ON January 14, 1943, to celebrate my 15th birthday, my parents took me to the Cafe Rouge at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City to hear the Glenn Miller Band. It was a two-day affair. We had to come up from Philadelphia by train and spend the night. My mother liked jazz and swing and even be-bop, but my father had only the tiniest ear for music of any kind. I should have been more grateful to them for extending themselves so, but the truth is I was far too excited. We had reservations, but I was afraid if we were one minute late they'd give our table away. I pleaded with my parents at dinner to hurry up. But we burst in through the glass doors with minutes to spare, and followed the distant sounds of "In the Mood" into the Cafe Rouge.
There they were, just as I had imagined them - casual, dark sport coats, matching pants - Ray Eberle, Billy May on trumpet, a couple of others; then Marion Hutton, sort of half-dancing, two more men (whom I suspected were the Modernaires), and on the end Tex Beneke. Behind that line was the band, "G M" emblazoned in huge, purple letters on the music stands; Miller in the middle, looking modest, as if he were one of them; all of them beaming, as if they were just having fun; and all the while that smooth
sound, that Miller sound.
"Ooo, ahh. Ooo, ahh," went the brasses. "Ooooo. Ahhhh," echoed the reeds. And then Miller took up his trombone and its voice lifted above the rest; floated there, played, turned; dipped back down again to join the others; all in one motion, all one sound. And then they stopped. And we were shown to our table.
I had spent three evenings the previous week sitting in the darkness of The Three Dueces listening to Benny Morton play. It was a small group and every time he broke out from the rest, he sent my goose flesh climbing. Benny Morton and J. C. Higgenbothem were my true idols. Could I ever hope to play like one of them?
My mother got my father onto the dance floor, but I could see they weren't having a great time. My father wasn't much of a dancer. He could do an acceptable fox trot, but "Little Brown Jug" wasn't the sort of music you fox trotted to. I could see him looking around at the other couples dipping and twisting beside him, trying to get out of their way. I hated "Little Brown Jug." It was so corny.
The next piece was "Pennsylvania 6-5000." Tex Beneke, Bob Eberle, Marion Hutton, and the Modernaires were grinning like crazy and snapping their fingers. It was a show, that's all. It wasn't music. I sipped my Coke and took in the place instead of listening. The room was about a third full - pretty good for so early in the evening. Everything was in red, of course, and very plush. There were a couple of other kids with their parents, but mostly the place was filled with middle-aged couples there for th e
dancing. The piece ended and Miller took up his trombone and went right into "Serenade in Blue."
OW I leaned forward, listening. Miller's trombone was a brilliant gold, and it cast its reflections in dazzling beams around the room. The melody seemed to float there, above the band. How could he play for so long without taking a breath? His face wasn't even flushed. And when he finished, looking as if he'd done nothing unusual at all, he just stood there, smiling, leading the band.
At the intermission I walked over to where he was sitting. "Excuse me," I said, nervous but determined. "Excuse me, but could I just hold your trombone? I play... ."
"Sure, kid," said Glenn Miller, hardly looking up. Paralyzed by success, it took me a moment to react. Finally, I stepped onto the bandstand and in a daze picked up Miller's trombone; lifted it, slowly, as if about to play; and then held it there, and let myself imagine that this instrument was truly mine, that I was Glenn Miller, that I was running through the tricky part in "String of Pearls" - soaring, laughing with the music... . How easy it was! I winked at the band, and Tex stood up and picked up t
he beat as I led with my left hand, allowing my smile to rest on the happy faces of the dancers below.
UT down that trombone!" Slowly, I responded to the voice of the tough-looking man who was shouting at me from the table next to Glenn Miller's. He shouted again. The spell was broken. I felt myself turning red. As quickly as I could, I put the instrument back onto its stand. But then I heard another voice - Glenn Miller's.
"It's OK, Lou. I said he could." Lou looked surprised; and I picked the trombone up again and with a little nod at the band - now mine - broke into "Moonlight Serenade"; and we were away, gone, in the groove, flying.
"How come he let you do that?" my father said when I got back to the table.
"Did you get his autograph?" my mother asked me. I looked at them both with scorn. I was still up there, in the air above them, soaring on my wings.
If I couldn't be Benny Morton, perhaps someday I could be in a band; maybe even lead a band. I wouldn't play junk like "Little Brown Jug" or "Pennsylvania 6-5000." And I wouldn't dress my band in corny saddle shoes and sport coats, either. But someday, maybe, it wouldn't be so bad to be in a place like this, entertaining the troops, grooving with the music, music of my making. And if some kid wanted to examine my trombone, maybe hold it for a minute and imagine he was me, why not?
"Sure, kid," I'd say. "Go ahead."