Jazz Professional               

Magyar Wanderers 0, Fido 2

by Ron Simmonds

When I first arrived in Berlin in the sixties the town was full of jazz musicians. Eric Dolphy had just passed away, and his name was still on everyone's lips. Herb Geller and Leo Wright were there; drummers Joe Harris and Dick Berk, Joe Zawinul, Ack and Jerry van Rooyen, Francy Boland, Gunther Schuller and Willis Conover. Later on, Lou Blackburn, from the Ellington band, Slide Hampton, the Danish trombone player Torolf Molgaard, and trumpeter Carmel Jones all came to live in Berlin.

Robert Farnon came to make a record with Chet Baker, who had just been released from a Spanish jail. The police were waiting, and hustled Chet away out of Germany before he even got into the studio.

Anyone who has never lived in Berlin would be forgiven for thinking that this town, once the capital of the Third Reich, would be a grim place, full of wartime relics, ruins and memories, especially in those days. In fact, nine-tenths of Berlin consists of beautiful forests and lakes, with many romantic castles and palaces. One never tires of roaming. The grim relics are there too, though, and, as two or three of the most important recording studios were situated right alongside the Berlin wall, by the Potsdamer Platz, I had to drive through vast areas of burned and bombed out streets to reach them. The Ariola studio, itself only a shell, with one big room intact, was opposite the famous Haus Vaterland, once the very centre of entertainment, in Berlin.

The Phonogram studio was in the old Hotel Esplanade, a huge empty, dusty ruin full of the ghosts of pre-war embassy balls and receptions.

Nat Peck was in Berlin when I first arrived. Nat, Ake Persson and Eric van Lier made up the great trombone section of the Francy Boland band. Into this staggering array of talent a young man arrived from the Balkans to study classical composition with Boris Blacher. Nat Peck left for London and the young man moved into Nat's house in Berlin.

This guy, who shall be nameless, was also a trombone player, but I didn't actually find this out until we were both booked on a session in a studio in Berlin Lichterfelde which I hadn't previously visited. This was in a private house, and the first thing I saw when I got there was a small dog.

It was a very small dog indeed, and it was rushing around the garden shoving a football with its nose. This dog should have been in a circus. Whatever he did, and however wildly he gyrated and spun, the ball remained firmly fixed to the end of his nose as if it had been stuck there.

As he rushed around, pushing away with his chin flat on the ground, he emitted the most amazing series of grunts, snuffles and growls imaginable, his little legs working away at terrific speed.

Once inside the studio, which was in the basement, I was struck speechless. The room was full of cigarette smoke, badly lit, smelly and, instead of the usual awe-inspiring array of Berlin jazz musicians to which I was accustomed, it was completely filled with Hungarian mandolin players. I have nothing against mandolins, as long as I don't have to listen to them. As far as I am concerned, one can make a fairly reasonable reproduction of the sound by playing the trumpet in a bucket of water.

There were thirty of them, and these guys were really the genuine article. Sinister-looking, with long black greasy hair, an earring or two, and long, nervous, nicotine-stained fingers, they were wearing, to a man, musty greenish-black velvet suits, lavishly sprinkled with a vintage mixture of cigarette ash and dandruff. I think the producer had got them as a job lot from some goulash bar in East Berlin.

None of them spoke German, which helped a lot. As they were all busily engaged in tuning up and playing hot licks the noise was incredible, like being in a room full of giant chickens. I discovered that I was expected to sit amongst them and play several extremely romantic, Zigeuner-type trumpet solos from time to time.

As I had, earlier in my career, closely studied the style of the famous Grisha Farfel, who used to play trumpet with Doctor Crock and his Crackpots, I didn't anticipate much trouble with that.

It being so hot and smoky, and all, several windows were open high up in the wall. Someone had suspended from the ceiling, by the neck, one of those portable, life-size inflatable rubber porno dolls. Most of the air had left the wretched thing and it hung there limply, turning slowly in the small breeze. No one laughed.

These mandolinists were not jolly chaps at the best of times, and right now they were having a lot of trouble with the music. Sitting in that hot stuffy room amongst them, with the plectrums whizzing and twanging and the buzzing, bubbling noise going on all around me was the exact reverse of romantic.

Once we started recording, a new factor crept in. During his high speed travels, which criss-crossed the small garden in every possible way, the small dog invariably came close to the open windows above us every few minutes or so. His loud snuffling, grunting and growling thus became an integral part of the recording. This was only evident on the playback.

The Hungarians looked at me with raised eyebrows. "I'm innocent!" I cried. They then began waving their arms about and shouting in tongues, accusing one another of stomach noises, and so on. It took ages before someone realised where the sound was coming from. Closing the window would have asphyxiated the lot of us. Taking away the ball and locking up Fido gave us a new sound, a distant, echoing, hysterical sobbing which was infinitely worse than the snuffling. In the end, one of the mandolin players was officially detached to go and play football with the dog at the other end of the garden, a task which he undertook with gloomy, fatalistic, Magyar resignation.

This didn't actually solve the problem, as the dog still managed to put a couple of shots through the window, to screams of rage from the producer, who tried to confiscate the ball. The engineer, who owned both dog and studio, said that this would psychologically disturb the dog, and we took a tea break while they hammered that one out. I learned a lot of new German words that day, not in any dictionary, and a Hungarian one which sounded like kussenum, which I was told meant "thank you".

The dog was finally led off to a huge dish containing about fifteen pounds of raw steak and we managed to get some of the recording done. When my companion from the Balkans came to play his solos I realised that he was probably the most Godawful trombone player I had ever heard. Even the mandolins were struck dumb with horror.

The producer, who was an exceptionally kind person, allowed the man to play his three solos, praised him effusively, paid him, clapped him on the back several times, and threw him out.

I had to stay behind and play all his trombone solos again on the trumpet. "Who is that guy?" they asked me. "He's going to be a famous composer one day," I said.

I was right about that. After studying for a couple of years he began turning out some of the most terrifying avant-garde classical compositions ever written. Misguided orchestra managements booked concerts of the things; whole symphony orchestras rebelled. Musicians rightly refused to perform his works, saying that playing them caused depression, leading in some cases to divorce and even suicide.

A young psychiatrist published an analysis of the phenomenon that earned him a doctorate. The musical papers were filled with slanging matches between composer and critic. The musical world almost came to blows on the subject. He became famous all right.

When we finally emerged into the light of day once more the dog was waiting for us. He was sitting quite still up at the other end of the garden, licking his chops. I looked down. The ball lay at my feet. I booted it up the garden to him. The next moment we were all involved in a mad game of football—thirty Hungarian mandolin players and myself versus one little dog.

The dog won.

Copyright © 2003 Jazz Professional. All Rights Reserved.