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The Great Big Bands

Oscar Rabin

Oscar was a small fat jolly White Russian Jew who sat in the band and played bass saxophone, an instrument roughly twice his size. A very elegant guy named Harry Davis acted as compère. This gave rise to the myth that Oscar couldn’t speak, was dumb, or even stupid. Certainly he looked a bit weird sitting behind that huge saxophone. Apart from the ones used now and then by Harry Gold, in his Pieces of Eight, and the fabulous Edward Owen Pogson, who played alto sax with Victor Sylvester’s band, it was the only one of its kind in use at the time.

 Women swooned over Harry. Nobody noticed Oscar, because he sat hidden behind that monster sax. It is difficult to visualise a businessman like Oscar sitting in a lonely room, staring at a tutor, and trying to learn how to play the saxophone. Whatever caused him to choose the bass saxophone is not clear, but that is what he played, after a fashion.

No one could have ever accused either Oscar or Harry of being musical. Oscar did not even try, and Harry would pale under his heavy tan if confronted with anything out of the ordinary. In fact, when Eric Jupp slipped a 5/4 bar into the intro of one of Bobby Benstead's trumpet solos Harry asked him to alter it, because it messed up his conducting.

Oscar had a fine wit, and spent much of the time we were on stage in counting the number of people in the hall. By the time we’d finished he knew to the last penny how much should have been taken at the door, and how much we should be getting out of the job.

His efforts on the bass sax consisted of playing the bass parts in unison with the string bass, something which used to annoy the real bass player no end. When he had finished counting heads he invariably resumed playing in the wrong place. Thus we had two sets of bass notes to listen to. This went on until Ken O’Donnell, the bass player, rapped him sharply on the head with his bow and told him to shut up.

Every New Year’s Eve Oscar borrowed a new reed from the baritone sax player. This would last him for the next twelve months, while a normal sax player might possibly use several each week. Completely fed up with the sound of the bass sax, my predecessor, the trumpeter Derrick Abbott, stole the crook one New Year’s Eve and shoved it down the toilet. It was later discovered there in a most disgusting state, but members of the band swore that the sax sounded much better afterwards.

When I joined Oscar’s band it contained several good players, such as Kenny Clare, Ken Wray, Danny Moss, and the brilliant lead alto man, Cecil Pressling. The second alto sax player, David Ede, wrote arrangements for the band, and also ran a small internal vocal group. 

David rowed me in to sing in the group, which consisted of himself, the three singers, Marion Davis, Marjorie Daw, Dennis Hale and me. I quit after singing only one number with them. This was How High the Moon. My part consisted mostly of the same note, so I complained bitterly about that. Then I used to go out to sing it holding my trumpet.

Oscar said it looked as if I was going to play a solo, and vetoed it, but I told him that I didn't want the viewers to get the idea I was one of the band singers. Nobody minded when I quit the group. 

David drowned in a tragic boating accident some years later. 

The band lineup, when I joined was:

Bobby Benstead, Ronnie Heasman, Ron Simmonds, trumpets;
Ken Wray, Tommy Cook, Jack Waters, trombones;
Cecil Pressling, David Ede, Danny Moss, Eddie Morris, Roy Bull, saxes;
Eric Jupp, piano; Ken O'Donnell, bass; Kenny Clare, drums:
Marjorie Daw, Marion Davis, Dennis Hale, vocals;
Oscar Rabin, leader, bass sax; Harry Davis, leader and compere.

The Rabin band was good, very slick, but the music was totally commercial, and I didn't care for it too much. The only thing that kept me in the band for about a year was the fact that I was deeply in love, this time with one of the girl singers, Marion Davis, who was under eighteen and could still get bananas and oranges on her ration book. Getting the fruit certainly impressed me, but I loved her for a great many other things. I even took Marion home to meet my mother, who was quite naturally enchanted by her.

Unfortunately, although we worked together a lot later on, once I left the Rabin band we drifted apart. Marion eventually married the tenor sax player Ronnie Keene, who later caused the entire Jack Parnell band to give notice (see the Parnell chapter for that). Later on she married again, this time to my good friend, the trombonist Ken Goldie, whom we always referred to as Lord Jim, on account of his elegant turnout.

The other girl singer was Marjorie Daw, a South African who later married Kenny Clare. Dennis Hale was the male singer, and he got killed in a car crash some years later in South Africa. Bobby Benstead and Ronnie Heasman were the other trumpets, both very good players. Bobby was already quite famous as a sweet, Harry James type trumpet soloist. 

Ron Heasman was a very fine jazz soloist. He liked to eat and was a good bit overweight. His wife had a chocolate shop, and Ron was always surrounded by tuck, so we nicknamed him Bunter. Some years later he went into hospital for a checkup. There was nothing wrong with him, it was only a checkup, but he died that very same night. Bobby chain-smoked, and coughed a great deal. His wife discovered him sitting in the car outside their house one morning, long after he should have left for work. He had died from asphyxiation.

I was booked on third trumpet in the Rabin band, which was a bit of a let down after my earlier successes. But the money was good and regular. The music was purely commercial, for dancing, and the band was very popular.

After I'd been in the band for a while Oscar asked me if I'd like to play some leads. Of course, I said yes at once. He must have said something to Bobby Benstead, too, because the very next night, when we got on the stand, Bobby picked up his book and slammed it down on my desk,

'Here you are,' he said. 'You can play the lot.'

I didn't want to upset him, but I did take on some of the leads. Eric Jupp, pianist and arranger in the band, had started writing some things that were out of Bob's range, once I'd joined, so he didn't mind that.

The Rabin band's book was not numbered, something I've never encountered before or since, although Rolf Ericson told me that the Ellington pad was like that, only much, much worse. Ellington was forever swapping parts around, so that a trumpet player might suddenly have to read from a baritone sax part. But a lot of things were not written out properly, so it must have been a nightmare for newcomers.

The Rabin book wasn't like that, and, once used to the idea, we found the parts quickly. Why they weren't numbered I never found out.

For the sake of the jazzers Oscar allowed one jazz number each night. This was always Move. The jazz group, with a front line of Ron Heasman, Ken Wray and Danny Moss soon got heartily sick of the number, as we all did, but Oscar wouldn't let them play anything else. Ken was playing valve trombone in the band. As he was the lead player it made the trombones sound different, to put it kindly. Bill Russo has remarked that the sound of the valve trombone is stuffy, and I agree with him. It's great for solos, though, as Bob Brookmeyer and Rob McConnell have well shown.

In those days there was no such thing as a tape recorder. Recordings were direct to disk. A man sat in the studio with us working a wax disk cutter. When we’d finished there had to be a general agreement on whether the take was good or not. There was no way we could hear a playback because that would have damaged the wax. The first initimation we received that new things were on the way was when Ken Wray turned up one day with a big, heavy wire recorder.

This was a sensation. This thin wire, running between two reels could actually record sounds! The wire broke constantly, and was repaired at once by knotting the two ends together, thus losing a few bars. It was to be a couple of years more before the tenor sax player Tubby Hayes and I bought a tape recorder between us.

The Rabin band was on tour for most of the time, and so I saw very little of London. But London was the place I wanted to be, and an offer from Vic Lewis put me back into contact with all of my old pals from the Sampson band.

Vic wanted a band that was different from his out-and-out Kenton style combination and he put together a very talented bunch of people. We all liked the new band, and I think he did. At any rate, he always talks about that band when we meet, now nearly fifty years later.

Vic Lewis >>>

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