the Minstrel's Tale down along the Costa Blanca
The events portrayed in this series are not necessarily in chronological order
If somebody don't open a window
Meanwhile, back in Spain, our Sunday performances at the open market were turning into somewhat of an amateur talent contest. People began turning up with all kinds of instruments and insisted upon playing with the band. There were ukuleles, banjos, guitars, washboards and all sorts of wind instruments. The uke and washboard players used to sit strumming away with that sort of vacant half-grin, staring into space, that only aficionados of that genre can conjure up.
The only one of the bunch who really sounded any good was a trombone player named Robert King who had previously played with a Dixieland band up in the north of England. He used to come on and do a half hour just with the rhythm section and he was very entertaining. The trumpet players, and there were a great many of them, all had two things in common: they were supremely confident in their bearing, and excruciating to listen to. One or two of them gave me lectures on how to play; one brave chap, producing a mouthpiece from his pocket, asked to borrow my trumpet. He handed it back shortly, saying that it was impossibly hard to play (it was the Schilke). Well that cheered me up no end.
A tenor player from Sweden called Clifford Johansson (The Saxophonemaniac from Sweden) came on holiday and he was great. He always wore a weird sort of pillbox hat to cover up his bald head, sang and got the audience to join in with him in stuff like Bye, Bye, Blackbird. He came mostly to the Go-Karts Restaurant, as did Engelbert, from Frankfurt, with his Sousaphone. The bass player used to go off when Engelbert turned up, and let him do an hour with us. I was fascinated by what the guy had to do to play that thing playing Boomp-Boomp-Boomp-Boomp without stopping and presumably without breathing for minutes on end.
When Erik van Lier made that First Brass record with his brother Bart, Derek Watkins and Allan Botschinsky he told me that he had to stop playing the tuba every few bars to take a breath, and dub all the missing notes in later. Now Engelbert was getting wind from somewhere but I feared for his life at times. That instrument was life-threatening. Heavy it was, too, difficult to balance and when he left it dismantled on the floor in the entrance hall people could hardly get in past it. I've always wondered about people who take their instruments on holiday with them, when I can't get away from mine quickly enough, but a sousaphone?
We had an excellent clarinet player from Holland, name of Ben Vrauwdeunt, and then we had a trumpet player from the north of England.
Now this guy had played first trumpet for years in a well-known dance hall band up there, and had the distinction of having once been named, by a colleague in an international jazz magazine article, as being the best lead trumpet in the country. So when he turned up in the restaurant on holiday I was quite naturally interested to hear what he had to say. He must have asked to play because I was later sent off the stage with the tenor player and the trumpet player came on.
OK, I thought, he's going to play a couple of jazz choruses and maybe join in with us in a jam session later. But he stood there and gave us his Louis Armstrong, his Harry James, his high notes, his sweet stuff; then he sang, got his wife up to sing with him, and did an act that went on so long that the rest of us got extremely pissed off with him. When he finished a guy from the audience came up to me and said, "That's the way you are supposed to play."
Another time a young man approached me during the interval. Look, he said, Why don't you play more loosely. Stretch out a bit. That's the way to do things. You guys are just skimming the surface.
Are you a musician? I asked. Music critic, musicologist, perhaps?
I am a music lover, he announced grandly.
The worst of the lot was a clarinet player who arrived one day from Madrid, where he was reputed to be a Very Important Person. He certainly looked the part, and managed to convey some disdain at having to play with us lowly people, having never ever having heard of any one of us. However, he condescended to play with us, and it quickly became evident that not only could he not read music, but that he was determined to make each number into a solo for himself, regardless of what the rest of us were playing.
I helped him by getting the parts out for each number, but he disregarded them completely, playing ad lib throughout each chart. It was only when we were to play a number called When You Wore a Tulip that I intervened.
Mike had transcribed an absolutely brilliant solo from the trombonist Mark Nightingale on this tune. We used to play it in unison, trombone and trumpet, and were quite proud of the result. I asked the clarinet player not to play during our duet as it was a sort of feature for us.
He reacted by playing screeching high notes throughout the duet, moving over to blast them into my microphone while doing so. I had to give up after a few bars because I couldn't hear anything for the bells ringing inside my head.
In the interval Mike said that the clarinet player had told him that he didn't want to play with me any more. He did play the last section, though. Daggers had been drawn, but I now ignored him completely. He must have complained to someone else, too, because afterwards, when I got to my car, parked in a nearby field, I discovered the singer's husband right behind me. He was a guy that had hardly ever spoken to me over the years, but today here he was, and he had a lot on his mind.
You always get it wrong, don't you?
Why do you have to read music? he whined. I was up in Bradford last week and there were dozens of bands up there and none of them could read music. So why do you have to read music? Why do you have have to make everyone else read music.
I had to learn how to read music because I'm a professional musician. I said. When you're a pro you have to be able to read music. What the hell has it got to do with you, anyway?
He ranted at me in this fashion for another five or ten minutes, then he stalked off.
You think you are good, but you're not as good as you think you are, he sneered, as a parting shot.
I considered several possibilities: killing him right there in the car park, killing him later, or doing nothing. I decided upon the third course. The man had most probably been drinking with the clarinet player earlier on. Nothing else could have given him the courage to insult me like that, and for no apparent reason. On top of all that I had written dozens of arrangements for his wife to sing, backings that had really set her off at her best, and neither she nor her husband had ever said a word to me about them, one way or the other.
I didn't have to put up with stuff like that, not this late in life, so I left the band. Working with people like that was not how I had planned to end my career. Over the years Mike had constantly said to me, If you ever leave the band I'll pack it in. A few days after I left he had a new trumpet player, as if the guy had been waiting in the wings for such an opportunity.
The new man could play all the notes correctly and lots of spectacular solos but Mike was far too nice a guy to tell him that his phrasing was all up the creek. The bass player told me all this because I had no further contact with the band for some time, due to the imminent death scare detailed in the following chapter. I was saddened to learn that both the drummer and bassist had left shortly afterwards and the band then went right down the drain. When I heard it later on it didn't sound so good. The new guys in the band didn't seem to know or care what I was trying to do in my arrangements, nobody seemed to care about playing together or trying to make anything sound good. The bandleader could do very little about it because the band never rehearsed.
For a while Eric Delaney and I used to meet there, have a couple of beers and a chat. I couldn't hear the band from where we sat in the bar but Eric could and every now and then he'd shout, angrily, "Why does he do that?!" When I went to listen to the band I realised what he was upset about. The new trumpet man had a habit of ruining my beautiful final chords by doing an ad lib solo over the top of them, often trying for high notes that he didn't get. This was a bad bit of business, popular at one time, but it went out of fashion about thirty years before this guy was born.
"Tell him to stop doing that!" urged Eric. "No, you tell him," I said. So nobody told him. Later on Don Lusher sent me a CD of the Best of British Jazz group, and damn me if Terry Lightfoot wasn't doing the very same thing.
In its entire existence the Tailgate band never had a rehearsal, so I had to make sure that whatever I wrote was instantly playable, and note perfect. To my great surprise they managed everything perfectly, even Chris, the drummer, who couldn't read music (but neither could Buddy Rich, he reminded me, on occasion). Eventually Mike sold the book to someone else and went back to England.
Before Mike left he put on a giant farewell concert that was well attended. Appearing were the big band, the small group and a larger ten-piece combination where I was booked to play. Most of the scores had been written by me. See Squawk of Glory
When I phoned later on to wish him well I found that he had already left for the UK. Together we had transformed that little Dixieland band into an outstanding swing band and a small local sensation. Mike with his skilful announcing, and Chris, the drummer, and I, with our bits of humour, had helped establish a good communication with the audiences; people turned up in droves to see the band. Eric Delaney had come along often to sit in and play with us. That had been a good band, we were all proud of it, and everyone in there had taken care of business.
Copyright © 2004, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved