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West Coast trombonist and big-band enthusiastby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
Trombonist Milt Bernhart, a treasured icon of West Coast jazz, died of multiple organ failure on January 22, 2004 in Glendale, California. He was 77 years old.
Bernhart was as good-natured a man as jazz ever produced, self-deprecating and always able to see the humor in a situation. He began playing the tuba at ten but had switched to trombone by high school. Having shuffled through Chicago and Philly, he was hired for Boyd Raeburn's experimental big band in 1942 and gigged with musicians like Teddy Powell for a year or so afterwards.
Bernhart's career was sidelined by Army service, but in 1946 Stan Kenton picked up on the young trombone talent. Bernhart's first solo spotlight came that year, in Kenton's smash hit "The Peanut Vendor", but his relationship with the bandleader was tumultuous. Bernhart vacillated between the Raeburn and Kenton bands for several years, interrupted once by a stint with the ill-tempered Benny Goodman which became joke fodder for years thereafter.
In 1955 Bernhart made the first of his very few records as a leader. Modern Brass (RCA) was a stellar disc featuring Maynard Ferguson, Shorty Rogers, Pete Candoli, bassist Red Mitchell, tubaist Ray Siegel, French hornist John Graas, and other West Coasters. That same year he joined the Columbia Records studio orchestra, which brought him steady work on TV and film scores like "The James Dean Story" and "Peter Gunn". He backed Sinatra both on record dates and in "The Man with the Golden Arm", and participated in perhaps hundreds more sessions during his studio days.
In 1986 Bernhart was elected president of the Big Band Academy of America, an arts organization which encouraged continued study and performance of the big-band legacy. It was his true love, along with the music of Kenton, which he actively supported through the Academy by arranging regular performances. At Kentonian gatherings Bernhart's wit was always a highlight, marked by funny solos or skewed versions of songs like "Everything Happens To Me" sung in his hilariously mild-mannered way. He frequently toured with artists of all calibers and was one of the West Coast's principal cheerleaders for live jazz.
Bernhart is survived by sons David of Burbank, CA, and Bruce of Owatonna, MN; daughter Elisabeth Chatfelter of Lake Hughes, CA, and five grandchildren.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.