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The Great Big Bands

Peter Herbolzheimer

In January 1974 I played a three day job with Peter Herbolzheimer in Stuttgart, and Franz Fijal, the SFB band boss, paid the Swedish trumpet player, Rolf Ericsson, who was still the only white man ever to have played in the Duke Ellington band, my whole month’s wages to deputise for me for the three days. Maybe Franz was trying to get me to leave. If he was, he certainly succeeded. I know that he hated me playing with Peter’s band, which was so good that it made every other band look silly.

Peter’s line-up in those days was: Ron Simmonds, Ack van Rooyen, Palle Mickelborg and Art Farmer, trumpets, with Benny Bailey or Dusko Goykovich sometimes coming in as deps; Jiggs Whigham, Åke Persson, Rudi Fuesers, Peter Herbolzheimer, trombones; Horst Mühlbradt and Dieter Reith, keyboards; Philip Catherine, guitar; Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, bass; and Tony Inzalaco, drums. There was only one alto saxophone, played by Herb Geller. When Herb left, Ferdinand Povell came in, with Jim Towsey on baritone. Later on Otto Bredl, Johnny Griffin and Alan Botschinsky became regular members. As a matter of fact—Peter could have had any one of the great American jazz musicians he wanted in the band. The money was there, and quite a lot of the players in the United States were hard pressed for jobs.

I enjoyed playing with this band more than any other. On every occasion, on every number I was thrilled through and through by what was going on all around me. Every man in the band was a sensationally gifted player and the arrangements, by Horst Muhlbradt and Dieter Reith, the two keyboard players, and by Peter himself, were breathtaking.

It was a marvellous trumpet section, with three jazz soloists, including the fabulous Art Farmer. I stood beside Art for about twelve years in the band and never ceased to wonder at his playing.

Here again I was complimented from all sides on my playing, something that always charged me up with even more energy and determination.

We played all over Europe with Peter's band and made many recordings and television shows, some of which I've already mentioned on previous pages. This was probably the most satisfying period of my career.

Not long after we’d had our satellite television receiver installed in Spain I stumbled, quite by accident, on a repeat of a transmission from the old Domicile jazz club in Munich. I switched on the video recorder, just in case.

The club had been gutted by fire. The beginning of the film showed the most unlikely people in the act of cleaning up the mess. It was a gimmick, of course, but there were my old pals Don Menza, Nat Peck, and Willy Schmidt, the engineer from the Trixi recording studio.

I knew that if I waited long enough I’d see the Herbolzheimer band. First came a half-hour or so of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band, then, sure enough, there we were. I remembered that we’d just returned from the jazz festival in Berghausen, on the Austrian border.

Ack van Rooyen, Benny Bailey, and Dusko Goykovich were with me in the trumpet section, Åke Persson and Bob Burgess in the trombones— There were very many close-ups of Åke, who was extremely photogenic. Phillip Catherine and Ronnie Stephenson were also there. Ferdinand Povell was heavily featured on flute and tenor.

We played Nica’s Dream and That ole bus smell. It was marvellous to see all this, something that had happened about ten or more years earlier— I reckoned it to be around 1978. There were several shots, interpolated in the music, of Max Greger, sitting at a table with my wife and my friend Richard Krueger, the jazz producer from Radio Saarland.

Richard said later that Max had spent practically the whole of the evening cursing himself for causing me to leave his band all those years before.

‘How could I have done that?’ he moaned, rocking back and forth in misery. ‘Der Ron— Listen to him— He was in my band! I must have been stupid! Why was I so stupid?’ He always used to call me Der Ron. Germans talk like that—the Ron, the Dick, the Benny, the Max.

When Benny went over to talk to him in the interval he carried on in a similar fashion, because we’d both been in his band at the same time. Benny told him that he had, indeed, been incredibly stupid, and that seemed to satisfy Max, because now he shut up about it.

While we were playing the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Hague someone noticed that the television set was showing a big band programme. Sure enough, there they were, all in glorious grainy monochrome. The Great Big Bands, said the title. For the next half-hour I watched, in mounting disbelief, a succession of prime examples of all the bands of yore included in my list of big bands I would most like to forget.

There were Johnny Long, Kay Kyser, Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo, Ina Ray Hutton, and a bandleader, whose name I forget, who insisted upon playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on the lower range of the tenor saxophone with a vibrato like a buzz saw.

Just as I was about to hurl something heavy in rage at the set the Ted Heath band came on, and there I was, almost twenty years previously, with a crew cut and the big horn-rimmed glasses which I used to think made me look intelligent.

All of my old buddies were there—Bert Ezard, Eddie Blair, Duncan Campbell, Don Lusher, Wally Smith, Johnny Edwards, Ken Goldie, John Hawksworth, Bob Efford and Ronnie Verrell.

Ronnie Chamberlain and Henry McKenzie were playing something exotic on soprano and clarinet, while Ken Kiddier went ga-DUMP, ga-DUMP on baritone. I believe the tune was called something like Rockin’ in Marocco.

Ted stood over on one side with the perpetual sneer he wore when listening to the band. The camera now concentrated fully on the trumpet section. To my horror, instead of showing us in the manly throes of super-duper, lip-busting, lung-heaving trumpet heroics, we were sitting there with silly grins on our faces tinging tiny two-inch finger cymbals to the music.

As I watched this in growing embarrassment for some moments Dieter Reith said dryly, ‘Now I know why you left Great Britain.’

Just around this time the Danish trumpeter Alan Botschinsky, who often played with the Herbolzheimer band, made a controversial record called First Brass, using only four wind players: Derek Watkins and himself on trumpets, with the Dutch van Lier brothers, Bart and Eric on trombones.

The only rhythm on the whole of the LP was provided by Eric van Lier on the tuba, and he had to make several synchronised playbacks to get it all on the record without dying from lack of breath.

Eric told me later on that he only rarely played the tuba, because he was otherwise greatly in demand on the bass trombone. Eric was quite short, so he had made a special slanting wooden wedge he carried around with him to sit on, which slid him down the chair forwards far enough to allow him to plant both feet firmly on the floor.

When I played Alan’s record to the tuba player from the Saarbrucken radio symphony orchestra he totally flipped out. He refused to believe when I told him, albeit somewhat cruelly, that Eric had only picked up the tuba for the session. The tuba player had only just bought a Subaru van, which, painted white, looked exactly like the ones used for the sale of ice-cream. Having successfully cajoled me into making him a cassette copy of Alan's record, he installed the most expensive Japanese hi-fi equipment that money could buy into the wagon, with giant speakers in every corner, and thereafter spent most of his time driving around, or just sitting in the thing, playing this one cassette at full volume with his mouth open.

The record also depressed very many trumpet players, both classical and otherwise, because Derek Watkins achieved some pretty high notes on there, one of them an incredible double-octave ‘E’, starting, incidentally, from cold, at four o’clock in the morning, that really defied credence.

The normal range of the Bb trumpet is around a high C. Many players never manage to get much higher than this note comfortably. Some top-notch professionals can reach one octave higher than this. Very few can attain notes higher than a double C, but Derek can probably get up yet another octave above that. When he played with Maynard Ferguson’s band, Maynard, who was the star soloist out front, had to tell Derek to stop finishing the numbers on higher notes than the ones he was getting.

I once wrote a double-octave C# for Chuck Findley when he came over from Los Angeles for a session in the Baden-Baden studios. When I congratulated him afterwards he said that Derek would have taken it an octave higher. This was in my score of the Earth, Wind and Fire number Fantasy on the Bandfire record. Don Rader, Ack van Rooyen and Jan Osthof were also in the trumpet section and we swopped about a bit. Heinz von Hermann played flute, bass flute, soprano and tenor saxophones on that recording. He used to bring so many instruments to the sessions that he now suffers from back pains from carrying them all. I once carried his tenor case about a hundred yards for him in Berlin and it nearly broke my arm. He was carrying everything else, including a baritone sax.

It was on this session that Ack played the stunning solo on It Ain't Necessarily So that I'd scored the day before. He did it on one take only, and Peter put the strings on later. Brilliant. Unfortunately, although the recording was nothing short of a sensation, the Baden-Baden radio station has yet to release it.

It was a sensational group of people, the best I ever worked with in my long career. Playing those arrangements of Peter’s, with those guys, made the whole idea of being in the music business mean something.

It was a great compliment to me that, when a badly handled dental operation paralysed my bottom lip and caused me to leave his band later on, Peter began flying Chuck over from Los Angeles to regularly replace me on his record sessions. When Chuck couldn’t make it Peter used Derek Watkins, who was over in Germany a lot of the time playing with the James Last show band.

Not long after I left Peter's band he was asked by the German government to take charge of a project aimed at promoting jazz music for young people. The project was backed by, among others, Mercedes Benz. This gave it an immense amount of clout and the idea was an instant success.

Now, every year, up to two hundred young people gather at an appointed place for auditions for the two official German youth bands. Called the BuJazzO, for Bundes Jugend Orchester, the bands tour the world, make records and show what the youth of today is made of. That was the original plan. It was a complete surprise to find that, not only were the young people selected and trained by Peter's outstanding colleagues - they were nothing short of sensational.

The recordings made by the BuJazzO up to now can hold their own against the very best big bands in the world today. I say this, not to ingratiate myself with them, or as an encouragement they hardly need, but straight from the heart as a long-time professional musician. When a band plays I know what to listen for, what's right and what's great. These guys have it all.

This takes up a lot of Peter's time these days, but he still manages to get his own band together now and again. Several members of past BuJazzOs now play in his regular band.

A couple of years ago he was offered the job of leading the RIAS band (Radio in the American Sector, Berlin). The band was at that moment suffering from lack of public exposure and needed some shaking up musically. If ever anyone could have made a success of that it was Peter. Unfortunately, the band was terminated shortly after. Jiggs Whigham had been the last ever leader of that fine big radio band.

Summing up >>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved