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The Great Big Bands

Studio Work 2

Some of the bands playing in the Mecca dancehalls were very good, and I was often booked to play broadcasts with the Bob Miller band, from the Streatham Locarno, and Denny Boyce, who was resident in the Orchid Rooms, Purley. Denny had a couple of girls in his band: I believe they were the trumpeter June Robinson, and tenor-saxophonist Betty Smith. They were first-class players, and Ronnie Hughes and I often had a lot of fun playing in that band for a night here and there.

Now and again some bandleader or other would make up a band of session players, and we'd do a gig somewhere. On one of them led by Tommy Watt we had a trumpet section of Tom McQuater, Ronnie Hughes, Stan Roderick and myself, and we played a dance at the Hornsey town hall. The book was all jazz specials—there was no pandering to the public on this occasion. At one point we played the Dave Brubeck number Take Five. The dancers shuffled around happily in 5/4, doing the waltz, in which their steps only came together every three bars. Late in the evening we put up the Tommy Dorsey special Well Get It, which Ziggy Elman and Chuck Peterson played in the 1943 film DuBarry was a Lady. It was a trumpet duet for Stan and me, all in the upper range of the instrument, and I doubt whether either of us had ever seen it before, but we played it perfectly, which seemed to surprise no one. Twenty-five years later I met Tommy Watt again down in Ronnie Scott’s club when I played there with Peter Herbolzheimer, and the first thing he said was, ‘I remember you and Stan playing Well Get It that night in Hornsey.’

Sometimes I had to turn up at one of the theatres in a rush, because the first trumpet player was ill, or had another gig which he couldn’t refuse. The contractors did some juggling sometimes, and I would more often than not have to turn up just before the show started and sight-read the book. Mostly the parts would have been altered, not too clearly, and with a shorthand peculiar to the regular player. Some of the time the lighting was pretty bad, as well, so half the time I’d be flinching in anticipation of coming in suddenly on my own by mistake. There was no standard of marking parts, so a sudden jump to a bar several pages on, with another cut back again some time later was like floundering on through a sort of musical no-man’s land.

This happened often on broadcasts, too. I had to do such a rush job once with the Eric Delaney band because Albert Hall had been taken ill. I was called to the BBC One studio in Piccadilly only minutes before the broadcast began. We played a few tunes, then I turned over the music to find that on the next number I was playing fifth trumpet. George Bradley, the man beside me assured me that it was, indeed, the lead part, but that it had been written for a special fifth trumpet book. But the band had only ever had four trumpets as far as I knew.

When I asked George about it he said that Eric had a whole load of arrangements written for five trumpets because he thought that I was coming on the band. He'd put the leads on the fifth part because he didn't want to upset the first trumpet player. That was pretty weird, to say the least, and he'd also completely forgotten to ask me to join the band. I did a couple of gigs with the band later on. Albert Hall was still playing first trumpet, and he had a small electric switchboard underneath his music stand. He said that it controlled the lighting all around Eric’s drum kit.

‘What’s this one?’ I said, and pressed one of the buttons. At once the drum rostrum began to turn slowly, with Eric playing away like mad on it.

‘Don’t do that!’ said Albert, and tried to stop it, but the rostrum only stopped when Eric was facing the wall, with his back to the audience. There it stuck, and nothing would budge it.

I was booked for a film premier in one of the big cinemas in Leicester Square. When I arrived I noticed that the film was called A Night to Remember, which meant nothing to me. Stan Reynolds, Albert Hall and Frank Thornton were the other trumpet players. We were supposed to sit in front of the screen in a makeshift orchestra pit and play an overture to the film.

The music was old, very old, but it didn’t worry us until we started to play. The first few bars were catastrophic and we stopped at once.

‘Trumpets in “A”’ shouted the conductor over to us gaily. None of us had noticed that. The film was about the sinking of the Titanic, and we were playing the music of 1912. In those days a great amount of music was written in sharp keys—very good for violins, but putting Bb instruments such as the trumpet and cornet into impossible keys. Today, technique has improved so much that players can handle any key with ease, but at the beginning of the century most cornets were made with a rotary valve that could lower the pitch of the instrument one semitone. In a concert key of A natural a Bb cornet would have had to play in B, a key containing five sharps. Merely twisting the rotary valve put the cornet into the key of C, with no accidentals.

As there is no way one can successfully lower the pitch of a modern Bb trumpet one half-tone we had to transpose everything we played a half-tone down. Playing at speed, only Frank half-managed it. The rest of us floundered on. In the interval I rushed around the music shops, finally discovering an old rotary valve cornet at Boosey and Hawkes, which I borrowed. This saved the situation as far as I was concerned, but the others plodded on with limited success.

By now I was working so hard, also doing the Goon Shows on Sundays, before rushing over to the Palladium, that you’d think I would have saved a mint of money, but that wasn’t the case. I don’t know why that was, but we managed to save nothing.

The Goon shows were one of the easiest jobs in the business. They were recorded at midday on Sundays over in the Camden Theatre before an audience. Spike Milligan wrote the script, and Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe clowned around on stage beside a man surrounded by sound effects. The orchestra was conducted by Wally Stott. We only played a couple of numbers, the rest was just chaos.

As far as I could make out they never stuck to the script, everyone was ad-libbing so much, and falling about laughing at themselves that even the musicians could make neither head nor tale of it. Recorded, the show was roughly three times as long as the edited version which was broadcast later.

During a break one Sunday Dave Lee walked in. I had only just left him in Johannesburg, where he’d been playing piano in a small group. Now he’d arrived back in London with one suitcase—all he had in the world. The police had knocked him up at 3 am on Friday morning and told him to get the hell out on the next plane. In his efforts to bring some jazz into the lives of the black community there Dave had been mixing too freely with the natives, hence the brutal expatriation.

Many years later Dave was to obtain permission to run an FM jazz channel in England, which, due to an initial lack of support from the listeners, and much pressure from the sponsors, experienced some hard going in the beginning.

One of the viola players in the West Side Story orchestra was a contractor named Harry Martell, who often fixed up sessions with Judy Garland when she visited Britain. Another member of the WSS string section was violinist Sid Margo, who booked me one day for a film session at EMI. When I got into the studio the first guy I saw was a young trumpet player called John Barry.

My first thought was—what the hell is he doing here? He was a reasonable player, and ran his own small combo, but I couldn't imagine that he was going to sit with us in the trumpet section.

I’d known John Barry Prendergast for a long time. His dad owned a theatre in York which we used to visit quite often. Every time we went up there Parnell called a rehearsal, something that we hated after the long bus ride, and we had to run through some of John’s arrangements.

This we did grimly, handing them back afterwards without comment. They were generally lengthy and pretty boring.

Bill Russo told me later on that he vaguely remembered John begging him for a correspondence course in arranging, and sending him lengthy scores from time to time which he corrected and returned.

To my surprise he now mounted the podium and conducted the orchestra. It was music for the very first James Bond film, Doctor No.

That day we had a whole load of trouble with some of the high trumpet unisons in the title music. One of the players was way off form that day. It was pretty obvious why that was, but we did our best to cover for him.

Some time later there was another James Bond session, but this time I wasn't booked. I protested at once to Sid. He said that John Barry had been dissatisfied with the trumpets on the first session, and, finding an empty whisky bottle under my chair afterwards, had asked him not to book me again.

I was furious. I could hardly credit that anyone would have done that deliberately, but it sure looked like it. I told Sid that I was practically a non-drinker, never drank before, or during, a session, never touched whisky or any other spirits anyway, and was highly regarded as a responsible lead trumpet player. Yeah, sure, but what about that whisky bottle? I asked him to phone up the two other trumpet players and ask them about it.

The next thing I knew, I was back on the session, and the culprit wasn't. I found it hard to forgive him for that, whether he had done it on purpose or not. He was drinking heavily at all hours of the day, was losing credibility fast, and was finally only kept going by the kindness of the other musicians, who would often book him on jobs with them and tell him to play it cool.

(For an interesting sequel to this recording session see The James Bond Theme Lawsuit).

Unfortunately I saw this drinking problem beginning to affect many other players, also in the United States. Maybe it was the responsibility that overcame them, because in studio work you are expected to be one hundred percent accurate in your playing all the time, whatever your physical condition, or personal problems. When I finally began playing in the London studios, the other trumpet players, all great lead players themselves, would often fight to get the lower trumpet parts on recordings or TV shows, so they could dodge the responsibility, and have a few drinks before, or during, the session.

Shortly afterwards Ronnie Ross asked me to go over to Germany with him to do a Jazz Workshop. These were usually put together for the Ruhrfest in Recklinghausen by Hans Gertberg from the Hamburg radio station. I met lots of new people, including Arne Domnerus and Bengt-Arne Wallin from Sweden, Fatty George, the clarinet player from Vienna, and Rolf Ericsson, the Swedish trumpet player from the Duke Ellington band—the only white player Duke ever had as a regular in the band. I also met Toots Thielemans for the first time.

I shared a hotel room with Rolf later on in Berlin and he told me all about the troubles he'd had in the Ellington band. The book was a massive lump of unnumbered parts. No one helped him find whatever it was they were playing, but finding the music didn’t always help an awful lot. Ellington often decided, during rehearsals of new music, or even several months later, that he would like, say, the baritone sax to play a piece of the first trumpet part, a tenor to take over bits of the second trombone, and so on. Most of the numbers had alterations of some sort. Such on the spot changes played an important part in the sound of the Ellington band, but, as hardly anyone ever marked the parts accordingly, it was a nightmare for the newcomer.

Ellington, of course, had his own way of composing and scoring music, and I never came across anyone, other than John Dankworth, who even attempted to apply Duke’s methods in his own writing.

As Rolf was the only white man there he felt the draught in many ways. A typical incident was when the trumpet player seated beside him (whom I don’t think it would be too wise to name) pulled out a knife and slammed it down forcibly into his music stand just before the band began to play. ‘Don’t anyone speak to me, OK?’ he growled. Later on Ċke Persson, another Swede, told me of similar incidents when he played a couple of nights in the band.

Hans Gertberg booked the Jazz Workshop band into a hotel way out of Recklinghausen so that none of us would get drunk and lost in the town. He knew his jazz musicians. This way he could gather us fairly swiftly for rehearsals.

It should have been a good band, but you don’t just throw a lot of stars together and expect to get a great band out of it. The arrangements had been done by all sorts of people, and there wasn’t a good score amongst them. Some of the very worst had been written by Hans Koller, the celebrated tenorist from Vienna, who should have known better.

I met Richard Krueger, the jazz programmer from the radio station in Saarland, who would later be instrumental in getting me a job with Max Greger in Munich.

Many of the musicians seemed to regard things like this as an opportunity to drink themselves stupid. A lot of them hardly went to bed for the whole of the workshop. Ronnie Ross was so drunk when we got on the plane back to London afterwards that he couldn’t get out of his seat when we landed. I had to more or less carry him out to his wife, who met the plane at Heathrow.

I didn’t have a moment to spare because I was supposed to be in another jazz festival up in the north of England only a couple of hours later. I drove like a maniac and arrived only minutes before the Dankworth band went on.

As I walked into the huge tent a small group was playing, and I saw Ronnie Ross just finishing a baritone solo. He gave me the wink as I walked by. I never found out how the hell he managed that.

Later on I was asked by Gertberg if I could play the French Horn, because he needed one on the next workshop. I said I’d try.

Jim Brown, who played in one of the London symphony orchestras, loaned me one of his horns, on the understanding that I didn’t try and crash into the session business on horn when I returned. The classical London horn players were all afraid of something like that happening, because they really couldn’t grasp the jazz phrasing necessary in those days.

I practised for a week, now playing left-handed of course, the horn, for some archaic reason, being built around the wrong way, and managed to get some sort of noise out of it.

Some of the stuff we had to play on that workshop was pretty tricky for horn. One of the tunes was Boplicity, a very fast number by Gil Evans that Miles used to play. Fingering left-handed didn’t cause me any problems, but I could only play in the high register on the horn, which has a really tremendous compass of notes, and fiercely loud, even drowning out the trumpets on several occasions. When we were introduced by Gertberg at the beginning of the show, each member had to stand up and play a chorus to get his applause. I chose to play Ernie Royal’s solo from Woody Herman’s The Keeper of the Flame, which is a good old scream up on trumpet, but when I blasted it out there on horn it almost wrecked the place.

As a matter of fact—I was so taken by this solo of Ernie’s that I used to play it every night in the Squadronaires on trumpet, in the one spot of C Jam Blues where everyone in the band had to play a solo. Ronnie Aldrich became so fed up with hearing it that he asked me to play something else, but I liked it. The end result was that the whole band used to join in and play the solo with me.

Everyone in the Workshop seemed to be satisfied, but as we left for the airport afterwards the American trombonist Nat Peck said to me, blowing pipe smoke into my face, that I was a nice guy, but I should never play the horn again, as long as I lived. Nat had played in Glenn Miller’s AEF band during the war.

Still, I’d received two hundred pounds—the most I’d ever earned for just one concert.

When I took the horn back to Jim Brown, with a bottle of duty-free whisky by way of thanks, the place was swarming with cops. Jim lived on the edge of a small common in Norwood, and a young girl had been discovered strangled under a tree right in front of his house early that morning.

The police were questioning everyone in sight, I landed right in the middle of it, and had to give details of my whereabouts on the previous evening. When I said Recklinghausen my questioner thought I was trying to be funny until I showed him the hotel bill. When I mentioned that a murderer would hardly be standing around the scene only a few hours later he smiled grimly. I don’t know whether the murderer was ever caught.

This was nothing compared with a grilling I got once in Brixton. My wife had asked me to take a bundle of laundry to a launderette in Brixton, on the way to meeting the coach which was taking the band to Southport. It was Thursday afternoon, and the shop was closed, so I took the washing to Southport with me.

When the coach dropped me back in Brixton at three in the morning to wait for the all night bus I was still clutching the bundle. Up came two cops. After the long hard day I was in no mood for trifling.

‘Whatcher got there, sonny?’

‘It’s my wife’s laundry.’

‘We’re asking you what you’ve got there though, aren’t we?’

‘No really. It’s my wife’s laundry.’

‘Let’s have a look, then.’

‘Oh, no.’

‘We can make you, you know,’ said the younger of the two, fingering his truncheon.

‘You lay a finger on me and I’ll hit you with all sorts of lawsuits,’ I said. ‘I’m a musician, and if you damage me I’m insured right up to the hilt.’

‘Come on now,’ said the older policeman. ‘You have to admit that it looks a bit suspicious, you standing around here with that bundle in the middle of the night.’

‘Do you think I’d be standing here if I had something to hide?’

‘What’s in it, then,’ said the young one.

I explained what had happened. They asked to see the washing. I refused. I wasn’t going to have them paw through my wife’s soiled underwear. Now they had to either arrest me or forget about it. Just then the all-night bus came and I got on it, leaving them standing there with their mouths open.

I shouldn’t have been so cocky. Not long after that a plain-clothes police car unit jumped the tenor sax player Tony Coe in Shepherd’s Bush. Up in Nottingham that afternoon, playing with Humphrey Littleton’s band, he had seen a small air-pistol in a shop, and had bought it for his son. Thinking it was a hold-up he now dragged the gun out of his pocket and waved it at them. They beat him up at once and threw him into Brixton Prison for resisting arrest, and unlawful possession, and so on.

He was allowed one phone call and he called Kathy Stobart, who managed to convince the law that he was acting in self-defence.

This was just another problem encountered by musicians. Walking around at night with a big case always attracted the attention of the police. When Ken Mackintosh’s baritone player Jimmy Staples was stopped like that he had to open up the sax case.

‘Where did you get it?’ said the cops, whereupon Jim screwed it all together and gave them an impromptu and very loud rendering of Don’t Get Around Much Any More which soon had half the residents of the street howling for silence. But no one could stop him until he’d played the whole chorus, by which time the cops were on their knees begging him to give over.

Jackie Armstrong told me of an incident in the Heath band several years earlier. The band had played at the Police Ball in one of the London hotels. Johnny Gray was playing tenor in the band at the time, and after the dance he struck up a drinking acquaintance with one of the policemen in the bar. They had a great time, drank well into the night, and parted the best of friends.

A few days later John was stopped by a motorcycle cop as he was driving through Hyde Park. It was his pal from the Police Ball, who greeted John like an old friend as soon as he recognised him. They had a good laugh about things, and both agreed that it had been a splendid affair. After a good bit of this John said that he had to be moving on, otherwise he’d be late for a session. The cop cleared his throat, said, “Let’s see, now. Hmm. Speeding, wasn’t it?’ and started to write Johnny a ticket. With that John got out of the car suddenly, and he was enormous. The cop disappeared at once.

Jackie told me another bit of Heathlore that had happened on another occasion. The band had been playing a dance in Manchester. There were two bands on, the other being that of Joe Loss.

After the dance the two bands went back to the Midland Hotel, where they were staying. Joe sat down with Ted and a few of the other musicians in the lounge for a drink and a chat. While this was going on Ted's singer Lita Roza took drummer Ronnie Verrell upstairs to her room, dressed him in one of her most daring frocks, stuck a wig on his head and made up his face heavily.

Down they came to the lounge again, with Ron stumbling in Lita's high-heeled shoes. When they entered the lounge he made a bee-line for Joe and sat down beside him. Then he started to come on to Joe like mad, pressing up close, stroking his leg and shaking his curls at him.

Poor Joe had no idea who this garish creature was, and tried to get up, but Ronnie had him pinned down. Everyone was falling about laughing. Even Ted said nothing, but continued with whatever he had been saying as if nothing unusual was going on. Finally Joe managed to extricate himself from Ron's clutches and fled. He didn't realise who the pushy girl had been until someone told him the next day.

Friedrich Gulda led the band on this last Jazz Workshop. He was a greatly celebrated concert pianist, whom I was to see a lot of later in life. For this concert he was playing the baritone sax, and, as he had both hands full with the instrument, he conducted us with his foot.

We made an LP in Berlin, in the bomb damaged Ariola studio, right up against the Berlin Wall. Halfway through the session there was a tremendous argument about money between the producer and the engineer, which the producer won. The engineer had the last word in the end, though, because when the record was issued it was discovered that the tracks before the argument were in stereo, while those recorded afterwards were only in mono. This rendered the whole production almost worthless.

We went on from Berlin to Saarbrücken, where we were to make a television show. Instead of using the music we’d played on the concert, which wasn’t bad this time, Hans Gertberg decided to have us all standing around the studio sort of casually, jamming away on Round Midnight while the camera wandered around picking out the different soloists from time to time.

It may have worked fine with a small group, but this was a twenty piece band, and it meant that most of us wouldn’t get to play at all.

Suddenly Hans was called away to the telephone. As he left by the main studio door the television director Truck Branss appeared as if by magic through the back way. He grasped the situation at once, and quickly put a skillfully montaged show together on video tape while Richard Krueger engaged Hans in a long and complicated conversation over in the restaurant.

A small fortune was paid out for each one of those Jazz Workshops; the idea was good, but the results were generally disappointing. Still, I got to meet a lot of the European musicians I was to work with later on.

The violinist Ben Selvin appeared one day in London.  Ben had been the violin-leader of  the Ben Selvin Novelty orchestra back in the 1920’s. His recording of Dardanella sold 6.5 million copies, and over 2 million copies of sheet music. Ben is reputed to have made over nine thousand records in his career. He’d used different names to record with many different companies, and was at one time entered in the Guiness Book of Records as the most prolific recording artist. 

He was certainly no slouch when it came to making money. Ben was now into making Musak—the music played in supermarkets, wash-saloons, cowsheds and on the public observation platforms of building sites. Musak had to be played with no dynamics, no solos, no recognisable tunes and no inspiration. The union had to come to a special arrangement with Ben about this, and we were paid by the hour.

I thought that he was getting the music cheap, but, when he heard that I was going to work in Germany he asked me to fix up some recordings there. I tried to do so in Munich, but when he arrived Ben declared that the price was still too high, and went on to Yugoslavia, where he found a price that suited him. Both Maynard Ferguson and Ray Conniff were to later realise the benefits of using Yugoslav or Czech musicians—top quality at bottom prices.

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Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved