By Ron Simmonds
Thereís a new band in the area called The Dream Ensemble. The leader has all top rate players, only the best, he says. He asks me along. I demand high wage, free drinks and transport money.
First job is a gig for charity in the village square. As this is a demo for the band, to secure future dates, all agree to play this gig for transport money only.
The drummer is old and fat and has gout in one leg so three of us help him up on to the rostrum. He is incredibly heavy due to having six bottles of beer in specially constructed inside pockets of his tuxedo. He tells me he drinks two crates of beer all on his own at weekends. When asked why he says that when he was a kid someone burned down the house they were living in. Since then heís had a pathological urge to quench the flames.
We hear that he was born in Brooklyn. His granny lived next door to Al Capone when Al was a schoolkid. Little Al was such a nice boy, she always said. Sheíd clouted him once for stealing apples from her yard. Al never forgot that and when he came out of Alcatraz in 1939 he torched their house.
The square is deserted except for some old men playing dominoes outside the pub, three kids on roller boards, a couple of dogs and a large deaf tabby tomcat. The kids and dogs disappear as if the devil is behind them when we start to play.
The bandleaderís count in is inaudible, so we come in all over the place. This is to become a regular feature of the band. From stage right another local trumpet player, wife and ancient dog appear in the square and sit at a table. The trumpeter is here because he is taking over from me on the next gig as he is cheaper, but the sneaky bandleader has not told me this yet in case I refuse to play this free gig. The trumpet player now sits there like a vulture, waiting. The dog, spotting the tabby cat, sets off after it across the square like an express train, dragging the wife behind him.
Beside me the alto player bleats away, squeaking every fifteenth note with monotonous regularity. He looks to be a very testy chap, ginger hair with a bright red face. Reminds me vividly of my woodwork teacher, who used to hurl our efforts right down the workshop against the far wall if they displeased him. Wish heíd do the same with his alto. There is a nice brick wall behind us, but he doesnít.
The tenor makes a miserable effort now and then, but spends most of his time staring in bewilderment at his parts. He is a local vacuum cleaner salesman and sucks the tenor instead of blowing it because he never had a proper teacher. Very thin and weak he does not have enough wind to fill the lower register. When he tries the blood drains from his brain and he needs several bars rest to recover. He owns all the saxes, all the clarinets and all the flutes and possesses 500,000 jazz records. He often forgets to remove the mouthpiece cap. His wife has just run off with the alto player, but he is too exhausted to celebrate.
The music is a ghastly mixture of dreadful semipro charts circa 1928 and illegible photocopies of Glenn Miller stuff wrongly transcribed by idiots.
The bass player has come out of retirement for this gig and is playing on borrowed equipment. He has brought a small television set on stage with a satellite dish on top so he can watch a football match. He utters whoops and screams now and then that have nothing to do with the music.
The drummer has a cold and sneezes every fourth bar on two. As he is sitting behind me I move my chair as far forward and away from him as possible and wish I had an umbrella.
The trombonist is a wild-eyed Scot. He appears to have only four teeth and they are front centre, two up, two down. The rest of his mouth is a dark mystery that I donít wish to delve into. He spends most of his time knocking his music to the floor with the end of his slide when itís too difficult, and shouting ah canny hear the melody during all piano solos.
The pianist plays solos a la Art Tatum. He often gets so late with his left hand that he loses his own beat. When he hears what the trombonist is saying he slams down the lid of the piano and shouts come and censored play the censored thing yourself.
As the first couple of numbers are quiet ballads I play them on flugelhorn. After a couple more on trumpet I pick up the flugelhorn once more and the trombonist shouts och! Heís goan tae play yon floogalhorrn agaen. (i.e. Oh! He is going to play that flugelhorn again.)
I say donít you like the flugelhorn? He says ach, a wee bitty is OK in the right place, but I like tae hear the trumpet masel. I thank him for his opinion and tell him that I would have certainly liked to have met him earlier in my career. He is a Glaswegian from the Gorbals and I donít quite like the way he looks at me when I say that.
Most of us miss the intro of each number because the leader is still counting off in a whisper. He is convinced that the ideal tempo for a foxtrot is that of Jersey Bounce, and spends several minutes each time humming and clicking at it before getting it right. He makes tiny twiddly finger movements of no consequence as he mutters away, so no one knows whether heís starting us or not.†
The trombonist bawls out we canny hear ye, yeíll haftae count us louder. The leader grabs the mike and screams can you hear me now? A flock of pigeons rises from the church tower opposite. The old men stop and look at us, then resume their game. The local trumpet player ruffles his feathers, cackles and looks as if he's about to take off, fly over and circle slowly above my head.
The cat has leapt up on the rostrum for safety and is calmly washing himself just out of reach. The dog below is jumping up and down in rage and barking on the offbeat, giving a whole new meaning to the jazz four.
The pub is doing a roaring trade. While we are plodding away to an empty square with this rubbish at strict ballroom dancing jersey bounce tempo the people inside are having a wonderful time without us. Loud rock music and raucous bursts of singing override our miserable efforts.
The church clock opposite goes berserk every quarter hour and drowns out whatever we are playing. It is a quarter tone flat, which matches the trombone playerís tuning exactly. After a few onslaughts of this I try playing along with the chimes a quarter tone higher, more or less. No one notices.
The bandleaderís son is sitting on the other side of the square balancing the band on a huge 24 track mixing console. As there is only one central microphone for the singer he is picking up the rest of us by means of hovering state-of-the-art radarĖcontrolled robots disguised as bats. Every now and then he seizes a camera and rushes around taking shots of the band. I play a solo and he suddenly appears beneath me, lying on the ground taking close-ups of the inside of my nostrils.
He has wild hair, like the mad inventor, a perpetual grimace and enormous ears. People have told me, most unkindly, that his mother used to pick him up by them when he was a baby, hence the pained expression. Or maybe itís just us, because this dream ensemble has quickly turned into the worldís number one nightmare horror show.
The thought makes me giggle. The trombonist looks at me in alarm. Are ye all right, hen?
It grows very dark and menacing in the square. There are very few lights. The girl singer appears beside me in the gloom to ask whether there might be bats in the church belfry. I tell her there most certainly are, so she puts a cloth over her hair, just in case. She need not bother. If I were a bat Iíd keep well away from her.
The leader announces thereíll be an interval for tea and sandwiches. I titter dutifully. No one else laughs. We ignore the huge mountain of egg mayonnaise sandwiches and the urn of tea prepared by governesses in white pinafores and make a beeline for the pub. The leader follows me in and asks me what I think of his new dream band. I tell him it is like dying and playing in hellís no coda big band. He has obviously never heard that joke before. He moves away and starts talking to the girl singer with his back to me. Now I can see her properly I note she is wearing a long black gown with a high pointed collar, black jewellery, black lipstick and a black eye her old man gave her the night before. She looks like the Wicked Queen in Snow White.
The leader watches anxiously as we all down great quantities of beer. The drummer refills his bottle pockets and we help him back on stage again.
Meanwhile the bandleaderís son has rigged up a battery of laser cannons to illuminate the stage. The lights lock on to our heads using the latest sophisticated thought-control tracking system technology and blast right through our eyeballs.
We play American Patrol. The drummer, with only one working leg, cannot play bass drum and hi-hat at the same time so he has a special pedal that works both. The result is ludicrous and I ask him to disconnect the apparatus because he is driving me insane. He reacts by trying to combine his four bar Buddy Rich type solo with a violent fit of sneezing and blows himself off the drum stool. The band can no longer play for laughing, so the pianist takes over with a solo. The trombonist shouts ah canny hear the melody at him while the bandleaderís son flings himself down beside the drummer trying to zoom in for a shot of his eyeballs as he curses and struggles knocking over cymbals and tom toms as he thrashes around trying to get up but the weight of the beer bottles in his pockets pins him down to the floor.
The bass player takes advantage of the confusion to turn up the volume of his football match. The square is suddenly filled with the sounds of police sirens, shouting and the thud of punches landing.
We reposition the drummer and continue. The trombonist, who is still trying to get his own back, points at my music suddenly, shouts I think yeíre a wee bit in the wrong place there, Laddy! and sits back with a smirk of Schadenfreude on his face. His four teeth gleam eerily in the spotlights. I play on in the wrong place that is really the right place. Meanwhile his trombone solo arrives while heís still preening himself and he misses it. Ah canny hear the melody! shouts the pianist, taking the mickey. Wheereís the damn trombone?
We play the Spanish Gypsy Dance. As the band thumps away at the intro I listen with growing concern. There is a difference of opinion over the tempo. The drummer is away at a gallop, has already overtaken the others and is leading by a length. The guitar player is slumped in his chair with his mouth open. He seems to be dead, but heís only asleep, lucky him. His snoring is the only rhythmic pulse going on in the band. I decide to come in on the original count. I seem to be the only one who can remember it.
As soon as I start to play there is a blinding flash and a violent clap of thunder overhead. Seconds later the rain starts coming down in sheets. The parts are soaked at once and the ink begins to run. It is like sitting in the midst of a gun barrage, with howitzers firing on all sides. The rain is pouring down in torrents, with flashes and explosions all around us. Every time there is a bang the Wicked Queen screams. I have visions of being struck by lightning and wonder if the trumpet will act as a conductor. The people in the pub opposite have now gathered behind the window and are tapping their heads at us.
Still we play on, although the music is slowly beginning to disintegrate. The noise is incredible. Iíve already given up trying to hear the rhythm section. The leader calls the next tune as if nothing untoward is happening. No one wants to be the first to give in because we are British and have stiff upper lips so we go into the next number, which is a girl vocal. Despite the din we get whispered in as usual so everyone starts on a different beat but nobody can hear us so it doesnít matter. I play a few bars of Braindrops Keep Falling In My Head as a joke and the bandleader frowns at me and shakes his head.
Suddenly there is a loud explosion and I turn to see flames and clouds of smoke billowing out of the bass amplifier. The bass player is nowhere to be seen.
Stop! Clear off! shouts the leader, and we rush over into the pub. The mountain of egg sandwiches has sunk to a squidgy, gooey, yellow splodge on the trestle table. As I rush by it begins to slip slowly over the edge and ooze like some ghastly blob from outer space down to the floor.
The locals are delighted, saying that the rain was good for the crops, and that we had brought it on, and so on, almost as if we had performed a rain dance. I find the bass player sitting at a corner table watching his little TV set. He isnít even wet. Heíd left the rostrum after the first clap of thunder and we never even missed him.
Hey, your amplifier caught fire, I tell him. Wasnít mine, was it, he says.
Meanwhile, the Wicked Queen, who had been standing there in the downpour, singing On the Sunny Side of the Street, staggers into the pub. She looks as if she has just been fished out of the sea. Her hair is plastered all over the place, her mascara has run and her dress sticks tight and wet and lumpy all over her. One of the roving robot microphones has become lodged in her hair and she is screaming and trying to pull it off.
The leader comes over to me. Iíll be exercising negative prerogative on your on-line up-front availability job-wise in the future under the terms of the corporate framework youíve suggested, but Iíd certainly like to keep all options open, he says. Why donít you talk more proper, I say. All right then youíre fired, he says. Iíve decided to book Harry James over there at half price. He indicates the other trumpet player, who has been sitting there all evening, waiting for me to die. I know him well. He is a drunken, incompetent sot, with a loud mouth that will hold its own against the trombone playerís. He will be ideal for this band and also doesnít play flugelhorn.
The leader tries to press a few low denomination coins into my hand. Whatís this, I say. Itís your transport money, he replies. I go to the door and hurl the coins as far as I can into the night.
Two days later my neighbour, who works late, says he passed the place where the band was playing the following night and it was empty. He reported that while he stood there listening the entire front line broke up in confusion and stopped playing several times. As he was about to drive away they started up again. Someone was shouting. He lowered the car window to listen. The words floated out into the night like a grand old refrain. Ah still canny hear the melody, they said.Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved