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8

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 1950 American Tour

Beecham’s intention, from 1944, to take an orchestra to the USA. 64 day tour from New England, New York, down the East coast to New Orleans – experience of hearing genuine trad jazz – segregation in the South (and in the North) – up through the mid-west to Chicago and back to New York.

        In March 1944 it was reported in London Philharmonic Post, the Journal the LPO published from time to time, that Sir Thomas (who was then still in America) was sending letters and cables to the management with the news that he was making arrangements for the orchestra to tour Canada and America as soon as this became possible. When he returned to London in September of that year he began talking seriously to the orchestra about his intention of taking the orchestra to America, something he had wanted to do for many years. The last British orchestra to visit America had been the London Symphony Orchestra in 1912. The orchestra had been booked to travel on the ill-fated Titanic,but fortunately, because some of the arrangements for the tour had not been finalised by the American agents, their departure was delayed and the orchestra travelled safely a few days later on the Baltic.

Beecham insisted that the LPO contracts in 1945 and 1946 included a clause stipulating that we agree to go on a tour of America if it could be arranged. In 1947, when I joined the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and for each of the following three years I signed a similar agreement. At last in 1950 the tour was organised. On the 6th October we left from Waterloo on the special train arranged for Cunard Line passengers that took us to Southampton where we boarded the Queen Mary. The following morning at 8.15 we left Southampton for the short journey to Cherbourg to pick up passengers before setting sail across the Atlantic.

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We had all become accustomed to war-time rationing, to the shortage and limited choice of food and clothing, and much else that was still rationed in 1950 Britain. As soon as we were aboard the Queen Mary everything changed. Wonderful menus were presented at every meal and alcoholic beverages were available all day – and night! With five days at sea, many of the instruments safely stored in the hold and no opportunity for practising in the small cabins, the orchestra enjoyed a complete holiday away from work and family life.

I see from the ship’s log that I still have that most of the time the weather was reported as ‘moderate gale, rough sea, heavy swell’. I did not require this information as along with a few of my colleagues, also bad sailors, I spent a great deal of time up on deck, away from the sight of food and the stifling heat in the cabins.

On the 12th October we arrived at New York in the middle of the night and missed the welcoming sight of the Statue of Liberty. At that time entry into America still required everyone to go through immigration on Ellis Island. Somehow, Beecham had arranged for the members of the orchestra to avoid this trauma. We had our passports examined rather quickly while still on board – in the First Class Stateroom. How had he managed to arrange this, at the same time that the celebrated conductor Victor de Sabata with an Italian ensemble that had landed from another ship were all held on Ellis Island for several days? In those days it was easier to get round regulations if you had influence, or what the Americans called ‘drag’.

We were taken to the Great Northern Hotel where we stayed each time we returned to New York. Once settled in our first thought was to have a look round and find something to eat. The first place we found was something we had not seen before and that I think never came over to Britain: the Automat. It is probably best remembered now from the song, memorably sung by Marilyn Monroe in the film Some like it Hot,

… A kiss on the hand may be quite continental
but diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
A kiss may be grand but it won’t pay the rental
on your humble flat, or help you at the automat …

At the Automat there was a wall of small, glass-fronted cubicles just large enough to hold a plateful of food. By the side of each cubicle was a slot for the appropriate coin that would allow you to withdraw your choice. The quality was good and the prices very reasonable, so we made use of their service quite often.

The shops were full of so many things we had not seen in England for a long time and, of course, everything was available without the necessary coupons that so restricted what we could buy at home. In particular I remember buying a nylon shirt. At that time they were much thicker than they are now and had the disadvantage that they did not ‘breathe’ so that one became extremely hot at times. Their great advantage on a tour such as we were undertaking was that they were easily washed and they dried quickly. Ladies’ nylon stockings, so scarce, expensive and mostly ‘under the counter’ at home, were in all the shops. I sent a pair home to my wife everyday. One put ‘Present’ on the form that was attached to each parcel. If you were lucky it got through without custom duty. On average about 50% did.

Later, at about 9.00pm, my friend Steve Trier our bass clarinettist and I decided we would take a stroll and find somewhere for a quiet drink. After a short walk we suddenly found ourselves in Times Square. By now it was dark so we were astonished to find that all the shops were open, a great number of people were shopping and that large illuminated signs were flashing on and off all round the Square. Neither of us, still in our 20s, had ever experienced anything like this at home where since 1939 shops had closed at 5.00pm and there had been no illuminations. But that was not all. We could hear the most amazing singing; strange music sung by a voice that ranged from high soprano to deep bass. It was lovely, but quite eerie. I found out later that it was a recording of Yma Sumac being played from one of the shops. Yma Sumac was a remarkable Peruvian singer with a range of four and a half octaves who at that time had only recorded Indian folk music in Argentina. After 1950, when she married and went to live in the USA she, like so many other fine folk musicians, made many recordings of much more commercial versions of her native folk music and other commercial music.

The crowds, lights, music and the vast array of goods of every kind on sale came as a real shock and a wonderful introduction to a way of life we had not experienced before. In 1950 the difference between life in America and Britain was much greater than it is today; quite suddenly we did really find ourselves in a New World.

The following morning we set off for Hartford, the state capital of Connecticut, where our lengthy and tiring tour started; between September and December, we were to give fifty-two concerts. We had been told that this concert in Hartford would be our ‘blooding’. If this concert was well received by the critics, who would travel up from New York to vet us, the concerts we were to give in New York a couple of weeks later would be well received. If the concert did not go well we could expect a hostile reception.

The first rehearsal in the afternoon in Hartford preceding the evening concert got off to a bad start. Quite a few of the principals arrived late for the rehearsal. Unused to American restaurants they had not yet learned that where there were tablecloths diners were expected to be taking a leisurely lunch. As a consequence service was exceedingly slow and lunch had taken much longer than expected. Sir Thomas, habitually late himself, was on this occasion ready and anxious to start on time, quickly became angry.

When the orchestra was eventually assembled it sounded extremely rough, out of tune, lacking in dynamics and finesse, and with poor ensemble. Life on the luxury liner, with its abundance of good food and alcohol and no opportunity for practise had done little for playing standards. Added to this the orchestra had taken on a number of extra players, some of whom were unfamiliar with the repertoire.

It did not bode well for a successful concert. Many of us arrived for the concert with a good deal of apprehension. There was the usual buzz of expectancy as the audience waited for us to take our place on the platform and for the arrival of this very popular conductor. Sir Thomas walked on in his usual slow, stately way and acknowledged the applause with a dignified bow. Then, with a mighty swipe he brought the baton down to start the National Anthem. He was famous for his rendition of the Anthem, but on this occasion it was done with such courage and passion that he inspired and enthused the whole orchestra. The concert went extremely well, there were excellent notices and the tour started on a high.

Leaving Hartford we toured New England by coach and could enjoy the scenery, especially the trees in their wonderful rich autumn colouring. We gave concerts in Washington D.C., in Boston, in its splendid Symphony Hall, in Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, before returning to New York for two concerts in Carnegie Hall. All this was very exciting but increasingly tiring, as we travelled by coach each day. When we arrived in each town we had to check into a Hotel, unpack and then and go to the Hall for a rehearsal before returning to the hotel again to change into evening dress for the concert. To begin with the newness of everything and the excitement of visiting interesting cities kept us going, but after a couple of weeks, when the novelty had worn off, it became increasingly hard.

From New York we travelled down the East Coast giving concerts every day with the journeys often becoming very long, anything from two to six hours. Then a major shock: we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. We were now in the South where segregation was in force. Suddenly we were made aware of the black/white divide. No black people were allowed in the hotels, restaurants or concert halls. On buses and trams black people were only allowed to sit in the rear seats: everywhere the races were separated. This was, in effect, apartheid. Less overtly brutal than apartheid, as practised in South Africa, it denied most employment opportunities to Negroes (the term African-American had not even been thought of at that time), except of a menial kind. Even in the North, when we were in Evanston, near Chicago, when it was late November and extremely cold, a black woman who collapsed in the street died from exposure in the cold because no white doctor could be found willing to attend to her. For many of us in the orchestra this deliberate demeaning of other people, only because of their race and colour, was sickening. After the terrible 1939 – 45 war that had revealed the horror of the Nazi regime’s racial policy and the deliberate slaughter of millions in the concentration camps, to find this policy still in operation in ‘the land of the free’ was very hard to take.

When we arrived in New Orleans we were surprised to find that it was very different from any of the other towns we had been to so far. It was much more European, with fine houses dating back to the 18th century redolent with Creole, French, Spanish and Portuguese influences. The metal tracery of the ironwork on the balconies of many of the old buildings was a delight. We gave two concerts in New Orleans so we had the opportunity to enjoy another delight. This was the time when the revival of traditional jazz was in full flood. Black musicians, some of whom had not played for many years, were sought out. Some had only been able to find work as janitors or night watchmen, and a few had even been forced to return to the country areas to find work in the fields.

After the first concert, six or seven of us who were keen on jazz decided to see if we could find where these chaps were playing. As we walked around we found ourselves in streets with names made famous by their use in the title of jazz standards: Basin Street, South Rampart, Canal and Bourbon Streets. At many of the bars we found that there was a jazz group on a little stage behind the bar. The traditional line up of clarinet, trumpet and trombone with guitar or banjo, bass and drums was the norm, though sometimes there would be a piano. We heard some terrific jazz that night, uninhibited and genuine; in one place Bunk Johnson’s old band, in another Papa Celestin’s in which the legendary clarinettist Alphonse Picou, remembered especially for his famous ‘break’ in High Society, based on the piccolo variation in the Sousa march Stars and Stripes, was playing. He was still playing on his old and unique clarinet with its little turned up wooden bell. It was here that my friend Jack Brymer, our principal clarinettist, not only a great
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orchestral musician and soloist, but also an experienced jazz musician, was persuaded to join the group for a couple of numbers. It was wonderful to see Jack, still in full evening dress, white tie and tails, alongside the five black musicians. In the deep South this was indeed a unique occasion. Though, since those times, mixed groups of musicians are not at all unusual, it would be unlikely that one would even now find one white musician with five that were black.

As the tour proceeded and we wilted, Beecham seemed to go from strength to strength – one Southern critic called him ‘The Great Little Metrognome!’ He was not pleased, preferring to jest at the expense of others rather than being on the receiving end.

Leaving New Orleans we continued to make our way north through Tennessee and Kentucky and up through the mid-west on towards Chicago, but never crossing the Mississippi. The journeys had now become even longer, several of seven and eight hours. When a journey like that was followed by a concert at 8.30pm, as happened on a few occasions, one was quite exhausted. By now it was nearly the end of November, we had been on the road for eight weeks and when we arrived in Chicago it was very cold. Walking towards our hotel, which was right by Lake Michigan, with the wind blowing straight at one off the lake, it was like swallowing carving knives. It is not called ‘The Windy City’ for nothing.

One of the many concerts we gave on the way back towards New York was in Buffalo. When the concert ended at about 11.00 p.m. the orchestra was taken by coach to Niagara Falls, about 25 miles from Buffalo. In 1950 it was still possible for someone with the prestige that Beecham enjoyed to make special arrangements so that when we arrived at the Falls, even though it was near midnight and the viewing platform was closed it was opened up and the lights turned on especially for us. It was a quite magical experience. I wonder if it would be possible to arrange for this today, just for a visiting orchestra?

The following day we made the five-hour coach journey to Syracuse, for what proved to be perhaps the hardest part of the tour. After the concert, which ended at 10.45 p.m., we were taken by coach to the railway station to catch the 11.55 p.m. night train to New York. When we arrived there we had to leave the train at 7.00 a.m.., go to our hotel to check in and then make our way to Carnegie Hall in time for a short rehearsal at 11.00 a.m. As it was a Sunday the concert was in the afternoon at 3.00 pm. The next day we rehearsed in New York in preparation for an evening concert the following day in Philadelphia at 8.30 p.m., after which we returned to New York once again. The next day we gave our final concert in Carnegie Hall. With only two more days to go we were given one of our merciful free days. We had all thought that the concert in Carnegie Hall would be the last one, before going home. But no! They managed to squeeze in one more, in the small town of Bethlehem.

It had been a great experience and in a way a nodal point in our lives. Just as there was for my generation always to be ‘before and after the war’, for those on that tour there would always be ‘before and after we went to America’. Looking through the schedule for the tour I see that there were only three days on which we did not do a concert, have a rehearsal or travel. In all we did 52 concerts in 64 days. It was very tiring but never boring: with Beecham no two concerts of the same programme were ever quite the same. However, on this tour we had an exceptionally large repertoire, playing 50 different compositions in all.

Chapter 9

 



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