guys with the green in the restaurant were wearing suits like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire or Gary Cooper. The music of the day was a sweet sort of sound I can’t really describe, although there were chorus lines of dancing girls, vaudeville and soloists.

I was incredibly ignorant of any kind of history at the time. It was all about survival. There were Americans, men and women whose ancestors had been brutally stolen from their home in Africa and brought here into forced labour. Now free they were still living in a different stream and the depression had hit them hard.

Already in the lowest paying professions, they had very little to fall back on when the economy collapsed. They were unemployed in greater numbers and this with the ongoing struggle would continue to grow into the Civil Rights Movement so many years later.

In New York I guess there were no Jim Crow laws like in the south, essentially putting African Americans into a new type of servitude. I imagine though that the great depression, although dire for a lot of people, the lack of recognition or social programs made it a living hell.

That’s the second set of stories I urge you to understand. Our inhumanity sometimes to each other for ugly and stupid reasons.

Now ugly and stupid reasons also have consequences and sometimes those are about rising above. I think that is part of the story of Jazz.

Imagine that band at my demob dance. That music had its beginning before the war. Even further back are the roots of that music.

Before the turn of the 20th Century, the pattern and timing of West African speech was the start. Groups of people would dance and sing single line melodies. Out would go the call and a response would come.

Creole. Music on jugs, washboards, tubs and sticks. Pick it up and play it at a place called Congo Square in New Orleans. There would be dancing. European instruments such as the cornet or violin appeared and were added.

Slavery had been abolished in 1865 due to the Civil War, though segregation still made it hard to get jobs. Entertainment was more open, you could play at dances and vaudeville.

West Africa, brass band marches, blues, church songs, classical and European music. Pick it up and use it. You made it up and it was always different.

Then came Ragtime. The ‘ragged’ rhythm. Scott Joplin on the piano and Jelly Roll Morton (who wrote King Porter Stomp). Joplin had an international hit with Maple Leaf Rag. White composers and players began to take it up.

Poor Sidney Story the alderman who wrote the guidelines to control prostitution and drugs in the city was rewarded (probably to his horror) by having the New Orleans red light district named after him. “Storyville”

You know the names of the border streets Basin St and St Louis St (Basin Street Blues and St Louis Blues).

Liquor, gambling, drugs, prostitution.

Over time Cornetists such as Buddy Bolden and King Oliver were playing in Basin Street. W.C. Handy incorporated Blues and other influences that became part of the music.

There were audiences and musicians who wanted to play. Jazz as it was known, was very personal, each musician who played it added to what had come before.

New Orleans was the centre of black and white musicians playing together. Papa Jack Laine integrated his marching band and employed many of the best players.

These brass bands generated players such as Louis Armstrong who learnt to play the trumpet in the Camelia Brass Brand from its leader D’Jalma Ganier.

In 1918 the ironically named Paul Whiteman became a hit in San Francisco and became the top bandleader of the 1920s. A whole new slew of musicians were hired into this band such as Bix Beiderbecke and Jimmy & Tommy Dorsey. He was the bandleader who commissioned Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. They toured Europe. Jazz became mainstream and also whiter.

It sounds so messed up now, though that is how it happened. That’s the 3rd set of stories you should seek out. There are so many stories about the players of this music, full of joy, pain and life.

As I said, I was ignorant, I had never heard any jazz and if I did, I wouldn’t know where it came from. I was a young man washing dishes and hoping I didn’t starve anytime soon.

It moved me. It spoke a language of promise that I couldn’t get out of my head.

My buddies and I had been out to see King Kong; a movie about a giant Gorilla that climbs the Empire State building.

I had driven everybody in the restaurant truck, with guys rolling around the back as we went round corners. After everyone had been dropped off, I stopped for a final coffee at a local diner. Mostly to think about dreams and too excited to go to sleep. Not that the coffee was going to help with that.

There was a pawnbroker nearby and I stopped to glance in the window to look at things. It was interesting. An old picture, a barometer, carriage clocks, watches, hats, books; you name it. Instruments too, usually a violin.

I had been thinking for some time, “What next?” and there it was.

To one side of the shop, was a trumpet, a couple of bugles and a trombone. I knew the bugles of course, the trumpet and trombone I had seen in movies. I kept looking at the trumpet. I knew how it felt to make the face so you could blow it. Now I imagined the face of some sweetheart puckering up because I was the hero in my own movie. I let my fantasy play out and wondered about the possibilities.

In a little while I was 3 doors down, drinking my coffee, lost in reverie, dining with starlets and thought about being a trumpet star.

The week went on and a few days later, I was in that part of town.

I found a park and entered the pawn shop to see the trumpet still there, in the same place on the shelf.

“Can I help you son?”, the older proprietor said in a voice tinged with “Please don’t waste my time”. He was moderately well dressed in a waistcoat and glasses and I would have put him in his late 40s if I was any judge of such a thing, which I wasn’t.

I looked like some dusty guy of the street, so his skepticism was probably justified.

“Does the trumpet, there, work?”

“Of course bud. Ya don’t think I’d sell ya shoddy merchandise do ya?”

Off to a bad start.

“Er, no, I just mean, ah, can I try it?”

He stifled a sigh, not very well, and went over and got the trumpet and its case and brought it over to the counter. He put the mouthpiece in the hole and handed it to me saying, “Ya drop it, ya bought it.”

I bugled a few notes badly and pushed the buttons up and down (valves I was corrected later).

“Maestro!” he exclaimed, and I couldn’t tell if this was salesmanship or cynicism. Probably both.

A combination of anger, stupidity and desire came over me and I bought it. Probably for a little more money than I could really afford. That had been my first lot of savings and as a young man I was thinking whim and not return.

The Pawnbroker brightened when the bills came out. He got a whole lot friendlier. He had low odds for me, and they had paid off anyway.

For a week it sat in its case and I had a case as well, of buyer’s remorse. I couldn’t play and I was afraid to open it up. I’d paid for it however and eventually that drove me to get it out and give it a blow. I didn’t understand the valves yet, though I was starting to get some sound back. There was an extraordinary number of music critics in my building.

I looked for anybody who could show me what to do with my new obsession.

I started to go into clubs that were in bad parts of town. Some were speakeasies and I had to convince the guy on the door that I was there to drink. As I had a case, some thought I was in the band and just let me in. I became a bit cagier because of it. My trumpet, my horn was changing my life already and I’d never even had a gig.

A lot of clubs had Jazz music, usually a pianist or a trio. Some nights and places there were larger bands, meaning one of them might play cornet or trumpet. Cornets and trumpets are the ‘same same’ yet different. They weren’t flash and neither was I.

I was driven, I wanted to play so I would go up to the guy with the horn. They’d blow me off, or talk, or show me something, or hit me up for cash. I watched first and if they were good in my limited eye, I might grab even a lesson or a tip. It was slow going, this was their way to get income and I was viewed with suspicion. Looking poor and ignorant really helped then.

I began to pick up the lingo and the style. I bought my first trumpet book on one suggestion. It had a chart of the fingering and I worked out popular songs of the day and wrote the fingering on old pieces of paper. I knew from the bugle that you had to ‘lip’ the notes into place to get the higher and lower registers. You had to use the valves to change the tubing to access other notes in that register. I began to get it and I learned to read music from my book.

Playing these popular songs became my party trick. If someone had a piano and knew the tune I could play along, playing the melody as a break or musical interlude for the singer. It wasn’t great, though it was good enough.

I started getting invited to parties with friends. I soon felt embarrassed by the way I looked. I bought a cheap suit and cleaned up my shoes.

It worked. My party trick and my suit got me invited to more parties. Everyone still knew I was the guy who drove the truck for that Italian place.

Other people noticed as well and there was a ballet school who had concerts every month. Sometimes for larger concerts they would get local musicians in. There was sheet music I could practice before the gig. I practiced it and there was sometimes a rehearsal.

I had never been to a rehearsal. I had played in public though and this was just in public without the public. I wondered what other people thought of me self-consciously. They were busy playing their part though.

Playing with other people and instruments, I started to understand playing in time, space, melody, what the music was about. The dancers created an atmosphere and we filled out the story.

Some money arrived and this opened up the idea that there could actually be a financial motive.

At clubs I tried a new strategy and asked if I could sit in. Most were dubious. If no money was in play or they knew me a bit or both, I got in. I got better and started getting asked.

Eventually I was part of a band and we would get together after work and talk about our grand plans or play. It didn’t always work. When it did it was great. We started getting some places to play. Now I had a job and another job that didn’t pay much.

There was some applause and you just had to keep getting up there. Don’t ever look back.

Records were a thing and they had the sounds we were looking for. Our bassist Dan lived with his parents and they had a record player. We pooled some money and got some records.

Amongst others was the great Louis Armstrong. He had joined the Fletcher Henderson band in 1924, playing solos and tearing up the place. After that he formed his own band. I could listen to him all day. Great ideas, cool licks and a style all his own. We just dug it.

That was our world for 3 years, working, playing, being part of it all.

I was onto my second suit and I was really part of the scene, I would get extra pay from my double life, even some professional work. Once on the radio.

Again I wanted more.

This is where circumstance and location kicked in. I was a city guy now and as cagey as the next guy. A buddy told me about an audition he was going to and I pestered him until he showed me the newspaper ad.

It was from the Help Wanted section: “Sidemen Wanted for Orchestra, Trumpets, Trombones, Tenor Saxophone.”

There was a pay phone in the diner, and I slotted the required coin and talked to a guy. He asked me some questions, told me a place to turn up and a time.

A few days later the audition was a room full of hopefuls. All instruments, regular band members that had already got the gig and the unknowns.

The guy, the leader, wasn’t much older than me, a guy called Benny Goodman. I’d heard of him, a popular band leader and great clarinetist. After 4 years I wasn’t the shy guy anymore, though I wondered what it took to get through this.

Half the band already existed, they just wanted the sidemen to fill out the sound. Enough to sound great and not break the bank.

Now I have to mention that this band included star trumpeter Bunny Berrigan and drummer Gene Krupa. Damn, I thought, and then my demeanour changed. “Screw it”, gotta try.

Goodman was playing solo, with bands of the day, or on radio. This was his shot too. He wanted to be a big jazz star in his own right. He wanted to be the guy. He was all business yet made everyone feel welcome. I heard some great playing.

The audition was all over the place though, with line ups changing from small ensemble to big band. There was sheet music and no sheet music. People were singled out.

The biggest part of it was to sit in with the full band and see how it all sounded together. Benny saw the band as a whole and only the right combination of guys was gonna work.

For a couple of people the audition seemed a formality.

Bunny Berrigan made a thing of meeting the trumpeters in the room. I guess the guys that he might have to work with. I was embarrassed when I told him how much I admired him and his playing. Who wouldn’t? Still not very professional.

Berrigan was an incredible Jazz trumpeter, king of the “Hot Lick”. He’d honed his skills with the Paul Whiteman orchestra years before. When the band needed a star trumpeter, that was the guy who’d get to his feet and chop out those improvised melodies.

I sat in a chair next to two other trumpeters including Bunny and we played the same choruses and it sounded alright. This was followed by a chorus of solo, just to polish off the tryout.

I had been doing this for 3 years, so for 16 bars, I played my best approximation of some Jazz. Two bars from the end, I could feel myself about to lose it and I ripped into some crazy screeching stuff. Everyone laughed. I felt terribly embarrassed. It wasn’t terrible. I was just the class clown.

I think that clinched it and I just hung around. It became just an amazing afternoon of fun. A lot of times you get the gig because people like you and you can do it.

I joined in and made some solos. Played my part in some sections. Even joked with some guys.

I said goodbye and went home floating on a cloud. What a great day and then nothing.

10 days later I got a message at my apartment desk to attend rehearsals. I didn’t know if I officially had the gig, though there was an envelope with money for my attendance.

I let the power of ignorance guide me and followed what felt right. Quitting my job in the process, I became a musician.

Goodman’s had “the ray” his eyes were on everyone keeping them in line. He made us nervous and inspired as well. His quest for perfection was relentless and that was hard, but man, that sound. The band got pretty tight and Benny started to look a lot more relaxed as well, like the job wasn’t going to be the mountain he thought.

Tight enough until onto the road, out into the city; the circuit. I was playing every day, practice, rehearsal and gigs. I got better and stronger. We played a lot of the popular styles of music, whatever worked to get the gig, the money and the reputation. I got paid.

Goodman had ambition and a vision outside of the day to day. He wanted his own band to be his unique voice with its own music. That music was Swing.

I had heard the records. A young Louis Armstrong in the Fletcher Henderson band. Fletcher Henderson wrote arrangements for his band and they improvised around them.

Henderson had a master’s degree in chemistry from Colombia University. Despite that, he found opportunity blocked by prejudice and turned to music to make a living.

During the Great Depression Benny had purchased his arrangements and that gave him the guys and the authentic music to make his dream come to life.

Despite this music having been played a decade earlier, Goodman was still ahead of his time. There were many nationally popular bands run by guys like Guy Lombardo and Glen Gray who played the “sweet” style. Sweet corn, most of the guys called it even when we were playing tunes in the same style.

It seemed that most places and audiences wanted this ‘safe’ music. We would play a swing tune and would receive polite applause. We were the punks of our day who looked respectable in our suits and played that “Jass” music.

Radio and studio were more open minded and by now there were a series of recordings for Victor. I loved those sessions live on the radio, for the energy and excitement. As well as that I was on those disks that other people were buying and listening to.

Benny had a good agent backing him and he would get prestigious gigs like NBC’s Let’s Dance.

With about 70 Henderson arrangements in the bag, Benny was able to pull out new and interesting tunes at a whim. The broadcasts were scary and exciting.

On Let’s Dance we weren’t on ’til the end of the program. This meant we were heard late on the East Coast. Here in New York our next series of gigs didn’t go well either. Sure there were people there, though we weren’t connecting. I started to see the end of my job coming up.

Willard Alexander (Benny’s agent), who liked Goodman and the band, sometimes came to rehearsals and was upbeat calling us “first rate”. He was from MCA (Music Corporation of America) and he had gone out on a limb for Goodman. When he came to a rehearsal, he and Benny would inevitably go into a back room to discuss business.

I heard from Bunny that although Willard thought the band was “first rate”, the word was his bosses at MCA didn’t think so. They favoured society music they understood, or at least they understood it was attached to money. They just didn’t see eye to eye with Benny. They thought he was crazy.

We played a gig at the Roosevelt Grill in New York and it pretty much bombed out, even after 26 weeks on the radio.

After that we worked on a series of one nighters all over the place and continued to do radio and recordings. We had our fans, though they were nowhere to be seen at the dances.

Benny also had a trio with Gene Krupa our drummer and Teddy Wilson. They would perform in between the big band’s sets. Teddy who was black sometimes got looks. Benny said to people who asked, “If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice.”

The band mood was professional, though not real happy. We were stressed. I rode the ups and downs and it was taking its toll. I kept imagining trying to find a job somewhere.

Everywhere the band played though the performance was right on target. Goodman insisted on that. He drilled us, raised our level and we were his guys.

One of the ups was Downbeat and Melody Maker had given rave reviews to recordings of “King Porter Stomp” and “Sometimes I’m Happy” the month before. This had helped Willard get us a three-week engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, playing gigs on the way across the country.

The reviews hadn’t had much effect on the early part of the tour. Travelling from the East to West, the ‘hot’ tunes they weren’t received as well as usual. People hadn’t cottoned onto swing and The Palomar was our last gig of the tour and maybe my job.

We arrived in Oakland and it was a better reception, we stuck to the safe tunes and kept the swing later when people had loosened up a bit. There was some applause and it was, well…OK. Our next gig was the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 21, 1935. Three weeks to make or break.

On that day we pulled up at the Palomar on Vermont Avenue Los Angeles and there was a tight mood. Everybody was wondering how many more nights of pay would come.

For Benny this tour wouldn’t be career ending, though it would be a blow to his ego and ambition.

This place was used to 20,000 plus audiences and they could get 4000 couples on the dance floor. It had been called the El Patio Ballroom previously due to there being a 7500 square foot patio where people could spill out to. A veritable palace.

Bunny Berrigan waltzed into the gig with every crease of his tuxedo pressed, looking like a Knight on his way to the crusades and he quipped, “Get a load of this place.” We followed him in.

Helen Ward was our singer and she had arrived from the hotel where she had changed into a beautiful blue silver lame dress with flowers draped from the neck as a corsage.

The stage was mostly set, and adjustments were made by drummer Gene Krupa and pianist Jess Stacy moving things around and Gene setting his drums the way he wanted them.

There were black painted wooden stands and chairs, and they had been set up around the grand piano in the right configuration for the show.

Our usual seating arrangement looked out to the audience. It had the double bass and drums at the back with trumpets in a row next to Gene. Bunny Berrigan would be nearer the rhythm section so he could hear what was going on and that made it easier for solos. The piano was in front of the bass and drums with trombones next to that. The next row had the guitarist and four saxes, an alto, two tenors and baritone. Next was Helen when she was in the number, slightly back from Benny who stood out the front with his clarinet as band leader.

When we played either a song or a tune there would be a spot for Benny to show off the virtuosic playing, he was known for, or one of the band’s other stars could take a chorus. Especially Bunny who had quite a rep.

We did the usual things that happen before a gig, we ate, we sat around for a while, we got into our tuxedos, we warmed up and then it was on.

Although the radio had not helped in New York, here in Los Angeles, people had heard us on the show. They began to turn up at the Palomar in large numbers.

There was a buzz in the room with many voices talking, lots of catching up and couples out for a big night.

It was time. A cymbal roll from Gene signified the beginning and we were all poised.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Palomar Ballroom in the fine city of Los Angeles.” Applause followed for the city and maybe some for us. “I’m Benny Goodman, this is Helen Ward,” more applause “and this is the Benny Goodman Orchestra.” Instantly with a downstroke of his clarinet, Benny cued the start of the first number.

He played the clarinet as the lead line, his signature and it introduced him as the virtuoso he was, the leader and the star.

We were playing it safe though. The decision had been made to do this after some stock arrangements were purchased in the last couple of weeks.

They were mostly ‘sweet’ conservative tunes that we’d got away with on the trip over. Benny was trying to save the tour by giving the people what he thought they wanted. You never would have guessed it on his face, he was under a great deal of pressure.

The first number ended quietly for such a big room, with a smattering of polite applause that died down long before the customary pause that Benny usually left before announcing the next number. That’s how it went for pretty much the rest of the set. There was a thinning of the couples on the dance floor as well; like we had somehow let them down.

After the first set, Benny turned to the audience, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re going to take a short break and will be back in just a little while.” Again the polite applause and not much else. Some people were just in their seats, sitting and staring at the band.

This was a six-week engagement and it was going south in the first set.

Now Gene Krupa was a pretty forward guy and was about the only guy in the band who could face Benny and tell it like it is. Maybe because he was an innovator himself. The first guy to use a full drum kit in a jazz recording and bass drum pedal. He developed the tunable tops and bottoms for tom toms that became standard parts of the modern kit and he worked with Armand Zildjian to develop the hi-hat stand and the names for many of the modern cymbals.

He looked at Benny and said, “If we’re gonna die Benny, let’s die playing our own thing.” Benny looked quizzical for a moment, paused and said, “Sure; if our careers are over, let’s cook our own goose.”

When it was time for the second set, Benny had us put aside the stock arrangements and get out the Fletcher Henderson charts and the other swing arrangers providing material for the band.

Benny spoke to the crowd again and we were into the second set.

First up we played “King Porter Stomp” and there was a definite stirring in the crowd being cajoled out of their complacency by the cooking swing tune. Folks started paying attention and there was a definite surge towards the dance floor. Benny played his trademark Clarinet style. In the third chorus Bunny Berrigan stood up and blasted a solo so hot, it would have scalded the devil.

The preacher was in the room. Bunny lowered towards his chair. As he did so, a wave of cheering rolled over the bandstand, with accompanying applause.

This time when Benny went to speak, the applause kept going and he had to motion the crowd to quiet down. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.” More applause.

This was what the crowd was waiting for. They’d heard the east coast radio broadcasts of the band performing the swing tunes and that’s what they wanted. They wanted the real Benny Goodman and he had delivered.

“Hey folks, want to swing some more?” A new round of applause that lingered over the start of the next number and continued in-between.

We played the other hit “Sometimes I’m Happy”, then more swing. Helen sang and soloists roared. The dance floor was full. It was a cookin’ gig.

After, the press caught onto the Palomar gig and Benny’s recordings took the top 3 spots in the Californian charts. There were some radio broadcasts and by the end they were calling Benny the “King of Swing”

From there, we moved onto the Congress Hotel in Chicago, a one-month gig that lasted for six months because they kept extending the engagement. Finally the Carnegie Hall concert.

I played constantly and I got to eat for a few years, then my bubble burst with World War II and army life. I said goodbye, I’ve got to say tearfully for an uncertain future.

I was trained and then I was on the front line, trading shots where I had been trading phrases. I was scared and I got to sit in a lot of holes.

Swing and the big band era kept on and we even got a taste when the USO brought a piece of home and normality.

Well you know the rest. I was never a full-time musician again and after my six years of war, the army taught me other trades.

Sure I gigged for fun, but I had changed. Sometimes I would write to friends to catch up, though you know how it is. I was just a guy on the side doing the gig, interchangeable. A sideman.

“If we’re gonna die, let’s die playing our own thing.”

I met my wife and we settled down. I worked at a store and eventually became the owner. I lived a life of peace and love and now I can see the twilight.



Data and Analytics Professional, Media Strategist and Creative, Customer Experience Architect and Developer, Secret Trumpeter

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Virgil Reality

Virgil Reality

Data and Analytics Professional, Media Strategist and Creative, Customer Experience Architect and Developer, Secret Trumpeter