Saturday, September 12, 2009

Going to England

Well, I finally got a BA degree and, due to a really bad Canadian economy in the early 60's, was offered a job as a dish washer. Music gigs were very sporadic and short term. It was obviously time to make some decisions to alter an unpromising immediate future.

My friends John Warren and Bill Hartley had left Montreal the previous year and settled in London, England. They had written and suggested that I join them. I was aware that prospects in England might not be very different, but with a bit of courage and some ingenuity I could at least make a living and see London, meet some new musicians and get to play some different gigs.

Ron Egli, another friend of ours gave me a going away party - lots of friends - a really great bash! One young actor, Paul Hecht, gave me an ear-opening Steve Lacy LP (Evidence) that I brought to London. Well, there was no going back. Judy booked me a 4th class passage on the SS United States leaving from NYC and I bought an overnight bus ticket to the "Big Apple".

What is it about New York City and coincidences? As soon as I got on the midnight bus I was sitting with Al, a New York bebop alto player who was returning home after spending a year of his life in Montreal playing the odd gig and generally "boosting" to feed a heroin habit. It was an odd moment as I knew that it was Al who stole my trumpet at a jam session at the McGill Student Union. Due to a youthful tolerance born of a fixation on more important things like inhabiting a vibrant musical space called Jazz, I soon passed on the negative and got to know Al a bit better. For his part he seemed moved by contrition to showing me a few of his hangouts in New York.

When we got off the bus, it was mid-morning. We had something to eat and went to Jilly's, a small but famous bar where musicians and show-biz people went to relax and to "meet and greet". We had a drink and went to Birdland at noon where Al said John Coltrane practiced every day with his bass player Jimmy Garrison and his drummer Elvin Jones.

Birdland at that hour was cavernous and empty save for the three musicians in the far corner. Coltrane was practicing long "sheets of sound" with Elvin and Jimmy Garrison propelling his solos with wild, energetic rhythms.

When the music came to an end, Al brought me over to introduce me to the band. Before he could say anything, Elvin jumped up from behind his drums and said with an ear to ear grin, "Guy, how are you man? What brings you to New York?" Al was a bit taken aback, but I had met Elvin after a Monk concert in Montreal. After a few pleasant exchanges, I told Elvin that I had to make my way to the port to board a ship going to England. It was a tough decision-hanging with these guys or going to the boat and completing the first leg of my journey. Fortunately discretion overcame the urge to throw away my trip to England, and Al took me to Giardinelli's.

Trumpet players in the fifties and sixties coveted the the mouthpieces made by by Mr. Giardinelli. Buying a new one at his store in NY was high on my agenda. Another NY coincidence: the guy working behind the counter was Kenny Dorham – a truly great bebop trumpeter and member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. After a perfunctory "hello" to Al, Mr. Dorham helped me pick out a mouthpiece (7B). He was there to sell trumpet mouthpieces: not to make small talk. A few fleeting moments with one of my early, jazz trumpet player heroes, and it was time to thank Al and take a cab to the Port of New York.

The SS United States

This was the largest and fastest passenger ship plying the Atlantic at that time. Because it was built with a view to conversion as a troop ship it had 4 classes. Great for me as I could only afford a 4th class fare in the bowels of the ship.

Probably because we were still docked in NY, strange events kept occurring. I took off my suit and started to relax in my cabin when a cabin mate showed up. A tall, handsome, dapper 28 yr. old Frenchman spoke to me in French and said he had to meet some friends onshore, but that he would be back before the ship sailed.

Moments later a ship's steward arrived with trays of hors d'oeuvres. After a tense discussion we determined that the roommate had ordered them and would be back soon to sign for them.

Well the ship sailed and he never came back. He was obviously trying to throw someone off his trail, and I won't bore you with speculations as to why this seemed necessary. The steward, swearing and muttering, came back to pick up the trays and a third cabin mate, a very grumpy guy, changed his cabin assignment. I had a 4 bunk cabin all to myself for the rest of the voyage. The rest of the trip was uneventful and quite pleasant. We spent the day in the third class bar and ate in the third class dining room.

I met a beautiful, I guess you could say old-fashioned, girl from Philadelphia in the bar and spent each afternoon in the bar with her and several other guys making small talk. She was going to a US army base in Frankfurt to live there with her husband.

The last two nights on the ship found me in the first class ballroom with a new friend, the drummer with the ship's orchestra - The Meyer Davis Orchestra. This was an offshoot of a famous New York society band. The drummer (very competent and professional) and I spent the the last two nights bemoaning the fact that it wasn't The Miles Davis Orchestra and he spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of what he called "panama green".

I didn't go to bed the last night as I had promised my new friend from Philly that I would meet her on the deck to watch the sunrise and watch the boat dock at Le Havre where she was meeting a train to Frankfurt. It was really magical. When we docked, the port of Le Havre was bustling and looked like an impressionist painting with French sailors in their unique, but colourful uniforms and berets with red pompoms. I said goodbye to my new friend and we wished each other good luck.

When the boat left Le Havre for Southampton, I knew this brief respite from mundane considerations, like earning a living, was over.