THE MAKING, BREAKING AND REPAIR OF A BRITISH JAZZMAN By Joe Silmon
16 August 1937 - 1st July 2016
Reproduced (with additions), from "Just Jazz" Magazine, issue 88, August 2005, edited by Pete Lay,
produced here courtesy of
Just Jazz and Joe Silmon
I was born at home, just the right time for Swing, on August 16, 1937. Nurse
Arnold was the midwife attending my Mother at 97 Weldon Crescent, High Heaton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Typical of me, I arrived just in time for tea (around 5pm).
Our Cossor 9-valve wireless was overflowing with big and small combo jazz most of the day, I was told. Subconsciously aware of it, I was, perhaps, instantly hooked. Dad, George Arthur Weld Silmon (British), of partly illegitimately noble English/Moroccan extraction paternally, was born in Dunston-on-Tyne in 1889. My Mother, Josefa (Pepita') Monerri Fuentes, was of purely Spanish, proven distantly noble descent on her maternal side, born in Cartagena in 1899. However, we were just an ordinary working class family - no silver spoons being issued in our time. Revolts throughout Spain heralded bloodbaths to come (1936-39). In 1934, my parents and siblings, George, Josephine ('Pepita') and Arthur ('Arturo'), all born and baptised Silmon Monerri in Cartagena, left lavish accommodation on Cartagena's Muralla del Mar (Sea Wall Promenade) and servants, and trooped back to Britain by recommendation of British Vice-Consul, Mr. Miller. I am Joseph Augustine Anthony Silmon-Monerri, known to 'jazzers' as Joe Silmon.
Dad, always a great breadwinner, formerly Chief Marine Turbine Erector at Cartagena's naval base, on a 5-year Spanish Navy contract with Vickers, met my Mother - the base's first-ever female secretary - in 1924. She handled Dad's contract documents. Meeting again at a dance, they devised the Silmon-Monerri family. In Britain, unemployment loomed doomily; my parents now faced means-testing and dole queues. Jobs were few, yet Dad always found something. But now he was reduced to bench-fitting, toolgrinding, welding etc. However, he clothed and fed us during terrible times. Mam made magnificent meals on a pittance, bolstered income by making beautiful, fine-gauge crochet work, entire bedspreads, winning cash prizes and sales.
Jazz pulsated in the background as I began to grow. I was only two years old when WW2 was declared, and I vividly recall 'whistling bombs' dropping all round; one devastated nearby High Heaton Secondary School. I was always bundled out hurriedly during air raids, well wrapped up, into our Anderson shelter in the garden. Parachutes with all-illuminating flares fell slowly earthwards, some carried mines. Searchlights, 'all-clear' sirens and wardens remain vivid memories. If the shelter was flooded, we used the indoor coal-house under the stairs, braving air-raids there, all conscious of the danger above, - plus smells from our cat!!! George, about 14, an Army Cadet, strutted around in uniform and helmet outside, boldly observing dogfights with Uncle Willie's WW 1 binoculars, pretending to guard
us all. Thankfully, all the family survived the war; even Dad, with dangerous extra duties as Fire Guard at Vickers Armstrong Naval Yard (VANY). One night, on rooftops during a night air-raid, Dad a 'shorty' like me - donned his ridiculously enormous grey steel helmet. Amid the purring of German aero-engines during a temporary lull, in pitch darkness, he overheard two fellow fire-watching Geordies discussing his dimly lit shape. "Who's that?" one asked. "Ah divvent kna," replied the other, "Ah think it's a rivet." Dad loved Geordie humour, and recounted this story frequently.
Before the war ended, influenced by big-band Swing on the wireless and George's friendship with the Volpe family, local big-band leader, Peter Fielding's older children: Tony (pianist), Peter (trombonist), Mike (drummer), not forgetting Gloria, my best friend Roy, Theo (the youngest) and their lovely Mum, I developed an interest in Jazz. George, a draughtsman at VANY, had bought his first guitar in 1943, an acoustic Colletti. Playing for hours, he soon mastered tricky chord sequences and progressions. I copied' on my 4-string cat-gut-driven ukulele; I was six. By age 16, George was proficient enough to sit-in with Peter
Fielding's orchestra at Newcastle's Oxford Galleries. Taught by Charlie 'Chuck' Smith and William Glover, they played jazz or flamenco at home. Although George ('Pedro') only taught me snippets, I had, by age eight, taken in naturally the wonderful sound of all those chords, just as easily as I picked up Spanish - spoken all around me. George, without consciously teaching me, became my greatest influence in jazz; his jazz and flamenco chords had taken root in me. Thus a jazzman was born. After many relocations over the years, I eventually resettled in Manchester in 2001, and continued writing a 25-year book project on my Grandfather's possible ancestor, who brought him 'legally' to Britain in 1868, 'The Secret Life Of The Earl St.Maur (1835-1869)', and one on the 'origins' of the Seymours, unfinished, and I still translate for a Ministry.
In mid-1947 we moved to Spain, leaving behind jazz influences by wireless; UK's Squadronaires; Skyrockets; Oscar Rabin, plus Miller, Ellington, Goodman, Basie, the Dorseys, Woody Herman, and smaller American outfits. Swan Hunter commissioned Dad, an expert on Naval Architecture terminology, to translate contracts for an entire ship into Spanish. Mam typed everything; they worked day-and-night. It afforded our ticket to Spain. Jazz influences there were only by radio and one Benny Goodman record, which Dad sat on! I attended four schools, braving cruel remarks. At Cartagena, I dabbled on guitar and a friend's tortoise-shell flute - forever contemplating jazz. In 1949, education at the Academia Almi, was by barter: Dad and Arturo taught the Head English, in exchange for my enlightenment. I became thoroughly versed in Spanish, leaving the Academy at 14 +, beginning work as a 'green' interpreter/translator in a shipping office. I had just got used to the work, when in mid-1953 we returned to Britain, abandoning my first love (Isabelita) and settling in Levenshulme, Manchester, for 36 years. George, ex-Royal Artillery, a lift engineer, husband to Janet, with two children, wanted us back and to move in later. Jazz, on hold yet again, would shortly command most of my life.
By 1953, Arturo was a multi-linguist in the Intelligence Corps, Dad a Stresses & Strains Inspector with the Admiralty at Metropolitan Vickers. Linguist work being unavailable in Manchester, except if 'thrown in' with other skills, I spent two years at Sparrow, Hardwick's (textiles). While there, I bought my first real instrument - a Simple System clarinet (anything but simple!!!); it was out-of-tune with conventional instruments. In a different job, poor Dad had spent a week's wages on it - then, £6. At Sparrow's, Mike Gilman (drums), Geoff Wilde (trumpet - of Savannah Jazz Band and Gambit Jazzmen fame), and myself formed a lunchtime band in the stationery store. When I changed to a normal clarinet, the late, loveable Chick Purcell provided my only lessons at five shillings (25p); at half-price, 12.5p during National Service. I formed two jazz bands at RAF Henlow, and regret not resuming lessons when demobbed - my biggest mistake.
My jazz career proper started at Manchester after demob. in January, 1958,
with The Clubmen - a short-lived jazz/dance band - with Ronnie Ellis (trombone), Bill Williams/Stuart Knight (drums), Peter Onions (piano), me (clarinet/ tenor sax). My tenor was a second mouth 'REF costing exactly a tenner, bought from the famous trumpeter/session-man Tony Fisher's brother-in-law, who lived nearby. Tony was already brilliant. Discovering an active jazz scene in Manchester, I started sitting-in during 1959 with Keith Pendlebury's (later Johnny
Tippett's) Jazz Band at the original Manchester Sports Guild (MSG) - the Sportsman, and other bands. I joined Alan Royle's Blackfriars Society Orchestra at the Thatched House, and the Cona Café. Unhappy with the predominantly New Orleans content, I formed Joe Silmon's Jazzmen, working the above venues and the Black Lion, Salford. We covered New Orleans, Modern- Dixieland, Swing etc. It was originally the late Phil Godbert's band: Phil (piano), Frank Baxter (cornet), Gerry Cambridge (banjo), Mike 'Drumnastics' Gilman/Malcolm Ferrari/Mike Ogden (drums), Paul 'Sandwiches' Medina/ Howard Burrows (trombone), Howard Murray (reeds), Malcolm
Ridgway/Pete Smith (bass). At the Thatched House, for a while we had the great John Mayall (pre-Bluesbreakers) on piano, also doing his famous one-man-band act. Messrs. Mayall, Medina and Art Themen were all 'freshers' at the Regional Art College. Art played with us frequently - sometimes on clarinet then. I next met Art in the 1990s; he was appearing at the Town Hall, Cheltenham, while I was a Senior Technical Linguist Officer at GCHQ.
Seeking broader experience by 1960, still with my own band, I depped or guested at the new MSG, Bodega, etc, with the original Savannah, Dallas, Sunset Seven, Southside Stompers, Crescent (Jazz Bands), Pete Haslam's Collegians, The Saints, Red River Jazz Band etc. In 1960, I left my band to join Dizzy Burton's Jazz Aces. All these bands, and others including Joe Silmon's Dixielanders and those co-led by young Randy Colville and myself, appeared at the MSG. But few, if any, are referred to in Jack Swinnerton's excellent memoirs. (Ed. Featured in 'Just Jazz' October, 2002-September, 2003). Local bands were MSG's 'bread-and-butter'; without us, there could be no MSG jazz - they could have scarcely afforded the 'non-Mancunian' or foreign musicians so liberally listed and photographed in Jack's 'history' without locals working for 'peanuts'. Yet we were all wiped off 'MSG Jazz History' by the stroke of a pen.
At the Thatched House, conscript Roy Williams (Aces' original trombonist) sat-in during weekend leave. Without Dizzy, through illness, replaced first by Benny Emsley, then by Frank Cropper, the Aces moved to Wynne's licensed restaurant. Attendances gradually dwindled. Sensing our potential temptation, Tony Smith poached' John Featherstone (piano), Moe Green (drums) and myself from the Aces, forming Tony Smith's Jazzmen. Our singular broadcast was from Studio 1, BBC Piccadilly, in 1960. Producer, Trevor Hill; Presenter, loveable jazzophile Peter Wheeler. Regular gigs at The Cavern, Liverpool, followed. Tony left and the band continued as Joe Silmon's Dixielanders in the area, after I moved to London (late 1962- Beatles' take-over time). Trumpet deps were Barry Dixon, the now excellent Ian Royle and Geoff Wilde. Other personnel: Mike Carnie (drums), George Radcliffe
(trombone), Larry Hirst/Bob Leaver (bass), Bob Ascough (banjo). Both bands are commemorated on the Wall of Fame bricks outside the original Mathew St. Cavern. About now, guitarists Ken Gray and Johnny Gordon (of Dizzy's Aces), Jack Garnett (drums), and myself (clarinet) played Hot Club de France at Cona Café - where 12-piece bands swamped hyper-limited floorspace.
Moving to London in late 1962, Moe Green coaxed me into a previously excellent band, now deteriorated, with no work, only rehearsals. Eventual gigs were too few to live on. Artwork, for open-air exhibitions on Bayswater Road, failed too! Luckily, my parents and Arturo lived in Maida Vale; food and accommodation were guaranteed. Obsessed with being a professional, finally admitting failure, I succumbed to the dole!
Obtaining work on US bases in France, a month of mourning (with pay) after JFK's assassination in 1963, was followed by a month playing at Brienne-le-Château air base. Agents grew fat on 'delayed' salaries. Meagre savings vanished. We starved - on a hamburger-a-day each for three, while I still had money, I later stood the cost for three and a dog called Lady, when theirs ran out. After a rare payday, cheap but succulent stews made by drummer Howard's wife, Margaret, from US Commissary meat scraps for Lady and cheap vegetables, kept us going. I specialised in spaghetti Bolognese, and Spanish 'mixture' (fried tomato, one egg, peas, chips). Soon reduced to bread-butter-and-jam, meals deteriorated to one packet of French 'rollos' between four, per day; then nothing per day! American servicemen rallied around our two female singers like bees around a honey-pot. During intervals, the girls were dined; men were only wined. We couldn't admit to starving. If we were lucky, our girls would discreetly sneak us chicken drumsticks, or sandwiches, under the table. One night, not even this! So I started on a champagne cork (real cork - nothing artificial, you understand); talk about delicious!!! With no money to cover our cheap digs, we risked deportation at month ends. At Fontainebleau, two weeks into the gig, I was sacked for letting a brilliant black tenorman sit-in (not band policy!!!). I was stranded without two week's earnings - the bandleader already back in England. He regularly pocketed youngsters salaries. Howard Eggleton
walked out in sympathy. He, Margaret, Lady and I joined a German band in Verdun. After more of the same, by mid-1964, we four, plus Alan Crosthwaite (English guitarist), returned to the UK.
In London (1964), pre-famous John MayaIl gave me gigs, some as duos: the Flamingo, Soho, with the Bluesbreakers, before John and Eric Clapton gained real fame; the Stones' Club (Ricky-Tick, Windsor), White Hart, Acton, and Ken Colyer's Club. John asked me to join permanently; I replied, "It's not my scene." I had chosen jazz. However, it was the right decision; I could have been richer, but became penniless. Soon afterwards, John Mayall shot to fame, becoming a millionaire - richly deserved.
Around now, Randy and I (a mutual-admiration-society) with similar jazz leanings, appeared at the Flamingo. Also attempting the Flamingo was Hogsnort Rupert - a teenage Blues band, making a name. Aged 27,1 mistakenly accepted Hogsnort's gig at this early haunt of Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, John Dankworth, etc, run then by two brothers who blatantly exploited youngsters. "Do one Thursday night here for free - you'll get TEN gigs in London." We did; the other band was Georgie Fame and the Blueflames. However, the first of TEN gigs (outside London, requiring transport hire), was a talent contest - which we didn't win!!! The remaining NINE gigs, heralding similar fiascos, prompted my immediate departure.
In late-1964, sick of tough times, I became a warehouseman in Kilburn, gigging with Len Chead's Quintet, who accepted a prestige gig in Australia; so that was that! Moe Green, now with the popular Back O'Town Syncopators, procured me the vacant clarinet chair, starting with a Wednesday residency at The 100 Club (whose 'History' also ignores bread-and-butter bands), plus outside gigs. I later
auditioned at the Hamborough Tavern, Southall, with Alan Elsdon's Jazzmen - confident of success. Others auditioning: Bruce Turner, Mac White, John Barnes (plus trunk containing five instruments) - I stood absolutely no chance! Nevertheless, Randy (commuting from Manchester to London) and I, together, were now accepted on the London scene, securing gigs with Alan's augmented band, travelling about in an enormous ambulance, which neither June nor Alan recalled at Randy's tribute in August, 2004, at The 100 Club.
The Syncopators used too much comedy for my liking. I returned to Manchester, joining the Zenith Six at Christmas, 1965, resident at the Black Lion, Salford. Alan Pendlebury, Keith's brother (both deceased), led the Zenith, boasting good outside gigs, including two Free Trade Hall concerts, one with Chris Barber's ensemble and another - 'Folk Meetz Jazz' - sharing with The Four Folk. I helped to
organise both when Alan suffered a serious breakdown. I drew band cartoons for programmes, organised ticketing, advertising, and press-releases, and took over as Manager. Personnel: Alan Pendlebury, later Cyril Preston/Terry Brunt (trombone), Keith Pendlebury (piano), Marcia McConnell (vocals), Bob Ascough (banjo), Geoff Ford/Derek Newton (bass), Pete Brown (trumpet), the late Eric Pizey (drums - replaced by Moe Green). Eric sadly died en route to the Club.
On Sundays, Keith's Trio (with Marcia, Geoff, Moe and myself) played Mainstream at the Railway Hotel, Whaley Bridge. I quit both bands at Christmas, 1967, following turbulence, almost immediately joining Len Chead in Cologne in January. Len's personnel had changed, and with a repertoire of only eight tunes, was bound to fail. We were sacked before our month ended. At Hahn US air base they only accepted Hillbilly music. Returning home crest-fallen, plans to take my own band failed. Len's vocalist, Alison Burns, and I teamed up for cabaret work at Fleetwood and Blackpool. Our agent (a 'friend'), later used my signature to fraudulently claim money for dummy Mediterranean gigs, placing carbons underneath UK contracts I signed. I quit, deciding to stay local but professional, accepting bier keller work (seven nights). I became ill through passive smoking, passing the gig to Al Tomkinson (reeds) and Mike Gilman (drums) - who improved it. Over the next six years I did hotel work with Maurice Hope/Maurice Cotterell/Les Emmett (piano), Niall Jackson/Mike and Paul Medina (bass), and Eric Fletcher (drums), in Stockport, and occasional gigs with the Harlem Hot Stompers, Smoky City Six, with vocalists Julie Flynn and Sheila Collier, Geoff Wilde Quintet, Taverners' Jazz Band, Jazz Cardinals, Randy Colville's various outfits - including the 1968-73 Old Fashioned Love Band in the Stoke and Manchester areas - and ran a band of my own at Dino's, Manchester, temporarily also
working as a bilingual courier in Benidorm during 1971.
Taking flute and clarinet only, I played with the hotel's resident Quique Juárez Trio, but missed Manchester's diversity. Back in September, 1971, still with Randy's OFLB at the Victoria Hotel, we broadcast from there on BBC Radio Manchester in October, 1972. I then freelanced as translator/ cartoonist-illustrator/jazz musician. Lacking business sense, I worked interminable hours and under-charged. I found kudos working in Randy's OFLB, a dynamic, versatile band. Randy voiced the parts so as to make this seven-piece sound like 14. Personnel: initially, Joe Palin; later, big-band leader/composer Alan Hare (piano, arrangements), Ian Taylor (bass), Frank Gibson (drums/vocals), the superb Doug Whaley (trumpet/flugel horn), the world-famous Ken Wray (trombone), the soon-to-be internationally known Randy Colville, leader/arranger/composer (clarinet/ alto/soprano saxes), yours truly (tenor/alto saxes/clarinet/bass clarinet/flute). The band was magnificent, but too complex for predominantly Trad audiences, so not successful.
In 1973, penniless again, I worked on Union Castle liners, S/A 'Oranje' and 'Windsor Castle' (Southampton-Durban). Between two 'Oranje' voyages, I deputised for the saxist on the 'Windsor', the fleet's flagship. Six different classical pieces were to be learnt and played every morning in First Class. My forte was jazz improvisation, not reading. I sensed disaster. Within two weeks, through guilt at failing in my duty, depression led to a complete nervous breakdown, whose effects lasted seven years. The last four weeks of the voyage, after Capetown, were a continuous nightmare. Back on the 'Oranje I was happier, but 'damaged goods'. Marriage in 1980 finally broke the taboo. I had always wanted to be a Dad; that was my main problem. Carol, who I met at O.U. Summer School in York, presented me with Joseph (now 24), Edward (22) and Jane (19) - currently studying, Jazz, Blues, Soul etc, at Middlesbrough. Joe and Edward are engineers, but were musical too, at school. [Joe Jnr has just taken up tenor sax]
At the Warren Bulkeley, Stockport (1973-1977), I formed and led C'est Le Jazz Band, the North Western Jazz Board, and co-led Smoky Joe's Good-Time Speak-Easy, along with trumpeter/ percussionist John Rowlands. There, blind pianist Eddie Thompson let me sit-in during middle sets, with Pete Staples (drums) and Pete Taylor (bass). At the Warren, in 1974, I performed my first Flute Marathon, establishing the world record at 40 hours. Beaten by an American flautist by three hours in 1976, I regained the title, with 48 hours, aboard Submarine 'Grampus' at Gosport in February, 1977. Manchester's trumpet-player
Denis Gilmore did the driving and photography, as his contribution to the charity involved (Christie Hospital [cancer research] Manchester). The event only raised a shameful £654. Occasional freelance quintet work followed, while in a technologically-based day-job and studying Open University. Redundancy occurring while we expected our first child in 1981, prompted qualifying academically. Post-graduate diploma studies and 'A' and '0' level pre-requisites preceded my university course. While at Manchester University, I played mostly with Maurice Pike's Panama Jazz Band, at Tommy Duck's (Sundays); also Colin Tomkin's Jazzmen and selected gigs, time being limited. In
1985, I graduated in Hispanic Studies
I'd hoped a professional move would hold the family together. It didn't; Carol and the children left Levenshulme in 1987, for Yorkshire. In 1989, I joined the Joint Technical Language Service in Cheltenham. There for nine years, unknown to jazzers, two years passed before I got gigs, and then few and poorly paid. I eventually worked with the Paul Buck/Gerry Williams Quintet, and later, Peter Tantrum (multi-reeds), using local backing trios in Bath and Bristol, and occasional gigs in Gloucester. After retirement in 1998, I moved closer to my children, whom I'd visited once monthly from Cheltenham. I chose Leeds, where sitting-in was 'always welcome' but gigs were limited to Yorkshire folk. I didn't get a single gig in three years. My teenage children became less available, and I returned to Manchester in 2001 - freelance translating for the Government, and gigging when people remembered me, thankfully more frequently than in Leeds. Julie Flynn, Alan Yates, Don Long, John Gordon,
Bert Allen, Mike Dexter, Ged Hone, Howard Shepherd, Eric Brierley, Johnny Tucker and Vernon Hyde helped me back into the Manchester jazz scene, which is the best I've ever known.