NIGHTS AT THE MISTY MORNING
JAZZ SOUND ARCHIVE (working title ‘Musical Martyrs: Testimony of the Unsung’). Subject: James (Jimmy) Sims, tenor-saxophonist. Location: Flat 12a, 20 Essex Street, Islington, London. Recording commenced 10.05am, 23/6/2000). Status: Uncut, punctuated for sense. Editor’s italics.
Tape’s precious, yea? But let me get this on it before we start: it’s a good job the old man isn’t around any more to question me about my first recording, this thing you’re doing. Never mind the gigs, the radio dates, the odd TV slot with me and the other oddballs so much in shadow while blowing behind yet another mop -haired, one-night-wonder that my own mother and father wouldn’t recognise me, if they were alive. Nor my sound for that matter, following for the nth time some gagging arrangement of Body and Soul. Upbeat, for Christ’s sake! Joe Sims and his Silver Collection recorded it the way Hawk played it – slow and easy. I’ve still got the 78. That was a real recording, not like this, spouting into a little Jap machine ‘for posterity’ as you call it, with my horn asleep on the bed and the street babble coming up through the window and grabbing me by the lobes. Shall I close it? Yea, let’s shut the fucking window.
So just talk, you say. What do you want to know? What’s there to tell? One thing is, you won’t get the sound of my voice into a book. A black man with a Cockney accent, right? So let’s get that down before my voice, what you might call my authentic voice, goes under for the second time. Third time and I’m drownded (sic), yea? I’ve been thinking about what you said you want and I thought – why not work backwards for this opening session and then, later, we can talk about me, I can talk about me? D’you dig? But there’ll be a bit of me while we are time travellin’.
So I get up in the morning whenever, I think about playing in the day and then (if my boat’s in) I play in the night, get paid and get laid (subject laughs). I never practise. Elvin (drummer Elvin Jones, member of John Coltrane Quartet) said he used to practise, then he found out how to do it so he didn’t practise any more. My old man, who used to practise clarinet big time, said Elvin talked shit on that score. Christ, d’you know, words like ‘shit’ and ‘score’ are drifting into my normal conversation these days. I never realised till now, till I could see my words snagging on that little reel of yours, but it’s like some bug still in your blood, a nasty barbed bug that once sent you whirling out of control and almost fucking did for you. It was almost telling you something, like: here’s the merry-go-round - fun, ain’t it? - and here’s what it’s like when the fair’s shut and the rain’s drumming on the tarpaulin like Gene Krupa. Disappointment, damp, down and out. You wouldn’t want a second ride, would you? Damn right you would, and another, and another! But then I had to wave goodbye to the travelling circus and do without rides. Score, shit – they’ve got different names for the same lousy thing now, as though there’s some variety in it, as though it isn’t the same paw that puts a roll of 50s in your way then mugs you blind. I ain’t had no pharmacist (reference to a drug habit or supplier) for ten years now, but the bug’s still there, cruising around in my veins, waiting for another chance that ain’t coming its way, though I reckon it must get excited every time I top-bill at The Misty Morning (jazz club in Conduit Street) before six nerds and a wolfhound. Don’t know how Folly (Frank ‘Folly’ Arnold, eccentric owner of The Misty Morning) keeps his powder dry. But now and again, one of the six (not a nerd obviously) I recognise. Pinter was the last. Harold Pinter, with a bloke in a tweed cap. And the wolfhound is a fact. Its owner must have had clout, ‘cos Folly was caught on the hop when it appeared and had to read the small print of his licence. But it just sat there and listened, unlike most of the crowd I play for. I stopped in the middle of Love For Sale once, with the rest of the band skidding into me from behind, to ask a noisy foursome at the bar if they talked all the way through a movie. One of them looked nasty, so my pianist at the time, Johnny Le Grange (check possible elision of surname; subject unsure), whispered across to me to announce that it was rhetorical, that I was speaking rhetorically. Seemed to calm the situation. I would have had to look up ‘rhetorical’ if Johnny hadn’t been Brain of Britain, Leslie Welch the fucking memory man.
Except I don’t possess a dictionary. Johnny was white, died young, and I used to ask myself: why is he so bright and me, this nigger (or ‘musician of the Negroid persuasion’ as Johnny used to put it) from St Lucia via the Whittington Maternity Hospital at Archway such a skullhead? Was it – is it – London, the city, forever elbowing you out to the margins, to the edges, to the jazz world, where six nerds and a wolfhound get down on their knees before you, except when they are talking amongst themselves and chopping your visibility in mid-flight? That’s why black British jazzmen are so fucking good. It’s not the skin colour, the lips, the rolling ‘Mammy, Mammy How I Love Yer’ eyes or ‘the inclination to dance’ as I read in that book about the Empire Windrush ( the boat that brought Caribbean immigrants to Britain in 1948), but the fact that it’s better to stay in and learn to play an instrument while the sticks and stones (note: not rhyming slang) rap at the walls of your micro terraced house, especially if your old man is doing it four hours a day in his bedroom and leaves a fistful of saxes lying around in the dark like fucking Tutankhamun's treasure. But praise, too, for my teachers at school (check names). Jazz-crazy white men. Yea, they could hit it. But don’t expect me to go overboard about them. When your feet keep giving way on the slope, the helping hand is always from above. You dig? It’s like you’re mixed up about where it’s coming from, this arm reaching down and whether you really want to be up there with them, the helpers whoever they are, rather than keep sticking those toes into the scree and running and scattering slate shit everywhere, even in the faces of your brothers and sisters. You think we’ll all come at you one day, arms linked? Hell, some of my worst enemies are black, and I ain’t talking coalminers or anything (subject laughs).
So here’s my old man, Joey Sims, and my mum, Olive, and me, little Jimmy, at the docks on arrival (black and white photo, retained). I was four so you can work out my age. My mum was called Olive after Olive Oil in the Popeye cartoon. She shortened my old man’s name to Joe after we’d been here a while ‘cos British folks all had budgerigars called Joey and she didn’t want no hassle about shit like that. No, sir! Her man was a man, not a pretty cockatoo. And here’s Joe Sims and his Silver Collection (another photo) at Walthamstow town hall in 1958. Joe used to tell me that every time he went out in the city, away from his ‘old shipmates’ as he used to call the immigrants, he was entering the jungle. Laugh at that! Man, we was the jungle folk, swinging in the trees of Springfield Park while them pearly white boys waited for us to drop down knuckles first. It was like this: sure, there were whiteys who liked us. They were the guys who knew that moneywise they were just like us, so we said, ‘Join the club, man’, but there were others who said, ‘Christ, we don’t wannabe like this sweet-smelling shit!’ and took it out on us for being the same as us. Dig that – taking knuckle bunches for showing people what they really were! I mean, in those days you could save jam-jar labels and get a free golliwog badge. Before she died, I heard my mum having a ding-dong upstairs with Joe about people liking him in his natty bandleader’s tails just ‘cos he and his cocoa band were wogs who provided a beat and those who liked the beat only liked it when posh folks couldn’t see what they were doing on a Saturday night, slumming it in Finsbury Park and South Tott. D’you know, her words come back to me sometimes when white folks sit in The Misty Morning, taking me and the guys so seriously. But to me it ain’t serious; it’s more like threatening, as if they’re just waiting for them monkeys to drop down off the bandstand fists first. You know, it’s only ever you whiteys who listen to us. I should be bloody grateful, as Joe always said to my mum on pay day. Like father, like son. (Pause) Christ, I’m as non-stop as a rapper. Do you know what a rapper is? Tell yer: a flashy limo with no brakes. That tape’s gonna run out.
(Subject excuses himself. The top-floor flat consists of a spacious living-room with kitchen facilities in one corner, a short corridor link to a back bedroom looking down on to a walled, uncultivated garden, and a cramped bathroom-toilet between the two rooms. It is tastefully, not to say expensively, furnished, though the bedroom has little storage space, the subject’s clothes resting on a moveable hanger; the bed is a futon. The bedroom doubles as a music room: there is a music-stand on which lies a thick volume of tunes and their chord changes with compendious notes and markings, and on the wall is a blown-up version of the record album cover of Tutu by Miles Davis. Subject says he always uses the stairs because he was once stuck for two hours in the cramped, ‘dumb-waiter’ lift. Subject returns.)
OK. Here’s something you should listen to. (Subject refers to 78rpm Parlophone record in torn paper cover: Laura backed by Chinatown, played by Joe Sims and His Silver Collection). And here’s a better picture of the band. (Publicity shot of musicians, all black except one, in white ties and tails, taken by Magnet Studios, Maida Vale. Retained). All dead now, except Denzil Morris, the drummer, but he’s as good as, in that place in Peckham. What’s it that ails him – Alzheimer’s? Sounds like something you take, not something you catch. Just sits there staring out at a scabby rose garden, with his arthritic mitt wrapped around a drumstick. I go to see him now and then, for the old man’s sake. Waste of time, because he doesn’t know me, look at me or speak to me. Black and ga-ga. What a combination. But I stare at him sometimes and think: well, he’s probably forgotten he’s black, no longer knows what it means, as if he’s sluiced away his ebony and all the unfriendly shit that goes with it. What would Johnny Le Grange have said? Probably, ‘a condition, James, much to be commended’. Too right. I once caught a little black nurse shouting at Denzil and I thought that’s white behaviour, you’re a ‘disgrace to your race’ (subject adopts strong Afro-Caribbean accent and utters the phrase in sing-song style), but then I thought, well ain’t this what we’re aiming for, everybody the same, even when they’re doling out shit to a dribbling ole (old) king of the swingers? The same, good or bad.
Mum wanted to be good – bashed the Bible an’ all that – but the old man just wanted to play music and I wanted to be like my old man. Know why? You didn’t have to take a bruising while learning your trade. It was OK with most of the whiteys, the old man said, ‘cos we were manageable. A little licorice goes a long way, you dig? But we bred; we had the temerity to have little long-armed Cockney baboons, and that’s when the trouble started. We appeared in numbers and we herded ourselves together and bobbed and weaved. That’s why the Silver Collection had only one white guy, Monty Arnold, the Jewish trombonist, father of Folly, who used to call him ‘an interloper with lips like mating slugs’. I’d say we pick up friendly whites on the way if it didn’t translate as us on the move, getting bigger, dying to take over. Monty was into Forties Swing, then re-bop. He opened the first Misty Morning in a different place, down Stoke Newington way. There was big trouble there later with Teddy Boys and they shut him down. But it was where the Silver Collection started in 1953. They played everywhere, got into the BBC, cut sides. Folly says they were ‘united in peril’, eleven coons and a Yid. Folly says the black guys got it first on account of appearances; Monty always looked at people head-on, in case they glimpsed that parrot nose and decided to shake him down, slap him with his slide. Hatred? It was a bundle of laughs. There’d have been more of it if the haters hadn’t been far away. But there’s loathing by proxy, yea? The best was all them nerdy white boys listening to records, all that ‘Trad’. Fuckin’ hell. We half expected them musicians in waistcoats to appear blacked up like old Moses and his thin kazoo. Am I going on a bit? Yea, I am. Do people revere me? Yes, they do – if they are in the business. But reverence from the jazz-ignorant, jelly-eeled, dogbreaths on the Holloway Road ain’t forthcoming.
Let me tell you a story. The Silver Collection once played for a party at some posh country mansion on the Oxford Road, out Amersham way. Everybody was polite and treated them nicely. The old man was told food would be available in the kitchen at half time. When the boys went downstairs, there was nothing. It was an oversight. The old man had to stop Denzil playing the copperware hanging from the walls, then he went upstairs to make inquiries. A flunkey said he would pass on the message. Minutes later, a young white jitterbugger shimmied into the kitchen, looked around, halted before Monty, apologised to him and said food and drinks would be brought down immediately. Not a word to the old man, who said to Monty afterwards: “If he’d known you were an Israelite, your head would be sticking out of that fucking stove.” Folly tells it: Joe Sims wouldn’t have let on.
Here, you can have this. (Subject refers to the latest CD of the Jimmy Sims Quintet. It’s an independent label, Megaphone Records) On the Tube home late last night, I sat opposite a guy and he moved further down the carriage and got out at the next stop. He didn’t want to get out; you can always tell. He must have thought I had a knife. He thought right. I don’t intend to get cut. Don’t intend to cut, either, if you must know.
Can I send a message, like on those crap phone-in programmes? OK. Here goes: Still drowning in the open seas, Joe, but doing fine up the creeks!
That it? Will that do for a ten-bar intro?
(Break for coffee)