Jazz Professional               


The Monastery

By Ron Simmonds

Musicians invited to take part in some of the smaller jazz festivals are being offered lists of camping sites as accommodation because the organisers cannot find enough hotels for them. I’m afraid this will not do at all. Once the word gets around people are liable to get injured in the rush. Musicians love sleeping in tents.

Some organisers go a step further. I once went with John Dankworth’s band to a jazz festival in a Belgian village called Comblain-la-Tour. It was a tiny place, but had a yearly jazz festival put on by a grateful American whose life had been saved by the village people during the Second World War. Comblain had been a clearing place for downed airmen, who were smuggled back to Eng­land at the height of hostilities. This had been ex­tremely brave of the villagers.

As there were no hotels in the place we stayed the night in a nearby monastery. I had a small spotlessly clean cell all to my­self on the second floor, and was able to take a nap in the afternoon before the festi­val began. The scene from my tiny window was pastoral, mostly fields, with grazing cows. Very peaceful and soothing.

In the evening it began to rain heavily and we arrived at the festival site in the middle of a monsoon. At the entrance to the concert tent we were met by thugs in oilskins armed with rubber stamps. No one was allowed in without having a large indelible, indecipherable smeary black logo imprinted on the back of his hand. This was to prevent gatecrashing. We protested in our poor French. They shrugged. Here we speak Flemish, said one. I tried broken German, which sounds almost the same. Ve are mit der band, I said, displaying the fruits of years of study. They yawned. I got stamped twice, because the first one didn’t take, and they didn’t like my face. It took me three weeks of scrubbing to erase the evidence of the awful shame of it.

The rain, which was torrential, drummed on the tent roof, almost drowning out the sound of the band. A small waterfall gushed from a hole in the canvas just above the concert grand, filling the instrument with water. There was no room for the giant instrument anywhere else on stage so Alan Branscombe played it con agua. During one of his spirited piano solos we watched with interest as the flying hammers threw up small waterspouts. Alan seemed to be quite delighted with the effect. The fact that we could only hear every fifth or sixth note didn’t seem to worry him. Bill Evans came on later, took one look at the scene and was less enchanted. He was already bugged out by having had his hand forcibly inked by one of the hooligans outside. This was the last straw and he refused to play. We took it all as a joke, but he was adamant.

The place was packed despite the rain. Guards prowled the aisles checking for unstamped, unpaid jazz lovers. Now and then a scuffle broke out as they dragged someone out screaming. The tent was filled with a light mist arising from the densely packed mass of hot damp overcoats. Our band was a huge success. The audience showed its appreciation with a prolonged ovation of soggy applause.

After the concert we all had a meal in the village and went to bed. I dozed off for a while, but a shadow passing my window woke me.

My thoughts went back to the time I’d once shared a room with the Squadronaires manager Charlie Hall in Mrs Mac’s digs in Manchester. It was called Charlie’s Room because a guy had killed himself in there some time in the past and his ghost was supposed to walk at midnight. That night, on the stroke of twelve the ghost glided past our window bathed in an eerie blue light, giving my roommate an attack of the horrors. Aroused by his screaming I got up to take a look. Down the road a man in white overalls stood on top of a tram doing something to the overhead cables with an electric welder. As I watched he glided by once more, lit by a shower of blue sparks.

There were no trams in Comblain-la-Tour so I went and looked out the window. There in the half–light of a moon shrouded by heavy clouds, two-stepping along a very narrow ledge, went Bobbie Breen, the band singer. By the time I’d got the window open he’d disappeared from view.

I opened my bedroom door. The room must have been soundproof. Outside all hell was loose. Musicians were running all over the place, drinking beer, shouting, laughing and playing the fool. Every one of them seemed to be stoned out of his skull. I grabbed hold of Ed Harvey and asked him what Breen was up to. He said that the tuba player Ron Snyder had got a girl, or even one of the nuns, I wouldn’t have put it past Ron, up in his bedroom. Breen was out on the ledge determined to take a peek at them through the window.

I went back to bed. Next morning revealed that the second floor ledge, which was no more than six inches wide, hung over a part of the monastery that had recently burned down. If Bobby had missed his footing he would have plunged to certain death on to some twisted jagged iron girders far below. When this was pointed out to him his face underwent an interesting colour change, kind of off‑white, and he suddenly didn’t want breakfast any more.

The rest of us washed up in cold water in a concrete army type latrine about the size of an aircraft hangar and were served a prisoner’s breakfast in the great dining hall by hooded nuns, who seemed to have taken the vows of silence. They glided about smoothly in their long robes, as if on rubber wheels, with no apparent movement of the feet. What they thought of the shambles of the previous night I can’t imagine. There were no monks to be seen at all, and no one volunteered any infor­mation as to their whereabouts. We couldn’t see the faces of the nuns properly, but under one of the cowls I caught sight of what looked to me remarkably like a beard. Maybe they weren’t nuns after all. I didn’t probe too deeply. Some of those nuns were pretty big.

So organisers can provide more luxurious accommodation than mere camping sites for their musicians. They should take a look around the landscape for inspiration. Surely there is a cloister somewhere nearby? A ruined castle? Perhaps even a disused mine-shaft, cave or pothole? We are strong, adventurous, healthy, hardy chaps.

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved