My first gig with Benny Goodman, which took place at Yale University in 1985, was not the greatest experience of my life. Well, in fact, the concert itself was quite cathartic and exhilarating - it was what lead up to that performance which made it memorable.
Benny Goodman did not have a reputation for being the easiest band leader to work for. In fact, he was known for being very hard on his musicians, and just because my father played in his sextet several years before, didn't make me immune from "the ray" - the beam of hatred and dissatisfaction that would come from his eyes when he wasn't thrilled with how you were playing.
Now, let's back up to 1976. Family vacation. Sixteen years old. One of our stops was Benny's country house out in Connecticut, where he served us hot dogs for lunch. There was a Renoir painting right behind me in the dining room, and I remember thinking he could have hooked this meal up a little better. But he was eccentric, and you just had to appreciate it and laugh. And pass the mustard.
After lunch, we went out to Benny's studio. There it was - his Selmer clarinet, sitting there on a stand. Benny said "I understand you play the clarinet." "Yes, I do." Well, go ahead - give it a try." I hesitated and looked over at my father, who just nodded. I picked up this historic black stick and began noodling through a few fast runs and arpeggios. "How does that feel?" he asked, with a playful grin. "Okay," I responded, "but your reed is a bit soft." The grin disappeared. Then we went out to the back yard to look for muskrats.
Nine years later, Benny had just put his big band back together, with the help of Loren Schoenberg, who also played tenor sax in the band. Then he fired Loren. I guess he got the ray. Anyway, he asked the cats in the sax section who he should call and they said "Get Ted Nash." I showed up for the first rehearsal feeling fairly confident. Big mistake. First thing that happened is a pad fell out of of the low D key on my tenor. I crammed it back in the best I could just before starting the first tune.
The entire time we played Benny kept glancing over at me. It wasn't quite the ray, so I just kept looking forward, trying to appear like I was taking care of business. Then I felt his stare become more intense. I tried to resist the temptation, but gave in and looked over at him and caught eyes with his. That was it. He stopped the band.
"Oh, Ted, can you play your part at letter A?' I did the best I could with my leaking lower register. I have to admit it didn't sound all that great. Then he had the sax section play by ourselves. He wanted to hear the blend. He stood in front of me, directing me with his hand - louder, softer, a little softer, a little more, a little less. I looked around at the guys for support, but they wouldn't look at me. I guess they were afraid they would get the ray.
We played the second tune, "More than You Know," and half way through my 16 bar melody solo he stopped the band. "Oh, Ted, can you pass that solo down to Ken." This behavior went on for much of the three hours.
At the end of the rehearsal Benny called me over to a corner of the room. "Ted, I don't think it's going to work out between us. It's your sound: It's...well, it's just not fashionable." I thanked him for the opportunity, packed up my horn and left. I felt miserable. I guess I shouldn't have told Benny his reed was too soft nine years before.
The next day I am home, and the phone rings. It's Benny. "Oh, Ted, I think I may have been a little harsh on you yesterday. I'd like you to do the concert with us at Yale on Saturday. And I'm giving everyone a $50 raise." I don't know where his came from but I said, "I'LL do it under one condition." "Oh?" "Yes, I'll do it as long as you don't stop the band and make me play by myself." "Oh, okay. See you Saturday."
At the sound check on Saturday, we began playing "Stealin' Apples," the classic Fletcher Henderson chart. The band was swinging, and all seemed to be going smoothly. Then I could feel it. He was glancing in my direction. I kept playing, looking forward at my music. Then he stopped band. I could feel what was coming. I looked him. He was looking at me. So I did it - I gave him the ray. He paused for a moment and than turned to the band. "Okay, everyone let's take it from letter C."
During the concert, in the middle of vocalist Carrie Smith's rendition of "Pigfoot," all of a sudden, out of nowhere. Benny points to me and says "Tenor solo." I jumped up from my chair and swung just as hard as I could. When I finished my chorus, the loudest applause was coming from the band!
That was my first gig with Benny Goodman.