the Minstrel's Tale down along the Costa Blanca
The events portrayed in this series are not necessarily in chronological order
I say play your own way. Don't play what the public
There were 65,000 people in the stadium when England played against Portugal in the Euro 2004 quarter finals. Only twenty-two people dancing out front and a band consisting of two bass drums and two saxophones, one alto and one tenor. By the looks of them the saxes were really dedicated to whatever it was they were playing. Fierce concentration, plain to see, and, judging by the body movement, they were playing at an entirely different tempo to the drums. Well I've experienced that before, but you had to admire them because the noise those drums were kicking up, coupled with the frenzied howling of the mob all around them meant that they couldn't possibly hear a note of what they were playing. Still they played on, right through to the death.
When I mentioned this to a sax-playing colleague later on he exclaimed, Well what do you think it's like for us all the time? Crashing drums, amplified keyboards, basses, guitars, vocalists, gigantic loudspeakers grouped all around us, and anything up to ten trumpets and trombones blowing their lungs out right into the backs of our necks. It's a wonder the saxes can hear themselves at all.
Well I'd never thought about it like that before, sitting high up at the back as I always do. Don't even care about it one way or the other now I've heard it, to tell the truth. If you have this urge to play the saxophone you must suffer the consequences, no good coming snivelling to me now. No one has ever complained to me before, even trombone players a couple of feet in front of my bell have never uttered a single word of complaint. Only on one occasion was a voice raised in protest and that voice was my own.
Peter Herbolzheimer's band once made a recording in the studios at the SudFunk Stuttgart radio station. Now I'd played there before with John Dankworth's band and there had been nothing unusual about the setup. When we went into the studio this time with Peter I discovered that they had put the trumpet section in front of the trombones. We'd only played a few bars with that setup and I stopped the band and asked how I was expected to lead the brass section properly when all I could hear was a whole bunch of trombone harmonies blasting right into the back of my neck. Yes, well, it was a new way of recording the trumpets, wasn't it, separating them, you know. Wait till you hear the playback, OK? Well put us somewhere else, then. Not in front of the trombones. No, that would upset the balance. Well it's upsetting me, isn't it? Oh, sorry about that. Look, let's just try it, shall we? So we tried it for the next three hours, cringing from the barrage behind us, then we listened to the playback and it didn't sound any better or any worse than any other recording I'd ever done. Now you know what we have to put up with all the time, said the trombones afterwards, hiding a smirk.
When we got back to Berlin afterwards there was this woman with a baby and two or three pieces of hand luggage getting off the plane with us, so Ake Persson, our first trombone player, always gallant, offered to carry the baby from the plane into the arrivals hall at Tempelhof. It was only a short walk so I offered to carry her bags. My brand new girlfriend was waiting to greet me. When we entered the hall I turned to say something to Ake and he had disappeared, so right behind me was the woman with the baby and here I was carrying her damn baggage. You should have seen my girlfriend's face. What did it look like? I was arriving back from Stuttgart with a wife and babythat's what it looked like. She couldn't stand still, doing a little dance left, right, left, right, with all the desperate conflicting emotions of the silent picture heroin crossing her face. The woman stopped beside me and gave me a little peck on the cheek. That did it. I am innocent! I cried in vain to the retreating back. Thanks for your help, said the husband, cradling the baby and cooing at it.
It's amazing how you do put up with certain things for ages without knowing exactly why you have to. I'm thinking of the time, early in my career, when I bought a Selmer trumpet, the new Harry James model. For some reason the valves had been put quite a lot further down the body of the horn than usual, so that my arms were stretched right out while I was playing it. Every time I stopped and put the horn down I used to hit myself in the face with the mouthpiece. Never got used to that, so I ditched it after a while and bought myself a Martin Committee. Only recently did I find out, fifty years later, in the Harry James book Trumpet Blues, that Harry had very muscular arms, so Selmer built the horn to fit them, never mind the other poor sods who bought it, hitting themselves on the nose all the time.
Talking about my pal, the drummer Kenny Clare the other day, I remembered being in his parents' house once when his mother came home from shopping up the West End and told us she had just driven a London Underground train on the Bakerloo Line from Oxford Circus to Leytonstone. Oh pull the other leg, it's got bells on, we said. No, straight up. She had arrived on the platform at Oxford Circus, laden with shopping bags, and had been a couple of seconds too late. The train was there but the doors had already closed. She was standing right up at the end of the platform and the train was just about to move off when the driver noticed her standing there all alone.
Want a lift? he said. I wouldn't mind, she said. Well hop in here, then. Oh, I couldn't do that. Why not? I won't bite and he's not going to open those doors again. So in she got and off they went into the tunnel with him explaining what was going on and how he liked a bit of company because it got lonely in there sometimes and the train hummed and clicked and threw sparks all over the place in the dark, just like the Ghost Train ride at the funfair it was. He showed her how to work the controls, you have to press this and pull that and watch out for the signals, and don't touch that switch over there whatever you do, then after a while he asked if she'd like to have a go at driving it, so she hummed and hawed and said Oh I don't know, really a few times, then suddenly she was driving the train out of King's Cross station all on her own, well only a hundred yards or so into the tunnel if you must know, but she was actually driving that train. You don't have to steer it, or anything, but once you've got a hold on that Dead Man's Handle you mustn't let go, otherwise the train will stop in the tunnel, she told us, with the nonchalant air of a train driver of long experience.
When they got to Leytonstone station she said will you get into trouble for giving me a lift and he said I don't think so, I practically own the place. Don't know what he meant, but he did have a posh voice. Oh go on with you we all said. Train driver, posh voice, owned the place, hahaha. Ken's dad walked off into the next room where they had the kit all set up and gave her the punchline drum roll and cymbal crash. Perfect.
Copyright © 2004, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved