Charlie Parker is still remembered by jazz fans as the best thing that ever happened to modern jazz. But he is not remembered as one of the best travellers in the history of jazz. During the 1940s, when modern Jazz was confined to the East Coast and the New York area of the USA, Parker and his band were offered a job in California, and down they went to spread the gospel and earn some dollars. One of the members of the band recalls that on the third morning of the train journey to California, Parker awoke blearily and peered out of the window as the train drew up at some minor halt. All he could see, from there to the horizon, was desert. It was too much for him. He jumped up, grabbed his saxophone case, opened the door, and announced his intention of going back to New York. The band piled out as he started the long walk and bundled him back on the train.
There is a long history of musicians, especially jazz musicians, travelling by train, by night and by day, across America, across Britain. There was a loving recreation of the experience in Some Like It Hot, when Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis joined the all-girl band for their long train trip from the snows of Chicago to the sunny beaches of Florida.
All fiction, of course. Yet here is the very real Count Basie reminiscing in his own memoirs, in a fashion not too far removed from nostalgic fiction: ‘We left Fall River by train, and that was the way we travelled everywhere from then on. The show had its own chartered Pullman cars, and believe me, that was my piece of cake. Most definitely. Because I have always been crazy about trains. I love the way they feel when you are riding them, and hearing them from inside. When the show would come to the end of a stand after a few days or a week somewhere, they couldn’t get through the last act fast enough, because I was so excited about getting back on the train. Then, lots of times, instead of me getting into my bed, I used to sit and look out of the window most of the night as we rambled on from one place to another. That was music to me.’
Duke Ellington loved trains as much, but for a quite different reason: it gave him time to compose, and people remember him sitting up all night with pencil and manuscript paper. It would have been hard to prevent the train noises from sweeping into his music, and it is no surprise that some of his best pieces were actually named after trains –Happy Go Lucky Local,Daybreak Express and so on. But if the sound of the train is to be found anywhere in jazz, it is in the work of the early blues pianists, many of whom travelled around by train- often illegally, either hiding in the trucks or perilously riding the rods underneath. There is a wonderful early boogie woogie piece by Meade Lux Lewis called Honky Tonk Train Blues, which doesn’t exactly imitate the sound of the train, but, even more impressively, captures the rolling, surging rhythms of a steam express in full cry. Many of Lewis’s pieces are named after trains –Chicago Flyer,Six Wheel Chaser and so on.
But none are quite as graphic as a piece by an old pianist called Wesley Wallace; on N.29, Wallace actually talks about the progress of a train trip -’We’re pulling out of East St Louis’- and describes the very spot and moment when he, as an illegal passenger, would leave –‘I’m rolling now’.
The big white bands, who, presumably travelled in a bit more comfort than that, were still very pro-train. I once bought a 2-LP set of Glenn Miller performances on a French label, and was struck by the fact that on each of the four sides, there was a tune dedicated to a train.Glen Island Special,Slow Freight,Sleepy Town Train and, of course,Take The A Train.
But for the black bands, there was a special reason to be fond of them; they offered a refuge from the horrors of segregation. Count Basie mentions they had their own chartered Pullmans, but he doesn’t say why. It was quite simple. Black musicians touring in America never found it easy to book accommodation, and the further south they went, the harder it got. Solution: hire your own coaches. Cab Calloway’s band always toured in private Pullmans (and, apparently, had wonderful parties in them after the shows). Duke Ellington hired two Pullman coaches for the personnel and another for instruments. In the evening you just pulled into a siding, which was home for the night.
In my own small way I have been able to taste some of these delights, because as a member of Instant Sunshine I have spent my fair share of the last 20 years travelling on a train with a double bass and euphonium. The worst journey I ever had was from Dundee to London, when I got on the train at the front and the guard said, I am sure with the best intentions, that I would have to put my bass in the guard’s van. That was at the other end of the train, and I never again hope to walk the length on an Intercity train, trying to steer a double bass over people’s heads. It took me from Dundee to Edinburgh.
On another, happier occasion, we got on to the train at Wolverhampton at the same time as a honeymoon couple who were being sent off amid showers of confetti, and we thought it would only add to their delight if we serenaded them. To their surprise, they were joined in their compartment by four uninvited men, a double bass and two guitars, who insisted on playing their most romantic numbers to them, when it was quite obvious they only wanted to be alone.
I even saw jazz officially welcomed on the rails, when Alex Welsh and his Jazz Band were given the run of a special jazz outing from Paddington to Reading and back. The concert they gave in Paddington before leaving was wonderful; out there, in the concourse, under the roof, the acoustics were just about right for a rowdy jazz group, though I couldn’t help noticing that passengers for Twyford, Cardiff and other places were having some difficulty in hearing their announcement.
The next time I saw a band on a train was in, of all places, Peru, where I was sent by the BBC to make one of the Great Railway Journeys programmes. We were travelling up to a high Andean town one day called Huancavelica, where there was to be a fiesta, and the band going to play there was in the same coach as us. Very foreign they looked, too, with large, Indian, almost Asiatic faces and native garments. One of them, a saxophonist, sat across the way from me, fast asleep. Suddenly, without warning, he woke up, stood up and took his saxophone case from the rack above.
‘Good Lord,’ I thought, ‘he’s going to play, here and now.’
He opened the case and took out a bottle of booze, put back the case, and settled down for a nice drink. I felt quite relieved. So musicians were the same the world over, after all.
Another thing that unites them, apart from the need for a drink now and then, is a touching loyalty to their instrument. The very first time I went to the Edinburgh Festival to play, back in 1963, I strapped my double bass in its flimsy coat to the top of a little car and drove up.
In the Lake District it came on to rain and, conscious of the flimsiness of the coat, I stood outside in the pouring rain for 20 minutes holding a big umbrella over the bass and getting soaked myself. The last time I went up to the Edinburgh Festival to play, my instruments and I travelled by train, and I would like to take the opportunity of saying that no rain fell on them during the entire journey.
There were other snags, though. I was lucky enough to find one of those old-fashioned guard’s vans on the Bristol-Edinburgh train which has enough room for everything, and a big grille behind which all is kept. Halfway, I thought I’d go and check on the instruments. They were fine.
Once there, however, I thought I’d go in and do five minutes practice on the euphonium. I had no sooner entered the area than the door clicked shut behind me, and locked into place. I was trapped in the luggage, with no sign of a guard. It is, if it has never happened to you, very embarrassing to be stuck with two bikes, a bass, euphonium and various trunks as if on show for or locked up for being drunk and disorderly. And it is very hard to make it look as if you are there on purpose.
I have a message of good cheer, however, for anyone caught in that situation. Sooner or later the train will stop at Oxenholme station and you can get out on the platform and walk back to you seat as if nothing has happened.
Intercity Magazine, October 1992