Forty years ago, Pat Dorn and his band performed at a crowded DKE fraternity party. In the audience that night was DKE’s president, a young man whom Dorn described as “quiet.” Last night, Dorn once again performed in front of George W. Bush ’68, still a president, albeit a slightly more important one, at his second inaugural ball.
Dorn plays the saxophone for his group, The Pat Dorn Orchestra, which has also played at the inaugural balls of president Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton LAW ’73. In his long career, Dorn has performed with Tony Bennett, Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jr.
Dorn’s roots extend back to his native New Haven, and he credits Yale with giving him many of his earliest gigs.
“Yale offered me a lot of work back then,” Dorn said. “The school has been my background for years.”
Dorn said he remembers a different Yale, a University with 11 frats in close proximity to each other and big proms that attracted parents as well as students.
“Everything was traditional then,” he said. “Fathers and sons would join the same frats.”
He described football weekends as the biggest time for entertainment. The school was not yet co-ed, so girls from Vassar and Smith would come to New Haven for the festivities.
“All three days of the weekend would be like a fantastic holiday,” Dorn said. “Every fraternity was loaded. Every weekend was like New Year’s Eve.”
Dorn performed at many of these parties and met students and parents who introduced him to friends and other prospective employers. Soon he was playing at Smith, Wake Forest and other schools. From there he took jobs at debutante parties in the South, which he described as “a big thing for any band’s career.” His band, which plays standard jazz and dance numbers, can vary between a four-person ensemble to an 18-piece “orchestra.”
Bush is not the only man whom Dorn saw rise from Yale to the White House. He remembers Clinton as a Yale student with a profound love for politics, and said that during New Haven’s elections for mayor, Bill and Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 would always offer to count absentee ballots.
When Dorn performed at Clinton’s inaugural ball, he brought a saxophone and asked the president to play. Clinton politely declined.
“He looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘They don’t pay me enough to do that,’” Dorn said.
Another president in Dorn’s past made a big impression on the musician. When A. Bartlett Giamatti ’60 was an undergraduate at Yale, Dorn performed at his senior prom. Fifteen years later, Giamatti became president of the University.
“He was my idol,” Dorn said. “He was so much fun to be with.”
After serving as president of Yale, Giamatti went on to become Major League Baseball’s seventh commissioner. Before he took the title, Dorn wrote him a letter.
“I said to him, ‘I finally learned how to play ‘Boola Boola,’ … now I have to learn ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game,’” Dorn said.
From behind microphones and atop stages, Dorn has watched a generation of leaders pass through Yale. Last night, he once again entertained DKE’s ex-president, although the inaugural ball was hardly as wild as those old football weekends Dorn remembers.