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The Great Big Bands

West Side Story

Now the fabulous West Side Story was coming to London. The American stars would play on for the first six months in England until the British actors had learned the parts. Phillip Jones, the classical trumpet player who was booking the orchestra in London, phoned and asked me if I wanted to do the job. (See West Side Story - Leonard Bernstein)

Up to then I’d never even heard of the show, but I bought a record to see what it was all about. It was really a job for a classical player, but the various jazzy bits in the score called for a bit of each. It was always easier for a jazz player to adapt to the classics than the other way around, so I took the job. The money for playing first trumpet in that show was exactly double the usual theatre fee.

This caused some chaos amongst all the other professional theatre musicians, who mostly played for slave wages, set by the Musicians’ Union some years previously. There was a widespread belief at the time that the people running the union were getting kickbacks from the Jack Hylton Agency, and some of the other theatre managements.

The union was pretty useless in those days, and only a handful of people used to turn up for the meetings. One day practically all the members of the London branch arrived at one of the meetings. There was an overflow from the building that went right down the street, and halfway around the corner into the next one. The police arrived in force, thinking it was a political demonstration.

The committee members were quite naturally astounded, and later on even more so, because when it came to any other business someone got up and proposed a dissolution of the present committee, and several hundred voices said ‘Aye’. Then a really tough and determined new committee was voted in, one of them being my dear friend, the trumpeter Freddy Clayton. The first item on the agenda was a revision of the London theatre rates.

We went straight up to Manchester and started rehearsing West Side Story in the thick November fog. The music was wonderful and we had the extremely gifted and talented Lawrence Leonard as conductor. I couldn’t have wished for a more helpful, sympathetic bunch of musicians. Laddy Busby was there on first trombone, and he helped, but the real assistance to me came from John Burdon and Andy MacGavin, two of the principal horn players from the Sinfonia, who knew how to read this kind of classically orientated music.

Most of the score of West Side Story is written in split time. Some of the bars would be, for instance, in alternate 2/4 and 4/4 time. This would only be annotated at the very beginning, so that you had to remember it all the way through the piece.

Sometimes every bar would be in a different time. The jazz sequences were written in 12/8, which was supposed to make it easier on the classical woodwind players, and also the string players, to help them to swing, and so on, but it created hell with the jazz players.

One of the violinists was almost in tears at some of this, and I took time out to help him with the jazz phrasing. He turned out to be David Katz, a very prolific session contractor, and we began a friendship which not only gained me a friend but also put me on to all of his Laurie Johnson sessions, which were mostly gramophone recordings and backgrounds for films.

That was the way the session world in London functioned. A lot of contractors were musicians. Because of the union time limits imposed on gramophone and film recordings they could only afford to use musicians who were capable of getting in and out of a studio fast and doing a perfect job. It meant that, although there were thousands of musicians in London, only a nucleus of these players were working the contract session world, and the sessions were having to be arranged so that we had time to get from one studio to the other.

All the television, recording, and film studios were spread out around London at all points of the compass, and we all had some pretty breathtaking driving to do sometimes to make the jobs, but no one ventured to turn down a session. To do so without good cause was professional suicide, and many good players fell by the wayside through this.

Laddy had often complained to me that trombone players only really got deep into the session business when they were Freemasons. He couldn’t get into a lodge, however much he tried. One had to be recommended, and he hadn’t been.

It wasn’t so bad for trumpets, so when I received an invitation to join the Water Buffaloes I turned it down with thanks. I was playing three sessions a day and hardly had time to sleep much less take part in masonic proceedings. I found out years later that some of the people who had put my name forward had been quite offended at that.

Phil Seamen was on drums in the West Side Story with Charlie Botterell behind him on percussion.

Once they’d taken a peek at the score, Charlie, Lawrence Leonard and Phil had to tour the Manchester plumbers’ shops looking for various lengths of piping. These had to give out certain notes when they were struck. Lawrence told me that some of the plumbers got so carried away at this that they were rushing around the storerooms merrily hammering random bits of pipe without knowing why they were doing it.

It was sheer murder walking around in Manchester in the prevailing fog. Where I lived it was impossible to cross the road. You’d get one foot off the pavement and a bus would roar up suddenly and nearly take your foot with it. The drivers seemed to be able to see over the top of the swirling pea-souper somehow.

Phil got pretty upset on opening night. By this time we were all very proud of our show, and we knew it was going to take the country by storm.

That first night the entire stalls were taken up by invited town dignitaries with their wives, with the Lord Mayor of Manchester bang in the middle of the front row.

Only a thin curtain separated the orchestra from the audience, as we were too large to fit into the normal orchestra pit.

It was easy to see, during the show, how the entire bunch of political yes-men were concentrating on the Lord Mayor, rather than on the action on stage. If he laughed, they laughed. If he shook his head, the whole of the orchestra stalls shook its head. It was the biggest example of ass-licking I’d ever seen.

By the end of the show that night Phil was so mad at all this that he waited until the lights came up, then he banged the huge tam-tam gong right beside the Lord Mayor’s ear, stood up so that his face appeared over the rail only inches from that worthy’s face and said, ‘Well I don’t know about you, Mayor Ponsonby, but I had a ball.’

This has since become a classic story, unfortunately distorted in the telling. The most popular version is that Phil also whipped a white cloth over his arm and said, ‘Dinner is served.’ He actually did that during one of the rehearsals, earlier on, but not at that particular moment.

One of the strangest bits of memorabilia to come out of that show has been missed by all of its chroniclers. It refers to the traditional playing of God Save the Queen at all performances of any kind in public places.

Originally it was to have been played at the end of the show. This was quickly shown to be a mistake. The show ends with the shooting and killing of Tony, and his body is carried out to a mournful dirge on the two notes of Somewhere. When the lights came up suddenly in Manchester for The Queen the whole audience was seen to be in tears.

From then on, for its entire run in the British Isles, the West Side Story had The Queen played before the show began, and the audience left the theatre afterwards to a few stirring choruses of America. This satisfied everybody, including the Lord Chancellor.

At the end of the run in Manchester the West Side Story production gave a party for the cast. The orchestra was not invited. Lawrence Leonard protested at once. Without the orchestra there would be no West Side Story. The organizers relented, and invited the section leaders, which were Laddy, Josh, Nick and myself.

I got hold of the stage manager and told him to tell his boss that he’d better invite the whole orchestra or I was going to phone up my pal in the Daily Express.

It would have made great headlines:


Of course they backed down, but most of the orchestra stayed away anyway under protest. I went with Laddy, and I had to more or less hold him down later in the evening when he wanted to take a swat at George Chakiris.

That guy came over as an asshole on stage, but in person he was even more unbearable. This was maybe his first major role of any kind, and he was strutting around regally, giving off airs as if he were King Solomon himself.

When he saw us he gave us a look as if he’d stepped in some dog dirt. That did it.

‘I’m going to belt him one,’ said Laddy, struggling with me. ‘To hell with him. If it wasn’t for us catching him up every night he’d never get through some of his songs.’ But I was stronger than Laddy, and I dragged him out in the fog to a pub.

When the West Side Story hit London in December that year it was a sensation, and was booked solidly for the entire three-year run. I kept on working with Parnell’s TV orchestra, and managed to do this, and all my sessions by putting in Cliff Haines as a deputy. Cliff was also a member of the Sinfonia of London, like the two hornists, and he seemed to be the only guy capable of playing the book.

In the beginning I invited a lot of trumpet players down into the pit to watch the show, hoping that some of them would take on the job of deputy. But they all turned it down once they’d seen the music. I suppose it must have been terrifying to listen to.

I played that show for three years, and never got tired of watching it. But you had to do something in the orchestra pit to while away the time when you weren’t playing, so I played endless games of chess with Gordon Rose, the second trumpet player. In the end, Gordon took over the lead when I was away, and found a deputy for the second trumpet parts. But even they were difficult, because some of the parts were very high, having originally been written for ‘D’ trumpet. Gordon was a very good player indeed, and he came into the Bill Russo Orchestra with me later on. As far as I know he got into writing film music after I left England.

With Laddy on bass trombone was a guy named Maurice Gee. He had two hobbies only, one of which was also Laddy’s and they used to hit the road running just as soon as the love scene in the wedding dress shop started. There were no trombones in One Hand, One Heart.

Around the corner in the Captain’s Cabin the drinks would already be set up on the bar for them. Timing was of the essence here.

Maurice’s other hobby was learning how to improve his memory. He would sit there in the bandroom giving countless examples of this.

‘Go on, ask me something. Anything. Football results—cricket scores—important dates—well go on then. Here, give me the phone book. Look—I’ll read a page now, then you ask me to tell you the twenty-fifth name or something like that.’

When he did feats of memory like that he was astoundingly impressive. Afterwards when we went into the pit to begin the overture he invariably forgot his trombone.

Jock Faulds, on bass clarinet, sat in the pit drawing birds for a British Museum catalogue. Jock was dour, as all good Scots should be, and he had an exceedingly dry wit. During rehearsals of the Rumble Laddy and Maurice tried out a very low trombone passage on their own which came out as a barrage of loud and savage grunts. ‘My God!’ I exclaimed, with a marked lack of erudition, ‘that sounds like two hippopotamuses fighting over a piece of meat.’

Jock turned and remarked, dryly, ‘Hippopotami are vegetarian.’

The first violinist, Josh Glazier, was a chronic protester who got regularly forcibly ejected from Musicians’ Union meetings. Now and again he conducted the orchestra when Lawrence was away. On these occasions he usually fired me at some time during the performance.

Phil Seamen sat just behind me on drums. He had married one of the dancing girls in a show we’d done earlier on with Jack Parnell called Jazz Wagon. Kenny Napper had married the other girl.

I should say something here about the professional dancing girls we encountered wherever we went. There seemed to be a general feeling, especially among wives, that these girls were nothing better than whores, all putting it about while madly seeking a rich husband—anyone’s rich husband.

This was not the case. Those girls were dedicated to their work. The troupes of dancers that I met usually rehearsed most of the day. Often they would be strictly controlled by contract. A love affair, and its consequences, could lose them the job and have serious repercussions in a carefully choreographed dance sequence, especially if the company was away on tour. For any diversions that compromised the act they would generally wind up getting sued.

The Anti-Baby Pill was unknown in those days, and others took their chances, but these girls didn’t, and so we had platonic friendships or nothing. After a while you could get used to that. Once they knew that you could be trusted the girls could be very good pals.

Phil’s new wife, Leoni, spoke with a very posh accent. When she took Phil home to meet Daddy they were met at the station by a chauffeur-driver Daimler. The car swept them along country lanes and finally through an enormous pair of iron gates into a woods. There they drove for several miles until they reached her Dad’s stately home.

He was a colonel, no less, and he didn’t very much like the look of Phil. The marriage dissolved quite quickly after that, and somebody gave Phil an Alsatian puppy as consolation prize.

They became inseparable. Due to problems with his landlord, because the dog barked and whined in his absence, Phil brought him down into the orchestra pit one night. There the dog slept, through all the noise, laying on the floor between the bass drum and high-hat cymbals.

At one point of the show Charlie Botterell, behind Phil on the timpani, had to come forward and hit the large tam-tam, which was suspended right beside Phil’s head. As Charlie was normally standing well back behind his timpani the dog hadn’t seen him up to then.

As soon as Charlie appeared, with a big woolly stick in his hand, raised and ready to beat the gong, the dog saw him, probably thought he was going to hit Phil, and went mad. At that moment the orchestra went into a general pause. With the drama on stage there was a deathly silence in the theatre, broken only by the frenzied barking of Phil’s dog.

On stage they broke up.

Faces appeared all along the rail of the orchestra pit.

Lawrence Leonard went down on his knees, hands clasped, praying for someone to stop the racket.

Phil managed to get his hands around the dog’s muzzle, so that only a muffled snarling could be heard. He wrestled the dog out of the pit and shut him up in the bandroom, from whence he could be heard whining vigorously whenever the orchestra stopped playing.

Lawrence sent a note over. Does anyone have an animal in the pit? We passed it on to Phil.

He was incensed.

‘No one’s going to call my dog a bleedin’ animal,’ he snarled, and started to write an angry reply on the back of the note. He did this on the snare drum, which rattled briskly with every movement of the pencil, thus creating yet another sort of background to the dialogue on stage.

Lawrence posted a sign in the bandroom that evening: NO LIVESTOCK TO BE BROUGHT INTO THE PIT.

Phil had to take the dog everywhere with him, and this caused a rumpus in a Chinese restaurant in Greek Street. No sooner had he seated himself, with the dog under the table, than a waiter informed him that no dogs were allowed in the restaurant. When he refused to budge he got into a struggle with a couple of them which was resolved when another waiter hit him over the head with a metal tray loaded with cutlery.

Phil staggered outside bleeding. Right in front of the restaurant was a pile of rubble from a building renovation. Phil picked up the nearest object he could lay hands on and attacked the restaurant with it. It turned out to be a large steel girder, and he took the whole door off with one blow. During the fracas the dog did nothing to help him, just cowered cravenly in a corner. As far as I know it didn’t even bark.

Of course Phil was arrested and had to pay for the door. When we took a look at the girder later on no one could lift it. In his mad rage he’d had the strength of ten men, as the old saying goes. He got rid of the dog soon after that. It had been a short and sweet love affair, like his marriage.

We’d long discovered that Leonard Bernstein had composed the melodies for the West Side Story but two other guys called Sid Ramin and Irvin Kostall had orchestrated the music. They were the ones who had created, out of the melodies, some of the most exciting bits of music in the Dance in the Gym, and the Rumble.

In a short fast sequel to the Rumble, where the two gangs meet at night for a punch-up, the music for brass was so difficult that we couldn’t even begin to play it at first. But Laddy said, ‘Come on—we can’t let ourselves be beaten by this’ and so we rehearsed it privately. When we finally managed to play it perfectly everyone was amazed.

My wife at that time was very friendly with Emily Keating, and also Mamie, Ronnie Chamberlain’s wife. Both of their husbands were with the Heath band at the time, and I came home from the theatre one night to find her in a high state of excitement. Stan Kenton had quite recently made a record of the Mardi Gras, where all the musicians had brought along their wives and children to sing. Now Ted was going one better and wanted all the band wives to appear with the orchestra on television. This didn’t affect my wife one little bit, because I wasn’t in the Heath band, but she panicked and threw herself around as if she’d just received a personal invitation from the Queen.

The frenzied discussions, the long hectic phone-calls, the agonies of choosing an appropriate dress for the occasion all turned quickly into high comedy. What to wear, the hair-do, make-up, jewelry, shoes, stockings, and, for all I know, the colour of their knickers, was all changed, re-changed, discarded, and panicked over a thousand-and-one times. Once everything had been decided upon it all became changed yet again in a burst of despairing indecision. Spies were sent abroad to ensure that no two girls turned up in identical outfits. I was positive that my wife was going to have a nervous breakdown.

‘For God’s Sake,’ I said, ‘You're not even on it. They are only going to be standing around in the background. Some of them may not even be seen by the camera.’ I was wasting my breath, and she quickly took this golden opportunity to attack me bitterly for not being in the Heath band myself, thereby depriving her of a chance to share in the glory. On the TV show the girls huddled together in the background, smiling nervously and positively glistening with terror when the camera came anywhere near.

Leonard Bernstein turned up after we’d been doing the show in London for a while. He was very complimentary, saying that the brass section was much better than the one he’d had in New York.

When he heard us play the fast sequel to the Rumble he was speechless. Then he said, wonderingly, ‘Did I write that?’

‘NO!’ we roared.

He came back a few minutes later.

‘Hey—you weren’t supposed to be able to play that bit. It was written to sound like a fight, ya know? No one was supposed to be able to play it.’

‘Tough luck,’ we said.

After six months the gangs on stage were replaced with British dancers. This had something to do with the actors’ union. Jerome Robbins, the choreographer, came back to coach the new members.

He was far from pleased with them, and so were we. The Americans had looked tough. However much they tried these guys looked like poofters.

When he lost his temper Jerome would fall on his knees and beat the stage with his hands, pitty-pat, pitty-pat.


After one hideous balls-up I heard him say, ‘If you don’t get it right next time I’m going to take away all your satin blouses.’

That did it.

Although we were, in the pursuit of our occupation, quite often surrounded by homosexuals, I do not know of one single gay jazz musician. If there had been one we would surely have known about it. All of the guys I knew were either dedicated married men, or roaring rampant types, eternally on the hunt for nooky.

Sometimes, during the West Side Story chess games I mentioned, I would get so carried away that I couldn’t remember playing. I’d look at the piece of music in front of me and I could not remember whether I’d already played it or not. The chess was taking my entire concentration.

After one such evening I was confronted upon leaving the stage door by Lawrence Leonard. A small neatly dressed man looking like management, or Mafia, or whatever, stood beside him.

Lawrence introduced us. The man’s name was Adolf Scheerbaum, or something like that. We shook hands. He congratulated me on my performance. I thanked him.

After he’d gone Lawrence told me that he was one of the most famous trumpet players in Germany, renowned for his brilliant renderings of the Brandenberg Concertos.

In fact most of the British classical trumpet players were impressed by the way we played that music. I did several sessions with symphony orchestras where I’d been called in to play the lead parts of the West Side Story. On one of them I found that Harold Jackson and Willy Lang were in the trumpet section. Harold was recognised as being the best classical trumpet player Britain had ever had, also a Brandenberg Concerto specialist. Willy was principal trumpet in the Halle Orchestra, and not far behind him.

The two of them showed keen interest in the jazz phrasing I was using, and kept asking me how I did it. They were especially interested in high note shakes. I found myself giving lessons to the two greatest players in the country. They, in turn, taught me how to play quietly, and how to box clever when playing pianissimo in a symphony orchestra.

‘Point the trumpet down on the floor, laddy, then once you’ve got the note, but only then, lift up the trumpet and let ‘em hear it. That way you can start it a bit louder.’

‘No one’s going to believe this,’ I said.

All this time I was still doing the Parnell TV shows. The American Talk Show celebrity Jack Paar took over one entire Saturday Spectacular, bringing his musical director Josť Mellis, a Puerto Rican, to conduct the show.

We were unused to this style of commercial presentation, actually a preview of things to come on British television. The timing of the show was regulated by a large clock situated right in front of Jack Paar, which caused him to break off whatever he was saying every few minutes to give a commercial. He did this in the middle of an interview with the actor A.E.Matthews, causing that gentleman to splutter with indignation.

‘What! What.....what is this? What the devil are you doing?’ he shouted, the famous face turning almost black with rage.

During a dog food commercial a Great Dane turned his nose up at the contents of the dish, causing great merriment from the audience. This embarrassed Paar considerably at the time, but the idea was used later on in a very successful dog food advert.

Josť Mellis had written a little theme that we used to play in and out of the commercials. Just for fun I managed to add little embellishments to the part each time we played it on the rehearsals. Josť looked at me and tapped his nose each time I did that. He was quite a funny guy, with an accent like Dezi Arnez, Lucy Ball’s husband. One night I spotted him sitting with Jack Paar in the front stalls at the West Side Story. I had a bit of a screech-up during one very loud dance sequence and, instead of playing what was written, I inserted Josť’s bit of music, but up a couple of octaves. All of a sudden his face came thrusting through the orchestra curtains. It lit up when he saw me.

‘Ah! You!’ he beamed. ‘Si! You are everywhere! I tink you follow me!

All the time I was working in the West Side Story orchestra I continued to do Jack Parnell's TV shows. In actual fact - when the WSS came down to London I discovered that someone else had taken my job with Parnell. But Tom McQuater and the others had a considerable amount of muscle and they got me back into the orchestra again. When Jack had a TV show I put a deputy into the WSS and everything worked out well. But Ted Heath had been calling up and pestering me to join his band for some time. I had to think about that, because it meant going out on the road again.

I began doing more and more of his work, so that I was now playing in three different orchestras on a regular basis, as well as the daily round of studio work. Then Cyril Stapleton offered me a job with the BBC Show Band (see Bits and Pieces)...

Heath >>>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved