Jazz Professional               


Ill Winds

By Ron Simmonds

Tuning up

The place was packed. You could have heard a pin drop. The audience leaned forward in its seats. Lips were licked, expectantly.

The bandleader turned slightly, to his men.

‘All right, you guys. Ready? A–one, a–two…’

‘Hold on.’ The clarinet player had his back turned. He was busily blowing an A at the keyboards. He shook his head in exasperation.

‘What on earth have you got there, 440?’

The keyboards man peered at his console and pressed a few buttons.

‘Er…it says here 442.’

‘Aha! Kindly make that 440.’ He turned importantly to the guitar player and began to help him tune his strings. The bandleader, who still had his hand raised, looked at him in amazement.

The guitar player, who resented the implication, ignored him, produced an electronic tuner and plugged the guitar into it. He plucked a string and nodded. At once the clarinet player blew his A, closely followed by the keyboards man. All three were different. They all nodded.

The clarinet player turned to the trumpet player, who was watching all this with interest.

‘Can you pull your slide out a bit? You are sharp.’

The trumpet player, who hadn’t played a single note up to then, tried to pull his slide out a bit but it didn’t move because he hadn’t cleaned the instrument for about thirty years.

‘Won’t go,’ he said.

‘Here! Give me that,’ said the clarinet player, snatching it out of his hand.

Feet braced, eyes bulging, he strained for a moment to no avail.

‘Hold this,’ he said, giving the trumpet player the blunt end to hold. He heaved at the slide again. There was a short tug–of–war before the trumpet uttered a squeak of protest and broke in two. It was the Dizzy Gillespie model, with adjustable bell and all the soldered joints had come adrift. ‘Why, you…’ said the trumpet player, but the clarinet player had already turned his attention to the bass.

The trumpet player held the bell of his horn in one hand and the rest of the works in the other and began puzzling out how he was going to join the two bits together. The drummer kindly handed him a roll of sticky black adhesive tape, the type used by electricians.

‘Right! A–one, a–two…’ said the bandleader, but nobody was paying any attention to him.

The clarinet player and bass player were deep in a heated argument about the G‑string, which the clarinet player reckoned should be tuned slightly higher and plucked rather than picked.

The keyboards man was now lying on the floor underneath his instrument groping at some wires leading into the five or six black boxes he had down there. Little red lights winked on and off. He kept reaching up and plinking the A, to the intense annoyance of the clarinet player.

The trumpet player suddenly realised what had been said to him and bridled. ‘Here! Where do you get off, telling me I’m out of tune?’ he said, spoiling for a fight.

The clarinettist didn’t hear him because he was too busy examining one of the tuning posts on the bass. ‘Does anyone here have a hammer or screwdriver?’ he asked.

The keyboards man sat up again, shaking his head. He set the pitch back to 442 and gave the trumpet player a nod and a wink.

‘…a–one–two–three–four,’ said the bandleader.

Everybody started to play except the clarinet player. The trumpet player had, meanwhile, connected his tubes and bandaged his horn. It looked grotesque, but it worked and he was perfectly in tune, like everyone else. When the clarinet player finally joined in he was way out of tune but by now the audience had all gone home so it didn’t matter any more.



As we all know, the saxophone was invented in 1840 by Antoine Joseph Sax. He came across the instrument by accident, because he was busily inventing a vacuum cleaner at the time. A piece of carpet suddenly caught in the tube, causing a ghastly hollow honking sound to echo through his apartment.

His wife came running in, up to the elbows in flour. ‘Who’s getting murdered?” she shrieked, but Adolph was beside himself with delight.

‘Listen to that! It sounds exactly like a saxophone. I think I’ll invent one.’ And so he did. All that was necessary was to bore a few holes in the pipe and everything was all right until the clarinet player turned up to tell him to tune it to 452, which was the standard in those days.

Adolph practiced his new invention every day in a small shed in the garden he had set aside for the purpose. It was very difficult to play at first because his fingers weren’t big enough to cover all those enormous holes, but he finally hit on the idea of wearing heavy industrial gloves. He liked a bit of garlic with his meals, did Adolph, and his wife used to complain bitterly about the smell in the shed when she brought him his lunch.

‘Well, there’s no garlic in here, my love,’ he said, jovially, peering around. Then it struck him. The smell was coming out of the saxophone!

‘Sacre bleu!’ he shouted. ‘I’ve just invented air–conditioning!’

It was not long before he had concocted a heady–smelling gunk out of tar, creosote, benzol and crushed sulphur. This was smeared inside the bell of the saxophone. Now the musicians would benefit from the antiseptic health–giving vapours when they breathed in, and pass them on to the audience when they blew them out again through the saxophones. The idea was a great success. Carried a stage further, this would explain the semi–hypnotic trance of  some of the jazz club audiences of later years, who were, in fact, merely benefiting from the expelled fumes of whatever the musicians had been smoking in the bandroom.


Dan Bailey, won’t you please come home?

A printing error in a recently published magazine article of mine has caused people to rush up and down aimlessly, screaming, ‘Who is Danny Bailey?’ and weeping futilely at the knowledge that a wonderful new trumpet player had arrived on the scene without anyone ever having heard of him before.

The man in question, playing a duet with Jon Faddis in the Berlin Jazz Festival was, of course, my old pal Benny Bailey. Benny has quite a history behind him. He played in Dizzy Gillespie’s first big band, then with Lionel Hampton, Quincy Jones in Sweden, worked in Italy, France and Germany before settling in Amsterdam. His was the glorious lead trumpet sound with the Clarke/Boland Big Band.

In the Berlin festival there were six of us at one time in Peter Herbolzheimer's trumpet section, with Benny, Dusko Goykovic, Jon Faddis, Art Farmer, Ack van Rooyen and me. We were all blowing some stuff into those big stone–lined hats. I noticed that Benny was playing straight up in the air.

‘Hey, Benny. Why aren’t you playing in hat like everyone else?’

‘Er…I’ve given up hats,’ he said.


As good as

A short time ago I appeared on yet another jazz festival, this one in a town near Benidorm. I’d written some music for four trombones and flugelhorn, with a rhythm section and we played things like La Fiesta, Very Early, Jive Samba and Our Delight. We received a standing ovation afterwards, and I reckoned I’d done pretty well.

Afterwards, in the bar, a man approached me. He seemed to be a very kind man, and he was obviously struggling to say something complimentary to me. He finally managed to get the words out.

‘Do you know Fred Entwhistle?’

‘Can’t say I do.’

‘He plays at Smokey Joe’s in Merseyside of a Wednesday?’


‘Well…as far as I’m concerned, you’re every bit as good as he is.’

This more or less matches the time I played a jazz festival with Lionel Hampton when one of my neighbours staggered up to me afterwards to say that he thought Lionel’s band was almost as good as James Last.


Embouchures en Bois Nobles et Précieux

Remember—you read it here first. I have received a brochure advertising trumpet and trombone mouthpieces made out of wood. Rare woods, I should add, of Bois de rose, Bois de violette and Bois d’ébène, (if the French names confuse you, they are better known as dalbergia, dalbergia negra and grassiflora).

Wooden mouthpieces give better lip comfort, more pleasure in playing and lip splinters. The sound produced is directly associated with the colour of the wood. Thus, light yellow gives a smooth sound; red and black sounds unctuous; light chestnut, bright; chestnut/green, noble. Only the French could come out with that last one. My word, he does sound noble tonight. Yes, it’s that chestnut/green mouthpiece he’s using. Ah! I wondered what had happened to that tree.


All in a row

I used to work with a guy who had filed a little notch in the shank of his mouthpiece. He used to fuss about getting that notch in the top dead centre when he shoved the mouthpiece into his trumpet. He reckoned he couldn’t play if it was anywhere else. We tested him on that once by turning it around when he wasn’t looking. He played a few notes, cracked every one, stopped, frowned and reset it again. I asked him how it would be if I filed a few more notches around the shank and he staggered back, white with fear.

Bob Coassin told me that Al Porcino kept a row of trumpet mouthpieces lined up right across the mantelpiece in his Munich apartment. On a visit one day, while Al was out of the room Bob picked up and examined a few of them. When Al came back in again he went at once to the mantelpiece and began to straighten and adjust the disturbed mouthpieces, fussing and muttering angrily until they were all in an absolutely dead straight line once more, with the numbers neatly facing front.

Now, Al is a trumpet player whom I have greatly admired all my life. If he is going to go through a ritual like that it must have some deep significance. I tried it myself, but as I only own one mouthpiece with no number on it, and no filed notches, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Still, I persevered, and think I’m beginning to get the hang of it.

On one of the tours I did with Peter Herbolzheimer we had five trumpets and I had to share a music stand with Lew Soloff. It was rumoured that Lew had once taken along thirty–six spare trumpets on tour with Blood, Sweat and Tears. When I asked him about that he told me not to be ridiculous. Well how many did he take, then? Thirty–seven.

On this gig I could hardly see the music for the mouthpieces he had stacked up right across the stand. He seemed to need a different mouthpiece every few minutes, depending on the range of the part, the sound required, or just because he was plain crazy. Changing the mouthpieces so often started to get on my nerves, especially as he would often grab one at the last second just before we had to play.

Finally, while turning one of the parts, I knocked the whole lot of them on to the floor. He kneeled to pick them up, clucking away in annoyance like an old hen, and muttering something about sabotage while the rest of us carried on playing. He kept bobbing up with a mouthpiece glued to his eyeball, trying to read the number stamped on it by the light on the music stand.

Ack leaned over and said that Doctor Jazz was on his way over right now to confiscate all of Lew’s mouthpieces, but Lew didn’t find that funny at all.

The show was being televised because we had Astrud Gilberto on with us. Now and then Lew and I pulled off some pretty sensational high trumpet unisons together. Every time we did that he insisted on shaking hands with me. Some idiot cameraman caught us doing it every time.

When he saw the playback Peter said to me ‘What the hell were you two doing back there?’

‘Cementing Anglo-American relations,’ I said calmly. I am very seldom lost for words.


Wrong notes and all

Ted Heath used to like his soloists to play the same solo every time. As he recorded most of his music he reckoned that the listener would associate the recorded solo with the tune. He wasn’t far wrong about that. Stan Getz played Early Autumn with Woody Herman many times but he never played that beautiful solo from the record again. He didn’t see any reason why he should, but he never came up with anything to touch it. As it was the high spot of the recording the number didn’t sound the same without it.

Back in the big band era we used to do jazz jamborees in London's Royal Albert Hall. One day, while I was working with Geraldo, we turned up for rehearsal to find that we were sharing the stage with the Ted Heath band. Ted had done a broadcast the previous day and one of his trumpet players had dropped an enormous clam during a solo. To our immense satisfaction we discovered that the band was going to play this same number on the concert.

We bottled up our delight and waited. When the trumpet player stood up for his solo Geraldo’s entire brass section stood up and played it with him, with the mistake.


Tromba Marina

I worked with Bert Ambrose for a time when he was on tour with his new big band. Someone else had obviously booked the guys for him and the line–up resembled one of the jazz club bands so popular in those days. Tubby Hayes and Phil Seamen were in the band, trombonist Charlie Messenger and a whole load of  other ravers. Johnny Keating had written most of the music and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Everywhere we went Bert became surrounded by dear old ladies wanting his autograph. They remembered him from the past, when he’d provided a smooth tinkling background to dinner, light conversation, and some romantic dancing in the posh London hotels. We were playing the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Woody Herman. It was impossible to play this music quietly, even in the heavy velvet-sounding bucket mutes. The old people looked dazed when they heard us. Where was the delightful dinkey-do music they had loved so well?

Bert used to clap his hands over his ears in terror when we played. Nobody knew whether he had any talent as a musician. He certainly never displayed any, but when he got really fed up with the band he used to keep us quiet by threatening to play the Nuns’ Fiddle. This was also known as the Marine Trumpet and had enjoyed much popularity in the past. It was too big to lug around, even if he had one, which I doubt, but he showed me a picture of it. It was an ungainly, wooden, bowed string instrument of the violin family, seven feet long with a base of six inches and a neck of about two–and–a–half.

This monstrosity had one string only, stretched down its entire length. The bridge hung unsupported on it at the far end. When the player attacked the string with his bow the bridge hit the sound box and produced the echoing squawk of a strangled duck. There were several concerts in London around 1670 containing no less than four of these Marine Trumpets, so named because the player usually used only the open harmonics of the string, producing the intervals usually heard on the trumpet.

It’s a shame, really, that this turned out to be a stringed instrument. If it had been, indeed, a trumpet, we could have used one of those French wooden mouthpieces on it.

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved