It was early in my career as a musician, around 1980 or so. At the time, the French horn was my main instrument. As an undergraduate music major at the University of Miami, I was being trained to be a proficient ensemble player. And like all broke college music students, any decent gig was a godsend. But when I got the call to play in the orchestra accompanying the legendary Lena Horne, I felt a mix of anxiety and excitement.
By that time, I had already performed with some impressive artists, including Burt Bacharach and Ray Charles. But this was the one and only Lena Horne! My admiration for her aside, my main concern was doing a good job alongside of Miami’s best musicians. I recall some extra apprehension on my part as I would be the only French horn player in the band – nowhere to hide! Although I knew most of the musicians, I was one the youngest and least experienced people there. To say that I was intimidated would be an understatement.
Arriving early for the first rehearsal at the Jackie Gleason Theater on Miami Beach, I was surprised that the musicians would be performing on the stage itself. In many shows that I had played up to that point, the orchestra played in the pit. I now realize this was probably a decision that Ms. Horne made herself; I assume she preferred to be close to the audience, maximizing intimacy. She surrounded herself with excellent musicians, whom she generously featured as an integral part of her show.
As rehearsal began, I concentrated on getting my parts right, barely noticing the superstar I was hired to accompany. After a couple of songs, I happened to look back at the rest of the band, and I saw the great lead trumpet player, Tony Concepcion, looking at me. He smiled, and gave me the “thumbs up”, which gave me a sense of relief and confidence.
During the week’s run of shows, I was able to appreciate some of what made Lena Horne so great. She had unmatched charisma; people just liked and admired this woman. Her timing onstage was impeccable. She easily manipulated the audience, taking them through the ups and downs of a very well chosen repertoire of songs that perfectly fit her voice and classy personality. She was funny and relaxed, yet emotionally charged. In this show, she was as much an actress as she was a singer.
At the time, I’m not sure I could fully appreciate the greatness of Lena Horne. I knew she was a pioneer and a huge star, but only in retrospect do I understand some of the things that made her so great. I’m so grateful this memorable experience, and thankful for always being surrounded by generous and caring fellow musicians.