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The Great Big Bands

Leon Roy

The drummer Leon Roy had heard about me from someone, and offered me a regular weekly gig in a place known as The Jungle along Tottenham Court Road. Leon was the brother of actress Shani Wallis. Every great West Indian player that ever hit London was in that band, including the trumpeter Pete Pitterson, with Sammy Walker and George Tyndale in the saxes. I believe that Leon, Johnny Keating, Derek Neville, the baritone player, and I were the only white people in the building.

The place was dimly lit, packed out, and unbelievably hot. The people stood so close to one another in front of the band that you could have walked over their heads. A closer look at them would reveal that they were all, without exception, stoned right out of their skulls.

Leon had a big library of scores from the new Dizzy Gillespie big band. Someone had taken all of Dizzy's solos down from the records, note for note, and I had to play them. There were about twenty of them at the time.  When I told Dizzy about this later on he said that he would never be able to do that. 

'Man! I wouldn't even be able to read them,' he said. Most of these solos were highly technical; they were all in the high register and tremendously exciting. Stoned or not the people loved everything we played.

I made a point of avoiding the band room in the intervals. Just putting your head in there was enough to make you high. The police were hot on the tail of musicians smoking marijuana, and some of the guys were getting busted all the time. I kept away from all that.

Derek Neville didn’t hang around much after that band folded. He emigrated to Australia and became a taxi driver in Melbourne. Funny thing was that Harold Luff, who’d played the screaming high trumpet parts in Vic Lewis’s Kenton-style band, also became a taxi driver in Australia. In those days Harold had a tiny Austin saloon, of which he was absurdly proud. The first time he saw it Johnny Hawkesworth got some of us to lift it over the garden wall at The Mission, and Harold had to call the fire brigade to get it back on the road again.

Leon's band was good therapy for me, as I was, by now, working with Oscar Rabin's band. Elden Benge, the trumpet maker in Burbank, lived next door to the lead trumpet player with Lawrence Welk. Buddy Childers told me that the players in that band were of a very high class, and, whatever commercial music they had to play with that band they performed to the utmost of their abilities. When they returned to LA Elden said they took off in all directions looking for rehearsal bands to play in. Don Ellis said the same thing to me. Leon's band was my way of letting off steam.

Read Yellow Birds - West Indian Jazz Musicians in London in the 1950s & 1960s by Simon Spillett on Jazzscript.

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