The Great Big Bands
The great British big bands of the post–war years, roughly in order of merit, were Ted Heath, Geraldo, Tommy Sampson, John Dankworth, Jack Parnell, Vic Lewis and Eric Delaney. The personnel of these bands changed constantly. There was so much work around that the musicians could more or less choose the bands in which they wished to play. The longest I ever worked for one man in London was eight years with Jack Parnell. Jack was an extremely gifted musician, and had a startlingly good small band to begin with, containing some of the finest jazz musicians available. The quality dropped somewhat when he started his big band in 1953 and picked up again when he took over the ITV television orchestra from Dennis Ringrowe in 1957, and began using studio musicians.
Among the more commercial big bands were those of Joe Loss, Oscar Rabin, Ken Mackintosh, The Squadronaires, The Skyrockets, The Kirchin band, Eric Winstone and Teddy Foster. There were many small groups, notably those of Ronnie Scott, Kathy Stobart, Tito Burns, Frank Weir and Harry Parry. George Evans ran a unique band of ten saxophones and five trumpets. He used two conventional sax sections sitting one in front of the other, and the sound was absolutely glorious. As George was in the army at the time his brother Les had to front the band for a time. George later took the band on tour, ending up with a resident job in the Oxford Galleries in Newcastle.
energy required—i.e., calories used up by a big band trumpet player,
in a jazz concert lasting for two or three hours has been scientifically
compared to that expended by a labourer using a pneumatic drill during
a normal eight-hour shift. I doubt the veracity of this, but lead trumpet
playing certainly can be exhausting. A brass player will usually develop
one litre more lung capacity than the average. The amount of absolute
concentration and split-second timing required in a performance would
often match that of a Formula One driver. This is what we liked to tell
everyone, whether it was true or not.
in an arrangement for big band, the bass, rhythm guitar and drums play
100% of the time. They never stop. The pianist mostly plays what he
wants—there is seldom anything written down for him, and he mostly extemporises
freely from chord symbols. With his constant fill-ins he often assumes
the role of a second drummer.
saxophones play 90% of the time. Trombones and saxes alternate with
figures and backgrounds to solos and vocals, so that trombones also
play rather a lot—around 60% of a piece of music. Only the trumpets,
sitting regally high up at the back are spared the drudge of constant
effort. They are mostly used for power effects, dynamic ensembles, and
places where maximum volume is desired.
There are extreme physical demands made on certain players. The drummer sits, unsupported on a backless stool, leaning slightly forward to command all the drums and cymbals of his equipment. He strikes something with each stick continuously throughout each number, while beating the bass drum with one foot pedal, and working the high-hat cymbals with another. Some drummers, like Eric Delaney, who played with Geraldo before forming his own band, had two bass drum pedals, with which they could perform miracles of bass drum technique.
unusual position, coupled with the continuous arm movement, copious
perspiration, the atmospheric conditions in the dance halls veering
from below freezing to solar heat, caused many drummers to have agonising
back problems in later life.
and guitar players also have to play nonstop throughout a performance.
The acoustic bass strings tear and rip at the player’s fingers. The
skin quickly hardens, but some players still suffer greatly with damaged
fingertips. During a piece of music lasting an average of four minutes
the bassist, playing four quarter notes to each bar, can play up to
400 finger strokes or more; at speed perhaps up to double that amount.
a sound on the bass entails pulling one of the highly tensioned strings
back strongly and releasing it to form the note. This requires strength
and skill. Before the advent of bass amplification the amount of power
necessary to make the bass audible was considerable. The continuous
plucking of strings, often accompanied by the unnatural posture necessary
to reach the upper register, also causes spinal problems to the player.
Add to this the truly awe–inspiring mental selection of chordal and
passing tones he will make at speed from parts mostly consisting of
chord symbols, and it is clear that the bassist is the most hard–working
member of any jazz orchestra. The bass guitar now in general use certainly
cuts out some of the physical hardship, but the performer still has
to play constantly and accurately without pause throughout a piece of
guitarist has similar problems. His strings are thin and steely, cutting
unmercifully into the soft flesh of his fingers. The epidermis hardens
over the years, but the highly tensioned strings still cut in. Most
players use a small plastic plectrum to strum the chords, easing the
strain somewhat, but the unnatural position of the left hand (for a
right–handed player) can cause considerable strain and damage to the
tendons in the left wrist. These will often seize up, needing surgical
correction to free them.
contrast to his general role in the small group or light orchestra the
big band pianist is not as overworked as his colleagues in the rhythm
section. Apart from the occasional solo he can sit back and fill in
the odd phrase from time to time as he sees fit. He is under no obligation
to play at all. Pounding out a rhythm is taboo for him—the others manage
quite well without him. He probably has the easiest job of all.
Today he will carry his keyboards and amplification with him, otherwise
he is at the mercy, and the tuning, of the piano available at his place
Today he will carry his keyboards and amplification with him, otherwise he is at the mercy, and the tuning, of the piano available at his place of work.
saxophone is the least tiring of the wind instruments: the higher the
instrument, the less physical demands are made on the player. Only the
baritone saxophonist is liable to suffer a little when asked to play
lengthy passages in the lower range of his instrument. Flutes and clarinets
are generally played with microphone amplification, calling for the
minimum of effort.
contrast the brass players suffer considerably. The trombones are the
mainstay of the brass section. They play alone, with the saxes, with
the trumpets, and in the ensemble. They blend beautifully with all other
instruments. This means that they play rather a lot, and this can become
tiring. The trumpets, playing on smaller mouthpieces, suffer rather
more on extended passages, or in exceptionally hot places, especially
when playing in the high register. The trouble with lip muscles is:
once they have collapsed they stay collapsed for the rest of the evening.
This causes most trumpet players to either practice continually for
lip strength, or do lip exercises without the instrument.
most devastating thing a trumpet player can suffer from is a blackout,
caused by temporary lack of oxygen when playing in the high register.
No other instrumentalist suffers from blackouts while playing. (In the
symphony orchestra the only instrument that may cause its player to
blackout momentarily is the oboe, due to the considerable back pressure
build-up caused by forcing a large amount of air through the very small
blackouts occur, often through low blood pressure, the player can do
nothing but sit there shaking until he recovers. I once had a blackout
playing in Stan Kenton’s band just after the introduction to Bill Holman’s
score of Malaguena. I sat through a whole page of music before returning
to the land of the living. I was lucky. Others have fared worse; some
have been known to collapse and fall from the rostrum.
first trumpet player of a big band is generally known as the Work Horse.
When he plays he is supposed to inject the whole band with energy, fire
it up, so to speak. He alone in the trumpet section is allowed to lay
off from time to time to gather strength for the assault. He is never
supposed to falter, get tired, or complain.
first trumpet players were rare in Great Britain in the 1940’s to 1960’s.
When I came on the scene, Kenny Baker, Stan Roderick, Derrick Abbott,
Tommy McQuater, Basil Jones, Freddy Clayton, Albert Hall and Bobby Pratt
were some of the top men in those days. Although Stan Reynolds was right
up there with the best he never played regular lead in a band after
his Tommy Sampson days, when he played the most glorious lead I have
ever heard. Tony Fisher, now enjoying high esteem as a lead player,
worked, earlier on in his career, with Eric Delaney’s small group where
he had to play first trumpet to a brass section consisting of one Hammond
young Scotsman Bobby Pratt was the only one who could play really well
up in the extremely high range of the trumpet. It was to be another
ten or twelve years before Derek Watkins and Greg Bowen, the Terrible
Twins, hit the scene, and added another octave to the range of the instrument.
great British trumpet star of the forties and fifties was a man named
Eddie Calvert. Eddie worked in the Geraldo orchestra, and could play
all of the Harry James specialties like Trumpet Concerto and The Flight
of the Bumble Bee. Probably Kenny Baker could have also managed these
features, which were technically terrifying, but he never bothered to
try, and no one else could have touched them.
British big bands were all clones of the great Glenn Miller and Tommy
Dorsey Orchestras. Very few of them played any of Miller’s music, but
they all had the same 4 trumpet, 4 trombone, 5 saxophone, and four rhythm
line-up. Most of them had two or three singers, and perhaps a vocal
group formed from the ranks of the players.
regards style—this was determined by the people who wrote the arrangements
for the bands, and the way the players interpreted their scores.
Heath’s library was mostly written by his second alto player, Reg Owen,
and later on by the trombonist Johnny Keating. Many years later, when
I joined the band, Ted was still playing Reg’s arrangements, which were
brilliant, clean-cut, and cold as ice.
On the other hand, Geraldo’s music was warm and melodic, mainly from the pen of Wally Stott, also his second alto player, and the tenorist George Evans. Geraldo also commissioned one of Tommy Dorsey’s arrangers, the American composer Bill Finnegan to write several scores for his concert orchestra.
Eric Delaney's band came somewhere in between. His music was mixed jazz and commercial, but the accent was on his own particular drum style. The band was, in fact, a showcase for him personally. Eric played drums in his band all the time, so he was able to control the sound and dynamics of his music.
Parnell’s big band music was mostly written by mediocre arrangers. A
lot of it was written by the band’s pianist Norman Stenfalt, who wrote
entire scores cramped on to a couple of pages of piano staves. The copyist,
usually myself, had to extract the parts as best he could. Norman’s
scores were pot–boilers. There was no question of exotic chords, counterpoint
or voice-crossing. And no style whatsoever.
this reason, with the exception of Jack’s drum features, his big band
had nothing that could distinguish it from any other. As Jack did not
play drums on the regular numbers his own particular style did not come
through on them. The arrangements did nothing to help. The best period
for Jack was with his first small band, when the trumpeters Jimmy Watson
and Jimmy Deuchar wrote most of the scores. That group was the best
band Jack ever had, the best small band anyone ever had. Even compared
to the best American groups of that period it was sensational.
Jack took over the staff orchestra television job for ITV at the Wood
Green and Hackney Empires, his band became filled with professional
side-men. The arrangements for the shows then generally belonged to
the various stars we accompanied, with others, when necessary, written
by a conglomerate of London arrangers, including Ted Brennan, Arthur
Birkby, Alan Braden and Roland Shaw.
first big Vic Lewis band played music written by pianist Ken Thorne,
who captured the Kenton sound that Vic wanted ideally. It was a lot
of fun playing with Vic, because he treated his band with the enthusiasm
of a child with his favourite toy, and fired us all with the same enthusiasm.
two best road bands I played with in Britain were those of Tommy Sampson
and Johnny Dankworth. Dankworth’s music, written mainly by himself,
was inventive and interesting. John’s was the band that played the most
out-and-out jazz arrangements, with very few commercial titles, which
were nevertheless scored in a jazz manner. Some of the best arrangements
of commercials for John were written by Dave Lindup and the bass player
band that swung the most was the Sampson band, with scores all written
by Edwin Holland, a Scottish accordion player. Later on Tommy let trombonist
Johnny Keating contribute some arrangements, which were sensational,
but that only went on as long as Johnny was in the band.
describe the meaning of swing one should consider what happens when
a Dixieland band is playing. The infectious two–beat rhythm and general
foot–stompin’ style of playing invariably causes a lively reaction in
its listeners. They identify wholly with the music, using energetic
body movements accompanied by various vocal declamations. This phenomena
is typical of listeners to today’s rock music.
swing, if the big bands had it, a similar reaction took place. In the
Sampson band even the musicians themselves used body movement, something
rare amongst big band musicians. But these men lived that music with
all their hearts.
big British bands of the day were of a very high standard, but none
of them reached the perfection of any of the best American big bands,
the Clarke-Boland band, or the great Peter Herbolzheimer band, with
which I later played for ten years in Germany.
were hundreds of musicians in Britain making a living from playing in
the big bands, and even more professional and semi-professional working
in the big bands of their local towns.
town had one or more large dancehalls. Most seaside places had several,
and all were filled to capacity when the big bands were in town.
musicians of the name bands were celebrities. Besieged by autograph
hunters, they usually had to fight their way off the rostrum in the
intervals. Band singers received an adulation bordering on mass hysteria
which they rarely deserved. This was often a crowd copycat reaction
modelled on the Frank Sinatra phenomenon in America.
those days no American musicians were allowed to work in the UK. The
British Musicians’ Union saw to that. We were thus deprived of the opportunity
of listening to and learning from the great American bands. Only those
lucky enough to be around to hear the Glenn Miller band of the AEF during
the war rubbed shoulders with their American peers. The only other opportunities
to hear the Americans later on was when one of the bands visited Eire,
or played in an American Army camp in Britain. I am convinced that this
union rule lowered the standard of playing in the country considerably.
There was no competition, therefore little incentive to aspire to greatness.
There were never enough really good players around to fill the big bands,
so many of the guys in those bands were well below standard.
of us were amazed when we played in one of the American camps ourselves.
Our radio waves were filled with music of the great American bands,
singers such as Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, and our own modern
dance bands. We most naturally assumed that the great American public
would have tastes similar to our own. Going into one of the camps was,
for us war-weary souls, like entering an Aladdin’s Cave. There was no
limit to the wonderful steaks and hamburgers one could eat, no end to
the exotic drinks. Only the music brought us up sharply, because all
the average American soldier wanted to hear was hillbilly music.
the States competition in the big bands was fierce. If you couldn’t
play, you were out. American trumpet players projected a brilliance
never achieved by those in England. I never heard anyone back home produce
a trumpet sound like that of Pete Candoli, Ernie Royal, Al Porcino,
Bernie Glow, or Conrad Gozzo, who all played at some time or other with
Woody Herman. It was the same with all instruments. The British players
had no one with whom they could compare themselves, no set standard
to achieve. Yet even Bill Russo had to admit to me later on that the
greatest Stan Kenton Orchestra of all, the one of the early 1950’s with
Maynard Ferguson, Lee Konitz and Zoot Sims, still contained three or
four players who, in his opinion, were not up to standard.
buy an American instrument or mouthpiece it was customary to take a
job in one of the Cunard bands working on the luxury liners Queen Mary
and Queen Elizabeth and make a trip to New York. The British instruments
on sale at the time were best suited to classical and brass band work.
these conditions we had to do the best we could, but, because of them,
no band ever achieved the musical perfection of Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown
or Harry James, which were probably the best examples ever of commercial
big bands right up until Buddy Rich started his own combination, and
the superb bands of Rob McConnell, Bob Florence and Tom Kubis arrived
on the scene some thirty years later.
These were all white bands, of course. I haven’t made comparisons with the great bands of Jimmy Lunceford, Duke Ellington and Count Basie because no one in the world could have compared with them. We had no black American musicians in England, but even in the States nobody managed to get a black band together to sound like Basie or Ellington. All black American musicians have their own, unique sound; I discovered this in later years when I began working with Slide Hampton, Leo Wright, Carmell Jones, Benny Bailey, Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin and Art Farmer. Because of this no white band could ever sound like one filled with black musicians. No one has ever been able to successfully explain this phenomenon. Maybe it's because they all have soul.
British Musicians’ union finally came to a swapping agreement with the
Americans. One of our bands would visit the States, and one of theirs
would come over on a reciprocal basis. This usually meant that an inferior
band was sent to the U.S.A. in return for the very best the Americans
had to offer. One of the first bands we were eventually allowed to see
in Britain was the Count Basie band. Every musician in London went to
see the band in the Royal Albert Hall, and, because we all bought tickets
from Harold Davison, who had organised the concert, we were seated together
in a block. I think I can honestly say that we all sat there, stunned.
thing we noticed right away was a total lack of movement from the wind
instrumentalists. Most musicians sway about a bit when they are playing,
move shoulders, tap feet, wriggle about a bit. Basie’s band, with the
exception of the rhythm section, sat absolutely motionless. Marshall
Royal, on lead alto, appeared to be carved from stone, he played looking
sideways across the hall, seemingly bored. Snookie Young, the first
trumpet player, didn’t seem to be playing—he lifted his horn up, and
put it down again, without appearing to have done anything. There was
no visible effort from anyone.
Joe Williams sang he stood there motionless, at the side of the stage.
I had to look hard to find him. But the sound the band projected was
dynamic. Whatever they played was so thrilling that I could feel the
sensors all over my body responding. The attack, the very togetherness
of the band was astounding, and it was fiery music, although you would
never have guessed that from the look of those guys on stage. Those
guys were cool.
had the same impression when I saw the Stan Kenton band in Dublin—cool.
No one seemed to be making any effort to play, but the sound roared
out with an almost savage intensity. None of the brass players showed
any signs of strain. It all looked so easy. The musicians didn’t seem
to care, yet, as they came off I overheard a discussion between Kenton
and the bassist Don Bagley.
was telling Stan that he wasn’t making it—wasn’t good enough for the
band. Kenton had his arm around Don and was talking to him like a father,
reassuring him quietly. Yet I had thought that Don, in particular, was
the exact counterpart of drummer Stan Levy, and they were driving the
band along like a tremendously fired-up machine. Now there was Don,
shaking his head, almost crying in frustration.
normal working day for me from 1949 until I landed in the studio business
in 1955 consisted of my sitting on a bus all day, playing in a ballroom
or concert hall all evening, and sitting on a bus all night to get home
sounds easy. There were no motorways in those days, so the journeys
were invariably an eight hour slog or more behind lines of trucks on
the antiquated British roads.
buses had no heaters, so we froze sitting upright on hard seats that
had been designed to fit midgets, upholstered for economy rather than
comfort. We suffered landslides, were trapped by snowdrifts, mud slides,
riots, and petrol strikes. Marooned in floods, we were often recruited
by farmers to give artificial respiration to half-drowned animals, rescued
from beneath the raging waters. The buses broke down. We were frequently
lost in the middle of foggy moors and mountains. We pushed the buses
up steep gradients, and had nocturnal incidents with drunken car drivers.
we were staying the night, upon arrival at our destination we would
have to rush around looking for accommodation, lugging huge suitcases.
Whatever happened we had to have food and drink. Sometimes we were late
and had no time for anything. Still we were expected to perform to the
best of our abilities, often under the most hideous of conditions.
fine echoing acoustics of our bathrooms at home, where we had learned
our trade, had not prepared us for those of the huge drill sheds and
town halls crammed with hot sweating humanity where we now had to perform.
In those places there was so much background noise that you could often
hear nothing when you played. This made you play louder, which made
your neighbour also play louder, which made you play louder still. On
the other hand: curtains above and around the stages of theatres made
sure that all sound would be damped down and depressively deadened.
heat or cold would change the pitch of the instruments so that tuning
became difficult to impossible. Acoustic pianos would be untuned or
pitched too high or low. The heat would also make your lip swell up,
so that performance became tortuous.
these conditions lips and reeds would split, heads and backs would ache,
shirts would become soaked with sweat. In the unheated drill halls in
the winter they would then freeze on your back. Lips would stick to
metal in the cold; the oil on the mechanisms of the instruments would
were often besieged by fans on arrival, who seemed to know far better
than we exactly what time we would arrive. Some of the girl fans would
be what we called scrubbers. They weren’t interested in the music, only
the musicians. Others were band freaks, clutching lists of names. These
people would gleefully inform us that we had now been placed in their
new Dream Band, and would we like to see all the rest of the dream line-up?
If we didn’t treat them with respect and understanding they would cross
our names off for next time, and write angry letters to the Melody Maker
about big-headed musicians.
we managed to do a marvellous job, in circumstances and with working
hours and pay conditions that no union of any other occupation would
have allowed. The only consolation for us was that conditions for
the musicians in the big American road bands were far, far worse.
The only consolation for us was that conditions for the musicians in the big American road bands were far, far worse.
We played like this, day in and day out without a break. The pay was adequate to pretty good, depending on the success of whichever band one was in. The money wasn’t that important to most of us. We were there, in that great team, because we loved to play.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved