The Max Greger Orchestra
In April of 1963, Ray Brown and Stan Getz found themselves on a Disc Discussion listening to a big band. As is the regular procedure, neither the name of the band nor the title was announced. It could have been anybody: Getz and Brown had only their highly-experienced American ears to rely on.Said Brown: "That sounds to me like a good studio band." He was right. Said Getz: "It sounded like an English band." He was wrong.
Getz also said that the performance was very good and Brown added that it was the kind of sound that came out of a New York or Los Angeles recording date. In fact, the record was made miles away from either city-in Munich, to be precise. The band was that of German tenor saxist Max Greger.
Greger must be a most determined character. He'd been running a twelve-piece touring band when he was offered a job as Musical Director for Germany's second television channel. It was the chance that touring bandleaders dream about - to play for plays, series, musicals, hit parade shows, interval music. Everything from the twist through schmaltz to jazz.
Max already had a good band - three trumpets, trombone, five saxes and rhythm - playing Miller-type, Coniff-type dance arrangements, and the locally-demanded polkas and waltzes.
Business was good. Indeed, the Greger crew had a 1959 tour of Russia to its credit. But the new job gave him the opportunity - the budget - to handpick his musicians for an augmented band. In future, the brass team would be eight strong-and that wouldn't be all. Greger made up his mind to have the best band in Europe.
Germany, apparently, never enjoyed a big-band era. There was little home experience to draw from. So Max Greger found himself looking abroad.
From Britain he booked Ron Simmonds on lead trumpet. Dick Spencer from Florida was already in the band, having just completed his military service in Germany.
Benny Bailey, who has the distinction of having worked with both Lionel
Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie, had been playing with Harry Arnold in Stockholm
for six years when the Quincy Jones band came to Europe with the ill-fated
Free and Easy show. Benny joined, then found himself stranded in Paris
when the show folded. He moved over to the Radio Free Berlin orchestra
to work with Herb Geller, Nat Peck and Joe Harris in 1962, eventually
leaving to become featured jazz trumpeter in the Max Greger orchestra.
Rich Richardson, who plays valve trombone, used to teach music at Bradley School, Chicago. He liked Germany while there with the army, so came back.
Newest member of the band is Don Menza, who did a stint with Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson before getting an offer from Max.
Other non-Germans in the band are Ferenc Aszodi, Pierre Favre and Branko Pejakovic. Ferenc, who hails from Bucharest, was the original trumpet lead.
"This is the first regular band I've played in with three high-note trumpet players," says Ron. "On one track of the LP the three of us play alternate top Gs for 24 bars."
The rest of the brass section are German: Karl-Heinz Donick from Dresden, an excellent lead trombonist; Helmut Rink from Chemnitz (trombone) and Fritz Glaser from Drebach (bass trombone).
Pierre Favre, from Switzerland, was a small-band drummer before joining Greger a couple of years ago. He speaks French, German and English, idolises Kenny Clarke and like all the best drummers, never stops practising.
Branco Pejakovic, a Yugoslavian, is the bassist. He speaks Serbian,
English, Russian, Italian, French, German, Finnish, Hungarian and (almost
incredibly) Chinese. He deputised in the Duke Ellington band on the recent
tour when Ernie Shephard was taken ill.
Rudi Flierl is the only Bavarian in the band apart from Max Greger and,
like Max, he plays tenor. Rudi was in Baden-Baden with the band led by
Eddie Sauter before joining.
Freddy Brock, who plays fourth trumpet, is a nationally famous TV and film comedian. He comes from Karlsruhe.
Sounds quite a band, but how does it work?
"To start with," says Ron, "the language problem doesn't exist. When it's important Max says it in German and English. When it's not, I get a translation or guess. Everyone else speaks German except Don Menza.
"When I try to put a point over to the trombones they usually break up, but eventually they get the idea. We work normally from ten a.m. to three p.m.- Monday through Friday. All the recordings are taped in the same studio in Munich and are sent to Mainz for transmission after editing. Engineer Willi Schmidt built or assembled all the equipment himself. He constantly makes improvements and is open to suggestions, and he gets plenty.
"He records everything in stereo for better separation and keeps copies of all takes so we can hear what we were like six months ago. We certainly have the competitive spirit. We figure that we have to be better than Kurt Edelhagen, but also better than Billy May and Oliver Nelson. The more ambitious the aim, the higher the eventual standard.
" Time we have. We can spend up to three hours on one title if we like. We spend most of the day building up stocks of interval music and we can play what we like for that. So mostly, it's jazz. We are helped in this respect by Ernst Simon, who champions our cause with the higher-ups and does some very good arrangements and compositions in his own right. Two were on the LP."
Russ Garcia brings scores from time to time. He comes over now and then to buy himself a new Porsche.
Hans Hammerschmid was with Eddie Sauter on piano and shows the influence in his charts. Boris Jojic (another Yugoslav) used to be lead alto and is now on the arranging staff. So is Carlos Diernhammer from Buenos Aires, who used to play piano in the band.
The Greger band plays a few printed arrangements by people like Ernie Wilkins, Marshall Brown and Billy May, but Greger doesn't hesitate to reject what he doesn't consider suitable. He's not dazzled by names. Arrangers within the band are Richardson, Bailey, Menza, Flierl and Reipsch: all very competent by professional standards.
The band is tremendously versatile (as it has to be) and, according to Ron, hasn't yet found anything that it can't tackle. German thoroughness is in evidence. No tape gets out of the studio with the slightest mistake, musical or technical. Greger is a perfectionist and the musicians do their best to oblige.
It helps that he has their respect. He is a very proficient performer on tenor and gets a sound reminiscent of Georgie Auld. He impressed Count Basie so much that Basie offered him a job in his band.
The band started its three-year contract in March of last year and keeps very much in the public eye, being used frequently on the Saturday Spectacular type of show. "As most of these are mimed," observes Ron, "we often go for a week without blowing a note!"
There are plans for another jazz LP soon and there is an occasional jazz concertusually rapturously received. And Count Basie himself stated that the Max Greger Orchestra was the best European band he'd ever heard. All the 'foreigners' in this international band seem to be happy and what they feel about it has been boiled down to the very essence by the newest man, Don Menza. "I don't feel different in this band at all. What's important is that the band itself plays as good as it can, all the time."
That's the truly international spirit that Max Greger has helped to create.
(When the ZDF contract ended a few years later Ron Simmonds left to work with the RIAS and SFB radio bands in Berlin, later to Peter Herbolzheimer's Rhythm Combination & Brass; Benny Bailey went to work with the Clarke/Boland Band; Dick Spencer to play lead alto with Harry James; Rich Richardson returned to Chicago; Don Menza went back to the USA to work with Louis Bellson's band. Benny is the only member of that Greger band to still have contact with Max, occasionally touring around with him in a small group that includes his son, Max Jr. on piano.)
Written in 1963 and updated in 2001
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