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The Great Big Bands

William Russo
and the
London Jazz Orchestra

Coming out of the Marquee Club after one of our Sunday jazz sessions I saw Bill Russo standing by the door talking to Tony Russell. I knew Billís face because he had been one of the trombone players in the Stan Kenton band when they visited Dublin. He had also been responsible for most of Kentonís arrangements at the time, including the stunning Fascinating Rhythm, which musicians still talk about to this day.

Bill had come to London under a Koussevitsky Grant and was looking for musicians to start a London Jazz Orchestra. I said that he couldnít think of doing such a thing without having me in the band. He agreed at once, and just having heard the Dankworth band he also asked several of the other guys to come along as well. So we had Kenny Wheeler, Leon Calvert, Tony Russell and Art Ellefson there right from the beginning.

I think itís worth giving the line-up of the London Jazz Orchestra here, because although Iíve frequently damned the British big bands as never attaining the musical perfection of their American counterparts, this orchestra was the one and only exception. Listening to the recordings and BBC tapes today, thirty years later, it is clear that Bill Russoís music brought performances from the musicians of a standard and quality never demanded by any other arranger or bandleader in the country. 

Obviously, the British musician had much more to offer than was generally demanded of him, and he was quickly adaptable, because Russoís music had to be played in a quite unusual way, and Bill was pedantic on this. Style of phrasing, length of notes and dynamics were all carefully detailed and discussed. Some of the music had been specially written as a means of learning these innovations, including an ingenious composition by Bill that helped everyone to get absolutely in tune.

The four trumpets, five trombones and five saxes were divided into two separate units, with, facing the orchestra,  the lead instruments over on the left. The rhythm section sat in the centre. As recording was done on two microphones only the internal balance had to be perfect, and it was, absolutely. Kenny Clare, in particular, sitting right in the middle of us, with no screens, had to take it very easy.

The personnel: Ron Simmonds, Leon Calvert, Gordon Rose, Kenny Wheeler or Tony Mabbett (trumpets)

Johnny Edwards, Don Lusher, Bobby Lamb, Keith Christie or Tony Russell, Jack Thirlwall (trombones)

Johnny Scott, Al Newman, Duncan Lamont, Art Ellefson, Ronnie Ross (saxes)

Ray Dempsey (guitar), Arthur Watts (bass), Kenny Clare (drums)

Raymond Clark, Derek Simpson, Hilary Robinson, Jack Holmes (Ďcellos)

Richard Morgan (oboe)

The rehearsals, recordings and BBC tapes were all made in the Lansdowne Studios in Ladbroke Grove. Richard Peaslee, Johnny Scott and Tony Russell wrote some brilliant scores for the orchestra which were also recorded. The saxophones in all of the works we performed were particularly outstanding. Sadly Jack Thirlwall, Ronnie Ross, Arthur Watts and Kenny Clare are no longer with us as I write this. The recordings are a lasting tribute to their perfection.

It wasnít swinging music as we knew it, ŗ la Basie or Herman, but I learned a lot about the American way of playing from Bill, which I put to good use in all the other work I was doing. I became very friendly with him, and used to run him home to Kensington after the rehearsals, which ran from eleven at night until three in the morning on Monday nights. This was the only time that we could all guarantee being free from studio obligations.

Back in his apartment weíd eat supper and talk about music. This was a thrilling experience for me, and I got all kinds of information about the Kenton band out of him. Apparently that band almost had to fold several times because of the trouble some of the wives were making. It sounded like the script for Glenn Millerís Orchestra Wives, only much, much worse.

Bob Burgess, who was on lead trombone with Kenton at the time, confirmed this to me many years later. He also said that the guys in the Kenton band hadnít liked Billís arrangements too much. They all wanted to play swinging stuff like Woody Herman. But the records Kenton made with Billís scores sold more copies than anything else Stan or Woody ever turned out.

Bill was quite strict on discipline in the London Jazz Orchestra, and even fired a couple of the guys for being late, even though we werenít getting paid for it. He used to wear a huge 1920ís gangster hat, the kind George Raft wore in Some Like it Hot. In keeping with the dignified air of the proceedings the recordings were titled: William Russo conducts the London Jazz Orchestra, with an added Leader, Ron Simmonds, which I thought was a hell of a compliment.

The only time I invited Bill and his wife Jeremy around to my new house in Bushey Heath I fell asleep immediately after dinner, and slept right through until it was time for them to leave some three hours later.

I wasnít the only one doing this, because other musicians would come to dinner at my place and they would fall asleep afterwards, notably the trumpet player Alan Franks, who used to snore like a motor mower.

We recorded Billís opera John Hooten before I left for Germany, and he got Annie Ross over from the States to sing on it. Later on he wrote his English Concerto, and I came back from Munich to play on that one. It was a violin concerto, written primarily for Yehudi Menuhin.

When I turned up at the studios in Ladbroke Grove there were dozens of classical violinists hanging around outside. I recognised some of them. They said they were waiting to hear Stevyn Staryk. Once inside the studio Bill told me that Menuhin hadnít been able to handle the concerto, and had messed about playing snatches of Yankee Doodle, seeming to regard the whole thing as a joke. But the music was very difficult for everyone, having been written with an unusual time sequence which had probably thrown him.

Bill had coaxed Steve away from his job as leader of the Chicago Symphony orchestra to make this recording. They were pals, and Steve was also regarded as one of the leading violinists in the world. Of course he played the concerto superbly.

I was playing a lot of sessions in those days, studio work with the cream of the London musicians. Some of them complained to me about my new method of phrasing. What I was really doing was to apply what I was learning from Bill in my daily work. I was now playing the American style of phrasing and to most of them it was entirely new. Only the ones who were learning alongside me in the Russo orchestra: Don Lusher, Johnny Edwards, Bobby Lamb and some of the sax players, knew what I was doing. But I persevered, and most of the guys who were complaining soon managed to figure out the hows and the whys. But, for a while, Bill Russo received quite a few curses behind his back, because we were making the British musician sit up and pay attention.

Today quite a lot of people with whom I worked in the past tell me that I always played more like an American lead player than anything else. I like to think that my time with Bill helped me along in that direction, although my avid listening to American bands on record, and the influence of some of the people I worked alongside had also rubbed off on me by then. I had been immensely impressed with the way Tommy McQuater played, for instance, and by the sound produced by Bert Courtley - for me that was the ideal American trumpet sound. Bert used to project the notes from his horn - they virtually sizzled out! I really admired that. And Jimmy Deuchar. What a player that man was! I was listening all the time and I garnered a little from each of them.

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