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The Great Big Bands


After Munich, Berlin was, to me, a wondrous city.

In the summer, Berlin is a lovely place to be. The town consists of ninety percent woods and lakes. As the soil is of a light sandy consistency the shores of each lake resemble seaside beaches. In summer they are dotted with parasols and holidaymakers. Huge pleasure ships cruise from north to south, from the Teglersee to the Wannsee. There is a corner of the Wannsee especially reserved for dogs. In the winter the ice is thick enough to walk on, and thousands do so. There is skating to music. The climate of Berlin reminds one of summers and winters past in Old England. Even I was old enough to remember such weather back home.

There is always something interesting to do in Berlin. I bought a bicycle and spent the sunny days riding around. It was easy to get lost in the vast woods, so the forest rangers had put different coloured paint marks on the trees to help orientation.

I would stop and have a swim at a place called the Kuhhorn on the Wannsee, or in the Teufelssee up on Teufelsberg. This small mountain was built entirely of rubble from the terrific bombing the town received from the Allies. Here are the ski slopes, ski jumps and a toboggan run for use in the winter. Up on top, an American radar installation reminded us of the cold war. The signs on the perimeter fence read: IT IS FORBIDDEN TO PHOTOGRAPH THIS INSTALLATION. PENALTY: DM 10,000 AND 10 YEARS IN PRISON. Someone had written underneath: Welcome to Germany.

The sun always shines there, even in winter. The West Berliners are proud of their town, the clean air, the clean everything, in stark contrast with what was going on the other side of the grim Wall. (This was all written before the Wall came down.)

When I arrived in town in 1964 there was plenty enough going on in the music scene. Eric Dolphy had just died in Berlin; his death causing a wave of sadness over musicians all over the world.

The main jazz clubs were Doug’s Night Club.  the Blue Note and, later on, Herb Geller's Jazz Gallery. On my first visit down Doug’s I met Günther Schuller, Joe Harris, Herb Geller, Leo Wright, Francy Boland, Ack and Jerry van Rooyen, Ernie Royal, Cannonball Adderley, J. J. Johnson, Rolf Ericson, Joe Zawinal and Friederich Gulda. Apart from the Kenton band in Dublin, these were the most American musicians I had ever met, in one place, at any one time. For me it was like stepping into a dream world.

I sat at a table with a stranger, listening to the jazz. The other man sat like a stone. I took a peek at him in the dim light to make sure he was still alive. He didn’t react to anything that was going on. Leo Wright joined us when he came off the stand.

‘Hey Ronnie! Meet Willis Conover.’

I stared in admiration. This was the man who had fired me in my youth with his Midnight Jazz Hour, playing records that we poor relations in England could only dream of. Voice of America had been transmitted on long wave from a ship moored down near Greece or Cyprus, I forget which.

I thanked him for all the pleasure he had given me.

'Don't mention it. Just listen to these way-out cats.'

Some of the guys, like Ernie, Rolf, Joe, J. J. and Cannonball were in town to play a couple of concerts with Friederich Gulda’s band. The rest of them lived in Berlin. I hung around with Ernie Royal for a couple of days. He was already well known to me for his work with Woody Herman’s First Herd. Ernie was playing in that band when I was still at school.

I spoke to him about his spectacular high trumpet solo on Woody’s great old vocal record of ‘I Ain’t Gettin’ Any Younger’. He told me that the band had been busy making some other titles, trying to get as much in the can before the infamous union ban of 1946, which was due to begin at midnight.

Some of the guys had left the studio for the canteen, thinking that the session was over, when Woody decided to try and get ‘Younger’ in at the last moment. When they returned it was all over. Woody had made the recording with a diminished band. 

He had to sing live. They had one chance only, and that was when Ernie tried out his solo for the first, and only, time. When the record came out it was a sensation, mostly because of his solo. No one had ever heard anything like that before, even from Pete Candoli, who usually played the screamers.

Then there was Leo Wright. He was really a very sweet, gentle guy. Leo had already played with Dizzy, Charlie Mingus and all the other cats back home. He came over to Berlin in 1961, liked it, and stayed there. He had a stroke sometime later in the 80’s, and, as I write this, I’ve just heard from Heinz von Hermann that Leo has died in Vienna from a heart attack at the age of 57.

All the time I played with him Leo brought life into the band. He wasn’t originally a lead alto player, but when he took over from Herb Geller in the band in the radio station, he electrified everyone. He played straight out, with the thrilling, wholly dedicated, vibrant sound that only a black musician can get. He was loud, very loud, and tremendously exciting to work with. He completely revolutionised the sound of that sax section.

He married three times, and had a couple of daughters from his first marriage with whom he could only converse in German, as they had been born in Germany and now went to school in Frankfurt. Leo had an infectious smile, which made him look like Ernest Borgnine, and an even more infectious laugh. He certainly had no problems finding women, and, when he had one, he was fiercely loyal to her.

To my knowledge, Leo only went back to the States once, all the time he was in Berlin. He was scared of all the race rioting going on.

‘I just got on the Greyhound bus to Wichita Falls, got my ass down on the seat with my head beneath the window, and man, I just stayed there until I got home. I ain’t never goin’ back there again.’

While he was there someone told him a joke which he repeated to me.

When the very first astronaut returned to earth he was asked what it was like up there.

‘It was great, marvellous.’

‘And did you see God?’

‘Yeah man, I saw God, and she was black.’

Leo’s other joke was stolen from the comedian Redd Foxx. ‘I ain’t racial prejudiced, nothin’ like that, but if you see a ghost, cut it.’ Luckily for him, now away from it all, he was able to to make fun of the disgraceful American race problem.

Playing in the club that night was the Swedish trombone player Åke (pronounced Aw-key) Persson. Åke was a big, clean, good-looking, elegantly dressed Swede, with a dent in his chin like Kirk Douglas. He had been playing some gigs with Quincy Jones up in Stockholm, and some of the cats in the band had told him there was more happening in Berlin. I couldn’t fault that. There was more going on in that one jazz club than was happening in the whole of London.

On bass with Åke was a Hungarian with an enormous beard, called Aladar Pege. He kept the whole joint amused with his playing, which mostly consisted of fierce runs up and down the finger board, interspersed with some very solid rhythm.

Coming out of the club that night I saw a man lying in the gutter. I wasn’t keen on getting too close. He could have been drunk, dead, or demented, for all I knew. But it was Åke, with his arm buried up to the shoulder in all the filth of the open drain, trying to fish out his car keys. I drove him home. Thus began a friendship which lasted for the next twenty years.

I took the job on lead with the Radio Free Berlin band, known to the Germans as Sender Freies Berlin, or SFB. Herb Geller was lead alto, Joe Harris on drums, and Ack van Rooyen took the jazz trumpet solos. The rest of the line-up of five trumpets, four trombones, five saxes and rhythm were pretty poor. Jerry van Rooyen was the bandleader and I stayed with him until I could get a place to live.

The first trombonist in the band, Henry Masnick, had an enormous lump on the side of his neck.

I saw Henry again ten years later when he came to Saarbrücken on a gig. The lump had now disappeared. He told me that he’d finally gone to have it removed. Afterwards the analysis showed that the lump had been, in fact, his unborn twin brother. That gave me the horrors, I can tell you. Now you never know what you’ve been carrying around inside you all these years...

The saxes in the Berlin band, apart from Herb Geller, were nondescript, while the only trumpet player worthy of note was the bandleader Jerry van Rooyen’s brother, Ack. Only the rhythm section was passable, mainly due to the presence of Joe Harris, who had formerly played with Miles Davis.

Once again I was amazed at the way the German musicians phrased and interpreted dance music. They listened to the same records as their British and American contemporaries, played daily side by side with many of them, yet, when left alone, they played and phrased as if they were in the fire brigade or a military band. Many Germans attributed this to having been taught in military bands, but many brilliant British brass players had emerged from such bands. There were fierce discussions about phrasing, and where the beat should fall. I kept out of them, but when they did manage to drag me into such arguments it was only to be told that I was wrong.

Åke Persson left no one in doubt what he thought about all this. Sitting in a Berlin studio one day he was playing a nondescript solo for some pop arranger when the guy stopped the recording and rushed into the studio waving his arms.

‘No, no no!’ he said. ‘You have to feel it! Feel it!’

‘When I play this music,’ said Åke, ‘I feel nothing.’

The drummer Kurt Giese has added the following to the Åke Persson folklore.

Kurt was playing a concert for Berlin children, to show that there is rather more to music than rock and pop. There were various bands on the event: a Dixieland outfit, a bebop group, a jazz-rock band and a Free Jazz Group.

Åke was standing at the bar, listening. The Free Jazz Group must have fancied themselves, because they went well over their allotted time When they finally finished the leader made his way through the crowd. As he passed the bar Äke stopped him, very politely introduced himself, and asked if a question was permitted.

The leader, knowing Åke by name, but not by reputation, seemed to be very pleased at having caught the attention of a jazz player of Åke's status, and said he would indeed love to answer it.

So Åke said, How come you played only shit for forty-five minutes?

Herb Geller had been a side-man in Los Angeles. He’d been on all the bands there, Stan Kenton, Terry Gibbs, Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman, and various small groups.

Herb moved later on to Hamburg and took a resident job, with a pension, in the NDR radio band. He always intended returning to Los Angeles, though. Meanwhile, back home in LA, the session world had become almost viciously competitive, especially for sax players. They were now expected to play many other woodwind instruments.

Herb bought himself all the flutes—piccolo, C flute, alto and bass flutes, oboe, cor anglais and bassoon. He practised them all until he could give a virtuoso performance on each and every one. His house was full of instrument cases, stored in every room. You couldn’t move without falling over them.

Finally, when he thought that he was ready, he took his wife, his daughter, and eleven instruments, made up of the woodwinds, plus soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, and flew back to Los Angeles.

But LA had changed too much in his absence. Neither of them liked it any more. Back they came to Hamburg, and there they’ve remained. I had the same experience with London. After the cleanliness and order of Germany, and the friendliness and correct behaviour of the Germans, London is like a savage jungle to me now.

This is not to say that I love all Germans by any means. Some of the older ones haven't changed with the times, but the younger generation is OK, and, generally speaking, I feel safer in Germany than I have ever felt anywhere else in the world.

The resident star trumpet player in Berlin was Horst Fischer, a man famous in Germany for his sweet trumpet solos. He worked for the Werner Müller band over in RIAS (Radio in the American Sector),

Horst was a day-and-night alcoholic, and carried a Fahne around with him. This was a cloud of gas consisting of pure alcohol which floated around him at all times for several metres. A struck match would have blown him to smithereens.

He came in, supported by the others, demanding to meet the new foreign trumpeter in town. Having glared at me suspiciously for several minutes without speaking he then demanded to see my trumpet. He waggled the valves fiercely a few times, shouting, ‘SCHEISS MASCHINE! SCHEISS MASCHINE!’ (i.e., rotten valves) and fell heavily to the floor unconscious. As they carried him out he revived sufficiently to yell, ‘I’ll drive! I’ll drive! It’s my car!’ 

I’ve often wondered what it must have been like for his wife and children to live with someone who was stupidly drunk every day.

On rare occasions when he was sober we conversed, and I discovered that he was quite a pleasant person.

Horst moved to Cologne to work with Kurt Edelhagen. From Berlin he had to sail his yacht through all kinds of complicated waterways to reach the Rhine. Once there it was drydocked for a propellor repair. The shaft wasn’t sealed properly afterwards, so that when the boat was winched back into the water it sank immediately. Horst stood on board, dressed in his captain’s uniform, stoned right up to the eyeballs, saluting with an inane grin on his face as the waters of the Rhine slowly closed over his head.

He then took a job in the radio station orchestra in Zurich, and almost at once received a year’s jail sentence for punching a policeman. After that he was deported. The last I heard of Horst he was supposed to have swum across Lake Constance to Friedrichshafen to re-enter Switzerland illegally. I doubt whether this was true. He was hardly ever in a fit state to walk, never mind swim.

 Sender Freies Berlin was the main transmitter for Berlin during the war. It is built like a giant doughnut, four stories high. If you walk in any direction in any one of the corridors, you eventually arrive back at your starting point. The centre of the foyer is open, so that it is possible to look right up to the roof. At Christmas a giant fir tree arrives from Norway and is erected in this area. The world-famous Schöneberg Children’s Choir comes to sing carols during Christmas week. Lined up around the first floor balcony, they sing softly into the huge circular open space. Standing below, by the tree, one cannot see them. The incredible, heavenly effect of this arrangement, and the sound of their beautiful voices, is magical, and always made me feel desperately homesick.

There was a paternoster going up and down to the canteen which passed through all floors. The first time I met Oliver Nelson he was com­ing up to the ground floor on it, which meant that he’d gone down too far and had travelled in total dark­ness around in the bottom of the shaft to come up again. I did it once. It was spooky as hell and you didn’t really know what was going to happen to you down there. A real horror trip.

He got out quick, a little paler than usual.

‘Man, I thought I was on my way then, right down to hell.’

The whole area near the Wall was a bomb-ruined landscape. Some of the recording studios were in burned-out buildings right up against the Berlin Wall. A couple of the rooms in one ruin had been renovated to make the Ariola studio, the rest of the place had been untouched since the end of the war. Opposite were the burned-out remains of Haus Vaterland, once the very centre of entertainment in pre-war Berlin. The tram lines running up the centre of the road end abruptly in the wall of shame, Der Schandenmauer. No one wanted to live near the grim wall, with its little plaques commemorating those who have been shot trying to escape. Walking around the area, and into the nearby Potsdamerplatz, with all its historic connections, was an eery experience, and there was the added danger of being shot by mistake if someone decided to try and cross over from the east while you were in the area.

The Philips studio was around the corner in the Hotel Esplanade. In the interval between recordings the porter, who also sold coffee and cakes to the musicians, used take us through the deserted Grand Ballroom, scene of many regal receptions in days gone by, and show a porno film in one of the bedrooms for four marks a head.

When the lights came on after, it was to reveal that we had all dropped off to sleep during the film.

Here, in the shadow of the Wall, we made all the soundtracks for Peter Alexander, the Kessler twins and Vicky Leandros, the Greek pop star. These were all very big name performers on German television. I also recorded the tricky high trumpet solo from the Beatles’ number Penny Lane for the German version, and several similar feats of pyrotechnics for Caterina Valente. Penny Lane solo

I was booked to play a midnight concert with Sammy Davis Junior, in aid of Israel. He had brought the son of Reynauld Jones along to play lead trumpet. Reynauld was the first trumpet player with Count Basie who had caused a sensation when we saw the band in London by sitting on the end of the trumpet section, playing the lead one-handed. Sitting on the end was an unheard of practice at the time for a first trumpet player, but something which I personally was forced to do in most BBC studios, because I used to overblow the old Marconi microphones so much that no one else could be heard. Reynauld had told me privately that he only sat there because the chair next to the drums was the only one vacant when he joined the Basie band.

The one-handed style caused a lot of trouble in London because a lot of players at once adopted the attitude, thinking it was hip. Mostly they messed up pretty badly, until the infuriated bandleaders forbade the practice. I don’t know why Reynauld used to do it. Maybe he had broken his other arm at some time or other.

On the Sammy Davis rehearsal Reynauld’s son played so quietly that we couldn’t hear him. He explained that he was saving his chops for the performance. On the show we still couldn’t hear him.

Sammy Davis did the lot on his show, miming Robert Mitchum, Duke Wayne, and Jimmy Cagney, ending up with his famous West Side Story medley, sung only with a bongo accompaniment. The Jewish Berlin audience loved Sammy.

Another night I was booked suddenly to play in a large tent pitched in a car park behind the Kaiser-Wilhelm Church. There was no time to rehearse. It was a big session band, and we played everything at sight. Only when the show began did I realise that we were accompanying Josephine Baker, doing yet another charity concert. Her performance was breathtaking. I had done a similar, one-off, performance in the Albert Hall once with Billy Holliday, one of her last appearances before her untimely death.

The radio band was really no good until Paul Kuhn came in as bandleader and got rid of all the dead wood. Paul was a pianist/singer/arranger who had made himself famous on German TV by singing silly songs like There’s No Beer in Hawaii, and playing around with violinist Svend Asmussen and Jonny Tulpin, the harpist in Cologne. He was also great pals with a couple of famous television drunks called Bully Buhlan and Harald Juhnke. As a well established dumb loser Jerry Lewis type television star he was useful to the boss of our TV company.

As if by magic, good players started to arrive in the band. Leo Wright came in on lead alto, Phillip Catherine on guitar, Charles Orieux on bass trombone, Carmel Jones on trumpet, and the Austrian Heinz von Hermann on tenor. I was supposed to be the official lead trumpet, but Paul brought in his friend from Kurt Edelhagen’s band as well, the Yugoslav Milo Pavlovic. I was delighted, because some of the work we were doing was just too much for one man to play. In fact Milo took over almost everything, which left me very little to do, a nice change for me.

Milo was a large well-fed man with an enormous black beard. He was an extremely good trumpet player, with an awesome range and one of the the most beautiful big sounds on trumpet that I have ever heard, especially on his sweet solos. Milo moved around slowly and gravely, like a king. When he spoke it was in weighty, measured Winston-Churchill-like tones. When he ate he usually ordered two meals, a steak perhaps, with a goulash on the side, in case he felt hungry afterwards. His obesity caused his legs to swell up alarmingly, and gave him gout, which was probably the reason for his majesterial gait.

Milo was a chess master. Now I had studied chess for many years, and reckoned myself to be not half bad at the game. When I played Milo he would anger me right at the beginning by pointing at a square on the board and saying, ‘This is where I will win.’

Later in the game, after a series of cunning and devious stratagems I would have him trapped and helpless. Looking up in triumph I would discover Milo looking at me in grave amusement.

‘And now,’ he’d say, ‘I’m going to smash you.’ He then proceeded to do so, right on the square he’d pointed out earlier.

Milo was so good that he could probably have made a career of it. There was a weekly chess club in the SFB canteen and I went in there once to try my luck. One evening, as we sat there during an interval from recording, he said he was going in there.

Twenty minutes later he strolled out again.

'How did you get on?' I asked.

'I smashed them,' he replied.

 He travelled up to Reykjavik in 1972 to see the Fischer/Spassky match. Once there he ensconced himself in the restaurant, in front of a large TV set, and watched the games from there. When I pointed out that we had been able to do exactly the same thing with our sets at home he spoke at length of the atmosphere of the place—of the thrill of actually being there. I don’t believe that he even caught a glimpse of Fischer.

In spite of his talents Milo was rarely booked on sessions in Berlin. When the radio band finally broke up he tried his hand at bandleading. During the break-up he fell out with Paul Kuhn so badly that Paul then made it clear that any musician in Germany working for Milo would never be employed in his band. This meant that Milo could now only have a band if he booked English musicians, which he did, from then on.

Milo and I got on fine, and Åke was more than pleased when Slide Hampton joined the band. His only problem was with the Frenchman Charles Orieux, who was on bass trombone. 

Charles wore glasses with a lens as thick as the bottom of a bottle of Schnaps. To read music he put another pair on top of them with even thicker lenses, so that his glasses stuck out like a pair of binoculars attached to his head.

With all that glass to peer through he attained real time tunnel vision. He could only see a little bit of the part at once, and the mechanism of the bass trombone forced him to keep the music way over on the right of the music stand. This meant him stopping playing at the end of each page to turn the part, whereas everyone else could read the opened-out double sheets right off.

His stopping playing like that used to infuriate Åke, and he started nudging Charles’s stand at the changeovers, to try and make the music fall off on to the floor. Charles would get his knee up to prevent this, and, to the rest of us, it looked like a leg-wrestling match between paraplegics.

Later on the trombones were joined by Torolf Molgaard, from the Danish Radio Band, and the Parisian Andre Paquinet. Torolf was a wonderfully gifted soloist and later on, when he moved to the Frankfurt Radio Band, he recorded many titles with an eight-piece (at times even twelve-piece)  trombone group he formed, and for which I wrote a great many titles.

Carmel Jones had made a name for himself on a recording he made with Gerald Wilson's band back in the United States. He had the most gorgeous tone on trumpet one could imagine and played sentitive, soulful jazz. For some reason the critic Steve Race repeatedly called him the 'poor-toned Carmel Jones' in his Crescendo reviews, which probably damned him somewhat in Britain. Those of us lucky enough to work with him every day knew better.

Slide, Leo Wright, and Carmel gave that band a whole lot of class, something that no other radio band in Germany has ever had, or ever will have.

Francy Boland was a very quiet guy. He was a brilliant arranger, but if you met him anywhere he was very shy and retiring. He had a contract with a guy in Cologne called Gigi Campi who owned an ice-cream parlour to make those great Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland records of the 1960’s. When the contract ended he never appeared again with the band. A lot of the guys went into Peter Herbolzheimer’s band after that.

Milo had married Gigi’s sister during the time he was in Cologne with Edelhagen. The Campi family disowned her for not marrying an Italian, only welcoming her back in after they divorced.

One of the arrangers for the band in Berlin was the Scottish trumpet player Jimmy Deuchar. I’d played with Jimmy, of course, in Jack Parnell’s band back in 1953, and he’d been a great arranger even then.

Later on, Kurt Edelhagen had contracted Jimmy, with Derek Humble and Ken Wray to join his band in Cologne.

Milo had played lead trumpet there at the time, and he told me of all the troubles Edelhagen had with the trio. Of course they had troubles, just as I had with Max Greger. British players just won’t put up with all the nonsense that goes on in the German bands.

Jimmy got fed up and left after a few years and went back to live in his home town of Dundee.

The Edelhagen band had to be great, with all those guys in it. Derek was probably the finest lead alto player in the world at the time. But Edelhagen cheated his musicians badly. Most of them had left the pensionable job in the radio station in Baden-Baden to go with him to Cologne, where they had been promised a similar deal. More than twenty years later, when Edelhagen died and the band broke up, they were still only employed on a temporary basis, which meant that the band suddenly ceased to exist.

The Edelhagen band was contracted to provide the music for the German Olympic Games, held in the new Munich stadium in 1970. The music was written by the team of Peter Herbolzheimer, Jerry van Rooyen, and the pianist Dieter Reith, and it was sensational, so much so that Edelhagen and the three arrangers were awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz—the highest honour a German civilian can attain.

My first apartment in the Kurfürstendamm belonged to a tennis teacher called Werner Gebbers. This guy owned a Tennisplatz behind the apartment block, where Joe Harris used to win the tournament cups. I played tennis there with Äke a lot. I enjoyed the game, laughing and cracking jokes all the time, pretty carefree.

Åke never looked happy, playing each shot with grim determination, taking lessons, and practising in his spare time. I stopped going there with him when I discovered that his only reason for playing was to get good enough to win the tennis cup away from Joe. He couldn’t stand being beaten at anything by anyone.

In winter Werner taught ice skating in Garmisch. That’s how I managed to rent the apartment for three or four months.

He had the place all done up like a brothel, with mirrors over the bed, and red lights all above and around it, silk hangings, satin sheets, several sexy nightdresses in the wardrobe, the lot. There was a photograph of him with his arm around James Mason, with Thanks Werner written across it. He’d apparently been contracted to teach Mason to skate for some film or other in the past.

I spotted an old sixteen millimetre film projector at the back of a cupboard, and several cans of film. One evening, at a loose end, I threaded it up and switched on.

The films contained several hours of close-ups of Adolf Hitler. The cameraman, obviously Werner himself, must have been by the Führer’s side constantly. The films seemed to have been taken late in the war, because Hitler looked exhausted. There were no scenes of a jubilant population giving the Hitler Salute, just country roads, seemingly endless Autobahns and mountain scenes. Eva Braun was with him sometimes, and his Alsation dog. They were all intimate shots, obviously for Hitler’s private collection. On some of the reels made in Berchtesgaden you could see Martin Borman, and, now and again, Albert Speer. Nobody was doing much smiling. When the war ended suddenly Werner had kept the films.

It was pretty weird, sitting there alone in the dark, with all that stuff going off on the screen. I actually felt scared some of the time, as if the Gestapo were liable to burst in on me at any moment. I never told anyone about the films. There were still some things that it was better not to discuss in Germany.

Berlin 2 >>>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved