All together

Humphrey Carpenter

  • The Safest Place in the World: A Personal History of British Rhythm and Blues by Dick Heckstall-Smith
    Quartet, 178 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7043 2696 5
  • Mama said there’d be days like these: My Life in the Jazz World by Val Wilmer
    Women’s Press, 336 pp, £16.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7043 5040 8
  • Lenya: A Life by Donald Spoto
    Viking, 371 pp, £15.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 670 81211 0

The first meaning of ‘band’ given in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘That with or by which a person or thing is bound’. This seems appropriate for the word’s musical connotations as well as its more literal sense. Anyone with practical experience in the jazz, rock or folk music worlds will know that bands are, first and foremost, bindings together of personalities, undertaken in the hope of producing something greater than the mere sum of the individuals. The term ‘band-leader’ is therefore really a nonsense. The mutual acceptance of musical bonds implies democracy, or, at its best, more than that – the annihilation of individuals’ will in one collective musical mind. One of the very few people to make great art out of band-leading, Duke Ellington, achieved this because the actual music the band made was as far as possible, in ensemble passages as well as solos, a fusion of individual musicians’ ideas and styles, rather than the imposition of a composer or arranger’s concepts. The other great leader on the Ellingtonian scale, Count Basie, seems to have taken a largely passive line to achieve the same fusion of musical interests – he simply left his musicians to work out riffs among themselves.

Individuals, however, remain individuals, and most bands break up after very short periods, simply because unselfish fusion is hard to achieve, given the average human personality. Others are prolonged by more conventional forms of leadership or by purely commercial interests (but these scarcely deserve the title ‘band’). Commercialism is not always unproductive: the Beatles’ most fertile period was when they were under the dual (and somewhat divided) control of Brian Epstein and George Martin, both of whom had set out to manufacture a marketable product rather than inspire great musical achievements. A recent biography of Epstein emphasised the four musicians’ profound relief when at last they allowed themselves to break up (‘I’m not a Beatle any more!’ George Harrison is said to have cried delightedly after their last public appearance), and left one wondering how they had managed to stay together so long.

Dick Heckstall-Smith defines a band as ‘a passengerless collective’, but he doesn’t say ‘driverless’, and his often rivetingly interesting book, which deals largely with the breakup of bands, frequently demonstrates that conflict is bound to occur between a collective and its so-called leader, but also that truly leaderless collectives tend to drift in several directions at once. ‘Increasingly through Colosseum’s history,’ he writes of one of the most successful bands to which he has belonged, and of its leader, Jon Hiseman,

the other members of the band had little idea of what Jon Hiseman had to put up with ... Hiseman [is] efficient ... he sees what has to be done, and once it’s seen he does it. I suspect it’s not so much that he likes hard work as that he likes to see a job well done, and in most cases he feels (often rightly) better able to do it than anyone else who’s around ... [But] decisions should reflect the real thoughts and desires of the people they affect. And ... we should have ... voiced our opinions on everything from music to management. We hardly ever did.

Until it was too late, and Colosseum had broken up.

Any band-leader and any band-musician will recognise this predicament. Bands, it seems, are born in order to give their members the pain of breaking up; it is all a supremely masochistic exercise. Along the way, intense pleasure may be derived from the experience, however intermittent, of selfless musical co-operation at a high level of intensity. But that brings its own dangers. Alcohol and drugs are an almost inevitable concomitant of such high-tension music-making, largely because they promote the diffusion of self-consciousness and also prolong the capacity for mutually generated excitement. Heckstall-Smith, while never descending to crude theorising, is very good indeed on this subject. He charts the decline of fellow saxophonist and one-time band-leader Graham Bond from ‘one of the twenty-third best refrigerator salesmen in the United Kingdom’ to a mutilated body beneath a tube train at Finsbury Park. Even more chilling is the story of outstanding drummer Phil Seamen, who knew quite rationally where the use of heroin would lead him, but made the entirely conscious decision to become an addict because he believed that, for a brief spell, it would allow him to maintain the highest standard of playing while under extreme professional pressure. The bandstand may briefly seem, as Heckstall-Smith describes it, to be ‘The Safest Place in the World’, but by the end of this book it begins to feel like a Hieronymus Bosch hell. If jazz musicians in this country tend to survive longer than their rock and rhythm-and-blues counterparts, it is maybe because as Heckstall-Smith puts it (and he has had experience of all those musical worlds), there is ‘altogether too much good taste in the British jazz scene’.

Val Wilmer would probably agree with this last observation. She has made a life and career out of fraternising with jazz musicians – eating with them, sleeping with some of them, writing about and photographing them for journals and newspapers – and British exponents of the art only get passing mentions in her lengthy narrative, which is part autobiography, part catalogue of encounters with the famous, and part polemic: polemic against racism, sexual prejudice (Ms Wilmer is now lesbian), and the myriad ‘jobs-worths’ who make it difficult for serious enthusiasts to contact musicians backstage, and who stop them taking girls to their hotel rooms. The book is immensely readable, never hectoring, but somehow slightly disappointing. For all the extensive narrative of adolescent days – an affair at 14 with a grown-up Sierra Leonean, the fine shades of her mother’s racial prejudice (Indians were acceptable as lodgers, but Africans were regarded as ‘different’ and turned away), and a detailed portrait of South London mores at this period – it never becomes absolutely clear why this tomboy brought up in Streatham in the Forties should attach herself so firmly to the world of black jazz, and later to black music generally. Very likely there is no clear answer: yet one would cheerfully sacrifice many of the pages of reminiscences of individual jazz figures for a clearer map of Ms Wilmer’s progress. The portraits are, however, fascinating, and I will never again hear Harry Carney’s baritone saxophone, at the foundations of the Duke Ellington band, without remembering that each year he sent out hundreds of Christmas cards.

Despite giants of jazz singing such as Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, this branch of music remains essentially a masculine preserve – again, this is a subject Val Wilmer frequently touches, but never seems to grasp – and from Donald Spoto’s life of Lotte Lenya it seems that the music-theatre of Kurt Weill, for all the considerable prominence it gave to female performers, was run by the men too. The most surprising aspect of the biography is the discovery that Lenya, with her wonderful voice ‘an octave below laryngitis’, as she herself described it, never came into her own during the lifetime of Weill, her first husband; her career could not build itself successfully until his death conferred upon her the role of foremost Weill interpreter.

Spoto is only an average showbiz biographer, but the story he has to tell is so good that this doesn’t really matter. Occasionally he descends into such biographese as the suggestion that Lenya ‘connected survival with role-playing’, but most of the time he just gets on with the tale. He has also collected a wonderful set of photographs which convey more than his words can (and more than her later recordings can) the extraordinary charm of Lenya, on stage and off.

She was born Karoline Charlotte Blamauer, in a working-class district of Vienna, to a long-suffering battered mother and a father who resented the death of his first child (who had also been called Karoline). Lenya – her first name was developed out of a Viennese diminutive of her first name – was allegedly a child prostitute, though the evidence for this is very sketchy. Not much is known, either, about her life as a walk-on actress in Zurich during the First World War, though Elisabeth Bergner, who acted with her there, said that ‘there was around her an atmosphere of something forbidden – and, I should say, very interesting.’

She went to Berlin in 1921, during the period of hyper-inflation, when actors, like everyone else, were paid in millions of useless marks: ‘You just stuffed it in a drawer and tried somehow to get rid of it,’ recalled Lenya. She met Weill in 1924, via the playwright George Kaiser, and they married two years later. Weill wrote to his parents of their co-habitation before marriage as the ‘co-existence of two differing artistic interests, without domestic ties, each one helping the other on his own course’, and it was an open marriage from the start, at least for her – Kurt, according to the musician Maurice Abravanel, was ‘totally involved in his music, and had no need for anybody’. Lenya, continues Abravanel, ‘was sleeping with quite a number of people, and I think there were more than one or two women in the group ... “I don’t cheat on Kurt. He knows exactly what’s going on.” ’ Spoto conjectures that this behaviour was a reaction to Weill’s ‘emotional inaccessibility’. Lenya used to say that he told her: ‘You know you come right after my music.’

Despite the early stage-work in Zurich, Lenya had no proper career when she met Weill (she was also entirely untrained, both musically and theatrically). It was Brecht, rather than her husband, who gave her her first big chance, in the Mahagonny Songspeil (1927), the original short version of the ‘Mahagonny’ music-drama, Brecht’s first collaboration with Weill. Next, the originally small part of Jenny in Die Dreigroschenoper (1928) was given to Lenya, more out of kindness than in expectation of anything spectacular. Even its huge popular success, and her appearance in Pabst’s film version, did not give Lenya lasting public prominence, though she was given a substantial part in the fulllength Mahagonny (1931).

By this time Weill was conducting an affair of his own, and they separated. Weill fled from Germany in 1933 without Lenya (not being Jewish like her husband, she felt no compulsion to escape), but they teamed up in Paris for The Seven Deadly Sins (1933), commissioned by the exotic Edward James (John Betjeman’s original patron), in which Lenya and James’s wife Tillie Losch played Anna I and Anna II. Offstage, the two Annas conducted an affair with each other.

The Countess of Oxford and Asquith, reviewing the London production of The Seven Deadly Sins, said that Lenya’s voice ‘reminded me of a disillusioned child singing outside a public-house’, while Constant Lambert observed of the ‘rasping’ quality of her voice: ‘There is no such thing as intrinsically good tone in singing – there is only suitable tone.’ Despite this sort of recognition of her extraordinary qualities as a performer, Lenya still went mostly unrewarded. When she and Weill were reunited in America – they took the trouble to remarry, though the extra-mural affairs went on – he still seemed to find it impossible to create an adequate role for her in any of his musicals, despite benevolent co-operation in this search by the librettist Maxwell Anderson. Then Weill died in 1950, and Lenya at last began to find her feet, giving performances of his songs around the world to increasing acclaim. She also engaged in a series of disastrous marriages, usually picking on homosexual alcoholics – her later marital career is strongly reminiscent of Judy Garland’s, and she evidently shared with Garland a strong appeal to the male homosexual eye. The apotheosis of her acting career came in two kitsch products of the Sixties – she was an unforgettable Rosa Klebb in From Russia with love, while her appearance as Frau Schneider in the stage version of Cabaret gave her at least the type of role she had always deserved. Perhaps it simply required age to bring out the best in her; or maybe the wonderfully ‘lived-in’ performances of her final years evoked a style of Berlin theatre that had never really existed. At all events, despite her stormy private life and inability to find a satisfactory role for most of her professional career, she seems to have been a delightful individual, adored by those who worked for her, patient (like Val Wilmer) at absorbing the language and musical styles of other cultures, always in search (like Dick Heckstall-Smith) of the perfect professional partnership. It seems a pity that she never sang with a band.