Reading the posts on Facebook from Peter Ind regarding the origins of the jazz or ‘light music’ course at Leeds College of Music fifty years ago brought back some memories of Scarborough in 1981 which was my second summer season after leaving the College. There were many hours of light music performed during the summer season at the Spa and a little jazz as well.
In the Max Jaffa orchestra that year were at least two new faces in prominent positions: Fred Parry on cello and myself playing percussion. Prominent by virtue of arrangements that were originally conceived to work as trios (violin, cello and piano) with other orchestral parts added as extra colour and most of the music having violin and/or cello solo features with the trio writing obvious throughout.
The position of percussionist was less noticeable musically although very visible, as a line of instruments stretched from one side of the stage to the other, and audible as it is impossible to add a percussive sound to such an ensemble without it being noticed. These coupled with the fact that I was placed on the highest tier of the stage overlooking the orchestra and the Grand Hall made it difficult to go unnoticed.
The orchestra leader and librarian for that season was Eric Mills, the pianist was Vincent Billington and the bass player was Bernie Cash. Before the internet, Facebook, Wikipedia and any number of other informed (or not) sites we had to find out about each other through conversation but mainly through music. The way we played, the attitude to the job and how you coped under pressure, from inside and out, was on show thirteen times a week on six mornings and seven evenings.
Fred and I were staying at the same place in Scarborough, the Prince of Wales Hotel, on the South Cliff directly above the Spa complex and a short but very steep walk from room to stage. The hotel has now been converted into flats and if you look to the top floor the windows of our one-roomed accommodation are still intact. We very often socialised until late during the sixteen week summer season and soon worked out the habits of the other instrumentalists. Some would disappear after each show, some would stop for one and others selected certain days to join us.
At the start of the season Bernie was a ‘straight off as soon as the last note had sounded’ player, off to another job on a motorbike it emerged later, and it was not until halfway through the run that we saw more of him. As a drummer I liked him as he had good time and was always looking to see where the leader would put the nuances, the pulls and pushes in the music, during the show. Max Jaffa worked to the clock not to metronome markings and each show would run like it was a live radio broadcast fitting in the 7.45 to 9.45pm precisely slot each evening. This meant that tempos were never set and the music was performed at speeds that fitted the time available. Another throwback to the session world where the music had to fit the recording time of a 78 rather than spill over to extra, and far more expensive, discs.
As a team we managed these alternative interpretations without many complaints and for a drummer to work with a reliable bass player the job of drumming was so easy. Leave the bass drum alone and just enjoy the ride (or hi-hat or crash). Of course the bass and drums rhythm section aspect of the performances were few and far between as the majority of the arrangement was in a classical orchestral style, something again that Bernie was very experienced and good at.
Fred and I were invited to a meal with Bernie and his dad one evening in a lovely flat overlooking the harbour, part of the Town Hall, and we were all treated to some lovely food, his dad had been a chef, yet the only part of the meal I can now remember were the duchess potatoes: they looked posh, tasted great and my only previous experience of dinning out had been at the Berni Inn (no relation) and it was always steak and chips there.
Bernie had all the experience and skills I hoped for. He was a musician and loved the music he played. Style was not a consideration and although he leaned towards jazz he still performed other styles with sympathy and professionalism. His vision to start the course in Leeds and invite other like-minded musicians to be part of it’s development was very influential in my choice of Leeds as the place to study in 1976 although he had left over a matter of principle a little time before.
The course is now 50 years old and has changed so many times over the years I doubt there are many similarities to the light music course of old. Jazz history and harmony has added a few decades of artists and many books of analysis but other than that is there a band each day to rehearse with as well as symphony orchestra and wind band each week? I hope so for the experience of the students and in honour of the founder Bernie Cash. Happy half century to the jazz course.
© Peter R. Birkby 2015