The Great Big Bands
I made friends with a girl named Vera Little. She was a great big beautiful black opera singer, and I do mean big. Vera was overwhelming, which made her hard to place in certain operas. In Madame Butterfly, for instance, she would have looked utterly ridiculous. She used to swoop up to her high notes, rather in the style of Joan Hammond, which often had a thoroughly demoralising effect on her listeners. She was a lot of fun, though, and, as she lived more or less next door, I saw her quite often. Vera worked in the Berlin Opera House and sang at Salzburg in the summer.
She took singing lessons all the time from the composer Boris Blacher until he died. At his funeral she was asked to sing Gershwin’s Summertime in the church, which she did beautifully, unaccompanied. She eventually married a Greek geologist, much against his family’s wishes. He was a big happy guy called Savas, who was always bounding around in shorts, like the archaeologists in the Indiana Jones films.
One day he told me to close my eyes. Something small and flat was shoved into my hand.
‘Look at that.’
It was a microscope slide containing a very thin mottled substance which could have been anything.
‘That’s very interesting, Savas,’ I said, trying to give it back.
‘It’s a piece of the moon. I’ve been given it to analyse. You’re holding history. Don’t drop it.’
It meant nothing to me in any kind of scientific way, but his words sent an electric jolt right up my arm and straight down to my big toe.
‘Do you realise what it cost, just to get that little slice of rock?’
I closed my eyes. I dreamt I was back up on the lunar surface again, me and Buzz, wondering whether the rockets were going to fire again to bring us home.
Vera told me about her life as a girl in Memphis, Tennessee; the troubles she’d had by being black. She said she’d had a younger brother who had tried to learn the trumpet.
‘He never got on very well. He was always complaining about troubles with his lip. He never thought he would make it as a trumpet player. My brother died of leukemia when he was only twenty-three,’ she added.
‘What was his name?’
I experienced another electric shock.
‘Are you kidding? Booker Little? Your brother was a great jazz trumpet player. He was famous all over the world, didn’t you know that?’
She was dumbfounded. I couldn’t get over it. Talk about family rapport.
Carmen McCrea turned up to make some transcriptions with the band. We were all enchanted by Carmen, and I was especially so, having fallen in love with her singing way back in the 1950’s. She knocked everyone in the studio cold with her perfect pitch. I’d seen it all before from very many other American singers, but she upstaged them all during a little cadenza she sang in one of her tunes. It was wholly unaccompanied, and went on so long that I was sure she had lost the key. But after the cadenza, which took a good thirty seconds, she just came in, bang on the final note, and we joined in for the ending.
Carmen wasn’t satisfied with the last take, and wanted to record the ending again. ‘Do you want someone to give you the note?’ asked Paul. She shook her head, went back into the studio on her own and nailed that note right in the centre.
‘How can you do that?’ said someone.
‘Well,’ said Carmen, ‘It’s there.’
Later that evening we all went out to a Kneipe and celebrated. After a few drinks I nudged our Rumanian pianist Eugen Cicero and indicated an upright piano over against the wall.
‘What was that first note, again, Carmen?’ I said.
She sang something, and Eugen banged out the note on the piano, right on the nose.
‘Hey! That piano’s an eighth of a tone flat,’ she said, as we all hit her with the beer mats.
Åke once told me a marvellous story about the Francy Boland band. Ronnie Scott, Sahib Shehab, and Tony Coe were in the sax section and Derek Humble was the lead alto. Derek had always been famous for his instant sight reading. Francy had written a passage for the saxes that was almost unplayable, so before Derek turned up in the studio the other four sax players rehearsed the tricky piece and managed to get it off pat. When Derek arrived they all pretended to be looking at the passage for the first time. The whole band was in on the gag.
The idea was to play it right themselves first time while he was still floundering through it. But Derek sailed through the piece, playing impeccably, without batting an eyelid. That shook them. To make matters worse—when Derek was ill later on and unable to play on a concert in London someone suggested getting Alan Branscombe on lead alto, and he played everything perfectly at sight, including that particular passage.
I was astounded when I heard that. Alan had been the pianist in the Dankworth band when I was there. Most of us had no idea that he could play the saxophone at all.
The Heath band came to make a television show in Berlin. I picked up Ted and Margaret, his secretary, at the airport. She was a very pleasant girl who had devoted practically all of her life to him in the band office.
In the car Ted told me that he’d been using Bert Courtley on lead trumpet after I’d left. He said that Bert had a lot of trouble with the lead parts, which were too high and too strenuous for him. When he did manage, though, it sounded great. I could never understand why Ted didn’t give the lead book to Bert Ezzard, who was, as far as I was concerned, a far better player than all the rest of us, technically, and who could play every bit as high as Bobby Pratt, who was generally supposed to be the highest player in the country in his hey-day.
Bert Ezzard had already taken me aside about that, because he couldn’t understand it either. In spite of his talents, he was never booked anywhere on first trumpet. I think he lacked the necessary drive and aggression. You have to be a bit of a bully to play lead, and he was too much of a nice guy.
Bert’s Courtley’s wife Kathy Stobart had come over with the Heath band with Bert for the trip, so we spent a lot of time together. She came again later when she was playing tenor with the Humphrey Littleton band. Back in London Humph had quite often booked Bert and me to play in his band. He only had a few numbers with three trumpets so we spent most of the time in the bandroom waiting for him to call us out. During the waiting periods Bert would pick my brains. ‘Here, you know everything,’ he’d say, ‘what does this mean...?’
Our radio band was playing opposite. The only piece we had to play was an accompaniment to a trio of comics who were singing a number called The Hunter Blows His Horn. This was a very funny bit of business, with two or three straight men and one guy falling around all over the place.
I was supposed to play a bugle call after every chorus. The lead comic had previously asked me to cod it up a bit, so I cracked and farted around on it each time. This broke up the guys in the Heath band, sitting on the other side of the studio.
After the show Ted said to me, gravely, ‘I have never heard you play so well.’
I was driving past the Gedächniskirche, the ruin of the old Kaiser Wilhelm Church, which stands right in the centre of West Berlin. The sun was shining. Tourists from West Germany thronged the centre. A stunning, dark-haired girl was balancing on the wall separating the flower beds in the centre of the road. Cameras were clicking, people were gawking. A policeman, known by Berliners as a Weisser Maus (white mouse), because of the long white coat, told me to move on.
I parked the car, went back, and the girl and I embraced one another in front of the crowd. It was Alma Cogan, whom I hadn’t seen since I left London ten years ago.
She was in Berlin for some publicity stunt, not involving singing. In the evening she invited me to dinner at the Hilton hotel.
There, in the top floor restaurant, with my pal Omar Lamparter, the leader of the band, giving me the wink, we ate, danced, and talked until midnight. Omar, who was a wonderful alto player, caught the mood, and serenaded us until my heart nearly burst.
It was just overwhelmingly romantic, to finally be able to talk to this truly sensational girl without having the usual dozens of agents and song-pluggers snapping at our heels.
I had been working with Alma for years, and still knew nothing about her.
Here, with the wine, and the soft music, looking into those enormous dark eyes, drowning in them—everything I had done with my life up to that moment seemed a tragic waste of time. Everything about Alma was hypnotic. She seemed to be shrouded in mystery.
Alma told me a bit about her early life, how she had been brought up by gypsies. She said she could tell fortunes.
She held my hand for a very long time. I could see her staring down in amazement. Apart from the simian join of head and heart lines, I only have one other line on my right hand, the life line.
'This explains a lot about you,' she said.
She held my hand up closer to her face, nodding.
When she looked up, she was smiling.
‘You’re going to be all right,’ she said.
I was relieved to hear that.
‘How about you?’ I said.
A cloud crossed her face and she changed the subject, rather abruptly.
A few months later I received the sad news that she had died of cancer.
Now, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine were coming to Berlin. I went to Templehof to pick them up.
We greeted one another warmly, and I drove them to their hotel. I had some dashing around to do, because the drums had been mislaid on the flight. I managed to borrow a set from the drummer in the RIAS radio station and took them to the Akadamie der Kunst where the concert was to be held next day.
In the evening we went to a Chinese restaurant and talked. We had plenty to talk about.
Cleo insisted on ordering the Shark’s Fin Soup. She had never had this before. I warned her of the dangers involved. She was adamant.
In the hotel, at around two in the morning, Cleo got up to visit the bathroom. Opening what she thought was the bathroom door, she was amazed to find another door confronting her. Having opened that, she stepped through into the main hotel corridor.
In her befuddled state, which I later put down exclusively to the Shark’s Fin Soup, she wandered along until she found a bathroom.
Leaving the bathroom once more, the way back to bed became confusing. Should she go left, or right?
All the bedroom doors she now tried were locked. Finally finding one that opened, she entered, closing the door softly behind her. But here again she was confronted by a second door, which, this time, would not open. In the pitch darkness she could no longer locate the door handle of the first door. After several vain attempts, she curled up on the floor, in the narrow space between the two doors, and fell fast asleep.
When John awoke in the morning to find her bed empty he flipped out. Frantic calls to the reception desk brought him large numbers of hotel staff, together with a detachment of police and the fire brigade.
Cleo was not to be found. John became convinced that she had been kidnapped by East German agents, and smuggled through the Wall into the land of the Commies. She was valuable merchandise, and would be good for the exchange of several high-ranking spies. So ran his argument.
There was something in that, too. Only a few weeks previously I’d done an interview for the Deutsche Welle with the boss of the Königliche Porzelan Fabrik. A few days after that he had been kidnapped by the Stasi and smuggled over to Dresden, where the makers of Meissner porcelain wanted to interrogate him.
Meanwhile, a porter, keeping his head, while all around had lost theirs, was busily trying all the doors along the great, long corridor, unlocking them and checking each room. He had probably encountered the problem before. After a half-hour or so he found Cleo on the floor between the two sound-proof doors, still fast asleep.
‘I told you not to eat that soup,’ I said.
When Stan Kenton flew over to conduct the Berlin Dream Band I met him at the airport. We had previously met in Dublin, and once in Wolverhampton when I drove Don Honeywill up there to play baritone in the band. Two sax players had been busted for being in possession of drugs. This episode had been terribly embarrassing for Kenton, who had always run a clean band. He had to get Don Rendell and Don Honeywill to finish the tour with him.
Of course, Don Honeywill had been beside himself with joy at being able to play with such a great band. Lennie Niehaus was on lead alto, the great Carl Fontana on first trombone.
The only other guy who Stan knew in the Berlin band was the ex-Kenton trombonist Jiggs Whigham, who had been brought in from the Edelhagen band at his request.
Stan brought a load of the wonderful old Bill Holman and Gerry Mulligan arrangements. I knew most of them already, because Wally Heider had already presented the Parnell band with practically the whole book up in Glasgow in 1954.
When we played the concert, I took an enormous breath to play the high, slow intro of Bill Holman’s Malaguena and passed out. I could hear the rest of the band roaring away, but I was seeing what Stan Roderick used to call the Red Mist at the time, and could do nothing about it.
Luckily, the first trumpet part had nothing else on it for the first page of the arrangement, and I came back in time for the rest of it. I learned later that the same thing had happened to Al Porcino once, in Kenton’s signature tune. There was a very real danger, in such situations, of tumbling off the back of the rostrum and breaking your neck.
I'd had the same trouble playing with Maynard Ferguson on an earlier concert, when I passed out during the high unison trumpet introduction of his arrangement of Take the A Train . I went to see my doctor about it. He did all the usual tests, including taking a good look at my prostate. I didn't see what that had to do with the problem, but he insisted that it had plenty to do with playing high notes on the trumpet. I wasn't convinced but he did it anyway. He then told me I was too thin, with a fat liver and a tendency to gout.
Apparently, with all my cycling in the forest, dieting and general healthy living I had reduced too much. Statistically, though, I had whittled myself down to my ideal weight.
'Statistical rubbish,' he said. 'Eat more. Get fat. Look at the opera singers. If you're going to use up all that energy you need some reserves.'
I listened to him in disbelief. Still, he was one of the doctors who had to visit Rudolph Hess in Spandau Prison from time to time. Or maybe he was only a friend of one of the doctors who consulted with other doctors who visited Hess, who was now the only prisoner left in Spandau. I can't remember which. Anyway, he should know what he was talking about. So I put on some weight and the problem became magically solved. It was a real bad time for me, because just seeing a high note passage would cause me a lot of worry in case I blacked out playing it.
Stan had brought a film of his band with him, and we talked the television station boss Dieter Finnern into letting us have a viewing room in the Television Centre. As we walked along there, Stan told me that the film was one he’d made to show in all the universities in the U.S. It had been a great success, and had caused very many students to take an active interest in big band jazz, and learn to play instruments.
I thought the film was marvellous, and said so. Finnern showed no interest at all, and refused to show it on German television.
Slide Hampton had encountered a similar reluctance to promote jazz music at the Hochschule der Musik. He, Leo and Carmel were supposed to teach in the school. Before they even started the idea was quickly shelved. The people in charge were apparently still quite satisfied with the old oompah-oompah German Band music from before the war. They have changed now, and have jazz on the curriculum. German high schools today are turning out very many superb young jazz musicians, mostly taught by American jazzmen (see Herbolzheimer).
In those days there were very few German brass players who could play jazz phrasing with the right feeling. One of them was Otto Bredl, the lead trombone with Kurt Edelhagen, who played later with the Herbolzheimer band. In spite of being able to play for years with some of the best players out of Great Britain and America, most of the others still lapsed back into their old style when left on their own.
Stan Kenton asked me to visit him one afternoon in his room at the Hilton. I’d only been in there a couple of minutes when the phone rang. Stan picked up the phone and said ‘It’s for you.’
I took the receiver, greatly wondering.
A voice said ‘Who’s there?’
I said my name and asked who was speaking.
Over on the other side of the room, Stan was dancing around with glee. He had arranged the whole thing. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Vic for at least twenty-five years. He was now Eartha Kitt’s manager.
Strangely enough, I find it difficult to talk on the phone to people I haven’t seen for a long time. There is so much to talk about that words generally fail me. After a couple of minutes we both dried up. I gave the phone to Stan. It had been a hell of a nice thing for him to do. (When I met Vic again at Johnny Keating’s 70th birthday party in 1997 we had more time to talk.)
When the concert was over Stan asked me if I’d like to come over to the States and play with his new band. If he’d asked me twenty years earlier, maybe I’d have said yes. But I’d heard too many bad things about conditions on the road over there to take his offer seriously. I’d had the same experience with Woody Herman. He had asked me how much I was earning in Berlin. When I told him he said I was earning more than he was.
Woody was living in a house in Beverly Hills that had been formerly owned by Humphrey Bogart. When the tax people discovered that his manager hadn’t been paying his taxes properly he had to declare bankruptcy. One of his fans took pity on him, bought the house and let Woody stay there until he died.
Two people I was very glad to see again were Bob Burgess and Rolf Ericson. They were both playing in Erwin Lehn's band in Stuttgart. Ack van Rooyen was also in that band for several years. When we visited Stuttgart there was always a reunion.
Bob was, of course, lead trombone in the great Kenton band of 1951. He had brought his son with him for treatment for an eye ailment.
I had met Rolf in one of the Jazz Workshops. He had played for years in the United States, with most of the famous bands, including Woody Herman and Duke Ellington.
At this time Bob, called "Butter" Burgess by the musicians back home, was going through a colourful period where he dressed almost exclusively like a sheriff in old western films. He played like a dream in the Stuttgart band, and remained there after the band broke up to teach for a while. He was very fat, from good living and not too much exercise. His favourite saying, once he had learned a bit of German, was, 'Alles was mir gefällt ist entweder illegal oder macht dick." (i.e., Everything I like is either illegal or makes you fat.)
I had first met the clarinet player Fatty George in 1962 in Recklinghausen at one of the Jazz Workshops. Fatty ran a night club in Vienna where he had come under the attention of the local Mafia. They had introduced pimps, hookers and drugs into the club, with the result that Fatty had been forced to close the place and flee.
Now he was in Berlin, working in a cabaret with a political satirist named Wolfgang Neuss, who got very near the mark in most of the things he said, and upset people on both sides of the track.
Fatty and I played chess together. He seemed to know dozens of influential people in the occupation forces, and we were regularly invited to the homes of high American and British officers, where we were wined and dined, and, admittedly ungratefully, thrashed everyone at chess.
When I first visited Fatty in his Berlin apartment I climbed five flights of stairs without finding his name anywhere. Finally, I stood in the darkened street below shouting ‘Fatty George’ at the top of my voice, until he opened an upper window and gave instructions.
I found the apartment, which said Franz Pressler on the nameplate.
‘Who’s Franz Pressler?’ I asked, when he let me in.
I’d known him for years without finding out his real name.
His wife and children were in the apartment, together with his landlady, who had come round for a chat. She was an older woman, a widow, around fifty, I’d say.
I devoured her with my eyes, noting every detail carefully. She was pleasantly plump and very pretty, with high Slavic cheekbones, a full, wide, generous mouth, and a great mass of red hair, which she wore piled up all over her head in careful boudoir disarray. Dressed as she was in a frilly high-necked white silk blouse with long sleeves, and a very short, full-skirted, black taffeta, schoolgirl–uniform type pleated dress, like a little gymslip, with straps over her shoulders, she looked delicious enough to eat, and she knew it.
The first time she flounced about in front of me I almost fainted. She was one hundred percent feminine. Every gesture, every movement entranced me. When she swept across the room in a breath of heady perfume I was captivated entirely. When she wasn’t seated on the couch, where the tiny skirt almost completely disappeared up around her waist, she managed to find excuses to flounce around the room, twirling prettily so that it swished and whirled up high on her thighs.
I couldn’t play chess that night for looking at her and she knew it. We couldn’t take our eyes off one another. She grew hot and flushed. If we had been alone for a few moments I’m sure we would have fallen on one another in a blind mindless frenzy, ripping clothing, biting and moaning. There was electricity in the air.
‘Hey, take it easy, man,’ murmured Fatty. He couldn’t see anything special about her.
The very next night an anonymous message from the Baader-Meinhof gang was delivered in the cabaret. If Wolfgang Neuss appeared there once more, the place would be machine-gunned.
That was enough to close the club. Fatty hit the next train back to Vienna, running, where he was at once arrested and jailed for a year on charges relating to opportuning, drug dealing and God Knows what else. His stay in prison destroyed him, and he died soon after being released. There was a two page spread in a Viennese newspaper about him, with a picture showing him sitting on his bunk in a cell, playing the clarinet.
While Fatty was still in Berlin, Tubby Hayes and Jimmy Deuchar came to make some recordings in the radio station. They brought some stuff to play with them from a new album called Tub’s Tours, including the title The Killers of West One, which referred to the guys who sold dope around Soho.
I gave a party at Pepi’s place, which included Hans Koller, the Austrian tenor player, who was currently having an art exhibition at Herb Geller’s Jazz Gallery, Fatty, and several of my pals, including Ack van Rooyen, Åke Persson, and Herb Geller. My girl friend put on a great buffet. Afterwards we adjourned to the Jazz Gallery and they played.
The walls of Herb’s club were always covered with large paintings by contemporary artists. Some of them were very weird, but they gave the club a kind of cultural atmosphere.
Hans Koller often had exhibitions in the Jazz Gallery, and in the Reitschule in Munich. I was greatly taken by one of his paintings, which I found in a stack leaning against the wall. It was a dark canvas, with a great many brilliant slashes of colour and splodges. I fantasized it as representing an explosion of musical inspiration. He told me, huffily, that this was a canvas he used when he was trying to get rid of some of the paint on his brushes. Later on I noticed it hanging in a jazz club in Düsseldorf.
The American Dick Berk was resident drummer in the Jazz Gallery. Every time he broke a stick he nailed it to the wall behind the bar. There were dozens of them back there—Dick’s own brand of art.
Herb had started the club, right near the town centre in the Bundesallee, with the owner of the radio band, Franz Fijal. He had done all the work to make the club successful, invested all his money in the project, and opened every night. On Tuesdays, to liven up an otherwise dead evening he had a Jazz Happening, where all kinds of unusual things would happen. Sometimes Herb, who wasn’t usually blessed with a very riotous sense of humour, did his impression of Benny Goodman, coming on stage with his shirt tail hanging out between his fly buttons.
That Goodman was eccentric was common knowledge. Richard Krueger told me of booking Goodman once for $20,000, or 20,000DM, or whatever—a large sum of money. Goodman arrived from the States on his own, not realising that the money was for his whole quartet. A German rhythm section had to be hastily assembled. I saw the TV show, which was put on the same evening. Between numbers Benny bumbled around like a benevolent old gentleman. ‘Hey,’ he said to the pianist. ‘Do you know this one?’ He tootled a few bars. The pianist shook his head.
‘How about this one?’
‘Hey! Don’t you guys know any tunes?’ The only thing he didn’t do wrong that evening was to appear with his shirt tail hanging out, but that was about all.
The main feature, next to the bandstand in the Jazz Gallery, was an enormous view from the bottom of a freshly dug grave, taken from the viewpoint of the guy getting buried there. All around the edge of the deep hole, ugly mourners, with grossly distorted faces, stared down in. Some were smiling, gloatingly. The picture scared the hell out of everybody.
Tubby had a great way of announcing in Cockney rhyming slang, which left the German audience mystified.
He would say, for instance, ‘Now we’re going to play a little number called I’ve Thrown a Custard in Her Face. We’re a bit Mozart, and there are a few dodgy Norwegians around in there, but we’ll do our best.’
Richard Krueger, who was visiting me at the time, gave me a nudge as they started to play.
‘What the hell’s he talking about?’
I explained that the title of the tune was, of course, I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face, from My Fair Lady.
‘Yes, yes, but what are these Norwegians?’
‘Norwegian Fjords—chords. Get it? Mozart and Lizt—pissed. Dodgy—difficult. It’s musicians’ talk.
He looked at me for a moment.
‘You British. You’re all crazy.’
I could read his mind. He was thinking, the same as all Germans do, how could these idiots have won the war?
Tony Russell, my pal from the Parnell and Dankworth bands, came through Berlin on his way home from Rostock. Tony had written the score for a show by the actor Bill Owen called The Match Girls. The story was about the famous strike of the girls who worked in the London match factories in 1888, against the conditions under which they were employed and the physical dangers they faced through the constant contact with phosphorus, which was used for making the match-heads. The whole play was a bitter attack on the employment and wage system of Great Britain at the time.
The Communists lapped all this up eagerly. They loved to show Charlie Chaplin films, and anything written by Charles Dickens on East German and Russian television, portraying the decadent, capitalist West at its worst.
The show had been a hit in London, and had been booked for a season in Rostock.
The rehearsals, with an all-German cast, using a translated version, lasted two weeks. Tony conducted the orchestra. On opening night, one hour before the show was due to open, he was told that the leading lady’s father had died, and she could therefore not appear.
‘Then use her stand-in,’ said Tony.
‘Stand-in?’ The theatre manager spoke the clipped and polished, pseudo upper-class English of a German pretending to be a British department store floor-walker.
‘Ah! Stand-in. Well, you see, we have no stand-in. The show is finished. Everyone must go home now.’
‘But, surely, the show must go on.’
‘Not here. That is merely one of the more amusing cliches of your capitalist entertainment world.’
Seeing a trap, Tony delicately broached the subject of his fee.
‘Well, of course—no show, no money. No play, no pay, as I believe you call it. Sorry about that, old boy.’
‘Aha!’ said Tony. ‘So this is how you behave in the great German Democratic Republic! You are inefficient, you break contracts, you cheat and steal from the workers. Oh yes! I understand now. This will look very good in our newspapers back home when I tell them.’
He was being exceptionally brave. They could have kept him there on any pretext whatsoever, even just for that little speech. Getting him out again would have been hellish difficult.
They paid up at once after that, and didn’t say a word when he insisted on collecting up all the music and libretto and taking it away with him.
He came through the East Berlin airport of Schönefeld, and I picked him up at the West Berlin bus station. Under his beard his face was white.
‘Boy, I’m glad to be away out of all that,’ he said. I knew the feeling. I had been regularly visiting my girl-friend's mother, in a village called Buch in East Berlin. As West Berliners were not allowed into East Berlin this was the only way the old lady could get things like coffee and toothpaste. Parcels generally got stolen in the post. I'd been through all the nonsense at Check Point Charlie many times.
Harry James paid a short visit. At 65 he was only a ghost of his former self. The band, like most American bands, had been assembled from the North State Texas University Lab Band. The other trumpet players did all the work. Harry picked up his horn very seldom, to play the Cantabile in Trumpet Blues, and for sweet solos like Sleepy Lagoon. It was clear to me that he was struggling a bit.
The audience was made up of people all my age. Concerts of any bands of the big band era were always a sell-out in Berlin. The first few bars of the intro of each well-remembered number sufficed to elicit approving applause from the fans.
I wished that I could have seen him earlier in his career. He had been a giant of a trumpet player. What we had seen in those silly films he made with Betty Grable and Esther Williams had very little to do with the real Harry James.
Harry slept all day in the hotel, so I couldn’t talk to him, but my subsequent article in the Crescendo magazine brought a telegram of appreciation from him in Los Angeles.
Now Wally Heider was in Berlin again. Last time he’d visited he had banged a hole in the lid of the boot of my car. He had come over with the Bee-Gees to record their concert in the Philharmonie, bringing three Ampex 24 track tape machines with him. We had fetched one from Tempelhof, put it in the boot, and he had smashed the lid down on one sharp corner.
I left the hole there. I was proud to point out who had made it. By now Wally had the biggest recording company in Los Angeles, and was responsible, among others, for all the Buddy Rich and Woody Herman recordings now being made.
He hadn’t changed since Glasgow. Always in a hurry, he could hardly sit still long enough to get served in a restaurant. He had an authorisation from the State Department which allowed him access to all AFN archives. He intended pulling out all the wartime V-Discs he could lay hands on of the great bands. Most of the discs had been made from live broadcasts during the war.
I went with him. It was spooky down in the basement in Clay Allee, where the discs had been stored. Seeing thousands of those wonderful, huge, floppy records which had brought me so much pleasure as a boy on programmes such as Midnight in Munich, and Lunchin’ in Munchen brought shivers up and down my spine.
Wally didn’t have time for nostalgia. He went through the V-Discs like a cyclone, whipping them out, playing a few bars and saving or discarding. In this way he went through the lot in six or seven hours. I kept him supplied with coffee and hamburgers from the AFN canteen upstairs.
The V-Discs were nearly all badly worn, but Wally enhanced them electronically, and gave me about twenty LP’s he’d made of them for his friends when he came the next time. The performing rights restrictions wouldn’t allow him to sell the records, because he didn’t have the complete line-up on each recording, necessary for the payment of musician royalties. The collection I now have is an amazing bit of big band history.
Johnny Keating turned up to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I was so overjoyed to see him again that I drank a whole bottle of 5-Star brandy all alone while we talked. I never noticed that he wasn’t drinking. I subsequently remember very little of our conversation. Seeing him at that moment did wonders for my constitution, because I was beginning to get depressed at being so far away from all my old colleagues.
Joe Temperley was with the Herman band on the next jazz festival. It was wonderful seeing him again after nearly fifteen years and we spent a riotous evening together.
The most enjoyable interview I did for the Deutsche Welle was with Liza Minelli. The film Cabaret was being partly shot in Berlin, and we met in the lovely gardens of the Charlottenburger Castle.
There’s always a certain amount of tension between celebrities and reporters, due to the ever-present risk of them being misquoted. I broke the ice by saying that I was a musician, had known her mother, and had made many recordings with her in London.
Judy Garland had been married to Sid Luft at the time, and they had come into the studio, in absolute secrecy, to avoid sightseers, surrounded by his bodyguard. Liza had been there with her mother. She was about five years old at the time.
Oliver Nelson came again to lead the band in the Berlin Jazz Festival. He’d written a Berlin Suite for the occasion, which was also brought out on an LP by the radio station.
The night before the concert, Milo had a blazing row with the head of the TV company, Dieter Finnern, who was televising the festival. He got Dieter so mad that he thereupon managed to do the subsequent two hour live transmission of the band, without once showing the trumpet section. As far as the television audience was concerned, there were no trumpets.
On the concert, Carmel played one of the most beautiful, long, slow, soulful trumpet solos one could imagine. Throughout the solo, Dieter kept the cameras trained on everything else on the stage, including the Czech baritone player who was boring in his ear and examining his finger with interest, unaware that he was in the shot, but never on Carmel.
Later on we recorded the suite as an LP in the SFB studios. The engineers there normally used a twin track machine, although there was a brand new eight track over in the corner. This in a day and age when Wally Heider was already working with thirty-six track machines in Los Angeles. I had long attempted to persuade the engineers to use the multi-track machine, without success. The extra mixing necessary would take them into overtime, and infringe on their human rights, or whatever.
Oliver managed to talk them into it, however, but he was subsequently so dismayed by the sad sound achieved by the recording engineers that he took the masters back to the States to try and enhance them, without much success. It was a pity, because Oliver’s scores on this occasion were vastly different from his usual works. There was a distinctly Ellingtonian flavour in a lot of his writing, in particular a marked use of the plain tritone, with the two notes involved played in unison by all members of the band, rather in the style used by Billy Strayhorn in Frou Frou.
In a remarkable interpretation of Ellington’s Creole Love Call Oliver had the saxophones in unison on the melody, with unison trombones playing a very high harmony line, which took them to the upper trombone C, way up in the centre of the treble clef. It was immensely thrilling and daring. He used a similar effect in a tune he had written called Hobo Flats, where the melody was played up high by unison trumpets, with other unison instruments one whole tone lower.( In later years the trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, who could play duets with himself by playing one note and growling the other, performed Creole Love Call in his concerts using that same harmonic line.)
The two fast movements of the Berlin Suite had been written almost exclusively in counterpoint, featuring the trumpets. The passages went on so long, and were so difficult to play that I feared the five trumpets would be unable to perform them properly. In the event they came off rather well, with the nimble-fingered players dragging the not-so-nimble along with them, rather in the way the two Jimmys, Watson and Deuchar, had hustled me along so long ago in the Parnell band.
I praised Oliver for his daring. ‘If it sounds good, do it,’ he said. I learned a lot of things about arranging from Oliver. Conquering fear was one of them.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved