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10/4/10

Karl Emil Knudsen: Part II (conclusion)


This continues an earlier post. If you wish to read that first, here is a link to Part I

I don't know if anyone made any money on it, but I also don't think that was ever the Storyville Club's raison d'etre. I do know that it was a success with the public. You may recall from part I of this reminiscence that my co-worker at Dona, Eyvind Lindboe (aka Fesser) suggested that I paint a sign to go above the door at the Hambrosgade facility that now housed the club every Saturday night. I worked hard to come up with an impressive sign and it did, indeed impress Karl Emil so much that I never again had to pay the admission fee. Did that make me feel like an insider? You bet it did, especially when Karl also asked me if I could make the walls less dreary. At that point, he could have asked me to mop the floors and I would have jumped at the opportunity. As it was, I wasted no time getting started on the murals. I decided to paint them on large sheets of paper that could be put up like wallpaper, and, of course, make the motif New Orleans, the city we all loved and knew only from photographs. That was not a problem for me, although I'm sure it would have raised concern among people with first-hand knowledge of the city. In retrospect, it also contained elements that today would be deemed politically incorrect  and upsetting to some people. You see, in my naïvité, I created a stereotypical view of black people in a romanticized setting that had little to do with the New Orleans I would visit seven years later. Perhaps it is a good thing that there don't exist any photos of my work. I think some people would have taken offense at the occasional "black fruit hanging from the poplar tree," as Billie used to sing. Morbid scenarios aside, the murals livened up the look of the place—I used every color I could dip my brush into and everybody seemed to like the result. That included Karl, who was already busy getting Storyville Records off the ground.

In March of 1953, the Storyville Club was still going strong and I was ready to take a further step onto the jazz scene. Working at Fona, a chain of music stores, I was able to purchase a tape recorder at a discount and with a time payment plan. Magnetic recorders were new in Denmark but when I saw that B&O had a wire recorder on the market, I immediately lusted for one and, shortly thereafter, when they introduced their first reel-to-reel tape machine, I was able to make the switch. When I think back—as is my wont—I have to marvel at this early machine's quality, the B&O engineers weren't fooling around. Of course it was mono and, of course, it weighed a ton, but the sound was amazing. Still looking back, I have to wonder how even extreme shyness did not prevent me from doing some rather bold things, such as write a letter to Humphrey Lyttleton, stating that I was coming to London and wished to record his band and an interview for a program on the Danish Radio. I had no connection with DR (Danmarks Radio), nor, in fact, money that could take me to London. I did, however, have determination and a burning need to be accepted in the inner circle of Copenhagen's foot-stomping jazz scene. So, I naïvely wrote the letter. To my surprise, I received a response from Humph's manager, Lyn Dutton, within a week. I touched on this in an earlier post (Melly, Mick...London 1953), but here is the actual letter: 


It had never occurred to me that unions might stand in the way, but, as I interpreted his letter, Mr. Dutton was leaving the door ajar. That naked woman I mentioned in the previous part of this recollection was about to learn how to weave. After a month of scrimping to save up my Kroner, I still needed to dip into my slowly growing collection of records. I now had an electric phonograph, so not all my labels were worn down to the shellac—I took a bunch of them to Concerno (I think that was the name), a place that specialized in used jazz records. Then, on March 12, I boarded a third class car on the London boat train with a round-trip ticket and just enough money to get by—or so I thought. 

It's New Year's Eve, 1953 and I am dancing with Rita. This is the
only photo of my B&O tape recorder that I have.
Before I left, I ran up my employee account at Fona by purchasing a B&O ribbon microphone and a stand. You can imagine how much I now had to carry, the recorder weighed about 65 pounds and the stand was nearly that. They gave me a hard time in customs at Harwich,never before having seen a tape recorder and not quite knowing what it was; it didn't help—or perhaps it did—that this was where customs inspectors were trained and carefully monitored by their superiors. Well, I made it past that hurdle and to Mr. Kerpner's Guest House in Earl's Court— £2 a week, with breakfast.

I phoned Lyn Dutton, who suggested that I join him and Humph for lunch at 100 Oxford Street on the following day. It was here that the band played at night. I don't have to tell you that I was a nervous wreck, but I made it through lunch and was delighted when Humph suggested that we do the interview that afternoon and that I also record the band, informing any inquiring minds that it was for my own enjoyment.

That afternoon, I came back and managed to engage two flights of steep stairs with my heavy load. Then Humph and I sat down and I conducted my first interview, ever. I think it was also my worst ever, and that is really saying something. The tape is probably somewhere in the recesses of my catch-all closet, and it should stay there. Here, recalled verbatim, is a sample of the embarrassing exchange:

Humph: "I don't believe Bechet ever heard the sides we recorded with him.
"Don't you?"
"No, he didn't even ask for a playback in the studio."
"Didn't he?"
I have for several decades kept a discography-style list of my recorded sessions. Here are the two
        pages documenting the 1953 Humphrey Lyttleton session. Click on image to enlarge.

I think you get the picture. Things went better that evening and I still marvel at the job B&O's engineers did on their first tape recorder, It was mono, of course, but the sound was remarkably good and I was very fortunate to have placed the single microphone so that the balance was almost perfect—only Johnny Parker's piano was slightly lacking in presence. The band was in good form and when clarinetist Archie Sempel joined in and challenged Wally Fawkes on "Farewell Blues", the place erupted. Humph also played on a couple of numbers by Neva Raphaello and pianist Mike McKenzie's trio (see tape information pictured above). Those tapes are also mislaid, but very likely in my apartment. If I ever get another functioning reel-to-reel player (I'm working on it), you will hear some of these recordings, which I have never made public. Well, that isn't entirely true, because my little lie about coming to London to record material for a Danish radio show became a truth when a call to the jazz department resulted in a program featuring my London tapes. It was my very first radio experience, so the letter to Humph actually started two career paths that now have led to me doing this blog. One never knows, do one?

I was leaving to return to Denmark the following morning, so Humph suggested that I leave my tape recorder in the cloakroom at Mack's overnight and pick it up on my way to Liverpool Street Station. Great idea, but not one without consequences.

When I came to pick up the recorder, I was asked for my cloak room check, but none had been issued me, so they called in one of those uniformed retirees that always seem to work at these places. He looked at the machine and decided that it was probably expensive, whatever it was. I explained what it was and why I had left it in the cloakroom, but the old man wasn't really buying my story. I told him that I could describe in detail what we would see when the cover was removed, but he held his ground. Then a young waitress popped up and solved the problem. She had been there the night before, as a guest, and she had seen me with Mr. Lyttleton and that machine. The old man was convinced by her testimony, so I had my machine back, but valuable time had been lost, so I arrived at Liverpool Street Station just as my train was pulling out!

Liverpool Street Station
I checked my recorder, stand and bag at the station, this time making sure that I had a receipt, and went to the Cook travel bureau to have my ticket changed for the next train. Here's where the consequences of Humph's suggestion began to manifest themselves—it was the winter season and so the next boat train was three days hence. Furthermore, while I could still go third class on the trains at either end, only first class passage was available on the ship. By the time I had paid for my upgrade, I was down to my last shilling. That naked lady needed to take out the old spinning wheel and get busy, so I spent half of my money on a tube ticket to Charing Cross Road and the other half on a cup of tea at Rex's restaurant, a Greek musicians' hangout which I knew Chris Barber frequented. My idea was to borrow some money from Chris, knowing that Karl was bringing him and the Ken Colyer band to Copenhagen the following month.

I nursed my tea at the restaurant for two hours and the Greek waiters didn't seem to mind. There was an old wind-up gramophone on a table in the corner and a small pile of jazz records, in case anyone felt like feeding it. They also had a storage room where musicians parked their instruments, sort of like Jim and Andy's in New York, but without the booze. Chris finally arrived, along with the entire band. This had actually been his group, but Ken Colyer, a merchant seaman, had recently returned from New Orleans, where he was jailed for abandoning ship and overstaying his welcome in the U.S. This made him an overnight hero in the eyes of British jazz fans and placed him way ahead of other European trad musicians. New Orleans? Jail? How perfect was that in the eyes of jazz romantics? The Barber band became Ken's and on this day they were off to a pub called The Fishmonger's Arms, where they would hold their third rehearsal in an upstairs room. Would I like to come along?, Chris asked. What a silly question!

Chris gladly lent me five pounds (good money in those days) and generously offered me shelter at his house while waiting for the next boat train. I won't go into it now, but my trip back to Copenhagen was, indeed, a "trip"—in a more current sense. I will save it for another time, so let me fast-forward to my  triumphantly return to Copenhagen with two reels of Lyttleton tapes.

I don't recall the exact circumstances, things happened so fast and everything was done in such an informal manner, but—perhaps somewhat inspired by my surprising success in London and the fact that my tapes and I were going to be featured on a radio show—the Storyville Club people decided to put me in charge. Karl was becoming too busy with his record label and they needed someone at the helm. Me? I couldn't believe it then, and I still can't, but there I was, deeper into the inner circle than I had imagined possible. My extreme shyness was also becoming less so, but if I was aggressive, it was in a quiet way. In April, the Colyer band arrived and Karl asked me to record it for his new label. I was the only one in our group who owned a tape recorder, so it wasn't for any other reason that I he asked, but it helped to validate my purchase of such an expensive machine, at least in my mother's eyes. Imagine how many shirts and pairs of socks that money could have bought, she once said. Besides, my interest in jazz was but a passing fancy—why not let it pass in a more practical way. A it turned out, my mother's view changed as she developed a fondness for the likes of Errol Garner, Nellie Lutcher, and Louis Armstrong.

Someone, I think it was Karl, had come up with a brilliant idea for promoting the visit by Ken Colyer's Jazz Men: stage a "riverboat shuffle." They rented one of the ferries that sailed between Copenhagen and the Swedish port of Landskrona, a rather large multiple-deck boat that easily accommodated the Colyer band on one deck and two Danish groups elsewhere. Even on a chilly April night, dancing on the deck had its charm, and a further lure was the fact that sailing into a foreign port rendered liquor and tobacco tax free. Ticket sales were as brisk as the Spring air and I don't know why "riverboat shuffles" did not become regular events. It wasn't a paddle boat on the Mississippi, except in our minds, and, sure enough, the press loved the idea and hopped aboard with their cameras and note pads.

Extracts from the press clipping.
I had called in sick, so you can imagine how I felt the next morning when I came to work and spotted on by boss' drawing board a newspaper opened to the above photos. Mr. Bang was a nice guy, however, so I got off with just the embarrassment.

I included the Colyer band's "Tiger Rag" in the first part of this recollection. A recording that I made almost accidentally, it  was a prelude—as it were—to a more purposeful session planned for April 19. In the meantime, however, Karl and I spent the next day, a Sunday afternoon, with Chris Barber, Monty Sunshine and Lonnie Donegan at the home of clarinetist Henrik Johansen. His father was I had recorded that almost accidentally, but a more formal trio session took place the following day, at he home of Henrik Johansen. His father manufactured toilets and other bathroom fixtures, so there was in the house a rather large bathroom with desirable acoustics. That's where my tape recorder captured this rendition of St. Phillips Street Breakdown as played by clarinetist Monty Sunshine with Donegan on banjo and Chris Barber on bass. Of course it is very much in the George Lewis vein, but I think they did a good job. What do you think?


The following Sunday, we went to Gentofte, a Copenhagen suburb where Karl had done some scouting to find a large room that might give us a San Jacinto Hall-like sound. Bill Russell's recordings of Bunk, One-eyed Louis Nelson, et al had that hollow acoustic and, well, European trad musicians were emulating every clinker made by their aged idols, so why not also try to capture what had become known as the American Music (in in the label name) sound? The ballroom of the Gentofte Hotel was perfect, so Colyer's Jazz Men mounted the bandstand and I placed my microphone on the dance floor, about 30 feet away.

As I listen to these recordings now, almost sixty years later, I have to agree with The Gramophone's reviewer, Oliver King (a made-up name, if ever there was one), who in the January 1956 issue gave not a single star to an EP containing some of these recordings. He explained why:

"Again I have refused to award stars for these performances, as they are so badly recorded as to sound woolly and almost pre-electric. If I Ever Cease is a little better in this respect, but although some fine jazz undoubtedly went into the recording microphone, precious little idea of it comes Out; the band might be playing in a room draped with felt two blocks away..."

Having myself spent about three decades writing monthly record reviews, I have to admit that I have been equally harsh in my views. Mr. OK (if you know his identity, please tell me) had a good point, but he didn't know that the "bad" sound was deliberate—he should have been able to figure that out, however. Here is a sample of that "almost pre-electric" sound:


The Colyer recordings were issued in 78 rpm format on the British Tempo label, as well as on Storyville—later, of course, the found their way to vinyl and are currently available on a CD issued in England by Lake Records. "I never received a thank you or a penny," Ken said a few years later, "I hear that Knudsen is now a rich man. Bad cess to all parasites." Well, I don't think Karl made much money from these tapes, and I have never complained over the fact that I, too, never received any payment. Karl did become rather well off, but that was because he was a good businessman, loved the business he chose to enter, and worked tirelessly.


In March of 1954, I left it all behind and sailed for Iceland, the country of my birth. More eager than ever to return to the land of jazz, where I had spent close to three wartime years never hearing a note of it. Having dual citizenship, I discovered that I could apply for an immigration visa on either the Danish or the Icelandic quote, and my chances were better if I opted for the latter.


I sold my beloved B&O machine to finance my move and boarded the steamer Dronning Alexandrine to head for a very uncertain but enticing future in the Promised Land. As we all know, jazz continued to thrive in Denmark, the Montmartre became a world-class venue for jazz, Karl expanded his business and took it far beyond traditional jazz, although that remained his favorite, and such icons of the music as Stuff Smith, Dexter Gordon, Thad Jones and Ben Webster were among the many Americans who took up residence in Denmark. Had that happened before I left, I might have stayed.

Karl sometimes parked at my apartment while in New York, and it was always a pleasure to have him around, although he was constantly on the phone, talking to widows, sons and daughters of jazz musicians, making deals. He entered the film business as well, issuing some wonderful jazz videos, and he became a book publisher. It was all a labor of love, even when it brought him money, which it often did not do.

The last time I saw Karl was when he stayed with me in September of 2001 and we watched together in utter disbelief as the World Trade Center drama unfolded. The following day, we walked over to Broadway to have lunch with Maxine Gordon and that's when the impact of the attack really hit us. The actual attack was horrible beyond description, but it looked like something we were used to seeing as staged for a blockbuster movie. The immediate after effect hit harder, emotionally. You could see it in the faces of New Yorkers as they tried to go about their business—eyes met and an eerie recognition came over faces of passing strangers. For someone who was used to New York, a city where one might never really get to know one's next-door neighbor, this sudden, unrehearsed kinship became particularly surrealistic. And then the pictures appeared everywhere, snapshots and posters of missing loved ones, taped and pinned to bus stops and lamp posts by people who desperately sought any news. Karl and I had planned to attend a jazz collectors' meeting in New Jersey on the following day, but I was in no mood, so I bowed out. I told Karl that roads were blocked and the meeting had probably been called off, but he was determined to go, so he did, and found the meeting, although it too showed the effects of September 11. I spent the morning of the 12th visiting a sick friend at Columbia Presbyterian and I shall never forget the sight of literally hundreds of photographs with names and phone numbers that framed the hospital entrance. It was an extraordinary time, a moment when the melting pot that is New York finally seemed to have come together. How sad that it didn't last and sadder still that it ended up polarizing us as never before.

Two Septembers later, Karl Emil Knudsen passed away at age 74. Gone, but far from forgotten by his many friends, some of whom meet regularly as the KEK Society, to honor his memory. They even have a dedicated web site. I recommend that you pay it a visit, some of the text is in Danish, some in English, but you don't have to read any of it to see how much our friend, KEK, is missed.

The post WWII revival jazz scene that brought Karl and me together  some sixty years ago is long gone, so are many of our mutual friends, but the work that Karl so exhaustively pursued will forever bring the music he loved to new ears. Storyville Records now belongs to an international music company and the number of releases has dwindled considerably, but the record business itself is fast becoming a memory. If you have ever dealt directly with Storyville Records, you probable came into contact with Mona Granager—she was Karl's right hand for more years than she might admit to, and she continues, along with another long-time Storyville asset, Anders Stefansen, to issue CDs that Karl would have been proud of.

There is so much more to tell about Karl and jazz in Denmark, but it will have to wait. You have probably surmised that I can go on and on and on, and that I often do just that. Hope it's okay.

Karl on his last visit, September 11, 2001. It is as
if he is looking at the text above and wondering
what all the fuss is about.



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