SATCHMO ON THE SOUTH BANK
My marriage to Ella survived the war, but not the peace. It goes without saying that a broken relationship is painful and tragic and really shakes up those concerned, especially when any kids are involved - but there, I've said it anyway. In this case, the situation was complicated further by the fact that I had fallen in love with the wife of a trumpeter I'd been working with, and it was mutual. Her name, almost coincidentally, was Etta. The difficulties presented by all this can be imagined, but as much as these things ever can, it all came right in the end. I had left West Hampstead and set up home with Etta. We married just as soon as the old-style, slow-moving divorce laws would allow and had two children, both of whom have grown up taking an active interest in music (without any undue pressure being exerted by their old man!). My daughter Carole is a great Billie Holiday fan and has a fine singing voice herself. In recent years, she's appeared at gigs with the Gentlemen of Jazz (whoever they are) and we've also made a record together. Garry, my son, is a keen lyric-writer and I recorded some of his work with, of all things, Hendon Brass Band - a superb ensemble.
But to return to the 50s, perhaps the failure of my first marriage was what prompted me to rethink my approach to work. I'd almost lived more out of a suitcase than I had with Ella, what with the war and one-night stands at far corners of the country. It gets a bit embarrassing when you have to be introduced to your own wife, and when she tells you what the kiddie did today and you weren't there, you begin to realise you're in danger of missing your children grow up. That's what made me leave the Squadronaires in the first place. As a freelance musician, I could be a little more choosy about live dates. By and large, I would tend to take work in London and only venture outside when I could be sure of getting back the same night. In terms of jazz, this narrowed the field but we didn't starve, thanks to my BBC Showband residency, and anyway the calibre of the one-off gigs could be pretty high, particularly when they involved meeting and working with an old hero.
In 1956, a relief fund was set up in response to the fact that the Russians had dropped in unexpectedly on their Hungarian neighbours, leaving them a little short of supplies. One of Britain's efforts in this direction was to hold a benefit concert at the still relatively new Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank and the chosen conductor had, in a previous incarnation, been among the classical horn players I'd encountered during the war at Uxbridge. He was asked to put in an orchestra, so he booked the formidable London Symphony along with a smaller jazz group including the drummer Jack Parnell, Sid Phillips on clarinet, Lennie Bush on bass and I was asked to bring my trombone, the idea being to recreate up to a point the sort of thing Paul Whiteman had been doing in the 20s. Flying over from the States to join us (at his own expense) was the focal point of the whole evening, Louis Armstrong.
Imagine my excitement. I don't have to, I can remember it! As a young shaver (or in the case of my upper lip, non-shaver), I used to play along to Armstrong solos as they scratched away at me on the old wind-up gramophone in Glasgow, pretending we were on stage together - and now...! The prospect of working with the great "Satchelmouth" (which had long-since been shortened to Satchmo) was some sort of pinnacle for me, as it was for everyone there... with the possible exception of the conductor!
Prior to coming over, Louis had recorded the Porgy and Bess suite alongside Ella Fitzgerald and he decided to bring some of the parts with him to perform at this concert. It was all highly impressive stuff with the LSO there and our little jazz group coming out of the middle to play then merging back in again. All went well until it came to the part where Louis was meant to sing,
"Nobody knows the trouble I've seen,
Nobody knows but Jesus"
when it became obvious to the audience that the orchestra and the soloist were at variance and the boat was rocking slightly! Rather than follow the artist as he should have done, the conductor had decided he was going to do it his way. This consisted of a somewhat staccato approach to George Gershwin's music, as opposed to the laid-back, rolling feel that Louis was trying to achieve. By this time, the only things rolling were Louis' eyes. To make his point, he chose to sing,
"Nobody knows the trouble I've seen,
Nobody knows but... JESUS! !"
The emphasis on the last word and the fact that it was intended as a comment on the orchestration was not lost on the conductor who, professional to the last, threw down his baton and stomped off the podium. But the whole place lit up at this; after all, they'd only really come to see Louis.
We should have guessed there was going to be friction from the way things had been developing at rehearsal. Suffering from an advanced case of twisted knickers, our stick-waving pal was circling Louis, insisting,
"I must know where to bring the orchestra in after you come out for - what is it? - 'When The Saints Go Traipsing In'.. .I must know how many bars.. it's a big orchestra.
Louis tried to reassure him.
"Man, we're going to have a ball!"
To which the conductor replied,
"How terribly singular."
Louis Armstrong was exactly as I'd expected and hoped him to be: a man who really enjoyed life and wouldn't let anything worry him. Just as well, really, for our conductor's sake. If that had been someone with the temperament of, say, Miles Davis, I imagine the conductor would still be undergoing surgery to have a trumpet removed.
We were all in awe of Louis and I remember going up to him afterwards and saying,
"I've never asked anyone for a picture but I must have one of you."
He wasn't sure if he had any with him, but after rummaging through his briefcase, he announced,
"I've got this one but don't show your wife!"
It was a 12 x 10 of him sitting on the lavatory seat, a great expanse of posterior flesh contrasting with the line of his jock strap, a hair net on his head and a packet in his hand bearing the legend, "Swiss Kriss". It was the trade name of a kind of laxative pretzel which he was being paid to endorse. Above the title was a likeness of some comely brunette in a low-cut top whose presence there was puzzling: she didn't look like she suffered from constipation. Clearly, Louis was convinced of the product's healing powers because, as he handed me the photo, he said,
"Man, you gotta leave it all behind!"
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