More Than You Know: Jul 02

Once a year I perform at the local SAS (Sutton Adult School). It’s for charity – playing solo piano for senior citizens. Although they advertise me as a jazz pianist, I just knock out a few sing-alongs for about 40 minutes. A raffle takes place, the prizes are all donated and can include anything from a packet of cornflakes to a dozen tea bags. On the last occasion I donated my ‘Tribute to Clarence Williams’ CD. Sitting nonchalantly, having a cuppa while the tickets were being picked, my ears pricked up when the announcement was made ‘only two prizes left, a Neville Dickie CD and a tin of baked beans’. It couldn’t happen could it? There was nowhere to hide as the lady with the winning ticket shouted, ‘I’ll have the baked beans’. However, all was not lost, as the audience left to go home, a dear old lady came up to my wife Pat and said ‘I never knew I liked jazz until I heard your husband play. I won his CD’. I wonder if she enjoyed trying to sing-a-long-a-Clarence!

In 1944, Eddie Condon started a series of weekly concerts at New York’s Town Hall using his band as a basis and featuring well-known guests. In all, there were 46 concerts – all of which were transmitted live on American radio. Each musician was paid a fee of $24 – regardless of stature or ability, although It was considered quite an honour to be invited on the show. Among the jazz giants featured were Muggsy Spanier, Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, James P. Johnson, Gene Krupa and many others. Which leads me into a story about Condon.

In the 1950s he brought his band to England, and one of the venues was in Preston, Lancashire. I was doing my National Service at the time, stationed at RAF Warton, which was only a 45 minute bus ride away. I persuaded a couple of my RAF pals to go along. We decided an autograph by Mr. Condon was in order and after the concert we walked round the to the back of the building. A sign directed us to the Stage Door. The ‘Stage Door’ consisted of two 20ft. high doors, locked and bolted (it looked more like Colditz). However, after a few bangs on the door we heard the bolts being withdrawn and were suddenly confronted by two ‘heavies’. We explained that we wanted Eddie’s signature. They let us in, we looked around the large room and spotted our hero sprawled on a chair, a little worse for wear. The ‘heavies’ took our programmes and asked Eddie to sign them for us. We saw him scribble something in each programme and they were returned to us; we said ‘Thanks Mr. Condon’ and disappeared into the night, pleased that our goal had been achieved. On the journey back to the camp we excitedly opened the programmes and, much to our dismay, there were no autographs at all. Where the personnel of the band were listed he had written ‘banjo’ alongside his own name. Condon had conned us!

Miff’ Mole was a sensational trombonist who worked with Phil Napoleon’s Original Memphis Five in the 1920s, later teaming up with Red Nichols to make dozens of recordings over a period of five years. He went on to play with Benny Goodman’s Band and many studio groups. Sadly, by 1960 his health had deteriorated and he was walking with a stick, the result of several hip operations. He was also destitute. That same year, he was invited to play at the Newport Jazz Festival alongside Henry ‘Red’ Allen. This would have helped him financially, and put him in the public eye again but it wasn’t to be – the concert was cancelled at the last minute and ‘Miff’ had to borrow his fare home. That winter he was seen selling pretzels in a New York subway. He died in 1961 aged 63. His trombone was appropriated by the local authorities to help allay the cost of his burial. What a tragic end to a wonderful musician.

Neville Dickie, July 2002