The Day Woody Smiled

ON a day in 1939 when Flushing Meadows, N.Y., and its ``greatest international exposition in history'' sweltered in Long Island's famous humidity, a battery of America's top band leaders sat facing a bandstand. No doubt they would rather have been somewhere other than the American Common at the New York World's Fair. But they had a job to do. It was their privilege that steaming morning to judge a well-publicized contest for small-time dance bands. Fresh out of high school, I was a tenor saxophone player with a band in neighboring Connecticut. A lot of bands were on hand. The contest would last all day. Our group was one of the early competitors.

Talk about stage fright! Loaded down with instruments and awkward-to-carry paraphernalia and praying that whoever was carrying the drummer's equipment wouldn't drop the cymbals, we trooped on stage for our turn. A nervous peek at the judges. A peek. Then a double take. Then an all-out gawk!

Like astronauts undergoing G-stress, the judges's faces were taut and their eyes were glazed.

One, two - one-two-three-four. The downbeat. Whatever claim to musicianship and professionalism we shared as an ensemble took over. Somehow, we blotted out the ghoulish faces of the judges, tuned out the audience, and did what we were there for.

With sweaty hands and dry throats we muddled through our long-rehearsed competition number. Vaguely conscious that we hadn't done too badly (no one had fallen off the bandstand or knocked over a microphone), we hazarded another peek at the judges. What's happened? Those glazed eyes sparkled. Those ashen faces had returned to their natural tone. Woody Herman was smiling. Bob Chester was smiling. So were Joe Sullivan and all the rest.

With their trial still ahead, the other bands had to wait and fret. But for us, the ordeal was over. We didn't have to be back until late that afternoon when the winners would be announced. So we sauntered off, perhaps affecting a small-town swagger. Were we dreaming? Were we really here, at ``The World of Tomorrow'' with its acres of wondrous possibilities and such outright impossibilities as television, air conditioning, and nylon?

``Building the world of tomorrow ... a promise of the future, built by the tools of today, upon the experience of yesterday.'' While not overbearingly modest, such promotional blasts for the 1939 World's Fair weren't all that far from being accurate. Had not World War II come along who knows what might have developed in those immediate years of exuberance!

A geometric masterpiece of design, the visual theme of the exposition was the Trylon and Perisphere. The latter was a 200-foot white orb ``supported'' on columns of water. And the Trylon was a towering 700-foot pyramidal obelisk housing a giant model of The City of Tomorrow. In 1939, we wagged our heads in disbelief and called The City of Tomorrow ``pure Buck Rogers.''

Awesome as the world of tomorrow might be, young people are ever aware of the world of today. Mealtime. Not far from the American Common, a restaurant was promoting a steak so tender only a fork was necessary. The steaks lived up to their ballyhoo. Man, this was living!

Across the bustling dining room, a table of men finished their meal just as we did. By golly, the judges! A couple of them waved at us. Hey, did we feel important or what?

That's Woody Herman, right? He's paying his bill, and - and for crying out loud, he's heading right for our table. Should we stand up? Or should we keep on sitting and try to look worldly and cool. We did neither and ended up in a half crouch. And a couple of chairs knocked over to complete the ambience.

``Boy, were we judges glad to listen to you guys,'' grinned The Revered One.

Good gravy, was Woody Herman standing there and telling us we were fantastic musicians?

``Not that you're fantastic musicians,'' he added hastily. ``But the band that went on before you played `One O'clock Jump.' And the band before them played `One O'clock Jump.' Before you guys went on, every band but one blasted us with `One O'clock Jump.' And that one played `Two O'clock Jump'.''

Small wonder the glazed eyes and frozen faces. Anyone who lived through the big-band years remembers the various ``Jumps'' as a tour de force for sound. Loud sound. Loud trumpet-screeching sound. Like all dance bands of our era, our band, too, had ``One O'clock Jump'' in our library. Our leader wisely decided we should play something totally different. So, when Woody Herman left our table with ``thanks, guys and gals,'' we knew what he meant.

What the judges heard after that barrage was our genteel, syrupy, ricky-tick arrangement of ``The Wind and the Rain In Your Hair.'' Mutes made the trumpets play softly. We played our clarinets through megaphones softly. Our girl vocalist sang the lyrics softly.

No, we didn't win. There were some really fine bands involved. But a half century later, our guys and gal, wherever they are, can chuckle and take a bit of pride in our unique achievement - we made Woody smile.

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