Thursday September 09, 2021
 

Looking after the Legends
by Dave Donohoe

Reproduced by kind permission of Dave Donohoe and Just Jazz magazine

 

Thanks to Tom Stagg and Richard Millward for helping me with my memory lapses, and to Teddy Fullick for proof reading. - Dave Donohoe

 

Over the years, every time I have related an amusing incident involving a visiting American musician, someone inevitably says, "You should write these things down." I usually reply that I will, but then do nothing.

As I and others in my age group are now in the bucket-kicking season, I thought I should make an effort. So here goes, and I hope that the tales prove to be of interest. It will also give a little insight into the personalities of the performers who some people will have only seen on a bandstand, or heard their recordings.

in 1969, whilst working for a week in London, I was introduced to a travel agent called Jonathan. in chatting, I asked him about the costs of flying to New 0rleans and told him of the reason for me wanting to. He suggested organising a charter flight in 1970, as long as I could help with the recruiting.

I obtained my first ever passport, and began recruiting by word of mouth. I then had a phone call from Jonathan to say that regretfully he had to postpone the trip until 1971. It would coincide with the April jazz festival. The trip was now being organised by himself and Mike Casimir who had visited New Orleans before, and so had contacts.

The cost of the first trip was £130 for two weeks, staying at the magnificent 0livier House, complete with large courtyard and swimming pool. It was owned and, still is, by the Danner family who it turned out were lovely people.

For economy, the men were put six or more to a room, in some cases with two sharing a king-sized bed. The others had mattresses on the floor. But who cared? We were there. I went on three consecutive trips. In 1972 1 recruited at least ten people and earned a free trip for myself and my wife.

About half of the other pilgrims on these visits were from various countries in mainland Europe. It was a surprise (at least to me) to discover that people in other countries had the same musical heroes, and were trying to emulate their playing styles on their various instruments.

New lifelong friendships were formed on these trips, and soon British bands began to visit and play at European jazz clubs and vice versa. It seemed to open the door for more American musicians to take on European tours and play with selected bands in provincial jazz clubs.

Chris Barber had introduced us to several blues people, which helped to change the sound of British popular music. George Lewis toured with Ken Colyer's Jazzmen and later, the Kid Martyn band. Martyn also brought Kid Sheik, Captain John Handy, Louis Nelson, Kid Thomas and Manny Paul, but this was to be a new and more intimate way of doing things; exciting for the provincial bands, but the guests had to adapt to playing one-off concerts with bands of varying ability.

During this time, Barry Martyn had moved to California. He started a music agency named Westerburg Associates. Tom Stagg, then still living in London, was to control the British part of the tours.

The first I knew about any of it was when I received a telephone call from Tom to ask if I would be interested in featuring these musicians with my own band, have them as house guests if I wished to, and if it suited them; and also to act as their road manager from the Midlands up as far as Scotland. There was no wages as such, just expenses to cover petrol, subsistence and overnight accommodation if required. I didn't say that I would think about it and let him know I’d already learned that with few exceptions, money, and doing things on behalf of jazz have never been compatible bedfellows. I instantly accepted the offer with the same enthusiasm as Joan of Arc being offered a bucket of water. I was already friends with both Tom and Barry. It never even occurred to me that I might not get along socially with all my guests. I was just thrilled at the prospect of spending time with them and hopefully to learn a lot.

I didn't keep a diary, so I don't know if these visits are in the correct order. I do know for sure that the very first one was Alton Purnell as the following tale will demonstrate.


ALTON PURNELL


I had seen Alton play at the Manchester Sports Guild with Keith Smith's New O0rleans All Stars, organised by the late Jack Swinnerton (Jim's dad), and was thrilled to see him in the flesh. It was an honour to have him as our first houseguest. It was to be the first of many visits over the years. Alton was one of the easiest of people to get along with and made you feel that you had always known him.

The first time he arrived at our home, my wife and youngest daughter Clare were the only ones at home. Clare was about seven or eight at the time, and she gazed open mouthed at the first black person she had ever seen. Alton sat down in an armchair with a cup of tea, but was aware that Clare was slowly sneaking up on him from the side. When she was within touching distance her arm slowly reached out and she rested her hand slowly on his head. She then began to run her fingers through his short, crinkly hair. When he became aware of what she was doing he simply sat back with a contented smile on his face, and let her continue with her new-found interest.

The next day I drove him to Rotherham in S.W. Yorkshire to play with the Dave Brennan Band. The hotel we were booked in was also the concert venue, which was a bonus. I booked us in, gave Alton his room key and told him that I would meet him in the bar in thirty minutes. The bar was empty, but I could hear voices coming from an adjoining room so I looked in out of curiosity and was surprised to see a children's fashion show in progress, complete with catwalk that came from a curtain. Up to then my only experience of Rotherham was of playing at miners' galas with a marching band, or in working men's clubs where beer had to have a big frothy head on it. I'm a proud Northerner but I do like a flat southern beer that reaches the top of the glass. The people spoke in an old fashion biblical dialect with plenty of thees and thous. I had never encountered the posh side of town.

The lady commentator was telling the audience that the event was being sponsored by someone with a name like Lady Caroline Withering-Scornforth. She then went on to say; "Next we have Guinevere in a Bo Peep dress with blue bonnet with a blue polka dot bow." Guinevere then appeared through the curtain, strutted down the catwalk, curtsied and retreated through the curtain. The commentator then announced Thurston in a navy blue sailor suit and white cravat. All the women clapped (there were no men present apart from me) the curtain was pulled aside, and out stepped Alton Purnell.

For those who never saw Alton, he wasn't very tall, about 5ft 5in or 5ft 6in and he was more black than brown with smiley, twinkly eyes. His face had a battered Mike Tyson look, probably from his early days as a pugilist. The applause came to a sudden halt followed by open-mouthed amazement. What happened next is hard to believe unless you were there. In a second, Alton realised what he had walked into, smiled at the audience, curtsied and strutted down the catwalk in short effeminate steps with one hand on his hip. At the end of the
catwalk he bowed with one arm behind his back and retreated back through the curtain. By then, the women and kids were laughing out loud and applauded as if they'd witnessed a performance by a top entertainer. They had!

On another visit by Alton we had moved house to a cottage with very low ceilings. We had an old upright piano, the top of which was only about 2 feet from the ceiling. Immediately above the ceiling was the bed we slept in. I was awakened one morning by the piano beneath being played. It was Alton playing Hey Look Me Over. My mind went back to the days when he was one of my heroes in the jazz history books and on records. I shed a tear as I thought, "How many people can say that they have been awakened to this?"

Over the years Alton made several trips, and was always a very welcome houseguest. On one tour he was accompanied by Barry Martyn on drums (Alton being a member of Barry's 'Legends of Jazz' band. This boosted the band no end. On one of many visits we were temporarily without trumpet, but I managed to book the superb Cuff Billett to travel up to Manchester, which again gave the band a great lift.

Eventually the management changed, and Ken Pitchford took over from Tom Stagg. Ken was sometimes helped out by a lovely man from the Derby area called Ivan Merritt, who sadly died before Ken did.

Wingy Manone

 

Of all the US visitors, the only real controversial and white one was Wingy Manone, the famous one-armed trumpet player. His arm was severed by a street car on Canal Street in New Orleans when he was an infant, so he had a dummy hand with a black glove on it. I was worried about him before I met him. I had been warned not to even think of inviting him to stay as a house guest, but to put him in a guest house, otherwise he would upset my children and insult my wife. I was also advised to keep him working without a day off, even if the fee was less than the usual. The late piano player Jon Marks brought him up from London. Jon was to stay with us and I booked Wingy into Birch Hall, a country house hotel. The proprietor was Ray Hibbertson who was a jazz fan and occasionally put on jazz events.

In the flesh, Wingy certainly suited the description of his temperament. He looked like a cross between Mr. Punch and Daniel Quilp in Dickens'  'The Old Curiosity Shop' as illustrated by Phizz. The first concert was at our Saturday night residency at the Nags Head in Manchester, playing to a full house. Before we started, Jon, Wingy and I were at the bar and Wingy told us that the only good band left in New Orleans was the Dukes of Dixieland because coloured musicians didn't have any feeling for this kind of music. Jon and I glanced at each other, but neither of us said a word. I certainly didn't want an argument before we had played even one note. The clarinettist in the band was the late Gabe Essien who was of mixed race, having a black African father and white mother. He took the first solo of the evening. At the end, nobody clapped, but that was normal behaviour at that particular venue. Wingy frowned into the audience, grabbed the mike, and pointing at Gabe said, "Give him a hand, he's a nice boy!" I realised that he just liked to be controversial for the sake of it. In other words, his bark was worse than his bite.

I accidentally got on the right side of him when we played Tin Roof Blues early in the first half. I attempted to copy the trombone solo of George Brunies from the (all white) New Orleans Rhythm Kings recording. His face lit up and he said into the mic; "Dat's George Brunies."

Wingy's accent made me think of Jimmy Durante reciting 'The Lost Chord' or Dwayne Doberman in 'Bilko' In other words, someone from the Bronx rather than New Orleans. But then of course he had spent a long time on 'Swing Street' (52 Street) in New York. The natives of New Orleans don't speak like `Gone With The Wind' anyway.

I believe there is an accent in New Orleans associated with the German and Irish third wards that's hard to distinguish from Hoboken, Jersey City and Astoria, Long Island. Obviously the same stock that brought the accent to Manhattan also imposed it on New Orleans.

When the concert, which was well received, was over, Wingy decided that he didn't want to go straight back to his hotel but on to somewhere for a drink and a chat, which pleasantly surprised me. Being a Saturday night, we found a late night drinking pub in Ashton-u-Lyne on the way home. He kept us entertained with stories of Al Capone and his mob in Chicago, and how musicians were treated very well by them. He told us about threatening to stop the band playing, and remonstrating with some sailors one night because they were shouting racist comments about the clarinettist Edmond Hall who was in his band that night, adding to my theory about him wanting to be controversial. I asked him what he thought of Louis Armstrong, and he replied; "Well of course you had to listen to him because he was so good."

Sunday was officially a day off, so I'd had to find him somewhere to play. I couldn't risk another concert in Manchester so I decided to take a chance by putting him on in my own little village of Bardsley, just outside Oldham. There was hardly one jazz fan residing there, but I was accepted by the locals because my dad and all his family grew up there.

Whenever a sing song occurred in one of the pubs, someone would say; "Go fetch thy trombone Dave," which I usually did. I think that's why I've always enjoyed playing melodies. One night I overheard one of the local women talking to a friend saying; "See him over there, he has a jazz band and goes all over 't' place. He's just come back from Tin Pan Alley in America."

Having decided on the village as a venue, I booked the local rugby club. We had to find a piano so that Jon Marks could be part of the band. I had heard a rumour that an anonymous American was storing old upright pianos in a big unused room in the village institute before exporting them as antiques to the USA. I couldn't track him down, so I decided to borrow one without permission.

Jon and I gained entry into the storeroom and sure enough it was packed to the gunnels with old pianos. There wasn't even room to squeeze between them. We had to climb and crawl over them and reach down to check the tuning in the hope of finding one at least in tune with itself. Needless to say, you can guess the one that was anywhere close to our requirement, yes that's right, the one in the middle! We then had to spend an age moving some out in order to get at it. We couldn't of course guarantee it wouldn't deteriorate on its 400 yard journey to its new venue, but at least it wasn't raining. On the promise of two pints each, I recruited four local chaps to help push the piano up the road. That was the easy bit taken care of.

For publicity I decided to throw in everything I could think of to attract an audience, even if they only came out of curiosity: one-armed trumpet player from New Orleans, composer of the Glenn Miller hit, In The Mood, which he had entitled Tar Paper Stomp, personal friend of Bing Crosby, appeared in Hollywood films, and the 'piece de resistance;' he knew and worked for Al Capone and his mob.

Tickets were fifty pence. All the money was to go to Wingy. The posters worked a treat and it was almost a total sell out. Early Sunday morning we drove over to Birch Hall to check how he was getting on. He was the only guest in the whole place and sat looking forlorn, alone in the big lounge. I went home and asked my wife if she would risk having him around for a Sunday dinner before we played. She agreed, so I went back to tell him. His face lit up and he couldn't get out of the hotel quick enough. On arrival at our home, he was very pleasant to all the family. When the meal was over he thanked my wife and told her that that was one of the nicest roast beef dinners that he had ever tasted. It certainly put him in good spirits for the evening ahead.

When we arrived at the club, I think he imagined that he had been transported to a foreign land. He was approached by several locals all asking things such as "Eh' up Wingy. A believe tha' knew Al Capone thee. Wer he o'reet to work for?"

The old piano wasn't as bad as it might have been and Jon Marks did a splendid job of trying to make it sound better. The concert got off to a good start and the audience were very attentive. We'd been playing for about 30 minutes when suddenly the door opened and in walked 'Spanish Fred’.

For those who don't live in the Manchester area I'll try to describe Spanish. His real name was John Basnett and he was a well-known eccentric on the jazz club circuit. He wasn't a musician, but he was like an encyclopaedia on dates and personnel of old Traditional jazz records and films. He tried to live his whole life in the past and anything beyond 1950 was described as 'crud’.

He had sets of clothes for every occasion and loved dressing up. By profession he was a chef and if he was in between jobs, which seemed to be quite often, he would go and join the dole queue in the city centre. There's a story that he often turned up and stood with the rest of the out-of-work gang dressed like Fred Astaire in top hat and tails, spats and sporting a cigarette held in a long holder. He was a big fellow so if he got any snide remarks he would just trade insults with them until they stopped. For this night's appearance he had naturally chosen the classic Chicago gangster look of black pin-striped suit, black shirt, white tie, and a cream fedora hat (of which I am now the proud owner of courtesy of his partner, Doreen), black and white shoes and, of course, the cigarette holder. The look was completed with a spiv's T-moustache, much like Walker in Dad's Army. He reminded me of a big 'masculine' Liberace.

As soon as the band stopped for a break, he strode over to Wingy with a stack of LPs and 78s and said; "Hi Wingy, sign these for us will you kid?" (He called everyone kid.) I think by now poor Wingy thought that we had spiked his dinner and he was hallucinating. He was surrounded by people speaking this strange language, and was now being confronted by this apparition from his speakeasy days. Overall, the evening was a success. The only sour note was that when it was all over he wanted to go back to town, back to the late drinking club for a repeat of Saturday night. I had a job to convince him that Britain was a different place on Sundays, and that everything would be closed down.

For the rest of his tour I remember taking him to a club in Nottingham, very close to Trent Bridge cricket club, and also to Eric Clark's club at Ormsby, St. Margaret. When we arrived, Ian Rose our drummer became ill with food poisoning from some fish and chips that we'd stopped for on the way. Luckily Jon Marks was still with us. He was also a good drummer so was able to take over, although it did deprive us of his Purnell-style piano playing. All in all, Wingy Manone's visit was a worthwhile experience and quite educating for everyone, including the special quest himself.
 

Thomas Jefferson

 

Thomas Jefferson was a great trumpet player, but he was completely bonkers.

We met him with a little band when he arrived at Manchester Piccadilly on the train from London. Tom Stagg had warned me that he wanted to stay in a guest house and would not stay in anyone's home.

Without my knowledge he had been booked into a B&B at Eccles, about six miles from Manchester City Centre, and I lived about ten miles in the opposite direction. I dropped him off and said I would collect him later for the concert. When I collected him I was surprised to see that he was still wearing the same thick woolly shirt that he had arrived in. I commented on this and he explained that he had brought a tuxedo and bow tie with him, but when he played in all the jazz clubs on the continent, everyone was dressed very casually, so from then on he'd just played in the only casual shirt he'd packed. Thomas was received very well even though he talked as much as he played.

The next day I set off with him to Boston. Lincs, to a club run by Ivan Jessop, a fellow trombonist who had a butcher's shop in the nearby village of Kirton. We set off in my little beetle and as it was autumn, I put the heater on. Within a few minutes, as the car warmed up, it was filled with this awful smell and I realised that it was Thomas' shirt. I asked him how long he had been wearing it and he said about six weeks! On reflection, I think I should have told him that it was in need of a wash, but I didn't.

Somewhere around Worksop he had me stop and go to a shop for a six-pack of buns filled with fresh cream, and a carton of milk. He told me that in New Orleans his nickname was 'cake and milk' because that was his main diet. He was convinced that it kept you in good health and gave you longer life. He offered me a bun, which I enjoyed, but if I had had to eat another I think I would have been sick. However, he quickly polished off the other five. He was also a chain smoker and the car's ash tray soon became overflowing with his cigarette ends. When I returned from the shop he had emptied the lot into the gutter right outside the car door. I drove off as quickly as possible before any passing residents had noticed.

Another of his tales was that he was convinced he was the first cousin of Louis Armstrong, even though he was a foot taller. Apparently, Louis saw him in another American city and announced to the audience, "That's my cousin." I thought at the time that it was because he recognised a fellow New Orleanian, but I suppose it could be true.

When I drove him back to Manchester airport for his flight back home, he was still in the same shirt, and I spent the next few days feeling sorry for the passengers around him on that flight.

Thomas came on another visit about a year later. This time he had a wife in tow who he'd picked up in South America (he also had a wife and several children back in New Orleans). She could not speak a word of English and didn't communicate at all. He called her Tao.

Eventually he abandoned her somewhere in Europe and flew back home alone. I heard that Barry Martyn made him go back on the next plane to collect her. I don't know what happened after that.

One day I received a phone call from the late Ken Matthews, the bass player in Newton Abbot. He'd been told that I had had dealings with Jefferson and they were putting him on, but needed a trombone player. When I said that it was a heck of a long way for me to travel for just one concert, he agreed and went on to say that all the money would be going to the guest player and the best he could do for me was to pay my train fare, put me up at his home and offer me a fee of £2. I replied that I couldn't possibly refuse an offer like that, and agreed to do it. John Shillito was to be the other trumpet player, so that made it two people I already knew. On the journey down I kept hoping that Thomas had changed his shirt. He had, and was dressed in a smart blazer and tie (see photo). I think that the clarinettist was Keith Box. The night proved to be very enjoyable, unlike the return train journey the next day.

In those days only a skeleton staff operated on Sundays. My journey back started about 9am on a slow train that stopped at every station on the way to Manchester. The journey took about nine hours. If that wasn't bad enough, it was a non-corridor train so had no buffet car and no toilet and I hadn't brought any food or drink with me.

Somewhere along the way I jumped off to rush to a toilet at a station. I can't remember if I had permission from a guard or just took a chance. I know that it didn't do my nervous system any good. I alighted from the train at Manchester about nine hours later and headed for my car for the final half hour's drive home; I was tired, grubby, hungry and thirsty and in need of another toilet visit. My consoling thought was that my £2 fee was still safe in my wallet, ready for a visit to the bank on Monday. My next thought was: Who'd quit show business? or as the great Frank Brooker says when things aren't going as he planned, "Yep, there's no business like it."

I would like to mention that, to my knowledge, not one of the American musicians featured in this series ever touched alcohol. I do know that some were reformed alcoholics, but I didn't think it was my right to pry into their personal lives. It was obviously important to them to preserve their high standard of professionalism and to be able to keep touring.

 

Sam Lee

Reed player Sam first came to the attention of people in Europe when he toured with a band called the Louisiana Joymakers. The front line was himself and Sammy Rimington, also on reeds.

Born in Louisiana, Sam moved to New Orleans in 1926, where he played clarinet and tenor sax. He was very pleasantly eccentric, and was a pleasure to have around. He had his own strange way of talking in that at the end of each sentence he added a string of strange noises, like - Yow wow bow wow, bow yow wow. At college he met and became good friends with alto player, the great Earl Bostic.

Sam arrived to us accompanied by Ken Pitchford who had taken over from Tom Stagg. Ken told us a story about driving Sam up into the mountains when he was in California. Sam saw snow for the first time and was so excited that he said he had to take some back to show his friend Purnell, who he said had also never seen snow. He scooped handfuls into the boot of his car and drove straight to Purnell's house. When Alton opened the door, Sam exclaimed; "Purnell, come and see this quickly. Yow wow yow bow wow." Of course, when the boot was opened, all that remained was a puddle of water. He stared in dismay at the scene, then pointed at the boot and mumbled, "Yow wow bow wow yow wow!"

Round about this time we had a good friend staying with us for a few days. During a social evening I put on an LP of Earl Bostic, which I had recently purchased. Included on it was his hit parade single 'Flamingo'. My friend scowled at this sound, and asked me if I would put on some real New Orleans music. I pointed out that Earl Bostik was a native of New Orleans, so it was New Orleans music. My friend grumbled 'You know what I mean,' and had me put on some older style revivalist band, which he obviously enjoyed much more.

By sheer coincidence, only about a month later, Sam Lee was with us to do a little tour, as was our aforementioned friend, who had asked if he could stay with us again in order To hear Sam Lee play.

Because I thought that it might be of interest to Sam, I once again put on the Earl Bostic L.P. Sam's eyes instantly lit up. 'You Bow Wow' he exclaimed excitedly 'That's my friend Earl. We went to College together.' On hearing this, our other guest grabbed the record cover and handed it to me, saying, 'Say Dave, where can I get a copy of this record?

There's now't as queer as folk.

 

Wallace Davenport

Wallace came from a different musical background than most of the other visitors; he had been the musical director of the famous Ray Charles Orchestra. At that time my knowledge of Ray Charles went no further than listening to his two Country & Western hits on the radio: Hank Williams' Take These Chains, and Don Gibson's I Can't Stop Loving You. Trumpeter Wendell Brunious has since educated me on arrangements by Wallace for Ray, and pointed out his trumpet on the recordings. I stole one arrangement to play and record the song, Makes No Difference Now, from the album 'Ray Charles sings Country and Western.

After leaving Ray Charles, Wallace returned to New Orleans in order to play what he called "Dixieland with Dignity".

Tom Stagg, who organised the visit, had told me that Wallace also didn't want to be anyone's house guest, so I booked him in at a guest house only a couple of miles away. Tom arrived by car with his wife and daughter and a friend, Alan Ward. We drove out to Manchester Airport to collect Wallace from the plane, dropped him off at his B&B, then Tom and co. stayed with us.

Wallace was booked at Rotherham with the Brennan Band. At Manchester with my band, and a Sunday night concert at Leeds, organised by John Wall, which I played on, although I think it was mainly the Brennan personnel.

At that time, trumpet player Dave Pogson led a band called The Magnolia, which had a residency at a pub in Oldham called the Grey Horse. Jack, the landlord, was a magistrate in the town, and an alcoholic, as were most of the regulars. The pub was a real grotty old boozer with a carpet that had long since turned into compost. Another carpet had been put over the top of it and was quickly heading the same way. I took a friend in there once who was a probation officer. As soon as he entered the pub, he looked around and exclaimed; "Bloody hell! Half my case load is in here tonight."

Lots of after-time drinking went on when the band finished. It was not unusual to see several policemen outside watching us walk to our cars. I think that Jack had an arrangement with them that as long as there was no trouble, he was allowed to continue plying his trade.

That part of Oldham was a rough strip, a bit like the Bowery. Opposite the Grey Horse was a pub that had a resident piano player who was excellent, and was as cross-eyed as Ben Turpin, the silent film actor. His name was Skennin' Benny Henny. In the band's intervals I would cross the road to look at and listen to him.

Wallace had accepted an invitation to Sunday dinner, so I invited him to the Grey Horse lunchtime session before we ate. He declined an invitation to sit-in with the band, so I asked him to judge an Easter bonnet competition.

Here is a photo of him with these ladies, all wearing flowery hats and some with missing teeth.

It being Easter, we had a request for a hymn, which I led in. On the way home Wallace said that he would like to record some hymns and spirituals, and invited me to be on the recording. Naturally I was thrilled and flattered, bearing in mind his status and history. We didn't discuss any more details, so I suppose that I just waited for the airline ticket and contract to come in the post without any further effort from me.

The Grey Horse eventually became 'Mabel's Chippy' and is now another kind of restaurant. I went several times for a sit-inside meal when it was a fish and chip shop, and could see the ghosts of all the famous musicians who dropped in there. I thought that there should be a plaque on the wall, but the names would not mean anything to most people. 

On a visit to New Orleans about 20 years later I saw this stooped old man with a zimmer frame, slowly making his way out of a jazz joint on Bourbon Street and entering another. I asked the lady on the door of the club he'd left, if he was Wallace Davenport. When she confirmed that he was, I hurried down the street to intercept him. I re-introduced myself and expected him to say; "Dave, at last you're here. I was almost giving up on you." Instead though, he looked puzzled and eventually said; "Sorry, I vaguely remember the name of a bandleader in the north of England, but I think his name was Dave Brennan." It still hurts.

Dave Donohoe
2021

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