Lawrence Saxophonist hits the road with the GMO

Jessica Vogt

Bright lights glaring off brass horns, a house packed with smiling, eager faces, the thunderous applause at the end of a number. For most aspiring musicians, this is an experience they dream of. For junior Ben Doherty, this is reality. Instead of returning to classes at the Con this fall, the saxophonist from Alpharetta, Georgia will spend the next four months as a touring member of the world-famous Glenn Miller Orchestra.
The dream became a reality one night in late August, when Doherty’s high school jazz instructor, Craig Stevens, e-mailed his former student that the big band was looking for a sax player. Ten days later, Doherty was on stage with the orchestra in Akron, Ohio. But he almost didn’t make it there. After getting stuck in security and missing his flight, Doherty just barely made it to his first gig on time. “I was nervous enough as it was, but to throw in a missed flight on top of everything was just horrible,” said Doherty. “The concert went very well, though. Once I got on stage, everything was fine. I even took a few solos.”
The world-renowned jazz orchestra began on the East Coast in the late 1930s with trombonist Glenn Miller. Their new jazz sound, with an emphasized reed section, as well as such hits as “In the Mood” and “Tuxedo Junction,” ushered in the swing era. The present incarnation of the band has been touring worldwide for the past 50 years, playing over 300 shows a year.
Doherty will participate in 72 of this year’s shows before returning for Winter Term classes in January. The group will tour 21 states and spend a month in Japan. Doherty says he is looking forward to celebrating his 21st birthday in Japan. “This is such an incredible opportunity because it is a taste of what the life of a road musician is really like,” he says. “There is no way I could have let this pass me by.”
Life on the road is much different from anything Doherty could have experienced at Lawrence. “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 ’40s big band tradition,” Doherty says. “We’re averaging around six to seven shows a week and I sight-read about 75% of each show.”
Lawrence saxophone professor Steven Jordheim recognizes the significance of this for Doherty. “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,” he said. “Undergraduate students are rarely presented with such opportunities.”
Additionally, Doherty has two fellow Lawrentians in the GMO: Allen Cordingly ’02 and Scott VanDomelen ’94. Together they make up three-fifths of the five-member sax section. “So far I’m having a really great time,” said Doherty. “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.