Drummer Alan Jones in Australia looks back at working on the cruise ships and some of the musicians he met:
In 1958, I was in the middle of a summer season at the Palace Ballroom, Blackpool. One morning the bandleader, Ken Turner, came around to the digs where we were having breakfast and asked if I wanted to go to Canada. The Blackpool Tower Co. helped me get together my drums and personal gear and I was on the train to Liverpool.
A Cunard limousine plus driver and official met me and, at 5pm that afternoon, I was on board the RMS Carinthia sailing down the Mersey. The Carinthia was one of four smaller Cunard ships built for the migrant run to Montreal.
I was in the Quartet and we were in First Class, a quite small part of the ship, there was also a Quintet in Tourist. We ate in the passenger dining room which was excellent and we had very comfortable accommodation. I went on the Ivernia in 1959 for eight round trips to Montreal, this time in the five-piece. Musically, it wasn’t a jazz gig. We played three times a day, regular dance music of the times and selections from the shows in the lounge. No influence of any pop at all.
(The ship that was used in the film Carry On Cruising)
At the beginning of 1962, I returned to the Ivernia for three trips to New York. The weather was pretty rough crossing the Atlantic, but we had four days off in New York City and there was lots happening. Bed and board on the ship left us money to enjoy the music scene. I love big bands and the first I saw was Maynard Ferguson at Birdland. I was going through my bop phase. Gene Krupa was at The Metropole and the Basie Band at the Jazz Gallery in the Village. Too many others to mention and a great experience. I met Dill Jones, who was working out his Union Card and had a day job in Macy’s record dept.
After doing work at Mecca and some theatres, I went back on the boats in 1963 after a summer season in Southsea (Kings Theatre). The ship was P&O Chusan. We had a five piece which I was in, plus a trio. On Cunard we always worked in the same room but on P&O I was constantly moving my drums to different parts of the ship. We still played three times a day. The ship was on the Hong Kong and Japan run, which was 10 weeks round trip, then other trips to Australia, Hawaii and the west coast of the States. When in Hong Kong, I sat in with American clarinettist Tony Scott who organised Sunday jam sessions. Many musicians from the hotel and military service bands were participating.
Playing with Tony Scott in 1964.
Photo courtesy of Alan Jones
My final trip on that ship was five months long and ended in March 1966. It was then that I played on the Oronsay cruising out of Southampton. The Alex Welsh Band joined for a three week trip around the Greek Islands. As I remember Alex had Roy Williams, Johnny Barnes, Fred Hunt, Ron Mathewson and Lennie Hastings. I can’t remember if Jim Douglas was with them at that time. We (the ship’s quintet) alternated with them. The Welsh Band and their families travelled First Class.
Roy Williams, Alex Welsh and John Barnes on the 1966 cruise
Photo © Alan Jones
We had some hilarious after hours drinks. I remember Lennie taking off his ‘Irish’ (‘Irish Jig’ – ‘Wig’) and wearing it as a beard. Several times Fred, with our bass player and myself, went to the (deserted) first class lounge and played for our own amazement.
Lennie Hastings, Ron Mathewson and Fred Hunt on the 1966 cruise
Photo © Alan Jones
I got quite friendly with Fred after that and my fiancée (now wife of 46 years) and I were invited to Fred and Brenda’s mews flat. The whole band was there to watch a ‘Jazz 625’ broadcast featuring them backing, I think, Bud Freeman. We were a bit bemused by the fact that they were collecting and playing Richard Tauber 78’s. Were they kidding?
After a few more trips on the Oronsay my new wife and I decided to settle in Sydney where I have managed to exist as a pro musician since 1967.
By the way, I did my National Service in the Signals Band in Catterick ‘52 – ‘56. Prior to that I was in a group called not surprisingly, The Catterick Jazz Band (my father was stationed there). One morning I was told that Sandy Brown and Stan Greig were passing through and having a blow at the NAAFI club. So I participated. Don’t remember much about it but, apparently, I did play with Sandy Brown. A long time ago.
Trumpeter John Codd tells us this story about the first band he played in:
It must have been about 1948 when some friends of mine formed a band. We had nowhere to play so we used to practice in the public toilets in Welling, Kent.
One day we decided to all go to Allhallows-on-Sea for the day. We got down to Gravesend, and then caught this funny little train running on a single line to Allhallows. We started to play on the beach, and were approached by the owner of the only café there to play from about 4.00 p.m. till 7.30 p.m.
This seemed to go down very well, and we were then approached by the landlord of the only Pub in Allhallows which was completely undeveloped at the time. He wanted us to play in the pub straight from the cafe until 11.30 p.m. Now this meant that we were unable to get back home at this time of night, so the landlord went along to his friend who happened to be the stationmaster, and arranged accommodation for us on a train that was stationed there overnight - providing we got out before it left at 8.00 a.m. the next morning. We managed this, and our only reward for playing was food at the café and beer at the pub! Happy days.
Sax player Pete Cook read our 'On The Road' page and says: I'm playing as much (1940s/50s) vintage Rhythm & Blues as jazz these days and consequently have written about road stories a few times.' Pete tells the following story:
'The lengendary tenor saxist Lester Young was a deeply superstitious man and would be very reluctant to board a plane if there was a wheelchair-bound passenger on board. Lester maintained that these ‘Johnny Deathbeds’ were a bad omen but that a baby was a good omen and cancelled out a Johnny Deathbed. Well, while waiting at the gate at Toulouse airport for a very delayed flight, no fewer than three wheelchair-bound passengers were wheeled up to the desk for boarding. I immediately sent a text message to my chum John Day saying ‘Three JDBs on my flight. Never thought I’d be so glad of screaming kids on the plane’. John’s reply was priceless (and true): ‘Last week at Berlin, same flight as Aussie wheelchair basketball team – 15 JDBs’.
You can visit Pete's website and blog at: www.petecooksax.com
Pianist and bass player Ron Rubin tells the story of the stride piano player who, when the band checked in at a hotel, asked if he could have room 56. Everyone, including the receptionist looked surprised. 'Why room 56?' asked a musician. 'Oh, I was here a year ago, and I really liked the room,' replied the pianist.
Fortunately room 56 was free. Ron tells how on reaching room 56, the first thing the pianist did was to get down on his hands and knees and reach under the wardrobe. From right at the back he pulled out half a bottle of whisky he had left there a year before. 'It didn't say much for the standard of cleaning at the place!' said Ron.
The other morning, around 9.30, I was driving into Cheddar (Somerset). In the car park of the village football ground I saw that a motorhome and a large red van had parked up overnight.
On the back of the red van was written: whoopee nd.de
I recognised the internet address of the Whoopee Band, even though two letters had gone missing. I drove into the car park. The motorhome was completely closed up, shutters down. The sliding side door of the bandwagon was open. Outside, a scattering of things including a camping table with the leftovers of a red wine bottle and glasses. I parked, walked over to the van and called out 'Hello?'
From somewhere deep at the back a woman's voice replied: 'I'm in bed'.
I needed to choose my next line carefully: 'I'm sorry. I wondered if you were anything to do with Bob Kerr's band?'
A moment later, the woman appeared wrapped in a duvet.
'I saw the name on the back of the van,' I stumbled, 'and wondered if you were anything to do with Bob Kerr's Whoopee Band?'
'Oh that!,' she said. 'We bought the van off a man in Norwich about eighteen months ago. I think he had something to do with a band.'
'I thought they might be on the road,' I said, although by now the set up seemed pretty unlikely to support that theory. 'Sorry to get you out of bed.'
'No problem,' said the woman, and added: 'I'll have a word with my son about leaving the van door open. Tell the man his van is still going strong'.
I walked back to the car, turned and wished her a good summer, and wished too that I could have interviewed the van - it must have had stories to tell.
Bob Kerr says:
' Hi Ian. I think that was one of my old band wagons, good to know it is still going strong. We do change band wagons every so often - with all the travelling we do the mileage builds up. One VW minibus we had clocked up over 600 thousand miles before we had to let it go. I usually drive the band wagon to all the gigs and the band fly via Rynair as this is so much cheaper than taking the guys with me, it also gives them more time at home as they fly on the day of the gig and fly back the day after the last gig of a tour. We might look crazy but I can assure you it is all carefully planned!'
The sleek black stretch limousine slowed silently to a stop outside The Ivy. The chauffeur stepped from the car, quietly closing the door behind him with a scarcely audible ‘clop’. Automatically he checked the highly polished bodywork that sparkled with the reflected lights from the restaurant. You could not see through the tinted windows of the limo, but if you could have seen the luxurious interior, you would have seen the freshly laundered striped waistcoats and brushed bowler hats hanging on pegs above the personalised mini-bars with their distinctive gold initials – AB, BT, AF, JM ….
Inside the restaurant, the chauffeur spoke quietly to the maître d'. ‘Be sure to get to the restaurant by 7.45 p.m.’, they had said. ‘The band wants to be on stage ready to play at the scheduled time, 8.30 p.m., they don’t like to start the gig late,’ The Organisation would have already set up the equipment and done the sound checks.
The maître d' walked over to the tables where the musicians sat like the gentlemen they were in their newly tailored dinner jacket suits from Hawkes and Gieves in Savile Row. He spoke politely to the man with the beard.
‘Right, chaps,’ said the bandleader. ‘Time to go. Leave your drinks, there are plenty more in the car.’
The musicians rose immediately, a disciplined team, left the restaurant and climbed into the limousine. The bandleader thanked the maître d', pressing a generous tip into his hand.
At home, the Events Organiser woke from her sleep in a cold sweat, her nightdress soaked. She was already reaching for the phone to call the agent when she realised it had all been a bad nightmare. She had not been sleeping well lately.
In the real world, I remember going to hear the award winning Kit Downes at the end of 2009. The trio, Kit, Callum Gourlay and James Maddren had arrived in good time at the pub, driving down from London during the afternoon. They had set up their kit in the room where they were to play. Nobody else was there, so they had bought fish and chips wrapped in newspaper from the Chippy next door and sat on the wall outside, waiting for someone to turn up.
The reality of being on the road ... how many stories, how many memories there must be. What are yours? Jack Kerouac wrote: ‘I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps uptairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds.’ (Jack Kerouac, On The Road, Part 1, Ch.3).
Mo Umansky, banjo player with Sandy Brown’s band recalls:
‘I remember playing at a Roman-themed fancy dress party for the BBC Television Drama Department. When we arrived we were met with a hall full of punters who had been given the run of the BBC’s Costume Department and were thus resplendent in Centurion outfits, Gladiator gear and generally very authentic looking Roman attire. We were ushered to the dressing room and told we were also required to be dressed as Romans and would be given Roman fancy dress wear. Sandy went off to collect it all and returned clutching half a dozen white sheets and a handful of safety pins. These were our ‘costumes’ and we had to strip and don the sheets to appear as Roman Senators. We all felt pretty stupid, since everyone else was so beautifully turned out while we just looked like six people wearing sheets that gradually kept slipping down’.
Sharing rooms with snoring musicians whose socks smelt so terrible that both the room and the socks should have been condemned? Travelling on a prayer in bandwagons that had a 50 : 50 chance of making it, or in a car being driven crazily by a musician who also had a 50 : 50 chance of making it? Driving miles to a gig and playing to only two people - who both left early? Arriving somewhere to be met by the local jazz band when you stepped off the plane and having to stand there exhausted until the band finished playing and then being expected to join them in the bar? Does this ring a bell? Please contact us with your ‘on the road’ stories.
© Sandy Brown Jazz 2012 - 2014