- Historic Sites
An Interview With the King of Swing
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
All I could think was, “Gosh, I’ve got to get out there some way.” Later in the summer—it was ’26, I guess—as soon as I got word that Pollack had an opening, I quit my job. My parents, of course, weren’t nuts about having me go so far away, but I told them, “Look, I lost my job at the Midway Gardens. This other one [meaning Pollack’s] is the only one I’ve got.” There was no way they could object. I’d be making decent money—and, of course, I always sent money home. So off I went.
And when you got there, all of seventeen years old?
Oh boy. It was the sleaziest place. Rides, roller coasters, and all that. I just looked around and I thought, “What the hell did I come here for?” But there I was—and the band was very good, after all.
What kind of a bandleader did Pollack turn out to be?
It’s hard to say, but to me he always seemed to be doing something wrong. Instead of just letting things come his way in their natural order, he’d always be reaching for something that was inaccessible. He had the wrong managers. They were always telling him how great he was, encouraging him to make decisions which were just wrong. Mistakes. Like singing. Or ending his records in that silly, whiny little voice, saying, “May it please you—Ben Pollack.”
He just wasn’t the kind of guy to stop and reflect and ask himself, “What am I? Who am I? Where am I going and why?” No objectivity, no insight. And no sense of humor about himself. Wasn’t able to think, “I’m doing well. I ought to treat these kids well”—meaning us—“accept ideas from them and encourage their confidence.”
I’ll give you an example of Pollack’s capacity for going in the wrong direction—but one which actually wound up having a funny side to it. When the band came to Chicago from California, we were playing well, but in comparison with a lot of other bands of the day we didn’t have a lot of instruments. Sure—saxophones and clarinets in our section, for instance, but nothing more. Now a band like Roger Wolfe Kahn’s—they had a million instruments: all sorts of woodwinds, like oboes and flutes and things. And it looked sharp! Well, Pollack took one look at them and decided that we had to have all that stuff too. They cost a fortune at that time: a Lore oboe, for example, which probably costs about twenty-five hundred dollars now, was three hundred dollars then.
Well, being a kind of serious musician, I thought I’d better learn something about all this, so I went to a teacher named Ruckl, who used to play with the Chicago symphony orchestra. Nice guy—I went to him religiously for oboe lessons. After a couple of lessons, he sent me to buy the Lore method book. So I went, and looked—and looked and looked. And I couldn’t find any book for oboe by that name. So I went back and apologized and said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Ruckl, but all I could find was something for the ‘hot-boy/ ” Boy oh boy, did he laugh! Hautbois , of course, is French for “oboe.” But I wound up playing it pretty well—even took a chorus on it on “Japanese Sandman.”
You played New York for the first time with Pollack’s band. What was that like?
When I first arrived, it seemed to me the most terrifying city in the world… all those big buildings. I remember walking on Broadway, looking up at this huge, mountainous place—and being so lonely. But things started to clear up when I met a few people on the street whom I’d met before—all of a sudden there got to be a certain familiarity about the place, and the terror kind of evaporated. There was a lot of playing going on, and the New Yorkers, of course, were a completely different crowd from what I’d known. Red Nichols, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Miff Mole, Adrian Rollini—they came down to hear us, and there was this intermingling. It was quite exciting, with a lot of mutual respect. And within the band, we were all very close.
Glenn Miller was in that band, writing arrangements. Another trombonist, Jack Teagarden from Texas, joined the band after you did.
Jack wasn’t an easy guy to know. He drank quite a bit. I, being a nice Jewish boy, didn’t drink that much. Jack—well, he was a singular kind of guy. Had a vocabulary of about eight words and wasn’t really interested in any more. But he was an absolutely fantastic trombone player, and I loved to listen to him take solos—although that almost got me into trouble with him at one point. The reed section used to sit in front, and the brass behind us, and when Jack would play, I’d hear these marvelous notes and I’d sort of wheel around in my chair to listen. He interpreted that wrong—he seemed to think I was giving him a look, putting him down. Well, one night he got a couple of drinks in him and came up to me and said, “What the hell are you turnin’ around like that for?” He was ready for a fight—and it took me a little time, swearing on my word of honor, to convince him that I really meant well.
You and Pollack used to play clarinet and drum duets.
We did that on songs like—what was it—“I want to go where you go, Do what you do. …” You know—“Then I’ll Be Happy.” Pollack had a fly swatter, and he’d lean over and be banging on the bass drum with it, yelling. “Take another one, take another one,” and we’d keep on like that, generating a lot of steam. I must have enjoyed it, because I guess we did it a lot. Nobody else at the time was doing it.
How did you get started as a bandleader?