- Historic Sites
An Interview With the King of Swing
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
As I remember, the show ran from 10:30 P.M. till 1:30 A.M. every Saturday night, sponsored by the National Biscuit Company. Your band was on last, after KeI Murray and Xavier Cugat, which meant that audiences on the West Coast heard you at ten in the evening, prime radiolistening time. And on the strength of it, you made your first extended tour outside New York, a tour that would ultimately take you to the West Coast. Did you think history was about to be made?
History? I remember thinking, “Gosh, you sure have a lot of chutzpah. Lead a band, go on the radio. …” And yet, if you have convictions, and a point of view, and all that energy, why not? If I have something I want to do, I make a business of doing it.
The tour had its share of disappointments—for example, a four-week run at Elitch’s Gardens, in Denver, where the crowds wanted waltzes and the management demanded MCA withdraw the band at once.
You know, I remember thinking after Denver, “Oh well, that’s the end of this goddamn thing.” Meaning the whole business of leading a band. I was really down. Then we got to the Coast and were supposed to play at a ballroom in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. I remember walking in with Helen Ward, our singer, and seeing crowds of people, and saying to her, “Christ, Helen, we must be in the wrong place. What are all these people doing here?” Mind you, the place didn’t hold all that many people—maybe fourteen or fifteen hundred tops—it was an intimate kind of place, really. But all the same, given my state of mind, I thought,“What’s this? Is Benny Goodman really playing here?” But we went in and played, and my goodness, they really reacted. Went crazy. I suppose it prepared us for the Palomar Ballroom, outside Los Angeles.
What stays in my mind about the Palomar is just that we started quietly. Didn’t know what to expect, and in any case I was trying not to take the whole business too seriously. Things went on kind of so-so for an hour, nothing much happening. All of a sudden I thought to myself, “Screw this—let’s play. If we’re gonna flop again let’s at least do it our own way. ” I’d had enough by then. So we started playing Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements of “King Porter Stomp” and “When Buddha Smiles”—some of those. Half the crowd just stopped dancing and gathered round the bandstand. I knew things would be all right from then on.
Bunny Berigan, the trumpet player, was a potent force in the band at that point, wasn’t he?
Absolutely. You know, he drank—not so much then, or at least it wasn’t getting to him yet. But—well, you put up with certain things in certain people because of what they are. People today who follow jazz seem to have forgotten about Bunny, about just how marvelous he was. His tone, his beautiful sound and range, everything. Most of all, he had this ability to stimulate a whole band: he’d take a solo, and wow! He was so inventive that he’d just lift the whole thing.
We were supposed to be at the Palomar only a month, but the engagement was extended, and we were doing radio broadcasts at night. They came and asked me, “What time do you want to be on the radio? Do you want an eleven-thirty slot, or twelve-thirty?” I told them I thought eleven-thirty would be good. The earlier the better—largely because if it were any later Bunny would usually be wiped out.
Did the Palomar success make the going any easier for you when you finally headed back east?
I wouldn’t say so. In those days, success was sort of local. You had to go out and make a hit, satisfy the patrons and the people, then do it all over again the next time. All bands started out that way—at first they’d always lose money.
Success followed success, and for the next several years, you were the hottest thing in the music business. How did the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert come about? Were you nervous?
A publicity man dreamed it up, and my first reaction was, “You must be out of your mind.” Looking back on it, I sometimes think that the thing that really made that concert important was the album that came out. I don’t know what would have happened if the concert hadn’t been recorded. People would have remembered it, sure—but not like this.
Tell you one thing: Playing a job at a place like the Madhattan Room of the Pennsylvania Hotel, where we were then, or most anyplace, we’d usually start kind of quietly. Play dinner music, so to speak. Warm up a little bit. It wouldn’t be until later that the band really got rocking. But in a concert you had to hit right from the top, bang! Then, too, in Carnegie Hall the acoustics are special. The Madhattan Room, for instance, was very dead. You’d just blow like hell in there all the time. Carnegie, as you know, is very live, so I insisted we go in about two or three days in advance to rehearse there, just to get used to it. By the time I gave the downbeat on “Don’t Be That Way,” we were pretty confident. Mind you, I’d had my doubts: I had even tried to get Bea Lillie, for Pete’s sake, to come on first and warm up the audience by telling jokes. Obviously, if I’d felt cocksure that we were going to be a big hit I wouldn’t have thought up something as dumb as that. Stupidest thing I could have done—and she was smart enough to say no.