Passed/Failed: An education in the life of James Last, big-band leader and composer

'She told me I'd never be a musician'
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The Independent Online

James Last, 78, was born in Germany and formed his first band in 1948. Since the release of his first album, Non-Stop Dancing, in 1965, there have been nearly 200 further titles, of which 100 million copies have sold. James Last Live in Europe came out last year

I went to my first school in Bremen when I was six – a hundred years ago! (Actually, it was in 1935.) I remember all the teachers by name; all the memories are still in my brain. Some of it I remember very fondly. There was a good connection between the teachers and me; I could talk to them.

At the time, music was not so deep in my soul or in my heart. In my life, I have always been a late developer. The big influence was my family: my two brothers were studying music and my father was a musician at the weekend (he used to play the bandoneon, a cross between an accordion and a concertina, at parties). He told me, "You will be the conductor of a symphony orchestra by the age of 28."

At about 12, I started the piano, with a private teacher. She was bad: it is not right to say, "I am the teacher, you are the dummy!". After a year she told me, "You will never be a musician". The next teacher was more like a father and I learnt everything from him. We started with the piano and then he began talking about music: why is this piece written like this?

In 1942, when I was 14, I went to the Bückeburg Military Music School. It was the only place where you could study music at the time, as all the private music schools were closed. We wore uniforms that were like army uniforms but with a sign saying that we were not soldiers. I had to play the tuba at funerals and other public events; playing while marching was very difficult: my mouthpiece was jumping from the left to the right!

I lived in the school, and the whole day was filled with activity: from 8am I would practise the piano, practise the double bass, learn about the history of music and have orchestra rehearsals. For two hours we would study other subjects, just like in an ordinary school. At 6pm it was over. At 16, I started playing popular music in the evenings. It was just for us boys – we played a bit of jazz, which the teachers wouldn't accept. We changed the titles, so the jazz classic "Perdido" was disguised as "Mosquito".

I also did some arrangements for other orchestras, and, in 1945, I did the music score for an American movie. The actual music was done by another guy, but I did the arrangement for the conductor.

Was I aware of what was happening in Germany and the rest of Europe at the time? Not so much. I am a late developer, as I said. We were all guys of the same age and we talked mainly about music. The school was closed in 1945 and I went home.

One day, an American soldier, a black guy who had been talking to the neighbours, came to my house and said, "You play music? Come to our club!" There I discovered the music of the soldiers: Sinatra songs, swing, easy-listening, songs you still hear. If you play music, everyone is nice to you. They paid me in cigarettes. I don't smoke but cigarettes then were like money for buying bread or whatever you needed.

I was still studying, with a private teacher from a symphony orchestra, and I'm still studying now: you can learn so much from classical music. I had bought my first record when I was 15 – Bartok's Violin Concerto.

Today, people ask me to go to schools to talk to the young people about playing music. I always say that the feeling for music is more important than the technique.