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Words/Musical Friends and Heroes

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© Peter Morgan 2016

 









Memories of musician friends, colleagues and heroes who are no longer with us.

Lol Coxhill .. Harry Pitch .. Don Rendell .. Harry Beckett .. Johnny Armatage .. Campbell Burnap .. Joe Burns .. Dave Jones .. Bill Le Sage .. Alan Ganley .. Yank Lawson .. Tal Farlow .. Slim Galliard .. Tony Lee .. Dick Charlesworth .. and many more soon to follow ..


Lol Coxhill,

Lol was a one off in every sense of the word and a totally recognisable unique voice. His playing crossed every imaginable boundary in a utterly convincing way. I have loads of Lol anecdotes, one of my favourites is a jazz club date I played with him where it slowly became obvious to me that he would keep playing until the last audience member left. The tension in the room became more and more excruciating and a battle of wills between Lol and the last couple. Lol of course won. As the last defeated couple slunk away and shut the door behind them Lol instantly stopped, it had been two hours of one continuous improvised piece.
On another Lol led gig at the Pizza Express in Dean Street, he instructed us all to imagine that we were playing different instruments, I think I was asked to imagine my double bass to be a drum kit. Another favourite memory is how he would often construct his own fold back sound reflector using upturned tables. I think Lol’s idiosyncratic playing is some of the most logical and interesting I have ever heard, every solo tells a story in the most understandable way. Finally I can’t let Lol’s marvellous fashion sense pass without comment, seeing the reaction of the locals when we walked into a Northern working class pub bar with Lol wearing his full length white SS style overcoat and tiny round glasses will stay with me for ever!  back to top

Harry Pitch
 
was a virtuoso harmonica player and an old fashioned Jewish bandleader. He was for a long time a first call session player. I did all sorts of gigs with Harry, from functions on bass guitar, to Traditional Jazz on tuba (with Harry on trumpet) and BBC recording sessions on double bass in between. The big thing that linked all these gigs was Harry's unstoppable childlike enthusiasm, he loved music and loved to play. His amazingly supportive wife Ruby was always his biggest fan. When I joined his band "Rhythm and Reeds", I found myself playing with some of the best jazz players of his generation, I was in shock. I learnt things on every single gig and amazingly they all put up with my youthful arrogance and ineptitude. Harry played the harmonica effortlessly like an angel and then would make the most non pc and inappropriate comment on mic, which was hilarious but also incredibly endearing. When I spoke to him on the ‘phone he would always have the “old tin sandwich” in his hand and the conversation would be punctuated by his tootled musical references. He adored Toots and like him had the most gorgeous sound. I miss Harry,
his amazing playing and his East End mentality, in his own words, "West End boys at East End prices" .
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Don Rendell
has to be one of the UK's all time jazz legends and I count myelf very fortunate to have worked in his quartet for a few years and made a couple of albums with him. Don was a fantastic player and a very unusual and spiritual man, I loved working with him and his band. His whole thing was unfettered expression and (when I was in the band), energy, really high energy. He almost encouraged tension between musicians if he felt it helped his vision of the music. In other words if his players didn’t get on, but that meant the music was full of energy and creativity because of their personal tension, then good. In fact that was why I joined the band, because the creative energy between the previous bass player and the guitarist had tipped over into destructive antipathy. He was also infamous because of his Jehovahs Witness affiliations. I have to say in all the time I knew him, it only cropped up once, when a copy of the Witnesses Watchtower magazine magically appeared in my bag, I didn't mind, I had been almost expecting it. One vivid memory of Don is walking into the Bulls Head Barnes for a gig and seeing all and I mean all of Dons instruments lined up at the front of the stage. In other words almost every variant of saxophone and flute known to man. He played just about every one of them on each tune, some of those tunes were very long indeed. I think at the end of his career he was quite upset that he couldn't get a gig, when it seemed all his students were playing everywhere.   back to top

Harry Beckett
 
was a man I played with much too early in my development, I really wasn’t ready. Much later I felt that I did him more justice with my playing. He was very influential to me early on though, because I watched his band many times before I was even playing that music. He was a very warm man who seemed to embrace people with his playing. I saw Harry fall off the stage when I was working with him at the 100 club in Oxford Street. It happened before we had started playing and Harry had just got up on stage. He walked in front of me carrying his trumpet in one hand and flugelhorn in the other. As he passed in front of me he missed his footing and one foot slipped offstage. Over he went and I watched in horror as Harry fell off the high stage face down. Somehow he twisted like a falling cat in reverse and landed on his back with a massive crash on a table. Amazingly he held his horns aloft as he crash landed. Harry was a big man and he hit the table very hard, but somehow he surfaced shaken but unharmed and more importantly (to Harry) with two undamaged horns. The gig was, of course, wonderful.  
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Johnny Armatage,
 
the much missed jazz drummer, was to me the epitome of calm and the cornerstone of every band he played in. He was entirely self contained and happy with himself. John never got angry, never raised his voice and exuded a zen-like calm which made my job easy. He didn’t so much dominate the rhythm section but gently lead us by the hand with our total permission. I loved playing with him and loved his personality. I even loved the way he pronounced his surname, Armatage, tage not pronounced as if French but as in cage. His understated confidence kept bullying band leaders off his back, they knew he couldn’t be bullied. He always played the same drum solo when he was given an extended feature. It was if he had arrived at the best way to do it years ago, you could almost set your watch by it!  
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Campbell Burnap
 
was one of those bandleaders who made the band and the audience both feel good, talents that don’t necessarily go hand in hand. He loved musicians because of the way they played. I know that sounds a given, but Campbell never took musicians for granted, he seemed to enjoy listening to the chaps in the band as much as he liked to play himself. He took great pleasure in being on stage with great players. It was was just so easy playing with Campbell and so lovely to be in his band and in his company, nobody could make a gig run so smoothly. Campbell’s bands always swung effortlessly and it was all because of him, I don’t know how he did it. Completely unnecessarily he was very self deprecating, especially about his own playing. He was also one of those font of all knowledge musicians, who had an endless supply of jazz stories, anecdotes and real historical insight. On one occasion I was sitting with Campbell in the band room watching a TV screen on the wall, bizarrely it was showing a CCTV view of the car park outside. Suddenly it showed a shadowy form walking towards us, Campbell quick as a flash said, “You can just about make out the Romford swagger”. Nick Dawson, the band’s pianist was from .... Romford.  
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Joe Burns

is impossible to describe, impossible to understand and it is almost impossible to believe that he ever existed, but he did, he really did. He was the ultimate jazz character, he played in dodgy nightclubs frequented by the worst gangsters, he went AWOL from the army. He caught and killed a rat in the ladies toilets in one of those clubs and “served” the unfortunate creature to the club owner in a sandwich. He was the house pianist in the Mandrake club and played with a toilet seat around his neck. He could recognise visiting pianists by the sound of their footsteps on the stairs behind him. He treated the aforementioned gangsters with complete distain and when he rejected their requests with the dismissive cuss, F*** O**, they would tolerantly pat him on the head and laugh, he was their mascot. He moved in strange and elevated circles, his longtime partner was the singer Kay Clarke, the sister of Ozzy. The legendary and almost mythical Joe Burns who played in an all accordion band with Stan Tracey and Bill Le Sage, the man with the most infamous and outrageous business card of all time. I happen to be the proud owner of one of these rare collectors items.
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Dave Jones
 
was a superb clarinet player who played with just about every band in the British Trad Boom. He was the clarinet player on most of Kenny Ball’s big hits including Midnight in Moscow. I met him while I was still at college and got to know him quite well, he was a lovely man and a natural musician, a virtuoso without realising it himself. He was also a very good baritone saxophone player and played in the horn section that the Kinks used on a US tour and TV. He and the other horn players raided the BBC props dept and found the most outrageous wigs to wear on a Top of the Pops performance. Dave looked particularly gorgeous with his fake flowing locks. Much later I was booked to play in a band with him at the Bulls Head at Barnes and thought it would be good for a friend of mine to meet him. My friend played Baritone Sax himself and wanted some advice from a professional. Dave was happy to meet him before the gig and gave him his full attention for a considerable time and all the help he could. At the end of the conversation to my friends amazement and gratitude, Dave gave him a mouthpiece, that was typical Dave Jones. I will not tell you how Dave’s lovely wife Sandra said she kept him healthy.

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Bill Le Sage
 
was one of the amazing be-bop generation that made such exciting and groundbreaking music in the UK, I saw him a lot at the Bulls Head, when I was a student. He played piano and vibes with fantastic dexterity and his own technique. He developed his solos with a wonderful sense of purpose and excitement. I remember one particular seemingly unending vibes solo that impossibly got better and better, chorus after chorus. I first met him playing opposite his band "The Bebop Preservation Society" on a Channel 4 TV show and I found him and his bandmates terrifying. Many years later I found myself working with him often and was in a state of constant amazement and awe at my good fortune, he was of course not terrifying in the least but, as we showbiz types say, a real sweetie, full of lovely annecdotes and great stories. One time I was doing a gig with Harry Pitch and Jack Emblow when Bill appeared in the audience. It was a good gig and we all enjoyed ourselves, including the listening Bill. When we finished Bill said, “Do you fancy coming back for a drink”? We said “Lovely idea Bill, but you live miles away”, Bill replied, “Follow me chaps” and led us down through the pub garden to the riverside where Bill had moored up for the evening. We followed him aboard his beautiful boat to find a fully equipped bar and comfortable seating for us all. He was quite a private man and this was Bills retreat, his inner sanctum, it felt like it was a privilege to be there. In his own words and bear in mind this was pre mobile-phone, he said “When I cast off, no one can find me”.
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Alan Ganley
 
made bass players who worked with him sound better than they really were, well that’s what he did to me anyway. He was amazing, I don’t know quite how to describe it but somehow with him every beat seemed to take longer to arrive and therefore it was impossible to place my chosen note in anything but the right place. He made it near impossible to play badly or out of sync. He sent me a cassette tape he had made up for me featuring one of my favourite musicians Victor Feldman. Alan had worked with Victor a lot and they were good friends. The tape was made more personal by Alan wittering on as he put it together. It was hilarious, “Here we are Pete, this track is ... whoops, sorry I just dropped the .... oh dear, hang on a minute .... there you go, where was I? It was a marvellous rambling discourse all on tape. It was a treasured memory of him that unfortunately was mangled irreparably in my cassette player. We definitely had a sympatico bass/drums thing and Alan asked me to play with his marvellous big band, my sight reading was (and still is) so bad I had to turn him down, but to play with him in the many small groups I did was wonderful.  
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Yank Lawson

the trail blazing American trumpeter made a mini UK tour in the 80’s deputising for the indisposed Wild Bill Davison, I was fortunate enough to play on most of the dates. He was a wonderfully polite, gentle and friendly man who made me, the “youngster” in the band feel appreciated. His reputation and ability speaks for itself but one incident on that little tour stands out in my memory. It was the first date, in the Pizza Express on Dean Street and my first meeting with him. We played the the first tune, the first theme and for the first solo he turned to me! You have to remember this was Dixieland music; to give the bass player the first solo was unknown, that was something that Bill Evans did. Not only that, but the bass player in question was unknown to him. It was an amazingly liberated and generous act that I have never forgotten. He was a great man and a fabulous player.  
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Tal Farlow
 
was a regular visitor to these shores when it was common practice for US jazz musicians to tour the UK, usually picking up local rhythm sections. I was lucky enough to play the London dates on one of Tal’s visits. I had the embarrassment of having to find a dep for one of the dates because I had a gig with my own quartet that I couldn’t do anything about! For the likes of me to have to do that to Tal Farlow was just ridiculous, but Tal was completely gracious. Like Yank Lawson and many of the visiting US stars, he was unfailingly polite and just seemed grateful to be there. He brought his own amp with him, a Walter Woods and used a speaker supplied by the venue. He played on a great big Gibson. He was of course wonderful even though he didn’t have the chops of his youth anymore. Amazingly he had cut the pad on the first finger of his left hand quite badly just before he left the US. He played all the gigs with it taped and bound. He still sounded fantastic.
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Slim Galliard, 
the unforgettable jazz entertainer. I did all Slim’s London work for a couple of years and visited Japan with an international band he led. I’ve got mixed feelings about Slim, he was the ultimate entertainer but didn’t really want a relationship with the band. In all the time I worked with him he never knew my name and didn’t really want to, but to see Slim close up, doing his thing, entrancing an audience and wrapping them around his little finger was amazing. Mind you his fingers were not little, he had the most massive hands and showed them off by playing the piano with his hands upside down!! On one occasion he played one piece for the entire set improvising on the theme of the audiences names. He asked them up to the stage one after one, singing “what’s your name, what’s your name”? Slim then made up a few verses about every one of them, he made them all feel special. The “tune” must have lasted for well over an hour, with Slim sitting on the front of the stage with a pair of bongos, he didn’t touch the piano or guitar. He wasn’t concerned with minor detail like tuning his guitar or telling the musicians what he was going to play. On one gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall we walked on to perform in front of a sell out audience, knowing we were also on live nationwide radio but not knowing anything about what we would play. We did know however, that what ever it was, Slim would not tell us. He was more interested in putting on a show and giving the public a good time. He was a genius of a kind, but very much a flawed genius. By the way, I used to wait for the right moment to “borrow” Slim’s guitar before the gig and try to get it in tune without him realising.
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Tony Lee
means a lot to me, not least because of my adolescence spent watching him and his trio. He was I think one of the most swinging pianists of his generation, he was a complete natural. Tony was self taught and couldn’t read music, he could barely read a chord chart but it really didn’t matter. The great saxophonist Duncan Lamont used Tony in his big band despite the fact that Tony couldn’t read the charts! I grew up watching the Tony Lee Trio when they were the house band at the Bulls Head in Barnes, it was a truly wonderful trio and an equally wonderful time for me. When many years down the road I joined that trio I was in in heaven. I found him so easy to play with, we also did a lot of duo work together and he gave me so much space to play. Because of my connection with Tony I got to play with many other fabulous musicians; he really opened a lot of doors for me. Sadly the demon drink took its toll on Tony and his life and career was badly affected towards the end. There are lots of  Tony Lee stories I could tell but many I should just keep to myself, so here are just a couple that are more suitable for public consumption. Number one, Tony had never owned an electric piano but sometimes used to borrow a Fender with a short keyboard. He never got the hang of it and watching him play on that short keyboard was hilarious, he would fly off each end of it all the time, sometimes barely keeping his balance, particularly if he he'd had a few. Any semblance of flow in his playing was impossible. Number two, on one occasion we did a gig out of town somewhere or other and were billed as the “Erroll Garner trio featuring Peter Morgan”. Tony was the ultimate Garner stylist and somehow the club involved made this wonderful mistake in the advertising. I was very proud to have been advertised as a member of the Erroll Garner trio! Tony like Dick Charlesworth below had a huge following of people who really worshipped him, they felt close to him, almost like family. I miss Tony, well I miss all these chaps, but Tony was particularly representative of an era, an era that is long gone.   back to top

Dick Charlesworth
was simply a legendary figure, everybody loved Dick, audiences and musicians alike. He was the most dignified and urbane chap. The band he led in the Trad boom was “Dick Charlesworth and his City Gents”. Well, absolutely, Dick was a gent of the first order. Dick was a great swinging clarinet player and a wonderful swinging vocalist, he had a dedicated following, one could say a huge fan base. Everything he did was humorous to the point of being profound, I don’t know how else to put it. Like Tony Lee he was the face of an era, the embodiment of a British jazz era, it sounds pretentious, (it’s not, it’s the truth). He always carried the audience with him and he was their hero, he was certainly my hero. Dick was always able and willing to drink prodigious quantities of alcohol. Because of his phenomenal alcohol tolerance it was always a wonderful thing to see him "tipsy". Even when he had consumed enough drink  to anaesthetise a dray horse Dick was only ever just a little bit tipsy. He of course remained a perfect gentleman even when in this advanced innebriated state. He was the the founder of “the brothers”, a chapter of the Universal Life Church. The Universal Life Church was created in America by a hippy in order to avoid the Vietnam war draught, Dick with the founders permission formed the UK chapter. It became a musicians club and I am a member, I am a “brother”. In fact we are all brothers and we address each other formally as “Dear Brother”. As U.L.C. members and practitioners we are deemed able to conduct a marriage ceremony. Dicks funeral was held in Thames Dutton and it stopped the traffic, in fact the town shut down in honour of Dick. Everyone loved Dick Charlesworth.   back to top