Miles Kington: Dance band days of a teenage trombonist

Very few musicians who play for dancing are any good at dancing, or even want to
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The Independent Online

On Saturday mornings on Radio 4 Humphrey Lyttelton has been presenting a series on the history of the British dance band, and in the course of it he said that the heyday of the bands was well over by the end of the 1950s.

Not quite. I was playing in a dance band at the end of the 1950s, and we didn't feel like a threatened species. I was a 16- or 17-year-old teenager at the time, playing the trombone, and although I was in the orchestra at school, what I longed to do more than anything was play in a jazz or dance band. By a miracle, my father knew someone in the big local dance band who owed him a favour, and I was allowed to audition on second trombone.

I must have been all right, because I was thereafter asked to play the second trombone parts at the Saturday night hop at the War Memorial Hall, Wrexham. This was good for them, because they only had one trombone otherwise, and it was good for me, because it gave me the kind of musical experience you couldn't buy.

If Bill Haley's arrival several years earlier had completely ruined the dance band world, you wouldn't have known it in Wrexham in 1959. People still demanded waltzes, and foxtrots, and cha cha chas, and rumbas, and quicksteps. If anything corrupted our music, it was not rock'n'roll; it was the cha cha cha. Most of the cha cha chas we played were not original pieces of Latin American music - they were familiar pieces rearranged for the purpose. Have you ever heard "In The Mood Cha Cha Cha"? It's exactly the same as "In The Mood", except played with stiff, staccato, undotted rhythms. It's horrible. But good experience.

What the band really liked playing was jazz, so whenever possible we would play numbers by Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton or Shorty Rogers. After four or five of these the dancers would get restive and demand more traditional and old-fashioned music, so we would sigh and get out the arrangements by Jimmy Lally, or the old waltzes. It dawned on me that the band's interest in dancing was zero, despite being a dance band, and I then made the great discovery that very few musicians who play for dancing are any good at dancing, or even want to. It's as if all their musical talent has gone into their fingers, and none of it into their feet.

I can still remember the names of some of the players. The two trumpeters were called Reg and Donny. Reg was a small, middle-aged man with a moustache who liked to make amplified kissing noises through his trumpet whenever a couple danced round, holding each other too amorously. They would always leap apart and look round guiltily. Donny was young and very good, and Reg said to me once: "He's going to go far. He's already had an offer from a band in Birmingham."

(I can also remember the first dirty story I ever heard from grown-ups, told to us all by Reg. It was about a stranger who arrives in a bar in a town in the Yukon and is told that before he is accepted he has to pass three tests. He has to drink a bottle of whisky, make love to a woman and fight a grizzly bear. The stranger says he'll get cracking straightaway and drinks down a whole bottle of whisky, then staggers out into the night. He reappears two hours later, all tattered and torn and bleeding, and still drunk. "Right!" he says. "Where's this woman I've got to fight?" I have never heard anyone tell that story since, and I'm glad to pass it on after 50 years.)

The first trombonist was a handsome man called Glyn Hanmer, who was very patient with me, as he had to be, and taught me all about jazz notation, but I cannot for the life of me remember any of the other names. What I can remember is the thrill of this short magical period of my life when I first was accepted as a grown-up by grown-ups, when I got a taste of a kind of music which was about to be blown away, and when I felt the excitement of playing in a group for the first time ever.

When I moved on to Oxford, there were better trombonists than me there. But I heard someone say that if someone played the double bass he'd make a fortune, as there were no bass players around. I promptly bought a bass and learnt it, and got lots of jobs, but never made a fortune.

I wonder if young Donny ever made it to Birmingham?