Jazz Professional



Continuing the Minstrel's Tale down along the Costa Blanca
The events portrayed in this series are not necessarily in chronological order
Miles'd got killed if he hit me.
Thelonious Monk

Chapter Fourteen

Iron Men

Hand on heart—how many of you would have ever heard of Bernie Privin if he hadn't died recently and you read about it in Jazz Professional and other publications worldwide? Do you know who he was, even now? Well Bernie played lead trumpet in a great many of the American big bands we used to rave about when we were kids. Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet—think of a name, and you can bet he was in there at some time or other, leading one of those great brass sections.

Bernie was one of the Iron Men. You don't hear of them much. Critics don't wave their names under your noses. They like to talk about this or that jazz soloist, who has maybe played a chorus or two on the entire album, but rarely praise the man who has been soldiering on throughout, resourceful in his interpretation of the written part, deadly accurate, unflagging, tireless, utterly reliable. Bandleaders used to say, Give me a good lead trumpet and a good drummer and I'll give you a great band. There's a whole lot of truth in that. (Click here to read about Bernie)

Some years ago a critic reviewed a new LP on which I'd written most of the scores. Writing in a well-known jazz magazine he said, Most of the charts on this album were written by a young up-and-coming arranger called Ron Simmonds. I look forward with interest to hearing more of his work. When he wrote that I was already sixty-five years old, living in Spain, retired, with my career and a couple of thousand big band scores behind me. This guy had never heard of me, because I, too, was one of the Iron Men.

John Spencer, the Coventry man, now living in Seattle, whom I mentioned in Chapter Seven, has now written to me, at length, about our schooldays in Coventry together. For many people this would perhaps not be much of a big deal, but I went to a lot of schools as a kid. Coming over from Canada in 1935, and starting at age seven, I attended schools in Hawkwell, Southend, Hutton Village and Brentwood, all in Essex. Then Barkers' Butts, Tredington and the Coventry Tech, all in Warwickshire. We moved about a lot then, and I've moved about a lot more ever since. So for someone to pop up like this and not only remember the same teachers, but also remind me of some of the things they used to say to us, is nothing short of a miracle. And it's all due to the World Wide Web. If you want to find something, anything, it's on there somewhere.

Jack Parnell phoned me not long ago and we had a long chat about the good old days. He sent me the CD reviewed elsewhere in Jazz Professional and it is amazing. I remembered the music well, how could I ever forget, but I had never heard most of the issued recordings before. Then Vic Lewis called, and he got Stan Reynolds to send me some tapes of the stuff we recorded with his band. We started talking about things that had happened on tour with Vic's band and he asked me if I remembered the incident at the carnival in Basle, described in Ron's Pages, where one of the musicians in the band went off with an exceedingly beautiful girl at the end, only to discover that the girl was a guy.

Now I remember well who it was, because he was one of my mates, but Vic named another man. So I asked Stan, and also Pete Warner, both of whom were there that night. They remembered the incident vividly, and each of them named a different person. So now we have four. Gives you an idea of the problems the police face when they are asking for eye-witnesses.

Of course, as you all know, my memory is faultless. I can remember everything that has happened to me since I was born as if it were yesterday. Every note of every piece of music I ever played, every incident, every tiny detail. Absolute recall. Last week I mentioned to my wife, Conny, in passing, that a certain object in a television commercial we had just seen was yellow. She said, at once, that I was wrong. It was blue. We got into a Basil Fawlty type dialogue, no it isn't, yes it is, no it isn't, yes it is, no it isn't, YES IT IS! At that moment the commercial came on again and it was blue. Well it was yellow the last time, no it wasn't, yes it was, no it wasn't, and so on.

I had an email from Dougie Robinson. Dougie was Geraldo's lead alto for many years; took over the job from Harry Hayes. Wonderful player. We worked together with Geraldo in Monte Carlo, later on in Jack Parnell's television orchestra. He now lives in Portugal and plays in his own jazz group. Says he practices every day. Not bad for an 82 year old. Another Libra, of course.

When I read that I took a look at my trumpet case, gathering dust in the corner. I'm afraid to open it. I know the valves will be jammed solid, not to mention the tuning slides. Maybe I should put the damn case somewhere else. At least throw a cloth over it. Perhaps bury it in the garden. But curiosity got the better of me and I took out the Schilke, screwed it together and went splutter, splutter, squeak, curse and splutter.

What on earth is going on up there, shouted Conny. She had just come in from cleaning the goldfish pond. This time she hadn't fallen in, but it has always been touch and go since the first time. That was when she squelched slowly back up the steps, dragging weeds,Conny like Joseph Cotton in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Always good for a laugh, but I've learned not to laugh after that first time.

I'm practising the trumpet, my love, I said. Conny has never heard me play anywhere except in the local band here in Spain. She only knows what I have told her about my past life. It could be all lies, for all she knows, especially now. Suddenly a most gorgeous high note emerged from the trumpet. Ah! There was one left in there after all. I put it away again quickly. Don't want to push my luck.

There is an old German lady living nearby who doesn't believe a word I say. From time to time I've casually mentioned knowing certain German film stars, celebrities, bandleaders and singers when they appear on the box. Well of course I do, having worked with many of them on an almost daily basis. On her last birthday, she was ninety or a hundred, can't remember which, I overheard her say to her companion, “Du müßt kein Wort von ihm glauben. Er spinnt.” (You mustn't believe a word he tells you. He's a spinner of tales.) She demands to know if I ever played with Bert Kaempfert. Well, no. He's just about the only only I didn't work with. Told you so, she says, triumphantly. For her the entertainment world begins and ends with Bert. I did actually turn down a gig with him once, because I was working, but if I told her that she'd have said er spinnt again, so I didn't.

One of the other guests at her party, a young Englishman, later asked me what I'd done in life. I told him I'd been a big band trumpet player. Had I played with anyone famous? Ted Heath, for instance? Yes, I had. Oh, how jolly amusing, he said.

Bert Kaempfert's daughter, Marion, has been running the band, with trumpeter Tony Fisher, ever since her Dad died. In 1990 she married the Danish trumpeter Alan Botschinsky. Alan played a lot with us in Peter Herbolzheimer's band. He and Marion spent last Christmas at Peter's place in Cologne and Peter tells me that Alan is not too well now. He had a stroke a while back and is slowly recovering from that. The trouble for me here is that I can still see Alan, and all the other people I worked with, in my mind's eye, the way they were twenty or thirty years ago. I tend to forget that they are all about the same age as I am now. Peter has asked me to go with him to Belgrade in June. Ack van Rooyen is playing there. He's another mate of mine. Maybe I'll go. Might even see Dusko Goykovic there. Dusko lives in Munich but he often gets a big band together in Belgrade. I'll take my trumpet along and crash in on the gig. Maybe play The Flight of the Bumble Bee. Just kidding.

Even though it's forty years since I played in a touring band I still have vivid dreams where I turn up on the gig without my trumpet, tuxedo, white shirt, black shoes...you name it. Can't find my car, I know the stuff's in there. I walk through deserts, along promenades, through strange cities, down weird underground stations, looking for the damn car. I wake up to find the light on and my wife watching me anxiously. What was all that about then? I've wrecked the bed. Nothing, dear. Go back to sleep. I mentioned the dreams to Pete Warner. He has them all, plus having his tenor fall to bits just as he's about to play a feature. So it happens to all of us, but that doesn't make it any less alarming.


Chapter Fifteen >>>

Copyright 2004, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved