A born leader
From every angle
Stan - A tribute
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1969
My wildest dream, as a young kid, was to be a professional player. I just loved music, as I do now and always have done. I was born in 1919, in Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire. Originally I wanted to play the piano, which I learned in my childhood, but I was just attracted to trumpets, or cornets, which is understandable, as I was surrounded by them. I was brought up in a family that had very much of a brass atmosphere.
Both my brothers played in brass bands and although he was not a player, my Dad was always tremendously interested in the brass band movement. One of my brothers played in the Central Band of the RAF for 20 years; my other brother played with the Sandhurst Academy Band. And in their own way, they were probably just as keen as I was. Any time my brothers came over for the day, the topic would switch immediately to music, and that’s really the main thing in our lives. That exists as much now as it did when I was a kid. I was just compelled to play, that’s all.
Brass band players inspired me at first, people like Harry Mortimer. Later, as I started to listen more, I discovered there were other fine players around, such as Louis Armstrong. A different type of thing, but that’s an attractive style of playing.
I suddenly found myself switched from the brass band sound that I carried in my head from when I was eight, nine or ten; coming up to the age of twelve and after, I was listening to the jazz of the day. Which would be mostly American; we didn’t have a lot of exponents here at that time, I suppose. I always remember, as a kid, being thrilled to go to some big American film, with some marvellous playing, I thought: “Gee, that’s really something, the best I’ve ever heard.” And I like to think that I’ve retained my enthusiasm up to now.
I’m pretty busy working, but I like nothing better after a day’s work than to go and have a drink with fellow musicians, and discuss what we’ve been doing that day. There we are again-speaking about music. In other words, music is most of my life.
I was playing professionally when I was fifteen. My first professional job was in Aberdeen with a bass player called Reggie Beard, who is now in America; he plays with the LOS Angeles Symphony Orchestra. From there I came to London. At sixteen and seventeen I played with Bram Martin at the Holborn Restaurant, where I remained for a couple of years. And various night clubs, which I found very exciting, very enjoyable. These were not night clubs as we know them today; these were bottle parties. The people in them were very mixed, but there the true atmosphere of jazz was to be found in those days.
It was all happening in places like the Nest, Kingly Street, the Palm Beach, the Nuthouse. Even then, we had guest Americans, like Coleman Hawkins, dropping in to these places.
I don’t think it was publicised at all, but that was actually the jazz scene of that time; it was very private to a certain number of musicians. But musically it was of a very high standard; I don’t know what I’d think if I heard it now, but for those days I was thrilled with it. People like George Chisholm used to come for a blow in the clubs; Tom McQuater, Andy McDevitt, Jock Cummings, players of this ilk. This is going back to pre-war years, of course-the ‘36 -‘37-‘38 period.
During this period, also, big bands were coming into vogue more. I joined Jack Harris’s band at Ciro’s, a Society place. Then, in ‘39, Jack Hylton—I stayed there until I was called up into the army. Like the other 19 or 20-year-olds, I was due for compulsory military service. So I took my holiday up near Aberdeen, at my wife’s family home. I’d met May when I worked in Scotland, and married very early. Incidentally, we’re still very happily married.
Anyway, I received my call-up papers there; I had to report to the nearest recruiting centre, which happened to be Dundee. I had a medical, and they asked me what I did. When I told them I was a professional musician, they were a bit incredulous.
“You mean you make your living playing?” I said: said : “That’s right.” So they “Oh, we’ve got the very job for you, in the Band of the Black Watch.” This turned out to be a con. I went along to the barracks, drew my kit like everyone else, only to discover there was actually no band there at all. They were disbanded to go on duties overseas as stretcher bearers and the like. Cutting a long story short, I went into the army and came through the Dunkirk rearguard action. We left France two weeks after Dunkirk.
Being a little knocked about, I was discharged at that point. The only playing I did was as a bugler for a couple of months in the base camp at Le Mans. And I thought to myself: “I’ve got a marvellous job here.” We used to do a 24-hour guard, then have 48 hours off. That was fine, while it lasted.
Our initial inkling that this brief, happy spell was about to end was when, mysteriously, platoons of men started moving off by night in full battle order. One morning I asked: “What’s happening, Sergeant-Major?” He told me: “Hand your bugle in, son. You’re going up the line with your platoon tomorrow.” That last bit is something I don’t often speak about, unless I’m prompted to do so. I accept that the hazards of war just had to be faced by my generation, and I consider myself one of the luckiest chaps in the world to have come out of it and be able to play again.
It’s a very strange thing, but for quite a long while afterwards I believed that I was really dead and only imagining myself back playing. This may be difficult for anyone to understand, but the actual events of that last day were very real in my mind.
It all happened in a wood; we were surrounded by Germans, or thought we were, and the bombardment was thick and heavy. . . I was brought home on an ambulance ship, and taken to hospital. To me it seemed as if I’d actually been killed in that wood; getting back to music was a transition to some merciful kind of heaven, I thought.
For six months I wasn’t too good. Convalescing at May’s home, I discovered very quickly that I’d love to be playing again. My embouchure took a while to come back, but I went with Teddy Joyce on one–nighters, mainly round the Glasgow area. I enjoyed that; as a matter of fact, I still play with a couple of people who were with that band—Bobby Midgely and Bobby Richards, the arranger. I was with Teddy for a few months.
I remember how proud he was when he managed to get a three-month season at Green’s Playhouse; he was so happy to be settled somewhere instead of touring around. But the poor chap died the first week, with cerebral meningitis. He was a very likeable man. The fellow that reminds me so much of Teddy Joyce in front of a band is Stan Kenton; you know, a tall, commanding figure with a kind of a show-biz aura about him.
After that, the band more or less broke up; Teddy Foster came up to see out the season. While we’d been working in Glasgow, anyway, there was a Jack Warner show appearing at the Empire, and we socialised with the musicians who were on it.
That was how I first met Kenny Baker; this is back in ‘41. Also in the band was Freddie Bretherton; actually, he was MD of the show. He’d asked me if I’d like to work for the BBC, and I’d said I would have to think about it. Well, immediately Teddy died, I was in touch with Freddie. The job was with Billy Ternent in Bangor, North Wales; so I went down there and hibernated for two-and-a-half to three years. This was part of my musical transition. With Teddy I played lead; with Bill’s band I was the jazzman.
But up to that time and slightly afterwards I preferred to be the jazzman in the band. Following my Bangor stay, I joined Geraldo and it wasn’t until then that I started to play much more lead. I used to share the leads with Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson, who was a good friend of mine.
Geraldo had a fine band, that I really enjoyed being with, playing the early Kenton scores and things like that. I got to know Ted Heath in that band; he was in the trombone section. I remember he used to say to me: “I’m going to start a band after the war. Would you like to come with it?” I said: “Sure, count on me.” I think it was after hearing the Miller band that he made his mind up about this.
The Geraldo job finished for me when they went to the Middle East. I considered I’d done my army service, and so did my wife. Someone else went out there; I stayed here.
Shortly after that, I took a job with Harry Parry, which was very enjoyable for about a year. Harry Roy came next, until. just after the war ended. Then I had a phone call: “Ted Heath here. You remember me speaking about starting a band? Well, it’s started now. Do you want to join?” I said, “Okay.” And that was the original Heath bandKenny Baker, myself, Harry Letham and Alan Franks. When Alan left, Dave Wilkins came in. That combination stayed for quite a few years.
Undoubtedly, the Heath band owed a lot of its success to the man who was its leader. Although Ted might not have appeared to be the bandleader type, he had a shrewd musical ear. And he had a certain honesty and directness about his approach to everything. The men admired him.
I admired him long before he was a bandleader, for his trombone playing; I thought he was a beautiful player. As a king of the trombone in that era, I suppose he was the nearest we had to, say, Tommy Dorsey. Most musicians that worked with him had a tremendous appreciation of his playing.
In handling the musicians, Ted found a way to deal with most situations. Such as when we were on a tour of Ireland. One night Frank Horrox found himself faced with a piano that was in a particularly diabolical, out-of-tune state. When the dance was due to start, Frank staged a rebellion; he went and stood at the far end of the hall. Ted was furious at first : “He can’t do that! Refuse to play?” But after a little while he had cooled off. In between numbers he told one of the chaps: “Go down and have a word with Frank for me. Ask him how the band sounds.”
At its best, the band had more than just precision. You can get precision with a military band. We’re liable to think of precision as a kind of a clipped, unyielding thing. Whereas when you acquire an accuracy that becomes more of a relaxed urgency, now this is it. Which I think we had. The enthusiasm was tremendous; the men enjoyed what they were doing all the time. Nobody had to say that a certain thing was not quite right; we got together and made it right. Any intonation problem, just one word had to be said, we made a slight adjustment and that was it. The great feeling in that band was one that I don’t think I’ve had before or since.
You know, when I moved out recently to Bromley, which is a bit of a stockbroker area, Don Lusher said to me: “You’d better not tell those new neighbours of yours that you’re a musician, Stan, or they won’t speak to you.” A couple of weeks ago, I was in the garden with my wife, and the chap next door said: “Excuse me, isn’t it Mr. Roderick? I’ve been a fan of yours and the bands you’ve been with for over twenty years. I used to go to all the Palladium Swing Sessions and nights at the Hammersmith Palais.” And he’s got all the old 78s that we made with Ted. What about that? So I had great pleasure in informing Don Lusher that some of these stock brokers are hip!Copyright © 1969 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.