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MO UMANSKY

Photo of Mo Umansky

Mo Umansky
© Photograph courtesy of Mo Umansky

Maurice ‘Mo’ Umansky was born on June 19th 1934 in Eltham, London. He loathed the name Maurice and by the time he was ten or so, had persuaded all his friends to call him Mo.

His parents, and most of his family were killed by a bomb when he was five and while he was away, having been evacuated on his own from London. 'I left by train with hundreds of other kids and a small suitcase and a gas mask in a cardboard box, and moved to various homes around the country, some nice and some really not so nice.'

Relatives in South London brought him up. They had no interest in music apart from the Billy Cotton Band Show, that Mo had to suffer on the radio every Sunday afternoon. However, when he was 14, Mo went to Woolwich Polytechnic, around the corner from which was a specialist Jazz Record shop owned by Owen Bryce (trumpet player with George Webb’s Dixielanders) and run by jazz critic James Asman.

'I think I probably spent most of my lunch hours in the shop and all my available money from my paper rounds on buying jazz records. These were mainly Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens, Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith and a few early blues singers such as Huddie Leadbetter; there was little else available to buy at that time, apart from American imports, which I was unable to afford. I also regularly went to see the George Webb Band, who frequently played in the area at that time. Apart from Sid Phillips on Jazz Club there was no jazz on English radio and I listened to French programmes and the American Armed Forces Network.'

'I really can’t remember why I chose to play banjo but I suspect it was a lack of money and the fact that when I was about fifteen I found a very cheap, naff banjo in a local second hand shop.'

Mo taught himself to play, principally by listening to the Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens and about a year or so later, playing a lot of cards with friends over the summer, he managed to raise enough cash to buy a decent instrument. He played with various local amateur players and 'made a general nuisance of myself by trawling round all the local pubs and clubs armed with my banjo and inflicting myself on any bands prepared to put up with me.'

'Around the age of 20, a friend told me that Sandy was looking for a banjo player to complete his London band. I was told he could be found on a particular evening of the week at the Ken Colyer Club in Old Compton Street. Never having seen him, all I new was that he sported a beard, and arriving at the entrance to the club a large bearded person was standing outside the door. I said to this person “I understand you need a banjo player”, to which he replied, “My man, I’ve never needed a banjo player". I later found out the person in question was the late Kenny Graham whose very modernist Afro Cuban band (for the time), could certainly do without a banjo player. I did finally manage to locate Sandy who gave me a brief audition on his own. He seemed so impressed that I knew what a diminished chord was and could actually play one that he took me on.'

Mo recalls his time with the Sandy Brown band (these recollections first appeared in the Sandy Brown Newsletter of November 2003):

‘One one occasion, we were appearing out of town at one of those gigs in a town hall type of venue with a large stage replete with curtains. As the curtains drew back to reveal the band, the audience was blessed with the sight of Sandy’s backside as he scrabbled on his hands and knees under the piano for one of his clarinet keys which had flown off when he started to play. This was followed by a general mêlée as the band joined in the search until the key was found and we could all start playing. The reason for the key parting from Sandy’s clarinet was that he just hadn’t got round to getting the damaged key repaired and it had been secured for some time with an elastic band which had finally given up the ghost.’

‘This episode particularly enraged Graham Burbidge who was incensed because a short while previously, when we were all in the van travelling to the gig, Graham raised a subject very dear to his heart about how the band was totally unprofessional in appearance. How come all the other rival bands looked so professional and well turned out? Why couldn’t we all look a little less scruffy on stage? Why didn’t we perform in a band uniform? Why didn’t we stop holding pints of beer and fags in our hands while playing, and a lot of other suggestions of similar ilk, all of which were fairly alien to Sandy’s nature. This outburst had been precipitated by Sandy’s performance at the previous gig, on the evening of Hogmanay when Sandy, true to his Scots blood, had found it quite difficult to remain in an upright position on stage.’

‘I also 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.’

‘Then there was the time when I arrived to play at the Wood Green Fishmongers’ Arms only to find that I was without my banjo! It was still residing in the back room of an Old Compton Street restaurant where many of us used to store our instruments when we weren’t playing. I rushed back to retrieve it, and just managed to get back in time for the second set, but I felt pretty stupid and wasn’t a very popular person that evening. I would add that this episode has been a recurrent nightmare of mine over the years.’
Photograph of the Fishmongers Arms

 

The Fishmongers’ Arms, Wood Green, 1906

 

 

Mo takes up the story at his departure from the Sandy Brown Band: ‘Shortly after leaving Sandy, I married and had children, needed to earn money and realised I couldn’t survive as a professional musician. As I had served a full engineering apprenticeship, I took a full-time job as a design engineer. After a few years I switched to technical writing, principally because I was able to work freelance, largely from home. I eventually started up my own consultancy company, which finally became reasonably successful in the 1990s and secured a number of prestigious contracts, both in the U.K. and overseas – including all the documentation for the new Norman Foster designed Hong Kong airport. I have now retired and resigned my directorship, but I still continue to do occasional consultancy work.’

‘I still carried on with music but switched to string bass for about 5 years gigging around South London with small dance band combos, which provided the bread and butter for the semi-pro musician way back then, with odd gigs with local modern jazz musicians playing a Jazz Messengers sort of pad. Like most other players I switched to electric bass in the early sixties. I then formed a soul band which lasted for about 5 years and did 3 or 4 gigs a week around the college circuit and the London club circuit – Scots of St James, Revolution, Samantha’s, etc. Although we were a semi-pro band, it was a pro-circuit and the gigs included support to many English pro-bands and visiting Americans.Photo of Mo Umansky Band

 

‘I took a break for a couple of years and then re-continued, with my second wife on keyboards and vocals and we formed various incarnations of soul bands. At one gig at an Art College a then unknown Sex Pistols (I think it was their second gig) were our support band.'

 

Mo (with the 'Viva Zapata' moustache), Kaye, and the rest of the soul band.
© Photo courtesy of Mo Umansky

' We continued playing until the mid-eighties, at which point we decided to pack it in, ‘cos never being able to afford roadies we couldn’t take any more humping the gear around. I went back to concentrating on my business and my wife switched to children’s writing, a career in which she has since been very successful. I now just listen and occasionally berate my daughter to join a band and resume playing tenor and clarinet, which she hasn’t had time to touch since leaving university. She is a natural player and worked with the Haringey Young Big Band and the Haringey Young Symphony Orchestra for about 5 years. She particularly likes big band jazz as well as contemporary jazz and pop.

Photo of Mo Umansky and family

Mo with his daughter Ella and wife Kaye
© Photo courtesy of Mo and Kaye Umansky

Mo is married to Kaye Umansky, a very well know children’s author of books that include The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow, Solomon Snow and The Stolen Jewel and Witches in Stitches, and he has designed Kaye’s very enjoyable website at www.kayeumansky.com

Mo can be heard playing banjo with the Sandy Brown Band on track 16 'Nobody's Sweetheart' of Lake CD LACD260 'The Al Fairweather Collection 1953-1957'; and on 'Sandy Brown's Jazz Band/ Sandy's Sidemen' Lake LACD133

© Mo Umansky and Ian Maund 2008-2015

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