By Ron Simmonds
I am well known, or so I’ve been told, for having a good memory. People come up to me and say, ‘Here, I know all about you. You can remember every single piece of music you have ever played in all the bands.’ I blush, and admit that, this could, indeed, be partly true. In fact, I remember most of the good arrangements, and, unfortunately. an awful lot of the bad ones. The mediocre music has generally passed me by without leaving a trace.
I stare at my conversational partner while he tells me how much he enjoyed the two years or so we spent together in one of the big bands, and wonder who the hell he is. In my whole life I have never seen him before. He sends many greetings, to my mother, father, brother, sister, wife, son and the dog, naming each one accurately, and leaves, still shaking his head in wonder.
I suppose I should be glad of my abilities. They certainly lessen the chore of staring at the same parts night after night, and give me, instead, more time to ogle the women dancing by.
‘Hello! Hello! You Lon Simmon?’
It was four in the morning, pitch black outside, and there was a clown on the phone.
‘Are you nuts?’
‘No. I Xiao Min. How you?’
‘I’m asleep. It’s four in the morning.’
‘Ho! Ho! Solly. Here it one o’crock in aftelnoon.’
‘You sound as if you in next stleet. Now you’ve got me doing it.’
‘No, no. I in Tokyo. Sun shining. Evelything hunkey-dolly. I have big plobrem. You want hear plobrem? Good. I big bandleader. No. That not collect. I small bandleader, have big band. That also no collect.‘I . . . ’
‘For the love of Pete—get on with it.’
‘You love man name Pete?’
‘You a flute?’
‘I said forget it.’
‘Okay. I small man, have big band, pray Count Basie allangements, we big success, make lots of money, jolly good show. Also pray Grenn Miller, Tommy Dolsey and Res Blown. You still awake? Good. My lead trumpet take home his parts to study, juvenile delinquent bloke in house steal music. Now we not possible pray big concert tomorrow. You come pliz. You have good memoly. You famous with good memoly.’
‘You don’t sound Japanese to me. Only Chinese have trouble with letter R.’
‘I have creft parrot. Sometimes can say R but then not L. You go to airport now prease. Car wait outside. I pay you two million yen. Bring flend Pete if you wish.’
The two Geisha girls in the Mercedes outside fussed over me on the polar flight all the way to Tokyo, where Chow Min took over. He was very small, very thin, wore thick, round-rimmed pop-bottle glasses, and looked like a Japanese tram driver. The gig was in the northern coastal town of Noboribetsu, at the foot of an active volcano. Huge pipes made from hollowed-out tree-trunks channelled boiling sulphur down in the bath houses, where one could be immersed in the stuff for several hours by smiling girls in kimonos, and afterwards hammered flat on ice-cold marble tables by enormously strong fat samurai warriors.
Everyone in the town wore a dark brown kimono, and this was also the band uniform. I was immediately fitted out with one, while my own clothes and shoes were whisked away to be cleaned, pressed, repaired and polished. The gig took place on a high platform in a dust patch next to a large modern school. A high wire fence separated us from the school. The barbed wire with the insulators on top faced inwards, into the playground.
The Japanese musicians crowded around me, giggling and fingering my trumpet, which had been hammered together by an old man in Chicago. ‘This very quaint and old-fashioned. We all play same here, made by big Japan motor-cycle factory.’
I stood on the stage for a moment, looking at my empty music stand. All around me the rest of the guys were playing hot licks. There was no audience, but over on one side a group of girls had erected a trestle table and were boiling up something smelling strongly of fish in a huge metal drum. All at once an enormous crowd rushed in to the arena, bearing chairs, and quickly settled into neat rows. The whole thing took only a few minutes—the chairs must have been sold at the gate with the tickets. An expectant hush settled over the place. I looked for the bandleader. He was so small, and so thin, that you could only find him if he moved. He moved now. Producing a small electronic tuning device from his kimono he made his way gravely around the band, carefully tuning up every instrument. When he arrived in front of someone he bowed. The musician bowed back. When they finished tuning up they bowed again. The audience, thinking this was the first number, applauded enthusiastically. When he got around to me he held up the apparatus.
‘You want tly this?’
‘Stuff it,’ I said.
He wrinkled his brow, perplexed. ‘Stuff. . .?’
‘It. It’s colloquial. Useful expression for all occasions.’
‘That velly good. I lemembel that.’ He turned to the band and said something in Japanese. They smiled at me, showing their teeth. ‘Stuff it,’ they said, nodding. ‘Now I tell you one,’ said Chow, ‘toriguru onnai. It mean: She is light in her bird.’
We started with In the Mood and things went rapidly downhill from then on. I thought there was something wrong with the intro, but when the saxes began to play the age-old melody I almost fell off the stage. There were so many variations of the theme going on it sounded like Luigi Dallapiccola on an off night. I hammered my way through the arrangement until we reached the trumpet solo, as played by Johnny Best. I asked John about that solo once, and he said he didn’t think much of it, but it is now an integral part of the tune, and bandleaders insist that you play it note for note.
Halfway through the solo the rest of the band got a half bar out, don’t ask me how they did that. Just as I corrected that they got back in again, but when I followed them they lost another couple of beats. Chow Min was waving his arms furiously like a windmill, glaring at me, so I stopped playing. At once another trumpeter took over, playing the solo perfectly, and taking the following jumped bar-lines and tempo changes effortlessly in his stride.
We arrived at the dangerous bit. This is the part near the end of In the Mood where the rhythm stops and the trombones play a long, unaccompanied low note for four bars. They didn’t seem to do too well with the tuning on that, in spite of their bit of electronic state-of-the-art.
The bandleader turned importantly to conduct the drummer through the four tacet bars. The drummer was wearing a kimono several sizes too large for him, and he had the hood up, which made him look like a very small Franciscan monk. He had taken the opportunity of the rare break to light up an American cigarette, and a thick cloud of white smoke issued from the hood where his face was supposed to be. At the strategic moment a stick emerged from the voluminous sleeve and gave a bang on the drum to bring the saxes back in.
Next time, where the passage drops in volume, the routine, without the business with the fag, was repeated. I prepared myself for the onslaught at the end. Just before the saxes were to come in the bandleader stopped conducting and bent down to slap his leg sharply, where something had crawled up inside his kimono and bit him.
The drummer became lost at once, and didn’t play. The saxes flailed in desperately, from all points of the compass, and there was no rescue operation on the cards. I just stood there with my mouth open. finally I seized my chance and blasted out the last bar. ‘No! No! No!’ shouted Chow Min. The band lurched on for another couple of bars, then one of the trumpeters played the ending, down an octave.
The audience broke into an uproar. The Japanese usually clap politely, with both hands pointing up vertically, as if in prayer. This time the applause was coupled with a wild screaming of appreciation. Suddenly the whole audience was on its feet, shouting and stamping. Clouds of dust arose which soon engulfed everyone. The bandleader bowed and grinned delightedly.
‘You get lost?’ he said to me.
‘Why you... !’ But he had turned once again to bow to his fans.
We followed that success with String of Pearls. The five saxes managed a remarkable shipwreck in every bar, especially every time they arrived on the anticipated quarter-note on the fourth beat. It reminded me vividly of the relief band in Green’s Playhouse, Glasgow, back in the old days. They used to play Les Brown’s Lover’s Leap to get the guest band back on after the interval. They could never get the second bar of that tune right, making it almost, but not quite, into a five-four effort. The result was so startling that no visiting musician ever missed the signal to return to the stage.
When we got to the ensemble bit in Pearls I realised that I was the only one playing the part as I knew it. Everyone else was doing something quite different. Chow Min turned and began to conduct me angrily, stabbing the phrases with his fingers. The rest of the trumpets followed him perfectly. It was then that I realised that all three of them were playing the third trumpet part in unison. This was to go on all night in every number. Apparently the other parts had also been stolen.
The bandleader came up and hissed in my ear.
‘You not playing collectly. I thought you have good memoly.’
‘Now look here! . . .’ But he was bowing again, over towards the big cloud of dust. Hundreds of people thronged up to the stage, taking flash photos. Chow Min handed me the electronic device. ‘You tune up, please. NOW! he said, sternly.
It started to get very hot in the kimono, and the air was thick and heavy with sulphur fumes. We played a few more tunes, and I began to anticipate the phrasing of the men beside me. Soon I was boldly playing along wrong with the rest of them, jumping the odd bar now and then to show I was paying attention, and once in a while coming in spare all over the place. . Whatever I did now, the rest of the band followed. I was beginning to earn my money.
We played Pennsylvania 6-5000. When we arrived at the vocal bit the bandleader held up an electric doorbell and rang it.
‘PENNSYLVANIA SIX FIVE THOUSAND!’ I shouted, in the approved manner. My voice rang out over the hush of the arena, completely alone. The band stopped, and everyone looked around at me, beaming. Maybe they liked my accent. The audience stood and stamped, thinking we’d finished. We went on. Next time around the same thing happened. Now even the band was clapping me. I have never been so embarrassed. I hate this tune. When the bar turned up for the third time I sat mute. All of a sudden—nothing happened, as little Bobby Breen used to say.
The entire congregation sat there stunned. ‘Why you no sing there?’ said Chow angrily.
‘I forgot the words.’ He turned away muttering sarcastically, ‘Bruddy good memoly, that one.’
The bass player was big and fat. In his kimono he looked remarkably like Friar Tuck. He played with a boxing glove on his left hand. That is to say: he opened and closed that hand around the neck of the bass as if he had no fingers. He smiled all the time when he played, as if enjoying some inner secret. Now and then he did a little run up the finger board, and when he did so the loose sleeves of his kimono completely covered the bass, turning him momentarily into a large quivering brown mountain. Everyone in the band seemed to be having a lot of fun.
We arrived at the interval and drank warm saki out of plastic egg cups, and ate bits of unidentifiable sashimi, with some seaweed on the side. I sincerely hoped the fish wasn’t poisonous. I’d heard all about that.
An American tourist came up to me, wearing a ten gallon hat. ‘Well, I thought I’d heard everything, but this band really takes the Goddamn biscuit. How do you manage to read such complicated music?’
‘I’m playing without the music.’ He sucked his teeth for moment, then clapped me on the back.
‘Well, keep it up, son.’
I took a quick look at some of the sax parts in the interval. They looked okay to me. ‘They are playing them backwards,’ said Chow, who had sneaked up behind me.
‘They have been brought up to read from right to left. Or should I say light to reft? Also they are hammer . . . hammer . ..’
‘Domo arigato. They are hammer-chewers. Not pay much money. They like pray. Who cares?’ He giggled and moved away. Well, that figured, and it would explain everything. In the Mood probably sounded the same whichever way around one played it. I took a bottle of saki back on stage with me.
By this time I was leading the band on everything. Now they were even waiting for me to go wrong so that they could follow me faithfully. Once I realised that I began cunningly edging them around over the space of the next half-hour or so until we wound up playing the parts exactly as they had been written. No one noticed, and everyone followed. The saki helped. Suddenly we were not only playing perfectly together, we even sounded like the Basie band. Hey!-we were better than the Basie band. I had beaten them at their own game!
The applause looked like going on forever. After several encores we left the area before the dust had settled on the exuberant mob. No one saw us leave.
That evening I was offered a house in Higashikoiwa, a chair in the university, directorship of Mitsubishi, my own executive jet, and ten million yen a month for life if I’d stay in the job, but I had to get back because I was doing a gig in the Berliner Philharmonie, where they’d mislaid the entire trumpet library of L’Histoire du Soldat, and straight on, afterwards, to my regular job, busking outside the London Palladium.
At the airport Chow Min saw me into the plane, accompanied by two more Geisha girls. He pressed a wad of notes into my hand.
‘Pretty damn good, eh?’ He shook my hand vigorously.
‘What happened to your cleft palate?’ I said. He winked at me. ‘Some of us can fool the people all the time, okay?’
‘You can say that again,’ I said, as I boarded the plane.Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved