At 77, Tex Beneke Keeps ‘40s Big-Band Sound Alive
Tex Beneke’s career has been so long that even he can’t remember all the names and dates from the many high points, but he still knows what he likes in a sax solo.
“I prefer a full melodic sound rather than some of these far-out styles,” said the 77-year-old saxophonist, band leader and vocalist who joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra Band in 1938 and took over as leader in 1946 after Miller died when his plane disappeared Dec. 16, 1944, over the English Channel, bound for Paris. “If I can’t listen to someone playing a solo and know the title of the tune, it doesn’t do much for me. I like to at least start close to the melody and advance out from there.”
Beneke, who names Coleman Hawkins as a seminal influence, put his own name on the band in 1950. He leads his current 16-piece ensemble this Sunday in two shows at the Scottish Rite Center in Mission Valley. Due to recent neck surgery, Beneke may not see much action on sax, but he has a band stocked with authentic swing-era veterans.
“Practically all of my boys have been with any number of name bands over the years,” he said. “I find that I am very successful using the older players. Not that the young guys aren’t good, but they haven’t had the experience to be able to get the sound I need.”
Tenor saxophonist Don Lodus, for example, played with Tommy Dorsey and has been with Beneke for more than 10 years. Lead trumpeter Art Depew is a regular at traditional jazz festivals across the country and still works with the Harry James Orchestra.
A 90-minute set with Beneke is a nostalgia trip, past slightly corny landmarks popularized by the Miller orchestras, including “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “I’ve Got a Girl in Kalamazoo.”
Beneke, who lives in Costa Mesa, was a member of the vocal quartet Modernaires when Miller drafted them for his band. Born Gordon Beneke in Fort Worth, he was dubbed “Tex” by Miller.
Although Beneke has not recorded since some 1960s sessions he did with the Modernaires, he keeps busy with live dates across the country, and he has been talking with original Miller band trumpeter and arranger Billy May about a new album.
Apparently, Beneke isn’t well known to a new generation of music fans, many of whom have called about tickets for Sunday’s appearance under the illusion that “Tex” is a country singer. Tickets for Beneke’s shows are moving at a slower clip than they did for a March performance at the Scottish Rite Center by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which drew more than 900.
Shows this Sunday afternoon are at 1 and 5, and the room will be set up with a dance floor. Tickets are $20 and $25. Call 234-1640 for information.
As noted here two weeks ago, Elario’s and San Diego saxman Charles McPherson are still at odds over McPherson’s new CD, a portion of which was recorded live at the club last year. The two parties never struck a formal deal, and the club is not named on the CD jacket.
Contemporary jazz band Uncle Festive, however, has taken care not to fall into the same mess. The group has made arrangements to the club’s liking for a live recording for this Saturday, during a three-night run which begins Friday.
Under a written agreement, Uncle Festive will pay the club a “venue fee” in the hundreds of dollars. A studio-quality tape machine and mixing board will be installed in a hotel room below the stage.
Uncle Festive mixes influences and sounds with good humor. Their name, for example, is a play on Uncle Festus, the character in “The Addams Family” television series. The music is an undulating, thick carpet of synthesized orchestrations over which guitarist John Pondel and keyboard player Ron Pedley lay spare, often haunting melodies, with improvisational breaks subtly woven into the dense carpet.
The band has assimilated the work of early fusioneers such as Weather Report and Chick Corea to become a respectable peer of such progenies as the Yellowjackets. Their penchant for Latin percussion adds earthy roots to some tunes.
This weekend, the group will unveil a variety of new material Pedley and Pondel have written for the group’s upcoming fifth album, which will probably mix live cuts from Elario’s with several studio takes.
During three years that ended last fall, local jazz buffs Bob and Gretchen Geib presented jazz shows featuring top local, regional and national talent at San Diego clubs, including the now-defunct Diego’s Loft in Pacific Beach. And now, after taking some time to collect their thoughts, they have taken the pulse of the local jazz scene and declared it healthy enough to survive without their blood, sweat and dollars: They often paid musicians out of their own pockets when the take from the door was insufficient.
The Geibs, who both work for the county’s Department of Social Services, won’t be producing any more shows, except maybe a very occasional “Post Bop/Avant Garde” event, but will still contribute to the local scene through “Jazz Notes,” the newsletter of their Society for Straight-Ahead Jazz. Bob Geib, who writes the articles for the quarterly, is a knowledgeable jazz fan. The May issue, for example, includes capsule reviews and an insider piece on collectible jazz records. The newsletter is free to interested jazz fanatics. Call 286-4080 and leave your name and address.
RIFFS: More than 500 people turned out for the April 28 tribute to late clarinetist Jimmy Noone at the U.S. Grant Hotel downtown. . . .
Eric Reed, pianist with Wynton Marsalis, plays the Grant on May 23. . . .
Vocalist Cath Eckert appears at All That Jazz in Rancho Bernardo Friday night at 8, and flutist Lori Bell and pianist Dave Mackay, who have a common love of Brazilian jazz, team up Saturday night at 8.
CRITIC’S CHOICE: TWO CONCERTS OF BIG BAND JAZZ
Big Band jazz is normally hard to find in San Diego, but it’s highly visible this week. Bill Yeager, head of the jazz program at San Diego State University, leads the Bill Yeager Jazz Orchestra tonight at 8:30 at the Theater East in El Cajon. Yeager likes contemporary arrangements that explore fresh ways of playing an ensemble’s various sections off each other. His group includes members of the university’s jazz ensemble plus top-notch local ringers. Tickets are $7.50.
On Sunday, San Diego saxophonist Gary LeFebvre, who is especially fond of composer/arranger Bill Holman’s charts, leads his Big Band from 6 to 8 in the Horton Grand Hotel’s Regal Room. Tickets are $10.