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  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

You Had to Be There, Part 1

By the early 1970s, my father Milt had toiled as a trombonist in the Hollywood studios for twenty years. The pressure from orchestra leaders, fellow musicians and himself to play perfectly on every take was making him a nervous wreck and he was growing increasingly reliant on tranquilizers, showing up to recording sessions under the influence of Valium and more than once experiencing adverse consequences.

This was the circumstance in which it became clear he would have to find another line of work. The realization must have been crushing to my dad, as he had never wanted to be anything but a musician since he was a child. But there was no getting around the anxiety that took hold each time the red light went on.

After a lifetime of being told what to do by others, he decided in 1973 to become his own boss. The subject of travel intrigued him, so he found a travel agency for sale in the venerable Taft Building at Hollywood & Vine, purchased it, then set about learning how a travel agency operated. That was typical of the order in which my dad did things throughout life.

Another tenant in the Taft Building was a man named Leo Walker. Leo worked as a sales representative for Flecto, the company that manufactured the wood finish Varathane, but his passion was the music of the big bands. As soon as Leo heard that the trombonist Milt Bernhart had just bought Kelly Travel Service, he made a point of coming into the agency to introduce himself. That meeting would eventually lead to my father's emergence as an impresario and master of ceremonies under the banner of the yet-to-be-created Big Band Academy of America.

At the time the two men got acquainted, Leo Walker had been hosting for several years an annual gathering of big band luminaries in the modest-sized banquet room of a Burbank restaurant; a "Big Band Reunion," he called it. Leaders, sidemen and singers would get up and tell stories, interact with fans, a dinner was served and a splendid evening was had by all. But there was no music. Once the travel agency and Leo Walker came into our lives, my parents began attending the event and first heard the question that was whispered around the room every year: "How can you have a big band reunion without a band?"

Adding a band to an already complicated undertaking was simply more than Leo wanted to tackle. And the Big Band Reunions of the 1970s and the first half of the '80s were sufficiently popular, even without live music. In 1983, a new organization, the Big Band Academy of America, was formed for the purpose (among others) of presenting affairs such as the Big Band Reunion on a larger scale and/or more frequently. The name of the entity was my dad's idea and he was appointed to the board of directors, but Leo Walker became president and, as a result, the Big Band Reunion remained limited to a couple of hundred attendees and no band.

In 1986, Leo Walker announced his retirement from Flecto and the Big Band Academy. He offered the presidency of the BBAA to my father, who accepted. At first, I was unhappy with the decision. My dad and I had become essentially partners in the day-to-day activities of the travel agency and I was not looking forward to shouldering a lopsided share of the workload due to his new responsibilities with the Big Band Academy. But he had just turned 60 and I gradually recognized that this was a chance -- probably the last -- for him to be a performer again. Not in the way he had been as a trombonist, but perhaps at the helm of the BBAA he would find a different outlet for his creative urges.

To be continued ...

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