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Ron's Pages

The Great Big Bands

Berlin 3

I had long been loud in my efforts to get a decent recorded trumpet sound from these radio station engineers. They told me that they needed a special RCA microphone, not obtainable in Germany.

I wrote at once to Wally Heider, asking him to send me some of the microphones.

Wally wrote back to say that he always used a Neumann microphone, made in Berlin, for his trumpet recordings, and asked me to send him four new ones. This bit of news was greeted by the German engineers with disbelief. When Wally visited Berlin later on I tried to introduce him to our engineers. Instead of being honoured to meet such a recording genius, they all disappeared out of the back door when he turned up.


Åke and I did a tour of Japan with Werner Müller’s band, which was the resident band in RIAS, Berlin, originally the US State Department’s radio station in West Berlin. The initials stand for Radio in the American Sector, although the station was by then mostly run by Germans.

Neither of us was a regular in the band. I was depping for the first trumpet player who had been suddenly taken drunk shortly before the tour started.

Japan was enchanting. I fell in love with the place at once. In every town we visited we were treated like royalty. I took to getting up early and wandering around the various towns, taking as many photos as I could. The children were gorgeous; the doll-like Geishas even more so.

In the hotel a phone call for me had been registered. Someone had called from Munich, Germany, and would repeat the call at six o’clock. It turned out to be Max Greger. He’d got the hotel number from the RIAS office.

Over the seven thousand odd miles of telephone cable Max pleaded with me to come back into his band. It had never been the same since I left, he said. Not being able to replace Rick locally when he left, Max had hired a young Belgian trumpet player who was reputed to be able to play extremely high notes.

German bandleaders were always hot after anyone who played high, even though such people generally couldn’t do much else. They usually practiced their high register to the exclusion of all the other, more important assets of trumpet playing, such as style, phrasing, tone and technique.

Such was the case with the Belgian guy.

Max was almost in tears.

‘He stands around in the studio blasting away at his screamers all the time. When we get to do a recording he’s exhausted—he can’t play normally any more.’ I knew the circumstances well.

Max said that if I came back on his band, then Ack van Rooyen and Benny Bailey would come as well. It would be a great trumpet section—the greatest. But one and a half years with Max had been more than enough for me. I said I’d think about it, but not to count on me.

He rang off. By then he must have clocked up a couple of thousand dollars worth of telephone charges. He must have been really desperate.  


My attempts at writing big band arrangements had always been damned through my lack of technique. Playing an instrument is one thing—writing scores for a whole band is something else. I didn’t grasp the intricacies of chordal relationships until I sat down one day and spent several weary hours copying out all the seven modes of modal music in every single one of the twelve different keys. I cut out the results and pushed them together like scales on a slide rule. Gradually, the whole thing began to make sense.

I was greatly helped in my learning by the trombonist Slide Hampton, who was already an established arranger back in the States. It was Slide who later re-arranged some of the Gil Evans’s arrangements from Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess for the Quincy Jones band, which played at the Miles Davis homecoming celebration in Radio City Music Hall in 1983. He has also written great charts for Maynard Ferguson’s band. Now he was writing for our band, and I was borrowing and analysing his voicings and chord progressions right from the start.

There is much to be said for copying phrases from good existing arrangements when you’re learning. If you get them down correctly and they sound bad, then the band is at fault, but every chord, modulation, phrase and sound that turns out successfully gets entered into a mental databank, to be drawn on in the future. In the beginning there is a whole lot of uncertainty about what you have written. More often than not, the arranger is to blame if a good band sounds terrible, yet he is rarely complimented on his good scores. 

The general public, even some bandleaders, still use Glenn Miller’s In The Mood, and Moonlight Serenade as their musical criteria, yet modern dance music has progressed immensely since the Miller period, both harmonically and structurally. In any case, the Miller band was by no means the best band of its kind in those days—that distinction went, without a doubt, to the great Tommy Dorsey band. Miller just managed to catch the correct happy mood for wartime entertainment. Billy May, who had played in the Miller band,  remarked later on that, had he lived, Miller would have most probably wound up with a Lawrence Welk type band. 

Soon I was writing over a hundred scores a year, for all the bands in Germany. I found time to do that, plus playing in the studios, writing for the Deutsche Welle, song-writing, writing plays, books and articles, by sleeping only four hours every night.

Being able to write for a bigband and hear your scores played and recorded at once does wonders for your confidence. We had an exceptional bunch of musicians in that Berlin band. All the saxes played flutes, with two or three alto flutes at hand; all the trumpets played Flugelhorn, so I was able to split them up, using Milo and Carmel in unison, with the rest of us on trumpets. We had an exceptionally good guitar player (who played a left-handed guitar!) and vibes and percussion. I was able to create any amount of tone colours with that combination. And, of course, with Ake and Slide Hampton in the trombones that section was really something to listen to.

Slide is, of course, a great jazz trombone player, one of the best. He had his own band in Berlin for a while, and was asked to teach in the Hochschule. When that didn’t come off he left town. Next time I saw him was years later in one of the jazz galas we did with the Herbolzheimer band.

Some of the guys had gathered in the lounge of the hotel in Hamburg. There were Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Nat Adderley, Grady Tate, Niels Henning Ørsted Pederson, and a guy called Pee Wee Ellis, the conductor for Esther Phillips, who was also in the show.

‘So who else is here?’ said Nat.

When I told him that Slide was upstairs in his room he grabbed the phone.

‘I would like to speak with Mr. Locksley Wellington Hampton,’ he said, in a prissy-assed voice.

‘F— you,’ shouted Slide, loud enough to carry right across the room.

 ‘That’s him,’ said Nat. 

The day I officially left the RIAS band I was playing with Don Ellis in the morning at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Don was fronting what the organisers liked to call the Berlin Dream Band, which was composed of members from both Berlin big radio bands.

It was really wonderful music. Don was deep into Indian music, and had all sorts of weird time signatures in his charts. Some pieces were written in 11/8 time, which really made us sit up and take notice. The show-stopper was a piece in 17/4. To beat us in on that one he jigged around on the stage for a few seconds, then spun around and shouted, ‘TA-KA-TA-KA-TA-KA-KA, TA-KA-KA, TA-KA-TA-KA-TA-KA-KA.’ Sure beats Jersey Bounce, anyway.

Don played a trumpet with four valves that the Holton company had made especially for him. With the extra valve he could produce the quarter tones necessary in Indian music. We had to play a lot of these quarter tones with him, and achieved this in many cases by using fake fingering. Normally a trumpet middle C is played open. Playing it with the alternate fingering of depressed valves 2 and 3 produces a different sound, and a slightly different pitch. Most trumpet notes have alternate valve combinations. Fake fingering is often used to facilitate difficult fast passages

He had a terrific technique on the instrument. I got into the habit of wandering into the studio early in the morning when he was practising, and some of the stuff he was doing frightened me. In his solos on stage he used an echo machine—something Palle Mickelborg also used later on in the Herbolzheimer band. The sounds were weird and wonderful. By playing fast passages with a late echo he could get into trumpet duets with himself. Just moving the horn to and from the loudspeaker produced a wonderfully musical feedback that became an intergral part of his performance. It was a thrilling experience to just sit there and listen to him, and the audience lapped it all up eagerly.

In spite of his talents Don told me that he was never booked on sessions in Los Angeles because he hadn’t managed to break into the tightly closed studio contract business. Most record and film sessions were booked in that town by Shelley Mann, who had his own close circle of players. Ernie Royal had already told me that a similar monopoly was exercised in New York by the tenor saxophonist Al Cohn.

Don had Karin Krog come over from Norway to sing with the band. Behind her we often had to make strange noises, rustle the music paper, or blow soft breezes through the mouthpiece. It was unusual, but it fit the music, and the mood, perfectly.

‘Don’t laugh,’ he warned us.

Don’s band was a great success, more so than when we later played in Berlin with Kenton, and the band was booed for playing all his old Gerry Mulligan and Pete Rugolo arrangements. Don Menza made a special trip up from Munich to see the Ellis concert. Menza and Ellis were old pals. He came up to me later on and hugged me. There were tears in his eyes. ‘Great, great,’ was all he could manage to say.

As we came off the stage after our concert I passed Miles Davis standing in the wings. He was wearing a long brown leather coat which reached almost to the floor; you could just see brown leather trousers underneath. On his head he wore a big brown leather hat with a floppy brim. An enormous pair of dark glasses completed the outfit. You could see nothing of his face. In the dim light he looked like something scared up for a horror film,

‘For Christ’s Sake,’ I muttered to Ack, ‘He can’t be going on like that.’ But he did.

When Miles got out on stage there was a howl of derision from the audience. The howling went on right through his performance, because he played with his back to them, pointing the horn down on to the floor. Whatever you could hear through all the noise was mostly disappointing. This was nothing like the Miles Davis we heard on the records.

I had hardly got home after that concert when the phone went and Joachim Behrendt, who was running the festival, asked me to come at once and play with Lionel Hampton, because his trumpet player Wallace Davenport had been taken ill.

At the Philharmonie, Lionel Hampton was waiting for me. He was fronting a six or seven piece band—trumpet, alto and tenor saxophones, and a rhythm section. With the trumpet player missing he couldn’t go on.

We had one hour for me to rehearse the music. The parts all came from his big band library. That is to say—one trumpet took the place of the regular eight brass. The two saxes took the place of five. With a three piece front line playing charts all written for thirteen it seemed doomed from the start.

It was a catastrophe right from the word go. Nothing that I played fit in with what everyone else was playing.

Lionel turned around to Joachim and cried ‘What have you done to me? The guy can’t play.’

‘Look Lionel,’ I said. ‘I’m playing the trumpet parts exactly as they’re written. It’s you guys who are playing them wrong.’ This was like telling Juan Manuel Fangio he didn’t know how to drive.

He looked at me for a moment.

‘Yeah, well we might have altered one or two things here and there.’

‘You’ve altered the lot. There isn’t one single phrase on these parts that you’re playing correctly.’

‘He’s right,’ said the alto player. ‘We just sort of slipped into another routine.’

I started to pack my horn away.

‘Hey now! Wait up there a minute!’ said Lionel, panicking. ‘Can’t we do anything about this? I can’t go on without a trumpet player.’

Because this was the great Lionel Hampton, idol of my youth, I said I would help him. For the next hour we ran through the music, and I altered every single bit of phrasing on the trumpet parts to correspond with what the rest of them were playing. When it was time to go on, I had writer’s cramp.

The place was packed. The audience loved Lionel, who capered around all over the stage. He played vibes, piano, drums, sang, and led us marching all over the concert hall playing ‘The Saints’ for a grand finale.

I have to admit that I played pretty damn good that night. I played as if I’d known the book for years. It was all pretty primitive stuff anyway. He started holding on to some of those last chords, with me locked in on a screamer, for minutes at a time. I had nothing to lose, so I blasted my way to glory, right through the concert. I could see the other guys all watching me in amazement out of the corners of their eyes.

Lionel was beside himself with delight. He gave me an extra credit with the audience, telling everyone what had happened. Even the guys in the band were applauding me.

In the bandroom after the second concert he said to me ‘Ronnie, you’re going to go down in history for that, man. You played your ass off. That was really marvellous. How much do I owe you?’

‘Two hundred dollars,’ I said, at once.

He took a step back. ‘Hey man! You weren’t that good! If I pay you two hundred dollars you’ll be getting more than I am.’


Not long after that I did a week or so with Henry Mancini and a big concert orchestra. After a few days I received a phone call from the Deutsche Welle, Studio Berlin, asking me to do an interview with him.

I knocked on his dressing room door before the show that evening and introduced myself as a reporter from the Deutsche Welle. He greeted me coldly. It was obvious from the first moment that he had no time for things like that. He didn't seem to recognise me, either, so I didn't prompt him.

His answers to my questions were short and unfriendly. Normally I would have gotten mad at such treatment, but I persevered. It was only at his reaction to a perfectly innocent question on film writing that I lost my cool.

I said, 'When you have a film project, do you work in an intuitive manner - sit down and write the first thing that comes into your head, or do you list all the sound combinations and orchestral possibilities and work out a scheme from that?'

I had already read that the first option was one used by Don Sebesky, the second almost exclusively by Hugo Montenegro.

Mancini looked at me angrily for about thirty seconds, and I was just about to repeat the question when he said, 'That's the most stupid question I have ever heard in my life. If you had any musical knowledge whatsoever you would never have asked it. This interview is now terminated.' He got up and opened the door.

About an hour later, while we were playing his Elephant Walk on a live television show he looked up from his score and caught sight of me in the trumpet section.

I'm pleased to be able to say that his jaw actually dropped. He stopped conducting for a moment, visibly shaken.

As I was packing up my horn afterwards I suddenly found him standing beside me.

'Surprise, surprise, eh?' I said, without looking up. I can be cruel, too. Then I relented. 'Well, perhaps it was a stupid question. But quite often first ideas are the best.'

'Come and have a drink,' he said. 'Then we can do the interview again.'


Ray Conniff came to Berlin, with a chorus of Yugoslavian girl singers, they being cheaper than the German variety. Along with him he brought John Best and the clarinet player Skeets Herfurt. Skeets still played in the Billy May band back home, and with Bob Crosby, who came out of retirement each Christmas to play some local gigs.

Johnny Best had been the featured trumpet soloist with the wartime Glenn Miller band. It is his solo that made such a hit on the record of In the Mood. Like most players in retrospect, he doesn’t consider that solo to be one of his best, and cringes every time he hears it. His name appears on the trumpet parts: Solo as played by Johnny Best, and most bandleaders insist on an exact replica of the solo. In the Mood is probably one of the single most played big band recordings of all time. Of course Johnny, together with the rest of the band, and the arranger, only got paid scale for the recording.

He seemed happy enough, and they both filled me in with current events in Los Angeles.

The day after Johnny and Skeets went home I found myself sitting in the canteen opposite what looked like a sheriff from an old cowboy film, in full regalia, including an enormous white Stetson. It turned out to be Bobby Burgess, who had brought his son over from the States to get some specialist eye treatment, and also to avoid being sent to get killed in Vietnam.

Bobby had led that wonderful trombone section in the Kenton band of the 1950’s. Today, forty years later, the recordings of the Bill Russo arrangements on Sketches on Standards and Portraits on Standards can hold up against anything being currently produced, yet Bill, when I met him, dismissed the stuff as being commercial. He could hardly remember the arrangements. Bill even asked me to try and get hold of a recording of his Theme and Variations, from another Kenton record, because he’d forgotten how it went.

Bob Burgess eventually took a job in Erwin Lehn’s band in Stuttgart, where Ack and Rolf Ericsson were playing, but I worked with him many times over the following years. He is a great guy, very calm and with a lot of humour. Wally Heider told me that Bobby was known as ‘Butter’ Burgess back home, probably because butter won’t melt in his mouth. He certainly is a peaceful guy.

He quickly settled down in Stuttgart and put on a lot of weight. When I took him to task on this he said, ‘The trouble is that everything I like is either illegal, or makes me fat.’

His spoken German, to this day, has remained a source of delight to his contemporaries, and Ack once sent me a list of howlers that Bob made daily in the language.

Anyone who has never lived in Berlin would be forgiven for thinking that this town, once the capital of the Third Reich, would be a grim place, full of wartime relics, ruins and memories, especially in those days. In fact, nine-tenths of Berlin consists of beautiful forests and lakes, with many romantic castles and palaces. One never tires of roaming around this town.

 The grim relics are there too, though. As two or three of the most important recording studios were situated right alongside the Berlin wall, by the Potsdamer Platz, I had to drive through vast areas of burned and bombed out streets to reach them. The Ariola studio, itself only a shell, with only one big room intact, was opposite the famous Haus Vaterland, once the very centre of entertainment in Berlin. The Phonogram studio was in the old Hotel Esplanade, a huge empty, dusty ruin full of the ghosts of pre-war embassy balls and receptions.  


One day, while I was casually looking around one of Berlin's music stores, the owner came over and showed me a trumpet mouthpiece he'd discovered in a pile of junk being cleared out. I shook my head. It was a clumsy looking thing, with an enormous cushion rim, and was nothing like anything I had ever seen before.

'Try it,' he said.

'I won't be able to play on that,' I said.

'Well take it anyway.' He shoved it into my top pocket.

A few days later we were recording some jazz number in the radio station when Paul Kuhn came over and said, 'It would be nice if you could take that bit there up an octave.' 

Not only would that have put me up at the top of my range, but the bit he referred to also contained some of the most difficult notes on the trumpet to play in tune: the high G# and double C# being amongst them.

'I'll try it once,' I said, 'but don't take any bets on it.'

Then I thought of the mouthpiece the man had just given me. Maybe he was another Tom Wray, the Magic Mouthpiece Maker! I stuck it in the horn. It felt terrible against my lip and I had some trouble getting it into position.

When we started to play the number that mouthpiece was like a gift from heaven. Not only did it have a wonderful big fat sound, but it was as clear as a bell all over the range. When we came to the high passage I sailed through it effortlessly. 

The rest of the guys in the band were amazed. I pretended it was nothing, but I had just discovered the greatly guarded secret of upper stratospheric trumpet playing. After all those years!

I played that mouthpiece for the next few weeks, getting better and better on it. Now I was getting triple G's and over. There seemed to be no limit to its range. And comfortable! Once I had it on my lip I could hardly feel it at all.

We used to pack up our instruments each day and put them in a small room next to the studio. Only the members of the band had access to the room. One day I took my case out of the room, opened it up, and the mouthpiece was gone.


Dunja Reiter, a stunningly beautiful actress from Yugolslavia, was very popular in Germany at the time. She was married to Les Humphries, an Englishman who ran a very successful group called the Les Humphries Singers. He’d picked up a motley collection of different coloured layabouts from the streets of Hamburg, choosing them only for their looks, all of which were highly eccentric. The first time I met Les I’d been booked in an 11 am emergency call to the Teldec studios over in Lichterfelde. I arrived to find a large orchestra, strings, horns, the lot, just sitting there, or standing around outside smoking. The producer greeted me with open arms.

‘Thank God! These bastards couldn’t play nursery rhymes.’

He was referring to the trumpet section, and, when I saw it, I wasn’t surprised. The contractor, who was a sometime trumpeter, had booked all of his amateur pals, and was playing the first trumpet himself. A quick look at the parts revealed the problem, because they were all high quality American-type charts that these guys couldn’t even read, let alone play.

‘Can you book me another section? Right now?’ I told him that it would be impossible at such short notice. He sent the others home then, and I synchronised the four trumpet parts on my own, which turned out much better than he would have ever believed, having never heard this done before. These were the pilot recordings for Les, very important, and through them he got his record contract. His group was a tremendous success in Germany, and hit the high spots on the charts until collapsing some ten years later. Dunja left him, and Les disappeared. He should have been a multi-millionaire by then, but I doubt it.

When he discovered that I was a fellow Canadian the producer gave me the contracting job for all of the subsequent Humphries recordings, telling me to charge the record company a 10% fee. This caused Teldec to flip out completely, as the usual fee was only 5%. The other Berlin contractors didn’t like the arrangement either, but I booked the orchestra each time, did all the tax and paper work, and copped 10% of the wages of about forty musicians, which was more than my monthly wage at the radio station.

So now I was doing that, the jobs in the two radio stations, playing sessions, writing arrangements, texts, radio plays, writing my book, putting on my own jazz programme in RIAS, working for the Deutsche Welle, selling Benge trumpets, playing with Peter Herbolzheimer—and still finding time for my daily bike rides in the Grünewald. I was in my forties at the time, and didn’t notice any strain, didn’t, in fact, realise that I was doing all that until I thought about it years later, after I’d left Berlin. I guess you could say that it was my most productive era.

In January 1974 I played a three day job with Peter Herbolzheimer in Stuttgart, and Franz Fijal, the SFB band boss, paid the Swedish trumpet player, Rolf Ericsson, who was still the only white man ever to have played in the Duke Ellington band, my whole month’s wages to deputise for me for the three days. Maybe Franz was trying to get me to leave. If he was, he certainly succeeded. I know that he hated me playing with Peter’s band, which was so good that it made every other band look silly.

Peter’s line-up in those days was—Myself, Ack van Rooyen, Palle Mickelborg and Art Farmer, trumpets, with Benny Bailey or Dusko Goykovich sometimes coming in as deps; Jiggs Whigham, Åke Persson, Rudi Fuesers, Peter Herbolzheimer, trombones; Horst Mühlbradt and Dieter Reith, keyboards; Philip Catherine, guitar; Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, bass; and Tony Inzalaco, drums. There was only one alto saxophone, played by Herb Geller. When Herb left, Ferdinand Povell came in, with Jim Towsey on baritone. Later on Otto Bredl, Johnny Griffin and Alan Botschinsky became regular members. As a matter of fact—Peter could have had any one of the great American jazz musicians he wanted in the band. The money was there, and quite a lot of the players in the United States were hard pressed for jobs.

It was a sensational group of people, the best I ever worked with in my long career. Playing those arrangements of Peter’s, with those guys, made the whole idea of being in the music business mean something.

It was a great compliment to me that, when a badly handled dental operation caused me to leave his band later on, Peter began flying Chuck Findley over from Los Angeles to replace me on his record sessions. When Chuck couldn’t make it Peter used Derek Watkins, who was over in Germany a lot of the time playing with the James Last show band. 

A couple of weeks before I left Berlin for Saarbrücken I had a mysterious phone call from a woman one evening. She told me to get along to the Ariola studios at once because Stan Kenton was there and he wanted to see me.

When I asked who it was she said she was a secretary at RIAS calling on his behalf. I immediately reckoned it must be a put-on by Milo and I phoned him. No one picked up the phone. To imagine that Kenton would suddenly be in a West Berlin studio without any of us knowing about it was ludicrous.

Next morning Roy Reynolds, Kenton's baritone player at the time, phoned and asked why I hadn't turned up. Everyone was waiting for me, apparently. I can't imagine why, but they had been there making a recording for RIAS and were leaving in a few minutes.

In Saarbrücken later on I also ignored a call telling me that Woody Herman was playing locally, when he really was. I missed hearing the fabulous Alan Vizzutti because of my lack of credulity. These incidents had the effect of making me believe every call of this nature I received in the future. Alas, most of them were just some of the guys kidding around.

Not long after I left Berlin the SFB band ended for ever, and everyone in it was sacked. Several of the guys joined the Berlin Police Band. When they weren’t playing music they had to put on riot gear and go out head-bashing. I had been lucky.

The SFB Berlin big band in the late 1960s:

Milo Pavlovic, Ron Simmonds, Ack van Rooyen (later Carmel Jones), Horst Larisch, Ossi Dudek, trumpets; (Rolf Ericsson later replaced Simmonds. Benny Bailey also played in the band earlier on)

Ake Persson, Slide Hampton, George Rak, Charles Orieux, trombones; (Torolf Molgaard and Andre Paquinet later replaced Persson and Hampton)

Herb Geller (later Leo Wright), Siggi Froehlich, Heinz von Hermann, Rolf Roemer, Lothar Noack, saxes;

Eugen Cicero, piano; Ingo Kramer, guitar; Juergen Ehlers, bass, Joe Harris (later Dai Bowen or Ronnie Stephenson) drums; Adrian Cicero, vibes, percussion.

Paul Kuhn, leader, piano, vocals (Jerry van Rooyen led the band previous to Paul Kuhn joining)



Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved