Cold days in Russia
We played a costume ball in the Palais am Funkturm, under the Berlin radio mast, which looks like a miniature Eiffel Tower. James Last was the other band.
Everyone in the Last band played amplified. The noise coming out of the speakers next to the stage was deafening. I saw the legendary Viennese composer Robert Stolz taking a breather. He was sitting directly in front of one of the monstro boxes. A normal person would have been shaken to pieces within seconds, but Robert was over 90 and didnt seem to notice the incredible din.
As I walked past quickly, wincing from the noise, he nodded at me happily. We had only recently finished recording an album of some of his songs. Id been playing the trumpet solos and the celebrated German tenor Rudolph Schock had done the singing. Id worked with Rudolph many times with concert orchestras. He always seemed to strain too much, and he went such an alarming dark red colour on some of his high notes that Id often feared for his life. In the event he did die shortly after, of a heart attack.
The recording with Stolz had taken place in an large old cinema in Spandau. In ancient times Spandau had been an international crossroads for the trading caravans, and there are still great areas of utter wilderness there, so I drove around for ages trying to find the place. When I finally arrived there was a complete symphony orchestra already assembled on the main floor.
I wandered around looking for my music stand. Its up there, said the contractor, pointing to the balcony. I stumbled up the badly lit staircase to find the engineer fixing up a microphone for me down by the railing at the front of the dress circle. We tried several positions, but wherever he put the mike I still couldnt see the orchestra below, and when they started to play I could see and hear nothing. On the music stand were the parts for several trumpet solos.
Why am I standing up here, anyway? I asked the engineer.
Search me. They want a ghostly echo, he said, waving his arm vaguely around at the deserted balcony.
Stolz appeared on the floor below waving his baton at me. You were supposed to play there, he shouted. I hadnt even heard them start.
Ill need some earphones, I said to the engineer. There were no earphones. As it was impossible for Robert to stand where I could see him without also moving the other ninety-nine musicians right across the auditorium, it was arranged that the contractor, a rather charming elderly lady named Frau Reiske, would stand down below, within my vision, conducting along with him.
The solos, when they came, were very slow, containing many large intervals and several awkward octave jumps, and were supposed to be very, very quiet, played in a tight cup mute. They also had to fit in with whatever Rudolph Schock was singing. They were all very beautiful Viennese folk songs, composed by Stolz, and, although the tunes will be imprinted on my brain for ever, all the titles except one escape me now. As far as I remember that was called Im Prater blühn wieder die Bäume.
It was pretty weird playing like that, completely on my own in the vast dark emptiness of the ancient balcony. The ghosts of German films past crowded in on me, making it incredibly spooky and lonely up there. When I heard the first playback I realised that Frau Reiske, doing the best she could, was nevertheless, in her anxiety to get it right, conducting me very slightly ahead of the great composer, and quite irregularly, so I had to adjust my own tempo accordingly, and play a little behind her beat. The result was that I now sounded amazingly relaxed, and the natural echo from my playing position in the cinema added an almost ethereal quality to the sound.
When the recording was over Robert grasped both of my hands in his, and said, Thank you. I have never heard my songs played so beautifully before. This may well be the greatest compliment I have ever received in my life.
Meanwhile, back at the costume ball, I noticed that Christian, one of the television cameramen from Sender Freies Berlin, was dancing vigorously with a terrific tall blonde girl, who was dressed up like a schoolgirl. I was a bit surprised at this because we had always reckoned on Christian being a bit gay. He was quite a small guy, petite, and very good looking.
I grabbed him as he went past on the way to the bar and asked him what the hell he thought he was doing with such a gorgeous chick.
Its OK, he said. Shes my boy friend.
Shades of Basel! Id seen Åke giving the blonde schoolgirl the eye, and determined not to tell him. (See Vic Lewis for the Basel incident.)
I was already half asleep in bed when I received a call late one night from one of the secretaries at the Philharmonie concert hall. Friedrich Gulda had just given a recital there. He had gone afterwards to a reception in the Hilton hotel and he wanted me to come along. Now what? Another crazy big band project?
I was told to wear my tuxedo. It was around midnight when I walked into the foyer of the Hilton.
There were hundreds of rich and important people milling around. Gulda was sitting at a table with Herbert von Karajan and one or two other VIPs.
He must have been watching the door, because as soon as I walked in he sprang up, rushed over, and embraced me, right in front of everyone. His Japanese wife was there, too, and she came and gave me a hug.
I sat down at his table right next to Karajan, who had to move over to make room. He must have wondered who the hell I was, but a friend of Gulda was probably OK as far as he was concerned. Friedrich and I talked about this and that. Hed given up all his jazz plans, and had stached the baritone sax somewhere out of sight. The people here only knew him for his great piano playing, but in the States he had gotten into trouble by shooting his mouth off, criticising the jazz scene there.
I asked him about the tenor player Hans Koller, who had been on all of the Jazz Workshops, and he told me that Hans was now only painting for a living in Vienna. As he never seemed to sell any paintings, most of which looked as if they had been painted in a graveyard, he must have been starving. Apparently he would disappear from time to time, during which period his friends would see that his rent got paid, so that he always had somewhere to return to. According to Fatty George this had gone on for as long as he could remember.
We had a drink and chewed the fat for an hour or so. The mayor of Berlin was sitting opposite me. His name was Klaus Schutz, and he had followed Willi Brandt into office. Willi was, of course, now Bundeskanzler. Klaus was an avid jazz fan, and Id met him a few times before at concerts, and once when I did an interview for the Deutsche Welle. He joined in the conversation now and then. One of his arms looked a bit limp, and he always wore a black leather glove on that hand, which made him look curiously like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove. While we spoke animatedly about jazz all the others sat around bewildered. I overheard Karajan quietly asking one of the other guys at the table what the hell we were talking about. Quite unlike their British and American counterparts, German classical musicians generally sneer when uttering the word jazz.
Summer was approaching, and the Berlin Senate announced that pleasure cruisers would recommence running between the Wannsee and the Teglersee. You could sit for hours on those boats, digging the beautiful scenery. No need to go anywhere on holiday, Berlin had everything one needs sand, sea, woods, scenic views, castles, museums and exhibitions.
Dieter Finnern, the boss of the TV station had the bright idea of producing a music show on one of the cruisers. It was a splendid affair, with many prominent actors and singers involved, the show being built around Paul Kuhn and the radio station orchestra.
During the day everything went like clockwork, but when night fell, and the huge arc lamps were switched on, every mosquito in Berlin descended on the boat, clustering thickly on every spare bit of sweaty pink flesh and going hungrily to work.
Its impossible to play a musical instrument if you are being eaten alive. Singers, cameramen, sound technicians all went into animated shock. The only one not affected was the producer himself, safely ensconced in an air-conditioned control room. Even his exhortations couldnt save the show, and it had to be abandoned and re-shot in the studios, at a cost of millions. I couldnt bring myself to feel sorry for him. Even I knew what happened on the water when you switched a light on.
There was a knock on my door. I opened it and Maria walked in. She was an actress, married to an actor, and they both worked in the SFB performing in radio plays. Now she was sitting opposite me in my apartment, ravishing and twinkling in a little pale-blue silk dress, skirt billowing up high above dark brown, perfectly formed thighs; long, carefully brushed, blonde hair draped almost carelessly over an only partly covered pert and saucy bosom. She had never done this before and I was at a loss how to react. She was coquettish one moment, aloof the next. It seemed as if she wanted to ball me, and at the same time not to ball me. She was her own conflict of interests.
We spoke of the stage, music, her house, her children.
After an hour or so of staring at her tits I asked her straight out if she would like to hop into bed with me. She said that she was afraid not, her husband was outside, waiting for her in the car. I could hardly believe my ears. She knew that I cycled daily in the Grünewald. We agreed to meet deep in the woods by the Grünewald Schloss next morning, just the two of us.
Next day I packed a blanket in my saddlebags, a bottle of chilled Pommery, and two carefully wrapped champagne glasses, like they tell you to do in Playboy. When I arrived at the Schloss she was there waiting for me with Joachim and the two children.
We paused to buy ice-cream by the dog-leg lake called the Hundekehlesee. At once an elderly man, who had been standing by the kiosk, came over to me. He accused me of being in the radio orchestra. He had seen me on television. I admitted it.
He was a songwriter, and would be pleased to let me have some of his songs, absolutely free, for inclusion in my broadcasts. He began to sing.
Soon we were the centre of an interested gathering. He stood astride the front of my bike, grasping the handlebars, his knees firmly gripping the front wheel. It was impossible for me to escape.
I looked around. Maria and family had disappeared.
Summer arrived. I borrowed a hundred foot cabin cruiser with a Ford V-8 motor belonging to the bass player and voyaged sedately up and down the Wannsee, expertly avoiding the thousands of cursing yachtsmen, who had an absolute right of way, dodging the huge barges that come and go constantly up and down the Hohenzollern Canal from Rotterdam, and turning a deaf ear to the screams of rage of the many weekend anglers whom I disturbed in passing.
Before handing the boat back I wrapped the starboard propeller around some weeds and broke two of the blades off.
The bass player thanked me for looking after his boat, and, as a punishment for the propeller, wrote me a trumpet part in his next arrangement, which was physically impossible to play.
Two months after I started working with the band in Berlin we played the Presseball. This annual event was an absolute must for every person in town of any importance. Not to be invited to the Presseball was like being a Hollywood actor without a ticket to the Hollywood Motion Picture Academy Awards ceremony. Everyone was there, dressed to kill, and ready to kill, too, if need be.
There were always two big bands, so we had a lot of time free.
I was sitting at a table, having a beer, when a girl sat down beside me.
Listen, she whispered fiercely. Ive been watching you for hours. I think I love you. Phone me afterwards. She slipped me a bit of paper.
I didnt care too much for her whispering like that, and looked around quickly to see whether any muscular boy-friends were watching. When I turned back she had gone.
In the dim light shed looked terrific. Long chestnut hair halfway down her back, a swelling bosom under a short green chiffon dress, snub nose, freckles like your teenaged dream of the girl next door.
I called the number next day. Whoever answered didnt seem to know what I was talking about. It was the same girl, though. When someone says I love you like that you never forget the voice.
She told me her name was Hannelore. She was living apart from her husband, an older man who owned a dressmaking factory. Every now and then Hannelore would take a load of dresses down to Greece or Turkey to sell them there. She made the long trip by train each time.
As was usual with the girls in that town, there was something pretty far wrong with Hannelore. One day she asked me if I could put up a young French girl-friend of hers. Shed just arrived and had no place to stay. I reminded her that I had only one bed. That was OK. The girl would sleep on the other side of the bed, and wouldnt bother me at all. When I turned the idea down she looked disappointed.
In restaurants Hannelore had a habit of disappearing during a meal, and never returning. She would excuse herself, saying that she was going to visit the Ladies Room, and just carry on walking past it, out into the street. In one place, where she was known by the locals, the waiter told me that she did it all the time. That certainly saved me from getting a complex about it.
It was a short and not so sweet romance which ended suddenly when she phoned and told me that her boy friend had just been released from prison, and was coming to stay with her.
I asked her how long hed been in prison.
Wow! Six years! What for?
Murder. Hes out early on account of good behaviour.
Oh yeah. Good behaviour.
This was my second near brush with a murderer within the last couple of weeks. A guy had moved in upstairs to me, a real hulking dangerous looking piece of work, with a face like the psycho-killer in Sharkeys Machine. He didnt fit in with the scenery in that peaceful little area of Berlin at all.
My neighbour, a retired schoolteacher, had an enormous sideboard, loaded with all kinds of heavy china, and other junk, and she asked me one day to try and shift it for her. It was instant hernia, and I refused. Next day it was over on the other side of the room. The guy upstairs had done it for her with one almighty heave. Two days later he killed another man in an argument up at the Halensee open-air swimming pool, and got sent away for twenty years.
There was plenty going on in that little block of apartments, all right. I came home one day to meet a fireman at the door running out of the building. His face was bright green. A woman had called the fire brigade because her neighbour hadnt answered the door for a week or so. When the guy broke the door down the neighbour had been dead for a good long time, more like a month. That has always amazed me about Germany. If someone is ill they dont call an ambulance, but get the fire brigade.
There was an old woman of over 80 who lived in the block opposite. She used to dress up like a tart, plaster her face with makeup, and stagger around cursing everyone she met. After she died the janitor called me down into his basement and showed me some of the junk hed retrieved from her apartment when it was cleared out. There was a whole bunch of nazi memorabilia.
What are you going to do with it all?
It goes into my collection. Maybe he was also writing his memoirs. The basement contained the central heating for the apartment block and had very many storerooms. The place was enormous, and, in the dim light, the corridors seemed to stretch into infinity. Maybe they went all the way under Berlin up to the Hitler Bunker, an escape route. Maybe Der Führer had escaped that way after all. Anything was possible in that town.
My friend Eva Eras lived in the Grünewald district. Right down the same road was the old house where Admiral Canaris, Hitlers Abwehr Chief used to live before the nazis hanged him. The Canaris house was protected under Denkmalschutz, protection of memorials, because of the marvellous carved ceilings.
The Phillips record company had installed a recording studio right there in the old dining room. It was a very peaceful room, polished mahogany walls, alas now covered with soundproofing, with a view from the windows of a nearby field containing several contented horses, standing head to head, as horses will, seemingly undisturbed by the racket we were making. I made a recording with Acker Bilks musicians there, although I cant for the life of me remember what I was doing in that band.
I had to go to Moscow with the radio band. No one wanted to make the trip, but it had been arranged as a bit of cultural propaganda by the Kulturministerium and we had to go.
It was October, and the start of the cold season in Russia, so I took my fur coat. Some of the guys didnt realise this, and froze all the time we were there. The bandboy, who went over earlier to set up the concerts, wrote back to say that we should bring plenty of food with us, fill our pockets with chocolate. We didnt find out what he meant by that until we got there.
We had to board the Aeroflot plane in Schönefeld airport, in the east zone. That dampened our spirits right away, going through the border check point. To make matters worse, it was October the 16th, my birthday, and I had a severe cold. I took a bottle of Captain Morgan Rum with me for consolation.
The plane was filled, apart from us, with a mixture of heavy, fur-coated Commie spies, and Russian officers dressed in drab, cheap-looking, badly-fitting uniforms smothered with campaign medal ribbons.
The flight was a grim one, none of the usual hoorays when we got off the ground and applause when we landed, only grim, as if we had all been condemned to death, and were already in the tumbril.
At Sheremetyevo International Airport we were greeted by the sight of several soldiers armed with machine-guns, who stood around the plane, pointing their weapons in our direction. Welcome to Moscow, someone said.
I heard Paul Kuhn mutter that it looked like Miami airport. He had recently been to Brazil with Lalo Schifrin to judge a music contest and stopped over in Miami. He said the airport looked as if it had been nailed together with hardboard.
Shhh, we said. Dont make waves.
Led through a big hall which had been separated many times by more hardboard walls into smaller rooms, where we were eyed suspiciously by all and sundry, we arrived in an even larger hall, patrolled by even more armed soldiers. No one had greeted us, and, as far as I can remember, no one ever did.
Here we were given lengthy forms to fill out. As they were written in English I completed mine in record time, and immediately found myself on the other side of the barrier.
The rest of the band stared at me in amazement. How did you manage that? they stammered.
I raised a hand regally.
I have friends in high places.
We were driven to the Rossiya Hotel. There in the foyer we were eyed by many men dressed in western-style trenchcoats, who stood around pretending to read the railway timetables stapled to the walls. Before we had time to put our bags down one of the men approached me and offered to take me to the Canadian Embassy.
As I had only shown my passport once at the airport, and that to an official in one of the small rooms, he must have been following me ever since.
I complimented the man on his English, and asked him if he knew what the words F off meant. He didnt. I explained. He thanked me for this valuable addition to his vocabulary and left, mouthing the words with apparent delight.
We were given double rooms. I shared one with Leo Wright, who lost no time in tracing several wires running around the room, which served no obvious purpose.
At the end of the corridor of each floor sat an aged crone who kept the room keys. One went through a modern form of third degree to obtain the key. It was not allowed to pass the woman going out with the key in your pocket.
We learned almost at once what the bandboy had meant about food. Wherever we went, and whatever we did or said, it was impossible to eat normally in Russia.
The band stuck together as a whole because Milo could speak Russian, and could, presumably, keep us from starving. But even with his expertise, we had enormous problems.
The troubles came from the fact that the waiters, being employed in a social state, with guaranteed employment, no longer needed to wait on the tables. On entering a restaurant, a waiter would certainly approach, but this was usually to inform one that there would be no service at that particular table.
Single diners were unknown in Russia. A table could only be occupied when all four chairs were filled. This meant that you had to wait around, asking other customers if they would share a table, until you found three more. Only then could you sit. By then the table would usually have gone anyway. Often, when only parties of four were arriving, I stood around in this way for an hour or so.
When seated, I quickly discovered that the only dish worth ordering was Beef Stroganoff. The only other item on the menu was Rubber Chicken. This was so named because it was possible to stretch the legs a good two feet away from the rest of the chicken before they parted from it.
The usual procedure was to first order a beer. The waiter would then disappear for half an hour. When the beer finally came you were permitted to order the meal, which came, cold, several hours later. If you managed to catch the waiters eye and waved, he would wave back.
I went in search of the waiter once, after waiting nearly forty-five minutes for the first beer, and found him sitting in the kitchen reading a newspaper, with no sign of any food or drink whatsoever in the room. He explained to me kindly that everything had to be brought from downstairs, and that he was just about to go down there for me. He made it sound as if he was about to do me an enormous favour.
Åke had brought Maggie with him. It turned out to be her birthday as well, so we had a couple of drinks on that. She was even less happy than I at the situation.
When Åke first entered his hotel room he was met by a maid coming out of the room with a vacuum cleaner. The room was filthy, so he called the maid back and asked her to do it properly. This she refused, so Åke seized the vacuum cleaner and started to clean the room himself.
Within seconds he was surrounded by KGB, GRU, and uniformed military police, who the aged floor concierge had, presumably, summoned by the press of a secret button. At this show of force he had to back down, at the same time leaving each and every one of the thugs in no doubt at all that he was a really sad mf, several times over.
Our music was well received in Moscow, the only rare moment occurring in the bandroom when a young soldier asked Carmel Jones where he came from.
America, said Carmel.
Ah! A-mer-ica! said the soldier, pointing an imaginary machine-gun at Carmel, and going: Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.
Everywhere you went in Moscow there were gigantic posters of Lenin, as if forgetting his face would cause the entire system to collapse. Enormous maps of the U. S. S. R. covered complete walls. On these maps there were no other countries in the world to be seen, only the Soviet Union.
We were taken on a tour of the Kremlin. Inside we gazed in awe at the enormous wooden sleighs used by the Czar, and the rich tapestries, hundreds of years old.
At the door of the Treasure Room stood an armed soldier. It was explained to us that we couldnt enter the room as the jewels had been removed for cleaning.
Why, then, is there a guard on the door, we asked? We were hurried along. Dont ask stupid questions.
Outside in the road, trombonist Manfred Grossman lifted his camera to take some pictures. At once a soldier began running towards him waving his arms.
We shrank back.
My God Manfred, said somebody, Its forbidden. Youll get us all arrested.
The soldier arrived panting. Manfred was white with fear. The soldier indicated, with a smile, that he should remove the lens cap before attempting to take pictures. He then posed for us before the grim building. We snapped away, thankfully, and gave him money.
Standing by the huge 193 ton Tsar Kolokol, the heaviest bell in the world, outside the Kremlin, I was approached by an old man, a veteran soldier, still wearing his medal ribbons.
He spat on the ground before me, and pointed at the bell.
Deutschland, he said. Deutschland kaputt!
A reception was held in our honour in the German Embassy. We were toasted, and asked if we had any questions.
Yes, said Dai Bowen, our Welsh drummer. Where are the microphones?
The ambassador laughed, a little wildly. He waved his hand around the room.
They are everywhere, he said.
On our final evening in Moscow we were taken to the best restaurant in town. Long queues of people stood outside, many in traditional dress. We had VIP status, and were shown to a long table in a private room.
A charming lady asked if we had any special wishes. We told her that we would be delighted if she could arrange for us to get prompt service. This she promised to do. One hour later the waiter arrived to take our orders. Milo at once began to shout at him in Russian. The waiter blanched, only high political figures dared shout at waiters, therefore we must be important people. He hurried to bring our drinks.
The men at a nearby table, fierce bearded giants wearing the traditional dress of Kasakhskaya, applauded Milo. We raised our glasses and toasted them. They joined us at the table. Later, when we had all downed a huge amount of vodka, they sang to us.
When asked, Milo said later that the conversation had been pretty scary, because their main theme had been about how they were going to overrun the Russian bastards in the government, and kill the lot of them.
He said this to us in the hotel later, in English.
As we were about to leave the hotel we were stopped by two men, who accused us of conspiring against the state. We had been saying bad things about the Soviet Union, they said.
How dare you pretend that you can understand English, thundered Milo in Russian, taking them completely by surprise, When you cant even speak proper Russian. He then launched into a diatribe which left them shaking, repeating one word over and over, which he later said was the Russian equivalent of asshole.
We boarded the midnight train to Leningrad. Most of the guys in the band, already full of beer and vodka, quickly discovered that all toilets were locked. Trying to leave the train for a platform toilet, they found that the carriage doors had also been locked as soon as we were aboard.
Milo shouted through the window at a passing conductor. He said that the toilet doors would be unlocked once the train left the station, but that the other doors would remain locked until we reached Leningrad. This was to prevent undesirables from boarding the train.
And what if the train had an accident, crashed maybe?
He gave Milo a withering look. Such things never happened in the Soviet Union.
Once the train had started, a bottle party began in the corridors. I was tired, and so I sought out an empty carriage, took a berth and fell asleep.
I awoke next morning to find female garments draped all over the compartment. Pretty sleeping faces peeped out from under the covers. There was an overpowering scent of healthy perfumed feminine bodies. I recognised Katya Epstein, the star of our show, and two of the Rosy Singers vocal group.
I unlocked the door, zipping up my pants. Charles Orieux stood directly in front of me. The rest of the band were still crowding the corridor, living it up. It was seven am.
You dirty bastard, they said. Some of them had been trying to get into that compartment all night.
Katya told me later that they had chosen my compartment to barricade themselves in because I looked the most harmless of them all. Åke laughed derisively when I told him this.
As the train disgorged us at Leningrad station, another train full of workers had also just pulled in. At once, thousands of grim-faced square-headed men, dressed identically, lunchbox in the left hand, Pravda clutched in the right, marched on and over us.
A camera team from the SFB had preceded us to Leningrad. Our visit was to be filmed and recorded for posterity. The producer had a brainwave. We were to stand in a line across Vosstaniya Square, in our tuxedos, and they would make the documentary. We protestedit was well below zero and windy. We would freeze to death.
It would all be over in a flash, they promised. Half an hour later, blue with cold, we were still standing there, while the cameraman ran up and down trying to get the composition and angles right. People walking by tapped their heads at us with our thin suits and little black dickey-bows. see picture
Play something, urged the director. We informed him that putting a brass mouthpiece on the lips would be a sure way of stripping all the flesh off.
Wellcant you play without touching your lips?
Sure, we said, and proceeded to blow Harry Secombe type raspberries at him.
Of course, if youre not going to take this seriously. . . We assured him that we would not. We were allowed to go and thaw out.
In the bus that evening, as we drove to the theatre, I sat by our pretty Russian guide. I remarked on the absence of policemen on the streets, as opposed to the great many one saw on the streets of Moscow. She assured me that there was no crime in Leningrad, therefore no need for police.
At that moment the bus passed by a demonstration, where hundreds of police were hammering away with huge truncheons at a score of luckless people carrying banners and placards.
Whats that then? I demanded. She refused to look. When I seized her head and turned it she closed her eyes. What one didnt see, didnt exist.
There was a large grill, about a foot square, on the wall of my hotel bathroom, exactly opposite the toilet. Peering into its grim depths I could see nothing. That there was a camera in there I had no doubt, therefore, before each ablution I would gravely lower my pants and bare my ass at it for a few seconds, hoping that this would brighten the day of whoever was monitoring my actions.
I waited downstairs in the foyer for the bus that was to take us on a tour of Leningrad. In my hand I carried an old copy of Time Magazine.
A man rushed over and began to wring my hand.
Time Magazine! A fellow American! he blubbered. Thank God, thank God!
It was the man Id met in the airport in Bangkok. He recognised me at once.
He, and his wife had taken a package tour, visiting Moscow and Leningrad. Somehow, the dates on his visa had left a gap of one week between the towns, so that they were, officially, illegal entrants for the seven days. They had been confined to the hotel, not allowed to stray outside its doors under threat of arrest. Even the U.S. Embassy had been powerless to intervene.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved