THE REHEARSAL BAND
The bass player Bill Sutcliffe now lives in Murcia, some kilometres south of Alicante. Sutcliffe had advertised himself as a pianist looking for gigs in a Costa Blanca newspaper, and I’d called him to say hello.
He must have handed my Spanish number out quite freely because all at once I was receiving phone calls from all kinds of expatriates, asking for my services. I was amazed at the number of London musicians living locally. One of them, a retired London trombonist, asked me to join a big band he was forming for a jazz concert. I told him that I couldn’t do it—didn’t even have a trumpet with me in Spain, but I’d come by out of curiosity.
I turned up early at the rehearsal, held in a nearby restaurant. A brief look at the first trumpet book impressed me: it was filled with Basie arrangements, some very difficult indeed. I sat down in a corner and waited. One by one the musicians arrived.
I felt like Rip van Winkle at once. They seemed to be all young people. Everyone knew everybody else. It was like the old days, with people greeting one another, laughing and chatting, fooling around, having a blow, examining one another’s instruments, except that I wasn’t included.
All around the room the instrumentalists began their warm–ups, with a death–defying professional technique and panache that made me want to crawl away and hide.
After a while the men took their seats.
Only the first trumpet player was missing, so they waited. A young man burst into the room suddenly. He was wearing a dark blue jogging suit with a yellow stripe down the leg, white sneakers, and a beard. Under his arm he carried a trumpet in one of those leather bags that only really dedicated players use, because one has to carry it at all times like a newly–born baby to prevent the horn from getting bashed about.
This is it, I thought. Trumpet players with beards are always very hot stuff. I cast my mind back quickly over all the bearded trumpet players I’d known—Buddy Childers, Bobby Shew, Chuck Findley, Al Hirt, Marv Stamm, Milo Pavlovic, Don Ellis. The guy was exuding confidence from every pore. This was going to be really something.
While the drummer was still screwing things together, and everyone was tootling away, one of the players wandered over to me.
‘Hi,’ he said, ‘I’ve heard a lot about you now I’ve finally got the chance to meet you face to face.’ We shook hands. I didn’t catch his name. His left arm was in a sling. I looked around at those present quickly, and realised that he must be the bass player.
‘How do you manage with that?’ I said, indicating the sling.
‘Oh! I do all right. You know how it is.’ He gave me a conspiratorial look. I didn’t know, as a matter of fact. He went on for some time, talking about me, and my achievements, expressing only surprise that I lived locally. He was sure that I was a long way from home. Wasn’t I mistaken about that? We launched into one of those conversations that I hate, where neither seems to know the true identity of his partner. I’ve had enough of them, I can tell you, where I go on and on talking to someone in the mistaken belief that he is somebody else, chatting about the wrong things we’re supposed to have in common, sending regards to the wrong wife.
Meanwhile the drummer had finished setting up and drifted over to us. ‘Come off it,’ he said, ‘That’s Ron Simmonds.’ ‘Oh Christ! I thought you were Bill Sutcliffe!’ As the drummer dragged him away I heard saying ‘Who the hell’s Ron Simmonds?’ The drummer had a huge wartime RAF pilot’s handlebar moustache, and I discovered later that he’d played with Eric Winstone, and now had a bar in Calpe.
The bandleader called for order, and the band got out the first number. At that moment some of the wives came in from the bar and sat around near me to listen. A small boy reversed his chair beside me, straddled it and began gazing into my face from a distance of only a few inches. He seemed to have dined well on conejo, rabbit stewed in garlic, with chips and side vegetables, all washed down with generous draughts of Coca–Cola. There were traces of it on his breath, and all down the front of his shirt. Having inspected my face carefully for several moments he turned his gaze upon the identity bracelet my wife had given me on my last birthday, which I wore on my right wrist.
He screwed his head around, lips moving. ‘R—O—N—A—L—D,’ he said. He nodded. Ronald, he was thinking.
‘Is that your name? Ronald?’
He switched his attention to the watch on my other wrist.
‘Is that watch real gold?’ I got up and went to sit right over on the other side of the room, which was something I’d wanted to avoid, as I now was even further from the exit.
The bearded trumpet player finally took his place in the lead chair. He had been warming up in the corner up to now, playing a selection from The Flight of the Bumble Bee, some bits of the Dizzy Gillespie solo in Things to Come, and the first part of the trumpet solo in Petruschka, which he played up an octave, causing everyone in the room to stare at him in admiration.
The band started playing Woodchoppers’ Ball. Everyone knows this number, and most bands play it without the music. These guys couldn’t play it with the music. A fierce battle broke out after the last note, which was supposed to be in unison. Everyone accused his neighbour of being out of tune. Heads were shaken, long notes blown, the pianist appealed to. Slides became grudgingly adjusted.
They tried the number again. Now they were even more out of tune. Not only that, but they just couldn’t get the last bar right. Even the trumpet player with the beard couldn’t fathom it out. This was a very bad omen. If they couldn’t get that simple phrase right, what was going to happen when they got on to the Basie charts?
‘That was OK,’ said the bandleader.
The band got out Moonlight Serenade. The saxophones were as smooth and silky as a jeep bouncing and plunging over a rocky moonscape. Listening to them lurch and struggle their way mercilessly through the number I suddenly remembered an urgent appointment. As I left the room the drummer nodded and winked at me, knowingly. Outside in the bar all the wives nodded and winked at me, knowingly.
‘Is that medallion real gold?’ said the small boy as I went past. Maybe be was front man for a band of teenage muggers.
The cool Spanish night air caressed my fevered brow. Had that been for real? Even the first amateur band I’d ever played in had been better than that.
I phoned the bandleader a few days later. ‘How did it go?’
‘You mean. . .?’
‘Great. Concert tomorrow. You coming?’
‘But. . . the Basie numbers . . . ?’
‘Great. Everything great.’ His vocabulary seemed to have shrunk right down to bare essentials.
I turned up at the concert, greatly wondering. The place was packed, but I found a seat at the rear. The band came on in their tuxedos. They looked great.
The bandleader gave a big spiel, introducing everyone to thunderous applause.
The show started off with a bang, with Woodchoppers’ Ball, and after the first few bars I was out of that place so fast it’s a wonder my shoes didn’t catch fire. By the time I’d managed to unravel my car out of the tangle outside, the number was over. It sounded as if it was getting a standing ovation. Through the clapping, cheering, and shouting I could just make out the sound of everybody tuning up again.
Copyright © 1993 Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved.