The first time I met Bert Courtley was in 1948 at a place called the Pier Pavilion, Redcar. He was just leaving the mighty Tommy Sampson band as I was joining it and I remember thinking at the time that he must be crazy to get out of such a great band. Everybody else in the business was almost breaking an arm to get in it. But that’s the way Bert was: he was never really a lover of big bands and big brass sections.
He was a jazz trumpet player, pure and simple and he was happiest standing out the front in a small band, playing what he liked the way he wanted, free from all the restrictions and disciplines of the big combination. He left Tommy’s band and went straight out with a small group got together by a young lady tenor-saxophonist by the name of Kathy Stobart. It must have been a case of love at first sight, I guess, between this tall, beautiful, fair-haired girl and the fresh-faced, young blonde newcomer. It was enough, anyway, to keep them together when Kathy’s band folded and the two of them joined Vic Lewis’s big band.
This was in 1951 when Stan Reynolds and I were in the band with Johnny Keating, Ron Chamberlain and Ronnie Scott.. As I said, Bert didn’t really enjoy himself all that much in big sections, but this was the way he went on all of his life-playing with small groups for kicks for a time, and then having a spell with a big band to make some money. It’s a heck of a difficult task running your own combo and he was well aware of it, but it didn’t seem to put him off and every now and then he would break off with whatever organisation he was working with and try it once more.
In the Lewis band we used to kid him like mad because he couldn’t stop himself from running out front every time he got a bit of a solo to play. He seemed to be out front more than he was sitting in the section; so one night Stan and I waited until he’d rushed out and started to do his stuff and then we quickly whipped all his music away, dismantled his stand, hid the mutes, kicked his chair out of sight and all moved up and spread out a bit more so that it looked like a regular three-trumpet section. When he came back he didn’t even blink an eyelid, just sat down calmly on the floor and finished the night playing by memory as if it was the most natural thing in the world. But after that, at any time he was playing down the front he would suddenly whip round and try and catch us doing it again, which of course we never did.
Just about at this time Kathy and Bert must have decided that they couldn’t bear to live separately for any longer so they went out suddenly one day and got married. I for one was overjoyed, as well as being insanely jealous of them both, because it looked like one of those perfect partnerships that you normally only read about in books. In direct contrast to Kathy, who is a very energetic person and a great conversationalist, Bert was an extremely quiet soul to have around the house. He’d invariably have his head buried in some book or other, or be involved in some deep discussion over politics or a particular social problem. But with him it was possible to sit without talking for long periods at a time without feeling the least bit uncomfortable. I never felt so completely at ease as I did when I was in a room with Bert just sitting and doing nothing in particular.
I guess we had some sort of spiritual rapport with each other. We used to live near each other in Norbury, and I began to get quite used to the cracks made at me by the local tradesmen about our similarity of appearance. I couldn’t see one at all, but it became a regular occurrence for me to go into the butcher’s shop and hear him say: “What? You again? Come off it - I just sold you enough meat to feed an army ! ” Or they’d say: “Your twin brother’s just been in again!” Quite flattering for me, with Bert being so good-looking.
Bert did about three years with Ken Mackintosh at Wimbledon Palais and then went on tour with Eric Delaney’s band and I didn’t see much of him for quite a while, but that didn’t matter to us because we had one of those things going, Kathy and Bert and I. We could meet suddenly in the street after months and months and take up our last conversation more or less where we’d left off.
As far as I was concerned, with us three time was standing still. But not where they were concerned, Oh dear no! Somehow (and I don’t know how they managed this, because they both were playing very busily in jazz clubs all over the country, as well as Bert’s regular big band work), small boys began appearing in the Courtley household.
I’d go there one day and see some young rascal rushing around, next time there’d be another, and suddenly there was a third. They’d picked beautiful names for them all: David, Paul and Peter - all quiet peaceful names, but I don’t remember thinking that at the time. A visit to Kathy’s house on a wet wash-day was rather like getting trapped in the exit of a football ground after a match in the rain. There seemed to be kids in Wellington boots rushing around all over the place shouting and throwing things, and to make matters worse they had an enormous Alsatian, and he used to rush in and out with the kids.
Sometimes you had to shout to make yourself heard. In the midst of all this, surrounded by tons of washing, cooking the dinner and answering thousands of questions all at once, would stand Kathy with a completely calm, composed expression and say: “Would you like a cup of coffee, love?” When I told her how much I used to admire her patient peaceful disposition she said: “Oh, you don’t know what I used to do after you’d gone. Sometimes I’d just let everything fall to the floor and scream!”
Bert had one of those sharp, clear sizzling sounds on the trumpet; he would shut his eyes and hunch his shoulders up and play the most beautiful jazz you could imagine. In 1956 he became part of the Jazz Today unit, which toured Britain with Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet and later the Modern Jazz Quartet. Some of his colleagues in Jazz Today were Phil Seamen, Kenny Wheeler, Kenny Napper and Ed Harvey and they made some recordings for Nina around that time.
Then Bert and bassist Jack Seymour started their Courtley-Seymour band in Wimbledon Palais (Kathy says that they even used to get people coming to the bandroom wanting to speak to Mr. Courtley Seymour !) and one of the records they made for Decca got a Four Star rating in Down Beat. In 1958 Bert joined Don Rendell in the Jazz Six, which reformed into the Jazz Committee later on with Ed Harvey and Ronnie Ross.
Bert made a solo record for Decca called “Bertrand’s Bugle” around this time. Then he was part of the Woody Herman Anglo-American Band, playing alongside Reunald Jones, Nat Adderley and Bill Harris. Bert used to count the tour with this band as one of the greatest experiences of his life. All the time he was still filling in all his spare time playing jazz clubs all over the country as one of the most sought-after trumpet players. Then I left Ted Heath to join Dankworth’s band and Bert suddenly found himself in a totally unexpected situation, one he had never dreamed of: that of sitting in the Heath band playing the extremely demanding lead book.
“I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to make it,” Ted told me one day after Bert had been in the band for a few weeks. “I don’t think he’s ever played lead before. But he knocks me out every night and he’s getting better all the time.” Over the past few years Bert became a studio musician, still keeping up his club dates too, though, until he suddenly became ill, lost some teeth and went through a very rough time indeed trying to get his embouchure back again. If a trumpet player has any trouble with his teeth he ought to realise that no dentist in the world will be able to replace them in anything like the same position without first having at hand an accurately-made impression of the originals.
The first set Bert had made gave him so much trouble it was like starting to learn the trumpet all over again and I think this had a big bearing on the general deterioration in his health later on, that eventually led to his death.
I don’t know about anybody else, but I miss him like I never missed anyone before. Every time I made a visit to London from here in Berlin I used to make a bee-line for his house and sit for hours just talking about this and that. They were the only musicians I used to visit on these trips home and I used to look forward to seeing them as much as my own family.
His boys have all grown up into big strapping young men now, and the dog is walking around a little more stiffly, but they never changed, Bert and Kathy, bless them, and we used to rattle away at each other for hours until I was finally forced to tear myself away. It was always a big wrench having to leave them but I knew each time that it wouldn’t be long before I’d be back again, maybe only a year or so, and we’d take up again where we’d left off.
But now he’s gone, taking his ready wit, his kind heart and his beautiful nature all away with him. I can only hope for one thing: that wherever he is now, he’ll have the goodness to wait for me for a bit. I’ve still got so much to say to him.
Ron Simmonds in 1969
It was with a sense of shock and bereavement that we learned of the tragic death of Bert Courtley on Saturday, September 13th, a few days after his 40th birthday. Bert was a warm and lovable character, whose fine, sensitive trumpet playing was admired and respected throughout the music profession and his death will be a sad loss to us all. Our deepest sympathy goes to his widow, Kathy Stobart, and to their three boys David, Paul and Peter. The funeral took place on; Friday, September 19th 1969 at Croydon Crematorium. (Crescendo September 1969)