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  • Writer's pictureDavid Bernhart

You Had to Be There, Part 2

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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