Norrie Thomson first became an Edinburgh International Jazz Festival driver in 1987 when he was still working with HM Customs & Excise. He says: “Each year until 2000, when I retired after 38.5 years, I took annual leave to cover the jazz festival.
“When I started as a driver at the festival, bands would come for several days at a time – during which the driver effectively became the band’s ‘roadie ‘. Prior to the start of each festival the drivers would get notice of what bands were to appear and would ask to drive their favourites. It also often happened that, subsequently, band leaders would request drivers that they had dealt with previously. Many lasting friendships were built up over the years this way. Work allocations were made by Frances Burgess [mother of saxophonist/clarinettist John Burgess].
“As volunteers, the drivers were worked pretty hard at times putting in many long, unpaid, hours of work. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable and made a valuable contribution to the running of the Festival. A typical example of a volunteer driver’s experience at the Edinburgh International Jazz Festival would be:
- Edinburgh Airport or the Waverley Station to be meet the band on arrival at the airport or train station and take the musicians to their hotel.
- Discuss the band’s itinerary with leader or manager and arrange pick up times.
“The bands were worked pretty hard and earned whatever they were paid. The norm was several gigs each day. The driver would assist with loading and unloading band equipment. This would often be done under frantic conditions. Gigs often followed each other with little time to spare and considerable distances to travel.
Tomas Ornberg “Tomas, a Swedish musician, was a very fine reeds player and leader of his Blue 5 and the Swedish Jazz Kings, and had played the festival on many occasions. In addition to the fine Swedish members of his band, Tomas often used top musicians from the jazz world – Bob Barnard, Roy Williams, Kenny Davern, Bob Hunt, Joep Peeters, Martin Litton, Keith Durston to name a few.
“My first experience with Tomas was in the early 1990s, but was the band’s first choice of ‘roadie’ thereafter. The band’s manager and Tomas’s partner was Irene Biermans, a Dutch lady.
“Over the years Tomas and Irene became great friends of mine and we corresponded regularly swapping news of our respective families.
“Whenever we met Tomas would always say to me: ‘I’ve got my clarinet’. This resulted from one memorable festival night when I got a phone call from Tomas, at about 1am, saying that he had lost his clarinet. The Swedish Jazz Kings had been doing the last slot in the Speigeltent, which had been erected on top of the Waverley Market ,and he thought that he must have left it there.
“I quickly dressed, got in my car and drove to the venue, which was still open. I searched around but couldn’t see the instrument. I called Tomas and asked him to describe the case that the instrument was in. He said it wasn’t in a case. I then resumed my search with this new knowledge. I eventually found it hidden behind a large sheet of plywood. I took it to Tomas’s hotel and gave him the clarinet. I think that he almost burst into tears as he had only recently paid a considerable sum of money to Kenny Davern for the instrument.
“The other memorable, regular event relating to both bands was the world class trumpeter /cornettist, Bent Persson ‘playing’ his mouth piece during various trips. (My worst experience of this was outside of the festival when I drove the Swedish Jazz Kings from Ayr to Inverness – Bent ‘played’ all the way.)
“Another one of the class musicians in the Swedish Jazz Kings was the wonderful bass-sax player Frans Sjostrom. His hobby was model aeroplanes. One of my neighbours had a model aeroplane shop and I introduced them to each other. Eventually Frans suggested that he would be some time and that I should go home and he would get the bus. Later on I was told by my neighbour that Frans had spent a considerable amount of money in the shop.
“In recent years Tomas suffered from poor health and in mid May 2018 I received the sad news from Irene telling me that Tomas had passed away.
Larry Adler “In the late 1990s, I had the privilege of meeting and talking to the famous harmonica player, Larry Adler. Before his arrival, I was told that he had to be treated gently and that he was old and a bit frail (he was in his 80s at the time). He would be arriving at the airport with his manager. I allocated an experienced driver to meet them.
“The driver contacted me to say that both persons had been safely delivered to their hotel and that Adler was the oldest man that he had ever seen that wasn’t dead and that his manager was a young Philippino woman!
“Later, during his stay, I, with another couple of volunteers, met with him in The Hub where we spoke to him (or rather he spoke to us) about his life in music. It was like talking to the history of jazz. The only irritating part of it all was his habit of bringing himself into everything – ‘When Gershwin accompanied me playing Rhapsody In Blue’, ‘When Ellington accompanied me playing the St Louis Blues’, etc.
“He did tell us that it was the American comedian, Jack Benny, who persuaded him to become a professional musician.
Leon Redbone “Leon Redbone came to prominence in the UK through his rendition of ‘So Relax’, the soundtrack to Inter Cities sleeper service. Before this and after he was well known in the jazz / blues world as a fine singer and guitarist. He appeared at the EIJF at least twice.
“On one occasion, I assigned a driver to meet him off the 3pm train from London, King’s X. Round about 3.15pm I got a message from the driver saying that Redbone had not arrived on the 3pm train. I told the driver to wait for the next train which was due at 3.30pm. At about 3.45pm I got another call saying that he wasn’t off the 3.30pm arrival and that there wasn’t a black man on the train. What’s the point of putting artistes’ photos in the programme?! He had arrived on the 3pm train, couldn’t see anyone from the jazz festival, jumped into a taxi and went to his hotel!
Stolen Keys “The first Saturday of the festival has always been ‘Mardi Gras’ in the Grassmarket. This is one of the free events and consequently is very busy. Because of this, vehicles cannot go into the main part of the street but have to stop either in King’s Stable Road or the main road through the Grassmarket.
“One such Saturday in the mid noughties one of the bus drivers had to take a band of young musicians from New Orleans to play at the Mardi Gras. The driver stopped the bus on the main street, opposite where the band was to play. The band members objected to the fact that they could not go into the Grassmarket and that they would have to cross the road to get to their destination. The driver left his bus to see if any better arrangements could be made. When he returned, the band had disappeared along with the bus’s ignition key.
“I was informed of this situation and with the driver took steps to retrieve the key. I also cornered the band’s road manager and, in no uncertain terms, told him that what had happened was tantamount to theft and that if a similar situation occurred I would have no option but to call in the police.
“Unfortunately, the band members demanded an apology from the driver. What did he have to apologise for? He had done nothing wrong. I decided that the band would have to arrange its own transport and advised the driver accordingly.
‘Big Al’ Carson “Probably the most aptly named musician who ever played at the festival. He hailed from New Orleans and weighed in at 38 stones (532 lbs). When travelling by air he had to book two seats. When travelling round Edinburgh the only suitable transport was a black taxi although he could squeeze into the front seats in the passenger section of a mini-bus.
“Big Al was at two festivals as a vocalist and sousaphone player. He was fortunate, as was the festival, in that he could fit in comfortably to the jazz or blues parts of the event.
“As could be surmised he had a prodigious appetite. One afternoon he was playing at the blues festival, located at the Caledonian Brewery. The brewery had a pub within the grounds, reserved for artistes. The beauty of this establishment was that there was no charge for food or drink! Every so often, a tray of about 12 Scotch pies was provided. On the occasion to which I refer, Big Al ate the whole lot and looked for more.
“He was a lovely man, always grateful for the trouble that was taken to look after him. He was always afraid that he was being a nuisance. I only once saw him angry. I had to drive him from Edinburgh to Prestwick Airport. He was going to Oslo by Ryanair (there were no Scandinavian flights from Edinburgh at the time).
“I accompanied him to the check-in desk where he was told that he would have to pay $160 excess baggage. He queried this, stating that as he had paid for two seats he should be allowed two lots of baggage. Ryanair being Ryanair would have none of this. This caused Big Al to become agitated and increasingly angry to the extent that the check-in person was threatening to call the police. I eventually managed to calm him down. His parting shot to Ryanair was that when he left Norway to return to the States he would be travelling with a real airline.
Lonnie Donegan “Lonnie Donegan had been a hero of mine since the mid 1950s when he was with Ken Colyer’s band and with Chris Barber. However, it was with ‘The Rock island Line’, recorded in 1954, that Lonnie became internationally well known.
‘I prided myself in that I had nearly every recording that he had made together with some private stuff and radio broadcasts. In August 2002 he appeared at the Festival. He was not a well man at the time and I collected him from the premises of a chiropractor to take him to the Queen’s Hall where he was performing that evening. He sat hunched into the corner of the back seat of the car and was accompanied by his son, Peter. He was quite talkative and was looking forward to the evening’s concert. I genuinely thought that he wouldn’t make it.
“I attended the concert, in the company of Bill Gunter, the washboard player from the Californian band, Cell Block 7, that I was driving during the festival. Like myself, Bill was a big fan of Donegan.
“The concert time arrived and Lonnie bounced onto the stage and proceeded to entertain the capacity audience for the next two hours. The transformation from a small, hunched-up man in the back seat of a car to what appeared to be a human dynamo was incredible. I was really please that I had met and spoken to him.
“Three months later, in November 2002, Lonnie died.
The Golden Eagle Jazz Band “Another band from California. A great bunch of guys many of whom I have stayed in touch with since the ’90s.
“One of the jobs the band had was a publicity session at the Gyle Shopping Centre. The band was on a slighly raised stage. The trombonist, Glenn Calkins, had the biggest bag of mutes that I’ve ever seen. The bass player, Robin Tankard, a dep from Liverpool and the Merseysippi Jazz Band, was a bit of a joker. Glenn had just finished playing a solo using a baby’s potty as a mute and had laid it on floor. Robin kicked the potty out in front of the band and the public, thinking this was a band of buskers, started putting money into the potty. By the end of the gig there was £45 in the potty. Dick Shooshan the leader said to me that this was almost like begging. I said that it was begging!
“The band stayed in Edinburgh for a week after the festival ended and played each evening in the Carlton Hotel. Each day the band played in Princes Street Gardens and always the potty was to the fore! The musos earned their beer money for the week this way.
“In honour of the band’s visit to Scotland a poem was written. [Scroll down to read.]
Road Managers “Over the years I have found that some road managers seem to create situations to demonstrate to their clients just how well they are being looked after. This, of course, can backfire as the following examples show.
“An internationally famous vocal group is due to land at Edinburgh Airport. The group’s road manager has stated that three limousines are required, one for each vocalist. The band accompanying the vocalists are to be transported in a mini-bus. I have to go the airport to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
“The vocalists arrive together with the band. Only one limousine appears. The male vocalist jumps in and departs leaving the two female vocalists and the band. I speak to the female vocalists, apologising for the absence of the two limousines. The ladies tell me that they are glad because they wanted to travel with the band.
“The second situation is reasonably similar. Again, we have a well known vocalist travelling with his backing band. The road manager has demanded a nice car for the vocalist and a mini- bus for the band. The arrival location is the Waverley Station. Because of the station parking situation, I go into the station to meet the party whilst the nice car (a Mercedes) and the mini-bus are waiting in Market Street at the back of the station.
“As we emerge from the station, I indicate to the vocalist where his car is. He tells me that he doesn’t want a car. He wants to travel with the band. Again, this is a crazy thing. The driver has had to drive from Barnton to the Waverley at the height of the rush hour for nothing.
The Music “One of the main advantages that I have gained from the many years that I have been involved with the Festival is the number of recordings that I have done – always with the band leaders permission, I may add. These recordings will end up in the Edinburgh / Scottish Jazz Archive eventually.
“I have only once been refused permission to record and after listening to the band I was glad!
* The 2018 Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival runs from July 13-22.