When you come into the
house mind the dog,
My birthplace was South Shields, Co. Durham; so Im a Tynesider. My late husband Bert Courtley was also from the North, from Manchester. But we met in London, our children were all born here, and my sons consider themselves Londoners. I dont think they have any accent; I know Im always shocked when I hear my recorded voice. People up North tell me I talk quite South Country now, when, in actual fact, when I hear it I realise I still speak rather broad.
The grounding in music I had covered classical, light and dance music, but there was no jazz at all. My brothers used to listen to the current big name bands of the time people like Harry Roy and Ambrose. I certainly didnt hear anything about jazz in those days.
The jazz interest really started at a point where I joined a palais band in Newcastle. called Peter Fielding. I then met other musicians who were jazz fans, and collected the records. Before that I didnt really think about it very much. I was playing tenor, but, funnily enough, I gave no thought to becoming a jazz player. And the idea of making some kind of a success nation-wide never really entered my head. The plan originally was just to become a good player locally.
Id been playing alto saxophone since I was about twelve; my first job was with a ladies' band, touring, but I had to get a tenor for that. After working with them a year, I came back home, and thats when I got this job in the all-male band. I never did join a girls' band after that. I did several guest appearances with them a couple with Ivy Benson, and a couple of deps for females who were ill. Other than that, I never worked for a woman; I was in male bands all the time.
As for prejudice I didnt encounter any up in Newcastle, because I think we were all fairly level. There were one or two very talented people in the band, but generally speaking, it wasnt competitive enough for there to be any anti-women feelings, or anything like that. I think they were all fairly fond of me, and we all got along fine. We rehearsed, did the job and that was it.
When I came down to London, it was almost entirely due to two people Keith Bird and Derek Neville that I swung round completely on to jazz playing. If its possible, they taught me to play jazz. I suppose it would be more true to say that they were the ones who found a way of bringing the jazz out of me. Mainly Keith Bird, actually. He gave me my first job in London; he was leaving the job, and he wrote and told me: Its here if you want it. That was for a quartet he was the saxophone player out front, and I took over from him. So I was thrown in at the deep end, as you might say, and within a few weeks I was playing jazz.
Well, of course, by that time I had amassed a certain collection of jazz records recommended by various people. But, you see, its difficult to know how to play it. Sometimes you can have a great jazz feeling inside, but actually you need a good push to do it, you know. The only true way of doing it is for somebody to give you that push off your seat, and say: Get up and blow. And you have to do whatever comes into your head as long as you know the tune and you have a fairly good ear. Which was always a strong point in my case -I had a fairly well developed ear. Then you automatically pick things from what you hear. Of course, that combined with a certain rhythmic sense gives the end-product of some kind of jazz chorus. And if youre good at it, and if you have a natural flair, then obviously you develop very quickly, to organise these thoughts.
Also, Keith Bird used to play things on the piano and ask me to play something to it. Hed play chords and say: What do you hear to that? Play something to that or What kind of notes do you hear there? And Id play something; then: Right. Now try this one.
You see, all the time finding out exactly what it was that I did hear. Then he gradually introduced me to the simpler tunes, like I Got Rhythm, Lady Be Good, Honeysuckle Rose, which are the basis of half the jazz tunes that ever were. I played what I heard; hed alter the chords then, and Id hear something out of that. And he gradually got it together so that he could play a given tune on the piano, and I would start to implant another melody on the chord sequence.
Finally, when he gave me this job of his, there was only the one frontline; so you had to get up and play. Within about a month I was working with Dennis Rose at the Jamboree Club, and Jim Skidmore, Reggie Dare, Kenny Graham all the people who were about at that time.
Oh, that was a tremendous era. The war was still on, and we had yet to be really introduced to bebop. I mean, I was absolutely hooked on Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Benny Carter, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the Casa Loma all the saxophone players and all the popular big bands of the day. When bebop did come .and we got switched on to it, then, of course, the Club Eleven started. And Dennis Rose, the one I had worked for he was almost a father of Club Eleven. Because he already had the harmonic knowledge before it arrived here; he was so talented, it was unbelievable. Ronnie Scott and all of them would be only too ready to give him credit; they learned an awful lot from Dennis.
At the time I worked with Dennis, he was a trumpet/bandleader. One of the most unhappy things for him, I think, was the fact that he could never seem to get out on trumpet what he wanted to play. For what reason, I dont know. Yet he would sit down in the interval, or at the end of the evening, and play piano and what came out then was absolutely incredible. He was playing bebop then before I had even heard of it. He was amazing; I learned so much from him. I still admire him very much. He plays piano occasionally at places, but I dont often get to see him now.
Yes, eventually I was running my own group. There were really two up-and-coming young small jazz bands in the late forties that was Johnny Dankworth and myself. We ran concurrently. I just didnt have the money to carry on; we were really losing quite a bit.
Oh, the book was pretty advanced. I started out with a lot of Lennie Tristano kind of things. Then I moved into a more swingy type of thing; we had trumpet and five saxophones then. Id met Bert, and he was on trumpet. We had some very good players. At various times, Dill Jones and Tommy Watt were on piano. Derek Humble was our lead alto player; Pete King the one who now runs Ronnie Scott's was on tenor with the band, too. It was a real good band; we had a lot of fun. But you need money for arrangements, coach bills and everything else, and I couldnt afford it; so I just had to pack up after a year.
I didnt have the right direction, in the first place. It was an unwise choice to go out playing Lennie Tristano things, because, unfortunately, I was sent out into the ballrooms with this kind of music. That was a mistake, of course you needed something more straight down the middle. But by the time I charmed. I think it was a bit too late to recover. You had to do an audition for broadcasting then, and although I passed first time, nobody ever bothered to give me any broadcasts, which I needed.
I went back to the Vic Lewis band, where Id been previously. So did Bert, Derek Humble and Lennie Harrison, the bass player. The others went to various other bands. About a year or so later, I married Bert, and a year after that we had the first boy. Since then, of course while the children were still young, theres no doubt about it, my musical activities were limited. I could only really take jobs from which I could get back overnight. In fact, the longest stint I ever did was the three months when I first went with Humphrey Lyttleton, and that was to deputise for me old pal Jim Skidmore, who was very ill for a while.
Though I might have been thought of as a modernist, I didnt really belong to the bebop movement. My playing has always been, as I say, down the middle somewhere; it fitted in very well with the Lyttleton band. Anyway, Humphreys very broadminded: he likes to surround himself with people of varying styles. Hes always looked forwards, rather than backwards. I mean, hes had some tremendously modern people sometimes a very unlikely crew altogether, you know. He likes it that way, although hes basically Humphrey, and very recognisably so thank goodness; people want to hear him as he is. But he would admit, too, that because of his exposure to all these ahead-looking people, hes become better and better over the years himself. He still has a glorious feeling for jazz, but he is a better player now.
People may say: Oh, its not the same they forget that musicians, if they keep on playing long enough, in spite of everything they become better. And its no good beginning to admire them when they werent as good as they are now. Im not saying that Humphrey went into study or anything; he just has got progressively better. Youre bound to, if you play millions of notes all the time; youre able to do them faster, co-ordinate quicker and so on. There are very few people I know who dont steadily improve and that includes the out-and-out traditionalists. Well, the Alex Welsh band, with whom I had the great pleasure of sharing my very enjoyable Ronnie Scotts engagement, is a perfect example of that. He has some really excellent players there.
My big band experience goes way back. I did a lot of concerts with Ted Heath in the old days, and some with Geraldo. I used to do the Sid Gross concerts, before Sid went to the States. And there was all my work for Vic Lewis. I did one or two other jobs for various people around, but generally speaking, it was mostly those Ive already mentioned. Oh, of course, my first husband, Art Thompson had a band; in the war days, he had a very good Swing band at the Embassy Club. He went back to California; hes been very successful there, they tell me. But apart from that, it was all really guesting, playing jazz clubs and jazz broadcasts all the time, really.
Yes, Bert was a member of Woody Hermans Anglo-American band. That was a lovely band; Nat Adderley, Bill Harris and Charlie Byrd were in it, too. As a matter of fact, I was asked to do the job. I was working at the Hundred Club, Oxford Street with Kenny Baker and Woody came down to see me I suppose with the idea of looking me over and listening a bit, to see if hed made the right choice. Anyway, he told me he was pleased with the idea, and it was going to be great. But when it really came down to the crunch you see, I had already done three months with Humphrey, and my children were all very small. I had three boys under five at the time or just five, the eldest one.
So, I mean, it meant more and more strain on my mum, and I really couldnt go off for about four weeks heavy touring leaving her with all of them. It was really the dilemma of being a mother as well as a jazz musician and I knew what was the right thing to do. Don Rendell went in, finally, didnt he? I was a bit disappointed, in a way, but never mind; I didnt worry about it at all.
Certainly, I would have liked to play with Woody. Hes always had great bands, and hes a marvellous, admirable person. He consistently gets the best out of musicians; hes a great man. they tell me, in rehearsal and everything. He really knows what he wants, and hes gained the respect of everybody. That would have been very nice.
Actually, my late husband, trumpeter Bert Courtley, and I didnt work together all that much, strangely enough. He used to play a lot with Don Rendell, Ronnie Ross, Harry South, Phil Seamen, Ed Harveythey had various groups. You see, I still had the family at home. I used to go down and play quite a lot at the Flamingo, guesting with people. For quite some time, I was part of the Tony Kinsey group; Les Condon and I made up the front-line. Which was lovely very enjoyable. At that time, that was the only regular group I belonged to.
After all, Bert was the main bread-winner; he was always out doing things. He went with Cyril Stapleton, Ken Mackintosh and so on all the time getting better jobs, as far as bread-and-butter work. Still he was filling in with his jazz thing, while I went ahead and did my limited amount.
The thing was, during the first years of our marriage, within thirteen months Id had one child, and within another two-and-a-half years Id had another, with the third one following a year and nine months after that. So it was a case of retiring from the profession three times. Although thats a bit of a joke, really, because I never put the saxophone away with the idea of letting it stay in the case for long. It was there, and I always knew Id play it again. When Bert unhappily died, a lot of people helped me by putting work on to me making me get out to work, you know. Tonv Coe. whos a very great friend of mine, and Humphrey Lyttelton again they rang me all the time. I cant say I didnt want to go; it was just that, in the early days, I didnt really know what I wanted to do. But I got more and more help from people, and more and more work.
Then I started going to the Guildhall for flute and clarinet lessons. And I started giving saxophone classes mvself at a big night school. Now its four years since Bert died and I think I work harder than Ive ever done, music-wise, since before I was married.. I have to work, anyway, to keep the home together. The boys are still there only theyre very big now, of course. My eldest sons twenty-one; the other two are eighteen-and-a-half and seventeen. And weve got a marvellous relationship all together. We all pursue our own particular hobbies, jobs, or whatever it is, and nobody takes too many liberties. My middle son plays the guitar, the younger one the piano.
They both seem to be doing nicely at it. I wouldnt be so big-headed as to say theyre tremendously talented, but Im very pleased to find that they really know whats good and I dont think theyre going to settle for anything less than that. Their musical tastes are broad, but now that theyre maturing, and theyve gone through all the basic likes and dislikes, Im glad to find that whats coming out at the end is rather nice. Its just as I would have it. They both have a great leaning towards jazz, and the more musical pop music not so much the singers. Of course, they have a tremendous record selection, as most young people do these days, but there are an awful lot of very adventurous things there. Theyre not hung up by four-four all the time; theres a lot of freedom. So Im very pleased with the way its going. I dont know whether theyll turn professional, but I hope they get pleasure out of it.
Some of the recent songs are highly adaptable for jazz. Funnily enough, I find that through listening to all the modern music, you can approach some of the older things in a much more flexible way. They say theres nothing new, really, and its the same thing permutated in a slightly different form, but I do know that hearing the modern groups has done me good, because it makes me want to play with more adventurous rhythms, and everything. Although I must keep it in mind all the time that there are certain fields that I know I cannot enter. Its no good me ever joining in any kind of free form, because I dont think I could have my heart in it, somehow. By now, I know me, and what I do best.
Admittedly, the setting is changing. I like nicer rhythms, with noises and knockings going on, and I do feel that there are much greater liberties to be taken with things. But I will always remain a fairly uncomplicated jazz player. Also I have a very melodic mind tuneful, you could say. To coin a modern phrase that I dont usually use: I know where Im at. I know my position but I dont want any of the old-time rhythm sections; I want the now thing. And even as I get the instrument out to play, I think a lot differently about what Im going to play, compared to what I did six years ago.
A lot of things have contributed to this. Going to the Guildhall; even teaching other players has helped. And I run a student band as well, which is becoming tremendously successful. The boys are very good, very receptive, all try very hard. This is the City Literary Institutes young rehearsal band. Alan Cohen runs a big, more professional one on a Saturday, but I pressed to have somewhere for the younger ones to go. Not young in age, that is, but young in experience. Because students become better players, but theres still this business of the inability to interpret written dance music or jazz music in a modern fashion.
Sometimes theres nowhere for them to go; the gap between becoming fairly proficient on ones instrument, and how to put it into practical use in a band can be quite big. Also, I believe its good that I am a practising musician. I dont spend all the week teaching, admirable though that might be. Im not yet built for that - Im built to be out there doing it myself. But the fact remains, I love going down there just a couple of times a week. One night I spend taking two classes of saxophones; Monday - thats my band night. We started from fairly simple arrangements- Jimmy Lallys dance band copies. As weve gone along, Ive brought in better ones, by people like Neal Hefti. And all the time carefully, but very positively drumming in the absolutely essential lessons to do with section work. Which takes time, because its difficult; theyve got to learn to read all kinds of accidentals, to try and remember whether theyre louder than the others, to watch for the change of key, to observe very many things.
But its really got through. Particularly some of the saxophone players, who are now in their third year with me. After being two years in the saxophone classes, theyve gone into the big band now. Some of them had only just bought the saxophone when they first came to me. Now theyve got beautiful, full sounds, they know when theyre in tune, theyre listening, and their observation of all the marks on the scores is excellent. Like everything else, sometimes we have a duff night, when it doesnt go right. But its amazing - sometimes I go in and well just do three or four arrangements, just straight through, without picking too many holes - we generally run them through, and then start taking them to pieces- and it suddenly dawns on me what a tremendous, healthy improvement there is. It really is very gratifying.
Recently we got some more brass, and now were up to full complement. I dont limit it to one of any specific instrument; I have to double them up, otherwise it means youre turning people away, and I dont like to do that. I mean, in the brass, we have a couple of fellows who split lead; then well have two third trumpet players, and two second - we sometimes end up with about six trumpets and three trombones. The trumpetsll be doubling, you see. And therell be two lead altos, two second altos, two first tenors, two second tenors and a baritone - maybe even an alto doubling baritone with him. So with piano, bass and drums added, we have at least seventeen there on a Monday.
Some of the boys bring a little recording machine along. Well, thats good - I dont have to say anything; they can hear it, if its wrong. In any case, I often end up at the end of an evening with my voice a bit cracked, where Ive been singing the phrases to them! Or Ill get the saxophone out, and play it at them again and again. Thats why it was a bit of a problem, in the beginning stages of this band, to get a rhythm section, because it was so boring for them to have to wait and wait while the band went over and over certain things that I just was not happy with. If its not right, its no good letting them carry on. I hear about rehearsal bands where people actually go in, and they start, and plough through music, and nobody tells them theyre playing wrongly. In fact, Ive heard of at least two rehearsal bands being run by people for money, where the leaders had been students of mine, and had dropped out, because, quite frankly, they just werent good enough.
Now, that makes me very angry. And justifiably so, because Im professional, and proud of it. I mean, I wouldnt dare take that kind of a liberty. There are some very fine musicians in this business who have good student bands, and theyve got a lot of knowledge to give away. But its no good when you get these people who actually are running bands, and taking money- and theyre learners themselves.
The only thing I can hope is that as soon as possible the young people will get away from them, and go to a band where theres a practising player out front. You need that - then you know that hes imparting things to you that hes putting into practice every day of his life. Even if you didnt like his style, you would know that somebodys employing him; so he must have something to share with you.
Yes, weve had some girl players. Theres a girl alto player, whos a classical clarinet player turned alto, and there was a classical pianist who wanted to swing to jazz, but shes moved away now. Just two or three Ive had; there arent many about, you know. Its not really a very feminine thing. I wouldnt say Ive been handicapped myself by being a woman. I mean, Im sure theres prejudice there - theres bound to be. But Ive never had to suffer in any shape or form; Ive always found everybody marvellous to me.
Oh, I would advise any girl to try and make it - but I would just hope that shed get the chances that I did. Because opportunity was on my side, really. It was wartime, and everybody was so hard up for players, they had to give me a job! Coupled with the fact that this was what I wanted to do.
I hope that perhaps a few of them will have a go at it, in the future. The colleges are full of female classical players; so I dont see why we shouldnt have a few more of the other kind. That is, provided people will start doing a bit more for live jazz, in the way of various radio stations. They tell me in New York theres at least three hours live television jazz every day, and you can switch on radio programmes of live jazz any time of the day. And when I visited Germany with Humphrey, in all the stores you can hear jazz, and on the radio theyre playing jazz all round the clock.
So its no good anybody turning round and telling me its not a good listenable thing for the public. Its very listenable. Its also lovely to watch. I do think its becoming more fashionable now to go and watch it. But there are a lot of people who would be very pleasantly surprised if they just got away from that box, and went down and watched somebody playing jazz. I think theyd like it.
Interviewed by Les Tomkins in 1974
Copyright © 1974 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved