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Ron's Pages

The Great Big Bands

Saarbrücken 2

I’d already been having a bit of quiet fun during that week with Rick because it was baseball season. During the season Rick and Herb Geller became changed men. Usually, at this time, Herb sat on stage with a tiny transistor radio glued to his ear between shots, listening to the AFN coverage of the World series. Rick had spent the week staring at a newspaper cutting containing the statistics of all the best players in the competing teams. After three or four days of intensive study he crumpled the paper up and threw it on the floor, from whence I rescued it when he wasn’t looking.

A quick perusal that evening gave me enough information for the next day, and then I struck.

‘Hey! That guy (So-and-So) in (Whatever Team) got up to a batting average of Point three-four-oh in the last Series, am I right? Wow!—that’s nearly as good as Babe Ruth.’

Rick was crouching down on the floor at the time, something he usually did when we weren’t playing, and he looked up very, very slowly at me.

I glanced away over the studio, merely remarking idly that the Dodgers’ pitcher had better pull himself together, or they were going to go down pretty quick against Toronto. He got up and grabbed my arm fiercely.

‘What the hell do you know about all that?’

I shook him off with an injured air. ‘It’s not a closed shop, you know. Not private—like only for Americans.’ I came out with a few team statistics, speaking off-hand like an expert, and left before he could start asking leading questions.

Rick ended up in the radio station in Cologne, in the band Werner Müller brought in after Edelhagen died.

On my fiftieth birthday Peter’s band was playing in Regensburg.

At the beginning of the concert, Peter brought his arm down to start the first number and I came in as usual with a bang. The rest of the band came in somewhat easier. They were playing Happy Birthday.

I was overcome with emotion. Not only was it a big surprise, which the audience joined in with, but it surely must be the only time that anything like that has ever happened in a serious jazz concert, and by such a great band.

Afterwards, in the hotel restaurant my wife gave a party for everyone. The high spot came when the lights dimmed and she walked in with this enormous cake with fifty candles burning. The heat was terrific, and I can’t imagine how she managed to light them all.

There were about forty or so older Germans at another table. One of them came over later on and asked the trombonist Otto Bredl what we were celebrating. The man wore traditional Bavarian type costume.

‘It’s my friend Ron’s birthday,’ said Otto, clapping me on the back.

The next thing we knew, the whole of the table opposite began to sing. It was a male voice choir from Regensburg, fresh back from a music festival. They serenaded us softly for at least half an hour. There was magic in the air. Otto was crying unashamedly as he heard all the songs of his youth, sung so beautifully.

We sent over the rest of the cake, and a barrel of beer to keep their throats wet.

Deep into the night we made our way up to our room. Just as my wife was standing there, half into her nightdress, Otto entered the room suddenly, with only a perfunctory knock. She only had time to leap into bed, but by this time Otto was stoned to the eyeballs, and only had eyes for me at first.

He staggered over to our bed and sat on the end, still holding his litre of beer. He looked at both of us for a very long time. Once or twice he opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it again without uttering a word.

We all sat like this for the next ten minutes. Every now and then he nodded at us gravely. I began to wonder whether he intended staying all night. Then he nodded again, got up and walked out. I guess this was Otto’s way of telling us that we were his friends, and he loved us.

Some years later, while I was on holiday in Spain I had a dream in which Ack van Rooyen suddenly appeared before me, saying, ‘He’s gone.’ I awoke, shaken by the dream. Convinced that Ack himself had died I phoned Peter in the morning, to learn that Otto had passed away the previous afternoon. He had come in from the garden, saying he was tired, gone to bed, and died peacefully. I never discovered the reason for his death, but it was probably heart failure. He was a great trombone player, with a wonderful sense of humour, and died in his fifties.

A lot of the action for me was in Cologne in those days, partly because some of the best recording studios and engineers were located in that city. Peter’s band used to get booked for all kinds of work, and, from time to time, we made backings for rock singers.

A guy called Kurt Kiesewetter was very popular at the time. He was a sort of quasi rock/blues/folk singer, but he wanted more than anything in the world to make a record with the Herbolzheimer band.

Peter wrote some really amazing arrangements for the session, which took place in the morning right after we’d finished some jazz concert or other the night before, and had been celebrating with several kegs of beer during the small hours.

Peter had thrown the book at us on those charts. Some of the bars would be double-tempo, some half-tempo. At several points he had inserted 6/4 or 7/4 bars, which meant much rapid mental arithmetic, all taking place and being sight-read by us at high speed. He had perfected a system of writing for wind instruments which I believe is unique in the music world. When the rhythm stayed on four, but we played double time against them, he would write us two bars in the place of one, divided by a thin dotted line. While playing it was essential to read the music several bars ahead, otherwise one of these bars would pop up and throw you.

This made it easier for us to play jazz phrasing on the passages because it eliminated all sixteenth and thirty-second notes, but made it hellish difficult to remember, as the only warning we got that a double tempo was coming up was that dotted line somewhere in the middle of the long bar.

The band played perfectly, as usual, and Peter was highly pleased with the results. When we were listening to the playback he came over to me after one particularly tricky passage.

‘Thank you for that bar,’ he said, with a smile. Amazing. No one had ever thanked me for a bar before.

Jiggs Whigham, the American trombonist, told me that he reckoned that no one would ever realise the amount of concentration we had to exercise when we played music like that. One mistake and it’s all over.

We had to hurry to the Westdeutscher Rundfunk after the session, to make a television show for somebody or other. I never used to pay too much attention to the details, so it was a pleasant surprise to find a rhythm section led by guitarist Joe Pass waiting for us, with Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, the trumpet player you can hear playing muted in the background on most Sinatra records, and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, the tenor player from the Basie band.

Norman Granz was running the session as producer. We had to finish by five o’clock because some of the guys had to catch a plane for Vienna.

Anyway it was a package for Ella Fitzgerald, and all the engineers and lighting and sound men were running around like a college football team, lots of radio station officials stood around looking important, and a really tremendous amount of German big boss-management posturing was going on all over the place.

The trumpet section was located right in front of the two huge Leslie speakers of Dieter Reith’s Hammond organ. The Leslie has a large double horn revolving on top of it which gives the speaker its distinctive sinus sound wave. Each one of those speakers has a licence to kill at close range—the wave is concentrated like a laser, and can pierce an eardrum at six paces.

Every time Dieter played a stab chord we nearly went through the roof. There was some trouble with mike feedback on this, so we took a short break. Most of the guys rushed out to the coffee machine, but I never drink coffee when I’m playing as it makes my heart bang, so, just for a moment, I was standing in the corridor outside the studio on my own when she came.

After the bright studio lights it was pretty dim out there. I heard halting footsteps, and then, around the corner came this elderly woman. She moved hesitatingly towards me, as if she was lost. She was wearing one of those dumpy flowered dresses that cleaning  women seem to favour the world over, and clutching a really enormous handbag.

When she came level she stopped, looked at me, and smiled faintly.

Just as was I was about to direct her to the broom closet she said, in a husky squeak, ‘I’m as nervous as a kitten.’ I recognised her then because I’d heard her say it before.

‘Come on, Ella,’ I said, ‘You’ve done all this a thousand times.’

‘I’m still as nervous as a kitten.’

‘You’ll be all right once we get started.’

‘Oh, I hope so.’

I opened the door and ushered her into the studio, where she was immediately surrounded by the high officials and their yes-men, all jumping up and down, wagging their tails and panting.

We started running through the show as a sort of general camera rehearsal. I suppose that Ella was singing somewhere else in the studio, but we couldn’t hear anything because of the earsplitting din coming from the giant Leslie speakers behind us.

I guess we must have flinched or jumped once too often, because Dieter suddenly stopped playing and rushed around in front of us. He was hopping mad and snarling.

‘Every time I play you jump up in the air. STOPPIT! STOPPIT! STOPPIT! DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?’

All this at the top of his voice. We nodded humbly.

The number we were currently playing didn’t have much in it for the trumpets because Sweets was playing muted over on the other side of the studio. Ack was nodding beside me with his eyes closed.

Just seeing him like that set me off on a truly tremendous yawn, which I didn’t bother to cover up because no one was going to be looking at us.

It was only a half hour show and we piled into the control room to look at the rough takes they’d made with the cameras during the rehearsal.

Right in the middle of one of Ella’s songs there was a great cutaway shot of Dieter, red faced and shouting soundlessly at Ack and me. We all had a good laugh at that one. ‘You tell ‘em, Dieter,’ said the bass player, who was none other than the Swede, Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, who left our band shortly after to play with the Oscar Peterson Trio in the States.

During Sweets’ solo, the camera panned slowly over the trumpet section, God knows why, and there I was, yawning so wide you could see my tonsils vibrating. The shot moved relentlessly on to show Ack nodding away, fast asleep.

‘Jesus, Ron,’ said Peter, ‘You could get your whole foot in that one.’

‘All right,’ the director said, ‘Let us make another vun.’

As we moved away towards the door Norman Granz spoke up.

‘No, no. No more. That was OK.’

Now German TV directors are used to getting unlimited rehearsals, as many as they need to get all their camera shots and angles right, and this guy was no exception.

‘But ve haff time. Ve must do another vun. That vun vas terr-ri-bal.’

I looked around. Ella had gone.

‘No more takes,’ said Granz, firmly. ‘Ella only sings once. That was it.’

‘But—the yawns, the sleeping, the shouting—?’

‘Use cutaways. You know what cutaways are, surely. This is jazz, man. You don’t do jazz twice.’

With the show ending so suddenly we all had an unexpected four hours extra to wait for our planes. As I left I could hear the director muttering in German about the crazy Americans.

That business about Ella being nervous had reminded me of an LP I once made in Munich with the German film star Hildegard Kneff. She was a great stage actress, and generally sang a kind of half-spoken cabaret style.

Now she was making an album of Cole Porter songs.

After we’d made all the playbacks I sat beside her on a bench outside the studio. Hilda was pregnant with her first baby, and was glowing with it, as all mothers do.

‘I don’t know what I’m doing here,’ she whispered, ‘I can’t sing this stuff. It isn’t my style. How am I going to sing it?’ She was on the verge of tears.

‘Are you kidding? Sing it the way you’d sing anything else.’

She wasn’t listening to me. Hilda was winding herself up for a gigantic attack of nerves. Of course, as soon as she started singing, the nerves disappeared. The record, when it came out, was great.

A lot of stars get the willies before they perform, and often they’ll talk about it with anyone who’ll listen, just to get it off their chest, like damning the devil—break an arm and a leg—that kind of thing. If you say you’ll be nervous, you won’t be. It may be good therapy, but musicians don’t go through all that. I guess that playing a lot of notes, the way we do, sort of steadies us up.

Al Porcino was a trumpet player, a man whom I had idolised in my youth. I had followed his career, which was a brilliant one, closely. For most of his career he had been on call to all of the best American bands. He had played lead trumpet with, among others, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, and Terry Gibbs.

Al was the darling of the Los Angeles recording studios. Recently he had visited Europe with the fabulous Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band. Al was the greatest.

One afternoon he called me.

‘We. . . . ell, hi. . . ya Rah. . . n. . ny. This is Al Por. . . cin. . .no ca. . . ll. . . ling from Mün. . . . chen’ (ie Munich). Like most Americans he pronounced München to rhyme with luncheon.

The tiny dots between syllables there represent a pause of roughly one second each. Al spoke like that, spacing his words excruciatingly slowly and carefully, as if loth to give them away.

He began by giving me his life story in half-tempo. As I already knew his life story, I wandered away after about ten minutes and made myself a cup of coffee. I came back half an hour later as he was just about to offer me a gig with his new band.

‘Of course!’ I gasped. ‘Gosh, I’d do it for nothing, just to get the chance to play with you.’ I then named a price which he immediately said was four times too much for him to pay.

‘Who’s paying for this greatly extended, peak-hour, three hundred mile trunk call, then?’ I asked.

‘Oh, that’s OK,’ (slow. . . ly) ‘I’m calling from a friend’s house.’

We finally settled on a price five times that which he was prepared to pay, which didn’t worry him, as he had no intention of paying me anything at all.

Al’s way of talking had always caused mirth among his contemporaries. Bob Burgess had already told me of an incident in the Kenton band bus. Kenton was asking some of the guys for advice on the future style of the band. They’d had the Johnny Richards Innovations period, the Bill Russo Sketches on Standards period, the Bob Graettinger, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Pete Rugolo, and Dee Barton periods.

‘What shall we do next?’ said Stan.

Al’s voice grated out slowly from the back of the bus.


I drove the 150 miles to the gig in Darmstadt the next day. It was in an old fire station, which looked as if it had been deserted in a hurry during the First World War. The only source of illumination was a 40 watt bulb, high up in the cathedral-type ceiling.

Ack van Rooyen was there, too. It was a big band, eight brass and five saxes. The rest of the band was a mixed bag of American gig players living in Munich. There were several girls in the sax section.

The book was a foot thick, and contained relics of the good old days—Al Cohn, Terry Gibbs, and Bob Brookmeyer arrangements which Al had borrowed from the various bands he’d worked in. As far as I could see, everyone played all the time—my idea of hell, by the way.

‘Hey!’ I said. ‘I can’t see.’ His wife appeared, and, during the next hour and a half, built an enormous bit of scaffolding in front of me that eventually supported a powerful searchlight, which she trained to shine right through my eyeballs and directly into my head.

‘Now then!’ said Al. ‘I want you to play the 2nd Trumpet book.’

I picked up the 2nd book, and then, seeing that it was filled with 3rd trumpet parts I changed it for the 4th book, which contained all of the 2nd parts.

He was back over in a flash. ‘No, no. You have to play the 2nd book, which is 3rd trumpet. Ack and Bill will play 4th and 2nd from the 1st and 4th books. I myself shall play 1st from the 3rd book,’ he added, grandly.

‘Why don’t you try putting the parts in the right books?’ I said.

He looked at me coldly. ‘You must think I’m stupid,’ he said. 

As it was, he didn’t play anything, for as soon as we started he began running up and down in front of the band as if his pants were on fire.

 He mimed all instruments, pantomiming before the alto soloist with a hunch-shouldered, high-left-elbowed, finger-waggling stance, coupled with a ferocious squint which could only mean: ‘Play lots of notes, high.’

Strutting before the trombone section he vigorously pumped imaginary trombone slides. Looking at the trumpets, he puffed his cheeks grotesquely, pointing at the sky. Picking delicately up near an imaginary bridge, he capered and strummed before the bass player like a man in the throes of a St. Vitus’s Dance.

He was at his best, though, in front of the drums. Pointing at each item of equipment during a solo he screamed, ‘TOM-TOM! MORE TOM-TOM! NO!—CYMBALS!! CYMBALS!! HIT THE DAMN SNAREDRUM! MORE BASS DRUM! DOUBLE UP FOR CHRIST’S SAKE! HIT IT! HIT IT! OVER THERE! YEAH, THAT ONE!!’

He went on like this for quite a while until Dai Bowen, the drummer, who was a Welshman, told him to bugger off. At this moment I decided to play one of the 1st trumpet parts, not having heard any lead at all, up to now.

He rushed over, waving his arms. ‘No, no, NO!! I play lead!’

Later on, greatly daring, I finished up a number on a screamer. ‘YEAH!’ he shouted into the mike. ‘THAT WAS ACK VAN ROOYEN UP THERE ON THE HIGH B-FLAT! WOW ACK! MY MAN!’

Ack looked over at me and raised his eyebrows. That was the last time I was going to do that.

It was one of those nights where if you looked up just for a second, you were lost for three pages. We waded through the book. As far as I was concerned, everyone played all the time and everything sounded the same. I began to wish for some divine intervention. Maybe the fire station would catch fire? But I was out of luck. After that gig I never saw Al again.

Bob Coassin, who played in the Herbolzheimer band later on, said that Al kept a row of trumpet mouthpieces lined up right across the mantelpiece of his apartment, rather like Lew Soloff, (who appears later in this tale). While Al was out of the room Bob picked up and examined a few of them. When Al came back in again he made a bee-line for the mantelpiece and began to straighten and adjust the disturbed mouthpieces, fussing and muttering angrily until they were all absolutely in line once more, with the numbers neatly facing front. He must have been standing outside the room all the time, watching to see whether Bob touched anything.

Bob had previously played first trumpet in the Buddy Rich band. When Buddy gypped him out of some of his wages he left the band, taking the first trumpet book with him. Several days later a man wearing a dark suit, a felt hat with the brim snapped down, and a face like George Raft knocked on his door to say that Buddy had taken out a contract on him, and could he please have his book back. A long black car full of his friends, all wearing dark suits, was parked outside the house. You didn’t mess with these people, otherwise you were liable to wake up with your head looking back at you from the top of the bedpost. He handed over the book and left for Europe at once.

I’d heard a lot about Chuck Findley. He was the new wonder boy in Los Angeles. There wasn’t a session going without Chuck being booked on lead trumpet. He even had to go over to New York when Sinatra made his Trilogy records. Billy May had written all the charts for one of the three LP’s on the album, using all the old guys who had played on Frank’s earlier records. They needed a young guy to lead the brass, though. None of the old stalwarts could play like that any more.

Peter had asked me to write several arrangements of Earth, Wind, & Fire tunes. When I turned up in Baden-Baden with the music Chuck was there in the band.

By now I’d played with many of the best trumpet players in the world, including the fabulous Maynard Ferguson. None of them impressed me as much as Chuck. As far as I am concerned he is the perfect first trumpet player, and he also plays great jazz.

During the recording of Fantasy Peter asked me to put something over the top of one of the long chords. I went into the studio and asked Chuck if he’d like to play a few bars of New York, New York over the chord. This would take him up to a very long double octave C-sharp, a very difficult note to play on the trumpet, and well out of most people’s range.

‘Let’s do it,’ he said, and played it at once, and once only.

‘Jesus, Chuck,’ I said, after he’d done it. ‘You brought tears to my eyes then.’

'How do you do that?' said Ack.

'If you can do it, it's easy,' I said. 'It's only difficult when you can't do it.' My armchair philosophy.

'If Derek (Watkins) had been here he would have taken it up another octave,' said Chuck.

As far as I was concerned Chuck  was the ideal player because he didn’t try and dominate the band. I’m afraid that was something I used to do myself—now I was getting a free lesson on how not to do it, but far too late in my career.

Chuck was like a schoolboy in the Italian restaurant later on. He ate three plates of spaghetti, one after the other, each one with a different sauce. He was constantly laughing and joking. Every now and then his wife would say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry you aren’t having a good time.’

The way the Americans always stuff themselves when they’re over here makes one wonder what the hell they get to eat back home. Our symphony orchestra solved that question for me. After making a tour of the States they informed me that all they got to eat anywhere was hamburgers and hot dogs.

Hermann, the bass trombone player in the symphony orchestra, was a school friend of the leader of the Bundeswehr Big Band, which was stationed at the old wartime military radio complex in Euskirchen. This was a sort of German Army, Navy, Air Force band, only there for publicity purposes. They never played anything but show and dance music, jazz orientated, and never, ever, played on parades, or military occasions.

The band was great, and Hermann got me an introduction to Egon Suhrenkamp, who directed the band. He was a Master Sergeant, but the real boss of the band was a career soldier named Major Schiffer. This guy knew nothing about music, and had little to say about policy in the band, but he made damn sure that his name got plastered all over the place wherever the band played.

I wrote Egon a score of the tune The High and the Mighty to try out, with rock rhythms, and featuring the three girl singers all the way through, but singing without words and mingling all the time with the wind instruments. Singing EEEEE, AHHHHH, OHHHHHH or OOOOOOO in unison produces stunning effects from a vocal group. The result gave the band a strange, almost heavenly sound. Icy fingers played up and down my spine when I first heard it.

A few days after I’d sent the score Egon called up and gave me twelve titles to write for the band—a whole LP.

The band came to Saarbrücken after they’d finished the recording and Egon took me into a pub to hear the music. He just gave the bartender some money to slip the cassette into the audio system.

No one in the pub reacted to the music, but the bartender gave Egon the cassette back almost at once, saying that his customers didn’t dig that kind of rubbish.

I thought—Jesus, can it really be that bad? I’d had to write everything in a tearing hurry. I could hardly hear anything in there anyway, because of my rotten ears.

I went with the band to the Saarlandhalle, where they were making a TV show, and found that the whole show had been based on my music. The band was just miming to the newly recorded playback, and it sounded fantastic.

The girls almost stole the show, three great looking chicks. One of the girls came from Iran, a dark-haired beauty, and we hit it off right away.

What amazed me the most was the way the band had played on the recording. Everything I had written had been faithfully reproduced, great playing, wonderful feeling, with no alterations.

Many bandleaders like to show how clever they are by changing things in arrangements, without really knowing why certain things have been written in there. Usually they ruin the whole concept of the piece. One guy in Hamburg once took all of the raised ninths out of an introduction I had written for his orchestra, thinking that they were wrong notes. This turned a very exotic bit of writing into a succession of plain major chords, which made the piece sound ridiculous. Egon hadn’t done anything like that, and had somehow got inside my brain, bringing out the very best in everything.

Major Schiffer didn’t like the LP because it wasn’t commercial, didn’t have his name plastered all over it, and didn’t have any tunes composed by himself on it, whereby he could cop royalties.

Egon told me that it was the best set of recordings the band had ever made in its long career. He had ferocious arguments with Schiffer about this new kind of music, which was ultra-modern jazz/rock, using all the electronics available to me.

Then Egon retired from the army suddenly, thoroughly disillusioned by everything.

I never received any more arrangement contracts from the Bundeswehr after he left, and the band settled back sullenly into playing pop music. It was a shame, with such a tremendous potential.

Getting money from the Bundeswehr meant filling in several forms in sextuple. These were the same forms used by the army for ordering tanks and airplanes. The position where you had to write in the price had nine places on it—room to write in a figure of up to 999.99 million marks. The completed forms went everywhere, including one copy to the General Secretary of UNO.

I had to fly quite often to Cologne, sometimes for a week at a time, for record discussions with Egon. The cost was enormous, with a regular flight, hotels and transport. The Bundeswehr didn’t pay those kind of costs, so that I had to put down some really stratospheric charges for my arrangements to cover expenses.

No one ever queried these charges. It seemed that I was allowed to put down any price I liked for the work, and they’d pay it, but expenses just weren’t on. This seems to be a stupid way of doing things, and in the end it cost them much more than it should have.

I had to go up to Hamburg to play a couple of jazz clubs with Peter, then we were going to play in the Ljubljana Jazz Festival.

The club in Hamburg was called der Fabrik, and it was, indeed, an old factory building, with all the machines removed, and the dirt and filth spread out a little more evenly over the floor.

Over the entrance was a huge stuffed moth-eaten elephant, which swayed dangerously when we played. The off-white walls of the Fabrik acted as a free canvas for anyone who wished to draw or paint on them. A sort of club had sprung up from this, and the club clientele was divided neatly between those who wanted to paint, and those who wished to hear jazz.

It was here that the now legendary trumpet duel between Alan Botschinsky and Ack took place, where the rest of the band left the stand and went to the bar for ten minutes, leaving them to it. The two of them went on brilliantly together, ad-libbing, sometimes even getting into the same phrase together, and never missed a beat in the whole of the ten minutes. Finally, Ack took a second to shout ‘Come back!’ and waved an arm at the rest of us. He thought we were going to leave them like that on their own for the rest of the night.

The audiences at such gatherings reminded me vividly of those of the past, often bearing, in enthusiasm and numbers, a marked resemblance to the crowds that packed The Jungle, where I used to play all of Dizzy’s solos in Leon Roy's band in the 1950’s.

Lots of local musicians would turn up when we played in Hamburg, including those from the James Last band, his brother Kai Warner’s band, and the dance band from the radio station Norddeutscherrundfunk.

In some of Peter’s arrangements there were passages where the whole band would have to play ad libitum. He only indicated vaguely the kind of rhythm we should play, and wrote crosses instead of notes. Some of the bars, where he wanted us to play double tempo, while the rhythm remained in single, were split down the middle with dotted lines.

The results were always astounding when we played passages like this. Listeners used to come over and ask to take a look at how the passage had been written. When I showed them they would look at me in disbelief. This wasn’t like any music they’d seen or heard before. Even Johnny Keating was amazed when he heard us do it in Ronnie’s club.

After the gig I had to take Peter’s BMW back to the hotel, and then drive it to Cologne the next day. Art Farmer came with me. Not knowing my way around Hamburg, I had no idea where the hotel was. Art said he had a rough plan in his head.

I hadn’t driven a car with manual gears for about twenty years, so we had a good old rock about in the beginning, with me nearly throwing Art through the windscreen a couple of times until I got used to the clutch.

‘I’ll be all right in a minute,’ I said.

‘I’m sure you will,’ said Art, strapping himself in firmly, and holding on to the door handle like grim death.

We got to Cologne next day at noon, just in time to pick up Frank Rosolino from the airport in Düsseldorf.

Frank was another man I’d always idolised. He had made himself famous in the Kenton band with his sparkling trombone solos, which used to raise the roof whenever the band played before a live audience. He played differently to any other player I’ve ever known. He said it was because the only music he could find to practice with as a young boy had been his brother’s violin tutor. And this was roughly how he played, as if the trombone was a violin.

He was delighted to be in Europe again. Everything he saw became a source of wonder. I’ve noticed this before with people out of Los Angeles. Anything genuinely British, French, or Italian fills them with joy, as if a life in America was one filled with cheap imitations.

We played in the Subway club that night. Next morning we journeyed down to Nürnberg, where Peter’s parents lived, stayed the night, and started off for Yugoslavia the next morning. Art had gone back to Vienna for some reason, so Jim Towsey, the baritone player was in the car.

We stopped for lunch in Salzburg. Frank pulled my arm and made me go and buy him a huge ice cream cornet. He licked and slurped away at it like a kid, moaning with pleasure. When he’d finished he demanded another one. He didn’t want to go and see Mozart’s birthplace or anything.

We were in the middle of the wilds of Yugoslavia, not long after leaving Austria, when Peter asked Frank if he’d like to drive. They changed over and we started off, with Frank chuckling like a baby, delighted with the handling of the car. Then I saw Frank light up a huge roach while he was driving one-handed.

At once I began banging on the back of his seat.

‘Stop the car!’

I got out and stood at the side of the road.

‘What’s up? You want to take a leak, take a leak.’

‘Nix on the funny cigarettes,’ I said.

‘How so?’

‘This is Communist country. If you get busted here for smoking dope, none of us will ever get out of the place alive. They hang junkies here. Apart from that I don’t feel too happy about being driven by a guy smoking pot.’

I started to walk away. They just sat there staring at me in amazement.

Then a voice drawled from the back of the car. It was Jim. He spoke without raising his head from his Frederick Forsythe novel.

‘Let Ron drive.’

This had an effect somewhat similar to that achieved by Major—de Coverley in the officers’ mess in Catch 22 when he shouted ‘Gimme eat!’ A stunned silence followed the announcement. Then Frank climbed grumpily out of the driving seat and got in the back, still smoking the joint. Jim cringed away from him and pointedly lowered his window a few inches.

I drove the rest of the way into Ljubljana while the rest of them slept. I had memorized the town map when I was sitting in the back, and so I was able to take all the correct street turnings, and stopped finally in the hotel courtyard.

‘Hey,’ said Peter, waking up suddenly. ‘We’d better ask someone the way to the hotel.’

‘We’re there,’ I said, smugly.

He looked at me in astonishment.

I didn’t realise my mistake until we drove back home again. Lost several times in the Yugoslavian mountains I was shouted at and prodded.

‘Here! You’re the damn navigator. Which way now?’

But right now, at the reception desk, drama awaited us.

Art was standing there, speechless with rage. As soon as he saw Peter he grabbed him and started shouting.

He had taken the late plane from Vienna to Belgrade the previous evening. Unfortunately, his ticket had been made out for Budapest, and he’d been put on the wrong plane.

His plane had landed in Budapest just as the airport was closing for the night. As he had no visa for Hungary he wasn’t allowed out of the airport, so they locked him in for the night and put out all the lights. He’d had to sleep on a hard wooden bench in total darkness.

‘How could a mistake like that possibly happen?’ said Peter, spreading his hands in placation. ‘My wife took care of all the ticket arrangements with your wife.’ ‘That’s right!’ bawled Art. ‘Your wife took care! And you know what? F— your wife!’

Then, realising that he had, perhaps, gone too far, he added, ‘AND F— MY WIFE TOO!’

continued >>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved