July 22, 2013

Good Vibes

Peter Appleyard, 1929-2013

Last October’s Fallcoming jazz concert at Hamilton College consisted of an all-star line-up of Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Jackie Williams, Nicky Parrott, Randy Sandke, and vibraphonist Peter Appleyard. As organizer of the concert I was especially pleased to be able to bring Peter back together with Bucky and Dick, two musicians with which he had enjoyed musical associations throughout his career. Peter passed away on July 17 at his home near Toronto at the age of 84.
Booking Peter for our Fallcoming concert was one more opportunity for me to learn about the music business. As I now know, engaging a Canadian musician involves cross-country trade and work regulations. Peter had to pay a fee of over $600 simply to cross the border to play the gig. Apparently our countries’ are attempting to protect jobs, including gigs for musicians. I knew Peter would not be transporting his own vibraphone and I was curious if he had ever told the border security personnel that he was only visiting friends in the US. He related a story of a violinist who tried the same thing. Upon seeing the violin in the musician’s car, they inspected every bit of his luggage, found his contract, and fined him more than he could ever have possibly made on the engagement. This story resonated throughout Canada as a warning to others who might try a similar evasion of the required tax. So Peter paid the “toll,” — or rather, we added it to his fee.
It was my privilege to conduct an interview with him before the concert last October. Like the majority of musicians from his generation, his entrance into the music profession was based both on serendipity and being prepared when opportunities arose.
Peter was born in Grimsby, England and was a teenager during World War II. Like most vibraphonists, he started on the drums, and talked about what could be called his first break in the music business:
PA:    I left school when I was 13, public school, and in those days in Britain you had to pay for a child’s secondary education, high school. But my parents were victims of the recession and didn’t have much money. They couldn’t afford to do that. And so they applied me for an apprenticeship for a compass adjuster and nautical instrument-maker. We would take a ship out into the River Humber, which was about three miles wide, and we’d take a bearing, and say that was true north, and adjust accordingly to bring it truthfully into line, true north. I was doing that for about two years, and on one occasion I had to go and pick up some Admiralty Charts — not music charts — Admiralty Charts for the British Navy. They used to have corvettes and this type of vessel, to circumvent the British minefields, to get out into the North Sea. Well this 30-minute errand used to be an hour’s adventure for me, because on the way to the Admiralty there’s a record shop. And I always used to stop in there and audition some records, which you could do in those days. You could take three or four records and go and listen to them and come back and say “I’d like to have this one” you know, so-and-so. So this day, here I am in this record shop listening to probably a Benny Goodman Sextet record, and I was tapping away with some drum sticks. Meantime the Royal Navy is waiting to go to sea, and the Admiral is saying “where the hell are those charts, we’re losing the tide.” And anyway this door opens and this fellow with a big moustache, and it was an ex-REF type as a matter of fact, and he says “say, old chap, do you play the drums?” I said, “yeah.” “Well,” he said, “our drummer got caught in bed with another woman last night by his wife, and she promptly took the fire axe off the wall and chopped up his drums.” I say he was pretty lucky. “And if you’d like to come down to the Palace Theater on Saturday morning and audition for ‘Felix Mendelsohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders,’” (it was an Alvino Ray type band, you know) “come down.” So I went down with my drum set, because I was playing drums then. And I got the job. As a compass adjuster’s apprentice I was earning 7 schillings and 6 pence a week, which in those days was like, oh maybe, it was like one dollar. Mr. Mendelsohn offered me 17 pounds a week. So guess what I did? It was rather a difficult decision because I was in love with a beautiful girl and it meant leaving her, and I thought oh, shall I do this? I thought about it and I spoke to my parents of course, and they said, “well you should try it and see how it works.” Those were the days when vaudeville theatres had big bands as their attraction. Ours was the number one band in Britain. We were the first band on British television.
It’s interesting to learn that the big bands played a role in England in providing work for musicians, much like they did during the swing era in the United States. The size of the band and their versatility in backing up various acts provided fertile ground for young musicians.
Peter found his way to the vibraphone in an equally interesting story.
PA:    Actually I’ll tell you this very brief story about the vibraphone and how I got attached to it. During the war I used to go out and entertain the troops at various stations. I played several USO’s over there at the time. I remember once I went in and there was a brand new set of Slingerland drums with big cymbals. I couldn’t believe it. I thought jeez, I’ve really got to get to America. Anyway, this night we were playing this very large aerodrome. And this guy came up, and I was playing drums in this accordion band, and this guy came up with a little tiny vibraphone and he starts to tap with one hand and he had a flatbed guitar and he’d put an electric motor in it with plectrums on a wheel, hitting one string going brrrrrr, and he’d slide his steel up and down there and he’s play arpeggiated chords with the vibraphone. So anyway, I went up to him after and I said, “Mr. Blakey, that’s quite an instrument.” I said, “now can I try it?” He said, “yeah, sure, go ahead.” So there was a cute girl standing there and she said, “you sound good on that.” I thought aha, I should be playing this. Anyway, I said, “would you sell them to me?” And he said, “no I can’t do that.” I said, “well all right, if you ever want to sell it let me know.” So the war ended and a knock came at my door, Mr. Blakey. He said, “you still want to buy the vibraphone?” I said, “yeah.” He said, “15 pounds.” Now I was still working as a compass adjuster’s assistant. So 15 pounds was a king’s ransom. I knew a guitarist who played in a big band with me and I asked him to loan me the money. I borrowed the money and I bought it. My father was furious. You didn’t do that in those days, you know, don’t buy anything on time. If you can’t afford it don’t buy it. So I bought it. About 15 years ago we went back and I went to look this man up, Mr. Blakey, he was still alive. He said, “I’m going to tell you something now I couldn’t tell you before.” He said, “do you remember when we played those aerodromes, I never came home with you?” I said, “Mr. Blakey, it was 60 years ago, but now that you mention it” — because we used to go on bikes. “No, you didn’t as a matter of fact.” He said, “well I’ll tell you, I am telling you now, I was a British spy. And the vibraphone was a cover for me to get on the aerodrome without being suspected by a possible German spy or sympathizers with Germany, on the airport.” I mean you couldn’t say anything to him, there were sounds everywhere, it would “be like dad, keep mum.” And I said, “what did you do.” Well he said, “after the concert they put me in a single engine aircraft with a pilot and fly me behind the German lines in France,” he says, “just prior to the invasion.” And they’d shut the engine off about a mile before a predetermined field, and the Maquis would guide us down with flashlights, and we’d glide in and I’d exchange information with the Maquis, the French resistance, pertaining to what I’d seen, what are the Germans doing” blah blah blah. I said, “Mr. Blakey, how many times did you do that?” “Well” he said, “at least twelve times.” And you know if you get caught it’s fatal, you get shot — spying.
MR:    And the vibes were his cover, huh?
MR:   That’s a really great story. How big were the vibes? Two octaves?
PA:    Two octaves. Yes.
MR:   And you would ride your bike home from the gig?
PA:    And my father made a wooden trailer for me, to put the drums in. And then when I bought the vibes, now we used to have — we used to deliver groceries and they had a basket, and they had a little box on the front. And I started out playing waltzes on them, with the big band.
Peter’s early career led him on a circuitous route, from England, to the Bahamas, with a brief stop in New York City and then on to Canada. He settled in Toronto and enjoyed a long career that included jazz gigs, studio recordings, and acting as music director for radio and television shows. Along the way he had fruitful musical associations with the aforementioned Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, and clarinetist Benny Goodman. His own favorite memory involves “Mr. Blue Eyes” [Frank Sinatra], and once again his presence on stage came about from stars aligning in a most unexpected fashion.
PA:    Whilst I was with Benny, in New York, Mr. Sinatra was going to have a show for two weeks at the Eros Theater with Ella Fitzgerald and the Basie Band, and a huge string section. And I went down to buy tickets and I couldn’t get any, they were sold out. So I went over to Manny’s Music Shop and I ran into Irv Cottler. [He was] a very good drummer, he was with Frank all those great years. And he said, “Peter, how are you?” I said, “Fine, Irv, how are you?” He said, “we were talking about you last night.” I said, “who, me?” He said, “Bill Miller,” pianist, “and Frank and me.” I said, “what are you talking about me for?” He said, “well Frank wants to use vibes at the Eros, and Bill Miller said, “‘well why don’t we get Peter Appleyard?’” So Frank said, “Peter Appleyard?” He said, “yeah, he works with Benny.” He said, “if he works with Benny, get him.” I got the job without an audition. On the second day [Frank] came up to me and he said, “Peter, I owe you an apology.” I said, “what for?” He said, “there’s not enough here [for you] to play, but sweetheart if you feel like playing behind me or Ella do it.” At the end of the run he gives a party like it wouldn’t quit on stage with him, the most beautiful wine and Italian food. He gave me a sterling silver jewelry box, engraved, “Peter, thanks F.S.” He was a great guy. Generous, generous man. And people have asked me “if you wanted to re-live two weeks of your life, or a week in music, which week will you choose?” And I think it would be those two weeks with him. I used to sit on the stage, Monk — they’d do “The Lady is a Tramp” to finish, you know, he and Ella with the Basie band. You’re Basie, and I’m this close to you. And there’s reams of music, and Basie’s looking going clink, you know. Frank goes “I get too hungry” and Basie goes bonk bonk, bonk bonk. All this music. So finally one night Frank sang “I get too hungry/for dinner at eight.” And Basie goes [scats a complicated piano run] and Sinatra turns around and said, “Bill [Basie], be careful, you might get a hernia.” But oh, he was so great. And out of all the people I’ve  ever spoken to — and I’ve played for and met the Queen Mother twice — no one gave me the sensation that I experienced with Frank Sinatra.
Peter was a man who could function as an accompanist, and knew his role in any ensemble. At the same time he had the flair of a showman and could wow the audience with his flashy mallet technique.
It’s the rare concert that comes off without a glitch and moment of intense anxiety. In this case it was the college vibraphones that provided the angst. Even though I had checked out the instrument, my limited knowledge was not sufficient. When Mr. Appleyard went to play the vibes at sound check, it was discovered that something was awry. I can’t tell you what it was except that it had to do with the tension on the bars, and it was fortunate that my bandmate and dear friend, drummer Tom McGrath, was on hand to fashion a repair with a bungee cord that he used to keep one of his drum sets tightly closed. Thank you, Tom.
Fallcoming Jazz '12 (L-R) Bucky Pizzarelli,
Randy Sandke, Monk Rowe, Peter Appleyard
The concert was a huge success and I got to play a couple of tunes standing next to Peter, thus racking up one more entry into my list of memorable associations.
A CD worth pursuing is Peter’s The Lost 1974 Sessions, an all-star line-up recorded back in 1974 and released in 2012. It recently saw the light of day thanks to Peter’s efforts.

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