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  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

The 1992 Big Band Reunion was the last my mother Martie attended. She was in the hospital the night of the 1993 Reunion and died the following month. While my father continued as president of the BBAA and emcee of the Reunions, the popularity of the annual event set about on a slow decline at that point, as did my dad's health. With my mom no longer there to prod him to see a doctor, my dad chose to ignore and deny symptoms -- at first minor -- of a failing heart.

Compare the strength of my father's voice at the 1994 Reunion ...

... to his opening remarks in 1997, which he precedes by clearing his throat before delivering a single word ...

... and then to the palpable struggle for air he exhibits in 2002, his next-to-last show ...

The comment in the 1997 clip about "last year's dinner" refers to the aborted 1996 Reunion, called off when the intended honoree of the evening, Artie Shaw, pulled out at the last minute. That saga alone would require a lengthy essay.

My father's philosophy of life was self-reliance in the extreme. From at least the time of my earliest recollections, he would chide my mother for "running to doctors," the implication being that to seek medical assistance was a sign of weakness. Bolstering this philosophy was the fact that my dad had never faced serious illness himself or been hospitalized. And I have to give him grudging kudos for staying true to his belief even when his own health began to break down. As the '90s gave way to the early 2000s, my father's cardiovascular issues now included swelling of the feet and ankles, along with shortness of breath while sleeping on his back, in addition to the decade-long symptom of gasping for air while speaking, especially publicly. Yet despite the flashing red lights, he remained resistant to getting even a cursory check-up.

Two months after the 2002 Reunion, those of us urging my dad to see a doctor finally prevailed. He agreed to go to an urgent care center, but in typical Milt Bernhart fashion, he insisted on going alone and driving himself, telling us he expected to be given a clean bill of health and sent back home. Instead, the staff at the urgent care center took a single blood pressure reading that was so low (80/50) they immediately called for an ambulance and my father was rushed to the nearest hospital.

A week later and about 30 pounds lighter thanks to diuretics, my dad came home having been formally diagnosed with congestive heart failure. It was a blessing that he'd been pulled back from the brink of death, but we knew his long-term prognosis was poor.

Remarkably, he forged ahead one more year in charge of the Big Band Academy, serving as host of the 2003 Reunion. Though his gaunt appearance startled some and his voice was weaker than ever, he kept an upbeat demeanor and went the distance, from the top of the program ...

... to the words that turned out to be the last he would utter from the stage ...

Even more remarkably, my father actually went on to make plans to emcee the 2004 Big Band Reunion. As of the second full week of January -- less than two months before the March 7 event -- he had signed the usual contracts with the Sportsmen's Lodge and the Musicians Union, mailed out ticket order forms and already received some checks in return, completed a few but not all of the many other preproduction tasks and announced that this show would be his farewell both as master of ceremonies and as president of the BBAA.

Then he abruptly took to his bed.

I don't know what imminent death feels like, but it was overtaking my dad. He spent a week in bed without eating, drinking, complaining or asking for assistance of any kind. Clearly he had become prepared to depart this life. My sister and I, however, weren't ready to give up; we decided on January 18 to have him taken to the hospital. He didn't want to go, but he didn't fight us either. He died in the hospital four days later.

The Big Band Academy had no plan of succession for its presidency. There were a couple of logical candidates on the board of directors, but both had declined the job at the time my father announced that he would retire following the 2004 Reunion. Similarly, no one came forward in the hours after my dad's passing. I understood. The Reunion was only six weeks away and too many commitments had been made to permit the notion of canceling, while simultaneously a great deal of the work my father would have otherwise finished by then remained to be done. Whoever ended up at the helm of this floundering ship was going to have their hands full.

Before I really knew what I was doing, I volunteered to step in and at least get the organization through the Reunion. I wasn't qualified to serve as interim president for any reasons related to big bands or the music business, but having observed the master at work since 1986, I knew the things that needed to be done. And I was willing to assume the role. It wouldn't be so bad. The extra activity would help take my mind off of my father's sudden absence.

I also agreed to emcee the Reunion in my dad's stead.

That was more daunting.

To be continued ...

  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

The Big Band Academy of America would have never gotten off the ground without the benefit of near-perfect timing. While the big band era had ended four decades prior, many of its celebrities were still very much alive in the mid-1980s. Most of them were no longer working much, if at all, and were more than willing to accept Milt Bernhart's invitation to perform at a Big Band Reunion for no pay, perhaps a few comped tickets to the event. In turn, minimizing the cost of entertainment enabled the BBAA to keep ticket prices affordable for the average fan. The symbiotic result was (a) stars of the big band years thrilled to once again get up in front of adoring audiences and (b) audiences thrilled to be gotten up in front of.

The popularity of the Big Band Reunions reached a climax in the early '90s. A show would sell out as soon as the date was announced. With my dad running the Academy from the travel agency office, the phone lines into the agency would be jammed with calls from folks seeking big band tickets instead of airline tickets. For weeks, the mail would bring dozens of checks a day. It became clear that the Big Band Reunion could fill a venue even bigger than the Empire Room of the Sportsmen's Lodge. The decision was made to hold the 1992 festivities in the cavernous (and appropriately named) Academy Ballroom at the Burbank Airport Hilton and Convention Center.

It was a great evening. It rained, as was often the case on the first Monday in March during those years. But almost eleven hundred came out anyway for "Big Bands on Record," a program honoring big band recordings that had been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Here are a couple of my favorite moments from the show, beginning with the beginning:

Despite hitting a pinnacle of success that night, this would be the only Big Band Reunion held at the Burbank Airport Hilton. The need to have a portable stage brought in and set up in the ballroom caused more than a few headaches. I recall overhearing one attendee from Bel Air complaining about having had to "schlep" all the way to Burbank. And my father and the BBAA board of directors found the Hilton's corporate bureaucracy challenging. They missed the casual mood of the Sportsmen's Lodge, along with its built-in stage. The following year, the Reunion returned to the Sportsmen's Lodge and never strayed again.

And there's something else. Lurking behind the great music and glittering atmosphere of the 1992 audio clips, my dad's voice is starting to sound ragged. The difference from four years before isn't dramatic, but those who knew him well could tell he was working hard to take in the volume of air necessary over the course of a two-hour emcee job.

As time passed, he would have to work still harder.

To be continued ...

  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

Following his ascension in 1986 to the presidency of the Big Band Academy of America, Milt Bernhart moved quickly to remedy the absence of a band at Big Band Reunions. He engaged BBAA board member Pat Longo to assemble and lead a band made up of L.A.'s finest freelance musicians, many of them former colleagues of my dad's from his studio days.

In another ambitious step, my father relocated the Reunions from the small-scale banquet room of a Burbank restaurant to the Empire Ballroom of the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City. The Empire Room offered seating for nearly 800, several times the capacity of the event's previous home, and came with the uncommon feature of a built-in stage, ideal for large musical ensembles.

On top of these upgrades, my dad seized the opportunity to step back into the spotlight as a performer by emceeing the proceedings, utilizing his own original material.

His vision of a bigger and better Big Band Reunion was vindicated by the first two affairs under his administration: a tribute to Glenn Miller in March 1987 and a salute to Stan Kenton that September. Both sold out soon after tickets went on sale and suddenly Milt Bernhart was receiving acclaim as a master of ceremonies.

I know of no audio or video recording from either 1987 event. Having spent decades as a working trombonist and struggling even with his own union to ensure that musicians were fairly compensated for their performances, my father was sensitive to the possibility of surreptitious recordings being made from the audience, perhaps followed by unauthorized duplication and distribution. He was so concerned that he decided to set a good example and instructed the house sound engineer not to roll tape at all, even if only to save a recording for my dad's personal reference.

From today's vantage point, it would be thrilling to have a few actualities from those first two shows. And admittedly, a principled stand was a little easier for my father to take because documenting events for posterity in general couldn't have meant less to him. But he made an ethical decision and I respect him for that.

By 1989, my dad would come around to the value of preserving at least the audio from these you-had-to-be-there nights. Beginning that year, the house engineer recorded each concert and delivered a dub to my father a few days later.

That practice continued beyond my dad's death in 2004, into the presidency of a most unlikely successor and through the final Big Band Reunion in 2008. More about that unlikely successor to come.

For a long time, I believed the 1989 Reunion was the oldest to have been recorded. After my father's passing, however, I found a jumble of cassettes in a shoebox in one of his closets. This was his idea of archiving. (Fortunately, the dubs of Reunions from '89 onward were stored a bit more carefully and survive to this day.) One of the shoebox cassettes was marked -- in someone else's handwriting -- "BBAA 1988" with no other identifying information.

While the recording was made from the audience just as my dad had feared, the party with the recorder must have been a friend and felt comfortable passing the tape along to my father. I'll be forever grateful to that nameless figure for the preservation of the 1988 affair. And I'm pleased to be able to present here my dad's opening remarks and the band's first number from that earliest known audio recording of a Big Band Reunion.

Click the link below, close your eyes and let yourself drift back to the evening of Monday, March 7, 1988. You're at the Sportsmen's Lodge, seated at a table near the stage, surrounded by several hundred fellow big band lovers. You've just finished a delicious dinner of vulcanized chicken, the wait staff is clearing dishes and serving coffee, and Milt Bernhart has started to speak from the podium. You surreptitiously pull out your trusty microcassette recorder and capture the following:

True, the sound isn't broadcast quality; if this recording were a book, it would be termed a "reading copy." But like a reading copy, this clip is perfectly listenable and conveys the essence of the early Big Band Reunions better than any attempt one might make to describe them to somebody who wasn't there.

As the '90s dawned, the BBAA and its annual bash only continued to grow.

To be continued ...

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