A Minstrel in Spain
Chapter Sixteen

Helga, Miles and Ake

Stefan, one of the tenor players in the SFB band had inherited a knighthood from his father, which allowed him to put von in front of his name. Having been brought up on stories of King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table I had my own ideas of what a knight should look like, and he wasn’t it. He was a nice enough guy, though, from Kiel. When he quit the job and returned to Kiel I inherited his apartment in the Reichstrasse. I also inherited several of his girl-friends. Stefan must have had a string of them, because one or the other was always phoning the apartment, thinking he was still there. Maybe they were the reason he quit. I took out three of them in quick succession.

All of them were weird, I mean very weird. Helga was the worst one of all.

I phoned Stefan, who was now back in Kiel.

‘Hey, don’t you know any girls that are normal?’

‘What? Oh yeah! Helga, right? Ha-ha-ha-ha.’

I asked Claus the Doctor for advice. He was unsympathetic. Reminding me of the statistics relating to my simian palm line, he said that girls like Helga were also one in twenty thousand.

‘If you lived in Hamburg you’d have to pay a fortune for things like that.’

‘But it’s perverse, unnatural.’

He launched into a cross-examination that would have made the Marquis de Sade blush. I as­sured him that I had done none of the things he mentioned, especially the last one, the description of which made me feel quite faint. I had to sit down and he gave me a slug of vodka out of an urologist’s bottle.

‘How did you get on with the merkins?’

‘I don’t know what they are!’

He gave a small cynical smile of disbelief.

‘Mmm. I was only asking. Some deviates have psychological problems on that.’

‘I am not a deviate!’

‘What about when you—?’ He described something unmentionable. ‘Do you actually enjoy that? Please describe your feelings when you do that.’ He held a pencil poised, freshly licked with a pointy purple tongue.

‘We didn’t do things like that!’ I gasped in dismay.

‘Oh, it’s usually in there somewhere. Sort of a sub-phenomenon of the genre. Kind of thing they get up to on the Reeperbahn all the time.’ He hummed to himself a little and fiddled with a stethoscope. ‘Maybe I had better examine you again.’

‘Oh no you don’t!’ Memories of his last examination crowded my mind.

He gave me a bill for two hundred marks. I protested that this had only been a friendly visit. He corrected me. It had been a psychological consultation. Before I left he got me to write down Hel­ga’s phone number for him. I looked in my little book and put down Charles Orieux’s number instead. The two of them had much in common.

Outside, in the Kurfürstendamm, a police truck was spraying more demon­strating students with a water cannon. My car had received another free wash, and two more dents. A leaflet advertis­ing Chez Nous, Berlin’s transvestite night club, had been shoved under the windscreen wipers. Aladar, the mad Hungarian bass player worked there, God help him. What with Charles, Stefan’s girl-friends, and Claus the Doctor, especially Claus the Doctor, I was living right in the middle of a freak circus. Berlin was slowly but surely slipping back into its deca­dent pre-war night life, and I was slipping with it.

Spring arrived in Berlin, the horse-chestnut trees lining the streets burst into blossom and I washed my car for the first time since the police had done it for me back in September.

Just before I had to go out on tour playing Gershwin concerts I had a sudden sharp pain in my chest, which caused me agony when I blew. I went along to Claus the Doctor, who injected something into my chest with the sort of hypodermic used on horses. The fluid probably went right into my heart—the needle was sure long enough. The pain ceased at once.

I asked him what he had pumped into me. ‘Opium’, he said, carelessly. That figured. He had pressed a small bottle of the stuff on to me just before I left for Japan. It was supposed to be a cure for dysentery. It was, too. Everyone in the band got the runs in Japan except for me.

I paid him and left. The strange thing about Claus was that although he had his surgery in what must have been the most expensive bit of real estate in West Berlin, I never saw anyone else in the waiting room. As far as I can remember he didn’t have a receptionist. The place was equipped with all of the most up-to-date sophisticated medical appliances. Whenever I phoned him he could always see me at once. When he was 40 years of age Claus abruptly abandoned his practice and went to live in Lugano. The other Claus I knew, a friend of his who was an announcer in RIAS, refused to give me details.

This leaves the question—what was Claus up to? How did he make his money, and from whom?

The day I officially left the RIAS band I was playing with Don Ellis in the morning at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Don was fronting what the organisers liked to call the Berlin Dream Band, which was composed of members from both Berlin big radio bands.

It was really wonderful music. Don was deep into Indian music, and had all sorts of weird time signatures in his charts. Some pieces were written in 11/8 time, which really made us sit up and take notice. The show-stopper was a piece in 17/4. To beat us in on that one he jigged around on the stage for a few seconds, then spun around and shouted, ‘TA-KA-TA-KA-TA-KA-KA, TA-KA-KA, TA-KA-TA-KA-TA-KA-KA.’ Sure beats Jersey Bounce, anyway.

Don played a trumpet with four valves that the Holton company had made especially for him. With the extra valve he could produce the quarter tones necessary in Indian music. We had to play a lot of these quarter tones with him, and achieved this in many cases by using fake fingering. Normally a trumpet middle C is played open. Playing it with the alternate fingering of depressed valves 2 and 3 produces a different sound, and a slightly different pitch. Most trumpet notes have alternate valve combinations. Fake fingering is often used to facilitate difficult fast passages.

He had a terrific technique on the instrument. I got into the habit of wandering into the studio early in the morning when he was practising, and some of the stuff he was doing frightened me. In his solos on stage he used an echo machine—something Palle Mickelborg also used later on in the Herbolzheimer band. The sounds were weird and wonderful. By playing fast passages with a late echo he could get into trumpet duets with himself. Just moving the horn to and from the loudspeaker produced a wonderfully musical feedback that became an intergral part of his performance. It was a thrilling experience to just sit there and listen to him, and the audience lapped it all up eagerly.

In spite of his talents Don told me that he was never booked on sessions in Los Angeles because he hadn’t managed to break into the tightly closed studio contract business. Most record and film sessions were booked in that town by Shelley Mann, who had his own close circle of players. Ernie Royal had already told me that a similar monopoly was exercised in New York by the tenor saxophonist Al Cohn.

Don had Karin Krog come over from Norway to sing with the band. Behind her we often had to make strange noises, rustle the music pa­per, or blow soft breezes through the mouthpiece. It was unusual, but it fit the music, and the mood, perfectly.

‘Don’t laugh,’ he warned us.

Don’s band was a great success, more so than when we played in Berlin later on with Kenton, when the band was booed for playing all his old Gerry Mulligan and Pete Rugolo arrangements. Don Menza made a special trip up from Munich to see the Ellis concert. Menza and Ellis were old pals. He came up to me later on and hugged me. There were tears in his eyes. ‘Great, great,’ was all he could manage to say.

As we came off the stage after our concert I passed Miles Davis standing in the wings. He was wearing a long brown leather coat which reached almost to the floor; you could just see brown leather trousers underneath. On his head he wore a big brown leather hat with a floppy brim. An enormous pair of dark glasses completed the outfit. You could see nothing of his face. In the dim light he looked like something scared up for a horror film,

‘For Christ’s Sake,’ I muttered to Ack, ‘He can’t be going on like that.’ But he did.

When Miles got out on stage there was a howl of derision from the audience. The howling went on right through his performance, because he played with his back to them, pointing the horn down on to the floor. Whatever you could hear through all the noise was mostly disappointing. This was nothing like the Miles Davis we heard on the records.

A similar sort of thing used to happen when Dizzy Gillespie turned up. People associated Diz with a fireworks type of playing—the style he’d used with Parker, and later with his own big band. These days he only played in a tin mute and you could hardly hear him. I can understand the principle of this, because the tin mute gives a lot of resistance to the horn, so that you can blow hard and maybe do things that would be more difficult on an open trumpet. People don’t much hear any mistakes you might make, either. It’s a system that works well for older players when their chops have started to let them down.

It was a very special day of another kind for me, because my friend Cyril Narbeth had come to Berlin on a special Melody Maker flight, and we were seeing each other for the first time for about twenty years.

I had hardly got home after that concert when the phone went and Joachim Behrendt, who was running the festival, asked me to come at once and play with Li­onel Hampton, because his trumpet player Wallace Davenport had been taken ill.

I’d already had a big argument with Joachim because I’d advised him not to use Carmel Jones in the Don Ellis trumpet section. Carmel was a great jazz soloist, but not such a good reader, and he couldn’t grasp the complicated music Don was writing at all. Instead of trying to, he just messed around, playing the fool. When anyone said anything to him he could get terribly uptight. This made things very difficult for the rest of us.

Don was more or less blaming me for it all, so I asked Joachim to include Carmel as soloist, but get someone else to play in the section. He screamed at me over the phone. ‘Who do you think you are? How could you say a thing like that? Carmel is famous! Nobody has ever heard of you!’ I invited him to kiss my ass, the only time in my life that I’ve ever said that to anybody. During the concert Carmel played some glorious trumpet solos, but goofed and fumbled his way through the section work, just as we’d all feared. Don grimaced at me in dismay. Behrendt had seen and heard it all. Now he was on the phone again as if nothing had happened, begging me to save his life.

At the Philharmonie, Lionel Hampton was waiting for me. He was fronting a six or seven piece band—trumpet, alto and tenor saxophones, and a rhythm section. With the trumpet player missing he couldn’t go on.

We had one hour for me to rehearse the music. The parts all came from his big band library. That is to say—one trumpet took the place of the regular eight brass. The two saxes took the place of five. With a three piece front line playing charts all written for thirteen it seemed doomed from the start.

It was a catastrophe right from the word go. Nothing that I played fit in with what everyone else was playing.

Lionel turned around to Joachim and cried ‘What have you done to me? The guy can’t play.’

‘Look Lionel,’ I said. ‘I’m playing the trumpet parts exactly as they’re written. It’s you guys who are playing them wrong.’ This was like telling Juan Manuel Fangio he didn’t know how to drive.

He looked at me for a moment.

‘Yeah, well we might have altered one or two things here and there.’

‘You’ve altered the lot. There isn’t one single phrase on these parts that you’re playing correctly.’

‘He’s right,’ said the alto player. ‘We just sort of slipped into another rou­tine.’

I started to pack my horn away.

‘Hey now! Wait up there a minute!’ said Lionel, panicking. ‘Can’t we do any­thing about this? I can’t go on without a trumpet player.’

Because this was the great Lionel Hampton, idol of my youth, I said I would help him. For the next hour we ran through the music, and I al­tered every single bit of phrasing on the trumpet parts to correspond with what the rest of them were playing. When it was time to go on, I had writer’s cramp.

The place was packed. The audience loved Lionel, who capered around all over the stage. He played vibes, piano, drums, sang, and led us marching all over the con­cert hall playing ‘The Saints’ for a grand finale.

I have to admit that I played pretty damn good that night. I played as if I’d known the book for years. It was all pretty primitive stuff anyway. He started holding on to some of those last chords, with me locked in on a screamer, for minutes at a time. I had nothing to lose, so I blasted my way to glory, right through the concert. I could see the other guys all watching me in amazement out of the corners of their eyes.

Lionel was beside himself with delight. He gave me an extra credit with the audience, telling everyone what had happened. Even the guys in the band were ap­plauding me.

In the bandroom after the second concert he said to me ‘Ronnie, you’re go­ing to go down in history for that, man. You played your ass off. That was really marvel­lous. How much do I owe you?’

‘Two hundred dollars,’ I said, at once.

He took a step back. ‘Hey man! You weren’t that good! If I pay you two hundred dollars you’ll be getting more than I am.’

‘Take it or leave it,’ I said. ‘That’s what I’m getting from Don Ellis for only one concert. Forget it. I’ll put it down to experience.’

He paid.

When the concert was shown on television I looked in vain for my­self in the picture. Dieter Finnern, ever artistic, had taken only close-ups of Lionel, through­out the transmission. All you saw was one perpetual giant, gross, shot of Hamp playing vibes, his mouth open, giant pores drip­ping enormous globules of sweat from his nose. It was frightening to watch.

Åke played with both of the two great bands that were going in Europe at the time. These were the bands of Francy Boland and Peter Herbolzheimer. He played first with Francy, where Benny Bailey was on first trumpet. Later on, when I worked with Peter, he came on that band, too.

He came back after one tour Francy had done together with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band utterly exhausted. The two bands had been crammed together into one bus. There were bitter arguments between the play­ers, screaming fights, knives had been pulled. He thought that he was going to get killed at any moment, and didn’t close his eyes all week.

The trouble, apparently came from an article I’d written in an in­ternational magazine about him, where I’d said that I reckoned him to be one of the best trom­bone players in the world. This led to the guys in the Thad Jones band greeting him every day with comments like ‘Hi Åke. How’s the best trombone player in the world feeling today?’ The jealousy this remark of mine caused was incredible. He blamed me abso­lutely for all the aggravation he had to put up with from the other guys because of it.

Our friendship took a turn for the worse. He couldn’t manage to speak civilly to me for ages after that article.

He would come off the rostrum in the jazz clubs and say to me, ‘How was that, Mr. Music Critic? Did it meet with your expert ap­proval?’

I thought, to hell with him. I resolved to keep his thousand marks until he changed his attitude towards me.

He did it finally one night, years later in Berlin, just after we’d finished playing the Jazz Festival with Peter Herbolzheimer’s band. Some of us had taken Jon Faddis down to a Chinese Restaurant behind the radio station. He had been a guest star, and he and Benny Bailey had got into a trumpet battle out front, with only Kenny Clare playing behind them, that had absolutely brought everyone to his feet cheering. If you could do that in a place like Berlin, where they booed Kenton, then it had to be some­thing special. During the evening Jon proudly showed me a photo of Snookie Young he carried around in his pocket.

Åke was in a hell of a good mood that evening. All at once he came over and put his arms around me.

‘Hey, I’m sorry, man. You played really great tonight. You know—I’m real sorry I mess us up all the time because you know I really love you.’

‘OK Åke,’ I said. ‘I’ve waited three years to hear you say that, and just to show how much I love you, too, here’s a little something to prove it.’

I took out my pocket book there and then, and wrote him out a cheque for one thousand marks, plus four percent interest for three years.

He looked at the cheque in amazement. ‘What the hell’s that for?’ I told him.

He just couldn’t believe it, couldn’t credit that anyone could do such a thing. Not steal the money, which I suppose I did, really, when you get down to things, but to give it back, with interest, all those years later.

He went around for days after that showing everyone the cheque. I don’t re­member him even cashing it. Maybe he had it framed. But we were pals again, al­though I often caught him looking at me slyly. When he no­ticed me watching him he would smile and shake his head at me. I guess he never got over that.


Chapter Seventeen >>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved