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Big Band Sound May Pay Bernardi's Legal Bills : Development: The ex-councilman is selling a video featuring music from the swing era to aid his battle against the CRA.

March 15, 1995|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unlike Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Bob Dylan and other musicians of the '60s and '70s, the big bands of the '30s never mixed music and politics.

Until now.

Former City Councilman Ernani Bernardi, a big-band saxophonist-turned politician, is reviving the Swing Era sounds to finance his continuing legal battle against a longtime foe--the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.

Facing mounting legal bills, Bernardi, 83, began hawking a videocassette Tuesday of several big bands performing his favorite tunes, including some songs in which he is featured as a conductor or a soloist. The profits are going to continue his fight against a Downtown redevelopment project that he has battled for 20 years.

"I'm trying to get as much publicity for this so I can sell as many cassettes as possible," he said in an interview just hours before an appearance in North Hollywood to autograph and sell the $15 tapes.

A penny-pinching, cantankerous City Hall legend who retired after 32 years on the City Council, Bernardi now sounds like a television commercial for the tape he titled "The Way It Was."

He proudly proclaims that the tape is available at the Wherehouse music store in Granada Hills and that he is also taking orders over the phone.

Bernardi, a relentless critic of government waste, began his battle against the CRA 20 years ago when he joined a lawsuit that forced local government agencies to agree upon a $750-million spending cap on the Downtown redevelopment project.

But in 1993, the City Council, Board of Supervisors and the CRA met to discuss lifting the spending cap. Bernardi filed four separate lawsuits claiming that the panels met privately in violation of the state's public meeting law.

The public meeting law--formally known as the Ralph M. Brown Act--requires that nearly every government meeting be held in public. An exception allows closed-door meetings to discuss pending litigation.

Bernardi argued that no litigation was pending and therefore the meetings were illegal. In response to his lawsuit, the City Council approved a $150,000 contract with a powerful downtown law firm to fight Bernardi's suits and to petition a judge to raise the $750-million spending cap.

Last year, Bernardi won a partial victory in one of the suits against the county, but lost two other suits and is still awaiting a ruling on a fourth.

He says he plans to appeal the suits he lost and is prepared to continue his legal battle to keep the various city and county agencies from lifting the spending cap.

"He's great," said Barbara Blinderman, Bernardi's attorney. "I think he believes very strongly in this and there is no question he is one of the only persons who understands what is going on here."

The video collection of big band music has been a longtime dream of Bernardi's; he was known as "Noni" when he played sax and clarinet in the '30s and '40s with such greats as Benny Goodman, Bob Crosby and Tommy Dorsey.

The tape was planned as a "tribute to the supporting casts of the big bands," the talented backup musicians who never received the recognition they deserved during the Swing Era, he said.

But when the bespectacled, former Valley councilman finally put the tape together, he realized he needed the proceeds to finance the expensive legal battle before him.

About half of the money the tape brings in will be set aside for his legal battle, Bernardi said.

"Anything is better than what I've got now," he said, adding that he "doesn't have a lot" to fund the legal fight.

The tape comprises 18 Bernardi favorites that were played by six of the biggest big bands, among them those of Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington. The tunes include such hits as "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "String of Pearls" and "In the Mood." Bernardi himself is seen conducting one tune and playing sax in other segments.

Though the video features vintage footage of the big bands, the music has been rerecorded in digital sound by present-day musicians to reconstruct the crisp, original sounds.

Bernardi says he has no doubt that the public is hungry for these sounds.

"We've sent out flyers . . . and already we've had orders from Maine to Hawaii," he said proudly.

"We even got an order from a disc jockey in South Africa."

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