Early Days in Berlin
In direct contrast to the surly, unfriendly Bavarians, it was a delight to come into contact with the Berliners. They have a big-city air about them, and a sense of humour second to none. Berliners are not typical Germans in this respect.
In the summer Berlin is a lovely place to be. The town consists of ninety percent woods and lakes. As the soil is of a light sandy consistency the shores of each lake resemble seaside beaches. In summer they are dotted with parasols and holidaymakers. Huge pleasure ships cruise from north to south, from the Teglersee to the Wannsee. There is a corner of the Wannsee especially reserved for dogs. In the winter the ice is thick enough to walk on, and thousands do so. There is skating to music. The climate of Berlin reminds one of summers and winters past in Old England. Even I was old enough to remember such weather back home.
There is always something interesting to do in Berlin. I bought a bicycle and spent the sunny days riding around. It was easy to get lost in the vast woods, so the forest rangers had put different coloured paint marks on the trees to help orientation.
I would stop and have a swim at a place called the Kuhhorn on the Wannsee, or in the Teufelssee up on Teufelsberg. This small mountain was built entirely of rubble from the terrific bombing the town received from the Allies. Here are the ski slopes, ski jumps and a toboggan run for use in the winter. Up on top, an American radar installation reminded us of the cold war. The signs on the perimeter fence read: IT IS FORBIDDEN TO PHOTOGRAPH THIS INSTALLATION. PENALTY: DM 10,000 AND 10 YEARS IN PRISON. Someone had written underneath: Welcome to Germany.
The sun always shines there, even in winter. The West Berliners are proud of their town, the clean air, the clean everything, in stark contrast with what was going on the other side of the grim Wall.
When I arrived in town there was plenty enough going on in the music scene. Eric Dolphy had just died; his death causing a wave of sadness over musicians all over the world.
The main jazz clubs were Dougs Night Club. and the Blue Note. On my first visit down Dougs I met Günther Schuller, Joe Harris, Herb Geller, Francy Boland, Ack and Jerry van Rooyen, Ernie Royal, Cannonball Adderley, J. J. Johnson, Rolf Ericson, Joe Zawinal and Friederich Gulda. Apart from the Kenton band in Dublin, these were the most American musicians I had ever met, in one place, at any one time. For me it was like stepping into a dream world.
I sat at a table with a stranger, listening to the jazz. The other man sat like a stone. I took a peek at him in the dim light to make sure he was still alive. He didnt react to anything that was going on. Leo Wright joined us when he came off the stand.
Hey Ronnie! Meet Willis Conover.
I stared in admiration. This was the man who had fired me in my youth with his Midnight Jazz Hour, playing records that we poor relations in England could only dream of. Voice of America had been transmitted on long wave from a ship moored down near Greece or Cyprus, I forget which. I used to fall asleep in the chair, dreaming of the great bands. My Mum woke me by banging on the bedroom floor with her shoe.
I thanked him, profusely. He told me to forget itjust listen to these way-out cats.
Some of the guys, like Ernie, Rolf, Joe, J. J. and Cannonball were in town to play a couple of concerts with Friederich Guldas band. The rest of them lived in Berlin. I hung around with Ernie Royal for a couple of days. He was already well known to me for his work with Woody Hermans First Herd. Ernie was playing in that band when I was still at school.
I spoke to him about his spectacular high trumpet solo on Woodys great old vocal record of I Aint Gettin Any Younger. He told me that the band had been busy making some other titles, trying to get as much in the can before the infamous union ban of 1946, which was due to begin at midnight.
Some of the guys had left the studio, thinking that the session was over, when Woody decided to try and get Younger in at the last moment. He had to sing live with the band. They had one chance only, and that was when Ernie tried out his solo for the first, and only, time. When the record came out it was a sensation, mostly because of his solo. No one had ever heard anything like that before, even from Pete Candoli, who usually played the screamers.
Then there was Leo. When I first saw Leo Wright that night he was standing at the bar of Dougs with an icepick in his hand. Every few minutes he would raise the pick high above his head and smash it down with all his strength into the wooden bar top.
In the dimly lit club, with his shiny black face gleaming weirdly in the red spotlights above the bar, Leo frightened the life out of me at first. He was really a very sweet, gentle guy, but something must have upset him that night. Leo had already played with Dizzy, Charlie Mingus and all the other cats back home. He came over to Berlin in 1961, liked it, and stayed there. He had a stroke sometime later in the 80s, and, as I write this, Ive just heard from Heinz von Hermann that Leo has died in Vienna from a heart attack at the age of 57.
All the time I played with him Leo brought life into the band. He wasnt really a lead alto, but when he took over from Herb Geller in the band in Berlin, he electrified everyone. He played straight out, with the thrilling, wholly dedicated, vibrant sound that only a black musician can get. He was loud, very loud, and tremendously exciting to work with. He completely revolutionised the sound of that sax section.
He married three times, and had a couple of daughters from his first marriage with whom he could only converse in German, as they had been born in Germany and now went to school in Frankfurt. Leo was no oil painting, but he had an infectious smile, which made him look like Ernest Borgnine, and an even more infectious laugh. He certainly had no problems finding women, and, when he had one, he was fiercely loyal to her.
To my knowledge, Leo only went back to the States once, all the time he was in Berlin. He was scared of all the race rioting going on.
I just got on the Greyhound bus to Wichita Falls, got my ass down on the seat with my head beneath the window, and man, I just stayed there until I got home. I aint never goin back there again.
While he was there someone told him a joke which he repeated to me.
When the very first astronaut returned to earth he was asked what it was like up there.
It was great, marvellous.
And did you see God?
Yeah man, I saw God, and she was black.
Leos other joke was stolen from the comedian Redd Foxx. I aint racial prejudiced, nothin like that, but if you see a ghost, cut it.
The guy playing in the club that night was the Swedish trombone player Åke (pronounced Aw-key) Persson. Åke was a big, clean, good-looking, elegantly dressed Swede, with a dent in his chin like Kirk Douglas. He had been playing some gigs with Quincy Jones up in Stockholm, and some of the cats in the band had told him there was more happening in Berlin. I couldnt fault that. There was more going on in that one jazz club than was happening in the whole of London.
The guy on bass with Åke was a Hungarian with an enormous beard, and mad, staring eyes, called Aladar Pege. He kept the whole joint amused with his playing, which mostly consisted of fierce runs up and down the finger board, and very little rhythm.
Coming out of the club that night I saw a man lying in the gutter. I wasnt too keen on getting too close. He could have been drunk, dead, or demented, for all I knew. But it was Åke, with his arm buried up to the shoulder in all the filth of the open drain, trying to fish out his car keys. I drove him home. Thus began a friendship which lasted, on and off, for twenty years.
I took the job on lead with the Radio Free Berlin band, known to the Germans as Sender Freies Berlin, or SFB. Herb Geller was lead alto, Joe Harris on drums, and Ack van Rooyen took the jazz trumpet solos. The rest of the line-up of five trumpets, four trombones, five saxes and rhythm were pretty piss-poor. Jerry van Rooyen was the bandleader and I stayed with him until I could get a place to live.
He was living with Patti Lane in an old building back of the Kantstrasse, not far from the studio. I remembered her as the singer in Ronnie Scotts band, when I did some gigs with him in Glasgow. She was the baritone sax player Benny Greens girl at the time. I used to like Benny, who later made a career as a journalist. She said he was an asshole. I dont know about that. Were all assholes, perverts and psychopaths when our girl-friends leave us. She had a great kid called Aaron, who used to go around singing, DOWN, DOWN! to the Tony Hatch tune (i.e., Down Town). Everybody loved Aaron. I dont know who his father was.
In the Berlin radio station I found myself playing in the worst band ever. The trombone section was made up entirely of fat, beer-swilling Germans, with the exception of one very thin guy, named Henry Masnick, who had an enormous lump on the side of his neck.
After I left Berlin ten years later I saw this guy again when he came to Saarbrücken on a gig. The lump had now disappeared. He told me that hed finally gone to have it removed. Afterwards the analysis showed that the lump had been, in fact, his unborn twin brother. That gave me the horrors, I can tell you. Now you never know what youve been carrying around inside you all these years...
The saxes in the Berlin band, apart from Herb Geller, were nondescript, while the only trumpet player worthy of note was the bandleader Jerry van Rooyens brother, Ack. Only the rhythm section was passable, mainly due to the presence of Joe Harris, who had formerly played with Miles Davis.
Once again I was amazed at the way the German musicians phrased and interpreted dance music. They listened to the same records as their British and American contemporaries, played daily side by side with many of them, yet, when left alone, they played and phrased as if they were in the fire brigade or a military band. Many Germans attributed this to having been taught in military bands, but many brilliant British brass players had emerged from such bands. There were fierce discussions about phrasing, and where the beat should fall. I kept out of them, but when they did manage to drag me into such arguments it was only to be told that I was wrong.
The Swedish trombone player Åke Persson left no one in doubt what he thought about all this. Sitting in a Berlin studio one day he was playing a nondescript solo for some pop arranger when the guy stopped the recording and rushed into the studio waving his arms.
No, no no! he said. You have to feel it! Feel it!
When I play this music, said Åke, I feel nothing.
Ack van Rooyen was a most lovable person. Id worked with him a few times on the Jazz Workshops in Recklinghausen. When I first met Ack he wore thick horn-rimmed glasses, and had his black hair combed flat over his head. He played very good jazz trumpet.
One day he appeared with a new hair style, a sort of curly Afro, and rimless glasses. With his new look his whole personality underwent an astonishing change, his jazz improved to brilliant, and he quickly became the most sought-after player in the country.
Years later I was to work with Ack regularly in the Herbolzheimer band. Now, his transformation was little short of amazing. Before long he became featured soloist with Bert Kaempfert, producing all the beautiful fluegelhorn solos on Berts records.
Herb Geller had been a side-man in Los Angeles. Hed been on all the bands there, Kenton, Terry Gibbs, Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman, and various small groups. Why hed come to Germany I never found out.
Herb moved later on to Hamburg and took a resident job, with a pension, in the Norddeutscherrundfunk band. He always intended returning to Los Angeles, though. Meanwhile, back home in LA, the session world had become almost viciously competitive, especially for sax players. They were now expected to play many other woodwind instruments.
Herb bought himself all the flutespiccolo, C flute, alto and bass flutes, oboe, cor anglais and bassoon. He practised them all until he could give a virtuoso performance on each and every one. His house was full of instrument cases, stored in every room. You couldnt move without falling over them.
Finally, when he thought that he was ready, he took his wife, his daughter, and eleven instruments, made up of the woodwinds, plus soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, and flew back to Los Angeles.
But LA had changed in his absence. Neither of them liked it any more. Back they came to Hamburg, and there theyve remained. I had the same experience with London. After the cleanliness and order of Germany, and the friendliness and correct behaviour of the Germans, London is like a savage jungle to me now.
This is not to say that I love all Germans by any means. Some of the older ones havent changed much, but the younger generation is OK, and, generally speaking, I feel safer in Germany than I have ever felt anywhere else in the world.
The resident star trumpet player in Berlin was Horst Fischer, a man famous in Germany for his sweet trumpet solos. He worked for the Werner Müller band over in RIAS (Radio in the American Sector). A couple of the Belgian musicians there brought him around to my apartment to meet me.
Horst was a day-and-night alcoholic, and carried a Fahne around with him. This was a cloud of gas consisting of pure alcohol which floated around him at all times for several metres. A struck match would have blown him to smithereens.
He came in, supported by the others, demanding to meet the new foreign trumpeter in town. Having glared at me suspiciously for several minutes without speaking he then demanded to see my trumpet. He waggled the valves fiercely a few times, shouting, SCHEISS MASCHINE! SCHEISS MASCHINE! (Rotten valves!)and fell heavily to the floor unconscious. As they carried him out he revived sufficiently to yell, Ill drive! Ill drive! Its my car! Ive often wondered what it must have been like for his wife and children to live with someone who was stupidly drunk every day.
On rare occasions when he was sober we conversed, and I discovered that he was quite a pleasant person.
Horst moved to Cologne to work with Kurt Edelhagen. From Berlin he had to sail his yacht through all kinds of complicated waterways to reach the Rhine. Once there it was dry-docked for a propellor repair. The shaft wasnt sealed properly afterwards, so that when the boat was winched back into the water it sank immediately. Horst stood on board, dressed in his captains uniform, stoned right up to the eyeballs, saluting with an inane grin on his face as the waters of the Rhine slowly closed over his head.
He then took a job in the radio station orchestra in Zurich, and almost at once received a years jail sentence for punching a policeman. After that he was deported. The last I heard of Horst he was supposed to have swum across Lake Constance to Friedrichshafen to re-enter Switzerland illegally. I doubt whether this was true. He was hardly ever in a fit state to walk, never mind swim.
Sender Freies Berlin was the main transmitter for Berlin during the war. It is built like a giant doughnut, four stories high. If you walk in any direction in any one of the corridors, you eventually arrive back at your starting point. The centre of the foyer is open, so that it is possible to look right up to the roof. At Christmas a giant fir tree arrives from Norway and is erected in this area. The world-famous Schöneberg Childrens Choir comes to sing carols during Christmas week. Lined up around the first floor balcony, they sing softly into the huge circular open space. Standing below, by the tree, one cannot see them. The incredible, heavenly effect of this arrangement, and the sound of their beautiful voices, is magical, and always made me feel desperately homesick.
The station had not always been such a friendly environment. This was Goebbels main instrument of propaganda. William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw, made his daily transmissions to Britain from here. He came from Leamington Spa, near Coventry, was a traitor, and was hanged by the Allies after the war for his misdeeds.
The man who owned the SFB big band was a Jewish guitar player named Franz Fijal. Somehow, during the war, while all other non-Aryans were being rounded up, transported, and slaughtered, he had managed to get hold of a building pass, signed by Goebbels personally. This allowed him free movement within the radio station. If he had set foot outside the place he would have been picked up, because, apart from this one piece of paper, he had no other personal documents. He ate in the canteen, and slept in a broom closet. How he got away with it, no one, not even he, can explain.
When the war ended, and Berlin was divided into zones, the radio station fell into the British Zone of Occupation. The Russians, who had taken Berlin, were still in charge of the building, however, and managed to arrest many wanted persons who gratefully fled into the place, believing that they would be under British protection. The Russians had to be eventually forcibly ejected by the British Army. The existing radio orchestra was disbanded, and Franz was asked to form the new, modernised dance orchestra.
He did this so well, that, when he disappeared early in the 80s, he was a millionaire several times over.
There is a law in Germany that states that a man can only be employed in a radio orchestra on a free-lance basis for up to forty sessions in one year. After that he must be permanently employed, with a life-time contract, (ie he cannot be fired unless he does something really terrible), and a full pension when he retires at age sixty-five.
The SFB got around that clause by using Franz as a straw man. He received six million marks a year for the band, of which one million went in paying the band, and, of course, he had expenses.
When he disappeared, the band became redundant.
A similar arrangement had been made with the radio band in Cologne under Kurt Edelhagen. When he died, that great band also disintegrated. Thus, the two best bands in Europe disappeared without trace, and every single one of their greatly talented members was cast out on to the streets, without a pension.
This greatly upset some of them, especially the older ones, who were aware that several non-Germans, including myself, had obtained such coveted full employment in other radio bands. There is another law which restricts the age of entry into such a band at forty. Herb Geller and I just managed to scrape in, together with a couple of other Americans in the Frankfurt band.
My apartment in Berlin was in the Reichstrasse, which was a continuation of the main wide thoroughfare formerly known as the East-West Axis. This road began at the Reichkanzlerplatz by the SFB (Radio Free Berlin) and the British Forces Network buildings, as the Kaiserdamm, continued to the Victory Monument (victory over Napoleon), there became the Avenue of the 17th June, to commemorate the uprising of the East Berlin workers, which led to the building of the infamous Wall, and ran right down to Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, through the Brandenburg Gate, where it became Unter den Linden.
The name Reichkanzler applied to former German Chancellors, including Adolf Hitler. In the centre of the square was a giant monument to peace, with a permanently burning Olympic flame. An attempt to change the name to something more peaceful failed. Then the authorities decided to alter the name Kaiserdamm to Adenauerdamm. Hundreds of street names were altered, business notepaper headings changed. My bank issued new chequebooks with the new address.
The Berliners protested. They didnt like Konrad Adenauer. Back went the old signs, and the new chequebooks were scrapped.
Down by the old Reichstag building, over on the left of the Brandenburg Gate, amateur sculptors have erected enormous concrete effigies. Berliner wit has named the area Easter Island, the new Congress Hall the Pregnant Oyster, because of its strange bulging double roof (this very roof, designed by an American, fell in thirty years after it was built), and the new circular Philharmonic Concert Hall became known as Circus Karajan.
The whole area near the Wall was a bomb-ruined landscape. Some of the recording studios were in burned-out buildings right up against the Berlin Wall. A couple of the rooms in one ruin had been renovated to make the Ariola studio, the rest of the place had been untouched since the end of the war. Opposite were the burned-out remains of Haus Vaterland, once the very centre of entertainment in pre-war Berlin.
The tram lines running up the centre of the road end abruptly in the wall of shame, Der Schandenmauer. No one wanted to live near the grim wall, with its little plaques commemorating those who have been shot trying to escape. Walking around the area, and into the nearby Potsdamerplatz, with all its historic connections, was an eerie experience, and there was the added danger of being shot by mistake if someone decided to try and cross over from the east while you were in the area.
The Philips studio was around the corner in the Hotel Esplanade. In the interval between recordings the porter, who also sold coffee and cakes to the musicians, used take us through the deserted Grand Ballroom, scene of many regal receptions in days gone by, and show a porno film in one of the bedrooms for four marks a head.
When the lights came on after, it was to reveal that we had all dropped off to sleep during the film.
Here, in the shadow of the Wall, we made all the soundtracks for Peter Alexander, the Kessler twins and Vicky Leandros, the Greek pop star. These were all very big name performers on German television. I also recorded the high trumpet solo from the Beatles number Penny Lane for the German version, and several similar feats of pyrotechnics for Caterina Valente. I'd never heard the Penny Lane solo before so I played it on the normal Bb trumpet. It wasn't at all difficult to play, we did a couple of takes and that was it. Went up to a top F at the end. I heard afterwards that the original was played on a piccolo trumpet and caused a sensation. If my memory is correct the solo looked something like this. Penny Lane solo
The recordings with Vicky were vastly complicated. Her father, Leo, would spend a week with arranger Arno Flor, getting everything just the way Leo wanted it. No sooner had we started than a shout would come through the speakers, and we would stop again. Words would be exchanged. Invariably, Arno would scream, But Leo, dammit! We discussed this number thoroughly for a whole week until I for one became heartily sick of it! Now you want me to change everything! Upstairs to the control room he would stamp, in a vile temper, while we retired to the canteen, and more porno films.
The engineers used wrestle in vain with their new twenty-four track Ampex recording machines, and the English instruction books. Sometimes we would sit for ages, being paid by the hour, while they fumbled, achieving nothing.
I took Wally Heider along with me on one of his Berlin visits, but he made me swear not to tell anyone who he was. Id met Wally on a trip to Glasgow he made in the 1950s. He had brought with him a load of Bill Holman, Gerry Mulligan, Manny Albam, and Ralph Burns scores that Kenton had asked him to give to his pal Vic Lewis. He even had all the written band parts with him, making it a tremendous load of luggage to lug halfway around the world.
We were playing in Greens Playhouse with the Parnell band when he arrived. He was so pleased with what he heard that he gave all the scores to me. I got the band to rehearse some of them without Jack knowing about it. The next night we arranged to play one of them to surprise him, so when he called out some tune or other we played Holmans Kingfish instead. Its a beautiful composition, and we played it really well. When he heard the first few bars Jack started to rush up and down looking at the music. Ive never seen anyone look so surprised. Then we had to play it again, and this time he insisted on playing drums himself on it. In the end Vic never got the scores because we kept the lot, and Jack added them to our regular repertoire. There must have been several thousand dollars worth of music there.
Bobby Lamb stayed with Wally later on when he played in the Herman band. Wallys dad was the District Attorney for Portland, Oregon, so Wally had followed in his fathers footsteps and became a lawyer. He was such a failure at it that he even lost simple cases defending driving offences. His greatest love was jazz music, and his house was filled with all the latest, most sophisticated hi-fi equipment. When he was using the stuff everyone else in the house had to tippy-toe around, so that they wouldnt jar the needle on the record player, or kick up dust. This made living with him very difficult, because he spent most of his time shouting at the kids to stop running around.
He then bought some recording equipment and asked Woody Herman and Buddy Rich if he could travel around with them, recording the bands. He was the first technician to use a video camera, trained on the band, to spot the soloists. A lot of the best Herman recordings were made in this way, on location. In some of the places the band had to stand in a straight line, playing behind a bar. Still Wally managed to get a great sound out of them. He eventually rented a studio in Los Angeles, and made his fortune.
In the Berlin studio I begged Wally to go upstairs to help the engineersthey couldnt find the playback sequence on the Ampex machines. He refused, settling himself on a hard chair over by the door. Suddenly all the studio lights went out. Wally had fallen asleep, and knocked against the switch, plunging us into darkness. High above our heads, a partially deflated full size blow-up rubber doll, obtained from a local sex shop, and hung by the neck from the ceiling by an enterprising technician, turned sadly in the light of a single spotlight.
I was booked to play a midnight concert with Sammy Davis Junior, in aid of Israel. He had brought the son of Reynauld Jones along to play lead trumpet. Reynauld was the first trumpet player with Count Basie who had caused a sensation when we saw the band in London by sitting on the end of the trumpet section, playing the lead one-handed. Sitting on the end was an unheard of practice at the time for a first trumpet player, but something which I personally was forced to do in most BBC studios, because I used to overblow the old Marconi microphones so much that no one else could be heard. Reynauld had told me privately that he only sat there because the chair next to the drums was the only one vacant when he joined the Basie band.
The one-handed style caused a lot of trouble in London because a lot of players at once adopted the attitude, thinking it was hip. Mostly they messed up pretty badly, until the infuriated bandleaders forbade the practice. I dont know why Reynauld used to do it. Maybe he had broken his other arm.
On the Sammy Davis rehearsal Reynaulds son played so quietly that we couldnt hear him. He explained that he was saving his chops for the performance. On the show we still couldnt hear him.
Sammy Davis did the lot on his show, miming Robert Mitchum, Duke Wayne, and Jimmy Cagney, ending up with his famous West Side Story medley, sung only with a bongo accompaniment. The Jewish Berlin audience loved Sammy.
Another night I was booked suddenly to play in a large tent pitched in a car park behind the Kaiser-Wilhelm Church. There was no time to rehearse. It was a big session band, and we played everything at sight. Only when the show began did I realise that we were accompanying Josephine Baker, doing yet another charity concert. Her performance was breathtaking. I had done a similar, one-off, performance in the Albert Hall once with Billy Holliday, one of her last appearances before her untimely death, and one memorable show with Sophie Tucker in Berlin.
The radio band was really no good until Paul Kuhn came in as bandleader and was able to get rid of all the dead wood. Paul was a pianist/singer/arranger who had made himself famous on German TV by singing stuff like Theres No Beer in Hawaii, and playing around with violinist Svend Asmussen and Jonny Tulpin, the harpist in Cologne. He was also great pals with a couple of famous television drunks called Bully Buhlan and Harald Juhnke. As a well established dumb loser Jerry Lewis type television star he was useful to the boss of our TV company.
Paul was an easy guy to work with, although he, too, was always under pressure from Dieter Finnern, the boss of the TV Centre next door to the SFB, who had hired Paul. First thing he did was change the time we had to start every morning to ten oclock. Hed come in some time around then, crack a couple of good jokes and wed record some tunes. When I come to think of it, when we werent making a TV show for Finnern, we spent more time in the canteen than in the studio.
There was a paternoster going up and down to the canteen which passed through all floors. The first time I met Oliver Nelson he was coming up to the ground floor on it, which meant that hed gone down too far and had travelled in total darkness around in the bottom of the shaft to come up again. I did it once. It was spooky as hell and you didnt really know what was going to happen to you down there. A real horror trip.
He got out quick, his face a little paler than usual.
Man, I thought I was on my way then, right down to hell.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved