The Piano Player
Remembered by Ron Simmonds
The piano player was was looking at me. I could just make him out through the smoke and glaring spotlights of the jazz club. He had an evil grin on his face and seemed to be saying something, but in the terrific din, sitting high up back there on the trumpet rostrum I couldn't make out what it was.
I looked over at the drummer, who was soaking wet, and well into sweating right through his second clean shirt of the night. 'What's he saying?'
The bass player, who was standing near the piano, took a friendly hand in the affair.
'It's something about the tuning.'
'What about the tuning?' I said aggressively. The heat in there was so tremendous that I'd already got my trumpet slide out half a yard.
'How's my tuning?' I bawled out at the top of my voice.
The piano player took time off to light one of his strange black cigarettes. Then he stood up and bawled right back.
‘Some notes are sharp - and some notes are flat.' As his mouth was only two inches from the piano microphone when he said this the volume with which his words emerged from the loudspeakers was terrifying. In the deathly silence that followed he sat down and resumed his evil grin. Thinking that he had just announced the name of the next number, people clapped. He smiled and bowed.
I was probably the nearest thing to a friend that he ever had. As he didn't have a car I would pick him up now and then to take him to the studio, and drive him home again. He used to get out of the car some way from his house because he lived in a slum area and didn't want anyone to see his apartment, but later on I had to go there sometimes because I became his copyist.
Before I moved to London one of the guys in a band I worked with in the Midlands had told me of a conversation he'd once had with the piano player, at a time when that gentleman was playing and arranging for one of the great touring bands.
'Er - excuse me sir - do you mind if I ask you a question?'
'Ah - it's about arranging actually. I know it's silly but - look - when you - ah - write a six/nine chord for the - ah - well - you know - saxes do you put the - er - ninth at the bottom, or the - um - sixth at the bottom, or what?'
The piano player looked at him for a very long time, then he removed the weird black cigarette from his mouth and picked a shred of tobacco off his lip. 'Yes,' he said, nodding slowly. 'That's right.'
He used to roll those cigarettes himself, taking the black papers out of a small box in his pocket, and borrowing someone's tobacco pouch for the filling. For this reason, although they looked thoroughly evil, his cigarettes were always highly aromatic.
He was never known to be late on a session. However early you turned up in the studio he would be there before you. He didn't hang around after, either. With him it was get in, give a perfect performance, get out, and disappear. None of that hearty backslapping, foot up on the bar, beer-swilling, anecdote-swapping, post session stuff that the rest of us used to get up to. I don't believe I ever saw him eat or drink, come to think of it, although of course he must have. He just wasn't always in the forefront of one's awareness, if you know what I mean. But on stage he was running the band from that piano chair, and no mistake about it.
Oh, he was a great piano player, all right, and a great arranger, too. By the time I'd gotten into the big band business he had already left all of the famous touring bands behind him and was in a television orchestra which I later joined. We played the London clubs now and then and did the odd tour, but our main job was TV.
He wrote his scores on small printed score paper in the most economical way possible. Trumpets and trombones, four of each, were crushed on to two staves, while the five saxophones wandered about between two other staves, one treble and one bass clef. Apart from himself no one had previously been able to decipher the tiny dots that represented the notes in his chords. When he discovered that I could I was quickly pressed into service.
As the scores were generally handed to me the night before each transmission I had to sit up copying all night and try and stay awake enough next day to play them as well. After a while I got pretty good at separating the various instrumental lines from the block chords and now and then even tried a bit of voice crossing.
I was caught out when he tried to find a wrong note during rehearsal. 'What's this?' he said, crossly.
'Well, er, you know, some of them had repeated notes, so I thought I'd liven the parts up a bit. Make them flow, you see.'
'I see,' he said thoughtfully.
In the next up-tempo arrangement he did for the band he wrote me one hundred and eight repeated double octave G's in recurring batches of eighteen. He had his evil grin on as he watched me straining my way through them.
'How was the flow there, then? All right?' he asked afterwards.
We used to meet in, a pub in Balham which was roughly between our two homes. Once inside he would slip me his new arrangement under the table, as if we were exchanging secret documents.
When I finally got to see his apartment I thought he must be joking. After all those years of success he must have had at least one nice house somewhere in pleasant surroundings. I mean - he was top man in the country for as long as I could remember. But there was his wife, and there were his children, running in and out, lots of them, right in the middle of a really depressing, run-down area of town. 'Hey! are they all your children?' I gasped.
'Eh? What? Where?' he said, looking round. 'I don't know, I didn't count them.' He didn't seem to have any furniture in the place. An old upright piano stood in his workroom, which was otherwise absolutely bare. Still, he seemed to be happy enough. He never had me around there again though.
Everybody loved him. It isn't true that he had a retiring personality, and spoke only rarely. He talked a lot, to me at any rate, and was usually good for a biting criticism when things went wrong. During one TV rehearsal the bandleader asked everyone in the band to cut a bar out of one of the arrangements. When the number was played again no one remembered to cut the bar.
'But,' said the bandleader plaintively, 'I distinctly asked you to leave that bar out.'
"Yes," said the piano player, "but you didn' t tell 'em ten f____ times."
I remember doing a broadcast with him in the Paris Cinema, which is a BBC studio just off Piccadilly Circus. As we left the building for a break he was accosted by a filthy, ragged beggar standing in the gutter outside. We left him there talking to the man. As we turned the comer I saw them walking up and down in the gutter, talking earnestly to one another.
When we got back later the beggar had disappeared. "What happened?" I said. 'Did he tap you for some money.'
"Oh no," he said. "The man used to be a piano tuner. Now he's freelance. We had a very interesting chat. When he left he gave me half-a-crown."
Laddy Busby and I wrote a Sauter/Finnegan type arrangement on the piano in my house all through the small hours one night, accompanied by the constant hammering of the neighbours on both sides. When the band played it next day the piano player condemned it at once as the worst piece of rubbish he had ever heard in his life. Then he took me aside and helped me to straighten it out, giving me many valuable arranging tips as he did so. He also told me never to write an arrangement again, bar for bar, together with another arranger, advice which I have followed to this day.
Life went on. The band took a tour in South Africa, where he vanished one night without trace. Under the circumstances we thought we'd never see him again.
The night before the long flight down there we had been on the band bus, returning from a gig up in the north of England. The bandleader's last words to us had been: "Don't forget your passports tomorrow."
This was incentive enough for about six or seven of the guys to get out all the percussion instruments while we were travelling and start playing and singing, a raga-type thing, chanting "Don't forget your passport - ole, don't forget your passport - ole." This seemed to go on, without any variations at all, well into the early hours until the piano player, wno had been trying to sleep, got up suddenly, walked back and snatched the bongos, maracas, and all the other Latin paraphernalia from the busy hands of each foolishly grinning player, staring each one grimly right close up in the face as he did so, nose to nose, like an angry Brigade of Guards Sergeant-Major. He took everything back to his seat, dumped it, sat on it, and went back to sleep. I'd half expected him to throw everything out the window.
We played concerts in Her Majesty's Theatre in Johannesburg. During one of them he disappeared from the stage completely. Nobody saw him go. A piano solo came up, but when we looked over at the piano there was no-one there. We laughed a bit at that, he's been taken short, and so on, but he didn't come back again that night.
Next morning I came down for breakfast, and there he was.
'Hey! What happened?'
‘You're never going to believe this.'
"Remember that hot-dog we had from that barrow out in Commissioner Street just before the concert?" I nodded. My hot-dog had gone down like a slug of molten lead and exploded later like a depth charge deep inside me. I could still taste the nitric acid with which it had been coated.
"Well I felt a bit weird after a couple of numbers, so I just stepped into the alley out back for a bit of fresh air."
"And... I was kidnapped. See! I knew you wouldn't believe me."
"No - go on."
Two huge black men had grabbed him and bundled him into a car, which then drove off at high speed.
He sat squashed and terrified between them in the back. "Where are you taking me?"
‘My God! Egypt!
But it was to a small hall in Alexandra town just north of Johannesburg that they brought him. There he was pushed into the hall, which was hot, packed, smelly, and noisy, shoved on to a stage, and dropped into a chair behind a large desk.
'What's it for?' he quavered. It was a talent contest, and he, as a Pro from Overseas, was going to be the judge. By this time he had given up arguing, feeling lucky to still be alive, so he sat there and listened to the talent.
Everyone except him in the hall was black, of course, and they all seemed to be stoned. Still, some of the singers weren't bad, and after a while he began to note down some of the Bantu songs, all of which he had never heard before. There were about ten singers, and he made graded marks against the list of names he had been given before the contest started.
"What that tick there mean, mon?" said one of his guards, suddenly.
"It means that she was the best. She's the winner."
"Oh no she not," growled the guard. He stabbed at one of the other names with a finger as thick as a salami, and roughly the same colour. "She the winner. She my daughter, okay?" Sure it was okay. All right, okay, she win. Afterwards he was wined and dined after a fashion, driven back late at night by the same heavies and dumped outside the hotel. He showed me the notes he had made.
"I believe you," I said. "Even you couldn't make up something like that."
He was great at cutting people down to size. As his musical experiences and abilities were awesome it was almost a privilege to be sorted out by him in this way. I was one of his favourite targets, because I was a lead trumpet player with a super-ego you could have cut with an axe. When he couldn't stand it any more he would take me aside and put me firmly in my place. If he didn't like the way I was playing he would let me know, too, using explicit four-letter words to do so. Afterwards he would say: "Still friends?"
"That's nice, 'cos I can tell you again then next time, can't I?"
It was generally agreed that it was impossible to get the better of him, but I succeeded once, almost. We were in Cape Town for a week of concerts. I was walking down the main street when I met Davie Simpson. Dave played piano in the great Tommy Sampson band of 1947, after Sam Harding. He had taken a teaching job in Pretoria some years previously and we hadn't seen or heard of him for ages. He just happened to be in town that day. Once we'd gotten over the shock I told him that the piano player was in our band, so he came back to the hotel with me. The guys were all on the beach.
Dave went up behind the piano player and clapped his hands over his eyes suddenly.
'Hey! Come off it! Don't f___ about!' said the piano player angrily. He turned around, saw Dave, went white and fell back into the sand. It looked as if he was going to pass out. 'It's a ghost,' said someone. It certainly seemed like it.
I have never agreed with the wide-spread conviction that he was a taciturn man. There is a well-known story about him from his touring days. The band had stopped in the middle of the night at a roadhouse for refreshments. According to the story he is supposed to have sat in the bus afterwards for several hours in silence. Then he turned to a colleague and said, reportedly: "Ere, them pies was good." There was more to the man than that. He was a thinker, and he took his time about it.
After I left London to work in Germany I never heard from him for twenty years. Then, one evening in Berlin, out of the blue, he phoned me up from London, asked me how I was, what was the weather like, was I happy, what was I doing, what was I playing like and with whom? He asked me to try and get him a job in Kurt Edelhagen's band in Cologne. Before I could gather my thoughts he rang off without giving me his number. Next time I saw him was several years later in the Maida Vale studios with the reborn Ted Heath band.
'Here,' I said, 'what the hell was that phone call all about?'
'What phone call?' he said.
He died in November 1992, the piano player. I feel privileged to have known him. His name was Norman Stenfalt.
Norman enjoyed the ultimate in Society gigs, an engagement at Buckingham Palace, playing with the Ambrose orchestra. The dancing had just finished, and Norman remained seated at the piano, waiting to be dismissed.
Meanwhile Ambrose and the Queen were in discussion, standing at the tail of the piano with their backs to Norman. At this point the Queen Mother came up to Norman and enquired as to what the piano was like.
"Oh, it's all right," replied Norman, in his rather forthright, down-to-earth manner. The Queen Mother then tinkled some notes at the top of the piano, at which point Ambrose turned round abruptly and glared at Norman with obvious annoyance.
"It wasn't me, it was 'er." Norman muttered, leaving Ambrose speechless.
Extract of an
article on Alan Clare by Peter and David Lund