the Minstrel's Tale down along the Costa Blanca
The events portrayed in this series are not necessarily in chronological order
is someone who knows
Oh To Be In England!
I was invited to the Stan Kenton Reunion in Daventry and stayed at a Four Star hotel there where the manager didn't know how to cash a cheque. Right away at the Birmingham airport the trouble started. My pal Bunny Roberts, the Coventry drummer who had gotten me started in the big British bands, picked me up and immediately got involved in a road rage incident with some guy in the car park who reckoned Bunny had brushed against his car. He only gave in when I got out of the car because I was bigger than him.
I'd gone to the Reunion because Bill Russo was going to be there. We met in the corridor of the hotel where it was all happening. Bill didn't recognise me at first. I had a moustache now, and he had a beard. We stared at one another for a moment, then his face lit up and grabbed me. We went back a long way, hadn't met for almost forty years. While we were embracing Vic Ash strolled by.
"Hey Vic," I said. "I'd like you to meet somebody." "Yeah, who is it?" said Vic. He looked and looked, with me and Bill grinning at him, and didn't get it until I told him. He'd also been in the London Jazz Orchestra with Bill, sitting right in front of him in the sax section.
I had a great time. The BBC Big Band was there, together with the Midland Youth Band and Bobby Lamb's Trinity College Band. Buddy Childers, Milt Bernhart, Lee Konitz and the baritone player Roy Reynolds were there and Richard Peaslee turned up later on to see Bill. Richard had been the assistant conductor with the London Jazz Orchestra.
I met Vic Lewis again, after many years. Vic was now president of the Marylebone Cricket Club and he spent a good deal of his time at the reunion watching a game on television. Tommy Whittle walked by and joined in the conversation, as did trumpeter Tony Fisher, who was doing a gig with the BBC band. Bill got quite nervous about that band and got me into his room to discuss the scores he wanted them to play.
"Do you think they'd be able to play this one?" he asked anxiously, holding up Frank Speaking, a piece he'd originally written for Frank Rosolino, that was later played, and recorded, in our band by Keith Christie.
"Why shouldn't they?" I said. "Because they haven't rehearsed it," said Bill. "They didn't have time to rehearse any of my stuff." "Don't worry," I told him. "They are good players."
"What about that bit near the end?" He was wringing his hands, nervously. Yes, I'd forgotten about that bit. It was an eight bar unison for the entire band, taken at breakneck speed, where nobody had a chance to breathe. Bill had chopped it into sections where people kept taking over from one another and it had to be done perfectly so that no one noticed the breaks.
The BBC band played it perfectly on the concert. As they started I noticed that Buddy Childers was standing behind my chair. When they got to that bit, and sailed through it, Buddy bent down and spoke into my ear. "It was f___ hard to play then, and it's f___ hard to play now," he said.
An old man sat down to talk to me in the restaurant. He seemed to know all about me and was asking questions dealing with my time in Germany. He seemed to know all about everybody. Milt Bernhart told me later on that the man was Charles Colin, who'd owned a big music store in New York for many years. I hadn't caught the name because he had pronounced the first syllable as Co-lin, as in Co-coa, the way they do in the USA. Once I knew who he was I looked for him later on. I wanted to talk to him but he wasn't to be found. I'd had a book written by Charles that had revolutionized my life as a young trumpet player. It was a book that taught the trumpet psychologically, without any music or exercises in it whatsoever. Just reading it had charged me up, filled me with confidence and improved my playing immensely. It was one hell of a book. When I mentioned the book to Buddy and Milt later they said that someone else had written it; Charles had only sold it.
It was marvellous meeting Bobby Lamb again, my buddy from the old days. There was an Irish film unit there, making a documentary of Bob, so he didn't have much time to talk. The unit whisked him away for some location shots almost at once. We promised to make a point of seeing one another next time I was in London. He was still composing like mad and running the Trinity College Big Band. His own band had finished when his co-leader, the trombonist Ray Premru, had died a few years back.
The hotel where I was staying, four stars or not, didn't have any maid service over the Whitsun weekend, so my room never got tidied or anything for three days. When I went down to breakfast on the day after the Reunion had ended I found that the hotel was closed. There was no breakfast, no nothing.
I stood at the desk and hollered until somebody came running. In retrospect I should have left quietly without paying. No one would have noticed, or cared.
"We thought everyone had gone," said the girl. "Where's the manager?" I said. "He's in London," she said. She phoned him and he gave me a seventy-five pound rebate on the bill, and I got breakfast, all on my own in the empty hotel. Oh, to be in England. When I tried to pay my bill with a Eurocheque I was told that the hotel didn't accept foreign cheques. I said that it was either that or nothing. There were more phone calls. Finally the girl took my cheque. She had to. It was Whit Monday and all the banks were closed.
I'd had a worse experience with cheques in Selfridges, the famous store in London's Oxford Street, once. I wanted to buy something, through the post, from Selfridges that, in German money, would have cost DM 1,200. The Deutsche Bank in Saarbrücken gave me a banker's cheque for that amount. Now a banker's cheque, especially one from the Deutsche Bank, is good all over the world. Alas, it wasn't for the manager of Selfridges.
Before I could send off the cheque to London I received the news that my mother was in an old people's home in Croydon, expecting to die at any moment. I rushed over to London to be with her in her final hours. I took the plane from Alicante to Gatwick, arriving at Gatwick around midnight.
The airport was deserted. Inside the huge arrivals building I could see only one other man and he was making straight towards me. I found the ticket office for the airport train and walked over to it. Just as I got there the other man, of African origin, arrived beside me.
"Would you mind?" he said. "I only have a very small query."
"Go ahead," I said.
He started talking to the man in the ticket office. Five minutes went by. You have to imagine the scene. Here I am, with my luggage, just arrived from Spain, standing here in the deserted airport at midnight, and this guy is deep into earnest conversation with the ticket clerk.
I moved forward. "Look, I only want a ticket for the train."
"Won't be a moment," said the ticket man, without looking up.
Fifteen minutes went by and there's me still standing there while the two of them pore over books and timetables as if they had all the time in the world. For all I know the guy was buying a train ticket to Zambia.
I moved forward again. "Look..."
"Wait in the queue," said the clerk, nastily.
"It'll only take you a second."
"Are you deaf?"
Finally, after twenty minutes the black guy straightened up and walked off. He hadn't even bought a ticket. I moved up quickly to the ticket office before anyone else came up with a query. The clerk was still staring at one of the timetables. I waited a moment, then cleared my throat. He didn't look up.
"A ticket to South Croydon, please."
"You'll have to buy that somewhere else, won't you," he said. "I only sell tickets for the airport train here."
"Well give me one of them then." He slapped a ticket down on the counter and took the money without looking up.
I looked at the small opening in his window and wondered whether I'd be able to drag him through it by the ears. Nah. Not wide enough. I'd hurt my wrists for sure on the glass doing that. Better leave it. If the man had to sit in that pokey little office day in, day out, to earn his keep, I guess it was up to poor sods like me to provide what little entertainment he could get from time to time.
I saw my mother just before she died but she didn't recognise me. I tried to say thank you to her, for everything, but I don't think she could hear me. It was a very sad occasion.
After the funeral I remembered the cheque and visited Selfridges to have a look around. Something caught my eye in the furniture department and I decided to buy it there and then. When I went to pay I offered the cheque in part payment of a much larger sum and was directed, after a long wait, to the manager's office. There I was made to stand and wait some more while the manager, who was obviously a very important person, busied himself pretending to be writing something.
Finally he looked at me. It was not a friendly look. He was not prepared to accept the cheque. He had seen people like me before. I explained the circumstances, and said that it was only a small part of a larger sum I was about to spend. I showed him my Master Card. He got up and opened the door. He didn't actually have me thrown out, but it looked like being next on his agenda, so I left.
I went straight to Harrods and bought a beautiful three-piece couch suite there for DM 20,000, using my Master Card. They took the bank cheque as part payment, no trouble at all, and I received the goods in Saarbrücken a couple of weeks later.
Meanwhile, back in Daventry, after I'd finally paid the hotel bill Bunny picked me up and we drove to the BBC Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham to see Bill Russo conduct the BBC Big Band. We had lunch there with Bill and then went into the studio to hear Buddy play Autumn in New York. It was the same arrangement that Bill had written for the Kenton band, recorded on his LP Portraits on Standards. Buddy played it beautifully, of course, just as he had done all those years ago, and the sweet memories came flooding back of that wonderful band.
The only people I knew in the BBC Big Band were Vic Ash and Tony Fisher. It was a very good band, indeed, one of the few existing big professional bands. The leader was a big hearty man named Barry Forgie. I spent an evening with Barry, Lee Konitz, Buddy and Milt Bernhart and found him to be a very agreeable man, with a great sense of humour. Barry had previously sent me an excellent tape of the band playing one of my scores, together with a lot of things from Rob MacConnell and Bob Florence they'd commissioned.
While I was standing talking to Buddy and Milt in the break the first trumpet player of the BBC Band came over and shook hands.
"I remember you," he said, enthusiastically. "You used to brush your hair straight back."
That was it. Not a word about my trumpet playing, just my hair. Can't remember his name. Don't know if I ever knew it. I didn't bother to make a note of his hairstyle for future reference.
Eventually we had to leave. Bunny had to get back to Coventry where I would stay for another week with him and his wife Marie.
When I waved goodbye to Bill he stopped the band at once. I went over and we embraced. It was the last time I saw him. A few years later I had a message from one of his friends in Chicago to say that he had died. Bill had attended another Kenton Reunion near London afterward the Daventry one, and people told me then that he had been far from well.
During the Daventry Reunion Bill was interviewed in one of the conference halls for Crescendo magazine. Jean Maggs, a regular contributor to the jazz magazine, could have easily conducted the interview and transcribed the tapes later for publication. Unfortunately, the editor insisted upon doing the interview himself, with the result that the interview with Bill has never seen the light of day. It should have been a most interesting one. It was done on stage with a room full of people, and they all seemed to enjoy it. I couldn't hear a word they said from where I was sitting, but when you are deaf you get used to that.
I also saw my old pen-pal Dave Allenby in Daventry. He is a very good sax player, but his occupation is that of pharmacist. He'd worked for various companies, including the British Army, in Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Zambia, Rhodesia, Singapore, Hanover, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, Jubail and Saudi Arabia before retiring. While he was in Hanover Dave drove down to see me in Saarbrücken and we had a good chat about the old days. We had met during a Dankworth rehearsal near the Oval and had corresponded ever since. He is now back home in Darlington, with his wife Mavis, and a large cat; is active in various local bands and runs a saxophone quartet.
Another man I met again at the reunion was Jack Bell, the man who had turned up so amazingly after my collision with Ken Goldie's car in Cornwall. I had sent him a travelling clock by way of thanks, and Jack, who now worked for the Zildjan Cymbal Company, brought it with him, twenty odd years later, to show me.
And there, too, was Ernie Garside, who had played trumpet in the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra the last time we'd met in the 1950s, since then becoming a very successful agent, shooting to fame with his skilful handling of Maynard Ferguson's band, among others. Ernie thanked me for some trumpet exercises that I'd published in a magazine some years previously. He said they had done wonders for his playing. I told him that Don Ellis had given me the exercises on one of his visits to Berlin. Click here to see the exercises.
Back in Coventry, where I'd spent a good part of my childhood, we went around all over the place, visiting old friends. First up was Len Pepper, who’d played first trumpet in the Coventry Hippodrome orchestra when I was a teenager. It was that orchestra, and that trumpet section that had spurred me to start playing the trumpet. That, and Harry James, of course. Nearly everybody had started playing because of Harry, or Louis Armstrong.
We visited my old pal Cyril Narbeth, and listened to his big rehearsal band, that had a lot of my old friends in it. It was wonderful to see them all, over fifty years later. They played real good, too, as Bunny’s own big band did when I heard it later.
Bunny took me to see a marvellous museum of old cars right in the center of Coventry, with one of Donald Campbell's land speed record cars on show. Then he drove me out to a huge deserted lot in the middle of nowhere.
"Do you know where this is?" he asked. I didn't. It was the site of the factory where I'd worked during the war, Alfred Herbert's Machine Tool Company. I'd been studying as an engineer before the trumpet lured me away in 1944.
Bunny had three factories of his own until recently. Now he has sold them and is an engineering advisor to the Courtaulds company. He still plays great drums and will be 84 this year.
When I left he dropped me at Birmingham airport and I got straight into another road rage of a sort. This one was with a black woman with an attitude who kept me waiting for ages at the check-in desk, and then refused to give me a boarding card because I only had one small bag with me. I couldn't make out what she was muttering, being deaf and all, but someone kindly interpreted. I was sent along to be checked out by the security agents, but not before a guy had rammed me brutally with his trolley because I wouldn't let him pass in front of me at the desk. By now I was really enjoying myself, but at the security desk they made up for it all.
I explained what had happened."Oh, that old cow!" said the officials, and passed my bag through without even looking at it. We all had a good laugh at that, and I felt much, much better. It no longer worried me when they lined us all up like convicted criminals before boarding the plane and a very angry gentleman frisked us for mobile phones.
Copyright © 2004, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved