Bert, Wally, Woody and Liza
It was my mother who told me that Bert Courtley had died. I was on a short trip from Berlin, and she showed me a cutting shed kept from the Evening Standard.
I phoned Tommy McQuater at once, to find that the funeral was the next morning.
Here comes the weird bit. Normally, Id travel as light as possible when I flew to London, only wearing what I stood up in, with a few changes of underwear. This time, for no reason that Im aware of, Id packed a dark suit, white shirt, dark blue tie, black socks and black shoes. I didnt have my trumpet with me, so there was no question of my wearing these clothes on a gig, or anything.
I dont think that I even knew Id packed the stuff until I looked in the case to see what I could wear to the funeral. I got a hell of a shock then.
The funeral was to take place at Mitcham Cemetery. When I arrived there it looked as if all the trumpet players in London had turned up. Humph was there, Tommy, Stan Roderick, Kenny Baker, Bert, Duncan and Eddie, as well as my old pal from Coventry Pete Warner, Ronnie Ross, and dozens more.
Stan and I shared a hymn book. I couldnt sing or even speak for tears. I could see that Stan was having trouble as well.
Kathy asked me to bring some of the guys back to her house after. I knew the way, of course, which many of them didnt, so it was like a funeral parade all over again, with all the cars following me. No one seemed to think it strange that Id turned up suddenly like that.
We managed to cheer Kathy up a bit. The only one we didnt manage to cheer up was Ronnie Rosss wife, who all but collapsed during the ceremony.
I dont know what happened to Ken Wray, except that he died shortly after in Manchester.
I saw Kathy every time I visited London, stayed with her a few times. I really enjoyed her company, and the three boys were great. She took me down to Wimbledon one night to see Bobby Breen, who was singing in some club with the tenor saxophonist Jack Duff. Bobby was overjoyed to see me again. After the date we drove him home, to Mitcham I believe it was. All the way there he never stopped talking, bubbling over with stories of his family, his plans for the future, and so on. He seemed to be in great shape.
When we dropped him off he asked us to wait for a moment, dashed into his house and emerged almost at once with a new LP hed only just made with Jack, which he gave me. I heard later that Bobby had dropped dead on the very next day, from natural causes. For some reason I have never yet played that recording of his. I am still stunned by the awful suddenness of what happened.
But now, before this all happened, the Heath band was in Berlin. Our radio band was playing opposite. The only piece we had to play was an accompaniment to a trio of comics who were singing a number called The Hunter Blows His Horn. This was a very funny bit of business, with two or three straight men and one guy falling around all over the place.
I was supposed to play a bugle call after every chorus. The lead comic had previously asked me to cod it up a bit, so I cracked and farted around on it each time. This broke up the guys in the Heath band, sitting on the other side of the studio.
After the show Ted said to me, gravely, I have never heard you play so well.
I visited a specialist in Berlin, right beside Tempelhof. He was the regular Pan-Am ear doctor, and I supposed that he knew what he was doing. Francy Boland and Åke both started going to him, too. Francy was starting to have problems with both ears, and Åke was still suffering from a tremendous box on the ears his wife Jerry had once given him when she caught him with another woman.
The doctor used to pop my ears with a Pollitzer Bag, clearing out the Eustachian tubes. After a while it became a waste of time, and I went into hospital for a month for ozone injections.
I lay there, in Berlins West End hospital, with my Rolex pressed close against my ear, trying in vain to hear the tick. I got the injections in my throat at ten oclock every morning. They hurt like hell and paralysed my larynx. This was the cue for Pepi to start phoning me, exactly after the injection.
I couldnt say a word, and the nurse used to get the phone and tell Pepi not to be so stupid, but still she phoned, regular as clockwork.
Åke came to see me. I must have looked pretty bad, laying there with tubes in my arm, and my neck all bandaged up.
My room overlooked a cemetery. Underneath my window was a freshly dug open grave. The hole was surrounded by red lights to prevent people from falling in. Only Germans could think of things like that.
Åke was delighted. Hey! Theyve made it easy for you. They only need to drop you out the window, and youre in it. I learned from him that the band was managing without me, and that Carmel Jones had joined the trumpet section. Carmel was the trumpet player who had caused such a sensation in the Gerald Wilson band back in the fifties.
The doctor came by and told me that my health insurance was no good. It barely covered the cost of my meals and the room. His fee was adding up to be so large that he had decided not to charge me anything at all.
Treat it as an experiment, he said.
I couldnt believe my ears. After I insisted, he accepted a thousand marks for his trouble. I believe that he saved my hearing, because twenty-five years later my audiogram hasnt changed very much for the worse. Im still deaf, but not as deaf as I might have been.
The new film My Fair Lady came to Berlin. I went to see the premier in the Theater des Westens. As soon as the film started it was obvious that the German distributor had really gone to town on this one. Normally, all foreign films shown in Germany have a German dialogue superimposed. This guy had gone one further and had synchronised all of the songs in German as well.
This meant that instead of, for instance, hearing the voice of Rex Harrison singing The Rain in Spain we were treated to the performance of some hick German, singing a badly translated inane German text about Der Regen in Spanien, out of tune, and in the jolly bouncing way German singers have of being almost half a beat ahead of the music.
It wasnt long before the whole audience was standing up screaming in protest. The film was stopped, and the manager came out to say that it wasnt his fault, but they didnt have the equipment to switch over to the original soundtrack, which was still on the film somewhere.
I didnt see the film again, but I heard that it went on to be shown later with all the songs in their original form.
Now Wally Heider was in Berlin again. Last time hed visited he had banged a hole in the lid of the boot of my car. He had come over with the Bee-Gees to record their concert in the Philharmonie, bringing three Ampex 24 track tape machines with him. We had fetched one from Tempelhof, put it in the boot, and he had smashed the lid down on one sharp corner.
I left the hole there. I was proud to point out who had made it. By now Wally had the biggest recording company in Los Angeles, and was responsible, among others, for all the Buddy Rich and Woody Herman recordings now being made.
He hadnt changed since Glasgow. Always in a hurry, he could hardly sit still long enough to get served in a restaurant. He had an authorisation from the State Department which allowed him access to all AFN archives. He intended pulling out all the wartime V-Discs he could lay hands on of the great bands. Most of the discs had been made from live broadcasts during the war.
I went with him. It was spooky down in the basement in Clay Allee, where the discs had been stored. Seeing thousands of those wonderful, huge, floppy records which had brought me so much pleasure as a boy on programmes such as Midnight in Munich, and Lunchin in Munchen brought shivers up and down my spine.
Wally didnt have time for nostalgia. He went through the V-Discs like a cyclone, whipping them out, playing a few bars and saving or discarding. In this way he went through the lot in six or seven hours. I kept him supplied with coffee and hamburgers from the AFN canteen upstairs.
The V-Discs were nearly all badly worn, but Wally enhanced them electronically, and gave me about twenty LPs hed made of them for his friends when he came the next time. The performing rights restrictions wouldnt allow him to sell the records, because he didnt have the complete line-up on each recording, necessary for the payment of musician royalties. The collection I now have is an amazing bit of big band history.
Wally was by now very fat, had heart problems, and walked with difficulty. This didnt prevent him from his next, most rewarding coup.
During the war years we cinema-goers had, on rare occasions, been able to see jazz clips, which were usually sandwiched between the main and secondary films. These were shots of big bands like Ellington, Dorsey or Herman, or groups like Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway. Mostly there would be dancers in the clips, because the film-makers couldnt comprehend that anyone would want to just stare at the musicians. This had always infuriated me.
Wally had discovered an archive of these clips at MGM and had started a nation-wide poll to discover just how many people would be interested in seeing these films again. He asked every disc jockey in the USA to advertise the project, offering to pay one dollar for each name they could give him. People began writing in by the thousand. Soon, Wally had paid out one million dollars to the jockeys, and had a list of names as thick as a telephone book.
Before he had even had time to start negotiating with MGM hed received offers of over a million dollars from several record companies, just for the list.
MGM agreed to release the clips, but stipulated that Wally would have to take everything, and sort the stuff out himself. This meant that he came into possession of things like the Our Gang short films and a lot of other stuff, a lot of it utter rubbish, but, once again, of historical value.
Wally began to fit all this on to video tape, to be sold commercially. When he died around 1989 he was a multi-millionaire. Hed come a long way from being an unsuccessful lawyer in Portland, Oregon.
Johnny Keating turned up to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I was so overjoyed to see him again that I drank a whole bottle of 5-Star brandy all alone while we talked. I never noticed that he wasnt drinking. I subsequently remember very little of our conversation. Seeing him at that moment did wonders for my constitution, because I was beginning to get depressed at being so far away from all my old colleagues.
Joe Temperley was with the Herman band on the next jazz festival. It was wonderful seeing him again after nearly fifteen years. Hed had trouble getting into the New York scene when he first arrived there, so his wife May, whom I knew well, took a job in an estate agents office.
May displayed a hidden talent for selling property, and in no time at all she was running the place. Apparently, as a musician in New York, if you werent pals with Al Cohn you didnt work; in Los Angeles it was a similar set-up with Shelley Mann. Wally Heider had just managed to close Shelleys Manhole the last time I saw him, because the noise of the club was penetrating through the steel girders of the building right up to his recording studio.
I took Joe and the drummer Jake Hanna for a few drinks after the concert, and they asked to see the Brandenburg Gate. Joe was very happy by this time, and hung out of the car window shouting How are you, Kraut? at every German he saw.
It was midnight by the time we reached the Gate, and the place was deserted. A West German border guard toting a machine-gun appeared from nowhere and told me that one of the rear lights on my car had gone out.
I said that I would see to it at once. He said that Id have to leave the car there, as it was illegal to drive it without two rear lights.
I opened my mouth to protest. At that moment Joe got out of the car, staggered over and said, to the guard, How are you, Kraut?
I was petrified. The guards eyes narrowed and he fingered his machine-gun nervously. .
Was hat er gesagt? Kraut?
Heerasked you if you had any ah cabbage on you. Hes fallen in love with the way you Germans cook it. They dont make it back in America like they do here.
There was a moments silence, during which you could hear the East German guards talking on the other side of the wall, deciding whether to shoot at us or not.
Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, I said.
Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, said Jake and Joe, together.
I told him that Jake and Joe were in the Woody Herman band, and that I was just giving them a peek at the famous Berlin Wall before they went back to the Big Apple, and told everyone how marvellous the German policemen were.
His interest pricked up at that, Herman being a good old German name. It turned out that he played flute in the border guards army band. He began talking to Joe, through me, about the instrument, which was a shame, because as far as I know, Joe has no idea of how to play the flute. But he plunged right into it, and, for one moment, I thought that he was about to demonstrate the Böhm system fingering on the guys machine-gun. A lot of highly skillful gamesmanship foloowed, with the result that we were allowed to proceed, with his good wishes ringing in our ears, and never mind the rear light.
Next morning the whole of the Herman band got stranded at Tempelhof. No one had realised that you need a passport to get in and out of West Berlin, and all the passports were in the luggage, which had already been loaded on the plane.
The passport control officer was adamantno one left without him first seeing all the documents. The plane was delayed already, and the loading officer refused to get all the baggage out again.
Rolf Schulter-Bahrenberg, who had organised the festival, was running up and down the airport as if a rat had got caught in his knickers.
I asked the passport officer if he would be so kind as to allow me to call the airport manager on his telephone. He grudgingly gave permission, muttering that it wouldnt change anything.
His eyes popped a bit when I started talking to the manager in English, calling him by his first name. Only a week or so earlier I had done a comprehensive survey of the airport, and the way it was run, for the Deutsche Welle, spending several hours in his company to do so. During the discussion I had taken the opportunity to point out a schoolboy howler that was causing great mirth to many of the several million passengers who used the airport.
The big arrival and departure hall in Tempelhof had two long moving baggage transport belts. Above each was a large sign with letters a foot high, reading: LIFE ANIMALS MUST BE CARRIED.
Whats wrong with that? he asked. The animals are life. I pointed out the mistake. But that would be live, pronounced like sieve, he protested. We agreed that anything liable to cheer up so many people had best be left as it was, and parted the best of friends.
Now he could do me a favour. He was a big jazz fan anyway, and had actually been to the concert the previous night. He came down at once. I introduced him to Woody, and some of the other cats. Normally an unflappable man, he was highly impressed at coming face to face with one of his jazz idols. The passport officer disappeared into the background. Within minutes the whole band had passed through the gates.
Joe gave me a hug. I see youre still Mr. Fixit, he said.
Music hath charms, I said, smugly
My interview with the manager coincided with another which had taken place on the other side of the airfield, this time with the colonel in charge of the American Air Base. All these years later I am unable to recall his name, but he had become famous during the Berlin Airlift as the Chocolate Pilot.
Templehof is right in the middle of a sea of houses, and planes, when landing, literally skim the rooftops. Noticing the dozens of waving children gathered on the perimeter, right under the flight path, the colonel had hit upon the idea of attaching tiny parachutes to Hershey Bars and dropping them on the kids just before landing. The idea caught on quickly. Back in Cologne girls in the service were coerced into making the little parachutessoon all the pilots on the Airlift were dropping the candy bars, now on to the hundreds of ecstatic children clustered below.
The SFB radio band did gigs out of town sometimes. To get anywhere out of Berlin by road we had to pass through East Germany.
At the Drewitz control point the bus would be boarded by a couple of East German guards who shouted, Ausländer raus! (Foreigners out. )
Some of the Americans in the band used to fill their pants when that happened, thinking they were about to be shot or kidnapped. I was an old hand, due to my regular visits to Pepis mother.
Coming back from a gig in the winter once, we hit the border at two in the morning. There had been an important football match between West Germany and Russia that evening, and we still didnt know the result.
The guards, dressed in long greatcoats, with Russian style fur hats, came, unsmiling as usual, up inside the bus, staring everyone in the face, comparing the faces with the passport photos. As they never spoke, it was impossible to tell what nationality they were.
When they reached me I said, Who won the match, then?
One of the guards stared at me for a moment, then he said, in German, We did.
Who do you mean by we?
There was another pause. Then he grinned, happily.
Everyone clapped, that broke the ice, and we received a blow by blow report on the match.
It was the report I made on this incident that landed me the job with the Deutsche Welle.
I was sent to do an interview with the High Chief Justice of Ghana. I took the tape recorder, not too eagerly, up to his room in the Hotel Kempinski. Apart from discovering that he was known as the Hanging Judge, I knew nothing about him, except that he was interested in football.
Our subsequent conversation took up two reels of tape, and mostly consisted of my giving him a run-down on the German team, run by Beckenbauer, and a detailed discussion of some of the great classic goals by Gerd Müller.
When he heard the tape, Meier was apoplectic.
We cant use that! he shouted, flinging the tape across the room.
Not now, we cant, I agreed. Would you have preferred that I talked to him about his hangings? Blood sports with humans? Cannibalism?
The most enjoyable interview I did was with Liza Minelli. The film Cabaret was being partly shot in Berlin, and I ran her to earth in the lovely gardens of the Charlottenburger Castle.
Theres always a certain amount of tension between celebrities and reporters, due to the ever-present risk of them being misquoted. I broke the ice by saying that I had known her mother, and had made many recordings with her in London.
Judy Garland had been married to a man named Sid Luft at the time, and they had come into the studio, in absolute secrecy, to avoid sightseers, surrounded by his gangster bodyguard. Liza had been there with her mother. Shed been about five years old at the time.
After that it was different. Musicians are OK. Were in the same business.
Liza told me about her life, and her ambitions. She didnt want any quotes about her mother. Maybe she was tired of it always being stressed that she is Judys daughter.
We talked about music, and musicians. She couldnt have been more friendly. I completely forgot to ask her about the film.
The day drew on. We talked between takes. It grew too dark to film any more. Her co-star, Joel Grey came over, and said that they wanted to go and take a look at the Reichstag building, which was actually a ruin, down by the Brandenburg Gate. I would have loved to have taken them, but had to get my interview ready for transmission. I told them to make sure both rear lights on the hire car were working, and left them mystified.
In the end, the interview was all about Judy anyway.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved