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Scenes from a life in Jazz

Duncan Lamont By

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We had parties every night but we never called them parties. It just so happened that around ten at night, people came to our house and stayed till dawn.
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About the author

Duncan Lamont is one of the UK's musical treasures. I've known who he is for years, but finally through a friend, got to meet and play with him only this year (2018) at The Pizza Express in Soho, London. Sammy Cahn, the legendary lyricist, said about Duncan, "It makes me very happy that people are still writing songs like "I Told You So." (The song won Duncan best Jazz Song of the Year in the U.S.). Tomorrow's Standards, by singer Nancy Marano, a CD of Duncan's songs recorded in New York in 1992 and featuring guitarist Jack Wilkins, won Best Jazz Album of the Year, in Britain. He is known to musicians there, of course, as a terrific tenor player though he started out his career playing trumpet, but rivaling that, he is also a great storyteller. It comes through in his songs, and Duncan's songwriting rivals that of the late great Bob Dorough. A heady claim you might think. And yet... Two books of Duncan's songs have been performed and recorded by Cleo Laine, Blossom Dearie, Mark Murphy, Kiri Te Kanawa ( yes, really!), Richard Rodney Bennett, and Natalie Cole among many others. He has earned the respect of the likes of Benny Carter, Gil Evans, Johnny Mandel, Marty Paich, Michel Legrand, and Clare Fischer. One of his most treasured possessions, he told me after the gig, is a letter from Fred Astaire saying how much he liked Duncan's song, "Fred Astaire." When Gil Evans, in a magazine interview, was asked who his favorite contemporary composer and arranger was, he said Duncan Lamont.

Duncan was born in Greenock, Scotland in 1931 to a family of what some would call poor Irish gypsies. He has started writing his memoir, and, with Duncan's permission, this is an excerpt from his unpublished manuscript.


Peter Rubie
My family were bohemians without realizing what the word meant. In other words, they bucked the system and never lost. We were dirt poor. People on the wrong side of the tracks used to say about us, "They live on the wrong side of the tracks." We lived in a single apartment. I still don't know how we managed in such cramped surroundings. We slept in two enormous curtained beds called "holes in the wall." I slept in one with my father, and my mother and sisters slept in the other. It was a blissfully happy family.

We had parties every night but we never called them parties. It just so happened that around ten at night, people came to our house and stayed till dawn. My father was one of the nicest people on Earth. His temperament was that of a jazz musician, he was so cool, and he had played accordion from an early age. (I once saw a music program that said: "Accordion solos by five year old Duncan Lamont.") Everyone called him Lamont, including my sisters and my mother. I think it stemmed from the fact that at one time, people used to ask who was playing at the dance that evening and people would reply Lamont, so it stuck. It's sad in that age he was doomed for the shipyards. My father worked in the torpedo factory. After his evening meal, he used to sleep in a chair for about three hours and then stayed up half the night playing music.

My mother was special. She reminded me of a female version of Dickens' Mr Micawber—something was always turning up. She had an infallible way of avoiding pressure: If a brown envelope came through the door, she threw it in the fire. I was twenty when I turned professional and never saw any National Service, probably because my mother threw the papers in the fire. She used to say, "My hands are itching, we're coming into money," which never appeared.

I had two sisters, Tricia, who was an accordionist, and Mary who was the Charlie Parker of Scottish dancers. She was incredible. She had won two hundred gold medals by the time she was thirteen and at that age, she had a dance class of eighty pupils. She taught everything from tap to ballet to Scottish dancing, she covered the whole range. I received some cuttings from the local newspaper of that time and I marveled at this child who could do so many things. Mary suffered from chronic bronchitis and used to be gasping for every breath. Then she went on stage and danced like an angel. But the moment she left the stage, she was fighting for every breath again. I didn't realize at the time, but it left me with a philosophy that if you can breathe without any problems then nothing really matters.

I was definitely the blue eyed boy of the family, both spoiled and loved. The first time my mother took me to school, as she handed me over to a teacher, I remember thinking, I've just left easy street. Life's going to be awkward from now on. Of course, when a child is up until five in the morning, it's difficult to maintain an education. My mother solved that question in one fell swoop—she never sent me to school. In later years, I used to say, "My mother didn't like to send me to school when it was raining; and it rained all the time in Greenock." The school board people used to be up hammering on the door in the morning. Naturally, we were in bed until about two in the afternoon so we ignored them and eventually they gave up. Now this sounds almost criminal in this day of child neglect but we were so happy that it seemed the natural thing to do.

By the time I was a teenager I could play some trumpet and joined a band called The Georgians. It was quite a big band by Greenock standards —trumpet, two saxophones, accordion and drums. They were young guys but older than me, and mad about jazz and they were playing the standard jazz tunes though I didn't know any of the songs. I said, "How do you play jazz?" They said, "Make it up." After some initial awkwardness, I found I could get by. Then one day the accordion player said, "Meet me tomorrow and we'll talk." So we met and he said, "We don't want you." They didn't mince words in Greenock. After that, I was sacked from every band in town. I didn't have much hope as a trumpet player, because I imagined when people reached the age of around twenty-five they lost their teeth. (No one in Greenock had their own teeth, and I imagined when you reached thirty you automatically played corny.)

Then suddenly, I had a stroke of luck. I landed a job playing second trumpet in Cragburn Pavilion. The band was run by a little man with a big ego. His name was Henri (his real name was Henry) Morrison. He had an attractive wife and a dreadful toupee. He never smiled and was one of the worst drummers I've ever heard. The band consisted of two trumpets, one trombone, three saxophones, piano, bass and drums and was the jewel in the crown of the Greenock ballrooms. The Pavilion was an art deco building on the River Clyde and the band wore evening suits. I felt I had made it at last. One day, Henri decided to put on a Sunday concert featuring the band. He would bring in the big guns from Glasgow—in other words, another trumpet player. He said to me, "If you want to, you can play and if I clear the costs, I'll pay you." This was an offer I couldn't refuse. I knew it would be a sell out, so I agreed. It was a packed house. After several weeks, the trombonist asked me if I had been paid. I presumed Henri had forgotten and that night in his dressing room, I reminded him. Without a flicker of expression on his face, he said, "I lost money." I said, "OK Henry, do you want two weeks' notice or shall I finish tonight?" He muttered, "Please yourself" and I said, "I'll finish tonight."

At that time, I used to play in the local jazz club with a couple of members of the band. Henri was so incensed by this that he said to the guys, "If you ever play with two beginners, you're fired." He included Jackie Dugan, the drummer, who in later years would work with Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins. The fellows were furious but what could they do? We used to have little jam sessions in our houses and Henri found out about it then gave the guys hell. He said, "If you play even in private with these people, you're fired." Everyone was so annoyed that they suggested a way of spiking Henri's guns. The biggest thing of the year for Henri (he billed himself as the Henri Morrison All Stars) was the annual Melody Maker contest. They said, "Let's enter a band for the contest and see what happens." They virtually bullied me into leading the band and said, "Duncan, you'll have to write the arrangements." I told them I'd never written an arrangement in my life but they insisted. I didn't know people wrote scores for all the instruments, so I wrote a trombone part and the trombonists took the part home and copied it. Then the alto player did the same and copied a part for myself and the rhythm section. Talk about cave man arranging. The best news we had was that Henri had decided not to go in to the contest. The guys took no small satisfaction in that. We played at the contest and, to our surprise, we came second. The trombonist received an individual award, I received an honorable mention and Jacky Dugan, our drummer, got the Musician of the Evening award. Henri was there after all and, to my surprise, rushed up to congratulate me. I ignored him and walked away. Maybe it was childish but I couldn't take part in the sham.

We entered another contest and did very well and became eligible for the All Scottish in Edinburgh. We turned up and were delighted to come second to a wonderful big band called The Beavers. Then we had to go in and see the judges, who were stars in their own right, to be told what we were doing wrong. One of the judges was a red headed individual called Kenny Graham. He led one of the most popular jazz groups in Britain. He was rather fiery and said to me, "Those solos you played, were they written out?" At first, I didn't know what he meant. He repeated the sentence more angrily. I told him I hadn't written them out. Then to my amazement, he said, "Would you like to join my band?" I was dumbfounded, but I said no. He was surprised, because it was like turning down a Hollywood contract. He asked me, "Why not? and I said I was too frightened. He said, "You've got to come to London some time." Again I refused and finally he said, "Give me your address."
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