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Tribute Tonight to a Swing Great Named Tex

Perhaps more than any other single musician, Tex Beneke--the tenor saxophonist and singer with the Glenn Miller Band during its spectacular years of success in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s--typified the harmonious mixture of elements that was Swing music at its best.

A fine jazz tenor player, a dependable alto saxophonist (it is not commonly known that he played lead alto on the sax-dominated Miller hit “String of Pearls”), an appealing vocalist and a highly visible personality, Beneke managed to win jazz magazine polls while appealing to a vast audience of swinging jitterbugs.

Contentedly working “just about as much as I want to,” in and out of Southern California, Beneke spends his spare time puttering around his Costa Mesa residence, tinkering with the shortwave radio for which he has had a long-term affection and enjoying “never again having to ride a band bus across an ice-covered Mississippi River.”

Beneke will be honored on his 50th anniversary in music tonight at a $100-a-plate testimonial dinner at the Red Lion Inn in Costa Mesa that will also feature singer Herb Jeffries and the Modernaires vocal group. The event is a fund-raiser for the South Coast Symphony, of which Beneke and his wife, Sandi, are active supporters. (She is president of the orchestra’s Crescendo Women’s Guild.)

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In a conversation earlier this week, Beneke reminisced about the long journey through popular music that began in the early ‘20s in Ft. Worth, Tex., when 9-year-old Gordon Lee Beneke fell in love.

“I was just about 9 when one of the kids in my grade school class came in with a soprano sax,” said Beneke, his voice still rich with the folksy Texas twang that endeared him to a generation--and more--of big band fans. “It was the first time that I had ever seen or heard of a saxophone, but I went home and told my mom and dad that I really wanted one.

“Sure enough, the next Christmas, there it was, my own soprano saxophone sitting under the tree--one of those little bitty curved jobs that looked more like a Sherlock Holmes pipe than anything else. But I loved it.”

Beneke shifted to alto saxophone a few years later, and took up tenor in his teens. “I’d started to listen to records by then,” he explained, “and all the hot players like Coleman Hawkins were playing tenor.”

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Curiously, his association with Miller came about as the result of what seemed, at the time, to be a missed opportunity.

“I was working in Detroit in late 1937 with Ben Young, who led a territory band out of Texas,” he said. “One night, Gene Krupa showed up, looking for players for his first band. He took three guys from our group, but he didn’t take me because his sax section was already filled.

“As you can imagine, I didn’t feel too happy about that, but when Gene got back to New York he told an old friend of his--who was also forming a band--about me. It wasn’t but just a couple of weeks later that I got a call from a guy named Glenn Miller to come to New York. Now, this was a name that I’d never even heard of because Glenn’s reputation at that time was strictly as a studio musician in the city.

“Anyhow, I decided to go, and I drove through a blinding snowstorm to get there. I wandered around New York trying to find the studio--just a little greenhorn Texas kid in the big city. When I finally got to the rehearsal, Glenn took one look at me, and the first thing he said was, ‘Well, hello there, Texas. What do you say?’ That’s how the name got started, and it’s stuck with me ever since.”

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Beneke’s recordings with the Miller band followed in abundance. But the United States’ entry into World War II in December, 1941, precipitated the end of the Miller era. Within a year the band members had scattered to the various services (Beneke went into the Navy). Then Miller disappeared over the English Channel in late 1944.

“Shortly before the war broke up the band,” Beneke said, “Glenn wanted to back me with my own group--which was something he’d already done for Hal McIntyre, Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill and Ray Noble. I told him, ‘Look, I don’t know if I’m ready yet. When you reorganize again after the war, please, please keep me in mind. I want to come back because I need more experience before going out on my own.’ So that was the way we left it. His wife, Helen, of course, knew of Glenn’s plan to back me, and that’s how I came to take over most of his Air Force band in 1946.”

Beneke led the massive 36-piece ensemble for about four years in what turned out to be largely a homage to Miller’s past music. Chafing under the restrictions dictated by the terms of his agreement with the Miller estate and eager to establish his musical identity, Beneke broke the contract in 1950. (“Glenn would never have sat still and just continued to play his old pieces,” Beneke said. “He was too adventurous for that.”)

“Up to that point,” he said, “it had always been Tex Beneke with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, or the Glenn Miller Band, featuring Tex Beneke. And I finally began to feel, what the heck, it’s time for me to be recognized a little bit on my own, and so I left Glenn’s name out of the band’s billing.

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“One of the results of that was that I was nowhere to be seen in the movie, ‘The Glenn Miller Story.’ Why? Because nobody asked me to be in it.

“I’m happy to say--even after everything that happened after the war--that I’m proud to have had Glenn Miller as one of my closest friends.”

In some respects, the break with the Miller estate was--and has continued to be--a plus for Beneke’s career. Freed of the obligation to play a very specific kind of music, he has led bands for the last three decades that have been true to the Miller tradition, while simultaneously exploring other sounds.

“I can’t advertise my band as the Glenn Miller Orchestra,” Beneke said, “and that’s not what it is anyhow, even though we do play music in the Miller style, which makes sense since most people associate me with the band. But the good thing is that I can play new charts that I like as well as all the old Miller classics.

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“People still want to hear ‘Kalamazoo,’ ‘Little Brown Jug,’ ‘Chattanooga (Choo-Choo),’ ‘String of Pearls,’ and I’m happy to play them. But I like to hear new things, too. And I think Glenn would have been the same.”

“Moonlight Memories: A Tribute to Tex Beneke” will be held at the Red Lion Inn, 3050 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. Cocktails at 7 p.m., dinner at 8 p.m. Tickets: $100. Information: (714) 662-7220.


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