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The Great Big Bands

John Dankworth

During the late 1950s Dankworth had been running a band using eight brass with the Dankworth Seven: a front line using Dickie Hawdon on trumpet, with John on alto sax, and Danny Moss on tenor. Kenny Clare was on drums. John asked me to play some gigs with the band. I enjoyed it so much that, when he asked me to join permanently later on I took the job at once, and left Parnell’s TV job for good. After Derrick Abbott left John's band Dickie Hawdon had been playing lead trumpet for a couple of years and I followed him into the job.

When I joined the band John was using  a brass section of four trumpets, two trombones, and a tuba, and  a five-piece sax section that included himself. I probably enjoyed playing with the Dankworth band more than any other, always excepting that first great Tommy Sampson band.

There were some very good players in the new lineup, including Leon Calvert and Kenny Wheeler on trumpets, Ed Harvey and Tony Russell on trombones, Art Ellefson on tenor and Ronnie Stephenson on drums. The elegant and greatly gifted Kenny Napper played bass and Alan Branscombe was on piano.

Alan was such a great musician that several years later, when Derek Humble was too ill to perform in London with the Clarke/Boland band, Alan took over the lead alto saxophone chair, playing the book perfectly at sight. I hadn’t even been aware that Alan could play the saxophone.

The arrangements were all written by John or trombonist Ed Harvey. The fact that we had a tuba in the line-up made the sound of that band quite unique. The tuba player was a man named Ron Snyder.

Ron was only a mediocre tuba player, but they were thin on the ground, and he was the only one John could find. There was one other tuba player in London capable of playing jazz phrasing, and his name was Alfie Reece. Alfie was working with Billy Cotton’s band, as far as I remember, and he was the only one ever booked on tuba in the studio sessions.

Ron was very elegant, always well-dressed, and he seemed to know the names of all the most expensive call-girls in the West End. For some reason he bought a giant sousaphone that had Click to enlargebeen especially made for John Phillip Sousa, and which had, for many years, graced the basement entrance of Paxman’s music shop in Soho. He wound up in Johannesburg later on, and became credited in the Guinness Book of Records as having the biggest tuba in the world. 

I became very friendly with John Dankworth and his wife Cleo Laine, and Cleo wrote me some weird and wonderful letters later when I moved to Germany. John's letters were dictated to his secretary, and therefore shorter. 

We did a regular series of TV shows with Cleo, each one featuring the music of a great composer. We turned up for one of these one day in the Chelsea Palace, which had been turned into a TV theatre, and found that we’d been all sworn to secrecy.

We rehearsed all the music for a Harold Arlen show, but when the audience was there and the show began John stopped us without warning and a guy called Eamonn Andrews walked on stage and said dramatically, ‘CLEO LAINE—THIS IS YOUR LIFE.’

She didn’t look as surprised as I thought she might. The usual things happened then, and we just sat around to watch. There was no music on a show like this, although she sang a couple of numbers at the end.

Far flung relatives that she had hardly ever met turned up on the show, and there were many embarrassing moments when she couldn’t remember who the hell they were.

The most hilarious bit was simultaneously what the producers of this stupid programme had expected to be the highlight. The lights were lowered and a large cinema screen descended on stage. Then we were treated to some footage of the old film Elephant Boy. A herd of elephants stampeded towards the camera. A small child toddled into their path and was snatched up by a frantic mother just in the nick of time.

‘That little girl was CLEO LAINE, folks—and now—AND NOW—here’s the star of that film—he’s come here all the way from India to see you again—and here ... he ... is—SABU!’ (Drum roll....)

With that a very small elderly Indian walked out onto the stage and blinked around nervously. Neither he nor Cleo had the slightest idea of why he was there. I don’t think he could even speak English.

At that one second of time Cleo looked over and caught my eye. She was trying not to burst out laughing.

John Dankworth, as well as being an extremely gifted musician, was also a very controlled person. I never saw John lose his temper, nor even say a harsh word. The only time he showed any signs of rebellion was during a rehearsal for the Royal Command Performance.

As usual, no one had told me that we were going to do this. We just turned up at a rehearsal room he’d booked at Kennington Oval and he said we were doing it the next day, and the dress rehearsal was in the morning at the Palladium.

I told him at once that I couldn’t make the rehearsal in the morning. I had a film session at 10 a.m. (we were making the James Bond movies at the time) and I had to be there.

John didn’t say anything, neither did his face show strain, but he solemnly picked up his huge and heavy music folder, which contained hundreds of scores, raised it above his head, and dashed it to the floor.

‘Take a break,’ said Tony, while Cleo scrabbled around on her knees picking up the scores.

I remained in the room, trying to explain that it would be professional suicide for me if I junked the film session.

Finally John looked at me.

‘If you don’t turn up tomorrow morning you will never play with my band again.’

Next morning I played the film session as planned. I couldn’t see why the band couldn’t rehearse with only three trumpets in the Palladium. It wasn’t as if the Queen would be there counting and chopping heads. Cleo was singing a couple of numbers, was all.

I went in the evening and played, nodded to Liz and Phil, shook hands with Princess Margaret (she was a pal of John’s and we saw a lot of her and her husband Tony) and went home again.

Next morning I received a telegram firing me from the band.

I called Tony Russell, the band manager.

‘Oh yes, he means it all right. I’ve had to book Pete Winslow for tonight.’

‘Well you unbook him. I have a right to a fortnight’s notice. Apart from that I like this band and I’m not leaving it.’

I turned up that night and played as usual. John pretended not to notice me, but all the guys kept nudging each other when he first came in. 

I kept on playing with the band for the next two weeks, then I thought that something was bound to happen, because I had, in my own way given an ultimatum when I said that bit about a fortnight’s notice.

We had to go up to Glasgow for a one-night stand. I drove up because I had to make one of my death-defying drives back to London after we finished at two in the morning. I had to get back to do a repeat recording session at eight a.m. If I didn’t go I would have to forfeit all the repeat money that had been paid out on the previous session.

I’d only just arrived in Glasgow when I saw John’s car. He wound down his window and said we should have a coffee somewhere. This was the first time he’d spoken to me since that day in the Kennington Oval.

We had a talk, we both apologised for our behaviour, and I came out with a raise.

Those long trips we made by car from time to time to keep some of the dates were fraught with dangers. Driving back to London through the night I often fell asleep at the wheel, missed turnings, rode the grass verges, and narrowly avoided hitting other vehicles when I wandered over on to the wrong side of the road. It was no use taking stay-awake pills, and it did little good stopping for a rest. Once I started driving again I’d begin nodding off right away. The greatly talented horn player Dennis Brain hit a tree one night while returning from a concert in the North of England and was killed instantly. There was no doubt whatsoever that he had fallen asleep at the wheel.

One would have imagined someone as talented as John Dankworth as showing signs of eccentricity. I never saw any, but Tony Russell told me of an incident that had caused much hilarity amongst his musicians. Dankworth had come into the bandroom to deliver the entire band a rare admonition about something. He was carrying a score when he entered the room. He sat down and crossed his legs while talking. 

During the course of his harangue he carefully folded the score several times, flattening it out neatly. Still talking, he pulled up one trouser leg and pushed the score down inside his sock until it was no longer visible, then rolled his trouser leg down again and patted it flat. The band watched all this with barely concealed glee.

His speech over, John arose from his seat and began looking around. ‘Now where did I put that score,’ he muttered.

John had bought a stately home in Aspley Guise, a huge house with no damp proof course. Because of this he was able to get the house for little more than I had paid for my own terraced house in Norbury. He was convinced that putting in a new course was going to cost him dearly, but the house was never damp. 

In the grounds were greenhouses and a tennis court. To get to John’s place one drove along the motorway towards Bedford. Somewhere along the road a fierce smell of burning brake-linings usually caused unseasoned visitors to pull over and anxiously examine their vehicles. The smell came from a nearby factory. Knowing this didn’t ease my anxiety every time I drove up there.

John built a large swimming pool in a corner of his enormous property. The digging was done by hand. Musicians arrived to help in mixing the cement, which was applied by Cleo, standing in the hole. I was amazed when I saw the finished pool.

‘Do you mean to tell me that you did this all on your own, only using spades?’ I gasped.

He looked at me, coldly.

‘We did not employ Negro labour,’ he said.

We were featured on a television show from the Elstree studios. When we arrived there I saw that Jack Parnell's orchestra were on the show as well. Bobby Pratt had now taken over my old job with Jack, but apart from him there were hardly any changes in the band. We gave each other the big hello. It was great seeing them all again.

On the show the Dankworth band played one of John's compositions called Cannonball and I think we shook up Jack's band a bit when they heard it. Bob Pratt came over and congratulated me afterwards, and I don't think he did that too often. I had a particularly interesting lead part on that one, especially on a passage in the middle. It must have been interesting enough because I can now recall it, note for note, forty years later. (Click to see the passage).

The Dankworth band went to play a concert in the bullring in Palma, Majorca. We got ready for the concert by sitting in a cafe outside the bullring drinking champagne cocktails, which cost next to nothing, and were very cold and refreshing. Just as we were all in the correct frame of mind Tony Russell came over and told us that the people hadn’t all gotten into the place yet, and it would be another hour at least.

I can’t speak for the others, but I was pretty far gone by the time we went on to play. I didn’t realise it until we actually started, then I noticed that the trumpet had magically grown another couple of yards in length, that my lips were swollen up like boxing gloves, and that the sound coming out of the horn was far, far away.

We played a few titles, and I realised that I was in big trouble. At one point I turned courteously to Gus Galbraith, the trumpet player on my left, pointing at the piece of music on the stand before me.

‘Have we just played this, or are we going to play it now?’

‘We’ve just played it.’

‘Really? And how was it?’


Gus was in my good books at the time because he’d performed a miracle out on the beach that afternoon.

I had gone for a swim in the sea and had lost my wedding ring about fifty yards out. When Gus turned up later, resplendent in full skin-diving gear he heard about it.

‘Where did you lose it?’ he said.

I didn’t know. Somewhere out there, waving my arm vaguely. How the hell was I supposed to know?

I thought—it’s a symbol. Lost wedding ring, broken marriage—divorce.

Half an hour later Gus came roaring out of the waves triumphantly holding the ring aloft. It was a miracle, finding it like that.

‘Thanks Gus,’ I said. ‘You’ve just ruined the rest of my life.’

I gave him a hug to show that I was only kidding.

I wasn’t the only one in trouble in Majorca that night. Miles away I could see Kenny Napper, who seemed to be fast asleep behind his bass. As he stood there hanging on to it with his eyes closed, seemingly petrified, the bass slid slowly away from him on the polished floor. Just when the angle between man and instrument had increased until it looked as though he would fall down at any moment Alan Branscombe stood up at the piano and banged his hand down on the lid sharply, waking Ken up again.

Bobby Breen, our little Jamaican singer shot out on to the stage as if out of a cannon, and tried to leap into the air and clap both feet together at the same time. He failed miserably, and fell down in a heap dangerously close to the bass drum. Ed Harvey went out to take a trombone solo, and came back quickly, red-faced and grinning. He hadn’t managed to get a sound out.

But there were enough guys there who could hold their liquor, and so it must have sounded OK.

The next morning Richard Krueger, whom I'd met at one of the Ruhr Jazz Workshops (see Bits and Pieces) came around with two TV producers from the Saarbrücken radio station and offered the band 56 TV shorts.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I told Richard privately that the band had been terrible the previous evening.

‘It sounded fine to me,’ said Richard. ‘The bass player seemed to be ill, I thought.’

We journeyed up to Saarbrücken, and made the 56 productions, each consisting of one title. Truck Branss did the directing, and there was no time for rehearsing or repeating anything. This resulted in some wonderful shots, and you’d often see a guy appearing in close-up with one finger buried up his nose, or scratching his balls.

For some reason John seemed to think that I was responsible for us getting this TV job, and so he gave me an extra five hundred marks as a bonus, and asked me if I’d take on the job as publicity manager.

It was a good job I didn’t because the band folded shortly after. This was the only time in my whole career that I was drunk on the job.

Crowding the studio when we played were the members of the regular radio band in Saarbrücken, who came in to listen to us. As none of them spoke English we couldn’t say much to one another. Twelve years later I was to be permanently employed in this very same studio, and with the same German musicians.

We went on to play the Lugano Jazz Festival. I remember standing in the wings with my mouth open listening to the fabulous Dwike Mitchell/Willie Ruff duo, just a piano and French Horn. The festival in those days took place in a theatre, now it’s an open-air event.

The usual drink-up took place afterwards. Next day Alan Branscombe told me that he’d woken up on the other side of the lake with no shoes, and no money. All he could remember was having danced on a table somewhere during the night.

It sounds as if the band was full of layabouts, but these were brilliant musicians. In the coach, and, after the job, in the hotels, we played bridge. We used all the proper calls and conventions, and didn’t play for money. Later on in Germany I played chess while on tour, once even doing so high over the North Pole. The big booze-ups only took place after all the work, and the bridge games, had finished.

The members of our bridge team in the Dankworth band were myself, Tony Russell, Alan Branscombe, and Leon Calvert. Leon never quite got one of the calls right, and could often be heard asking his partner, in a raised voice, whether they were vun-rable. Leon was a brilliant jazz soloist, but he made his fortune later on with a string of Jewish Old People’s Homes, and a venture into electronics which provided him with great wealth, and a new Rolls Royce every year or so.

When I first met him he and his wife were running a boarding house in a seaside resort, I believe it was Margate. When I visited the Dankworth band from Munich later on Leon already had his first Old People’s Home, and he invited me to dinner. The place was in Willesden, right opposite a synagogue. It looked all right to me, and we sat down to eat with all the old folks in a large communal dining room. Almost as soon as we started with the meal his small son came in and proceeded to rush around the room screaming at the top of his voice. This went on right through the meal. They didn’t even attempt to stop him. Maybe the idea was to drive the old people into early graves. He made a success out of it, though, perhaps because of that, and never ever needed to use the word vun-rable, either.

The Dankworth band had a regular Sunday night date at the Marquee Club, which was situated round the back of the London Palladium. We had quite a big fan club there. In the early days Peter Cook and Dudley Moore did their act in the interval. Now and then a visiting jazz man turned up for a blow with the band, the first of them being the tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson. When he was due to play John announced him, giving him the big build-up, and the rhythm section started to play him on. They played for a good five minutes, then Lucky shambled on, real cool, took a hell of a long time discussing whatever key he wanted his piece to be played in with Alan Branscombe, had a nod at everyone else, and finally decided to play just before people began throwing things.

A week or so later we had Dexter Gordon as guest. Just before we went on I told Dexter what Lucky had done, and said that I sincerely hoped he wasn’t going to do the same thing.

‘No way, man,’ said Dexter. ‘I don’t do things like that. I’m gonna come straight on.’

When the time came John announced him, the rhythm began playing and we waited. After about five minutes had gone by I went back into the bandroom and found him sitting on the bench staring at the wall, completely stoned.

On another occasion Zoot Sims came by. He wanted to play Stompin’ at the Savoy with the band.

‘Hey, we’ve got an arrangement of that,’ said John.

‘What key?’ John told him. Whatever it was Zoot said he wanted it a semitone higher.

‘That’s OK,’ said John enthusiastically, probably not realising the awful portent of what he was saying. To put a number a tone higher is bad enough, but a semitone is really asking for trouble, and he got it. After floundering about for a while the trumpets stopped playing and spent the rest of the number rolling about listening to the shipwreck going on all around. The best of all was Ron Snyder on tuba, who quite possibly hadn’t heard the change of plan and was ploughing on in the original key, which caused Zoot to play most of the number standing sideways and glaring at him. John either didn’t notice or didn’t care—he was happily tootling away over on the other side of the band.

We had a gig at Wembley stadium, of all places. When we arrived it was to find the place deserted. There was a piano right in the middle of the football field. At it sat Dudley Moore. Our music stands had been set up nearby. The members of a film unit busied themselves getting things ready. It was to be a feature film of Dudley, and, as usual with such things, it involved a lot of messing around.

We had a break after an hour or so and trombonist Ian McDougal proposed a race around the perimeter track.

Now I'd been a pretty good runner as a lad, won lots of races and I fancied myself a bit, so I challenged him. Off we went. After about twenty paces I collapsed with my heart up in my throat and my lungs fit to burst. So much for the medicinal values of trumpet playing, if there ever were any. The rest of them fell by the wayside a few moments later. Only Ian kept going.

When he came around after the lap he gave us the finger and kept running, only stopping when he'd gone around four times. He had to stop then because we had to play again, otherwise he'd have probably gone on and on.

Ian was our first trombone player at the time, and he was brilliant, but he just couldn't get into the London session business. I tried enough times to row him in, but there was a lot of resistance, and so he eventually returned to Canada, where he became the lead trombone with Rob McConnell's Boss Brass.

Not long after that John got us a gig at some greyhound racing track. We sat rather sheepishly inside a sort of wire cage in the middle. I don't know whether this was supposed to protect us from the dogs or the people. We played a number, then sat there while the dogs chased the rabbit around us a few times, then we played another. This went on all through the gig. The appreciation the crowd gave the dogs far exceeded that which they gave us.

My time in London was drawing to a close. There was a union strike against the BBC, the standard of music was deteriorating, and I was getting a little fed up with the London traffic, which was getting worse every day.

I was standing up in the bedroom one day in December of 1962 and wondering whether I shouldn’t take a job in the United States after all when the phone went. It was a man named Max Greger, and he offered me a job right away with his band in Munich.

I named a price, which he accepted at once. Richard Krueger would draw up the contract. Aha! Richard was behind it all, little old matchmaker. He’d been over to London a few times and stayed at my house. Now he was repaying the hospitality.

I told Dankworth. He wished me luck and disbanded his band on the same day that I left. I’m sure that this was a coincidence, but to a lot of the guys it looked as if he was doing it because I was leaving.

Before I moved to Munich I had to go over there for a week to make an LP with the Greger band.

This must have been by way of a test week, to see what I could do, because the very first number we played on the first day began for me with a two bar shake on a double-octave ‘A’, the whole thing being repeated a few bars later.

Now, nobody normally writes things like that because the trumpet player would most likely die in the attempt. Apart from that, not many players could play notes up that high in those days, never mind doing a shake on them. But I had to do it, and I managed it, also trying to convey the impression that it was nothing unusual for me. The rest of the arrangements were all like that, highly demanding and difficult.

The arranger, Hans Hammerschmid, told me later on that Max had asked him to write as hard for me as he knew how, just to see if he could catch me out.

But Max caught me out in the end, because he had a lot of good American players in the band on that date who weren’t there when I came to join the band a couple of months later.

On the weekend before I left Frank Sinatra played a date at the Gaumont cinema in Hammersmith. The Dankworth band was on for the first half of the programme. Frank was being accompanied by the Billy Miller Sextet, so we didn’t have to play with him at all. After our performance I went and stood in the wings to watch him.

Two men with dark suits and American accents appeared, one at each elbow, and told me to get off the stage. I told them that I was a part of the show, had just, in fact, warmed up the crowd for the man following on, and who the hell did they think they were, anyway, Goddamn Americans telling me, a local, to get off any stage?

They told me that Frank refused to sing if anyone was watching from the wings. I sneered. They closed up on me.

Just then Harold Davison appeared and told me that I could have his front row seat. As I walked along the corridor I met Frank coming in the opposite direction. He was surrounded by six men in identical dark suits, and had a face like thunder. We ignored each other as we passed.

Of course, he was greeted with ecstatic applause, and sang his heart out to the audience, who loved every moment of his performance. Still, something must have upset him before he went on and I'm sure it wasn't me.

A couple of years later I met Harold Davison at Munich airport. He was on the way back to London via Australia, and borrowed ten marks from me to buy a newspaper. He had just signed another contract with Frank for a British tour. Harold was by now one of the biggest agents around. I remembered him starting off in a small office in Shaftesbury Avenue when I was in the Vic Lewis band. Vic told me that Harold used to beg to let him fix some dates for Vic. Later he did some booking for Jack Parnell, and most of the other big bands. Harold put on the yearly jazz jamborees in the Royal Albert Hall, wonderful venues with all the best British big bands. I used to chat with him while he looked at the crowd before we started, counting the heads. Already he was beginning to look prosperous.

My final night with Dankworth’s band was in the Marquee club. The last number was always John’s arrangement of Take the A Train which had me screeching about in the upper register at the end, to the utter delight of the people in the audience, who lapped up that kind of fireworks display.

I was determined to give them something to remember me by, and reached some notes on the horn that only dogs and pigs should be able to hear. Over the top of all this wild abandon I suddenly heard somebody else playing the trumpet an octave higher than I was.

I looked over at the side of the stage and saw Cat Anderson. Of course—the Ellington band were in town, and Cat had come along to see what was cooking, bringing his horn along with him. I left him to it. Nobody, but nobody can play higher than Cat Anderson.

I rented my house off to an American diplomat, packed the car and drove off in the deep snow of January 1963 with my wife and son to the big adventure.

Click the photo to enlarge

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