More Than You Know: Mar 2000

At a Jazz Festival a few years ago, I was scheduled to perform solo piano for a couple of hours. “Take your pick from the two pianos” I was told (can’t be bad, I thought) “the red one or the blue one” (my suspicions were aroused). The sun’s rays shone through the windows onto the newly painted upright pianos. I sat down at the blue one, played a few bars and said “no thanks” – a couple of notes didn’t play at all, other keys were sticking and it was out of tune. The red one had to be better – wishful thinking, it was even worse. I selected the blue piano, my nerves jangling at what lay ahead.

It was time to start, I walked into the hall and was confronted with a full house. I opened with “Blue Turning Grey Over You” and went into a cold sweat after two choruses. I finished the number and made a quick decision – I would take off the front of the piano to get more volume out of this gutless wonder. As I dismantled it I felt the audience getting a little restless (making excuses about a lousy piano doesn’t go down well – they are there to be entertained), so I plodded on with increasing embarrassment and sweating gallons. With a sigh of relief, I finally made it to the interval. Should I return for the second half or make a run for it? My mind was in a quandary (if only I had taken up the banjo instead). The audience had streamed out during the interval and a few masochists came back for more so the show had to go on. Another fifty minutes dragged by, the piano was sick and I died. It was time for my final number -“That’s A Plenty”.

Next day, same Festival, trombonist Campbell Burnap and myself were to appear together, with Campbell doing some of his smooth vocals. This time an electric piano was at my mercy.”Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” was our opening number, in the key of F. Things didn’t sound right as I played the eight bar introduction. Campbell came in on cue – singing castrato! I was playing in F, but the piano was actually playing in C – over half an octave too high (someone had messed about with the pitch control on the keyboard). We gave up after half a chorus. Luckily, the owner of the piano was in the audience (probably having a good giggle) and to loud applause, he quickly located the pitch control and the show continued. (For one mad moment I began to think the blue piano wasn’t so bad after all).

That wonderful pianist Lennie Felix used to “work the boats” – playing solo piano on world cruises. They would always dock at New York for a few days which enabled him to visit the Jazz Clubs in Manhattan and hear the Americans at their own game. He told me that on one particular cruise, the piano he had to play was a CHALLEN and to say it was awful was being kind. Lennie had to perform three times a day and by the time the ship docked back in England, he had had enough. He got a pen knife and scribed the letters GE after CHALLEN, then made a quick departure.

Wise-cracking guitarist Eddie Condon played piano professionally for a while, but was, by his own admission “the world’s worst piano player” – maintaining he had only learned to play in the key of F. He related the time he secured a job on a liner and the band had to play every number in F throughout the course of the 14,000 mile journey!

In a recent “Just Jazz”, George Tiddiman asked the question “Whatever happened to Bob Taylor?”. Anyone who knew Bob has a story to tell – here is one of the less outrageous ones. In the 1960’s I was playing in the “Lord Raglan” in Wandsworth, SW London three nights a week. Bob was living in the area at the time, had heard the piano and drums as he walked past one night and came in. During the interval he introduced himself, said he had just bought a double bass and could he join us for a few numbers. After admitting he had never played a bass before, I was a little dubious but agreed to let him sit in. He found his way round the bass remarkably well and after that night started coming in on a regular basis, playing for no wages at first, but as his technique improved I managed to get him on the pay-roll. (Incidentally, the story goes that when Johnny Dodds joined Kid Ory’s band, he was offered $2.50 on his first night – which he refused to take until he could play better!)

During our time at the “Raglan”, Erroll Garner was very popular and most pianists could do a passable sound-alike. Some could do it better than others (I was one of the others) and I loved his arrangement of “I’ll Remember April” (from his “Concert by the Sea” album) and would often have a stab at it. Bob hated it – the middle section changed key and he could never find those elusive 16 bars. On some numbers he would take a solo bass chorus but told me never to leave him a solo on this one. One night we decided to play it and after about three choruses, I turned and shouted “Yours Bob” – forgetting what he had said. In a flash he put his bass down, grabbed his coat and disappeared into the night without saying a word. He arrived the next night on his motorbike (complete in top hat and tails, which he often did) and never mentioned the previous night. As far as Bob was concerned it was “I’ll Forget April” and we never played the tune again during our residency at the “Lord Raglan”. Of course Bob went on to greater things playing trumpet, bass and sousaphone with his own band and the Midnite Follies Orchestra.

By coincidence, the above column was written before I received my copy of the March “Just Jazz” in which Alan Robinson discussed the benefits of an acoustic piano to an electric one. Most pianists would, of course, agree with Alan’s comments, but in the real world things are different. When approached to play a solo concert I can request a grand piano or a good upright, tuned on the day of performance etc. Things are very different if you run a band. During the five or six years I’ve spent playing with Alan Elsdon’s band, I would say that at least 75% of the gigs have required an electric piano, simply because there isn’t one at the venue or if there is, it isn’t good enough. Does the bandleader turn down a job because there is no piano provided? Before you say there should be a piano made available, what about jobs on bandstands in the middle of Hyde Park or Kilburn Park to name just two? The venue could hire in a piano, but the costs are prohibitive (£200 – £300) and most venues just can’t afford it. Whatever you think Alan, a “real” piano is much more expensive to maintain. I had a Yamaha electric piano for five years and during that time it cost me a total of £50 (for some new pads which were worn). Ask “100 Club” owner Roger Horton how that compares with his costs! (By the way Roger, thanks for giving me a mention in your Dave Jones tribute – recognising my stellar drinking talents!)

Electric/digital pianos are improving all the time and I agree they haven’t come up with the “real thing” yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Forty years ago I was playing mostly with bands, and often we would turn up at a club where the piano was unplayable or there was no piano at all, so times haven’t changed that much – except that you can now take your own.

Neville Dickie – March 2000