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Chapter Five


In the immediate pre-war era, for anybody who had difficulty telling one day from the next (and with unemployment so high, I don't doubt that there were some), help was at hand. All you had to do was put the radio on, wait for what seemed like several weeks for the valves to warm up and tune to the BBC between half past ten and midnight. It had a different dance band on each evening (Lew Stone, Jack Payne, Jack Harris, Jack Jackson, Jack The Ripper etc.) and whichever one you heard would help you to gauge which night it was. If you haven't worked out Ambrose's night yet, try reading the chapter title again, it offers a clue.

Returning to London after three months with Benny Carter in Holland, the next rung on the ladder of my career looked like being unemployment. Then Tommy McQuater the trumpeter (probably my best friend) swung me an audition with the venerable Saturday nighter himself. I say "swung" but with Ambrose the word was scarcely appropriate and it's a wonder I got taken on. Mentally, I was still in Benny's band, taking solos 15 choruses long, building up ever so gradually to a near frantic pitch by the end. Naturally this involves an understated, economical start: you don't give your all straight away for fear of peaking too soon! But Ambrose wasn't interested in lengthy, original solos and he certainly wasn't au fait with styles in jazz, his greatest efforts in that direction being the ability to hold a fiddle and count up to four.

When I arrived for the audition, I found he'd stuck down the hardest trombone parts ever, all the Tommy Dorsey solos from things like "Song Of India" and "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You". Dreadfully difficult stuff and while Dorsey himself was the perfect trombonist, I belonged to an entirely different school of playing. For me, the "Sentimental Gentleman" was TOO perfect: there was never any doubt that he would deliver a flawless performance but, by the same token, there was never anything surprising to listen out for. I preferred to be on the edge of my seat with a Teagarden effort, thinking "Is he going to make it? How's he going to do it?" as he kept you wondering till the very last chorus just how successful the solo was going to be. This preference made toying with Dorsey material even harder for me and, having just come out of working in a jazz club, I played the pieces the way I thought they should go. Ambrose then turned to his guitarist Ivor Mairants and I heard him whisper, "Is that good?" A fair question, I suppose, since he'd probably never heard them played that way before. Somewhere amid the whisperings, it must have been decided that I would do because in no time I was in a tuxedo, playing "The Lady Is A Tramp" six times a night with a mute on.

Ambrose enjoyed a very up-market image, which could explain why he'd dropped his Christian name of Bert. He was even popular with royalty and if ever there was a function in the ballroom at Buckingham Palace, we used to be engaged, some of us ending up ensconced high in a minstrel's gallery, a location I found myself revisiting about 45 years later (see Chapter 11 - but not now, I haven't written it yet). Often the nobility would turn up and dance either at the Mayfair or the Cafe de Paris. We oscillated between the two venues on a seasonal basis and I think Ambrose had a deal going whereby he would stay at the Mayfair for the duration of the run. Talk about living over the shop!

By this time, Ella and I were living in West Hampstead, some miles from the shop but an easy enough ride into the West End all the same. The Central London residencies suited me fine and I was happy not to be part of The Ambrose Octet which went on tour. The first trombonist, Les Carew, took on that responsibility and the hazardous moments that sometimes went with it. One theatre they played had a drop curtain, as opposed to the ones that just slither across, and Les had the misfortune to be flexing the slide on his trombone as this heavily fringed affair began to rise, one of its tassels snatching Les's slide as it went. And there it stayed, in the flies, for the rest of the evening, reducing Les to the role of the world's first silent trombonist. There but for the grace of God, minimal touring and fringeless curtains, went I.

Bert was a funny man to work for: he never actually spoke to me for about six months. There was no sinister reason behind this, he just didn't get round to it and I presume he didn't think it was important. Early on, the closest he came to the personal touch was leaning forward to Ivor and asking "What's that second trombonist called?" In time, he went from one extreme to the other and ended up saying I was his right-hand man. Quite why I don't know: I never ran about doing anything for him, but I must have been getting it right somehow because I started being given solos to play. This meant Ambrose had directed the arranger to write in a trombone piece. The only way we had of knowing whether or not he approved of what we'd done was by watching the back of his head. As he always stood facing away from us, it was all we could see. I knew from the slight nod of his head that he felt everything was going nicely.

It certainly was for him and I'll admit that being part of his band brought with it a certain celebrity status. Clearly, the venues we played were among London's most opulent and the weekly broadcast was essential to the band in terms of national profile. Saturday was the big night and, with no Black and White Minstrels to watch on TV for some years yet, the media millions were glued to their wireless sets (some may even have been stapled to them, I forget). I think Ambrose regarded his radio commitment as a necessary evil. He certainly gave that impression to the high-class revellers in the ballroom. On Saturday nights, there was a notice up apologising for the fact that between half past ten and midnight, the band would be a little louder than usual, but hastily reassuring them that after twelve, we'd be back to a muted "Lady Is A Tramp". It was fun for us during the broadcast because all the special arrangements would come out, we'd un-mute ourselves and show a little of what we could do. But still people would complain about the noise level. I don't know why. Perhaps they wanted to hear themselves drink their soup.

Mind you, the diners took enough interest in the music to approach the bandstand with requests - good job it wasn't Barrowland (see Chapter 2 - it's all right, I've already written that one). Many a white fiver was crammed into the Ambrosian fist accompanied by a chinless rendering of "I say, could you play 'The Lady Is A Tramp'?" (the above sentence to be read as if it contains no consonants whatsoever). This was easy money for our leader as, most nights, we were going to play it next anyway. There may even have been times when folk requested it while it was actually being played. The most we workers saw of these bills was as they made the journey south down Bert's dress trouser pocket. It may seem odd that a major bandleader was allowed to accept gratuities in this way but there was no bye-law which said he couldn't. Even then, Ambrose had his pride. He gave the shortest of shrifts to one young yahoo who waved a ten shilling note under his nose and asked him to play "You Are The One". Mystified, the boss professed not to know it.

"Of course you know it!" insisted the yahoo, "You play it all the time."

He even tried singing it but couldn't remember the first three words,

"La la la,

You are the one..."

Porterphiles will have spotted already that the missing words were "Night And Day". Ambrose's response to this was to fish out 4 10s and tell the yahoo to go buy a shirt.

* * * *

I've mentioned the lack of touring enjoyed during my stint with the band, but its popularity did mean the odd trip had to be undertaken. Ambrose was a big hit in Paris so we capitalised on this by sailing across to give the French a none-too-vigorous burst of "La Dame Est Une Trampe".

Returning home, as we touched down (or since it was by boat, touched along), I mused that our cargo could have been designed as the ultimate test of the detective powers of HM Customs and Excise. Luckily for our clarinettist and saxophonist Billy Amstell, they failed this test with flying reds and greens. He had a consignment of dubious watches as long as his arm... which worked out well because that's where he hid them. At no time was he asked to roll up his sleeve but poor Max Bacon, the drummer, was harbouring a different kind of tick: a nervous one. This manifested itself in the form of what looked like a conspiratorial wink and, if you didn't know him, you'd swear he was letting you in on some grand piece of mischief. Not surprisingly, the customs men DIDN'T know him and when he accompanied his "nothing to declare" statement with a good half-dozen winks of the eye, they knew they'd got their man. There and then, on the quayside, they thoroughly searched him, his luggage and even his drum-kit in the certain knowledge that he was concealing some pretty hot contraband... which he wasn't.

Meanwhile, Billy looked on with a butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-embouchere expression, knowing full well that, if asked, he could tell them the time in six continents.

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