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The Great Big Bands

Bits & Pieces

Woody Herman came over to Britain. The union was finally going to allow him to tour the country with his band, under the condition that he use only British musicians. This was, of course, ridiculous, but Woody came anyway. He was only allowed to bring Bill Harris with him. Bill was one of the most highly regarded trombone soloists of the day, and most trombonists used to moan with delight when they heard him play on the Herman records. He’d made a beautiful recording of Gloomy Sunday, a song which had been banned in England. Apparently too many people had been encouraged to commit suicide after hearing the text. It was most unfortunate, because Bill’s version was sensational, but it turned the record into a collector’s item, and, of course, those in the know could easily get it under the counter in various jazz record shops.

As soon as he hit London Bill contacted Bobby Lamb, who’d played with him earlier in the States, and Bob invited him over for the evening. I was there as well, and we had a wonderful time talking to Bill. He didn’t look anything like the popular image of a great jazz soloist, but was skinny, quite old, was losing his hair, wore thick glasses, and was very deaf. When I commented on the special husky sound he produced on the trombone, which no one else had been able to copy, he replied that he got that sound because he was usually drunk when he played. On Gloomy Sunday he had been very drunk, he said.

Suddenly there was a knock on the door and Jack Thirwall was standing outside. Jack was a beautiful guy and a very good bass trombonist, who later played with me in the Bill Russo Orchestra. He said that there was a big party going on over at his house, with most of the leading trombone players in London gathered there to honour Bill Harris for his contribution to jazz. They’d had a silver plaque made, with his name, and all their names engraved on it, and they wanted to present it to him. Bill had already known about the invitation, but had come over to Bobby’s place instead.

Now Jack and the rest of us tried in vain to persuade Bill to go over and accept the honour, but he just wouldn’t do it. He was immensely shy, and wouldn’t have it that he deserved such a dedication. In the end Jack had to leave without him.

On the band Woody was using on his British tour were Bert Courtley and Ed Harvey. Ed and another guy whose name I forget were sitting with Bill in the trombone section on the first night on tour, and they had to play Woody’s signature tune Blue Flame before the curtains opened. This began with only low trombones going OOOHH—AAAAHH, OOOHH—AAAAHH with the plungers. They’d only played a couple of notes when Bill felt a pain in his lip so he stopped playing. At once the other two stopped as well and there was silence.

They started again, but this time Bill stopped on purpose. The others also stopped. He did this three or four times until Herman came over and told them to cut the rehearsal and play the damn thing.

Most bands in the States had four trombones, but Woody never had more than three. Bill found a tailor’s dummy somewhere, dressed it up in a tuxedo, and sat it beside him in the section, to make up the numbers. The band lugged the dummy around all over the country, keeping the joke going.

Most of the time Woody used hire cars instead of a bus, so that there were several individual cars driving to the jobs. Some of the guys used their own cars. Driving through the Nevada desert one day they passed the tenor player Flip Phillips, who was doodling along, enjoying the sunshine and rare peace and quiet. A few miles further on Bill stopped his car and parked it behind some sand dunes. They grabbed the tailor’s dummy and laid it out on the road just over a bit of a bump.

When Flip came along some minutes later he didn’t see the dummy until it was too late and ran right over it. By the time he’d managed to pull up and get out of the car the dummy’s head had come off and was rolling around the road. He came walking back very slowly, white-faced with horror. Suddenly he recognised the suit the dummy was wearing, whipped around, staring wildly at the sand dunes and shouted ‘I know you bastards!’

Bobby had already told me about the drummer they’d had when he was in the Herman band, a man named Gus Gustavson. He was cursed with a spotty face which embarrassed him greatly. Bill told him, in deadly earnest, that the best way to get rid of the pimples was to wash his face every morning, first thing, in his own urine. This Gus did regularly for some weeks, with the result that he now had a face covered with more, and larger, spots. When he complained about it Bill denied ever having told him any such thing.

The musicians I worked with were wonderful people. Locked in that environment, it was often a shock to have to emerge from time to time to deal with ordinary every-day folk, and to discover that the other side of humanity was not always so agreeable. Sad to say, though, it was excessive drinking, and drug-taking, that finished off a great many of my friends and colleagues. A lot of them hardly made it to the age of forty. Looking at the state some of them got into sometimes, going without food and sleep, it seemed that they were deliberately setting out to kill themselves. Many of them were totally convinced that they played better jazz when they were high. This was not true, but if I said so I was told that I just didn’t understand. This has been the great tragedy of the jazz music business.

I asked one of them why he did it. He played perfectly well when he was stone cold sober. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘But when I’m high everything slows down. In a fast number I get lots more time to think, and I can play more notes, know what I mean?’

I took the tape recorder on stage that night and recorded some of his jazz solos. When I played them back to him afterwards he just couldn’t believe how bad they were. It was cruel of me, I know, but it stopped him from getting high as long as he was playing with that band. This was the same guy who tried every form of stimulant known to mankind, including bubbling domestic gas through bottles of milk, and then drinking the milk. 

The guys in London were willing to try anything once. One even went so far as to ask his doctor to give him an injection that would turn him black, thinking he would play better jazz that way. He tried everything possible to improve his playing—Yoga, vegetarianism, and various other things, all without making any noticeable improvement on his performance that I could detect.

He came up to me in a blue funk just seconds before we went on stage to finish off a Melody Maker Contest in Belle Vue, Manchester. Some of the amateur jazz trumpet soloists in the contest had been so good that he was afraid to play a feature number Jack Parnell had given him. I handed the part over to one of the other trumpet players and told him that if he didn’t play it, then I would. This closed the deal, because I always screamed about in the stratosphere on solos, without any noticeable attention to harmonic structures, and this bugged Jack something terrible. Most of the other bandleaders liked all that, especially John Dankworth, but Jack was a purist as far as jazz was concerned, and what I was doing didn’t really come under that category.

Apart from the big touring bands there were hundreds of regular dance hall bands in England containing professional and semi-professional musicians. While the touring bands always played manuscript arrangements which had been written exclusively for them, the smaller bands usually played from printed parts sold by the publishers of Tin Pan Alley, which was the nickname for an area in Soho where most of the music publishers and film companies had their offices.

It was possible to obtain one of these publishers’ printed arrangements for every tune that had been composed from the beginning of time to the present day. Every single one of them, without exception, was a load of crap. Millions of people were subjected to this rubbish daily on the radio and in the dance halls. As far as most of them were concerned it was pretty hot stuff. Only the musicians knew better.

Even the bandleaders, almost without exception non-musical business men, were aware of the failings of these printed arrangements. A great many of them had been written by a man called Jimmy Lalley, a mysterious character whom no one had ever met. Indeed, it was suspected that the name was a pseudonym, and for good reason, because most musicians swore that if they ever met the man they would tear him limb from limb.

The arrangements were always written so that they could be played by any combination of instruments, which condemned them right from the start. They consisted of two choruses of Lalley’s concept of melody, with jazzed-up background figures, a swing chorus, and a red-hot ending. They served their purpose admirably - that of promoting the published titles, for most bandleaders using them cut out most of the arrangement, leaving just the intro and the melody.

Bandleaders who regularly booked their gigs at Monday lunch times, using the musicians standing around in Archer Street, would always be asked what kind of music was to be played on the night. The invariable answer ‘We’re playing the Lalleys’ would be greeted with groans.

One bandleader was infamous for a trick he played on musicians who were working for him for the first (and last) time. When asked how much the job paid he held up his hand, fingers and thumb outstretched. After the gig he handed out four pounds ten shillings.

‘Here! What’s this? I thought you said five.’

‘Oh no I didn’t. Thumbs are half.’

Although all dance band musicians would have dearly loved to meet Jimmy Lalley, I only know of one who actually did, and that was the tenor player Red Price. Red was a giant of a man, enormously strong, and with hands the size of dinner-plates. He liked to drop into Henneky’s around the back of Regent Street any time he was in the neighbourhood. This was a pub greatly frequented by song-pluggers from Tin Pan Alley.

He was in there one day, pint in hand, one foot up on the bar, chatting to one of these people, whom he knew slightly, when the man indicated his partner and said, ‘Oh, by the way, meet Jimmy Lalley.’

There was a deathly silence, during which Red’s face went from its normal rather pleasant ruddy colour to an interesting shade of purple, turning quickly to black. A low growl rumbled in his throat as he quickly seized Lalley by the throat and began to shake him as a terrier shakes a rat. He was only dissuaded from dragging the man outside to thump him by three hefty bouncers, but not before he’d managed to rattle Lalley’s brains up a bit.

‘I’m doing it for England!’ he shouted as he was hustled away.

The Lalleys only serve to prove something that every dance musician is reluctant to admit—that very few people appreciate what he is playing. The general public is only interested in hearing the melody.

People have often approached me during dances and concerts to speak their approval of a band’s performance. Most of them add, especially if they are keen ballroom dancers, that they liked the beginning of each tune, and also the end, but not the bit in the middle.

They were referring to the ad lib instrumental solo that usually filled out all arrangements. Musicians are generally reluctant to play the melody repeatedly throughout a piece of music. This is only our very own variation of the basic sonata form used in composing the classics. Whereas classical form calls for the variations to be on the main themes, in jazz they take place on the harmonic sequence, and are performed spontaneously, on the spur of the moment.

I usually answered such questions by saying that while the beginning and end sections were for the listeners, that bit in the middle was for us. The information was received with smiling disbelief.

This demand for pure melody was admirably filled by bands such as those of Victor Sylvester and Lawrence Welk, but they made boring listening.

Of all countries in the world only in Germany is there a royalty agreement to cover all parts of musical arrangements which are not the obviously stated melody.

While the composer and publisher will receive their royalties for the performance of a tune, the arranger gets his for everything else in the score—introduction, bridge passages, backgrounds and all other variations. Re-composing is perhaps a better word to use in this concept.

As far as extemporising goes things are a little more difficult. One musician has sued for, and received, composition royalties for playing extended jazz solos on records, or behind films, where the actual composer had written him nothing but chord symbols to play.

The only leaders of the big touring bands who featured themselves as players were, as far as I remember, John Dankworth, Ken Mackintosh, Eric Delaney and Jack Parnell. The others, as I mentioned earlier, were business men. One of the worst of these had a hotel up in the north of England.

 Before I started my career in the big touring bands I was asked to play with his band in some dance festival in the Albert Hall. I first had to go up for a few days to rehearse with the band. I was to be a kind of star soloist; that is what I was told, at any rate.

As soon as I arrived I was told by several of the musicians there just what was going on in the band. The hotel owner made sure his musicians were safely under contract, then forced them to work in the restaurant and ballroom as unpaid waiters and cleaners, or as carpenters and painters in his house. He had a squad of hit-men to make sure that nobody complained about this.

I saw one of his gorillas, known as The Ape, as soon as I arrived. The guy who was telling me all this had paused in his act of arranging the tables, and the heavy came over at once, arms swinging dangerously, knuckles brushing the floor.

‘Hey you! Lay da table!’

Afterwards I noticed a little man watching me from one of the doorways with a scowl on his face. When I asked who he was I was informed that he was the bandleader. He must have taken an instant dislike to me, for we never officially met. The guy never came over to speak to me. I’m not one to hang around looking for handshakes, so the two of us never came into contact. We did the rehearsals and went by bus down to London for the festival. The next thing I knew I was sitting way out on the end of the trumpet section with no parts to play.

The first trumpet player said that he’d been ordered to make sure that I received nothing to play. He didn’t know the reason, except that the bandleader didn’t dig my face. So I sat there doing nothing for the entire concert.

I went back on the bus with them afterwards, intending to get out at Coventry and go home. Just before we reached the outskirts of the town I went down to the front of the bus, leaned over the bandleader to talk to his manager, who was sitting beside him, and asked for my money.

‘Yeah, well—the boss is very disappointed in you. He said that you didn’t do anything to deserve the money.’

I hadn’t looked at the bandleader all this time, and I still didn’t during the rest of the conversation, although, with the jolting of the bus, we were by now practically banging our heads together.

‘You tell him to go and get stuffed,’ I said, loudly enough for the rest of the band to hear. I was about six inches from the guy’s face when I said this. There was a sort of strangled communal choking sound from the bus behind me, and a certain amount of muted applause.

‘I was there, ready to play. If he didn’t want me to that’s his business.’

I was provoking him, but he wasn’t about to do anything about it, as his hit-men weren’t there to protect him—they were up looking after the hotel, otherwise I may not have been so brave. I was getting ready to start a rumble, and they both knew it.

The manager paid up. As soon as I had the money in my hand I opened one of the windows and pretended to throw it all out into the night. Then I stopped the bus and got out.

The story flashed around the business like wildfire, and gave me a certain standing from then on, like I was crazy.

The next time I saw the man was twelve years later when the Dankworth band went to play in his local ballroom. We’d been booked into his hotel by an agent, but as soon as the man saw me he refused to let the band stay overnight. Tony Russell at once phoned a pal of his on the Daily Express, and the story made the next day’s edition. The reporter made a big deal out of the fact that we had a black South African singer named Bobby Breen in the band. The smear of racial prejudice must have done the hotel a whole load of harm, even in those early days, but he had most likely gone ape when he caught sight of me.

Tony found us another hotel for the night. When we went there after the dance it was to land right in the middle of a huge, screaming fag party.

‘My God! Quick!’ shouted Tony. ‘It’s the Fairy Queens! We’ll never get out alive!’

It turned out to be the headquarters of a help organisation for all the militant homosexuals in Yorkshire. There was no question of going into the party for a drink and a horselaugh—those guys looked dangerous, and we got upstairs pretty sharply and bolted the doors just to be on the safe side.

Years later I wrote an article in the Crescendo magazine about the man, without actually mentioning his name. Everyone knew who I meant at once, and I received many letters of thanks from people who had suffered under him.

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Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved