Lawrence University junior Ben Doherty will not be rejoining his classmates this fall when the 2005-06 academic year begins classes on Wednesday.
The saxophone performance major from Roswell, Ga., is hardly putting his music studies on hold, though. Thanks to an unexpected offer he couldn’t refuse, he’s instead trading practice and class room instruction for a dose of real-world education as a touring member of the world-renowned Glenn Miller Orchestra.
In late August, with the start of school less than a month off, Doherty received a serendipitous email late one night from his former high school jazz teacher, Craig Stevens, a one-time trumpet player with the GMO. The band was in search of a tenor sax player and tapped Stevens for suggestions. He remembered his former student and forwarded a note to Doherty. Four days later, after working things out with his summer job boss, receiving the blessing of his Lawrence advisor, Professor of Music Steven Jordheim and completing the necessary paperwork to take a leave of absence from school, Doherty signed on with the band.
In a baptism by fire, he made his GMO debut a scant six days later in a Labor Day weekend performance in Akron, Ohio, but not before learning his first lesson about life on the road.
“I got stuck in the individual search line going through security at the airport and the lady in front of me took forever,” Doherty recalled. “By time I made it to the gate, I had missed my flight by no more than five minutes. I wound up on the next flight and got into Akron at 12:30 p.m., which left plenty of time to get to the gig, but the whole time up until I got there I felt like I was going to be sick.
“I was nervous enough as it was, but to throw in a missed flight on top of everything was just horrible. The concert went very well, though. I thought I was going to be extremely nervous, but once I got on stage, everything was fine. I even took a few solos.”
Originally founded by legendary trombonist Glenn Miller in the late 1930s, the orchestra established itself as one of the greatest bands of all time with its unique jazz sound. From 1939 to 1942, the band, which became synonymous with the “swing era,” produced an astonishing 70 Top 10 records, including the timeless classics “In the Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction” and “Moonlight Serenade.” The present Glenn Miller Orchestra was formed in 1956 and has toured regularly for the past 50 years, performing as many as 300 shows a year around the world.
Doherty plans to stay with the band through the middle of December before returning to Lawrence for Term II classes in January, a schedule that will see him play 72 concerts in 21 states, including a stop at the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh on Oct. 15. Highlighting his time with the band will be a month-long visit to Japan in November and December, where 23 shows are scheduled throughout the country.
“This is such an incredible opportunity because it is a taste of what the life of a road musician is really like,” said Doherty, who admits he’s looking forward to celebrating his 21st birthday in Tokyo in early December. “I’m playing with an incredible band and I get to spend a month in Japan! There is no way I could have let this pass me by.”
The band plies the nation’s highways by bathroomless coach bus and plays venues ranging from school auditoriums to performing arts centers, outdoor amphitheatres and civic park tents. Wherever the schedule takes them, though, Doherty says he has found a “very receptive and appreciative” audience.
“I’ve heard many audience members comment that they are surprised that all of us ‘youngins’ could play this music and hold true to the Glenn Miller tradition.”
That music tradition, along with the sheer frequency of performances, have provided the biggest adjustments for Doherty.
“At Lawrence, I played a wide variety of musical styles whereas the music I’m playing with the GMO is all in the 1930s and ’40’s big-band tradition. We’re averaging around six to seven shows a week and I sight read about 75% of each show. With the Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble, we would spend the better part of a term preparing for a show and then perform maybe two or three concerts. Basically, in less than two weeks with the GMO, I’ve already played at least as many shows as I have my entire time at Lawrence, if not more.”
Helping ease Doherty’s transition from student member of LUJE to second chair in the tenor sax section of one of the world’s best-known bands have been two fellow Lawrentians — Allen Cordingley and Scott VanDomelen, 2002 and 1994 LU graduates, respectively. Cordingley, who plays alto sax, joined the band nearly a year and a half ago, while VanDomelen, lead tenor sax in the band, has played with the GMO on and off since 1998. Together, they account for three of the band’s five saxophonists.
“I actually first met Allen and Scott after they played a concert in Sheboygan that Mr. Jordheim and several members of the sax studio attended,” said Doherty. “We all went to a McDonald’s after the show and hung out together. I jokingly said, ‘If either of you guys ever want to take a break, I’ll sub for you.’ I wasn’t being serious at all because I never thought the opportunity would arise. Although I didn’t really know them that well when I joined on, it made transitioning into the band a lot smoother, especially since I am pretty shy.”
When the offer of joining the GMO was first broached, Doherty’s initial reaction focused on how his decision might impact his Lawrence education and whether taking time off from college was really the right move. But those concerns were quickly assuaged in a conversation with an enthusiastic and encouraging Jordheim.
“I was genuinely excited for him and told him so,” said Jordheim. “This is such a great opportunity for Ben, to be able to play with fine professional musicians, travel extensively and experience the life of a touring musician. Undergraduate students are rarely presented with such opportunities. Ben’s time with the Glenn Miller Orchestra will be of great benefit to him as he makes plans for his future study and career.
“And, of course,” he added, “to play in a section with two alumni of Lawrence’s saxophone studio means that he has two ‘big brothers’ to serve as his mentors.”
While Doherty continues to ponder his career ambitions, he realizes he’s been given a rare and timely chance to take a peek into the proverbial crystal ball for a glimpse of what life may have in store for him.
“I have been viewing this as an opportunity to really figure things out, with actual experience to base it on. Last year I had a really hard time dealing with a serious case of burnout mixed with the standard ‘Is this what I really want to be doing?’ question that every college student deals with, so this really couldn’t have come at a better time.
“So far I’m having a really great time,” he added. “All the guys in the band have been really cool and I’ve really connected with a few of them. The overall experience has been extremely encouraging and reaffirming for me in pursuing a performance career.”