the Minstrel's Tale down along the Costa Blanca
The events portrayed in this series are not necessarily in chronological order
I'd known I was going to live
this long, I'd have taken taken better
care of myself
I drove over a field last week and must have hit some broken glass. Had to change the wheel and take my tyre in to Calpe for repair. While the guy was fixing it I noticed he had pictures of horses all around the walls.
"All mine," he said proudly. It was lunchtime, so he invited me home with him. Yeah, well these things happen in Spain all the time. He had kind of a ranch nearby, right in the centre of town. We ate outside in the courtyard and while we were doing that he had the stable lad parade his horses all around us. Now and then he would mount one and show us his party pieces. Beautiful dressage, proud horses, tossing their heads, nodding, stamping to order.
"When we do this for a show, of course, we dress up, the horses, too, and we have the music," he said. Then I remembered.
Paul Kuhn, my bandleader in Berlin, had returned from a holiday in Barcelona some years back and said that he'd had some horse riding lessons there. The music they'd played while he was riding round and around the ring had nearly driven him crazy. I discovered from a horse person friend that there was, indeed, very little decent horse music on the market to be had. He loaned me the only LP he had and when I played it to Paul he groaned. We decided to write some new stuff for the poor horses, hit the market.
When I spoke to the boss of a big Berlin publishing company he was all for it. Open up a new branch of music, make millions. The boss was none other than the father of Cornelia Froboess, the famous German singer and film actress. I gave him the record to listen to. He was practically stone deaf, so that when he was spotted loading it on to his record player his entire office staff exited the building in a great hurry. Being deaf as well it didn't worry me too much but when the music started it blew Paul right over against the wall.
So we wrote the new music, following the various disciplines on the borrowed LP. We recorded it all with the big band and gave the tape to my pal to try out on his horses. Beautiful. The riders loved it. The horses didn't. We should have been warned beforehand by the reaction to Stravinsky's Circus Polka when the Barnum and Bailey Circus elephants first heard it. To quote George Brinton Beale, '...they listened, but with growing distaste and uneasiness.' So it was with the horses. We had to abandon the idea. There's no accounting for taste.
Elephants, as we all know, are very polite animals, none more so than the ones you see in the zoo. We used to do concerts at the zoo in Saarbrücken and I always strolled around afterwards and had a few words with one of the older elephants. Very nice chap he was, too, and he stood there nodding as I spoke to him, friendly as can be. Rather like the ring-tailed coati in the Blackpool Tower zoo who used to rush over to have me scratch his back whenever I went up there. Some time later I heard that my elephant friend, in addition to his usual nodding, tossing his head, and playing the occasional mouth organ solo with his trunk, had begun adding a slow dance routine to his act. He did it for a while, then, one day, he danced right across his enclosure, and right over his keeper, killing him stone dead. It turned out that his keeper had hit him with an iron bar about twenty years previously. Shouldn't have done. Even I knew that.
We did a circus TV show once, with Jack Parnells orchestra. Theyd built this enormous cage in the studio and filled it with lions and tigers and we were sitting right behind it. We had to play a lot of music, there was a good deal of whip-cracking and the tigers were running around and snarling. We all had our eyes fixed on the nuts and bolts holding the cage together and thinking about metal fatigue and so on.
Whatever we played, and however much noise we made, the tigers ignored us completely. Then George Chisholm, during a rare break, ripped off a raspberry on the trombone in the direction of the nearest one. The great striped head turned slowly and fixed George with a look. Hey! He likes me, he said, delightedly.
We tried our own instruments and made a fearful din doing so. The other trombones joined in, but nothe tiger only wanted George. Seeing this, he then gave it the whole works: jazz hot licks, lullabies, trumpeting elephants, screaming zebras and rhino mating calls. All the tigers were looking at him by now, and why not? We were all rolling around on the floor. But the tigers had fallen deeply in love with George and we were out of it.
I was in a supermarket in Villajoyosa one day when a woman asked me if I'd walk down with her into the underground car park. She was nervous going down there on her own. I suppose she'd asked me because I looked harmless, so I went down with her. I asked where she lived and when she told me I said that she must be right beside the big hotel on the sea front.
I'd looked at a house there once, with an idea of buying it. Wonderfully situated, beautiful sea view. The trouble was, all the windows were so high up that you couldn't see out of them. The guy who'd had it built was in a wheelchair. Now you'd have thought this would have been an incentive to have all the windows at ground level, but no, this is how he'd wanted it.
Not only that, but the bedrooms had been laid out so that the guest suite could only be reached by going through the master bedroom. The house needed some massive restructuring. Right opposite was a large house with a tropical garden, and some really big cages filled with lions, tigers and leopards. The owner had been a gamekeeper in Africa, and had brought some of his charges back home with him.
It turned out that the woman I was now talking to was his wife. They had a keeper for the animals. It was this that finally decided me to dump the idea of buying the house opposite. My pal Pokorny had lived right by the zoo in Saarbrücken and he told me that when the wind shifted around it could get pretty unpleasant.
I heard later that the owner of the house opposite had gone on holiday with his wife. During his absence his keeper had allegedly ransacked the house and departed to places unknown with all the furniture. Neighbours had become alerted when the hungry animals started screaming the place down and they had to get people from the zoo in Valencia to rescue them.
Round about this time we had some Dutch holidaymakers staying for a couple of weeks in the house next door. One of them had brought his trumpet with him, so we were treated to him blasting away at all hours on his scales and his bits of jazz solos and other stuff every day until it all got too much for Conny and most of our other neighbours, too. Angry words were spoken. Eyebrows were raised at me. I shrugged. "Needs practice," I said.
"Can't you do something?" they begged. So I got out my own trumpet, waited until he was in full song, went out into the garden and gave him the trumpet solo from Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto, the piece Igor had written for Woody Herman's band. I'd had to play it a few times on concerts, and I knew it well. I played it now at full strength, in a style I'd earlier made famous back home, and known by my colleagues as Brute Force and Ignorance.
When I finished there was a stunned silence from next door. After that we never heard another peep out of the guy. I wasn't proud of what I'd done, but through that I became the local hero. Most of the people living around there had no idea I was a musician, because they'd never heard me play before. Now I became know as James Last. I suppose that was the extent of their musical knowledge, but it bugged me quite considerably.
About three o'clock of the morning when our tourist friends were due to depart I was awakened by the sound of a car being driven rapidly away. Someone was playing a trumpet, badly, out of the window as it roared past.
"Needs practice," I murmured to my wife as I turned over again.
Copyright © 2004, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved