Sunday, October 25, 2009


Ladbroke Grove

John Warren and Bill Hartley met me at the boat train and sort of tried to hide their disappointment when they found out that I only had a half crown (Tube fare) left to my name. They were obviously expecting a new, large cache of Canadian funds to appear on their doorstep.

Having glossed over this contretemps, we took the tube home and arrived at their digs on Basset Road in Ladbroke Grove. It was a foggy evening in London. I had arrived at the tail end of one of London’s worst killer fogs and catarrh was the word of the day in this working class district in the north end of Notting Hill.

The next night (things moved rather more swiftly in London than in Montreal) I was “sitting-in” with a blues band in a London pub. Hartley had arranged this and invited a few friends. Fat John’s Blues Band was a good working pub band, and getting it together with them was a real pleasure. Fortunately, Hartley thought I had played well. It seemed to me that a first attempt at making it in a totally new environment focuses one’s efforts, and propels one’s playing to a different level. It was an interesting night.

The next day, after a couple of futile attempts to find alternate “digs”, we three decided I was to live on Basset Road until I got a gig. We occupied the basement flat in a large, run-down house owned by Russian émigrés, Count and Countess Lapin, whom Hartley had dubbed Bunny. They claimed to be Russian nobility. Bunny was a pleasantly weird landlady and the Count was definitely off his rocker. He could be seen any afternoon sitting on the roof of his house with a large, old-fashioned brass telescope surveying his new kingdom.

The neighbours were equally colourful. Across the street was a baritone sax player, a friend of an excellent British jazz trombonist that we knew from Montreal. They both played in the Guards band at Buckingham Palace, and in the palace dance band put together from the personnel of the Guards band for palace parties. Living in the basement flat next-door was a working Calypso pianist (Russ Henderson) who was also musical director of the steel band that led off the Notting Hill Festival every year.

Evening light in Ladbroke Grove was eerily beautiful. The setting sun filtering through the smog cast a pink hue throughout the Grove - a special treat combining nature’s best gift and man’s worst efforts. It’s not surprising that Ladbroke Grove was a home for hippies and bohemians and eventually became a breeding ground for punk and ska bands. Out of the Grove came groups like Motorhead and The Clash.

It was important to me on an existence level to not impose on my hosts for more than a month. John, a budding jazz music composer and arranger, was not working as much at his part time job at the post office and we were living on Arnold’s bread and jam. Hartley, who had a really good job at Reuters as an overnight re-write editor would bring us fish and chips for breakfast that he bought for us on Portobello Rd. at the end of his shift. At night we drank beer at the Prince Albert Pub in Notting Hill before Hartley went to work.

Archer Street
While many jobs were advertised in The Melody Maker, a newspaper that in the 50’s and 60’s promoted Jazz music and musicians, the fastest way to get work was by attending the weekly get-together of London musicians on Archer Street. London had streets for everything. For example, Jermyn Street was where you went to get made-to-measure shirts. It blew my mind to find out that there was a street for musicians to swap leads for jobs and gossip about the latest trends and happenings on the London music scene.

Archer Street was off Piccadilly Circus just behind the Windmill Theatre, next to Soho and the Berwick Street Market. Every Monday hundreds of musicians would fill the street: glad handing, making contacts, swapping phone numbers and getting gigs from those who were there in search of sidemen for their bands. When the pubs re-opened in the afternoon - they closed between lunch and tea time so that some work might to done to move the country forward - the crowd of musicians spilled into them.

I really liked working the street as I could use the skills I had acquired in Montreal getting gigs and setting up venues for Montreal musicians to jam. Just to underline the point, I immediately got a really good gig on the Isle of Wight for four months. Len Lewis the leader of the quintet invited me to his house in the outskirts of London, where he and his wife ran a wool shop. In the summer he led a band at Norton’s Holiday camp. He fitted me up for a tuxedo. We arranged for the cost to be deducted from my wages, and I had my first paying gig in England starting three weeks hence.