A HEART IN THE RIGHT PLACE
"What do you do for a living?" asked the doctor.
It was almost as flattering an enquiry as the one made by that passer-by outside the Victoria Palace in the 60s ("What are you doing now?"). I had hoped that, by the beginning of 1983, the face and the name might have meant something, even to a heart specialist. Maybe his set was permanently tuned to "Casualty".
Still, this was no time to be vain - though that didn't stop me. The good quack was merely trying to gauge whether I'd be able to work again and, if so, how soon and to what extent. He needed to know which line of employment I was in before he could calculate how much heart-stress might be involved. So, helpful as ever, I told him I blew down a brass pipe. I couldn't have met with a more mirthless reaction if I'd been playing the first house on a Monday at the Glasgow Empire. When we'd established the nature of the brass pipe in question, he dived head-first into his library of medical thomes only to discover that - surprise surprise - there was nothing in any of them which covered trombone players. Hod carriers, yes - but trombonists, no. It struck me as a little late in the day to make the switch to hod-carrying (though some may have seen it as a good career move) so we just had to resort to a common-sense prescription: if it hurts, stop. I suppose that applies as a good rule-of-thumb to just about anything in life. With that in mind, I started practising again (not in his surgery, I waited till I got home) and although my health gradually improved, I began getting angina pains in the arm, across the chest and down the other arm. The funny part was that whenever I blew the trombone, the pain went away! That piece of information came as quite a shock to my chum, the mirthless medic. When I told him, he looked utterly startled, called all the other specialists in and said,
"Pain goes away when he's playing trombone!"
I'm not sure how pleased he was about this: I think he may have had a nightmare vision of a hospital with cubicles full of patients all playing the trombone. Not a bad idea in my view: they could have made it an extension to the hod carriers' ward.
But think how lucky I'd been. At the time when I was having the attack, I didn't have a clue how serious it was. I just knew something was going on and I didn't like it. And the actual surgery happened without my really knowing what was involved. Just as well, I say, because having experienced it, I then had people coming up to me and saying,
"You've done terribly well!"
"Why?" I innocently enquired, then wished I hadn't because this would lead to a graphic description of a major heart by-pass operation. And in my case, it was a triple by-pass (can't think why, I'm not a civil servant!). When it hit me as to just what that meant, I went, "Christ!" as one does in such situations.
Unbeknown to me at the time, a good pal of mine, Len Skeat the bass player, had the kind thought of going up to see poor old George in hospital. But really it was too soon after the surgery: I was still in the intensive care ward, hooked up to a machine with tubes coming out of practically every orifice (and there are several, folks! ). Two down the throat, up your nostrils, in your ears, everywhere. So poor Len troops up, innocently asks if he can see George Chisholm and the nurse really shouldn't have let him in, but instead she said,
"Yes, he's in there."
She directed him into intensive care where I lay, oblivious of the whole scene (thank God), a gruesome network of tubes, looking for all the world like a 3D map of the London Underground. Len took one look and felt so ill, he nearly needed to join me! But thanks anyway, Len.
Recuperation's a slow and patience-testing business and I still get angina pains today, so I've had to learn to live with it. But then, that's better than learning to die with it, so I'm not complaining. The only thing I will say is that after the day I got by-passed more times than Croydon, the good Doctor Mirthless assured me that was me fixed up for life, no five thousand mile service (and hopefully for a long time no memorial service), but then along came the angina. I rest my case - I have to, it's exhausted.
Through a happy accident of timing, though, while I was clawing my way back to some semblance of health, I was probably reaching a wider public than ever before. Prior to falling ill, I'd been hired by Dick Lester to display another bout of cinematic reacting in one of his epics. This time it was "Superman 3", the one in which the baddies got to him and made him do all sorts of evil deeds, one of them being to straighten the Tower of Pisa. Not exactly on a par with the bombing of Hiroshima, I grant you, but it didn't half cramp John Bluthal's style. John was playing a street vendor whose stock-in trade was plastic models of the leaning tower and he wasn't at all amused to see the course of geography change in an instant. My role was that of a Pisan road-sweeper and I was required to stand with John and, yes, react as Christopher Reeve supposedly put the tower at right angles to the ground. Glamorous stuff, until you realise that John and I were being filmed alone in Elstree with just an eye-line to follow. I know that must come as a great disappointment to those of you that believed Christopher Reeve could fly, but what I say is never trust a man who wears his Y-fronts on the outside! I was pretty chuffed to know that John and I would be virtually the last faces on the screen because at the end of the picture, after Superman's recovered from his bout of baddiness, he rushes round the world like a last-minute Christmas shopper, desperately righting all his earlier wrongs. At the eleventh hour, he remembers Pisa and again I stood there reacting as John Bluthal got even more furious: he'd just started flogging straight tower models!
So while I was preparing to rejoin the living after my little sojourn in intensive care, my mug was on show all over the country, and mainly to an audience of kids. Obviously that was good in some ways, but it had its drawbacks.
"Wow! You were in Superman?", marvelled the kids.
"Yea, but I'm really a jazz musician."
"What's he like?" "Who?"
"Superman, of course!"
"Oh, well I never actually met him. We were just given this eye-line to follow. Anyway, let me tell you about when I played the middle eight of 'Laura'..."
"Sod Laura. What about Lois Lane?" And I don't think they meant the singer!
* * *
After what had happened last time, I never went near decorating again. Perhaps it was God's way of telling me I simply wasn't house-trained. But it had never occurred to me that someone else might have had the idea of decorating ME. Granted, a spot of artex on the eyebrows and a strip of wallpaper over the moustache may have been an improvement, but the decoration turned out to be an OBE! When they notified me about this, I was delighted to be told it was being awarded for services to jazz, not for services to wearing a George Robey hat and a red nose. As far as I'm aware, getting the gong for services to jazz is a bit of a rarity. The only other person I know who's got one is Ronnie Scott. Well, they were hardly going to give him one for services to jokes! Perhaps it's kept as a marginal category for fear that if all the retired colonels heard about it - and someone explained to them what jazz is - there might be a repeat of the mid 60s occasion when a whole battalion of them returned their decorations in protest at the ennoblement of the Beatles. Still I suppose the palace would just melt them down and make them into new ones.
For anything that involves meeting royalty, it's essential to know "the form". Never having received an OBE before, I wasn't sure if there was any kneeling to be done, but luckily the Queen and I were both spared the sight of an arthritic Chis desperately trying to unlock his joints and get perpendicular again. If the worst had come to the worst, I suppose one of the footmen could have provided a little trolley, slid it under me and wheeled me away with a cry of "Next please!" - but no, no kneeling was necessary. However, I was given strict instructions only to speak if Her Majesty spoke to me. Think I could have worked that one out for myself. Honestly, what did they think I was going to do, ask her for a date?
"Er, pardon me, Your Queenship, but if you're not doing anything later, d'you fancy a couple of jars down the British Legion?" Can't really see it, can you? Anyway, I prefer older women and her mother wasn't around.
As it turned out, she did speak to me. I was terrified it was going to be another variation of that all-too-regular question,
"And what do you do?"
but she seemed to know what I did because she asked how long I' d been playing the trombone. Coincidentally, the ceremony was taking place in the very same ballroom at Buckingham Palace where I'd performed in the late 30s so I was able to say to her,
"Well you see that little balcony up there? I used to play there with Ambrose's band, many years ago, when you were only that high and you were allowed to pop in and see all the bright lights and people dancing."
"Oh you must have been playing a long time," she observed. I resisted the temptation to riposte that I did get a tea-break in about 1942. Instead we just shook hands, she gave me the gong and that was it. Exciting stuff for me, and gratifying too, but the people who really went wild over it were the Americans.
The jazz impresario Dick Gibson invited me over to Colorado to take part in one of his conventions and when news of this OBE thing leaked out, it caused a certain amount of confusion over points of etiquette. Ludicrously, a lot of the men had taken to calling me "Sir George". I'm surprised they didn't ask where my suit of armour had gone. And the women got themselves in a twist over whether or not they should curtsey to me! Looking back, I should have milked the situation for all it was worth, insisted on red carpets, stretch limos and a private plane to take me from the dressing-room to the stage. But I suppose the misplaced title was thrill enough. It made me feel like a jazz knight, entering the realm of musical aristocracy that already contained Count Basie, Duke Ellington and someone with whom I was due to be reunited, Benny "King" Carter.
Benny was another of Dick Gibson's guests, well into his '70s by then and blowing better than ever. It was exhilarating playing with him again after nearly half a century and I was equally thrilled to be blowing alongside other American greats such as trumpeter Billy Butterfield, Satchmo's old trombonist Trummy Young (who died soon after) and tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton who, at the time of writing, is still in his 30s but has the maturity of style of a much older musician.
Dick's jazz parties were an annual event and I was invited back to do, amongst other things, an anecdotal spot. It was nice to be thought of as amusing and witty WITHIN a jazz context, rather than having to convince people that my main role in life is to play jazz, not just do gags.
Alas, not all Americans appreciate my humour. If they did, I'd still be there, but I can think of at least one major US jazzer who could rival my old heart specialist in the mirthlessness stakes: Ruby Braff.
Ruby had buttonholed me at one of the Gibson parties in Denver, said he was visiting England soon to play at the Pizza Express in Dean Street and that he wanted me to come down and blow with him. It isn't something I would normally do because generally there's nothing worse than turning up at a venue like that with the trombone and asking "Mind if I sit in?", but as I'd been specifically invited and as Ruby's such a good player, I went against my better judgement just the once. Besides, I was honour bound: Jim Douglas had also been asked to go and his car had broken down so he needed a lift. So that was settled. When we turned up, Ruby failed to acknowledge us as he was a little too busy effing and blinding over the state of the air conditioning. He went the whole of the first set without inviting us on at any time so, giving him the benefit of the doubt, I reasoned that he must have been saving us up for later. A mixed blessing, it seemed, from the curtness with which he treated his rhythm section - a good one including Kenny Baldock and Brian Lemon. Well, the evening progressed which is more than I did. This unplayed trombone at my feet seemed to be getting bigger and bigger - maybe I was just getting smaller and smaller. If it had been Jack Teagarden up there, I would probably have wept but as it was, I was all for saying "Stuff it". I put this viewpoint to Jim, suggesting that we leave immediately. That turned out to be impossible as Ruby had just asked Jim to get up and play! I was beginning to wonder whether, along with angina, I'd also contracted invisibility when Braff extended a polite invitation to me along the lines of,
"What are you f---ing sitting there for? Get on the f---ing stage!"
For this, he nearly got a Boosey and Hawkes trombone wrapped round his bonce (a goodly footage of metal, I might add) but I forbore and joined him.
Not surprisingly, he proved to be an extremely competitive customer and he didn't like it when I responded to the little musical quotes he threw at me and got a good reaction from the audience. At one point, he let me loose on one of those 95 chorus jobs, no doubt looking forward to the collapse of Chis in mid-solo. But I got through it by using the old trick of pointing the trombone slide towards the floor for the low notes, straight ahead for the mid-range and high in the air for the top ones. Again, he wasn't very pleased but on those rare occasions when he did smile, I realised he reminded me of someone, though I couldn't think who. A little man, his square face, fringe of hair and clown-like grin were definitely familiar. I told him so and I think he expected me to exclaim,
"I've got it: Jesus Christ!"
instead of which I suddenly realised and said,
"I've got it: Alfie Bass!"
"Alfie Bass?" he pondered, never having heard of him. "Is he good?"
"Oh Ruby, he's the best at what he does."
This seemed to please him more than most of what I'd done that night, but God help me if he ever finds out that what Alfie Bass did do was specialise in playing hapless army privates in low-budget war films and TV sitcoms!
* * * *
With all the anxieties over the state of my own health, I find it cruelly ironic that it was Etta who went first. In the summer of 1990, she died suddenly of cancer and it has been very difficult for me to adjust because we were very close. I sometimes wish I had cried properly at the time. I didn't because there were people there and I didn't want them to see me break down. It might have been better if I had because it was a delayed reaction thing, I just couldn't believe it. I still don't really believe it and I haven't any convictions one way or the other about life after death or reincarnation or whatever. I don't really know and I wish someone would tell me the answer. I've spoken to the religious folk and they've said,
"These people who say there is no life after death are merely making a statement. There's no proof."
but surely, equally, the people who say there IS life after death are merely expressing an opinion and there's no proof - so I don't know what to believe. I certainly wish there was. I'd love to think that when the time comes, I can see her and we can live happily ever after.
In the meantime, I console myself with the cliché that life goes on. My daughter Carole and her husband Don and their two sons now live with me, and I live with my ailments. I have tablets to control the angina so at least there's no pain any more but, heigh ho, I've now gone and got diabetes. I began to realise something was wrong when my trombone-playing started to go slightly awry. I'm very critical of my own work and although other people said it sounded fine to them, I wasn't convinced. I didn't have enough puff in me, I had a very dry mouth and I was visiting the bathroom far too often (we're talking number ones here, folks, for those of you that take an interest in such things). So I went to the specialist who did all the tests - blood and urine samples - and came back and said,
"I'll kill that cat!"
but the basic upshot was that I'd got sugar in my blood, so I asked, "Is there any blood in my blood?"
He went on to explain that this meant I was diabetic. Immediately, I had horrific visions of being arrested as a suspected junkie, having to ape Billie Holiday and wear long evening gloves to hide the needle marks or worst of all walking about with this needle saying,
"I haven't got another hole in my body to put this needle in. What do I do now?"
Luckily though, pills keep it under control so I'm not in danger of being punctured. I have to keep to a strictly disciplined diet, of course, and sweet things are out. I don't know if this applies to playing sentimental ballads but I'd better keep off them just in case.
Thank God I am well enough to work because the BBC appear to have reminded themselves of me and I've been on the radio lately almost as often as the pips. Richard Willcox has invited me to show off my lack of knowledge as a panellist on Benny Green's "Jazz Score" as well as guesting on "Bob Holness Requests The Pleasure", performing a jokey routine with Bob which involved my getting steadily pissed - though maybe "steadily" is not the word. I had thought of doing a programme called "George Chisholm Requests The Pleasure" but I was afraid it might be greeted with a cry of "He'll be lucky at his age!" Mind you, I have been hosting a number of shows too. Roy Oakshott produced a record programme called "Hogmania" in which I saw in 1991 and this led to six more outings of DJ Chis when Alan Dell was on holiday. Prior to that, Graham Pass had had the idea of reviving the old-style big band broadcasts in a series called "Things Are Swinging" where I introduced and played with the Radio Big Band, almost bringing me full circle in terms of my wireless career.
If I carry on at this rate, I wander how long it'll be before I'm playing the piano back in the Tower ballroom, Glasgow, and diving beneath it when the punch-ups start, Never mind, I'm sure Wingy'll still be around to protect me!
* * * *
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