More Than You Know: Sep 2000

On a recent visit to Paris I was scheduled to play at the “Slow Club” – it used to be the “Swing Club” in the ’60’s but for some unknown reason the name was changed (suggestions as to why on a postcard please). I arrived at the Club to be confronted by a poster outside which read: Nevil Dicky – Snide & Boogy Woogy Master. Whether you agree with their description or not, at least they spelled the last word right.

Reading about the Jeff Barnhart calamity in Keswick (July “Just Jazz”) where he inadvertently turned over the piano while trying to manoeuvre it, brought to mind a similar episode involving the late ragtime pianist Ron Weatherburn. A pub in Balham which featured bands, trios and solo pianists had erected a revolving stage, surrounded by a circular bar, enabling customers to have a perfect view wherever they were standing. There was an upright piano in residence which was only worthy of the local dump and after numerous complaints, the Management decided to purchase a better one. Ron Weatherburn had been booked to play there with a trio a week before the replacement arrived. Ron was one of life’s eccentrics and didn’t suffer bad pianos gladly. The stage was revolving and the pub was throbbing to the sounds of Ron’s ragtime. “Last orders” rang out from the bar and Ron played his final number. Suddenly there was an almighty crash – Ron had decided to take matters into his own hands – literally! He pushed the piano to the edge of the 4ft. high stage and tipped it over. Strings twanged, hammers snapped and the remaining customers ran for cover as the piano disintegrated into a heap. (Ron remarked afterwards that it was one of the most satisfying nights of his musical career).

A few miles up the road in Kennington, Ron and myself played in a pub at weekends. It was a bizarre arrangement. Ron played in the saloon bar and I played in the public bar – both at the same time. It all came to an abrupt end when the Landlord did a runner with the bar takings – and our wages!

For many years, a pianist In America worked nightly in a bar. The popularity of the film “The Sting” in the ’70’s made it obligatory for every pianist to be able to perform the theme tune “The Entertainer”. Night after night – sometimes twice a night – he would get requests to play it until he decided he’d had enough. He stood up and announced to the audience “Sting, where is thy death”.

In 1926, Louis Armstrong recorded “Heebie Jeebies” with his Hot Five. It was Louis’ first hit, selling 40,000 copies in the first few weeks. Kid Ory was on trombone in the Hot Five – he made a fortune from “Muskrat Ramble” which he claimed he composed in 1921 and “Lil Armstrong put the title to it at the recording session”. But Louis – in an interview for “Down Beat” magazine – claimed he (Armstrong) wrote the tune and “Ory named it and gets the royalties. I don’t talk about it,” he said.

One would have thought that playing alongside Louis would be every jazz musician’s dream. Not so for pianist Earl Hines who worked with Armstrong’s small group from 1948 to 1951. After leaving the band he said, “We played the same old tired songs, the same old tired way, night after night”.

My first visit to the USA nearly didn’t happen. In 1976 I was invited to play at a “Rags To Riches” concert on Long Island, New York alongside Dick Hyman, Dick Wellstood, Lou Busch (aka Joe “Fingers” Carr), The St. Louis Ragtimers and boogie woogie pianist Bob Seeley. It was to be a potted history of early piano styles. Two weeks before the event, the dreaded phone call came – “Don’t book your flight yet, we haven’t sold enough tickets and it may be cancelled”. The concert hall seated 1,500 but only 200 tickets had been sold. As a last resort, the organizers asked John Wilson of the New York Times if he would preview the concert in his weekly column. He did more than that – a half page write-up appeared, and a few days before the concert I got a call to say the tickets were now selling fast. Thanks to the power of advertising, the concert went ahead and we played to a near full house.

Concern was expressed in a recent “Just Jazz” about the musical content of some CDs which are being produced i.e. A good session in a local pub by a semi-pro band doesn’t always make for sustained listening on CD. Also under scrutiny is the playing time of CDs, which can be anything between 30 minutes and 80 minutes (a bandleader in France gave me a copy of his latest release which lasted 28 minutes). Another concern is the pitch of the recordings – particularly on the cheaper labels. One would think that the classic recordings of Louis, Bix & Bessie would be constant, but pitch can vary considerably. I recently heard two Bob Crosby CDs, which featured identical tracks, and there was a difference of nearly one tone (it added 13 seconds to the 3 minute track). Not wanting to sound pedantic, if you double this difference in pitch, Frank Sinatra will begin to sound like Ella Fitzgerald.

Neville Dickie – September 2000.