TO RUSSIA WITHOUT LOVE
Benny Goodman was probably the world's best-known jazz musician. The average person thought of him as "The King of Swing," master of both hot jazz and classical music, a statesmanlike bandleader who traveled the world as Musical Ambassador of Good Will for the United States. Among jazz fans he was also known as the first white bandleader to break the color bar when, in the 1930s, he hired Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton. His bands and his recordings were always first class, and countless musicians found their careers established, or placed on a firmer footing, because Benny hired them.
Insiders in the business know other aspects of his personality. Whenever veterans of Goodman's bands find themselves working together, they tell stories about him, either to marvel once again at his paradoxical nature or to exorcise with laughter the traumatic experience of working for him. Musicians who were with him in 1936 swap similar stories with musicians who worked for him in 1986, the last year of his life.
Because his music was lovely, most musicians expected Goodman to be lovable as well. The stories about him make us laugh because they describe our astonishment at discovering his true nature. They may sound exaggerated to anyone who never dealt directly with the man. Benny apparently did something to insult, offend or bewilder nearly everyone who ever worked for him. He put together some wonderful bands, but he had a reputation for spoiling the fun. During my brief time with him, I watched him completely demoralize an excellent band.
Around April 1962 I got a call from Jay Finegold, Benny's manager:
"Benny's taking a band to Russia for six weeks, with a break-in tour out to the Seattle World's Fair. He'd like you to make it if we can agree on the money. How much would you need?"
This was the first actual job Benny had offered me. About a year earlier Jay had called to say Benny wanted me to come up to Lynn Oliver's rehearsal studio for a couple of hours one afternoon. At the studio I found John Bunch, who had recommended me to Benny, and a couple of young drummers I hadn't met before.
Benny and Jay came in. Benny, tall and reserved, was comfortably dressed in an old cardigan sweater. Jay, half his size, could have been mistaken for an eager-to-please nephew. A tidily dressed, handsome young man, he seemed to be everywhere at once, getting Benny a chair, handing him his clarinet case, making sure we were set up the way Benny wanted.
John introduced us. Benny got out his clarinet, got a reed working and called a tune. The rhythm section fell in behind him and he began to play, smoothly and beautifully, with the effortless control of his instrument that I had always admired. After a couple of choruses he waved us out and called another tune. It went on like that for a while. He'd call an old tune, play a chorus and stop us. Wondering if he were testing us to see if we knew old tunes, I suggested some of the ones I knew, like He's a Gypsy from Poughkeepsie and From the Indies to the Andes in his Undies. Benny gave me a suspicious look, and I decided maybe I didn't know him well enough yet to make jokes.
We played for an hour or so and then Benny said,
"Okay, boys, I guess that's it."
He packed his horn and left. Nobody mentioned any work, so I said goodbye to John and went home. I called Jay a few weeks later and told him I hadn't received a check for the rehearsal.
"Rehearsal?" said Jay. "Oh, no, Bill. That was just a jam session."
I told him I was used to being invited to jam sessions. When somebody calls and tells me to show up somewhere, I assume it's business. I never got paid, so I guess it was a jam session. I wish I had known. I would have taken a chorus.
At the time Jay called about the Russian tour, I had been making $300 a week with Gerry Mulligan whenever he had work for his quartet, and $225 when he booked a job for his big band. Jobs in Europe paid more. I wanted to see Russia but I also wanted a fair salary, and I had no idea what to ask for. Gerry had always given us a fair share of whatever he was making, so I had never felt the need to bargain with him. But everyone who had worked for Benny had told me he would try to pay as little as he could. I asked Jay for $300 a week. He said he'd speak to Benny and get back to me.
Jay called the next day to say that $300 was okay, but Benny would have to have any recordings made on the tour for nothing. I didn't know that such an arrangement violated union rules, so I accepted. Mel Lewis told me later that Benny did the same thing to him, but Mel got more money out of him. My salary turned out to be at the low end of the scale on the band, though I had expected that when I heard the lineup. The band was loaded with talent and experience. Some of the guys made twice as much as I did. Jim Maxwell told me he got $1000 a week, but his was a special case.
Before we left, Jay told some of the higher salaried players that the State Department insisted they take cuts. Joe Wilder had been hired for $600 a week, and would only come down to $550. Reductions were reluctantly agreed to by a few others. When we got to Moscow, these musicians descended on Terry Catherman, a cultural attaché from the U. S. embassy, to ask why the State Department had found it necessary to demand the salary cuts.
"I don't know anything about it," said Terry. "We pay Mr. Goodman a lump sum."
Before I was hired, I had read an article in the New York Times announcing the Russian tour. It said that twelve musicians had already been signed, with one trombonist, at least two trumpeters and a bass player yet to be chosen. It sounded like a very good band: John Bunch on piano, Gene Allen on baritone sax, Jerry Dodgion and Phil Woods on altos, Oliver Nelson and Zoot Sims on tenors, Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis on trombones, John Frosk on trumpet, Mel Lewis on drums, Jimmy Raney on guitar. Joya Sherrill was to be the featured vocalist.
The article said that Benny was "expected to perform with his fifteen-piece band, and to conduct Soviet symphony orchestras on the tour." Nat Hentoff was quoted as saying, "The prevailing composition of the band is young and modern. An interesting question is how (Goodman) will adapt his style to this group."
The Times said that some people felt Duke Ellington should have been the first American jazz band to make an official tour of Russia, and that Benny had offered Duke a couple of weeks on the trip as guest soloist, but Duke hadn't accepted. A later Times article quoted Benny as saying he would play "jazz, chamber music and some classical works" but that the prime purpose of the tour was to present "an anthology of American jazz" to the Russians.
Benny tried out several drummers before he finally hired Mel Lewis. John Bunch, who had been helping Benny assemble the band, advised him to hire me as well, since Mel and I had worked well together on Gerry Mulligan's band.
Mel was known as "The Tailor" on Gerry's band. It was a sobriquet he had brought with him from Los Angeles, and I had heard speculation about its origin. Some people thought it meant he "suited" the band well, "custom fitting" his rhythmic patterns to the music, "stitching" the time skillfully together. Actually, Terry Gibbs hung the name on him. "Have you seen him walk? He looks like my tailor."
Mel's appearance was deceptive. A soft, round man with a dreamy expression, he didn't fit the image of the hot jazz drummer that Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich established. But then, neither did Dave Tough or Tiny Kahn.
Rehearsals began on April 14. When I joined the band soon afterward, I discovered a few changes in the lineup that had been announced by the Times. John Bunch played some of the rehearsals, but Teddy Wilson was to make the tour. Tom Newsom had replaced Oliver Nelson after Oliver left to write a movie score. Jim Raney had never actually been hired. He said,
"Jay Finegold called and offered me the magnificent sum of $150 per week. I was so stupefied that I was speechless. When I finally found my voice, I made a counter-offer of $600 a week plus expenses. He considered this to be out of the question. He would call back every few days to make a new offer, but by the time he had come pretty close to my price, I had made other commitments. He asked me to make a few rehearsals until they could find someone. I did make a couple."
Turk Van Lake was the guitarist at the first rehearsal I made. He later told me that Jay hired him from day to day and didn't tell him he was to make the tour until shortly before we left New York.
Turk's Armenian name was Vanig Hovsepian. His father came from a part of Armenia that is now in Turkey, near Lake Van, hence his American name. A small, slender man with jet black hair brushed straight back from a broad forehead, he sat wrapped around his guitar, the point of his chin buried in his shirtfront, his slender fingers manipulating the strings with quick deftness. Turk played acoustic rhythm guitar a la Freddy Green. Since I had been working with Mulligan's pianoless groups for quite a while, the four-man rhythm section format was a big change for me. I enjoyed figuring out the best way to play with it.
The sax section was superb. Gene Allen, a dark, genial man with a deceptively somber mien that wouldn't look out of place in a George Price cartoon, anchored the section with his strong, subtle baritone. There were also a couple of bass clarinet parts in his book, a double that Gene handled well. Tom Newsom was a fine tenor player with a laid-back country boy manner that fitted well with Zoot Sims's carefree style. Phil Woods, strong and definite by nature, played great lead alto and clarinet, and Jerry Dodgion, merry as a chickadee, matched his sound perfectly on third alto and clarinet. They were all good soloists, and Zoot and Phil were in a class by themselves.
The trumpet section wasn't set until half-way through the rehearsal period. Several different trumpeters passed through, including Clark Terry, Jerry Tyre and a Yugoslavian trumpet player Willie Dennis brought down from Berklee School of Music. Clark was offered the tour but didn't want to go. Clark was on staff at NBC. He knew about Benny's influence there, so he decided against a direct refusal. Instead, he got his doctor to give him a letter citing a physical condition that made it inadvisable for him to fly, and successfully avoided being drafted by Benny. Jim Maxwell, Joe Wilder and Joe Newman became the final choices for the open chairs in the trumpet section, and Wayne Andre joined the trombones.
John Frosk and Maxwell were equally powerful players, though John was only half Jimmy's size. Walking together, they looked like a polar bear and cub. They had both played lead for Benny in the past, and could contribute good jazz choruses when called on to do so. Joe Wilder, an ex-marine with a welterweight's physique, also played good lead and was an imaginative soloist with a unique, lovely tone. Joe Newman, though a light and slender man, was a fountain of swinging energy in the section, and his trumpet turned into a blowtorch on his solos.
Dark-eyed, handsome Willie Dennis was a very strong soloist, and Wayne Andre, calm and introspective, had a singing tone and sparkling technique. Jimmy Knepper, a sweet soft-spoken man who seemed to have been molded from Play-Doh by a precocious six-year-old, was a fine lead player and a great soloist.
Jimmy had made only a couple of rehearsals with us when he came down with the mumps. Jay hired substitutes to cover for him -- Jack Satterfield, Eddie Bert, Tyree Glenn and Jim Winter were there at one time or another. Mumps shots were given to members who weren't sure they'd had the disease or shots. Jay would check with Knepper every day to see if he was well enough to come back to work, but when Jimmy got the okay from his doctor and called Jay, he was told, "Forget it. Benny has replaced you." Jim Winter was his replacement.
Like Clark Terry, Jim Maxwell, who was making a good salary at NBC playing the Perry Como show, didn't want to go to Russia with Benny. Their personal relationship had been a long one, and Jim was grateful to Benny for establishing him in the music business. Their families were friendly and Benny seemed fond of Jimmy's son David. Benny told Jim that it was essential that he be his lead man on this tour, and kept raising his salary offer.
When Jim said no to $1000 a week, Benny tried pressure. Jimmy got a call from one of the head men at NBC telling him he could have the time off, and was to go. Then someone from the State Department called, telling him it was his patriotic duty to make the trip. Jimmy said,
"I take care of my patriotic duty by paying my income tax."
The man from State said, "Yes, and we can look into that, too."
When Benny called again, Jim was still reluctant.
"I don't like to leave my family," he said.
"Bring them along," said Benny.
"My wife works, and my daughter has already planned her summer," said Jim.
"Well, bring David along. He can be the band boy. It will be a great experience for him."
David, just out of high school, was eager to go. So Jim, deciding it might be his last chance to do something with his son before sending him off to college, finally agreed to make the tour for $1000 a week, and to bring David along as band boy. At one of the first rehearsals Benny showed David how he wanted the band set up, and Mel showed him how to assemble the drum set.
In Seattle Benny changed his mind. He had a friendly talk with Jimmy, telling him he was getting too old to play lead. He said,
"Why don't you take it easy, play fourth, play a little jazz, and enjoy the trip?"
He divided most of the first trumpet parts between John Frosk and Joe Wilder. Maxwell was surely the most expensive fourth trumpet player Benny ever had.
David Maxwell probably got more out of the trip than any of us. He became so interested in the Soviet Union during the tour that he majored in Russian when he got to college, and went back to study for a year at the University of Moscow. (He is now Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Tufts.) David was never given any specific duties as band boy. Mel usually set up his own drums, and the local stage crews always set up the chairs and stands. But David was helpful and good company, and we were glad to have him along.
In addition to the musicians, the first rehearsals swarmed with ancillaries -- State Department officials, reporters, Benny's staff people, producer George Avakian from RCA Victor, an NBC-TV crew, arrangers with new material, various friends, well-wishers and hangers-out, and Benny's greatest fan, Sol Yaged.
For years Sol had idolized Benny, played like him, dressed like him, stood the way Benny stood, talked the way Benny talked. Someone told me he once even heard Sol call his own wife "Alice." He had made such a study of Benny that he was the natural choice to coach Steve Allen, who portrayed Benny in the Hollywood fantasy, The Benny Goodman Story. Sol came to all our rehearsals and sat there with the happy expression of a kid from a sand-lot team who has been allowed to sit on the Yankee bench.
Eddie Sauter, who first attained fame as the orchestrator for Goodman's band in the 1930s, attended one rehearsal. We played him an old arrangement that he didn't remember writing. We also rehearsed Mission to Moscow, written twenty years earlier by Mel Powell, who took the title from a book by Joseph Davies, former ambassador to Moscow.
Benny had a stack of new arrangements from several of the good writers around New York. Bob Prince had written a number called Meet the Band that introduced us individually and by section, and an Anthology of Jazz medley of tunes identified with Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Dave Brubeck and Count Basie. Ralph Burns, Al Cohn, Jimmy Knepper and Joe Lipman had done charts for Joya Sherrill, and there were instrumentals by Bob Brookmeyer, Bobby Bryant, John Bunch, John Carisi, Tadd Dameron, Joe Lipman, Gary McFarland, Oliver Nelson and Tom Newsom.
The only new piece that Benny rejected outright was a Third Stream composition that Gunther Schuller brought in, but a lot of the charts that he accepted didn't make it as far as Russia. What he did use appeared on the concerts less and less as the tour progressed. Benny felt more sure of himself on his older numbers like Bugle Call Rag, Down South Camp Meeting, Bach Goes to Town, etc. At times when the band began to roar on the new charts, he seemed a little overwhelmed. I think he felt threatened by our collective spirit. We knew how this music went better than he did, and I think the realization of this upset him.
We played Benny's older arrangements well, and we liked some of them a lot. None of us had expected not to be playing the arrangements that had made him famous. But the new stuff was challenging and satisfying to us, and at the beginning we were led to believe that the identity of this particular Goodman band would be built on the new material. We had rehearsed it all thoroughly in New York and had it sounding good. When Benny went back into his early book during the tour, many of us were sight reading, and there were parts for only five brass.
One new chart that Benny seemed to like was written by John Carisi. John called it The Bulgar, and Other Balkan Type Inventions. Benny called it "The Vulgar Bulgar." John had structured it like Benny's old hit, Sing, Sing, Sing. He took a Bulgarian folk theme, wrote the first chorus fairly straight, then put in a tom-tom figure over which Benny could play a solo in a minor mode before the full band took it out. Benny played well on The Bulgar, and at the Seattle fair, he called it every night right after the opening theme.
Benny would sometimes have Zoot Sims or Phil Woods play before his long clarinet duet with Mel Lewis's tom-toms. One night in Moscow, when Benny pointed to Phil during The Bulgar, Phil stood up and played an absolutely spectacular solo, filled with singing and dancing and fireworks. It was one of those rare, inspired performances that takes your breath away. When he finished, the whole band joined the audience in a roar of approval.
As Mel continued the tom-tom beat, Benny made several false starts on his own solo. He usually played well on that section, but he was obviously stunned by Phil's solo, and couldn't seem to concentrate. He fumbled through a perfunctory solo, but he probably should have just skipped it and gone straight to the out chorus. Anything else was bound to be an anticlimax.
Benny never gave Phil a chance to do that again. In that spot the next night, Benny called his old arrangement of Bugle Call Rag, and we never played Carisi's chart again. The concerts were being recorded, but The Bulgar wasn't used on Benny's RCA album of the tour.
George Avakian said one of the hardest parts of editing the tapes for that album was having to make do with just one or two takes on the new charts. He didn't want the record to be another reprise of Benny's older material. I think Benny ordered all the new arrangements because he didn't want to be called old-fashioned, but when we got to Russia he began to worry about being too modern for the Russians. He also didn't like to be seen reading the new parts onstage. He had memorized all the older arrangements, and didn't need to look at the music.
At many of the concerts, Soviet jazz fans shouted "Zoot! Pheel!" They wanted more solos by the two saxophonists. On the album, on Tom Newsom's Titter Pipes, these cries can be heard. George Avakian told me he had trouble getting a clearly audible example of the real thing on tape, so the voices heard yelling "Zoot! Pheel!" on the record belong to George and Carl Schindler, the recording engineer.
Our morale was high during the rehearsals in New York. We knew we had a good band and we were proud to be taking it to Russia. The cold war seemed to be thawing into peaceful co-existence, and everyone considered the Russians' acceptance of our tour to be a sign that Soviet-American relations were improving.
We appeared on The Bell Telephone Hour on April 27, before the trumpet section was set. “Tonight Show” veterans Doc Severinsen and Clark Terry filled in the gaps. We played Let's Dance, Mission to Moscow, Clarinet Ala King, a quartet number, and we accompanied Anna Moffo, who sang Embraceable You and `Swonderful. Sol Yaged came to the TV studio to watch. Actually, Benny was preoccupied that day and didn't play as well as he'd been playing at the rehearsals, but as I was packing up my bass, Sol came over and said with stars in his eyes, "You sure can see why they call him the King!"
Besides the daily rehearsals, we had a lot to do to get ready for the trip. Benny sent us to Alexander Shields's chic Park Avenue men's boutique to be measured for band uniforms. Then we got security clearances, passports, and briefings from the State Department. Heath Bowman and Tom Tuck, of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, spent an afternoon giving us an idea of what we might expect in the Soviet Union, and they brought a doctor to one of the rehearsals to administer smallpox, tetanus and typhus shots.
The Ukranian Dance Company was in New York as part of the cultural exchange. We had a special rehearsal in the Grand Ballroom of the Essex House, and the dancers were brought there to meet us. A few of them jitterbugged discreetly for the benefit of the press photographers.
Just before the tour began, we discovered that Benny's secretary, Muriel Zuckerman, planned to pay us at the end of each week in Russia by check. Most of us had families and would have no way of cashing checks in Russia or of sending money home. Muriel, a flinty little lady long associated with Benny, seemed to find our objections to her plan unreasonable. We raised hell, the State Department interceded, and Muriel found she was able to arrange to have advances sent to the families of those of us who requested it.
Benny contacted Clifton Daniel, then head of the Moscow Bureau of the New York Times, to ask for any suggestions he might have for cementing relations with the Russians, and cultivating their interest in jazz. Daniel told him that jazz records were hard to get in Russia. He said that if Benny wanted to send him some albums, he would see that they were placed somewhere in a library or a cultural center where the Russian people would have access to them. Benny agreed that this was a good idea and sent a box of records for Daniel to put into the proper hands. To Daniel's surprise, Benny also sent a bill for the records, which the Times eventually paid.
My feelings toward Benny during the rehearsal period were very positive. He was a little patronizing and would get on different guys about inconsequential things -- he kept trying to get Joe Newman to sit up straighter -- but I loved the band, and Benny was responsible for having put it together. I was looking forward to being in on some good music.
Our first job out of New York was a college dance at the University of Illinois on May 18, and then we flew to St. Louis for a concert at the Keel Auditorium on May 19. At the hotel in St. Louis I got a call from Benny an hour before the concert:
"Say, Pops, did you get a chance to look at your part on the Aaron Copland duet I gave you last week?"
I said, "I looked at it, but we never rehearsed it."
"Oh, there's nothing to it, Pops. We'll try it out tonight."
My heart sank. My part was all bowed half notes in the upper register of the string bass. Knowing Copland's love of dissonant intervals, I was worried. I had no idea how my part related to the clarinet part, which I'd never heard, and I was not thrilled about sight reading it in front of a couple of thousand people. I asked Benny to wait a day so we could rehearse together. He said something noncommittal and hung up.
Sure enough, after the second number on the concert that night he announced the damned thing, and I suffered through it, feeling trapped and furious. Benny of course had his part memorized. I comforted myself by saying, "Well, at least now I know what it is." I woodshedded my part, but Benny never played it again while I was with the band.
After St. Louis, we flew to San Francisco, with a stop at the Los Angeles airport to pick up vibraphonist Victor Feldman, whom Benny had added for the septet numbers. At the San Francisco Opera House concert on May 20, Count Basie came backstage to say hello. We were pleased when he told us he liked our rhythm section.
In San Francisco, Joe Newman, my roommate on the tour, took me to the home of his brother, Alvin, for dinner. Joe said his sister-in-law, Lillian, was famous for her cooking. He had once taken several of the Basie band's champion eaters to her table and she had surfeited them with ease.
When we walked into her pleasant living room, Lillian, a large, handsome lady, was sitting on the couch with a slippered foot propped up on the coffee table.
"Oh, Joe," she wailed, "You brought somebody when I'm having trouble with my foot, and can't do for you properly! You'll just have to take pot luck this time! I haven't felt up to cooking today. All I've got is leftovers!"
What she had "left over" turned out to be half a ham, a pot roast, two kinds of potatoes, beans, greens, vegetables, salad, corn bread, and assorted side dishes that made it look like she had been cooking for a week. Alvin came home, and we all sat down at the table. Joe and Alvin are both small men, but Joe always looked trimmed to the bone, with a wiry energy that came bursting out in his laughter and in his music. His brother was calm and sleek and ate like a man twice his size.
After we had laid waste to the meal, Lillian cheered up a little and made us promise to return when she was feeling better, so she could fix us something more substantial.
"Now, you come back any time you're in town," she told me. "You don't have to be with Joe. Just jump in a cab and come right on out."
We opened in Seattle on May 21, and enjoyed being at the fair. I was especially happy to be playing in my home state. I grew up in Kirkland, across Lake Washington from Seattle. A lot of my old friends came to look me up. The band's schedule wasn't heavy, so I had time to explore the fair and the city, which I hadn't visited for years. Some of the guys in the band bought a giant World's Fair souvenir post card and sent it to Jim and Andy's bar in New York, covered with signatures and wisecracks. We were having a good time together, but the concerts were beginning to be hard work.
Benny had become the bandleader I'd heard all the stories about. He stayed at a different hotel than the rest of us; we only saw him on the job. His manner became severe -- the hard taskmaster. He began fixing things that weren't broken in the music, changing tempos, changing soloists, glaring and snapping at us. Though our ages ranged from 29 to 49, he addressed us as "boys," and Joya was "the girl." His general demeanor indicated that he thought he was, by virtue of his position of stardom, wealth and power, innately superior to us mere mortals.
It's easy to understand how a person might begin to think too highly of himself when he is at the peak of popular success. Having thousands of fans cheering every note you play and clamoring for a look at you wherever you go can easily inflate your ego. But it was a long time since Benny had been the superstar he was in the `30s and `40s. In 1962 he held a respected position in the music world, but he'd had time to outgrow any delusions of grandeur he might have contracted from the mass teenage adulation of the Swing Era. The band didn't subscribe to Benny's special view of himself. We gave him credit for his achievements and respected his musicianship, but we also respected our own. We wanted to be treated as adults and professionals.
Benny wanted separate hotels in Russia, too, and when Intourist told him this was not possible, he insisted on at least staying on a different floor that the rest of us. In the dining rooms he and his family always ate at a separate table. This didn't bother us, since Benny wasn't much of a conversationalist, and he was an untidy eater. But we came down to lunch one day at our hotel in Kiev to find we had been moved to his table for one meal for the benefit of a movie crew he had hired to do some filming for him; we were supposed to pretend to be one big happy family, with Benny in the role of the benevolent father.
In Seattle, Benny began fiddling with Joya's numbers. He had Bob Prince fly out from New York and write two new charts for her. We used one of them for only two performances. Benny never even had the parts copied out for the other one. He asked Joya if she knew the lyrics to any of the vocal arrangements in his old book. Those charts featured the band, with one vocal chorus.
Joya stopped that idea dead in its tracks:
"Mr. Goodman, I have my music, and those are the songs I am going to sing. I was hired as the featured vocalist on this tour. I am not the band singer."
That was the beginning of a decided coolness between Benny and Joya. By the end of the week in Seattle, she, Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Maxwell and a couple of others were talking about quitting. Mel Lewis told them,
"You guys don't understand the Old Man. I get along great with him. He plays his axe, I play my axe, we both do a good job and everything's fine with him. Everybody misunderstands him."
Jimmy Maxwell laughed. "You tell me that the last week in Moscow," he said.
The State Department had moved mountains to get Moscow to approve Benny's tour and didn't want to give the Russians any reason to have second thoughts about it. They prevailed on the dissidents not to leave.
Benny wasn't in good contact with us, nor with our audiences. He didn't seem comfortable with the crowds that came to hear us, and he did things that confused them. Sometimes after raising his hand in preparation for a downbeat, and getting the band set to play, instruments ready, embouchures set, breaths taken, he would stand there for a long time with his forefinger in the air and his eyes half closed, waiting. He might have been thinking about the tempo, but who could tell? I timed him once. It was a forty second wait! That's a lot of dead time on stage. The audience would grow restless, and then there would be shushing by those who thought Benny was waiting for total silence. He would sometimes end these long pauses with a little start, as if he had just awakened from a nap, and then he would tap off the tempo.
On one concert, as Benny was about to start a tune, he noticed that I was chewing gum. He walked over and told me to get rid of it. I stopped chewing and indicated that I was ready to play. He wasn't satisfied.
"That's okay, Pops, I'll wait for you," he said.
I didn't want to stick the gum on my music stand, and I wasn't about to make a trip offstage, so I swallowed it and made a face at him, and he went on with the program. His fastidiousness about the gum amused me, since he often hawked and spat right on the stage, and would sometimes stand in front of the band absently exploring the depths of a nostril or the rear seam of his trousers with his forefinger. Mel Lewis would sometimes make oinking noises when Benny did these things. One of Jay Finegold's customary concerns before concerts was to make sure Benny didn't walk onstage with his fly open.
John Frosk had been on Benny's tour of the Far East, and had taken movies of him picking his nose and scratching his behind while entertaining the King of Siam. When NBC was preparing a television special on that tour, John mentioned to one of the producers that he had some film. A motorcycle messenger was sent to his house to pick it up. The producer of the special called John the next day and said, "Are you crazy? We can't use any of that stuff!"
In Seattle, Benny kept bugging the trumpet section. He would move the lead part from one player to another without giving any reason. He'd take a solo away from one player and give it to another in a quite discourteous manner. He'd wait until Joe Wilder was on his feet ready to play the solo indicated on his part, then would wave him down and point to Joe Newman.
Benny had a reputation as a perfectionist, but I don't remember him giving us any useful suggestions for improving the music. Everyone was on their mettle to play their best, but we never knew what Benny's standards were. If he was displeased, we found out by having a solo, a part, or an entire arrangement taken away, but he rarely said what it was he hadn't liked, or what he wanted instead.
Benny never acknowledged us as musical colleagues. He would be friendly from time to time, but he always found it necessary to remind us that we were the hired help. He deserves a lot of credit for taking John Hammond's advice in the `30s and integrating his band at a time when white bands were lily-white. But after working for him, I give him no credit for being a libertarian. He treated everyone like slaves, regardless of race, creed, or national origin.
With such a good band, we couldn't understand why Benny didn't just let us play, and take his solos and his bows. If he had done that, the tour would have been a piece of cake for him. Instead, he seemed to be always on his guard against us, as if we had been shanghaied and had to be watched for signs of mutiny. He rarely indicated his appreciation of the band's quality, and he seemed to resent the best work of most of his soloists. He approved of Zoot and Joe Newman, and that was it.
By the end of the tour, most of us felt betrayed and outraged, and Benny had a couple of cases of serious rancor on his hands. Even so, we played a lot of good music. Jerry Dodgion said later,
"No matter what went down with Benny, I had the best seat in the house, right between Zoot and Phil. I was in heaven."
We were proud of that band and we couldn't understand why Benny didn't seem to feel that way, too.
We had originally been told we would fly to Moscow from Seattle via the polar route, but in Seattle, Jay told us we were going back to New York first. We flew east on May 27th and stopped again in Chicago where Benny had a short visit with his mother at the airport. There was some speculation that Benny had changed the routing just to be able to see her again. But in New York we found John Bunch and Jimmy Knepper waiting at the airport to join us. Benny had decided that Teddy Wilson didn't play "modern" enough for the band and had hired John, planning to use Teddy only on the quintet and septet numbers.
John didn't really want to go to Russia. Charlie Mastropaolo, who had been there with Ed Sullivan, had told him,
"It's the awfullest goddamned place I've ever been. If Benny wants you to go, be sure to ask for a lot of money."
When Benny called him from Seattle, John named a good figure, and Benny stayed on the phone for half an hour, haggling over fifty bucks.
The guys from the State Department were pulling their hair out because of the last minute clearances they had to get for John and Jimmy Knepper. When Knepper had been bumped off the band, he had mentioned his disappointment to a lawyer friend. The lawyer evidently had called Benny in Seattle and told him he was liable for Jimmy's salary. At any rate, Jim got a call from Seattle telling him to meet us at Idlewild. Jim Winter disappeared from the trombone section, and Jimmy Knepper flew to Russia with us.
We had some time between flights when we arrived at Idlewild, but not enough to go anywhere. Everyone made phone calls to say last goodbyes to family and friends. In a private airport lounge, a delegation of officials from Local 802 gave us a farewell party with music provided by Bobby Hackett's band.
A representative from the Selmer company brought new saxophones to the airport for Tom Newsom and Gene Allen to use while we were in Russia. Benny wanted the sax section to be playing new Selmers, and had already prevailed on Zoot Sims to not bring his favorite tenor, an old horn that sounded great but looked very ratty, the lacquer having long ago peeled away leaving irregular blotches of corrosion and tarnish. Zoot had walked into a music store on 48th Street in New York, pointed to a new Selmer and said,
"Gimme that one."
He bought it without even trying it out. He didn't like it as well as his old favorite, to which he returned when the tour was over. The new one was stolen the following New Years Eve when he left it in his car in front of Jim and Andy's bar.
Jerry Dodgion already had a new Selmer alto that he had acquired while working with Benny some time earlier. Jerry had always played a King saxophone, but Benny asked him to switch to a Selmer because they were about to play for a Selmer convention. "I'm a shareholder in the company," he told Jerry, "and it wouldn't look right."
Unlike many other musical instrument companies, Selmer has never provided complimentary instruments to the artists who play them. They do sometimes offer horns on trial, with the understanding that when the artist finds one he likes, he'll buy it. Selmer sent Jerry an alto in time for the convention. Jerry was happy with his old horn, and since he was only using the Selmer in deference to Benny, he kept ignoring the bills that periodically arrived from Selmer. He finally sent them his old alto, and the bills stopped coming.
The arrival of the new instruments at Idlewild created the problem of what to do with the old ones. Gene Allen and Tommy Newsom decided to take them along. If there were any mishaps, a spare horn might come in handy. The Selmer representative had also brought a reed instrument repair kit. We were going to be a long way from the repairmen on 48th Street.
The trip from Seattle to Moscow, including the stopover at Idlewild, took about 24 hours. As we left New York we had quite a planeful. There was Benny, his wife Alice, their daughters, Rachel and Benjy, Sophia Duckworth (Alice's daughter), eighteen musicians, Joya Sherrill, Jay Finegold, Muriel Zuckerman, Hal Davis (Benny's public relations man), David Maxwell, an NBC television crew, reporters, photographers and State Department people. Stan Wayman, the famous Life photographer, was with us, assigned by the magazine to cover the entire tour. SAS gave us the full celebrity treatment on the flight to Copenhagen. There, we changed to a more austere Aeroflot jet and flew on to Moscow.
Jazz writer Leonard Feather wasn't on our plane, but he turned up at our hotel in Moscow. When he learned of the tour, Leonard said,
"My reaction was immediate. `I want to be there when the band starts playing.'" He booked a trip to Russia on his own, having lined up just enough magazine assignments to cover his fare. When he arrived at Moscow airport, the Intourist people couldn't or wouldn't tell him our itinerary, yet he was required to declare his own travel schedule. He knew the date we opened in Moscow, so he booked a week there and a second week in Leningrad, the artistic center of the Soviet Union, where he guessed they might send us next. Unfortunately, we traveled south and east for a few weeks before going to Leningrad, so we didn't see Leonard after we left Moscow. He went to Leningrad without us and investigated the local jazz scene there.
In Moscow Leonard found our hotel, interviewed Benny and the band members and covered the opening concert and a party afterwards at the U.S. embassy celebrating the tour and Benny's 53rd birthday.
The United States had been through the McCarthy era and, at the time of the tour, Russia loomed large in the American subconscious. I hadn't shared the general anxiety about the Red Menace, but I was still surprised to realize that the evergreen trees surrounding the Moscow airfield looked just like the trees in my home state. I had been so conscious of Russia as a political entity that I had forgotten it was also a place of trees and grass and birds. And, of course, the people looked just like people. Only the buildings and the clothing looked different, and not any stranger than the differences one sees when traveling from New York to New Orleans.
As we stayed there longer, we began to notice and feel oppressed by the socio-political climate in the Soviet Union, but on a human level, I felt a more immediate empathy with the people I met there than I had felt in some western European countries. John Frosk said that Gene Allen, his roommate, never got over his nervousness about being in a Communist country. He was sure their room was bugged, and would constantly shush John.
"What if it is bugged?" John would say. "We're not saying anything!"
"Ssshh!" Gene would insist.
I had a copy of the Hammond company's Tourist Manual for Russia. It was full of good information and advice. Among their list of do's and don'ts:
Bring plenty of film. Roll types may be scarce.
Use a comfortable pair of shoes, there's plenty of walking.
Bring a sink stopper (universal flat type) seldom available.
Bring your own soap for best washing.
Wash and peel all raw fruit before eating.
Bring special medicines you need, especially for diarrhea.
Have plenty of paper tissues. They are very useful.*
*[Footnote] Russian toilet paper is slick and crinkly. B.C.
Bring in any Soviet currency, it is strictly forbidden.
Take pictures from planes, trains, or of bridges, etc.
Wear shorts or bathing suit in the streets.
Drink tap water in the smaller towns.
Give tips, it may be considered an insult.
Become exhausted or frustrated. Rest up for a while.
Lose your patience. Keep a chipper attitude. Avoid arguments.
I reminded myself of the last two items after every concert, since Benny was even more supercilious with us in Moscow than he had been in Seattle.
Cultural attache Terry Catherman was a handsome, blond all-American boy. In his regular briefings, he described situations we should avoid that might be used to embarrass the United States, and told us horror stories about reporters and diplomats who had been set up by the KGB in order to create scandals for propaganda purposes. He cautioned us not to go anywhere alone with a Russian, but said his gut feeling was that the heat was off for this tour. He didn't think we would experience any unusual harassment, and he was right.
Terry pointed out the guys in the blue suits who stood in front of Moscow's Leningradskaya Hotel, looking like store detectives. He said they would take note of who talked to us and might even follow us around. I walked a lot by myself and never noticed any of them following me, but some of us were followed. In an attempt to forestall any wild behavior, Terry kept stressing our roles as ambassadors representing the United States. I thought it amusing that as an ambassador of western democracy I was a member of the least democratic band I'd ever played with.
The language was difficult, not just because the words were new, but also because of the Cyrillic alphabet that is used in Russia, with different sounds for some of the same letters we use. They use a "C" for the "s" sound and a "B" for the "v" sound, so when they say "Moskva" (Moscow), they write it "MOCKBA." They use "P' for their "r" sound, "H" for their "n" sound, "E" for "ye" and "Y" for "oo." There are other letter symbols, with their own sounds, that were completely new to us. Reading even the simplest sign was difficult. We had to refer to our alphabet charts and slowly sound out each character just to see if it was a Russian word we had heard before. I practiced hard in order to be able to read street signs and the names of subway stations.
We picked up enough Russian phrases by ear to be able to exchange basic courtesies, and we had our handy Berlitz phrase books, but we were heavily dependent on Felix, Gallia and Tamara, the interpreters provided for us. Felix was a tall, thin, neatly dressed, balding man with a small mustache, wire rimmed glasses and a bright wit. Gallia, a neat attractive brunette, remained in the background. Tamara spoke with the voice of authority. Dark, petite and businesslike, she served as our tour guide in Moscow and amused us with her party line interpretations of the paintings at the art museum:
"Here we see the wicked landowner drinking to assuage his guilt... In this painting, notice the steely eyes of the aristocrat and the kind, warm eyes of the peasant woman."
Tamara stayed in Moscow when we hit the road. She was replaced by Nadia, a stocky dishwater blonde with a pleasant smile that revealed a chipped front tooth. Since Felix was mainly assigned to Benny, the two girls had the rest of us to deal with. Sometimes we couldn't find them because Benny would send them on errands.
We became friendly with all three interpreters during the tour, even though Terry told us that their job probably included reporting on us to the secret police. Besides interpreting for us, they explained local customs, helped us avoid gaffes, and generally smoothed our way.
Some of us were more charmed than others with life in the Soviet Union. We all criticized the food we were served and the governmental restrictions we ran into, but I think most of us enjoyed the people we met. Some of us played jam sessions in local restaurants after the concerts, but nothing stayed open late. There were no night clubs or late movies, so there wasn't much to do at night but return to our hotel to read, drink, play cards, and bitch about Benny. After a few weeks, I noticed a psychological exhaustion among us that was probably a combination of the language barrier, homesickness, dysentery, travel weariness and musical frustration.
On arriving in Moscow, we took the large instruments over to the Central Army Sports Club, a grandiose palace with a marble lobby of crystal chandeliers and opulent draperies. Then we were taken to the Leningradskaya Hotel, a monolithic building with a soviet version of art-deco ornamentation. Its lobby was large and a little gloomy, and the rooms were spartan but clean.
I'm an early riser, especially when I'm in a new place. The second day in Moscow, the morning of our first concert, I tiptoed out of our room while Joe Newman was still sleeping, and walked around the city for a couple of hours before breakfast. Benny had called a 10 a.m. rehearsal, and breakfast had been announced as available from 8 to 9 a.m., so I timed my walk to get me back just before nine. As I entered the hotel lobby I met a frantic Jay Finegold.
"I've been looking all over for you! Benny wants to rehearse the quintet at nine. The other guys are just leaving for the hall. You've got to get right over there!"
I told Jay that I hadn't had breakfast, and would get there as quickly as I could. He seemed to feel that I should have gone hungry, but I had been walking briskly for a couple of hours and was famished. I figured it would be a long rehearsal, and the Sports Club was in the middle of a park, far from any coffee shops. Also, I didn't appreciate being notified at 8:45 about a 9 a.m. rehearsal.
I went into the hotel dining room, and there was Benny with a napkin tucked under his chin, having a leisurely breakfast. I ordered some eggs and coffee, and we finished at about the same time. Since he had a car and driver waiting, he told me to ride to the rehearsal with him. As Jay got in front with the driver, Benny climbed in the back seat and sprawled out in a way that left me hardly any room to sit down. He had done the same sort of thing when he sat next to me in the lounge on the plane. He was a tall man and needed a lot of room, but he always managed to take up more than his share of the available space.
Benny had a reputation for taking advantage of his musicians. He appropriated clarinet reeds from his saxophone players, cadged their cigarettes, and when he joined "the boys" for coffee or lunch, he usually stuck them with the tab. He once met drummer Maurice Mark and his wife on the street and invited them to join him in a visit to a New York night club. At the end of the dinner, Benny went to make a phone call and never returned, leaving them with the bill.
He once fired a bass player in New York after their plane had just made a stop in Washington, where the guy lived. And when Helen Ward, rehearsing at his house in Connecticut, complained that the room was cold, Benny said, "You're right," left the room for a minute, and returned wearing a heavy sweater, ready to continue with the rehearsal. I have heard people attribute this sort of thing to his "absentmindedness," but I think the truth is, he just didn't give a damn about anybody but himself.
As we rode to the rehearsal in Moscow, Benny chatted jovially. When we arrived, I got out of the car on the curb side and held the door open for him. He slid over and handed me his clarinet case, which I took, thinking he needed both hands to get out of the car. He stepped by me and walked away, leaving me standing there with his horn. I was supposed to carry it! Not only that, I was clearly not supposed to walk beside him! I stood there in disbelief. He really took that King of Swing thing seriously!
I considered leaving the clarinet on the curb, but I couldn't do that to anybody's instrument. I angrily shoved the case into Jay's hands.
"Who the hell does he think he is?" I fumed. "If he wants a valet, why doesn't he hire one?"
"Don't get excited," Jay placated, " It's just his way."
On the U.S. part of the tour, we had been playing a quintet number on every concert. It was a medley of Avalon, Body and Soul, Rose Room, Stompin' at the Savoy, and either China Boy or The World is Waiting for the Sunrise. We'd play a chorus of each tune and modulate to the next. At the rehearsal in Moscow, Benny got out his clarinet and came on stage where Teddy, Mel, Turk and I had set up.
"Uh, boys, on that medley, I just wanted to be sure we're all using the same chords. Are we all using the same chords there?"
"Where do you mean?" we asked.
"Well, let's just run through it and see," said Benny.
We began with Avalon, and at the end of the chorus Benny stopped us.
"Are we all using the same chords there?" he asked.
We assured him that we were.
"Okay, let's go on," he said, and went into Body and Soul. At the end, same question, same answer. On Rose Room he had Turk play a little by himself.
"That's good," Benny said. "Teddy, just follow the chords Turk is using."
Turk felt embarrassed, since we'd all been following the chords Teddy was using. Benny seemed deliberately insulting when he told Teddy,
"Don't smoke during rehearsals," and a minute after Teddy had put out his cigarette, lit one of his own.
At the end of the medley, played the same way we had always played it, Benny asked again if we were sure we were all using the same chords. We said we were sure.
"Okay, boys, that's all for now."
We still had no idea what had been bothering Benny about the number. All we knew was that we were at the Sports Club an hour before the rest of the band, and there was no coffee within miles of the place. When the rest of the guys arrived, I told John Frosk about the quintet rehearsal. John said,
"He didn't want to rehearse anything. He was just testing out his reed."
Before the concert that night the new band uniforms were unpacked. We had been carefully measured in New York but there hadn't been time for fittings. Some of us were luckier than others. My jacket sleeves were only slightly too long. Nice material, though. Red raw silk.
Jim Maxwell was built like a clan laird, twice as big as any of the rest of us in both height and girth. Someone at Alexander Shields had evidently not believed the figures that were written down when Jim was measured for his uniform. His jacket was okay, but his pants were impossible. He couldn't begin to get them closed. He used some dark trousers of his own for a day or two while his uniform pants were at a local tailor's, having a large piece of material inserted in the back.
The band had to spread out a little on the huge stage at the Sports Club to make room for the forest of microphones that had sprouted up. Since we were being covered by several news services, there were five or six mikes wherever there normally would have been one.
During the second number of the opening concert, Benny came back to play between me and the piano. I noticed he was cozying up to an NBC microphone that I knew wasn't live yet.
"Benny," I whispered, "that's a dead mike."
He raised his eyebrows.
"Don't worry about it, Pops," he said. "This is just for here."
I guess he was referring to the fact that George Avakian and Benny's recording engineer wouldn't begin taping until the following night. But "here" was a house full of five thousand Russians, including Premier Nikita Kruschev and his family.
In 1985 Gene Lees asked me to write something for his Jazzletter about Benny Goodman's tour of Russia in 1962. I had been Benny's bass player on that tour. Gene offered me unlimited space, made helpful suggestions about form and gave me encouragement throughout the writing of the longest piece I'd ever attempted at that time. He later took a lot of flak from some of his readers who felt I shouldn't have been so candid about Goodman, at least so soon after his death. Of course, we also got many compliments. "I devoured it like a Mounds bar," said Dave Frishberg. "Thank God the truth is out," said Margaret Whiting.
Benny's passing took us by surprise. Gene had been expecting to be sued by Goodman as he prepared the article for publication, and made sure I could document what I wrote. The article was ready for the printer when Goodman died. We decided to run it anyway, since it was true. We changed a few verbs to the past tense and left everything else the way I'd written it while he was alive. It was published in several issues of Jazzletter between August and November of 1986.
I want to thank my colleagues on the tour who provided me with their recollections of the experience, especially Turk Van Lake, who let me read and extract data from a manuscript he prepared shortly after the tour was over.