Scenes From a Life in Jazz, Part 2: Life on the Road

Duncan Lamont By

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I remember falling asleep standing with my forehead pressed on my hand which was pushing the doorbell. Finally, the door opened and there was Kenny Graham, stark naked. He shouted in a broad Scottish accent, 'You Heelan bastard! What are you doing here? Come in!' —Duncan Lamont
Part 1 | Part 2

Duncan Lamont was one of the UK's musical treasures. He passed away unexpectedly, a couple of days before his upcoming 88th birthday on July 4th, 2019, having done a gig at the 606 Club in London the night before. I'd known and admired who he was for years and we had several close mutual musical acquaintances. I finally got to play with him at The Pizza Express in Soho, London in 2018. 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.). He was known to musicians in the U.K., as a terrific tenor player, though he started out playing trumpet. Worldwide he was known as a songwriter, composer, and the man who wrote the hugely popular theme song to the British kid's show Mr. Benn. He was also a terrific storyteller which really comes through in his songs that in my humble opinion rival that of the late great Bob Dorough. One of Duncan's most treasured possessions, he told me, was a letter from Fred Astaire saying how much he liked Duncan's song, "Fred Astaire." Gil Evans in a magazine interview, said his favorite contemporary composer and arranger was Duncan Lamont. Duncan was born in Greenock, Scotland in 1931 to an extremely poor family. We previously published an excerpt from his unfinished memoir, and, with Duncan's permission which he gave me before he died, here is another excerpt from the manuscript dealing with his early days as a professional musician. If you'd like to read part one, go here.

I hope the voice of the piece as well as the story itself suggests something of this wonderful man, and the great gift of music he left us. At this point in his story he is in his late teens and has just decided to quite his job in the Greenock shipyards and become a professional musician.

Peter Rubie
I phoned Kenny Graham and told him of my decision to join his band. The next problem was to get my fare to London. This was like funding a trek to the Himalayas. Luckily, my sister Tricia sold an accordion and gave me the money.

I set out on the midnight train. I couldn't afford a sleeper, (actually, I didn't even know they had sleepers), and so curled up in a 3rd Class compartment trying to get comfortable on the hard seat and settled in for the hours-long journey from Scotland to London.

Kenny had told me he'd meet me at Euston station. So I waited for about an hour-and-a-half after the train arrived, but there was no sign of him. I had never been in a taxi before, but eventually I flagged down a black cab and said to the driver, "I've been waiting for a friend who hasn't turned up. I don't know number of his house but I know the road."

He said, "What is the road called?"

I said, "Edgware Road."

The taxi driver said in amazement. "Son, the Edgware Road is about ten miles long."

I said, "I think there's a one in the number."

The driver shook his head but took pity on me and said, "I'll do my best. I think it will be around Praed Street," and by some minor miracle, we found it.

I had a strange Alice In Wonderland feeling when I climbed the dingy stairs to Kenny's flat. I rang the bell but no one answered. I kept ringing but it was hopeless. Then someone from an upstairs apartment was passing and said, "Do you want to get into that flat?" I nodded. He said, "Put your finger on the bell and don't move it." I remember falling asleep standing with my forehead pressed on my hand. Finally, the door opened and there was Kenny Graham, stark naked. He shouted in a broad Scottish accent, "You Heelan bastard! What are you doing here? Come in!"

I went into the room. There was a black lady in bed. Kenny muttered, "This is Audrey." I didn't know whether to say hello Audrey or Mrs Graham, so I smiled and nodded. Audrey was about forty and had the resigned look of a lady who had been through many traumas and was fully expecting another one shortly.

Kenny immediately got out the music that we would be playing and started discussing it in detail with me. Audrey didn't seem very pleased but Kenny snarled, "There are many beautiful women in the world but very few good jazz trumpeters," and turned back to the music.

Eventually he asked me if I was hungry. Before I could answer he added, "We have a packet of soup." I couldn't believe that this icon of the jazz press was almost penniless. I assured him I wasn't hungry. I opened my suitcase to show him the selection of food my mother had made to stop me dying of starvation on the train. He said, "Is that an apple? Can I have it and do you want that sandwich?" Kenny ate the entire contents of the suitcase that morning. At one point a huge black man appeared in the room, completely naked of course, with an equally huge chamber pot in his hand. Kenny said, "This is Leonardo."

Leonardo brushed past me to empty the contents of the chamber pot. The rest of the day was a blur, with Kenny's manager and his publicist discussing future plans that would never come true. Later that night I found myself safely ensconced with Kenny and Audrey, lying on a mattress on the floor.

Kenny also had a rather nasty skin infection which Audrey was volunteering to scratch. I found myself thinking that maybe the Greenock shipyards weren't so bad after all... After a year or so of adventures in London, and feeling more and more unhappy with my own playing despite Kenny's constant insistence it was good, I went back to Greenock. Nothing had changed. It was still as grimy as ever, but I felt at home although a subtle change had happened—I had become a celebrity. I was the only musician who had left town and made a living in London. Probably in their eyes they saw me sporting a fur coat and driving a Rolls Royce, throwing money at the peasants. That didn't help my position. I knew instinctively my career was foundering and I'd never make it as a trumpet player.

Then something strange happened. I was visiting a saxophone playing friend who owned a white acrylic alto sax. (Johnny Dankworth was an early enthusiast of these saxaphones, and Charlie Parker played one on the Jazz at Massey Hall album.) On a whim, I asked my friend if I could blow it. He explained how to get a bottom note. I honked and played the note. He then explained how to get the top note. I managed it and said to him, "I'm amazed. I've just played the entire range. I've been trying to do that on trumpet for years. I think there's a future in this."

My father was ill and there was no money coming in, so I took a job playing third trumpet in a Locarno ballroom and put a deposit on a tenor sax. The band consisted of three trumpets, four saxophones, trombone and a real piano, bass and drums. It was led by a saxophonist named Bert Tobias who had lost both his legs. Sometimes when he took a nap, he used to take his legs off and the guys would steal them. (Such was the gallows humor of the musicians back then. We were a pretty irreverent bunch.) After the strain of being in London it was a joy-there was wine, women and song. We worked six nights a week and every afternoon. I had started taking lessons with a wonderful man named Bobby Thompson, and during the intervals I used to practice the saxophone. Meanwhile, my trumpet playing got worse and worse. I used to feel embarrassed taking the money each week but I steeled myself and took it nevertheless.

Things were going well until I had the flu. To replace me, they booked a wonderful trumpet player called Jimmy McCormack, who unfortunately was a heavy drinker. The band leader asked him to play a waltz. He played "Tenderly," which is usually played in E flat concert. Jimmy was rather inebriated and played it an octave higher, which is in the stratosphere of trumpet playing. He was loud and cracked a few notes. Even more unfortunately, Mr. Hyman, the owner of the chain of ballrooms, was in that night and ordered the trumpet player be fired. Alas that also meant I was fired as well, even though I was sneezing and coughing in bed.

I played a summer season where I had to play trumpet and sax. Then one day a telegram arrived with an offer to join a band in Glasgow on saxophone. All my pent up frustrations rushed through me and I remember, I threw the trumpet across the room, saying, "Goodbye forever!" and I've never blown one since.

I worked in a sax section for nine months playing tenor. It was a blessed relief to be able to play without tiring your lip. Then I received a telegram to audition from Basil Kirchin. He had a band which had come up from London. It was based on Woody Herman's line up and was wonderful, consisting of four trumpets, four saxophones with tenor lead and rhythm section-possibly the best swinging band in Britain. I traveled to Edinburgh where I got the job. It was now the early 1950s.

Basil was a gifted drummer but completely eccentric (another one). We worked in the Fountainbridge Palais and everyone stayed at a boarding house called Max's. Max was a homosexual with a terrible toupee who was very camp and smoked about fifty cigarettes a day. He used to saunter in to serve breakfast and there was always half an inch of cigarette ash on the plate. I remember I knocked on the door the first time I was there and the door was opened by a grim, unsmiling lady who looked sixty. She was shapeless, apart from a large stomach which I assumed was due to old age. (In my defense, I was barely out of my teens by this time.) Her name was Susie. Then I found to my surprise that she was pregnant. The father was an American sergeant who had since returned to the States. Later on, we collected money to help her have the baby but Susie never said a word or smiled.

Max's was like home from home for me: full of musicians having a good time into the night, plus, the band was great. I played the tenor lead and the first week I was there, we did a broadcast. I did a feature of "East of The Sun." As I write this it occurs to me how remarkable it was that a year earlier I didn't know how to blow a saxophone, and yet there I was, playing a feature on the radio.



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