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

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I have been fortunate to work with many famous and great artists from many different spheres of music, but the greatest has to be Ella Fitzgerald.Ella’s early life was hard and she suffered, particularly when her mother died in 1932, from injuries received in a car accident. Having already lost her real father, tragedy struck again when her stepfather died of a heart attack and her little step sister Frances moved in with her.

Having no parental guidance there were problems and Ella frequently missed school lessons. At the age of 15, she was in trouble with the police and placed in the Coloured Orphan Asylum in Riverdale, one of the few orphanages that accepted black children. Later she transferred to the New York State Training School for Girls, which was an unhappy experience for the teenaged Ella. State investigations later revealed widespread physical abuse took place at this reformatory school, something that Ella had to endure. Extremely unhappy, she escaped and lived on the streets of New York, doing anything to earn a buck, including running numbers for gangsters, as well as acting as a lookout for local brothels.

The teenage tomboy Ella had eyes for the stage, the dance craze at the time was the Lindy-Hop, and she set her heart on becoming ‘hoofer’. With her school friends, she regularly frequented the Apollo and decided to enter Ralph Cooper’s Amateur Night. At the time, the depression in America was at its worse, and Cooper saw Amateur Night as way of black Americans getting out of the slums and ghettos. Cooper asserted; "We can make people a unique offer. With nothing but talent and a lot of heart, you can make it."

Along with two friends, the 17-year-old Ella attended Amateur Night on 21 November 1934, and decided to make her dancing debut on the boards. However, on the bill that night were The Edwards Sister’s, who were known as ‘the dancin'est sisters in town’ and their act went down so well with the tough crowd that Ella froze. As the panic subsided, she changed her mind and nervously decided to sing, which brought a ripple of laughter from the audience. Ella opened up with the tune ‘Judy’ and the audience’s jeers soon turned to cheers. She encored with ‘The Object of My Affection’ and outshined the Edward’s Sisters, winning the $25 first prize. Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Ben. E. King, Jackie Wilson, The Isley Brothers, Luther Vandross, and Michael Jackson appeared on Amateur Night, before going on to further fame.

I first met Ella around 1974, her tour manager Pete Cavello phoned and invited me to take tea with Ella at the Churchill hotel. I was thrilled at the thought of meeting her and excited, but also a little nervous. I entered her suite and sat close to Ella, who turned out to be very shy, the conversation was strained and my nervousness didn’t help. I was a little star struck, and naively asked if she would like to go out for supper, or have a drink and she politely turned down my invitation saying; “I am quite happy to stay in my suite and go to Ronnie’s later.” I’d noticed the television was switched on and she had been watching the British soap opera Crossroads, much later I found out she was a big soap fan and watched them all over the world.

I first met Ella around 1974, her tour manager Pete Cavello phoned and invited me to take tea with Ella at the Churchill hotel.
Ella’s tour manager Pete Cavello was a real character, an American Italian; who’d spent the majority of his life on the road as a band boy [roadie] with the big bands. Pete sported a ruddy complexion, a purple nose, and a face that had that lived in look, he also liked a drink At our first encounter, I wanted to impress him with my marketing plans for the release of Ella’s latest album, and showed up at his hotel promptly. Pete decided that we would hold the discussions in the hotel bar, which hadn’t yet opened and all was going well with my presentation until he noticed they had started serving drinks. I was in full flow when Pete interrupted me and said; “Dennis, I can see you have everything in hand the bars open now, let’s go have a drink,” and we spent the rest of the day drinking.

 During rehearsals for a concert at the Festival Hall, I noticed Pete was sticking a four-inch strip of white gaffa tape across the stage floor, about a metre in from the edge. When he finished I asked why and he casually replied; “I do this at every show, it’s so Ella doesn’t fall off the stage.” At first, I thought he was having me on, I was naïve and not sure that this wasn’t a tour prank. Ella always wore thick glasses, had a serious problem with cataracts and until that moment, I never realised her eyesight was that bad.

At this concert, the Basie Band were accompanying Ella and when they played the last number, she would bow to the audience and leave via the rear of the stage. It was Pete’s duty to meet her at the top of the stairs, which were extremely steep, and escort her safely down. As Ella went into the final number, I was watching from stage left and noticed Pete on the opposite side with a beer in his hand, grinning from ear-to-ear and well on his way. I waved frantically at him to move to the rear exit, where I knew Ella would make for, but he was oblivious to my signals. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the message to Pete, he just looked across with a drunken leer and saluted me with his glass.

By now, I was getting frantic at the thought of Ella falling down the stairs and made my way to the exit, hoping I would make it in time. As the band struck up the last few bars, I vaulted the stairs, arriving at the top just in time to take Ella’s arm and escort her safely to her dressing room. She enquired as to the whereabouts of Pete, and I mumbled a pathetic excuse about him having to sort out a problem with her trio. Norman Granz fired Pete many times, but Ella was a softie and always rehired him the next day, and he worked for her for many more years.

Although having the voice of an angel Ella was on the big side and didn’t have the looks, or the sexual chemistry that many other female singers enjoyed. She was also a very shy and quiet person, perhaps inhibited by her size and throughout her career; many unflattering comments were made about her appearance. Norman Granz related a story about how he was so fed up with the way the press were always going on about Ella’s size, he decided to exact retribution. He arranged a press conference at a posh Hotel, inviting journalists, who of course could not resist the free food and booze. Norman booked the room for two days and had the food and drink laid out the day before the junket took place. On the day, Norman waited for the right moment and excused himself, saying he had a pressing engagement and insisted that the scribes to go ahead and enjoy the party, knowing that the food was stale, and the beer flat.

In 1986, Ella underwent surgery for a quintuple coronary bypass as well as having a heart valve replaced. Added to this diabetes was diagnosed, which was the cause of her failing eyesight. However, this setback didn’t stop Ella recording and playing live, and against the wishes of everyone including Norman Granz, she went back to her hectic tour schedule.

In her early seventies Ella made her final live concert, which took place in 1991, at New York’s renowned Carnegie Hall, where she had appeared 25 times before, it was fitting theatre to end her illustrious career.

Her eyesight deteriorated further and Ella was virtually blind, owing to poor circulation, it was necessary to remove both legs below her knee and the curtain on her career had finally come down. On June 15 1996, she passed away, and it was truly the end of an era.

There were several memorial concerts after her death, where some of the biggest names in the world of jazz and pop paid their tributes. When I read this, I recalled a conversation with Oscar Peterson, where he remarked with a broad grin; “I loved going to all the black award shows, just to see all those mega Stars, like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson kissin’ Ella’s ass.”  Oscar’s comment perhaps sums Ella’s place in the history of Black music – and come to that all music - at the top.

In her early seventies Ella made her final live concert, which took place in 1991
Such was Ella’s talent and contribution to both jazz and popular music she was voted into every music hall of fame. American’s always refer to Ella as the first lady of popular song, but in my country we have a Queen, and as any Hillary, Cherie, or Michelle can become first lady, we don’t hold our first lady in the same esteem and Ella will always be the Queen of popular song.

The sixties was a great decade for a teenager to grow up in Britain, the first wave of Britpop shook the music business to the core and London was full of clubs and pubs, where you could catch live music. Like all other Mods, every Saturday night my mates and I would head for the West End, staying up all night, and catch the first train home Sunday morning hoping you wouldn’t fall asleep and miss your station.

Soho was the place to be and we would be buzzing from club to club, and often walked pass (the old) Ronnie Scott’s in Gerrard Street. I would stand outside listening to the jazz that emanated from the basement and would say to my mates; ‘let’s give the Flamingo a miss and hear some jazz. They were pilled out of their heads and not interested in this kind of music, they just wanted to move on to an all-nighter. Looking back, instead of following my mates I wish that just once I had visited the club.

When the new Ronnie Scott’s opened in Frith Street, I often passed it by and would see a stellar jazz name appearing there, but I wasn’t earning the money to visit the club, not even for one night. At the time I never, not even in my dreams thought I would get the opportunity to visit Ronnie’s once, let alone become a regular at Europe’s premier jazz club.

As well as the jazz club on the ground floor, there was Up Stairs as it became known and given over to British musicians. However, the policy of having an American attraction playing downstairs and British acts upstairs didn’t work. Over the years, the musical policy of Up Stairs changed frequently, it became a venue for a disco, pop, rock music, and in the seventies, it was a popular venue for punk bands, which included The Jam.

When the new Ronnie Scott’s opened in Frith Street, I often passed it by and would see a stellar jazz name appearing ther
Visiting Ronnie’s was a magical time and whenever I entered the club, I felt like a ‘face’, I was on first name terms with all the staff and they looked after me. In return I made sure they got plenty of free drinks and records. I even had my own table, which was directly in front of the stage and I could watch the great jazz from pole position. It wasn’t just the Pablo artists I went to see, for nearly two decades I caught all of the other great jazz artists that played the club.

Ronnie’s Maître d' Martin Lyder was an interesting character, he was a bit part actor, and you often saw him in old sixties and early seventies TV shows, like The Saint and Danger Man. He was the double of Dean Martin and knew the actor as on occasions he’d doubled for him in his movies, and there was a signed photo from ‘Dino’ in his sound booth. Whenever I attended the club Martin always looked after me and knew he could help himself to a drink or three, and charge it to my table. He would often introduce me to spare women and sit them at my table. One time he sat a very interesting oriental girl at my table telling her to; “Look after Dennis he’s a good man.”

Martin was often at the pointed end of Ronnie’s scathing wit and he would introduce him and tell the audience; “Martin’s the best soundman in the country, but in the city ‘kin useless,” and, “Maître d' is French for moron.” One night I arrived without booking and the club was packed, I told Martin; “Not to worry about a table, I’ll stand.” Martin wasn’t having any of this and escorted me to my table, removed the people sitting there and sat them at the back of the club. I occupied a table for four and everyone seated around was staring, wondering who the hell I was.

Ronnie was renowned for his sense of humour and he would often crack jokes about the food and the club’s chef, he would tell the audience; “The chef’s half Japanese, half Negro, and every 24th September he bombs Pearl Bailey.”  He would round on a punter eating supper and tell them; "The food here must be good, a thousand flies can't be wrong," going on to state; “The food in the club is untouched by human hand - the chef’s a gorilla,” and “how can you fuck up cornflakes?

Ronnie was renowned for his sense of humour and he would often crack jokes about the food and the club’s chef, he would tell the audience
If any waitress happened to be serving during his spot, he would have a go and introduce her to the audience saying; “She’s a very intelligent girl, reads a lot. I asked her what she thought of Dickens, and she replied she’d never been to one - she thought Moby Dick was a bad case of VD.” And; “We had a Hungarian waiter working here recently....he didn't understand the social security system and he used to stick Green Shield stamps on his national insurance card...he got nicked for it - the judge gave him six months....and a tea set...”

Being half-Italian, when Ronnie told the next couple of jokes it always cracked me up; “Enrico’s Italian, he came to this country three years ago and couldn’t speak a word of English. Took a job working for nothing in a Jewish restaurant, and thought he was learning English, now he speaks great Yiddish and Italian - but no English. Enrico got married three weeks ago and already he can hear the patter of tiny feet - his mother-in-law’s a dwarf.”

Ronnie often took the Mickey out of the audience telling them; “It’s the first time I've seen dead people smoke,” and if heckled, he would look the person in the eye and dryly state;” I see you’re drinking on an empty head again sir.” When announcing forthcoming attractions, he would proclaim; “What a galaxy of talent the club has in store for you, later in the year, appearing at the club will be, The Dagenham Girl Pipers, the Massed bands of The RAF, and Charles Manson has agreed to do a week.”  Followed by; “You don't seem very impressed, why don't you all hold hands and see if you can contact the living,” As for the club itself, Ronnie would sardonically state; "It’s just like home - filthy and full of strangers."

Although the club bore Ronnie’s name, Pete King effectively ran it, Ronnie played at the club with his various groups and acted as MC, but never participated in the running, or marketing of the club. The success of the club was down to Pete; he put in the long hours, booked the acts, and made sure the business ran smoothly. Pete’s ‘inner sanctum’ was an office situated behind the stage, which was windowless, and the wall behind his desk was covered with a montage of photos of all the great jazz artists that have appeared at Ronnie’s. The Club has been through some great times, and had its share of hard times, but Pete was always there, with a steady hand on the tiller until they had weathered the storm.

When I managed Steve White’s band The Jazz Renegades, I phoned Pete too ask for a support slot at the club, I wanted the band opposite a heavyweight who could pull in the punters. Pete said, “Sure Dennis no problem, they can play opposite Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.” Not only was Art one of Steve’s hero’s, it also guaranteed the boys played to a full house every night, and Pete didn’t have to do this favour, he owed me nothing. As far as I am concerned Pete King is the unsung hero of the club, without him, it would have fallen to pieces years ago.

When I managed Steve White’s band The Jazz Renegades,
Ronnie died on 23 December 1996, and Pete carried on until the clubs 45th anniversary, some record. Without Ronnie by his side and the jazz scene he knew long gone, in June 2005, Pete sold the club to Michael Watt and the impresario Sally Greene, who owned the Old Vic theatre.

There’s no doubt that the best time to have visited Ronnie Scott’s would have been the seventies and eighties, when it was at its apex. I recall one memorable moment, when I was in the club one very hot summer watching some great jazz. The temperature inside was stifling with everyone in shirtsleeves and it was so hot, Speedos would have been the order of the day. During the break, I decided to go outside and get some fresh air, and on the way bumped into Pete; jokingly, I asked him about turning on the air conditioning, he dryly replied; “Den, what are you talking about, the front doors have been open for the last two hours.”

As far as I am concerned, without Pete and Ronnie at the club, it will never be the same, and I feel privileged that they befriended me and allowed me to visit the club during their halcyon days.

Towards the end of the seventies, the record business transformed, and this change would alter my life forever. The marketing men and bean counters were taking over a business that music men had successfully run for many decades - men who made music the priority.

True, the excesses of the industry couldn’t get any worse and the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ rollers who riddled the business, were quite rightly shown the door. No longer could you snort a few lines of coke in the office, or hire a limo to take you to see an unknown band, followed by supper at a restaurant, before being dropped off at 4 am in the morning high wide and not so handsome.

There’s no doubt that these excesses needed to be reined in, however the music men are the hub of the business. Now, it was about budget controls and the accountants would have a large say in the direction of a record company. There were times when I felt like bank manager and not an A & R manager.

Owing to a bad investment in America during the late seventies, which nearly bankrupted PolyGram, the largest record company in Europe, Polydor was downsized and many lost their job, or had to take on added responsibility. The MD running the company looked every inch a public school headmaster, and would have been just at home in charge of a company that sold cat and dog food. In fact, one executive stated, ‘he couldn’t see the difference between records and cat food’
Owing to a bad investment in America during the late seventies, which nearly bankrupted PolyGram, the largest record company in Europe, Polydor was downsized and many lost their job, or had to take on added responsibility
By this time, every record company had dispensed with their jazz A & R managers, and combined jazz music into their MOR department. Realising that if I wanted to keep a job at Polydor, I would have to move on, or find another vocation. The chance arose when a colleague left and I was promoted into the world of pop and rock, and given a hefty pay rise. The downside was I’d now have to attend all the meetings and have to deal with office politics, something I was useless at.

There was one ray of sunshine; I would look after Creed Taylor’s crossover jazz label CTI. As well as signing up the likes of Freddy Hubbard, Grover Washington, Esther Phillips, Hank Crawford, and Deodato, Creed Taylor had also signed the ‘High Priestess of Soul’, Nina Simone, and her latest album 'Baltimore,’ had just been released.  

I thought working with Joe Pass had set me up for every artistic peccadillo that could occur, but I hadn’t bargained with Miss Simone. My secretary rang through to let me know Nina was on the line and wanted to speak with me. I knew she had a reputation for being cantankerous, unstable, and in the past, suffered mental health problems. Intrigued by the unexpected call, and a little wary, I picked up the phone and said; “Hi Nina, how are you?” She replied; “Fine, I want some fucking money, when can I come in and collect?”

I was a little stunned by this demand, she was contracted to CTI and it was up to them to pay her advances and royalties, not Polydor. As subtly as it was possible, I explained that there was no way the company would advance her any money and she should talk to Creed Taylor regarding this problem. She didn’t take to kindly to this, and for the next couple of minutes gave me a real ear bashing, showering me with abuse that a New York ‘rapper’ would have been proud of and ended the call by slamming down the phone.

Creed Taylor had also signed the ‘High Priestess of Soul’, Nina Simone, and her latest album 'Baltimore,’ had just been released.
Now, I can swear with the best and when it’s necessary, have never been frightened to throw in the occasional fuck. Someone cursing at me wasn’t anything new, however I was amazed and a little shell-shocked to hear that kind of language from Nina. About fifteen minutes later the General Manager of Polydor entered my office, sat down, and told me he too had received a call from Nina. Looking bemused, he said; “Dennis, I don’t believe the conversation I had with Nina. I spent my national service in the Navy, and the sailors I served with, never cursed like that.”

A couple of days later, Nina’s manager called and requested I attend a meeting to discuss the marketing of Baltimore. After the first phone call, I was fascinated to find out what would happen when we met face-to-face, although given Nina’s fiery temperament, it crossed my mind to go tooled up I arrived at her flat punctually and her manager opened the door and was a little effete to say the least and informed me; “Miss Simone is tied up at the moment, come back in thirty minutes and she will be ready for you.” When he mentioned tied up, I hoped not literally, and strolled round to the nearest pub to prepare for my audience. I returned with the expectancy of the meeting happening, only to be told to come back in half an hour, as she was still busy. This happened several more times and I decided if he turned me away the next time, I would go home. For the fourth time, I knocked on the door and to my surprise, I was shown in and ushered into the lounge where I perched myself on a sofa, wondering what kind of entrance ‘Madame’ would make.

Nina’s manager served coffee and explained; “Miss Simone is in 'repose' and cannot leave the bedroom and desires the meeting to be conducted through me.” For the next twenty minutes we discussed the marketing of Baltimore and he shuttled back and forth to Nina’s bedside, returning with her answers. As we concluded the meeting he asked; “Would you like to see the latest photos of Miss Simone.”  Not knowing what was coming, I replied; “Yes, we may be able to use them in our marketing campaign.” He disappeared to the bedroom and returned with a large photo album, containing 10" X 8" glossy colour shots of the chanteuse. When I opened the album, the photos came as a big surprise, Nina was stark naked with everything on show Delicately, I pointed out that they were wonderful photos and of immense artistic value, but we wouldn’t be able to use them and with that he terminated the meeting.

I’d heard stories of Nina demanding sex from people she worked with and was fortunately spared her advances, as I drove home, I was a little bemused. This was one of the most bizarre moments of my career, and although I got to see Nina Simone in the flesh, I never met her

Nina’s manager served coffee and explained; “Miss Simone is in 'repose' and cannot leave the bedroom and desires the meeting to be conducted through me
Nina Simone was a difficult artist, prone to fits of temperament and often cut short engagements for no given reason.  There were other behavioural problems, she shot at a neighbour’s son and fired a gun at a record company executive, claiming he’d ripped her off. Many blamed these incidents on her incendiary artistic temperament, which turned out to be a wrong assumption. Nina suffered from clinical depression, had a bipolar disorder, and from the sixties she was prescribed serious medication. This information was never made public until it was revealed in the 2004 biography, Break Down And Let It All Out, written by Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan.

People suffering from this kind of illness are wildly unpredictable, suffer acute paranoia, sinking into deep depressions, and there is every chance of developing full-blown schizophrenia. Day to day, you never know what the person will do, or which personality will be to the fore; some days you see the good side and the next, the bad. Although the condition is treatable with chemicals sadly, even in the 21st century, there is no cure for this cursed illness. With this and the racial harassment Nina received during her life it’s no wonder she was ‘difficult’, but carrying both the burden of being black and an incurable mental illness, who wouldn’t be.

During the early eighties, jazz had once again become fashionable (sic), led by pop bands like The Style Council, and the Acid Jazz movement. After I left Polydor, Steve White persuaded me to manage his group, The Jazz Renegades, which he co-led with Alan Barnes. The band was slowly building up a following, playing both jazz and the chic clubs, where the punters perceived jazz to be trendy

There was a short tour of Japan and JVC released the album Tokyo Hi, and the band returned to the UK and toured. Steve’s commitments to the Style Council meant that the Renegades would always come second and in the end, the band folded, though they reformed several times and recorded more albums.

At the same time I was managing the Jazz Renegades, I was desperately trying to get a new contemporary jazz label funded by a major record company. Having noticed a groundswell of new and talented jazz artists, I wanted to set up a label along the lines of Verve and Blue Note and knew the time was right. Steve and I met up with Courtney Pine to see if he was interested in my idea and following this, had a meeting with the PR Guru, Lynne Franks. She liked the idea, but told me the major record companies wouldn’t get their heads around the idea.

I wanted to set up a label along the lines of Verve and Blue Note and knew the time was righ
Undaunted by her dire prediction, along with a mate Chris Peers (a co-founder of Island Records), we did the rounds of record companies and although this young jazz scene was mushrooming, there were no takers. Several record companies thought the idea would work and be successful, but weren’t prepared to invest the money required to get the label off the ground. This myopic outlook shouldn’t have come as a surprise, not after 15 years in the business and Lynne Frank’s comment.

As far as jazz went, the Renegades and the label idea were the last throw of the dice, and I went back to being a fan, and continued to work in the world of pop. Looking back, I worked with many famous so-called ‘stars’, however, I can’t say the experience was totally enjoyable. Having to deal with over inflated ego’s wears you down, and no matter how big your pay cheque is you reach a point where enough is enough. I know when I walked away from Polydor in 1985, I never looked back.

I consider myself extremely fortunate, not only did I have the luck to work with one of the greatest jazz producers, but with some the greatest artists to perform jazz music on this planet.

© Words -  Dennis Munday/ ZANI

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