Bill Le Sage - click to enlarge
Nick Weldon's interview with Bill

My father was a semi–professional drummer, although his brothers were more active than he was. His brother George played the trumpet and alto saxophone and another brother, Ernie, was a very good guitarist. There was always music going on in the house.

Every Sunday we would go and visit Grandma and this would usually wind up with a “jam” session. On one occasion when both my parents went to hospital with scarlet fever, I had to stay with my grandmother and my Uncle Ernie, who was out of work at the time, and we played records all day long. I was about four years old, but I remember vividly Charlie Teagarden on trumpet and Benny Goodman on clarinet playing “Farewell Blues”.

Later on this same Uncle Ernie introduced me to the recordings of the Quintette Hot Club de France—he had all their records before the Second World War. So there was quite a lot of jazz music around me.

In fact there is a family story that my uncle George, who had something to do with a Rhythm club in those days, invited Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong home to tea on the occasion of their visits to England; it appears I met them both when I was quite young.

I started to play the ukulele first—it was given to me by my father’s sister as an eighth–birthday present. I took to the instrument naturally and started to play duets with my Uncle Ernie, who was on guitar.

At the beginning of the war, I was evacuated to the country, took the ukulele with me and organised a sort of concert party with a scout troop. When I came home I started to transpose all the chords I had learnt on the ukulele to the piano, and that’s how I started to learn to play the piano. Later, after doing my conscription service in the Army, I returned home, but since there seemed to be very little work about, then I was offered a summer season at Ilfracombe, I took it. Unfortunately this didn’t last long as the ballroom went out of business in the July.

I came back home and did one gig and this was on drums. Still I used to rehearse every Monday with Johnny Flannigan—he’s a very fine drummer, and now an important man in the music business. We used to go over to John’s house—they had very large rooms where we would rehearse: me on piano, Johnny Wiltshire on guitar (he is also an M.D. these days), a bass player, an alto saxophone, and John Flannigan on drums.

I used to write off scores of letters advising people of the Quintet. Eventually we got a gig in Workington. Johnny Wiltshire had got a job with the Felix Mendelsohn’s Band, so CIiff Dunn joined us on guitar. We spent a month there.

Once again on our return, there was no work for the band, so I went after a job with Johnny Dennis and his Ranchers. They were being engaged for a season at Fishers Restaurant (later it became known as the Celebrite). Felix King the pianist had previously worked the restaurant, so the proprietor asked Johnny to add a pianist to his “Ranchers”. He also had a vocal group called the “Cactus Kids”.

So I went along to the Dinelys rehearsal rooms for an audition and as I walked in the door I bumped into his music director, Ivor Raymonde. Ivor knew of my abilities and asked me what I was doing there. When I explained, he said “Forget the audition, you’ve got the job”.

The engagement was not due to start until the following January and in the meantime I needed work. I did a rehearsal with the band and they seemed happy with us, and then Johnny Dennis said to me, “Are you free now? We have a gig coming up in Birmingham and I would like you to do it.” You have to remember this was late 1948.

He said “I’ll pay you five pounds for the gig, plus I’ll pick you up, take you to the job. bring you back home, and provide a meal.”

On the Sunday he picked me up and drove me to Birmingham. We were a support group to the Harry Parry Sextet. The personnel of our band was Des Laine (a great clarinet player who later shot to fame as an exponent of the penny whistle), Ivor Raymonde on accordion, me on piano, and a bass and drums.

We played jazz all evening. It was great. After the show Johnny bought me a marvellous meal and then drove me home. When we arrived at the house he counted out ten pounds, I said “John—you’ve made a mistake—you said five”. He said “ No, no, you did well tonight.” I always remember the generosity of that man. He only booked me because he knew I was out of work. A great humanist. A very genuine person.

After that I never talked money with him—it was not necessary. After the engagement at Fishers, which lasted for about a year, Johnny emigrated to the United States, and I lost track of him. The band broke up, so the bass player, Peter Hugget and I formed a band together to go to a holiday camp at Yarmouth.

We had Harry Klein (alto saxophone), Charlie Wenham (trumpet), Johnny Wiltshire (guitar), Johnny Flannigan (drums), Peter (bass) and myself on piano. This must have been one of the hardest gigs I ever worked.

We played for old–time dancing;, community singing, regular dancing and even bar piano— you name it, we did it. But I learned so much and gained a great deal of experience from doing it. I never regretted the opportunity.

While I was playing in Yarmouth a band that Ivor Raymonde was a member of passed an audition with the Cunard Shipping Lines for the liner Queen Mary. The bandleader was Frank Abbott and he had Eddie Thompson on piano. The company felt it would be too difficult having Eddie on board, as he was blind, so they asked Frank Abbot to fix another pianist. So Frank wrote to me asking if I would like to join him on the Queen Mary.

You can imagine my reactions to this. It was every young musician’s dream, in those days, to go to New York. But I was joint bandleader with Peter Huggett, so I said to him, “What shall I do?” Without any hesitation he said, “Pack your bags and go!”

I’ll never forget my first visit to New York. We arrived in the early hours and disembarked from the Queen Mary at around ten in the morning. I found myself walking down 50th Street, awestruck by the skyscrapers, completely bewildered; all I know is I had to get to 52nd Street. I didn’t know the plan of the city and had no idea of where to go next. I suddenly spotted a ginger–haired kid and I said, “Excuse me can you direct me to 52nd Street?”

He replied, “You’re a stranger in these parts—you sound English to me. Well, in New York it’s quite easy to find your way around. All the streets go east to west and the avenues north to south. Why do you want to go to 52nd Street?” I replied, “I want to find the places where all the musicians are.”

So, that night, off I went, full of excitement and my first call was at the Three Deuces. On the bill was the Erroll Garner Trio and the Kai Winding band. I went in, and who should I see on the stand with the Kai Winding band—but the ginger–haired kid who had directed me in the morning, playing the trumpet—Red Rodney. When he came off the stand, he grinned at me and said, “I see you found it, then.”

And so began a beautiful friendship. 1 worked on the Queen Mary for about six months, during which time I went and had some lessons from Lennie Tristano—another great experience.

Back in London, after the band left the ship, we were supposed to go to Fishers Restaurant where I had been with Johnny Dennis. While I was rehearsing for this, I had a phone call from Mike Butcher, a writer with a music paper, and he said he was phoning to confirm that I was going to join a new band led by John Dankworth.

I said, “You must be joking—no one has asked me to play with the Dankworth Band.” He insisted that I was going to be a member—he said John had just been in to his office to give him the line–up.

I was flabbergasted. Rumours had been going around the profession for about three months that John was going to start a small band, and everyone was trying to guess who was going to appear in it. I told Frank Abbott, the bandleader, about this, so he said, “You’d better check it out right away.” So off I went and found John in a local hostelry with Eddie Harvey and I said to him, “I understand that I am going to join your band.” John said, That’s right.” So I said, “Well, you might have called me.” He turned to Eddie and said, “Oh! Heck, I knew that was something I had forgotten.”

So in 1950 I joined the new band. Our opening gig was on the bill of a Ted Heath swing session at the London Palladium. While with the Seven we did a tour of Germany, and one night we went to a club and I found a set of vibes there and just for fun I decided to play them. I enjoyed it so much that when John decided to form a big band I suggested that I get a set. John thought this was a good idea as we could form a small unit within the band as a piano–less quartet.

I used to do a lot of managing of bands and I continued to do this for the John Dankworth Seven. But when the Big Band was formed I found this very heavy going. Playing and  managing was getting too much. I was getting mixed up between being a business manager and a pianist.

I left John’s band and joined Tony Kinsey. Tony had a quartet; this group made a number of recordings and many of them appeared on the jukeboxes of the day. This meant we received quite a bit of publicity, so the gigs started to roll in. We played both jazz clubs and dance dates. The dance dates were a bit of a challenge as, although we continued to play jazz on the dance dates, we needed to change the sound of the band, to create more variety with such a small combo. So I bought an accordion and Ronnie Ross, who played saxophones, was featured on clarinet, and we acquired a female singer.

I then started to do some arrangements in the style of the Joe Mooney Quartet. This was a very pleasant sound, that made a nice contrast to the stomping jazz we played, and seemed to work very well with the patrons. Incidentally, Stan Tracey was an accordion player at one time with a group called the Melfi Trio. The accordion seemed always to be the poor relation of the jazz instrument family—there are only a handful of great exponents, such as Art Van Damme and our own Jack Emblow.

I remember, when I joined the Kenny Baker Dozen, as a replacement for Martin Slavin on vibes, that when the guys in the band found out I had an accordion they persuaded me to bring it along. I used to write about one number a week to be featured. When the guys heard me, they used to call me ‘Fifi’.

During the time I was with Tony Kinsey, I was also employed as a music director for Danzigger Films at Elstree. During this time I worked on a number of ‘B’ movies and television films. Richard the Lionheart was one that ran for thirty–nine weekly episodes—also a detective series called Cheaters with John Ireland. Because of the pressures of time in film work I now find I can actually write music faster than I can read it. Very strange.

After I left Tony Kinsey, Ronnie Ross and I formed a quartet with Ron on baritone sax and me on vibes plus bass and drums. During this period I was asked to write some music for documentaries, so I used the quartet for this. I always made it a practice where possible to use musicians I was currently working with to play in my other projects.

Later in 1965 I was asked by the directors of the World Record Club to act as music director for a club they were opening called Take One. This was being used to showcase artistes on the EMI label. So I took along the Ronnie Ross Quartet plus Ray Dempsey on guitar. Among the people we accompanied was Salena Jones. We did a marvellous album with Salena and the trio, but it was never released. However they did issue some instrumentals from this session, one of which made it was called A Walk in the Black Forest.

Shortly after this the BBC phoned and asked me if I would like to do a programme on Radio Three. They wanted a jazz programme, but they asked me to do something different. Well, I had just finished a series of programmes on television. It was a play that had been serialised, and in those days we did not record, so we had to watch the play on a screen, and cue the music in at the appropriate moments. The music was provided by Lennie Bush on bass and me on vibes. I remember that on the last episode we only had to play for the opening titles and the closing credits, and for some reason I fell asleep. Fortunately I woke up before the end!

After the series finished the producer invited the cast, including us, back for a party. This was unusual as normally the musicians were forgotten. At the party he played some music by Villa–Lobos, the Brazilian composer. I was stunned by the beauty of it. The line–up was eight cellos and voice of Victoria de Los Angeles. The next day I went out and bought the complete set of these recordings. So when the BBC asked me to do something different for the experimental jazz thing, I thought I would use the eight cello idea, but unfortunately the budget would not allow this, so I had to settle for four. I already had three saxophones who could double the woodwind I knew that was essential, so what I was trying to do was to create an orchestral sound with as few instruments as possible.

The rhythm section was from Ronnie Ross’s Quartet. Al Newman, Ronnie Ross and John Scott were the reedmen; later Bob Burns replaced Al Newman. The four cellos were the best session men in the business. This was quite a strange experience for these straight players for that time. Nowadays most string players can play with a jazz feel, but back then this was rather unusual.

Anyway, everyone settled down all right, and they really enjoyed the project. Ronnie got so excited he asked me if he could write something for them. We were given a half–hour programme on television, plus an interview with Joan Bakewell, who had her own magazine programme. It was unbelievable at that time. It was all happening.

Eventually we took the group to Hamburg and did a number of jazz workshops—this was around 1963. When we got back from Germany, Gaby Gabarro (cellist) was doing a session with Johnny Franz, an A & R man, and while having a drink he asked Gaby what he had been doing lately. So he said he had just been playing some jazz.

Johnny was amazed by this comment and asked who with, and Gaby told him that I had been doing some jazz workshops in Germany.

This was a lunchtime, so as soon as Johnny got back to the office he called me and said he had heard I had been running a band with four cellos, and did I have any tapes? So I said I had a tape of a broadcast I had done. I took the tape over to Johnny’s office and no sooner had I got home then he phoned to say, “Right, let’s make an album.”

I asked him what he wanted.” Please yourself.” I wrote a lot of original material plus a couple things like Milestones and a beautiful ballad by Hoagy Carmichael called New Orleans. We did it in one day, three sessions. I had laid a buffet on at home after the recording and I asked the guys back, including Johnny. When he sat down he said, “OK, when do we do number two?”

I don’t know what happened to these sessions, but some time later I was told that Quincy Jones had done something similar. I guess you can’t keep a good idea down.

Shortly after this it seemed that all the session people were using four cellos over here. About three or four years ago we were looking at some ideas as what to put on at Wavendon, Cleo and John’s music establishment, when John Dankworth said, “Have you still got the charts with the cellos in them? Let’s put that on one night.”

So we had Jimmy Hastings, John and Ronnie Ross as the reeds, and Paul Hart’s wife, who is a cellist, arranged the four cellists. It turned out to be a great night.

I went back and rejoined John and Cleo in 1979 for their American, Australian and New Zealand tours—this I did until 1982. Then I did mostly solo piano work, trios or quartets. I enjoy playing solo piano as well as the vibes. In fact I have learned quite a lot from playing the piano, especially harmonically. I also enjoy playing with fellow musicians in small combos. Playing here at the Jersey Jazz Festival with Dick Morrissey and Dave Cliff on guitar with the John Woodhead Trio had been a great delight.

The interesting thing is, we all seem to think very much alike, and we certainly listen out to each other, unlike some guys who take off and forget who else is on the gig. I enjoy both the piano and vibes. It’s very interesting that Ira Sullivan, who plays all the saxophones and trumpet, never plays the same way on each instrument. He appears to approach each instrument with a different perspective. These kind of musicians seem to adapt to whatever instrument they happen to be playing at the time.

Recently I have been working on a new idea. I love the music of Brazil, and last year BBC producer Keith Stewart asked me to get together a six–piece, so I used Jimmy Hastings on tenor sax, Dave Cliff (guitar), Malcolm Creese on bass, and a Brazilian percussionist, with Bill Eyden on drums. We did a broadcast last August and it worked very well.

I had a phone call from a publisher the other day asking me if I had anything I was working on, and I mentioned this project, and the fact that I had written a lot of material for the group, so it looks as though I am going to get the Brazilian project off the ground, which will be rather satisfying. We hope to do a recording from this.

Every now and then I get the urge to write a suite. For instance, some years ago when I came back from Zurich, I wrote a piece called “Impressions of Zurich”—this was for a nine–piece band and was subsequently broadcast. I wrote another when I returned from the States with Cleo and John. I am currently working on a suite about my family and naturally I am going to call it “Family Album.”

I have had a shot at writing a musical—this I did in collaboration with Tony Kinsey. We wrote a show called The Lillywhite Boys, which was presented at the Royal Court Theatre, starred Albert Finney and Georgia Brown, and was directed by Lindsay Anderson, We had quite a success with it, but unfortunately we could not get it into the West End. This was way back in the 1960s.

I have had a couple of ideas since —in fact I was going to do a musical on “Santa Claus”. I had spent a considerable time on this project when suddenly a movie came out on the same theme starring Dudley Moore. So that put paid to that idea.

But who knows what the future holds? I believe to survive in our business you should be versatile.

(Speaking in 1990)