A Bandleader and his Arranger
||Photos by kind permission of JKM Music Publishers, London.|
I had been playing lead trombone with the Squadronaires for about four or five months and of all the bands that employed me this was the one I liked the least. The music didn’t move me much and most of the musicians were that bit older and as they say ‘a bit set in their ways.’ I threw caution to the wind and gave the customary two weeks’ notice. I had no job to go to but hope springs eternal.
Once again I got lucky. I had scored a trombone feature for myself which I played on a Squadronaire’s BBC Radio Broadcast. Ted Heath heard the broadcast. At that time he was looking and listening for a replacement for trombonist Jim Wilson. Big Jim felt somewhat uncomfortable working for Ted and at the end of the very first week he handed in the usual two weeks’ notice. This meant he was longer on notice than he was in the band. Must be some kind of record.
Before starting his band, Ted had an enviable big time reputation as a West End lead trombonist. Now as leader of his own band his trombone would be placed on the stage at the beginning of the engagement and on very rare occasions he would stand by the trombone section appearing to play (I don’t think I ever actually heard him play). He had a peculiar habit of regularly shuffling around the stage and standing behind the trombone section sort of, or so we thought, checking out our slide positions, but never commenting on them. This was most unnerving and intimidating if not downright scary. I mention this because for the year I played in the Heath trombone section this strange idiosyncrasy didn’t do my confidence any favours.
Anyway I had the job and held it down for a year from March 1952 to March 1953. Two of the bands I had played in, the Tommy Sampson Orchestra and the Vic Lewis Orchestra, were fun and the music was great, but I have to say the Heath Band was the millennium. The musicians were the tops, some of the key men were simply sensational, the organization was class, the money was very comfortable, the crowds large and adoring, were plentiful, good-lookers, accommodating and generous, and as a special ‘homely’ bonus nine of the band members were Scotsmen. As I remember this included three trumpet players: Bobby Pratt, Eddie Blair and Duncan Campbell; three saxes: George Hunter, Henry Mackenzie and Tommy Whittle; three trombonists: Wally Smith, Ric Kennedy and me.
I did no arrangements during this period but better still Ted commissioned me to write two jazz original compositions: a clarinet feature, “Henry IX” for Henry Mackenzie—and an alto sax feature, “Eloquence” for Roy Willox. At the end of the first year, and for reasons not totally clear to me, I received through the mail the dreaded ‘death note.’ This was another of Ted’s idiosyncrasies. I was sad and quite upset at leaving this great band and all the personal friends but I bore Ted no grudge. You must do what you must do. I consoled myself by recalling that in 1944 I originally took up the trombone purely as a means to an end on advice given to me by a Mr Bertini the local Mecca bandleader at that time. I had mailed him my very first arrangement. He played it, liked it and accepted it and was ready to hire me as a member of his band until he discovered that I played only the piano accordion. He told me that it is always good to have an arranger in the band and as brass players are usually in short supply I should learn to play trumpet or trombone and come back in a year and join his band. He reckoned that with my knowledge of music a year would probably do it. Having been given a target time, and always the eternal optimist, I immediately left school in the middle of a term and set about this nigh impossible task. Unfortunately he and his band were called out on strike nine months later and were replaced by a non-union band from Manchester.
This band was short of a trombonist and I was determined to achieve my goal. I passed the audition and only then did I inform the bandleader that I could not accept the engagement because I had been summoned to appear in another band, the King’s Army to do my two years’ National Service. This all sounds very fanciful but it more or less happened the way Bertini had predicted. It served my purpose, helped me to achieve my real goal and, incidentally, for the record, I had a ball as a trombonist for as long as it lasted.
In 1944 on the day my first arrangement was performed, two of the instrumentalists in the Bertini Band went on to become members of the Ted Heath Band: trumpeter Stan Reynolds and trombonist Jim Wilson. The Manchester bandleader I had to turn down was called Hughie Gibb, father of the famous songwriting/vocal trio the BeeGees.
It has often been said that a great band is only as good as its arranger. Being an arranger, I’m biased, so I agree. Well I would say that wouldn’t I? In 1954 I was at the stage where the call of the writer/arranger in me was speaking louder than the trombonist. I had just finished a second stint as trombonist and part time arranger with the Geraldo Orchestra when the news broke that Reg Owen, Ted Heath’s chief arranger and racing-driver enthusiast, had crashed into a wall at speed on the way back from a gig. His condition was serious and at best he would be out of commission for some considerable time.
The Ted Heath Band’s busy schedule, what with weekly broadcasts, recording sessions and the like, regularly consumed four of five new arrangements each week so they were in some sort of trouble if not a major crisis. Ted’s musicians, good friends as always, suggested that I should be the man to step into the breach, at least temporarily. Pleased but somewhat guarded, I accepted the initial commission which consisted of two vocal arrangements: one for Dickie Valentine the other for Dennis Lotis.
As a trombonist in Ted’s band I always had slight feelings of insecurity but as an arranger I have no such reservations and really never did have. In this area I consider myself to be the best judge of my arrangements’ merits and suitability for the task for which they were designed. I gave it some thought and concluded that it would be interesting and useful to do the two arrangements. But, if Ted gives me one moment’s hassle, then sod it! It turned out to be a happy occasion. Everything went well. Both Ted and the band were pleased and relaxed and so was I.
Before the dust had settled, I received an offer from Geraldo to become his chief arranger. Coincidentally, Ted Heath in the very same week offered me the same post in his band. Now these two sixteen-piece bands were the most prestigious outfits in the country—the top two without question. The professional rivalry between them was intense. Ted’s last job as a professional musician before he left to form his own band was as lead trombonist with the Geraldo Orchestra. This fact was not lost on either of them. The irony of this sparked off a certain perverse pleasure in me.
Here we had the farcical situation in which Britain’s two top bandleaders were outbidding each other for the services of a musician they had both recently employed as a trombonist and both of whom had dispensed with his services—fired! Ted Heath once. Geraldo, not just once but twice! (that’s a hard one to figure out.) The bidding was being upped by fivers at a time until I eventually settled for Geraldo even though Ted’s final bid topped Gerry’s by a fiver.
That appeared to be it until the end of the first week I discovered that I was expected to pick up my wages, not directly from the Geraldo office, but from various publishers.
Out of the blue, almost simultaneously, there was a dramatic telephone call from Kings Cross Station. It was Ted Heath about to leave for a 4-day weekend tour up North. He obviously was determined to get his man and put in a new bid. Without hesitation I happily accepted and as they say ‘the rest is history.” When I claim that the arranger is the bandleader’s right-hand man it goes without saying that the bandleader is always the boss, the one who runs the show, pays the piper, calls the shots. The arranger can also be the boss but only if he/she is first of all the bandleader. Musically speaking, this is hardly the ideal setup, one in which any musical idea or inspiration can be vetoed, overruled, dumped at the wish or whim of the bandleader. If an arranger can’t operate under these conditions then the arranger must also be the bandleader or quit.
However, the situation is not all gloom and doom. The twosome works best when both parties understand each other and refrain from crossing into the other’s territory too often or too dictatorially. It behoves the arranger to understand the direction the bandleader wishes to follow. With a modicum of savvy and consideration, to achieve this hardly requires a university degree. It only takes good sense, patience, a little intuition, a bit of psychology, and a mutual respect for both ego + when-in-doubt-leave-yours-out.
Throughout the three spells I had as a member of the Heath Band I can’t recall any situation that remotely resembled a slanging match or ‘shout-up.’ In my first spell as a starry-eyed, twenty-five year old member of the Ted Heath Band trombone section there was little I didn’t like about the job.
My second and third spells with the band were as the fulltime staff arranger. This in itself I regarded as a high honour and respected it accordingly. From the outset it was essential to appreciate and follow the musical and commercial direction the bandleader was pursuing. My earliest observations taught me that the Ted Heath Band was basically a 16- piece commercial dance band plus three vocalists, a 65% swing output and definitely not more than say a 20% jazz output. The arrangements, with a few exceptions, were to be in the main three to four minutes long. The repertoire consisted of a mixture of instrumental versions of well known standards, popular instrumentals of the day and a sizeable amount of vocals, again of standards and current popular hits.
Other imposed essentials included: The big high sustained chord endings; never anything ‘too far out’: If the slow ones border on the ‘boring’ and that can include lovely arrangements with beautiful harmonies, exquisite voicings and the like, then the chances of hearing performances of your masterpiece ever again were pretty slim. Once understood, it was a piece of cake to please the boss—and, with reservations, yourself at the same time.
Another example of the bandleader’s prerogative was to insist that I put the musicians’ names on all the parts. This new scheme was introduced long after I had been arranging for the band. In effect this took most of the control out of my hands as to ‘who plays what.’ Without ever questioning or challenging Ted on this matter I felt I had been put into a position whereby it appeared as if I were making personal choices well above my station as to who should play the important parts (leads etc.,) or more to the point who should not be playing the important parts. It left me completely without power or voice.
Being as I agree that the arranger is the bandleader’s ‘right-hand man’ I couldn’t split on Ted by declaring that this was his decision and not mine. I am a musical animal and not a political one and this very sensitive decision affected me for quite some time.
A year of so later ABC Paramount Records gave me a one-off album deal under my own name. It was recorded in London and titled “Johnny Keating’s Famous American Dances” I used practically the whole Ted Heath Band but on this occasion took the opportunity to put a different selection of names on the parts. It wasn’t a very subtle reshuffle nor did I ever discuss this with the musicians, but it made me feel just a little bit better. Politics. Agh!!
When it came to making a record album (LPs in the old days), the basic concept and its title were normally established between a record company executive (the producer) and the artist (the bandleader). The meeting that followed would be between the bandleader and the arranger at which time specific material (titles, etc.) were bandied around between us. For most of the albums Ted would always make a few suggestions regarding the specific songs to be included but he seemed to appreciate that if I showed general enthusiasm he would go along with that but on the occasions when I gave a negative response he would generally go along with that too. I think he understood my creative nature enough to know that if I were enthusiastic he would get a good one and if the reverse he’d have to take his chances. An arranger can’t ask for anything more than that.
When it came to the running-order on the albums Ted always took total control. His programming routine was invariably the same. The four most important tracks, those arrangements that highlighted the band at its impressive best, he classified as ‘openers’ and ‘closers’ and were allocated Track One and Six on either side. Tracks Two and Three which followed the openers were normally his strong second and third favourites and were housed accordingly. It goes without saying that those he favoured least ended up (tucked away) on Track Four and Five on either side. (Over the years some of these lost or hidden track were my favourite special arranging indulgences.) All in all it was a successful method of programming.
Probably the most stimulating moment at a new recording session is the initial rundown of the first arrangement of the day. That goes for the musicians, the bandleader, the re- cording engineers, and the arranger himself—who happens to be the only one present who has a good idea of what is about to be unfolded. Barring accidents or unforeseen circumstances (that’s another story), the first arrangement of the day is often the best one.
The one the arranger has given most time and thought to. The one designed to please and impress both the musicians and the bandleader and hopefully the public. Personally he knows this is the one that’ll do it, that’s if he’s got his facts right and if the musicians make a close-to-correct reading first time through.
Ted always left me to do all the initial conducting chores which included: setting the correct pace; bringing out the required dynamics and generally advising the sections collectively and individually. This would continue for some time until I was satisfied that we were very close to a take.
Ted would be hanging around throughout but pretty well leaving me the required space to knock the piece into recordable shape. Sometimes he would go into the recording booth to listen to the job the engineers were making and then suggest that I go for one.
This we would all listen to, adjust accordingly then we would go for the definitive one. On many occasions Ted would come down to the floor to conduct the piece and I would go in to the recording booth to listen for any flaws or whatever. Several albums later Ted concluded that after playing the arrangements live on the road he felt the need to increase the pace—play them faster. His reasoning was that this made for a more exciting performance. He eventually on occasions put this theory into practice at the initial recording stage. What can I say other than this is the Bandleader’s prerogative.
For nearly a century now, when it comes to Jazz and Swing music we in the UK have rightly looked to the USA for our musical inspiration. We are now in the 21st Century and this discipline still applies. Nothing has changed—we still learn from the Americans through their recordings but also through their live performances. But there was a time when this was not so. Sometime in the early 1930s the American Federation of Musicians decided to ban the import of foreign players.
This, of course, included British Musicians. In turn, the British Musicians’ Union retaliated by banning American players from working in the UK Until this embargo was enforced many great American jazz musicians had performed here delivering ‘the message’ first hand, much to the benefit and education of the British brotherhood of jazz and swing musicians. To those musicians old enough to have experienced the freedom of choice before it was politically withdrawn, the ensuing break must have seemed to last a lifetime. (Many never lived long enough to see it revoked.)
This famine was in existence when I was first awakened to swing music through two recordings I heard in 1939. As I remember, the first two titles that grabbed me were Woody Herman’s “Woodchoppers Ball” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”, two straight-ahead swingers. Consequently from that time until 1956 (almost twenty years) I had acquired among my personal baggage a large collection of jazz and swing recordings, a self-taught musicial education, a trombone, a big-band arranger’s badge, two years’ National Service playing trombone in a Military Band, a stream of professional engagements as trombonist and/or arranger with several big-name British Dance/Swing Bands, including: Tommy Sampson, Vic Lewis, Ambrose, Geraldo, Squadronaires and ultimately Ted Heath and His Music. In one capacity or another, I had by now served the cause from 1939 to 1956 and had yet to hear firsthand a single American Jazz musician let alone an American Big Band in the flesh.
The American Federation finally removed the barriers and the first Ted Heath ‘exchange’ as it was called was scheduled for March 1956. Stan Kenton and His Orchestra, probably the world’s hottest property at the time, were to do a series of concerts in Britain. In exchange, Ted Heath and His Music were chosen to fulfill a equal number of venues in the USA, the final performance scheduled to take place in the famous Carnegie Hall. The excitement this created throughout the entire Heath Band was almost unbearable. But when the dust had time to settle I began to have certain reservations, certainly not regarding the members of the band, who were of the highest standard, but more about my personal input—what with all those wonderful American arrangers and composers over there. But just to get there and to soak up firsthand all the visions I had formed over twenty years of listening, learning and loving, I temporarily exorcised these negative thoughts, knowing that to go to the fountain for further nourishment and development was far more important than weakly worrying about personal doubts and inadequacies. The one big disappoinment about the upcoming tour was that we were going to play in America while Stan Kenton was appearing in Britain.
At that time Stan Kenton was high on our list of favourites. I had spent two years with the Vic Lewis Orchestra which at that time was little more than a Kenton Tribute Band almost exclusively interpreting Kenton original arrangements. I also had access to several live American radio broadcasts of the Kenton Band which through the courtesy of my ton-weight Scophony Baird early valve-driven tape recorder, Ronnie Vernall and I used to sit up half the night after our Heath gigs soaking up the experience. Now, to have to go to America possibly as longshot hopefuls yet to be denied the live Stan Kenton Band seemed to me to be too big a price to pay. But, as luck would have it, Kenton opened here in London at the Gaumont State Theatre, Kilburn, two or three days before we sailed for New York.
The verdict on that one: it was not only a great concert by an great American Jazz Band—it was a revelation.
We eventually set sail for New York. On board we rehearsed a few regular items plus a couple of new compositions Ted had me write especially for the tour. Five days later, full of eager anticipation we arrived in New York—the Big Apple.
The overwhelming success of the Ted Heath Band’s First American Tour has been well chronicled and this remarkable reception was triumphantly repeated on four or five subsequent tours. For me personally the first two weeks in New York were simply fantastic—running around hearing everything in person including the Duke Ellington Orchestra (another amazing experience totally reducing their recordings to that of pale imitations of the ‘real thing,’) and meeting countless musical giants all exceedingly keen to talk shop. Now, Ted had kindly paid my roundtrip fare to New York. I was to stay in town to learn ‘where it’s at,’ and take in the Final Carnegie Hall Concert before returning home together. What he forget to appreciate was that I never did have a head for figures and by the end of the first two weeks all I had to my name was my return ticket to Southampton.
Sadly but sensibly I had no alternative but to grab an earlier passage on the RMS Queen Elizabeth and with my tail between my legs sheepishly sailed home alone—won the QEI Table Tennis Championship (a little imitation silver cup) but missed our triumphant conquest of Carnegie Hall!! After reading the wildly enthusiastic reviews of the Ted Heath Band’s Carnegie Hall Conquest (they were raving about Ted’s Band, Our Band, My Band!) I promptly presented myself with this double honour: Arranger of the Year/Berk of the Century.
While in New York, minus the band, I spent most of the time with many jazz musicians no more so than with two New York hot arrangers: Don Costa and Marion Evans. We talked at length several times about the New York approach to jazz and swing music. We listened to and analysed together many arrangements and recordings of theirs, mine, and others. At that time they were at the centre of the action. During these impromptu sessions (they might rightly be labelled lessons) the phrase “time and feel” came up repeatedly. This was the natural saying (definition as I understood it) for less accurate terminology such as ‘swinging,’ ‘rocking,’ ‘with it,’ and the like. It nailed it! Ted had taken me to New York to learn what I could about American Big Band Swing Music.
Costa and Evans had handed me the secret, encapsulated in the term “time and feel.” I could hardly wait till Ted and the band returned to London to ‘spread the news.’ Ted was singularly unimpressed. He maintained that his Dad’s Brass Band had ‘time’ but they didn’t swing. I now realised what poor John the Baptist must have felt when he returned with ‘the message’ only to have his head chopped off and presented to Herod, or whoever, on a silver platter.
Copyright © 2001 John Keating. All Rights Reserved.