Friday, November 13, 2009

London Two

During the last few weeks before I left for the Isle of Wight, John and I spent a lot of time listening to the Steve Lacy record I brought from Montreal. The long lean lines of Steve's soprano solos and Don Cherry's pocket trumpet solos became etched in my brain.

It was my good fortune to find out about a new London rehearsal band just a short stroll up Ladbroke Grove and around the corner on Elgin Crescent. On my way up Ladbroke Grove that evening a motley group of teenagers led, in a single file, by a young, red haired girl crossed the street in front of me, came to a stop and stared at me. I have no idea, to this day, what this was all about. I continued on my way and entered Mike Westbrook's house where the sounds of a band tuning up wafted into the street.

At the door stood a tall, young man who greeted me warmly and invited me to play trumpet with them. Kind and non-judgemental he made me feel at ease and we started playing. Mike's love of Duke Ellington's music, and his own devotion to writing music that went to the heart and soul of his instrumentalists was evinced by the full sound that his band produced. He asked me to get in touch with him when I got back from the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight

I arrived at Yarmouth, Isle of Wight having taken a very short ferry trip from the English mainland. After a cab ride to Norton's Holiday Camp, I was shown to a self-contained cabin that I shared with Peter Hampton, the band's drummer. Pete was already there and, with an East London accent, welcomed me to our home for the next four months. It was good fortune that we were billeted together as we quickly became fast friends for the duration. We haunted the Norton bar during our breaks and after work and never a cross word was uttered between us.

I had never heard of Holiday camps prior to coming to England. They were a post-war phenomenon that was capitalised upon by a guy called Billy Butlin who just kept building his chain of vacation sites across the British Isles. Holiday camps were usually populated by working class families who went there for an annual vacation and a bit of organised fun. Norton's was a slimmed down version owned by "the Major", a retired army Major.

Pete and I checked out the dining hall, a barn like structure with long tables and pretty crummy food. The "punters", as the campers were called, seemed to be oblivious to the fare. It was my impression that they were there for a good time and that nothing would stand in their way; and nothing did. One had to factor into one's observations, culled from a North American perspective, that the most devastating war of the 20th century was raging across Europe and in their own country two decades earlier. I read in the paper that the traditional sausage was now required, by parliamentary edict, to contain at least 14% meat. Other big headlines that summer were the Great Train Robbery, the Profumo Affair, and Stirling Moss failing his test for a motorcycle driver's permit.

The band consisted of trumpet, piano, bass, drums and the leader (Len Lewis) on clarinet. The guys were all very professional, despite the fact that most of them had other jobs in the off season. Our work on stage went very smoothly and the rhythm section was surprisingly tight. We got to play some jazz when Len asked me to emcee and sing some for the revellers. I sang a few Slim Gaillard bebop riffs and the band got to adlib. Much to Len's surprise it added to the party atmosphere and became a nightly feature.

Several weeks into the gig the piano player eloped with one of the waitresses and we were looking for a new piano player. We lucked out musically as Percy Roberts was a middle-aged, professional pianist from Australia. He brought his wife Betty with him as both were blind (I think from birth). His main influence was George Shearing (a great British, blind jazz pianist) and he could play just like him, although he had his own style. The rhythm section, which also included a good young bassist, Colin Cooper, jumped a level with more varied chords and faultless accompaniment.

During the day our new friends fit right in with the activities at the camp - a tribute to their tenacity, and a testament to the kindness of the band members and the rest of the people at the camp. They particularly enjoyed our afternoon excursions to the King's Head Pub in Yarmouth which was a 15 minute walk from Norton's. The Kings Head was said to be the watering hole for pirates and sailors in the nineteenth century, and the local dialect was still similar to that in old pirate movies. Pints of draft Guinness were still pulled at the bar from wooden barrels in the basement by an expert publican. One day we couldn't find Percy and Betty when we were leaving for the pub, so I pinned a note on their cabin door telling them we were at the King's Head. About an hour later they wandered into the pub and asked why we didn't invite them. I piped up, "But, I left a note on your door". Everybody broke up laughing and I finally realized my mistake.

Once a week I was invited to sit in with some of the "jazzers" at a neighbouring Holiday camp. They were working London musicians notably "Miff" Mole, an alto player, and "Duke" Pearson, a drummer. Can you believe these names? They were a bit nuts and a lot of fun. We jammed one afternoon a week and got away from the strictures of our summer gigs.

We did a bit of sightseeing on one of the prettiest islands off the coast of England. The months flew by quickly as is the case with most summer seasons, and it was soon time to return to London.