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10/23/11

Echoes of Humph at Mack's, 1953


In March of 1953, I was an apprentice artist in the art department of Fona Radio, Denmark's largest chain of music stores. Fresh out of art school, this was my first job and I loved it, although my salary was insanely low. The art department created window displays for the company's shops, of which about five were in Copenhagen and the rest all over Denmark. As an apprentice, I was not yet entrusted with creative work, but even handling menial chores, such as painting backgrounds and fills, was better than working behind a counter or desk. Given my personal interests, there was much to be said for working in an art environment for a music-related company, and an added attraction was the employee discount that enabled me to purchase a recording machine on time payment.

We owe the principle of magnetic recording to a Dane, Valdemar Poulsen, who demonstrated it in 1898, but it had to wait a couple of decades before electronic amplification made it useful. During WWII, the Nazis began broadcasting magnetically reproduced propaganda—it sounded a lot clearer than phonograph recordings, and it offered enough playing time to capture an entire Hitler or Goebbels rant, but it obviously did not work as these guys wanted it to. Commercial use was another matter—imagine JATP, Coltrane or Cecil Taylor restricted to three minutes.

Humph at 100 Oxford Street, with slightly different personnel.
In 1953, magnetic recordings had just been introduced to Danish consumers via  Bang & Olufsen's first wire recorder. I had to have it, and working at Fona made that possible, but before I could do anything useful with this wire contraption, B&O launched its first tape recorder. That was it for me, and it didn't matter that it cost a year's salary, so I was soon dragging a sixty-pound black box up three flights of stairs to the back house apartment where I lived with my mother and her third husband. I had become quite good at smuggling in the occasional new jazz record that should have been a new pair of socks, or a shirt, but the wire recorder and subsequent upgrade posed a real challenge. I would not have gotten away with it if my mother was not also what we have since come to know as a "gadget freak." Of course, I lowered the price considerably when she asked about it, but I was a seasoned fibber when it came to such things.

Let me pause here to apologize for the redundant nature of this entry—some of it has appeared here in another connection, but my approach to this blog is not linear, so it was inevitable that I would occasionally cross my own, previously recollected paths. This one can be found in my earlier reminiscences about Karl Knudsen and the Storyville Club.

As I may have mentioned, I was shy to a fault in my younger days, but that—and matching naïveté—may well have been what drove me to do some rather bold things, such as contact trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton. His Parlophone recordings were among my most prized possessions and, not having the foggiest knowledge of contractual obligations and union restrictions, I dashed of a letter to Humph. In it, I informed him that I would be coming to London for the purpose of gathering material for a jazz program to be aired by Radio Denmark. In that connection, I wished to record his band and an interview. 

The truth was that I had no connection with DR (Danmarks Radio), nor, in fact, the fare that would get me to London. Driven, in part, by a strong need to be accepted into the inner circle of Copenhagen's foot-stomping jazz scene, I naïvely took pen in hand. As I recalled in an earlier entry (Melly, Mick...London 1953), the swift response from Humph's manager, Lyn Dutton, came as a surprise: 


It had never occurred to me that unions might pose a problem, but I had a feeling that Mr. Dutton was leaving the door ajar, so I began to scrape together money for a third class passage to London. On March 12, 1953, leaving behind a drastically diminished record collection, 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. What follows, mostly repeats a previous post. 

Customs inspectors gave me a hard time in Harwich, having never before seen a tape recorder and not quite knowing what it was, but I got the nod and made it to London and 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 record the band that evening, telling anyone who might ask that it was strictly for my own enjoyment.


I have for several decades kept a discography-style list of my recorded sessions. Here are the two
        pages documenting the 1953 Humphrey Lyttelton session. Click on image to enlarge.

Nobody asked and I filled two reels of tape that night. It was monaural, of course, but pure luck had me place my single B&O ribbon microphone advantageously, except for Johnny Parker's piano, which was too far away. I can at last fulfill my promise to post actual recordings if and when I unearthed them and acquired a working reel to reel tape deck. Last week, I found the former in a closet and the latter on e-bay, so here is the first of the Lyttelton recordings, Chicago Buzz. Humph also plays clarinet on this one, as does Bruce Turner, and drummer George Hopkins turns to the washboard. I will include a detailed description of the Lyttleton Club (i.e. Mack's Restaurant) when I post more sounds from this evening.

2 comments:

  1. Great story and a great piece of music. Thanks as always, Chris!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you, Clifford. More Humph to come when the splicing tape I ordered arrives. The tapes themselves have held up remarkably well, but old splices have lost their grip.

    ReplyDelete