The Freeblowers


  Jazz Development in Britain

Have you noticed how, when reading or hearing of a perhaps well-known personality of the music profession, one can be also reminded of personal experiences or incidents related to the man or woman in question? Then recollections of such experiences or incidents often bring further recollections of others involved and of other incidents quite unrelated to the first. For instance, while reading a recent George T. Simon's article I was particularly interested in the point he made to the effect that jazz musicians, when involved in what he described as "free-blowing" sessions seemed reluctant to change key.

I think that, generally speaking, he is probably right about this, and he suggested the desirability of the musicians deciding upon several keys, and the order in which they would be used, before the actual "busking" performance.

George, of course, had no reason to mention names, but his point reminded me of a number of well-known musicians who were frequently involved in such a sessions as long ago as 1935, some of the best "freeblowers" in the business, who certainly did change key several times during the performance of a number. What is perhaps more significant, they did so without prior arrangement. I remember such sessions which occurred at the Bag O' Nails Club in Kingley Street, which was then one of London's jazz spots. Although I would never work the 11 p. m. to 6 a. m. "bottle party" type of club on a regular basis— neither the wife nor I favouring an arrangement that required me to leave home at around 10 p. m.— I did do a fair amount of deputising for those who did. In consequence, I found myself in company with such saxophonists as Freddy Gardner and Charlie Spinelli, (both of whom are unhappily no longer with us) Don Barrigo, Pat Smuts and Philip Buchel and many others, as well as many equally well- remembered brass players.

All of them seemed to have an uncanny instinct for knowing which key the group would next be sliding into, which, of course, was shared by the pianists. One of the most outstanding of these was the later Barrie Mills, who never learned to read music but whose natural talent gave him a mastery of harmony that was phenomenal He was always completely abreast of the musicians around him who did read, and in earlier years had been half the then famous piano duo of Ronnie Munro and Barrie Mills- regular broadcasters during the days of the Marconi House and Savoy Hill transmissions. Ronnie Munro, of course, was a reading musician who became famous as a music director and who is, I am glad to report, alive and well and resident at Brighton.

Remembering Barrie Mills' natural talent, however, reminded me that Charlie Spinelli, who played great jazz on the alto, was also a non- reader who, during the days of the sessions at the "Bag", was endeavouring to master the "dots". He would have in front of him a copy of the straight melody of a number which he would play quietly whilst another musician was playing the jazz. It was obviously a difficult and laborious task for Charlie yet, when his turn came to take the solo, his jazz was as good as the rest. Other fine pianists with whom I played at the "Bag" were Harold Hood and Norman Yarlett, both excellent readers, incidentally. The former ultimately joined Nat Gonella's Georgians, whilst the latter changed his name to Norman White, and with Stanley Black formed the famous "Black and White" piano duo which succeeded the "Tiger Ragamuffins" with Harry Roy's Band.

The name of Stanley Black, however, set me off upon another line of recollection— also related to the subject of "freeblowing" or "busking". On a Sunday in the early Summer of 1932, I arrived to play a private garden party gig somewhere in Stamford Hill in North London, and found that my fellow musicians for the occasion were Stanley and the brothers Nat and Barney Temple. No "dots" were produced, the idea being that the group would busk the whole performance, which we did, but, the piano being a semitone flat, Stanley transposed everything up a semitone throughout in order to make life bearable for Nat and Barney. The performance included snatches from remembered recordings by various bands and groups, as well as the usual jazz extemporisations and, despite the ropey piano and a fairly uncomfortable environment, the jazz moved along at quite a bounce, with Stanley Black showing no signs of strain or effort. Nat Temple was already a first- class saxophone and clarinet player, and a member of Harry Roy's Band, but he long ago became a successful bandleader in his own right. Stanley's experience with the flat piano must have been one shared by many pianists over many decades, although few could have handled the situation with such aplomb.

It is, however, recorded that when Ludwig van Beethoven played the solo piano part at the first rehearsal of his C Major Concerto, some 134 years earlier than our Stamford Hill gig, he too found it necessary to transpose the whole thing up a semitone in order to bring the piano into line with the orchestra! The trend or trends of thought having moved me quite a distance from the problem raised by George T. Simon, I turned a few pages to read Christopher Palmer's interesting tribute to the fabulous Irving Berlin. Of course, nearly every tune title mentioned, for which he has been responsible, reminded me of some orchestra or band with which I had played it, or of some establishment in which I was working when it was published. "Alexander's Ragtime Band" has been familiar to me for most of my life for I was only three years old when he wrote it!

The particular incident of which the article reminded me, however, occurred early in 1944— comparatively recently in the life of Berlin. It was a special transatlantic exchange broadcast in which the two ensembles involved were the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which had not yet arrived in Europe, and the London Fire Forces Dance Orchestra, of which I was a member. One of the numbers we were required to play was Berlin's "My British Buddy" from his musical This Is The Army, with the composer singing the first sixteen and last eight bars of the vocal chorus and a contingent of BBC male voices singing the middle eight. The only problem for us was that at the time, Berlin was in Bristol. With a fair amount of press ballyhoo, it was arranged that he would hear us through "cans" and, of course, our leader would. hear him through "cans" at the London end, whilst the orchestra would hear the melody only when the chorus sung the middle eight.

Things went well for the first sixteen bars then, due to a missed cue, the choir did not pick up the middle eight. For a second or so there was no melody to be heard at either end of the line but Berlin, many miles away. in Bristol, and realising that something had gone wrong, picked up the melody so quickly that listeners did not know that anything was amiss. The orchestra, of course, carried on regardless for, after all, we had to play the remaining twenty- four bars of the chorus without hearing the melody, so another eight made little difference to us. But, had it not been for the professional presence of mind of Irving Berlin on that occasion, the egg would have been well spread over a few faces.