As a member of the house band on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," Bernard "Bernie" Kaufman not only played three instruments -- saxophone, flute and clarinet -- he occasionally cracked jokes, too.
In one skit for an occasional "Stump the Band" segment, Kaufman audaciously volunteered to recite the alphabet backward. Instead of starting with "z," Kaufman turned his back to the audience and recited the alphabet normally, getting big laughs, his family said.
"He had a really good wit," said one of his sons, Jeff Kaufman, 55, of Branford, Conn.
Bernie Kaufman, a 30-year Great Neck resident and noted musician, died April 22 from natural causes at his son's home in Branford. He was 98.
For more than 60 years, he was a mainstay on radio and television shows and performed onstage with some of the biggest stars of his generation, including singers Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, his family said.
"He could have been the Kenny G of his time," Jeff Kaufman said. "But he was a very humble man. He did it because he loved music. It wasn't to become famous; it was to be a great musician."
Bernie Kaufman was born Dec. 17, 1914, in Brooklyn, the youngest child of Russian immigrants, who also had two other sons and a daughter. He began playing instruments at the age of 9 and never took a lesson.
"He took to it instantly," said another son, Glenn Kaufman, 57, of Forest Hills. "My father was a prodigy."
With the help of an older brother who played drums, Kaufman landed his first paying gig just before his 15th birthday. He played in bands at dance parties in New York City and society parties on Long Island's Gold Coast.
After completing high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Maritime Service in 1942, serving as a "musician 1st class." He balanced his military service with jobs recording radio and TV commercials and later worked on staff orchestras for the CBS and NBC television networks.
Kaufman later joined the "Tonight Show" band, working for original host Jack Parr and later Carson, until the show moved to Burbank, Calif., in 1972.
He and his wife moved to Delray Beach, Fla., in the early 1980s, but he continued to perform with Tony Bennett and other luminaries. In 2004, he moved to his son's Connecticut home. His wife died in 2011.
Kaufman is survived by his sons and two grandchildren. Burial was at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens.