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A JAZZ JOURNEY - 1925-1994


Ken Rattenbury
Parts 1 2/3/4/5/6/7/8/9/10/11/12/13/14/Conclusion

PART IV: 1945 - 1950


NO, I can't claim authorship of the above, quite pretty description; that belongs to Hoagy Carmichael from his autobiography (in fact, his second one), "Sometimes I Wonder" - but, round about the dying days of the Second World War, when, sometimes quite unfriendly metal objects whizzed, indiscriminately and perilously close to one's vulnerable person, malice intended, there tended to be times when one would lean instinctively towards reminiscence of much more happy experiences; those delicious moments, under the benign influence of good, thoughtful and sensitive jazz music, when all seemed right with the world.

To my own ears and sensibility - and I'm never ashamed to admit to a certain prickly sensation behind my eyes whenever I hear a gorgeous blues, whether created by Bechet, Bird, Pres, Satchmo or Diz (no matter, they all know the language - fluently!) - meaningful, passionate blues simply floats, like those cotton-candy clouds, light as thistledown, bright as summer sunshine, right as right can be. Hoagy's inspired prose-picture is a most evocative, highly sensitive and illuminating piece of literary imagery, fitting my own private reactions to this kind of music as close and snug as the skin of a grape.

So . . . yes, eventually, I was pitchforked into Normandy, then on to Belgium, where I was charged by our battalion commander to form a band - troops, entertainment of, soldiers common for the delectation of . . . . Oh, but just before that I had particularly and personally distinguished myself by lighting a fire, to boil a billy, on a grassy verge, plumb on top of an unexploded tank mortar-bomb, discovering the potential hazard in the nick of time, compelling rapid evacuation of the whole unit to a safer spot. Never did get the tea!

But, I digress . . . out of a roster of 3,000 men and this after long and aurally blistering auditions and much doubting and fearing, I garnered a five-piece group of players (piano, bass, drums, swing fiddle - in Steph-style persuasion - and trumpet) and a vocalist very much - and quite adequately - under the influence of the young Frank Sinatra. He knew a lot of contemporary lyrics too, but occasionally and regrettably with a faint tendency to Spoonerise the sense sometimes, with disastrous results. Shame forbids me to go into detail of his worst offence, perpetrated during a live broadcast from, I think, Radio Hilversum, but it was of such concentrated saltiness that it landed the whole party of us in front of the commander the next morning - a most pious fellow, unused to hearing unforgivable four-letter words bellowed with such confidence and profligacy over the airwaves of a friendly power. We were called upon to explain away our momentary lapse of decorum; couldn't really - I guess it was the schnapps . .

But, during the normal course, it was all great fun and we worked every night somewhere or other across the theatre of war, plus three or four lunchtime concerts in the NAAFI canteens each week.

One time, by happy accident, we were in the same town as Glenn Miller's great AEF Band, actually one afternoon in the same canteen, seated at the next table to a knot of some of these illustrious GI giants, eagerly absorbing as much of their conversations as we could catch; too scared, I admit, to declare our common interest in the music under discussion. What we did hear, however, was how Bunny Berigan, during the famous "I Can't Get Started" session, was down to the very last available wax master - this after seventeen, I believe they said, spoiled "takes". That number eighteen proved to be perfect is now history - a sublime three minutes of gorgeous jazz trumpet. The principal storyteller, we found later, was Zeke Zarchy, who had been on the Berigan date.

So we enjoyed a year and a half of breezy, often rough-and-ready, music-making (a few gritty acetates survive somewhere, in evidence!) before demobilisation hit the quintet fairly and squarely in the midriff when we were dispersed with the sort of summary disintegration brought about by clobbering a helping of jelly with the back of a spoon. Apart from the late Johnny Hocken - a most sensitive bluesman, who held down the piano chair with my early bands for some years, with distinction - I never played with any of the other guys again. And it was some little time before I was able to throw caution to the winds and start out on my own - and all that didn't happen until early in 1951; this after five years of barnstorming in every kind of combination as a busy freelance. On the way, gleaning valuable studio experience with, notably, the late Vernon Adcock - a great gentleman and a joy to work for - who employed me as pianoman with his small Kirby-style group, the Aristocrats and as a member of the brass team (2nd trumpet and occasional jazz solos) with his large orchestra with full strings section attached. I did a lot of arrangements for him, the small band being my especial delight and the recollection of those formative, questing times looms significantly large, even now, forty years on.

And then, one of those happy, conspiratorial coincidences brought about by being at the right place at the right time - and within the orbit of the right people, happened along and altered the whole course of my musical career. I think it would be a good point now at which to set out on the next instalment. So I will, in Part V.

But before I corral the quill at this juncture, a word about that ominous word "retirement": now, while lip, wind and resolve remain substantially intact, why, in Heaven's name, even contemplate such a course? I have noted, with pleasure, a fine article on "Humph At 70", in a magazine recently (I can claim a couple of years' seniority here!) made no mention of his winding down. Good for him! Just keep on blowing, young man - there is much more yet to be done. So I'll end this reminiscence as I began it, with a quotation, comfortingly apposite to the circumstances and ambitions of those among us who have attained the bus-pass-plus-five-and-beyond status. About a century ago, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, penned these lines:-

"Unto him that works, or feels he works,
The same grand year is ever at the doors. "

True, true indeed!

Copyright Ken Rattenbury © 1994