TRAVEL / How jazz met ancient rock: Memorable Journeys - Humphrey Lyttelton, from Amman to Petra, Jordan

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS the sort of test which Humphrey Lyttelton, in his spare time the quizmaster of the Radio 4 anti-panel game I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, might set his contestants. 'Graeme Garden, I want you to imagine yourself riding on a frisky horse past the tombs of the Lost City of Petra. For three points, salute the scenery by singing in the style of Louis Armstrong.'

'Humph' and his band have just celebrated 45 years of New Orleans and mainstream jazz. They have performed at some classy venues but none classier than the amphitheatre of Petra, John William Burgon's 'rose-red city - half as old as time', 100 miles south on the old caravan trail from the Jordanian capital of Amman. On a 1982 tour of the Middle East sponsored by the British Council, the band had reached Amman and a Jordanian television producer called Victoria asked them to strut their stuff at Petra.

The idea was to meet the television folk at 7 am, but when the jazzmen assembled no TV people were in sight. 'We're not going to give up our morning in Petra,' declared the musicians, and piled into the waiting minibuses.

'The drive to Petra was the most petrifying journey of my life,' recalls Humph. 'That is not meant to be a pun. It was terrifying, because of the principle of inshallah - if God wills it. God's wishes apply to the Highway Code, so motorists will overtake on blind corners, leaving the consequences - a juggernaut racing towards you - to Allah.'

Allah fortunately willed that they met no oncoming trucks and they eventually found the Petra ticket office and restaurant, at the top of a ravine. They also found that the last short leg of the trip was to be by horse. 'They have these tame old nags which plod up and down the ravine, day in day out, but the last time I'd been on a horse was about 1931 and I still didn't like the idea.

'On the way down it gets narrower and narrower, with wonderful colours - red and orange layers in the sandstone. Near the bottom you look up and see caves carved into it, with Greek and Roman pediments and pillars.'

At the bottom the track levelled out and ahead, framed by the ravine, was the terracotta frontage of the Treasury of the Pharaohs 'like a bit of stage scenery - the most fantastic sight'.

Through the narrow defile was an open space almost the size of Trafalgar Square. The Treasury, which overlooked it, was in effect a massive piece of sculpture; not constructed, but carved into the rock. Passing between the columns, Humph came to a chamber which reminded him of Hampstead town hall - with a difference. 'You run your hand over the wall, and it is plain wall, no bricks, just carved.' The guide's commentary was also seamless: 'No pausing for breath, no commas.'

The Treasury was hacked out two millennia ago by the Nabataeans, a nomadic tribe which came across Graeco-Roman architecture during its wanderings. Petra, their capital, was captured by Trajan AD106 and wrecked by the Saracens in the seventh century. It was then 'lost', until rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss explorer.

The ravine carries on round the side of the Treasury. Tiny openings are visible in the cliff, the entrances to more of the small caves which were originally designed as tombs. 'Then you come to a large amphitheatre with its seats also carved out of the rock.' And that, he thought when he rode cautiously back up the track, was the end of the trip. Time to move on to the next gig, at Aqaba on the Gulf of that name.

'But when we got to the top, we heard the dreaded sound 'Yoo hoo - I've arrived'.' It was Victoria and her elusive camera crew. 'Too late]' retorted Humph. But over lunch, the bill for which she contrived to pay, the four 'front-line' players agreed to go down for an impromptu concert in the amphitheatre. Only three of them were prepared, though, to ride down on horses that were more frisky and photogenic than their previous mounts. Two and a half, to be accurate: Lyttelton, whose stallion's legs were leaping about like a tap-dancing duo, lost his nerve on the way and joined saxophonist Bruce Turner in the jeep.

'Sing some jazz,' commanded Victoria. The reluctant horsemen, feeling complete idiots, serenaded the caves with ad-libbed scat-singing - wordless 'doo-dah-dats', Louis Armstrong-

style. At the amphitheatre, the four musicians were placed on plinths 30 feet apart and told, 'Right, play something.' Uhwuntwothree. They launched into Big Butter and Egg Man. 'As soon as we started, an enormous population of Bedouin, of which we'd been totally unaware, emerged from the holes in the hills to listen.'

Great TV: the 2,000-year-old site, the instrumentalists on their pedestals, the watchers in their caves. But later, when they reached Aqaba, Lyttelton put his foot down over Victoria's final stunt. She wanted trombonist Roy Williams to interrupt his sunbathing and play - up to his neck in the waves.

Lacking this crucial shot, the documentary was never transmitted. Or if it was, they never sent Humph a video.