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Keyboard player and friend of Stephane Grapelli.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
So Bunny, tell me about your early days of music, how you got interested?
Music has always been an interest because I had an Uncle, Uncle Len, who I was named after, my name’s Len, who was a semi-pro musician. There was always a piano in the house instead of a television set because radio was king, so a lot of people used to make music, or try to make music, on an amateur scale, much more than they might do today. And so it started from there, and then I started going to piano lessons, which were about 1/6d a lesson. Now, when I say 1/6d a lesson, money then and money today are nothing like the same. When I left school I was paid 18/6d a week as a telegram boy, went up to a guinea. For Mum and Dad to do that, Dad always worked after he’d been in the First World War and before that, he’d been in the First World War from 1908 in the Army, and he’d always worked for himself up to the Second World War. So, he was never out of work, he worked for himself, had a little café at one time, used to make ice cream in the summer and chestnuts in the winter. And although I was an only child, had no brothers or sisters, it’s still money going out on something that wasn’t absolutely vital. So I started when I was round about 10, 9 or 10, started to learn to play piano
Because you were born in 1928?
1928, so that was about 1938.
Where were you born?
I was born in the Old Royal Free Hospital, not the new one in Hampstead, the old one that used to be in the Grays Inn Road, which makes me a Cockney, as the crow flies. It was within the sound of Bow Bells. So that’s where I was born. So I started to learn piano, I went to a chap, who I was doing ok with, someone recommended a lady, Miss Staples who lived at Turnpike Lane, and I was living in Finsbury Park in those days, Stroud Green, between Finsbury Park and Crouch Hill, and decided to go and see her and she turned out to be a very good teacher. This continued until the war broke out. I was 11 years old. I missed the 11-plus, and in those days, if you missed it or didn’t pass it, that was the end of it, that was it. So I was evacuated privately down to Andover to my Grandmother’s Brother’s house along with Freddie, my cousin. Now Freddie and I, we come onto Freddie now, we were very close, both only children, both loved music, he played piano then, and I played piano. And with another cousin, we went to live down there. Eventually I got homesick for London because nothing was going on there and so I came back to London in the Easter of 1940. No school when I got back again, because the same thing had happened, I went down there until they found out who we were, we didn’t go under the aeges of the government, we went privately, so they didn’t have any check on us; it all sounds rather funny. Came back to London, no school for a time, then bit by bit, more drifted back like I had, bit by bit, then more and more people, then at that time I was then going back to my piano lessons. Well then, daytime bombing started. So we used to spend some of our time downstairs, until they got a refuge room built up, and we all went to work in there. Then, the night-time bombing started, went on for 56 nights in row actually, it was a long time. One night after another, except for one night I think. So, I couldn’t really ride on my bike to Turnpike Lane. You could tell your time by the bombings: about half past six it would go, the siren, and they would start to come. So if I got over there, Mum and Dad didn’t want me out in the blackout, coming home with shrapnel coming down, so bit by bit I faded out. But I got to a certain standard, not to a degree standard, because it was a private tutor, but I got enough, always having had feeling for piano. I always got something out of the piano, even before I went. And bit by bit I got interested in Jazz, I used to listen to the radio, pre-war, Ambrose, Harry Roy all those, Mum and Dad let me stay up late on a Friday and Saturday night to listen. But not Jazz per se then. And then I started getting interested in particularly when I heard the Hot Club of France, I listened to Reinhardt and I thought “What a genius. What a marvellous musician”, he couldn’t read or write his name, you know. And Grappelli on the violin. It was a change to hear some of that, and from then on I started to get interested in Jazz. I used to play at parties, but I did my first proper full time gig when I was 12 in 1940, during the Blitz period. What they tried to do in those days, they stopped entertainment, and then on the BBC, Lord Rees being what he was, he was a good officiator, he was a bit heavy. On a Sunday, they were mainly symphony concerts and religious music and that’s why Luxembourg came in, because people could listen to something light, and people wanted a laugh when the war was on, and they wanted to be entertained. So most of these theatres started opening up again, and dances started, and you did go out and play on these things and you took a chance when you come home, if a raid was on, you got so used to it, that you took a chance and you went out and did things. Now, I was lucky enough to have two parents that were very, I suppose, forward looking really, because they used to let me go out and do these jobs, and the rest of it. They knew I was with other people, and mainly older than me, that’s one reason, by the way, why I was probably the only Jazz musician who’s always been teetotal! I don’t drink, never have, because being a young fellow as I was, a young boy and then working with older chaps, I saw the results of some of it. I didn’t feel at home with it anyway. So I started doing gigs and then we got a little band together when I was 13, accordion, and a guitar, piano, drums and a singer, and a young singer, who I’ve more recently got in touch with in her seventies now - she was 12, just one year younger than me. So we started doing gigs, and we got ourselves a manager, a Jewish fellow named Harris Collins, who used to be at the Pools Park Youth Club where we used to play, and he became our manager. Bit by bit, we were getting more and more interested in going out at night and playing after going to school. Then when I left school at what, 14, I became a telegram boy in the West End, and then we started getting that little band together: a chap named Ivor Gilbert on Clarinet, and we more of a sort of Jazz orientated group then. Pete Bray on drums, he was at grammar school in those days, along with the bass player. We started to do gigs, and bit by bit we were getting more and more work. Incidentally, when I was a telegram boy, I was based in the West End, I was coming back from Exhibition Road, and a bloke sat next to me on the bus as we were coming back, dark haired fellow, French accent, started going on about he couldn’t get a bloody taxi. I turned round to look at him, and who is it? It’s Stephane Grappelli! So I’m looking at my idol! I can’t believe it! I said “Excuse me are you Stephane Grappelli?” “You know me?” “I don’t know you but you and Django Reinhardt are my great idols!” “You a musician?” “Yes I did play some piano” “You come and see” So he was living then in a high rise block of service flats opposite Green Park, small flat upstairs, and I said to Pete Bray and the bass player “ I met Grappelli. Yeah met him on a bus. You’d like to meet him?” So I rang him up on the phone, he always had a terrific accent, I know his father was a linguist apparently, an Italian too, not French. And so, we went up to his flat, and he had a little mini piano in his flat, he got me to play. “I like Art Tatum” I said, “I love Art Tatum”. He says [in a French accent] “I have a very good pianist with me now, George Shearing”. I said “Oh George Shearing of course, what a player, blind and marvellous”, sort of an English Art Tatum. For three or four times, from time to time we’d pop up there. He just liked to have somebody to talk about music, put records on and have a chat.
He didn’t play with you though? He didn’t jam or anything with you?
He got his violin out once. He was appearing, at that time, at the Holborn Empire just as an act on his own. I never got round to actually playing with him. I don’t think he would’ve said no if I’d have asked him, but he would listen to me, he liked my playing, and I’ll leave it at that. What he actually thought, I don’t know.
You were only 14 or 15 then?
I was only 14
Wow that’s amazing! What a story
So, anyway. We were all young, the oldest one is 18. The first group with the accordions, I was the youngest at 13, the oldest was a lady alto player who was 17 getting ready to be called up in the ATS, so even then we were all young. And so because it was a bit of a different group, that was the charm of it, watching people make mistakes or not, or whatever they thought, it was young people doing it, and of course with so many men getting called up, you were either much older, unfit or younger. And so, we started playing, and then we did an audition for ENSA (Entertainment National Service Association), and Geraldo, you remember Geraldo the orchestra leader? He was in charge of all that, we got through the audition, but we didn’t drive in those days, as I said, nobody had a car. We had about two or three gallons a month, that was all you got in petrol, so nobody ran cars except official people. And we came back to Greek Street, into the café, I remember it, we had a Jazz violinist then, Johnny Van Derrick. So we came back and the chap came across from the opposite, from the place called The Nut House, which is a nightclub, he said “I’m looking for musicians” he said, “They’re all getting called up”. So just like one of those old Mickey Rooney films, “We gotta band here, right away, do an audition”. “Would you like to come across?” “Yes, ok”. So we carted our stuff across. He liked the sound of it. Johnny was about 17 then, older, and we were, like I say, between 13 and 17, Vic Senemo, the guitarist and another guitarist, we had a sort of 'hot club' group I suppose really, and that suited them in the nightclub. So we started doing this nightclub. I think by then I’d packed my job in as a telegram boy, I was only there about a year, and so we used to do 11/12 O’Clock at night until 3 in the morning and then catch the all night bus, 290, home to Finsbury Park or wherever. We did that, and then we started doing some ENSA work. We used to get run around in little coaches. That started us off on our sort of professional career, and Pete Bray would’ve been on drums for us then, so it was then, when I was 15, we decided we’d like to turn fully pro. So we got ourselves an agent up in London, and they said there’s a review going on called ‘Down Argentina Way’ run by a Canadian, who used to do whip throwing and whip cracking and lassoing. We had a full cast of dancers and singers, and a little group like us, a Swing group then rather than a Jazz as they called it, Jazz was more Dixieland, Swing was more like the Goodman thing, not that we didn’t like all of it. So, we started playing then, in this show on tour. Incidentally, how they used to get us round in those days, as I say, petrol being at a premium, they used to hire two coaches on a train, one for the cast and one for the scenery, and we’d go to whichever town it was we were going, different for a whole week, and we’d do a week at a theatre, two shows a night, plus one Wednesday afternoon and one Saturday afternoon. So we were fully fledged, doing entertaining in theatres. In between, it was one of those things, you’re money jumped like mad in those days, went up from about a pound a week to seven pounds a week, which was very good, but, you might have four or five weeks, then BONK! We won’t be together out and about in a months’ time. It’s more difficult for acts like you see on Britain’s Got Talent, you know, acrobats and all that, but for musicians you could get around getting gigs. So we used to get gigs around, and then come back to the London base and do gigs around, sometimes separately, sometimes as a group, then we’d go back into the review again and say, we’re opening up in, I don’t know, Carlisle. So up you’d go and start again. So that’s what we’d do. Well then the American’s came into the war about 18 months afterwards, 1941 when they were attacked by the Japanese. And so, when the American’s came, they were so surprised to listen to Jazz or Swing being played HERE! Nowadays, switch the television on and see a film whenever, but in those days, you know, that was America, this was Britain, which was the old Europe, and of course, so when we used to play, they thought “Well, that’s not bad”. They rather liked us. We were young, which added to it. What we were doing really, was when we weren’t going with the review, sometimes we’d do some ENSA and sometimes we’d do some USO, which was the American ENSA.
What, would you be on their airbase? Were there clubs or were they airbases?
No, they were airbases mainly. We were doing them all over the country then. Actually, we did leave the airbase that Glen Miller flew away from a fortnight before. Now, we did learn, I know you’ve seen the film with Glen Miller, and he was everybody’s friend, but he was a bit of taskmaster and not all that easy to get on with. Understandably, he wanted top notch and he got it. What he wanted to do, he did, and what he wanted to do then, the band had gone over to Paris, towards the end of the war. He went up in this aeroplane, single engine aeroplane with somebody else and that was the last they ever saw of him, convinced it was friendly fire that brought him down.
They’ll never know, will they. 1945 he went didn’t he?
That’s right, just after the war.
Did you ever meet him then, Glenn Miller?
No, never met him. So of course that’s what we were doing, mainly during the war time, travelling around, theatres, ENSA including naval bases, like Chatham and air force bases and army bases. We did volunteer to go abroad, but for some reason they wouldn’t let us go unless we were over 26. Why 26 I don’t know, because people were called up at 18, but anyway, that was it, we did what we did. We left that show to another one, and we were gradually stepping up a bit. The last one we went with, we got quite good billing, they were two dancers from Maurice Winnick. He had an orchestra then before he became an impresario. Two dancers, they left Winnick, they had their own show. The best we achieved was at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, we were second billing, up to Rennie Houston, Donald Stewart, and that was it. We were doing very well. Well then the war had completely finished in Japan, and then we thought “That’s that” but it wasn’t, because they decided they’d continue to call people up. Prior to this, as one or two of the older ones were getting called up, I met this chap that I used to push around in a wheelchair.
What was his name?
His name was Ken Hall. Now all of this was in London so I then got called up myself and I was one of the first national service men so he didn’t know what was coming, he did that so I did my weeks training, and then I got posted off as clerk. I went to Mill Hill. I used to get a 'living out' pass and be able to come home weekends and play. So I was there, well then my cousin Freddie, we will come to him again, he was in The Signals and he had gone out to Gibraltar and he’d taken up the saxophone, teaching himself more or less played tenor sax. The Kings Own band from Lancaster were based there and they were due to come home to Lancaster about 3 months after that, I think they moved around. The band master said “Either tell him to pack up playing that thing at night or get him to come and join the band”, so he joined the band naturally. So back he came. I used to get home. I was then posted to from there to AK AK Command over at Stanmore. They wanted me to join the band, so they had a big dance orchestra. First of all they asked me to go down to the ROC which in then there they said “Stay in the orchestra in the ROC” so I went down I saw the band master there so and said “We don’t need a pianist” he said “You say you can get through to the Kings Own, well carry on with that” so I did and eventually I got a transfer to Kings Own in Lancaster and we used to go out playing with the big orchestra, and also our band master was very far-seeing. When we were playing on a band stand he got a grand piano playing a bit of Jazz; incidentally that band master got promoted eventually and he became the head of all British music in the British army, in Nella Hall, Basil Brown. Now while I was in Lancaster I used to go down sometimes from the barracks and have a little blow at the dance hall down there and play some Jazz, that would give longer breaks to the group. That was alright with them, and the other people used to go and dance. One night somebody said to me via somebody else to me, “My friend Jessie, I come with her and I’m being taken home and so she going home on her own. Has Len got anybody?” she goes. “I don’t think so” “Will he see her home?” so I said yes and as they say “that’s how it all started”. So of course I did the rest of my time in the Kings Own band playing with the big orchestra and that’s why I had to come in with my reading because you had to read parts, and I was in that then until I got demobbed in 1948, although that time of course the Russians and the Americans were at each other’s throats so you didn’t know what was coming round the corner. We became what that call 'Z reserve', last resort, they would call you up preference to anybody new first then they would start calling you up people if it got to that happily it never did, although later you had of course the Korean war and the other ones out in the middle East. So there we are I met Jess and when she came down to live in London when I was demobbed she came down to stay with us in Finsbury park in a big hold house people used to rent in those day, rent and sublet it, and when I came out I was trying to get back in the business again but it wasn’t happening quite then and I wanted to have a few bob together to get married and that eventually so an uncle of mine this all sound a bit as if I’m name spreading but he had been one of Churchill’s personal messengers during the war. He hated the sight of him actually, I said “What was he like?” “Pig! Much preferred Clement Attlee” but perhaps that's why he was a Labour supporter, but anyway, that didn’t detract from what he had done of course. So he said you want to get a job in the customs? I said “No, no, I've got musical abilities but I’ve got nothing else. I never passed any other exams”, “No come as a messenger. They're all old boys there now they will be pleased to have a young bloke running around. Just have a medical, in you come and suddenly if work comes in then pfff off you go”, so I started work as a messenger. I bumped into one or two people I had been working with. One of them was, remember 'Allo Allo'? The bloke used to play the piano, Ian Le Clerc, he was in one of our shows as our main comic. I saw him in the west end. He said “Hello Bunny, you working?” I said “No I’m not”, he said “Go and see 'so and so' an agent”, I said “No I’ve packed it in being pro”, he said “Ah that’s a shame. If you ever do anything let me know” and that was it. So I started as a messenger and finished up down there with 170 staff. Eventually I did get bits and pieces of promotion but when I started as a messenger the music work started coming in playing. Well I couldn’t travel all-round the country like I did, but I could get around a bit, although I then couldn’t drive and cars were still, you know, they hadn’t started making cars till just after the war. They were all old cars. So I started relying on other people to get me around and until about 1953 when I decided to learn to drive myself, which I then did, and the work started coming in and I started to play semi-pro all around all over the place with different people
No it was what ever was required of that time. Now '45 a lot of things may have been Jazz orientated cause it wasn’t pop music we know today or even Rock and Roll. It was up to about 1955 when Bill Haley came into it things started to bit by bit change, and so I was doing work all around then. I got in with a Jewish fellow, I’m not Jewish myself, but a chap named Kenny Hyam, and he rather liked my playing and he got me into a Sunday night that’s their big night. Their 'big Saturday night' was a Sunday, so I started playing down at their place at the Bernie And Harry's they were running in the west end. The chaps that run it were called Bernie Barron and Harry Paris. The bass player that came to join us eventually was a chap that had been just a jobbing player in the East End, Jewish fellow, when he come out the army he decided to take it up full time and eventually got himself into the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and then came down to the opera house and worked there the rest of his life playing bass there, Nat Paris, but he used to do it on the Jewish weddings and gave me a lot of work, they gave me so much work and we became very old friends and we were friends for many many many years, 50 odd years, unfortunately most of them have gone except Tony Compton. He was one of those; he come in a bit later he is younger than me. And so I was doing pretty fair work. I mean I did the Dorchester for instance and I accompanied the one who is in Hi-D-Hi there, Ruth Madoc, for instance. I think it was Ray McVay was the orchestra and we were doing dinner music and we accompanied her and that was all part of it. But I forgot to mention that I had my own group when I was playing more vibes. I brought in a pianist, a bass player and a singer and I used to do a lot of work in those days for the London University, their union, they used to put on all these shows but also elsewhere. We did the at the Royal Festival Hall we did their dance, Sid Philips was the main, then Bunny Courtenay!
When was this what year
That about 1954. But we are still at that late 40's at the moment, so I say from the 40's we went on into the 50's and so I was doing that work then.
When did you take up the vibes though?
I taught myself to play the vibes in the Kings Own Band because the layout on the vibes is the same as the piano. It's got the notes and the half tones just the same as the piano. When the military band would go off to do their shows and I didn’t go along on it if they didn’t have any piano on board, and as I said we used to have our little Jazz group at the same time, I'd be in charge of the band stores and what remained of the band boys and so I used to sleep in the band store and they had this old vibraphone in there, I painted it up with silver paint and got used to playing it. It’s the same as the piano but it’s a different technique, you’re not playing with your fingers, and that’s when I really started to do that. Also then we used to have these guests along, you know, mainly Jewish players, Vick Ash is one, Ronnie Scott was another, so you got to play with a lot of people like that; this was at the Jewish clubs up the West End. That went on for about 10 years, and so getting promoted into customs: they were going to open up down here and they wanted a chap - in those days they called them office keepers, these days they call them senior managers, to run things down here in Southend, so I took on the messenger and archiving services, motor transport and security, quite a lot to take on but I knew I could do it. I got promoted to Southend, that was at 1965, so I came down and was based down here and and I had quite a few staff under me then. In the meantime, Jess, instead of working in the factory where she worked, when I met her decided she wanted to take up typing she became a first grade audio typist, passed and she got in the Civil Service then eventually Customs in London and then there was a vacancy down hereand she came and worker in Carby house and so we were both here so that was a benefit for us, and that was why I came to work here. Now I didn't know many people, if anybody, down here. I knew Tony Compton and that was about it. He has one or two friends who I got to know, then there was Kenny Baxter; I started to get in with him and with Digby. I met Digby when he was a young sprog of 19 in 1966, so I'd done all those things before I met Dig, but It was nice to see somebody that was his age that was very interested and talented in the Jazz field rather than going into Pop and Rock. Eventually he got his little group Digs Half Dozen: we were in the first I got a photograph somewhere that was in 1971 something like that, so I then remember 1966 when I was then doing another little Jazz club over in Chingford we were playing vibes and piano we did about 4 night a week there
What club was that called?
The Prince Albert. Its no longer a pub I don’t think. I was still traveling up to London do to the Jewish job and also meeting people down here so bit by bit I got to meet the musicians around here
The group you were playing with in Chingford regularly, were all the musicians based from Essex?
They were really Londoners I suppose, because Chingford is on the edge of course. One or two might have lived on the edge of it. I got Dig - he came up there and played once, and so bit by bit I was traveling up there and coming back to Southend and moving into circles around here. That’s it from then on you know, I worked around with all different people
What venues do you remember playing in those early days here?
Garons restaurant, any dance halls anywhere around in Southend. I can’t think of the names of some of them now
Because there was resident bands at the Kursaal. You wouldn’t have been involved at the Kursaal would you? Because there were resident orchestras there
Oh yes. I did play at the Kursaal. I did for the big orchestra there that replaced Howard Baker. We played a lot ot the Estuary Rooms. I did a lot of things at the Estuary Rooms.
Where’s the Estuary Rooms?
Its attached to the Kursaal, on the side on the Southend Avenue. We used to do a lot of work in all sorts of areas and all sorts of places in this area...... the Estuary Rooms. I can’t think now.
Arlington Hall, we played up stairs on that balcony. It’s all coming back now, oh at the Cliffs Pavilion
What in the Maritime Room?
At the Cliffs Pavilion they used to take the seats out and have dancing in there, we used to play smooth band there I got one video of of Ed Dunn at the Estuary Rooms with an Alto player called Jeff Taylor, has he mentioned him to you Geoff Taylor? Geoff Taylor, he was when I played at theses Jewish clubs he be one of these guests or if I played at a Jazz club like the Orange Tree over at Barnet. In those days you had the Melody Maker that preceded the one that’s running now and New Musical Express. It was Melody Maker that was as much geared then to musicians as it was to the public, so a lot of musicians used to like reading it and they used to have voting ever so often on favourite musicians, as I said instrumentalist those days not singers, singers were in special category and he used to always finish top of the Alto Saxophonist in those days. When he got known he was discovered by Steve Race...........
Was he from London?
He was from Gidea Park. Unfortunately he died a couple of years ago, about 3 years now. He was 80. A lovely marvellous player, a real world class player, and so we got that one on there just that and piano, drums and bass guitar and him on Alto Sax, and so I did quite a bit of work with him some time with his band that he would get together, sometimes he'd work with band I'd get together. It was more a mixed bag. When I was running one (a band) when I was playing for the London University I was doing more running a band as I was being a player, but other things like when Dig got his band I was just one of the band. So you know that was the sort of thing that we were doing more or less up to in my 70’s more or less.
Just kind of jobbing around Essex as it were and around London
Essex and London and traveling outside around in the car to other parts, perhaps over in Kent or up in Suffolk, because America forces were here for sometime and we used to do a lot of them, there like at the airfields.
Are they still there?
Yes, still there
Well yes, in those days though when it was during the war time they laid on everything. Also I got to working with one or two quite good musicians in that field doing that sort of job, now what was his name, clarinet player, lovely clarinet player one of the best.
What Acker Bilk?
No no no not that sort of player. We did incidentally a thing with Bud Freeman up here for a girl who was a singer who was on hard times and we booked him up to come along and draw people in, which he did up at Barkingside, and we then got quite a few bob for this lady so I played with him, that was a nice something unusual. But there are bits and pieces: when the Keddies was open in Southend. They used to book up a name and have a big do on there to draw people in and I accompanied Ernie Wise there, because they couldn’t book the two of them it was too expensive I should think, so we come along, suppose we had to do Bring Me Sunshine, we had a little trio there so that’s... you know.... little things like that. You know these jobs come and go but that’s more or less it you see.
When was the last time you played out at a gig?
Last time was probable in my middle to late-70's so I had 60 years playing, I packed up driving 18 months ago cause I didn’t feel safe and I thought in that time in 60 years of driving one or two little knocks but nothing much.
So you're 83 now are you?
No I’m 84, 85 this year.
What’s happened to your cousin Freddie?
He died when he was 62. First of all he was with Kenny Baker, not the Kenny Baker's Half Dozen but the touring one, in which Vick Ash was in and one or two others, and he then was with also what’s his name, pre-war drummer, you might not remember him, but when he joined the Johnny Dankworth band that’s when he really started to get into music full time
And that was that early 50’s was it ?
That was early 50’s. He is on some of the early recordings as well, so of course he went on from there. I sort of lost track of him cause he moved out. I’m afraid, he used to start drinking a little bit too much unfortunately which he never did at all, and he finished up eventually smoking - throat cancer, 62. I lost track of him. He went to live in Lincolnshire and he was still doing some playing and singing there prior to that, and that was more or less what he did. He was pro, he stayed pro when he came out that army. Freddie was never a resident here, he was always in London or somewhere else.
What was the kind of Jazz you were playing when you came down here in the late 60’s?
All sorts really. I like playing all sorts of Jazz. I like all sorts of music. I like Dixieland, Modern Jazz, even had a go at Free Jazz which I’m not too mad about, but I had a go at anything. It was anything even up to Pop you know, depending on what’s required. If you go and play at a job you've got to do what people want and that means playing Pop music of the day.