Reminiscing In Tempo - Dennis Munday on the Jazz Greats Part one

Written by Dennis Munday
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reminiscing in tempo zani on the jazz greats dennis mundayMy reputation for what it’s worth is having worked with The Jam, The Style Council, and Paul Weller. I was 29 and had been working at Polydor for 5 years, before this I worked at the original HMV store at 363 Oxford Street, now sadly gone. Although I knew a lot about ‘Pop’ music, HMV hired me because I was knowledgeable about jazz music.

When I started at Polydor I had the title of, Assistant to the Tape Marketing Manager, which loosely translated meant I was a ‘dogsbody’. The job wasn’t that great, but I would have sold my Soul to work for a major record company, as it had been an ambition for a long time. A year later fate took a hand; Simon Gee who I had first encountered at HMV was Polydor’s Jazz A & R Manager and had decided to further his career elsewhere. Luckily, he put my name in the frame and after several interviews, I was duly appointed. This came as a great relief as I wanted a ‘proper’ job, having said that what I learnt during the first year proved invaluable throughout my career.

Polydor had recently done a deal with Norman Granz for his new jazz label Pablo Records and this promotion brought me into contact with some of the greatest exponents of jazz music. I went on to work with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson, and many others.

During my early teens, my oldest friend turned me on to the Blues and as far as Pop music went, I was into the Stones and R ‘n’ B, rather than the Beatles. I first started listening to jazz around 1964, when a more enlightened chum turned me onto Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, and Stan Getz. When I left school like most of the teenagers at the time, I joined the new model army, The Mods and clad in one of my coloured Mohair suits, did the rounds of the local clubs and pubs. At the weekends we would bomb up to Soho to visit the Flamingo, Whiskey-A-Go-Go, Marquee, 100 club, La Discotheque, Tiles (my fave), and many other London clubs.

n/reminiscing in tempo zani on the jazz greats the 100 club dennis munday.j
The person that influenced me more than any other artist or group during this period was the ‘Guv’nor’, Georgie Fame, one of the greatest Mod icons. Fame's music had a heavy jazz influence, as well as playing R ‘n’ B, Ska, (decades before the two-tone brigade), Soul and Blues. At the time Mitch Mitchell was Fame’s drummer, who would go on to greater fame (sic) as a third of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Like Fame, many other groups featured a jazz instrumental of one kind or another, Fame played Jimmy McGriff’s ‘All About My Girl’, Graham Bond’s Organisation played Ramsey Lewis’s ‘Wade In The Water’, and Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band featured Jimmy Smith’s ‘The Cat’. Incidentally, Money’s rhythm section featured a certain Andy Summers on guitar, who went on the become a third of the Police.

Fame’s influence was such that I went out and bought a Hammond organ and fully expected to be the ‘English’ Jimmy Smith within months, if not days. After a couple of years of hard slog, even though I was a good reader of music, I realised I didn’t have the ‘ears’ and quit learning to play the organ. By this time, I was working at HMV and had decided to pursue a career in the music business, although I must say, if I hadn’t have come across Georgie Fame and his music, my career wouldn’t have happened.

Whenever I speak about jazz music to my many friends and acquaintances who all like music, they often state; “Can’t listen to jazz, to complicated, don’t understand what they’re playing.” Comments like this have always irritated me, as people think you need a degree to listen to jazz, which is far from the truth. Most of the musicians who played jazz came from a working class, blue-collar background and if anything, were under educated, with many leaving school to go on the road before they were 16.

Now, if you don’t need to be educated to play jazz, why do you need to be educated to listen to jazz. Take me, I grew up on a Council estate in Plumstead and went to a secondary modern school in Abbey Wood, which I left at the age of 16 to go out into the world and earn a living. I actually wanted to go to university, but my father decided that it was time I earned my keep.

reminiscing in tempo zani on the jazz greats  charlie parker dennis munday 3I really enjoyed listening to jazz, but in 1964, the ten-shillings a week I earned from my paper round didn’t stretch to buying records. However, the local library in Woolwich had a fair collection and one day I borrowed a Verve compilation entitled, The Pick Of Parker.  Prior to this, I’d read about Charlie Parker and Bird Lives was plastered on rail and tube station walls. I glossed over the track listing of standards and originals, and noticed that there was a version of Johnny Mercer & Victor Schertzinger’s, ‘I Remember You’, which the Australia yodeller Frank Ifield (crap) had a number one record with in 1962.

I listened to the intro, which was played at a brisk pace, took in the first couple of verses and recall that I wasn’t duly impressed by what I’d heard (the phrase arse‘ole comes to mind reading this back). ‘Bird’ had a lovely tone, but I wondered what the fuss was about this alto saxophonist. When the tune reached the middle eight, Parker took off and played a breathtaking solo that rocketed into the stratosphere. I was mesmerised, I’d never heard anything quite like this, it was a real bristle brush experience, and to this day, I’ve never experienced a feeling about any other music as I did at that moment. Now there is no doubt that Parker is one of the great innovators, if not the greatest in jazz music, however I liked his music even though I didn’t understand it, because it sounded soddin’ great and above all, it moved me.  

Since its inception, jazz music has been intellectualised into an early grave by over educated scribes and journalist who wrote articles that bore very little resemblance to the gigs they were watching, or the music they were hearing on record. The great pianist Bill Evans summed jazz music up succinctly when he said; “It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It's not, its feeling.” And that is what all music is - a feeling, it should affect the heart first and the head last of all. I have always said there are only two kinds of music in the world - what you like and what you don’t like, the rest is bullshit.

Reminiscing In Tempo is about my experiences working with some of the jazz greats, although I’m not going to talk about their music as better writers than me have covered this extensively. What I want to do is give the reader an insight into what kind of individual they were, and that they were ‘real’ characters. I was very fortunate that these talented artists took to me, as I was in my early twenties and fully expected them to reject me as a young ‘pup’. This didn’t happen, mainly because of my enthusiasm for their music, and I was able to see these great artists recording in the studios and go on the road with them, and I was extremely lucky as I attended the 1975 and 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival’s - working of course.

/reminiscing in tempo zani on the jazz greats  bill evans dennis munday.
First up is Norman Granz, who is now considered the greatest producer/entrepreneur of jazz music. He was a rare individual, who not only respected the musicians; he paid them fairly and never ripped an artist off during his 60-year career.

Norman had three goals in life, one, to fight against racism, two, to give listeners a good product and three, to earn money from good music,” and with a single-minded tenacity he achieved these three goals. There was hardly a jazz artiste that he didn’t work with, and Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, Roy Eldridge, Art Tatum, Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins, Joe Pass, Milt Jackson, and Ben Webster, are a few of the great artistes who recorded for Norman. With Verve Records, he created one of the most important jazz labels, which chronicled the history of modern jazz.

Now, when it came to meeting this man my sphincter gave me serious problems, I knew from his reputation he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and I wasn’t sure how he would take to having a young label manager. Although looking forward to the meeting, I was a little apprehensive and when Norman arrived, I was surprised by his appearance, he didn’t have two heads or breathe fire. He was immaculately attired in a Saville Row suit, Anderson & Shepherd shirt and tie, and Gucci loafers - scuffed and unpolished Having a bit of shoe fetish, I recall thinking, how can you pay a fortune for a great pair of shoes and never polish them .At first, he seemed taken aback by my youthful demeanour and we discussed the forthcoming Pablo releases. When the meeting ended, Norman seemed to take to me, I was less anxious and it boded well for my future in the record business.

eminiscing in tempo zani on the jazz greats  norman  dennis mundayWhat sets Norman apart from all other jazz producers and entrepreneurs was his stand to end segregation that permeated the clubs and music halls in America. From the mid-forties through the turbulent Fifties and into the more liberal Sixties, Norman was a one-man army in the fight against racism. When it came to segregation and prejudice, it wasn’t the marches Norman attended; he fought the battle on the front line, with the very people who suffered the stigma of having a different coloured skin. Often his defiant stance would jeopardise his own life, but whatever the personal consequences were, when it came to fighting discrimination, Norman never took a backward step during his career.

Norman’s obduracy often put his life in jeopardy and on one occasion, even though a police officer was pointing a loaded pistol at him, Norman insisted that a white cab driver take one of his black artistes. Norman even went as far as cancelling a sold-out show in New Orleans because the theatre insisted on segregating the audience.

At an Ella Fitzgerald concert in Houston Texas, Norman personally removed the ‘White’ and ‘Negro’ labels that would have separated the audience in the auditorium, ensuring that the white fans mixed with black fans. Between the shows, the musicians were playing cards in the dressing room, without warning three detectives burst in, took the money, and arrested everybody. When the cops made a move towards the bathroom, Norman blocked their way and one of the detectives asked; "What are you doing here?"  He replied; "Watching you, I want to make sure you're not going to plant something."  The detective, pressing his revolver into Norman’s stomach, said; "I ought to kill you."  "Well," Norman replied; "…if you're going to shoot me, I mean, shoot me”.

The cops decided to take everyone down to the local police station; Norman told them; “3000 tickets have been sold for the second show; you're going to have the biggest uprising you've ever had. I’m going to go out on stage and tell them the concert is cancelled, and then I'm going to tell them why it's cancelled."

The stand-off ended and the cops arrested Norman, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet, and Ella's assistant. When the press found out they besieged the police station, a reporter asked Dizzy for his name and he nonchalantly replied, ‘Louis Armstrong’, which appeared in some papers. Norman facilitated a compromise, paid the $50 bail and they returned to the auditorium, but not before one of the detectives asked Ella for her autograph. Norman’s lawyers had the charges dismissed, not only that he got the bail money back, however, this victory came at a price. The cost of the legal fees and phone bills personally cost Norman over $2000.

Norman also financed non-jazz concerts featuring Leonard Cohen, the Mothers Of Inventions, Yves Montand, and Richie Havens. This might seem strange to some, however, in the early seventies, when discussing the possibility of touring Ornette Coleman [avant-garde jazz and quite unlistenable – dm], Norman stated; “My reaction to his music is zero – whether it’s some lack on my part or not, I really don’t know. On the other hand I don’t care for what the Mother Of Inventions are doing either, but I feel strongly that certain artistes at least deserve to be heard.”

/reminiscing in tempo zani on the jazz greats dennis munday 22
Norman was very caring and incredibly patient with his artiste’s peccadilloes, particularly Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday, whose heroin addictions caused him many problems.  Although he once had a go about Billie, angrily stating; “Why should I sympathise because of her childhood, Mickey Cohen [a Mafia Godfather] and I came from the same area in Boyle Heights [Los Angeles]. Mickey Cohen became a gangster. Nobody forced him to become a gangster.” 

Norman was a hard taskmaster and feared by many, including the musicians who worked for him. However, he understood what the musicians were trying to achieve and he gave them the freedom to play the music they wanted. When you record music that is spontaneous, there’s no guarantee how the recordings will turn out, and whether it was Verve or Pablo, there are more good records than bad, and considering how many sessions Norman produced, this in itself is a great achievement.

What Norman did for black jazz musicians in helping to break down colour prejudice in a country that ignored the most basic of human rights, allows him to stand shoulder to shoulder with the great Civil Rights’ leaders. This was at a time when Afro American wasn’t thought of, to Norman you were either a ‘black cat’ or a ‘white cat’ [in jazz speak cat means a musician] and his musicians were kittens belonging to the same litter.

reminiscing in tempo zani on the jazz greats  norman  granz dennis munday 888.Norman suffered from glaucoma, a condition treatable with laser technology, during a conversation I asked why he hadn’t had the complaint treated. He replied; “If I have the treatment I will have to take a year off.” I riposted; “What’s a year out of your life to going blind?”  He looked wistfully down at his loafers and simply stated; “Dennis, everybody has to pay their dues sometime during their life.”  Norman never had the condition treated, and by the time he reached his seventies, he was virtually blind. Throughout his career, Norman trod, no stamped on people’s toes, particularly the garrulous overpaid record company executives who were long on ego, but short on talent. Strangely, his achievements went unrecognised until he was in the winter of his career.

 In 1994, at the age of 76, The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave Norman their ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award. He declined the award simply saying; “I think you guys are a little late.” And late they were. I suspect that these kind of ‘gong’s’ didn’t concern Norman, and even if they had offered him something earlier in his career, he wouldn’t have felt any different. Norman attained everything that he set out to achieve, without compromising his principles and he did it his way.

As far as I am concerned, Norman’s greatest achievement was to take jazz music out of back-street clubs, saloons, and segregated dance halls, places that were run by crooks and shysters who were bigoted and ripped off both, Black and white musicians. Almost single-handedly, Norman forced people to respect jazz music and jazz musicians the same way they respected the great classical musicians. He made it possible for them to appear in the very same concert halls all over the world, and he achieved all of this when racism was at its most rampant in America. The records he produced over six decades and his championing of black and white jazz artistes left not only an immense legacy of jazz music, but also a giant footprint in American culture.

In the music business, you can count the people I respect on a hand with three fingers, and Norman was one of them. Even now, I still have to pinch myself to make sure it was me working with Norman and all those great jazz musicians, not many people can say; ‘I worked with a true icon of jazz’.

Oscar Peterson was a jazz pianist of leviathan stature, he stood well over 6ft tall and weighed around 20 stone, with an ego to match.When it came to meeting the great man, for some reason I wasn’t nervous and I found him to be extremely friendly, courteous and coincidentally we shared the same birthday.

Oscar was always immaculately dressed and like Norman acquired his suits from Saville Row, and I cannot recollect him being casually dressed. He was also a very generous person as many a hotel Captain will tell you. Whenever we went out to dine Oscar insisted on picking up the tab, even though I could have charged it to my expense account.
reminiscing in tempo zani on the jazz greats t oscar peterson dennis munday.
He also possessed a wicked sense of humour, which I was on the end of many times. On one occasion, I met up with him at the Dorchester Hotel and he invited me to have lunch. It was mid-summer, very hot and I was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. The hotel’s maitre d‘, looked down his nose, and sneered; “To dine in the Dorchester’s restaurants one has to be attired in a jacket.”  I turned to Oscar and said; “Go ahead, I’ll grab a sandwich,” however, the big fella was having none of this and disappeared to his suite, returning with a maroon double-breasted blazer. I was much shorter and five sizes smaller than Oscar and it was like wearing an overcoat, the sleeves extended well beyond my fingertips and I had to roll them up. All I needed was a big red nose, oversized shoes, and I could have got a job in Billy Smart’s circus.

All this amused Oscar and his wife no end, and the maître d' had a smirk on his face. Fortunately, we were escorted to a table near the door, which meant very few diners would see me, but I hadn’t bargained with Oscar. He said; “No, not that table, could we have another one” and pointed to the end of the dining room, thus making me walk the entire length of the long room dressed like one of the Marx Brothers. It seemed to take an eternity to arrive at the table and this caper amused the great man no end, he had a beaming smile on his face throughout lunch.

/reminiscing in tempo zani on the jazz greats dennis munday ronnie scott.I recall the time Princess Margaret dropped into Ronnie Scott’s during one of Oscar’s stints there, she certainly liked a large G & T and chain-smoked throughout his set. In between sets, I was in the dressing room chatting to Oscar and he looked a picture, he had taken off his shirt and was cooling down in his string vest. Ronnie Scott stuck his head round the door and informed Oscar; “HRH Princess Margaret is in tonight and would like to meet you.” Oscar, staring up at the ceiling with a bored look on his face, replied: “Ok, if I must, I’ll do it.” He then turned to Ronnie and asked; “Are the other fans still outside?” Ronnie, who must have been wondering what was coming next replied a little bewildered; “Yes, they are outside.” Oscar replied deadpan and serious; “I’ll see the Princess along with them; escort them in when I’ve dressed.”  Ronnie stood there looking uncomfortable, and not entirely sure whether Oscar was joking or not, as this would be a breach of Royal etiquette and Ronnie could see his MBE flying out of the window.

After winding Ronnie up a little more, Oscar agreed to meet the Queen’s sister at her table. I was so amused by this and laughing [at Ronnie’s predicament], when Oscar turned and said; “You think this is funny, well you can accompany me.” At first, I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t, and he stated emphatically; “If I have to do my duty so do you, after all, it’s your Royal family.” He dressed quickly, we followed Ronnie out, and after chatting for a few minutes and to my complete embarrassment, Oscar turned to HRH and gave me a big introduction. I don’t recall whether I bowed or curtsied, but at that moment, I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. When we returned to the dressing room, my 'Royal' introduction was the subject of much laughter.

Oscar played a gig at the Batley Variety club and I was fascinated to see this venue as I’d heard a lot about Mecca of northern working men’s clubs. World-famous cabaret acts had appeared there and I was interested to see how our northern brethren would take to Oscar. When we arrived, the size of the place came as a surprise as most working men’s clubs I’d visited were pub-size, and their main attraction was cheap booze. The first set went down well, I looked into the audience there was a sprinkling of dress suits and everybody was smartly attired. During the interval fish and pie suppers were served, (Oscar declined), which I found a bit novel. Coming from the south, I had a blinkered image of up t’ north and expected cloth caps, miner’s helmets and everybody drinking pints of ‘mix’.

I thought some red nose clown would ring a bell and shout order, order, and the audience call for Oscar to give them a rendition of, ‘On Ilkley Moor ‘Ba ‘Tat’. During the interval, two females in their forties approached and asked if they could come backstage and obtain Oscar’s autograph. He surprisingly agreed providing they would actually talk, and not just stand around twittering. They assured me that they would converse and I escorted them to the dressing room however, on meeting Oscar, they froze like a couple of virgins at their first orgy. When the audience was over, I escorted the girls down the stairs and overheard one say to the other; “I was so nervous, I’ve peed myself” and with that, they returned to the club giggling loudly. When I explained the affect he’d had on the ladies, Oscar found it amusing and we had a good laugh.

Oscar played a gig at the Batley Variety club and I was fascinated to see this venue as I’d heard a lot about Mecca of northern working men’s clubs.
Oscar was often on the end of racism, and when he hired the white guitarist Herb Ellis, he received racist hate mail, this time for having the temerity to hire a ‘white’ musician. Oscar dealt with this by saying; “Talent comes in a variety of packages — black, white, brown, yellow, tall, short, fat, thin, monster-like, or gentle.” In addition, more succinctly; “The music field was the first to break down racial barriers, because in order to play together, you have to love the people you are playing with, and if you have any racial inhibitions, you wouldn't be able to do that.”

This kind of overt racism never got the better of Oscar, although he wasn’t one to turn a blind eye when it was thrown in his face. I recall an incident when Oscar had invited me to lunch with his Swiss-born wife. As we returned to his limo parked in Jermyn Street, we passed some navvies excavating a hole, one muttered; “What’s a white woman like that doing with a nigger.” When I heard his comment a chill ran down my spine, it’s the one word that every black person hates to hear.

After escorting his wife to the limo, Oscar walked back and I followed wondering what was going to happen. When we reached the excavation, he menacingly asked; “I didn’t quite hear what you said when I was passing buy, would one of you like get out and repeat it to my face?” At the time, Oscar would have been about 50 and in his prime, the navvies took one look at his towering frame and declined the invitation, muttering that he’d misheard and groveling apologised. Satisfied with this act of contrition, we made our way back to the limo and I was more than happy that no blood was spilled. There was no change in the 21st Century when in August 2006, racial slurs were shouted out from a car driving past his Toronto home.

There was a dark side to Oscar’s personality, when he played he took no prisoners and was a bully and often ‘beat up’ on lesser musicians.  I recall when Joe Pass played at Ronnie’s with a British rhythm section, Oscar wasn’t happy with the bass player Ron Mathewson and between the sets Oscar took him aside and chewed his ear off, much to the bass players discomfort. Behind his back, many of the musicians who played with Oscar would refer to him as the ‘Bear’, and it wasn’t because he was cuddly.

Oscar also put Canada on the map decades before the likes of pop and rock artistes, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bryan Adams, Shania Twain, and Celine Dion. After a long fight with illness, Oscar died of kidney failure on 23 December 2007. During his long career, he recorded something like 200 albums, and history already judges him to be one of the most brilliant jazz pianists of all times and almost the equal of his idol Art Tatum.

In Part Two, you will get to meet two jazz musicians who were not as well known as Oscar Peterson, nonetheless they were real characters. 

© Words Dennis Munday/ ZANI

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