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The Great Big Bands

The Great
Big Bands

Listen—have you ever stood in front of a big band? Had your eyes closed, head down, feet a little way apart, legs braced? Listening? Bathing in the glorious sound of anything up to twenty mighty men just pouring out their souls to you? Then, my friend, you have lived. You have lived!

Now then. Just imagine what it would be like to be sitting inside that band, every night, surrounded by all those famous musicians. Other people have to queue up, buy tickets, join fan clubs, buy records to hear all these wonderful players. You, on the other hand, are living amongst them, breathing the same air, laughing, joking and playing with them every night — and getting paid for it!

That is the story of my life in the great big bands. It was a wonderful life, filled with wonderful, talented people.

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.  

The 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.

Statistically, 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Bass 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.

Producing 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 music.

The 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.

In 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 of work.

The 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.

In 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.

The 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 mouthpiece.)

When 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.

The 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.

Good 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 organ. 

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

As regards style—this was determined by the people who wrote the arrangements for the bands, and the way the players interpreted their scores.

Ted 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.

Jack 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.

For 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.

When 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.

The 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.

The 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 Kenny Napper.

The 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.

To 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.

With 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.


The 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.

There 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.

Every 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Most 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.

In 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.

To 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.

Under 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.

The 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.

The 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.

When 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.

I 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.

He 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.

A 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 again.

It 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.

The 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.

If 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Under 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 seize up.

We 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.

Still 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.

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.

Sampson >>>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved