Prelude to the Blues
Big Band Gallery
Talking to Ron Simmonds in 2000
I was born on the 18th of January, 1935 into a non musical but supportive family and was encouraged to start taking piano lessons when I was 10 years old. I must have been pretty good, because I got my first paid gig when I was 13, playing for a dancing school.
I quickly became interested in jazz music, and at age 15 bought my first 10" LP of Woody Herman. I still have it and it still plays perfectly.
That was the start of my love affair with big bands. Shortly afterwards I acquired two Kenton 10" LP's: Portraits on Standards and Sketches on Standards, with most of the arrangements written by Bill Russo, who was on trombone in the band at the time. I was fascinated by the writing. For me this music is still valid today.
I started a small group locally for dances and things and did the writing for it, with a line-up of trombone, baritone and rhythm section.
Then began a life long interest in Gerry Mulligan, but National Service called when I was 18. I was two years in the mob, but luckily didn't have to go very far away. I was stationed in London for the first year and Ruislip after that. Being around London gave me the ideal opportunity to hear a lot of live music.
On my way back to camp on a Sunday evening I invariably went to see Ted Heath at the London Palladium. Those were the days of Ronnie Verrell, with whom I subsequently worked, Bobby Pratt, Bert Ezard, Ronnie Chamberlain and others.
As a result I became seriously interested in writing for big bands. On demob I joined a local band of 5 saxes, trumpet and rhythm, for which I did the arrangingup to a good semipro standard. I would have like to have started a big band at that time, but the musicians didn't exist in my area.
Shortly after this I formed a quintet with Jim Lawless consisting of alto, vibes and rhythm. I did all the writing for this, some originals, but mostly Gigi Gryce material. We started working with this group at the First Ronnie Scott's club in Gerrard Street, in Soho, for about a year, playing there every Wednesday.
This band attracted quite a bit of attention, but then Jim left to join Eric Delaney's small band. A year later I joined Eric's band as well, for a short spell on organ. Tony Fisher and Ronnie Aspery were in the band then.
After that I still nurtured a desire to write for a bigger combination but no opportunity arose at this time. In the meantime I did all the usual jobbing work that pianists do. I must have worked with every great British comedianmaybe someone was trying to say something about my piano playing. I had two years with Morcambe and Wise on the road, followed by three years with Des O'Connor. That was where I met up with Ronnie Verrell.
I went to a concert at The Fairfield Halls to see Kenton and was as completely overwhelmed by the experience as I'd been when I saw Basie at the Royal Festival Hall some years earlier. In the programme there was an advert for Kenton arrangements for sale. I figured I would buy some, get a band together and learn from the charts at the same time. However when I tried to buy them I was informed that they were no longer available.
What to do now? About the same time I discovered, in our local library, a book by Henry Mancini called Sounds and Scores. It included examples of his writing for big band and full orchestra together with 45rpm floppy discs of musical examples. I was totally fascinated. The book was very expensive at the time so I copied out by hand the text and all the written musical arrangements. This was what really got me going and what has subsequently become an obsession.
I then decided to do a transcription of one of Mancini's arrangements as a learning exercise. The song was Charade from the album Mancini Generation. A fantastic arrangement in 3/2 time which caused me problems until I sorted it out.
However, having completed the task I had no band to play it. It was suggested by a drummer friend of mine that I ring Tony Douglas who was running a rehearsal band on Wednesday lunchtimes to get them to play the chart. Tony agreed and asked me to play piano as well. When I arrived the line-up was like a Who's Who of the session world at that time. Tommy McQuater, Leon Calvert, Bob Leaper who was very helpful with tips on my subsequent arrangements, Laddy Busby, Pete Beachill, Art Morgan, the great Bob Burns, and many more. I couldn't go wrong with a band like that and I learned a lot.
After a time I'd done about 20 arrangements and had heard them once or twice at the mostand then they were put in a drawer and forgotten. Frustrating!!!!!
Then someone said to me, 'Why don't you start your own rehearsal band?'
And so the big band started. Sunday lunchtimes in Mill Hill was the venue and the band started to attract incredibly talented young musicians from the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, largely as a result of the involvement of my 17-year-old son, who was in the orchestra on bass guitar at the time. So I now had a highly professional band capable of playing anything I put in front of them.
The band at this time consisted of Stuart Brooks, Steve Sidwell, John Barclay, Butch Hudson on trumpets, Jamie Talbot, Dave Bishop, saxes; Neil Sidwell and Steve Wilks on trombones-to name but a few. All of these guys subsequently went on to be the session musicians of the future.
With a line-up like this I couldn't do enough writing and I did transcription after transcription, learning as I went along. I started studying Bill Holman, Clare Fischer, Bill Russo, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones, Basie and Ellington arrangements, hoping some of it would rub off on me.
I would have taken arranging lessons but I couldn't find anyone to teach me. On reflection I think doing transcriptions was probably the best way to go about it.
Then I started writing a few originals and the flood became a torrent. About three years ago a guy who had been interested in the band, and had helped me run it, suggested that we record the band, and he would finance it. The idea was to record a representative selection of the music we were playing at the time.
I managed to squeeze on a couple of my originals. This was the Retrospection album. It was received quite well and we had quite a lot of airplays but no record company was even vaguely interested in handling it. It didn't matter thoughthe guys liked doing it and we did get a few concerts out of it.
Let me jump back to the beginning of the bandtwenty years to be precise. In addition to the great young musicians I've already mentioned I started getting various members of the BBC big band coming in for a blowpeople like Paul Eshelby, Kenny Hamilton and Nigel Carter.
They suggested that I take a few of my charts to the BBC. They bought a few but nothing substantial came of it, until about 20 years later Robin Sedgeley phoned and asked me to go in to conduct the radio band with my charts. After that I was the flavour of the month for about two years. Then as you know the radio band ceased to be employed on a full time basis by the BBC, Robin was made redundant and that was that.
Last year I reached the dizzy heights of 65 yrs and I determined that I would make an album consisting entirely of my compositions and arrangements. Prelude to the Blues was recorded in August 2000. We recorded 13 numbers, all of which went on the CD. The band was absolute magic.
Because of the lack of interest shown by record companies I decided to make it available on the Internet. I never expected to sell vast numbers of the CDs this way, but at least the music is out there for anyone who wants to listen. As a result we have had a lot of interest from the States.
Peoplesound.com have featured it heavily. They run a jazz chart which is compiled by computing the visits, streams downloads and sales of the albums. Prelude to the Blues was numbers 1 and 2 in this chart for three months. My latest writing commission came out of others hearing the band and subsequently asking me to write some original music for them.
To concludeI believe that there is still a great interest in big bands and we have to keep plugging away.
Copyright © 2000, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved.