Hank Shaw Meets The Queen

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When I first met Hank Shaw he was in his early twenties and was one of our finest jazz trumpet men.

Hank was an eternal innocent.  He had no enemies and seemed to like  everybody.  He didn’t drink, but he did smoke considerable quantities of pot – because just a few drags  of the magic weed allowed him to be transported from this cruel world  into that special land out there in space heaven, where Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker were always  wailing the blues.

A typical (although invented) example of Hank’s disassociation with the cruel realities of life would be:

The scene: the band room of a London jazz club. Hank is just about to lead his worthy little group of beboppers on to the stage when the owner of the club comes in.

Owner to Hank: “I have just heard. They have dropped an atom bomb on Manchester.  There must be an awful lot of deaths although they haven’t given the figures yet. What do you think we ought to do?”

Hank: “ That’s  bad news man….bad, bad news.  I mean….. like I had a gig up there next Saturday……  I guess that’ll be cancelled,,,,,,,(turning to the band)  yeah……..hey, listen, let’s start with Cherokee in B flat.”

Hank was sweet and inoffensive but could be easily intimidated by men in serious suits who were firmly attached to the hard realities of life. One such was Tommy Kinsman.

Tommy had a band agency. He was also an up market toff whose public school upbringing got him most of the high-paying aristocratic gigs. He would supply these hoorays with whatever music they needed, be it a piano tinkler to give atmosphere to a private party or a full size dance orchestra for some important ball. The word was that he would charge £50 per musician but give them only £10

He also got the royal gigs.  Whenever there was action at the Palace or some royal castle, Kinsman got the gig. For these he would always appear in person to lead his band and of course, hobnob with his fellow Hooray Henries.

As Ronnie Scott explained it to me; there was – or maybe still is – one night in the year when a special party is thrown for the domestic staff of Buckingham Palace, and where members of the Royal Family become the servants. This is a very big occasion. Tommy Kinsman’s number one orchestra – chosen as much for their ability to keep their mouths closed as to what goes on, just as much as their ability to play, was,  as ever, to provide the music.  Tommy hated jazz and he hated jazz musicians, whom he saw as uncouth animals.  But because he had been informed that  Princess Margaret, a big jazz lover, was going to be present, he hired Ronnie Scott and Kenny Baker,  jazz trumpeter and all round virtuoso, in addition to his normal band.

But for some reason or other, on the very day of the royal gig, Kenny became unavailable, and on Ronnie’s recommendation Hank Shaw was rushed in as the chosen replacement, which is why at 12 noon of the day of the gig,  Hank was sitting in Tommy Kinsman’s office.

“Now listen Shaw” said Kinsman haughtily. , “I don’t normally hire you damned jazz chappies.  Frankly, I don’t think you people know how to act in civilised company”

Hank, totally intimidated by this up-market big-shot started to shrink down in his chair.

“Have you ever met a member of our Royal family, Mister Shaw?”

“Er, no,” said Hank

“Okay. Well, thankfully, the chances are, even though they will be present, they won’t bother to speak to you. But just in case they do I am going to tell you how you reply to them.  Raising his voice, he said “You are never to speak to a member of the Royal Family unless they speak to you first, and then you reply as follows….”

…..Hank was now about as far away from his world of jazz as he had ever been.  He was on the verge of getting up and running as far and as fast as he could.  But this was a £30 gig. In those days if you even got five pounds for a jazz gig, it was big money. £30 pounds was fortune – enough not only to pay off the  debt to his  drug supplier but buy another whole weeks-supply as well.

“……..to the Queen you bow your head and say   ‘yes your Majesty’.  If it is one of the Princes you also bow your head and say,  ‘Yes your Royal Highness’.  If Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret speaks to you..”   etc. etc.

Tommy Kinsman, now having frightened him to the roots of his innermost soul  ended up in a voice of quiet  sinister threat:   “I know all about you jazz players, Shaw.   So unless spoken to, SPEAK TO NO-ONE. Do you understand?”

“Oh yes sir. I won’t speak to a soul”

“Good” said Kinsman. “Because if you embarrass me in front of the Royal Family,  (now pointing his long finger at him),  you will never work again in this country. Do you understand?”

Kinsman then wrote his pass into the Palace and told him to be there in an evening suit with black tie at 7.30 pm.

And so there was Hank sitting in the brass section, reading his fourth trumpet parts without speaking to a soul –except Ronnie Scott, whom he spoke to only sparingly in case Kinsman fired him, or had him flung into  a dungeon in the Tower of London or somewhere.

As ever, it was a very lavish affair with the footmen continually bringing masses of booze to the band room .

By one o’clock in the morning everybody was pretty well smashed with booze, including the band– and it sounded like it!  Only Hank was stone cold sober, reading his trumpet parts carefully,  saying a word to no-one.

Came the 1.30 am band break and Hank, seeing the whole band, including Tommy Kinsman,  boozed up to the eyeballs, and all having a great time, thought  ‘the gig ends in about half an hour. Nobody will notice if I just sneak off for a little smoke’.

For Hank to go to a gig  without a joint was like a gangster going on a hit without his automatic. It was unthinkable.   And so he went to the men’s room, locked the door and lit up.  5 minutes later, pleasantly stoned, he made his way back to the band room.

As he turned the corner which led to the band room he all but bumped into Her Majesty who was coming round the corner from the opposite direction. She had just come from the band room after thanking the musicians.

“Oh, you are one of the musicians” she said to him. “Have you everything you require?”.

Hank’s stoned out mind instantly skidded into panic mode.  Here was the actual Queen of England!   Oh God! He knew he must use the right words or be banished forever by Tommy Kinsman.  But what was it he had to say and do?  His mind had frozen stiff.   The strain and desperation must have caused his mind to regress back to when his mother read him fairy stories about queens and knights in armour and such.

“Have you got everything you require,”  the Queen had asked? Ronnie Scott, who was on his way to the men’s room to warn Hank that the Queen was about, saw he was too late. All he could do was watch how Hank reacted to the Queen’s question.

He suddenly flung himself down on the ground, raised himself on one knee. his other leg stretched out behind him, his arms spread out on either side like a bird in flight, his nose nearly touching the carpeted floor. Then he said very loudly:

“Yes – O Queen”

The Queen walked straight passed him so we never knew if she cracked up laughing.

I know I would have.  Ronnie Scott who told me that story most certainly did.

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‘Taint What you Smoke, It’s the Way That you Smoke it

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Ronnie Scott’s  jazz club in London’s Soho  is probably the most famous jazz club in the world. But before Ronnie settled down to became a responsible business man, he was one of Britain’s finest jazz musicians.

I go further:  he was considered by the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie to be one of the top tenor sax players in the world.

But back in the 1950’s,  before he became a sober,  down-to-earth jazz club owner,  Ronnie was a wild, tearaway.   Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” was a choirboy by comparison..  It was smoke–everything-drink-everything- snort-everything and even inject everything – kind of life. It was all-night jam sessions either with other musicians – or with women.

Ronnie’s best friend was Charlie Short,  a superb bass player (he  became a featured bass man in the Ted Heath band) who was as wild as Ronnie.  When high, which was most of the time, Charlie had a way of dreaming up crazy fantasies which would percolate through his highly charged up brain into fact.  Amazingly,  he possessed the kind of  personality that was capable of persuading others around him to actually go along with  these wild mental excursions of his.

For example playing a gig with a local band in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, he suddenly dreamed up the notion that there was buried treasure under the sand of Cowes beach.  And he managed to convince the band he was gigging with for the night.

So that at one o’clock of a Sunday morning, had you been walking your dog along the prom or something,  you would have been greeted with the sight of  seven guys with dinner jackets off, bow ties akimbo, madly digging holes in the beach while Charlie was marching up and down busily engaged in assessing the angle his shadow as it fell across the beach in the bright moonlight, which was somehow an integral factor to this crazy search for the cache of pirate gold Doubloons he felt sure – but for one night only – was buried beneath the Isle’s golden sand.

In those days, Ronnie rode around on a huge, very powerful Norton International motor bike. It was after giving his pal Charlie a lift on the pillion of this noisy monster that the idea hit Charlie.

The next day he called on Ronnie at his little flat, and as they proceeded to get high on some fine Mexico Green,  Charlie presented his latest idea.

Ronnie must enter the Isle of Man TT motor cycle race.

He told Ronnie he was sure he would win because even though he would be up against some of the finest motor cyclists in the world, Ronnie had a secret that would guarantee him victory.  The secret was a handful of uppers followed by smoking a joint of Bechuhana Gold, which Charlie assured Ronnie would afford him the perfect high for winning the race.

The way he saw it, these other cyclists were just a bunch of squares. “Their cornball minds will only work at a normal rate,” he explained to Ronnie.  He went on to explain,  that Ronnie’s mind,  on the other hand,  charged up with this mind- dazzling intake of pills plus Bechuhana’s finest would be racing twice as fast as all the  others in the race.

“You’ll be able to control your bike at speeds these squares would never imagine.  Treacherous corners,  difficult turns:  man, they will be as nothing to you because of your super speed mind.  “Man, you cannot lose” he assured Ronnie.  “We are set to make a fortune. You’ll be world famous”.

Ronnie fell for it.

And that is how,  on the Isle of Man, on the day of the famous TT race, with all the world’s finest racing motor cyclists, there, on the back row stood ‘R. Scott, from Great Britain’.  Standing next to him in a clean, white overall was his ‘engineer’ Mr Charles Short.

Ten minutes before the race was scheduled to start,  chief engineer Mr Short asked R. Scott from Great Britain if he could see him privately.  They found a spot out of sight of the riders and officials where Mr Short ‘engineered’ the brain of  R. Scott from Great Britain, with a handful of uppers plus a joint of Bechuhana  gold and a swig of whiskey to help the medicine go down. Ronnie returned to his bike stoned out of his skull.

Now all the bikes were busy revving their engines prior to the starting flag.

The way Ronnie told it to me: “The flag came down and we were off.  In a very short time I was whizzing along at a dazzling speed.  I knew I was ahead of everybody. There wasn’t another racer in sight. ‘Christ, I’ve done it’ I thought . Charlie was right. Wow”.

He went on:  “I swung the bike round a bend to see a guy with a flag waving me down.   As I got off my bike I said to him,  “Phew, that was one hell of a race. Have I won”?

“No” the official said. “You have been disqualified for not having exceeded 35 miles an hour! “