the Minstrel's Tale down along the Costa Blanca
The events portrayed in this series are not necessarily in chronological order
jazz in Spain is like being nowhere
I'd been to Spain before, spent quite a few holidays there. We'd had to drive down from Germany mostly on the Route Nationale roads in France, behind columns of trucks, loaded to the roof family cars and Dutch mobile homes. Took three days before the motorways were finished, but we saw a lot more of the countryside, so it wasn't too bad. Met some nice people on the way and stayed in some memorable French hotels. The trip was pleasant and we'd just bought an eight-cylinder luxury Mercedes to make it even pleasanter. The car had air conditioning. That was one of the reasons why we had bought it, because our three cats had often suffered from the heat on the way down south. That's what I liked to tell people, anyway.
One of our favourite hotels was the one in Tournon (when you get to Tournon, turn off). It was a pleasant place, with an old concierge sitting grimly knitting by the cash desk to keep an eye on things and add local colour. It was here that I made history by devouring one dozen of the hotel oysters in quick succession and exploding spectacularly shortly afterwards.
Across the Rhone in Tain le Hermitage I made a different kind of impression one night by standing up in a crowded restaurant, banging a glass with a spoon for silence and addressing the seated diners.
Ladies and gentlemen, I said. This has got to be the worst food, with the worst service and the rudest waiters in the whole of France. Thank you.
We opened the door and ran. I'd delivered my speech in English and to people in shock, by the looks of them, but I wasn't about to push my luck.
So, effectively burning my boats behind me in the approved manner, I arrived in Spain, in a small town near Benidorm, fully intending to lead a quiet, non-musical retirement. I'd left my instruments back in the radio station because I had no intention of ever playing them again. I still had five years to go before being pensioned off, but we had no more studio work to do. The band had been put on ice.
A few days after arriving I saw an advert in the local paper by the bass player Bill Sutcliffe. He was now living in Murcia, just south of Alicante, and looking for work. I phoned him. He had just returned from Los Angeles, where he had been visiting Bob Efford. We tossed a few names about, promised to meet and rang off.
Shortly after Mike Smith called me. He was a London trombone player who had done many broadcasts with a 10 trombone group he called Bag of Bones. Very good. He lived locally and wanted us to meet, so we got together shortly afterwards. He told me that he was running a group called the Talegate band, but he was also thinking of starting a big band, and was I interested? I told him the word was Tailgate and explained why. He thanked me. But was I interested in joining the big band? Of course I was, but I didn't have my trumpet here yet. Mike told me when the first rehearsal was going to happen and I said I'd go along and listen.
I put my foot in it right away by writing an article for the Crescendo
magazine that got me banned from entering any place the band played in
from that moment on. I think it accurately described the rehearsal and
I hoped it was humorous, but the guys didn't see it that way, and so I
started off as Public Enemy Number One with no trouble at all.
The next time I visited the band Mike told me I wasn't welcome. The guys didn't want to see me because I had hurt their feelings.
My trumpet was up in Saarbrücken, and I'd have to go and fetch it before I could have any thoughts about playing down here. I drove up there shortly afterwards and got the trumpet out of my bandroom locker. When I went out to my car I thought I'd just give everyone the high bit Ziggy Elman played during the first chorus of Well Get It as a parting shot. I stood there in the car park, screwed the horn together, took a huge breath and blasted away. I'd been at that radio station for twenty years, and this was my way of saying goodbye.
For a moment I thought I'd blown the top of my head off. While I was away somebody had taken the valves out, for a gag, and put them all in the wrong way. There was no air getting through at all, only back out through new holes in my eardrums. I think it was for a gag.
Now I had the horn with me I got in contact with some other local musicians with a view to starting my own band. One of them was the saxophonist George Watts. George had run a music shop in Birmingham in his early days, played with all the local bands, and knew a great many of the people I'd worked with in Coventry. He had played baritone in the Syd Lawrence Glenn Miller Band and freelanced in London. He'd also done some tours with Shirley Bassey, one of them in Beirut. He told me that there was a block of flats there with an aeroplane sticking out from one of the upper balconies. It had crashed there many years ago and no one had bothered to remove it. I remarked that if Shirley had screamed loud enough on the ending of The Party's Over MYYYYYYYY FRIEND! she would have most likely dislodged it and we had a bit of a chuckle about that.
We agreed to meet in the nearby seaside town of Calpe. I managed to get a spot in the carpark on the seafront. There was a notice there saying that the carpark was to be used for a rallying point for a national cycle race, and had to be cleared by one o'clock, or else.
Well I'd be out of there well before then. Just a quick chat, a beer and away. But when George turned up, with his wife Anne, the conversation got so interesting that we sat there for ages, had a meal, and would most likely have gone on for the rest of the afternoon, when I suddenly remembered the carpark ultimatum and rushed out of the restaurant.
The carpark was packed solid with cyclists, officials, fans and onlookers. There was no sign of my car. Then I noticed it a hundred yards up the main street, which went quite steeply uphill. It was parked correctly, pointing the right way, and this in a street where you could normally never find a spot. It seemed to be all right, but I was worried straight away. It had an automatic gearbox, which made it impossible to move without a tow truck. I was expecting all kinds of problems now tow truck, police fine, perhaps a damaged transmission. Did they hang people in Spain for things like this? There was no ticket on the windscreen, but suddenly a policeman appeared beside me.
"How did you shift it?" I gasped.
He pointed at the sky.
"Helicopter," he said, and strolled off.
My new band would have two trumpets, two saxes a trombone and rhythm. I sat and wrote forty arrangements for this line-up and copied out all the parts. The fixer for the band was the trumpeter Bill Sowerby, who knew everybody and ran his own local band.
Bill was a very well-known player in Britain. A Yorkshireman, he had played with a number of the big bands, including one long stint with Ken Mackintosh, so he knew what it was all about. He fixed the first rehearsal in his son's restaurant, a Mexican place in Jesus Pobre, near Javea.
Mike told me later on about a gig they had done with his band at an open-air restaurant in Javea when Bill was on trumpet, and his wife Marion on vocals. Marion had worked with the BBC Singers and was a very good classical singer. Bill thought so, too, so much so that, when a waiter carrying a loaded tray attempted to pass in front of her while she was singing, Bill rushed out and grabbed him. "No-one walks in front of my wife when she's performing", snarled Bill, and they grappled.
In his efforts to avoid dropping the tray the waiter veered sharply over to the left, with Bill still grimly hanging on. They knocked against one of the legs of the piano, breaking it off. Bill let go of the waiter at once and wedged himself under the piano to prevent it from collapsing for the remainder of the number. And the band played on.
That evening was also marked by the appearance of Edmundo Ros, who lives nearby. He came over to Mike during the band's performance and told him, with the utmost sincerity, that in his opinion this was the worst band he had ever heard in his entire life.
I'd already met Edmundo, quite by accident, in a Javea restaurant some time before that, so I knew he was around. He came to one of my parties, with his new wife, who was considerably younger than he. She had forbidden him to drink whiskey, so the two of us spent some time in the kitchen now and then, while I filled up his glass. We hadn't seen one another since one of the Ted Heath sessions at Decca forty years ago. We'd been using Barry Morgan, his regular percussion man, on timbales in a Latin American rhythm section on some recordings with Georgia Brown and Edmundo had come along as well. He had insisted upon playing the conga drum with them until Ted arranged an urgent phone call in the office for him, to get him out of the studio.
That was some party, that was. Present were a Dutch dentist and his wife, a Jumbo-Jet Simulator operator from Finland with his Columbian wife, a Spanish colonel who was a military judge from Alicante, a schoolteacher from Cologne and his wife, the Bavarian representitive of 4711 Eau de Cologne and his wife, the German rep for Zeiss Ikon, a former GI who had stormed various islands with General MacArthur during the Second World War, a former member of Hitler's Verband der Deutschen Mädchen and a whole lot of other celebrities. The Spanish colonel took charge of the barbeque and managed to spray grease and other stuff all over most of the terrace and parts of the garden. He stayed the night because he was eventually too drunk to drive home.
He had spent a good part of the evening ogling the Hitler woman, saying, Strong woman, strong woman. When I put him to bed it was impossible to undress him so we laid him out on his back, a dead cigar still clenched firmly between his teeth. He slept like a baby. That man could sleep anywhere. He'd previously been in the Spanish Foreign Legion. "In the desert I used to sleep on the ground with my horse," he told me proudly.
While he was trying to make out with the Hitler woman the guy from Finland was hitting it off with the dentist's wife in a big way. It was love at first sight. I'd never seen the like of it, and neither had the dentist, who removed his wife, and himself, in a great hurry. The Finnish guy's wife, from Colombia, took the car in a huff and left her husband stranded. He was eventually taken home to Altea at about 2 a.m. by Edmundo Ros, who lived in the exact opposite direction.
Edmundo told me later that the man had persisted in trying to get out of the car while it was travelling, thinking he was in a aeroplane. He did the same to me once, and I kept him confused by shouting, Bombs away! He knew all the retired pilots in the area, including one major who had flown a Mosquito in the Korean War and now had to live permanently connected to a bottle of oxygen. Also knew a retired member of the FAA living near me. At this time there was a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier at anchor just outside Alicante that was causing a lot of protesting in the region. One day, after it had departed he received a phone call telling him that he was to be picked up by the ship's mail plane and taken to a party on board in the middle of the Mediterranean.
He said afterwards that the flight over was bad enough, because the mail plane hit an air-pocket every few moments and dropped a hundred feet or so, leaving your stomach right up in your mouth. You had to sit facing the rear of the plane, which made things worse. Then it crash-landed on the deck of the carrier without any apparent means of stopping its headlong flight. The way back had been even worse, because he was now drunk as well. This time, luckily for him, he didn't attempt to bale out.
I used to visit him a lot. He lived by the sea, right on the edge of an earthquake area, so it wasn't practical to fill up his pool because he had his workshop right underneath it. He was not allowed to drink at home. His mother had owned a hospital in Helsinki and his father had been killed while landing a plane in the fjord. On the wall of his workshop was a picture of the plane sinking, with his dad in it.
I saw Edmundo again last year (2003) at a concert. He was now over 90 and didn't remember me, or the party. See Space Age Music Maker
Back to the first rehearsal of my new band. In the car park there I met, for the first time, the man who was going to be on tenor. He introduced himself, saying that he had, at one time, studied under Lennie Tristano. I thought, great, this is going to be really something. On the way up the steps into the restaurant he also told me that he didn't like playing with professionals, because they always gave everyone a hard time. It transpired that the guy talking to me was a troublemaker of Mega proportions. There was a long line of people who wanted to thump him. And there was lucky me, getting all this, and we hadn't even gotten into the place yet. I mentally reserved my place at the back of the queue and in we went.
Inside I met George Watts again. George was on alto. He told me later on that he had already refused to play with Mike's big band because it was so bad. He also said that he had done one job only with Bill Sowerby's band and had many sleepless nights afterwards reliving the horror of it all. There was a story going around about another local bandleader who had booked a band for a dance. Hardly anyone had attended and the evening had been a catastrophe. After the gig the leader had handed each musician a sealed envelope which revealed, upon opening, a typed letter of apology, and no money. This had obviously been prepared beforehand.
George had previously told me about his pal Brian Short, who had played bass in the BBC Big Band under Malcolm Lockyer. Brian had sold his bass before moving to Spain because he didn't expect to ever play it again. We wanted him in this new band, but Bill had booked another guy for the rehearsals until Brian could buy himself a new bass.
The drummer, whom I'd met before, and who had told me he was ex-Eric Winstone, now came over and said, in the strictest confidence, that he had never played with Winstone. Well, I'd known that all along. One of the first things that had struck me when first I opened the local paper to see who was playing along the Costa Blanca, was the amount of musicians who had ex-Oscar Rabin written after their names. I knew that none of this was true. Strangely enough, once they got to know that I was around, these little embellishments began to disappear from the adverts.
People were always coming up to me on the gigs saying, "Do you know So-an-So? He used to play with Ted Heath." "I don't think so," I replied. One woman came over and pointed the guy out. He was sitting at her table with a lot of other people. He had played tenor sax with Ted Heath. She insisted upon it. She even had a Heath record, and his name was on it. "Bring it here," said I. The next time we met she showed me the Heath LP. On the back cover, where the band line-up was printed, the guy had added his name with a Biro pen.
Another time, and this was very sad, a man approached me at the Cisne and asked me if I knew a certain trumpet player. "Never heard of him," I said. "Well he used to play with Ted Heath," said he. "No he didn't," said I.
The guy had just died. All of his life he had told his wife that he had played with Ted Heath, and she was so proud of him. What should he tell her, now that her husband was gone? "Don't say anything," I said. "Leave things the way they are."
Back at this first rehearsal I was just about to count the band in on the first number when I noticed that we had no bass player. There he was, standing over by the door, with no bass. He was the guy with his arm in a sling who had mistaken me for Bill Sutcliffe.
He was standing there sounding off in a big way. He had heard that he was maybe not going to be the regular bass player and therefore refused to take part in the rehearsal. Why he had bothered to come at all was beyond me. "Do you want a contract," I asked? He went on and on about it until I told him to get lost and we did the rehearsal without a bass.
We started off with an easy number just to get things going. The winds managed it OK, but when we played the last bar and stopped, the rhythm section went on and on until someone shouted. They looked up, amazed. This was the way things were to go for the entire rehearsal. I'd never experienced this before. Even back in my early days in Coventry all the musicians I played with could read music.
When I got home afterwards the drummer phoned me and said how great it was to be in my band, and how he appreciated the chance he was getting to finally play with some real professionals. After he rang off he phoned George and said he wasn't going to play with the band any more.
When I called Bill up about the next rehearsal he said that the trombone player was in Malaga on holiday, the drummer had quit, the pianist had a sudden attack of flu and there was no bass player. That was the end of the band. I still have all the parts, beautifully copied, never played.
Despite having been banned from going to the Tailgate Band gigs I went along, anyway, because my old pal, the trumpeter Terry Lewis, had just moved locally, and had joined the band. Terry and I had played in several bands together, including Tommy Sampson's band, the Squadronaires and with Jack Parnell.
Terry was not a well man. He had recently suffered a stroke and had only partly recovered. His daughter Yasmin told me that he'd lost some co-ordination in his movements that caused him to drive erratically, so that he now had to be driven everywhere by his new wife, Yolanda. She was an American girl he had met while playing on the QE2 with the Joe Loss band.
She didn't want him to play at the Sunday gigs at the Cisnea great venue in Benidorm, with an open-air market, auction rooms, restaurant and bar. She said that the job, playing at a market like that, was beneath him. The band played midday for a couple of hours and it was a whole lot of fun. The people loved the band and the place was always packed.
So he never played there and I started doing the gig for him. Another great place to play was a Go-Karts restaurant in nearby La Nuncia. I really liked that job. Then there was the big band.
The big band brass and sax sections were entirely composed of Spanish players, and most of them were pretty good. The trouble was that they had never been shown how to phrase jazz music, or even how to keep time. The result was that they were all over the place. Yet, when one or two of them came to play with us on their own, they fit in beautifully. They were very good at following a leader when they had one.
Terry and I did some jobs with the big band and it began to sound half decent. We both got fired one day because there was a gig coming up in Alicante at midnight, and we were told to be there at five in the afternoon to rehearse and set up the mikes. It was a long way to Alicante, we protested and we both got the bullet.
Then Terry died. It was discovered that he had cancer and after that he lasted only a few weeks. He had always been a very fit man; we had done a lot of weightlifting together in the old days, and he had kept himself fighting fit all his life. It was a terrible tragedy. He'd made himself popular wherever he went, including here in Spain.
Now I was asked to join the Tailgate Band, so I did, because I liked the guys in the band, and most of the places they played. The only problem was with the music. Mike had a lot of Harry Gold's old music, and that was great. Some of it was quite difficult, and very well written. The problem was with the other stuff he had, manuscript written by a pal of his.
I played this stuff for a few weeks and then I started writing for the band. George Watts came on the band, Brian was now on bass and a man from Cologne called Heio Behrens on piano. We had an excellent banjo player called Colin Bruce, who was, incidentally, the fixer for the Cisne market. He organised the stalls, took the money, and generally ran the place. Colin was also a very good bass player. The drummer was Chris Mason and we had a girl singer called Shirley Cordingley.
Mike is an exceptionally good trombone player. There seems to be nothing he cannot do on the instrument. Now and then I'd write a tricky bit for George and me and he'd insist upon having it written into his part as well. With the three of us, and a good rhythm section the band began to sound really professional. I was delighted with the result because all of my career had been in the big bands, with big brass sections. Playing on my own like this I began to like the freedom it gave me in certain things, without disrupting the need for the absolute precision the section playing demanded, even with only the three of us.
I was delighted with the challenge of writing for only a three-piece front line and developed a technique that came off quite well. This is described elsewhere in the technical pages.
Chris, our drummer, was a very special person. He played guitar, sang, told jokes, did George Formby impressions for the old ladies, did everything. Chris was the life and soul of that band. After I'd been on the band for several years Mike told me that if I ever left he would pack the band in. But he carried on after I left. It was only shortly after, when Chris left, that Mike finally disbanded. Chris and I had supplied the light relief in the band. I used to clown around on stage, and he managed to set the place alight just by sitting there on the drums.
Funny thing about Chris was that he couldn't read music, neither could he really play the drums very well. But he did something back there that drove the band along, just the same. Don't forget that I'd played with a lot of very good drummers in the past, many of them, like Kenny Clare, world class. But Chris had some sort of magic, and he passed it over to us. When he started in the band he was on guitar. My arrangements were not conventional. You could never know which chord was going to follow what, but Mike used to shout out the key changes to Chris and he'd sound absolutely correct all the time. He must have discovered some neutral chords that fit everything. I don't know how he did it.
With Mike and George at hand I now started another small jazz group, called JazzMania. Brian was on bass, and we had found a local drummer, Eddie Williams. We used a talented guitarist called John Anthony for our first concert, before eventually getting Heio on piano.
This first concert, in a big hall in Denia, was packed out. Mike's band was on there as well, and most of them were still not speaking to me. They played first, then we went on. One of the numbers we played was Dizzy Gillespie's Our Delight. This was the number I'd played with the Vic Lewis band in the 1950s. I think my solo in that one stirred them up a bit, because when we came off afterwards everyone suddenly started talking to me. Music hath charms.
We did quite a few concerts with the JazzMania and I also played on one big band concert with a group made up of five trombones and myself on trumpet and Flugelhorn, where we played Our Delight again, together with things like Very Early and Chick Corea's La Fiesta. Boy, that was a thrilling sound, and the audience showed their appreciation with a standing ovation at the end.
Copyright © 2004, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved