MEMORIES OF A JAZZ MUSICIAN FROM CEYLON/SRI LANKA

Posted by admin Category: English, Fazli Sameer

Article sent to me by the late Stuart de Silva

JAZZ – the word has never been clearly defined. Someone asked Thelonious Sphere Monk in an interview “How would you define Jazz?” He answered, “Man, I don’t have to define it. I PLAY it. All you critics and non-players have to do is LISTEN!” No truer word was spoken.

I was born on the same day that piano virtuoso Art Tatum recorded his devastatingly stunning version of Tiger Rag. (He never ever played or recorded it again).

My earliest memories are my father telling me that, in my first year of life, I would wake up in the middle of the night howling and crying and the only way he could get me to shut up was to stumble in the dark (we had no electricity in Nugegoda then) to the piano and play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Little Man You’ve Had A Busy Day’. Yes, my father, Herman, came from a musical family, where my grandmother played piano, grandfather on drums, dad & his sister (Cora) played piano and a brother Algernon (Uncle”Joy”) on banjo. Dad, before I was born, played for the Silent Movies at the Empire Cinema in Slave Island. He had a style of playing that I was to only recognise later when I first heard Errol Garner. That chunk-chunk-chunk left hand chords, while the right hand improvised. We had a wind-up gramophone on which he played his ‘78s, from Duke Ellington, thru James P Johnson, Fats Waller, Albert Ammons & Pete Johnson, the Ink Spots, Mills Brothers, Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday and heaps of others.

Because of my growing interest in the music, when I was 4 years old he got me studying Classical piano under the Hungarian Hugo Wagn. He and his brother Victor were then living in Ceylon. It was Victor who started the first Symphony Orchestra in Colombo in 1939. My lessons with Hugo ended when I was 9 years, when he walked in 15 minutes early for my lesson he heard me playing a Boogie Woogie. Tearing at his hair, screaming at my parents “He’s playing that jungle music. I can no longer teach him.” He walked out. I never saw him again till 1959, I was on a bus in London with Rudy Bernardo and saw and recognised him. Naturally, we got off the bus, went and had some beers and told him of my career in Jazz. He was happy to hear of my Doctorate at Juilliard.

This is just a little background info.

In the late 40’s, Gerry  Crake on alto, brother George on tenor, and brother Ben on baritone saxes, with Dudley Pereira on vocals, rehearsed at my grandparents’ home in Girton School Road, Nugegoda, for the Band that was to soon become the Crake Brothers. My Dad played some piano (with Gerry clueing him on chords), grandpa on drums and Uncle Joy on banjo. Naturally I was there.

My first introduction to a music that was to become a very fruitful career for 45 years as a professional Jazz pianist around the world.

In 1949, that Great Entrepreneur of Show Biz in Ceylon, Donovan Andre, held a Talent Quest at his Carnival at the SSC. I entered and won all of Rs 100, at that time a fortune. He then spoke to my Dad, who was a regular at the Nite Club, and offered to book me with a trio in his Nite Club, as intermission pianist to Gerry Crake’s Band. What a blast!

That same year, he had brought the Kamala Circus to perform in Colombo. In that Circus, there was a Trapeze Act, The Flying Bernardos. That was Barney and his wife, son Rudy and daughter Colleen. Rudy and Barney also played in Band. Sadly, Colleen contracted a disease and died and was buried at Kanatte. The Family Bernardo did not want to leave Ceylon and Donovan got them Ceylon Citizenship.

The trio I had in the nite club was with Barney Bernardo, (the father) on bass (he also played trombone) and Rudy on drums. The gig was only Friday and Saturday, so it would not interfere with my schooling. He even had his driver, Ian Dias, pick me up and take me home.

Gerry’s Band had, to the best of my recollection, Gerry on alto & clarinet, George Crake, tenor, Derek Evarts on tenor, Ben Crake, baritone, Latif Miskin or Louis Miskin,trumpet ( they alternated) Tony “Rocky” Latham, bass. Rudy Bernardo, drums, doing a double gig with my trio.

Here were the giants of the Ceylon Jazz scene. What an exposure for a 14 year old. I lapped it up.

Then, the same year, Gazali Amit had heard me, came home and got permission from my parents to join his Quartet in Radio Ceylon broadcasts. The group was Gazali, guitar, Jimmy van Sanden ,bass and Cass Ziard,drums.

More into the learning curve.

In 1951, Donovan Andre, that Giant of Showbiz entrepreneurs in, brought a Variety troupe led by Marie Bryant, “The Harlem Blackbirds”. (She had been the choreographer on Nat King Cole’s TV series in the US).This was an all African-American cast of fabulous dancers, comedians and tap-dancers, whose entire repertoire was to the accompaniment (recorded, and sometimes played by Gerry Crake’s Band) of pure Jazz.

Then in 1953, we had the Horrie Dargie Quintet, the Australian Jazz Quartet, and Max Wildman’s Band, with whom our own Charmaine Drieberg sang (she later married Reuben Solomon and moved to Sydney, where she was to write her fantastic series of books on Asian cuisine).

In 1955, at the bottom of 8th Lane, Bambalapitiya, Donovan brought a troupe from Paris, “The Parisian Follies”. One of the people in the show was Jazz solo pianist Aaron Bridges (African-American, then living and playing in Paris), who had studied under Art Tatum and Billie Strayhorn. Naturally we became good friends and he visited our home on many an occasion, showing me different chord voicings on the piano. His regular gig in Paris was at the Mars Club, an American owned spot just off the Champs Elysees, a hang-out for Showbiz folks, mainly visiting Acts and ex-pat Americans living in Paris. Ironically, 5 years later, I would take over his gig there and stay on at the Mars for 4 years, playing 7 nights, Art Simmons and I sharing the solo piano spots.

Also in the troupe was Duke Diamond, a fantastic jazz tap dancer, who was to later appear in a sequence in the original movie “Moulin Rouge” as an acrobatic and tap dancer.

In 1951, Radio Ceylon inaugurated the Commercial Service, bringing two Australians, Clifford Dodd and Graham Evans to take charge. They wanted a greater emphasis on Jazz in their broadcasts. To this end, they negotiated a deal with Gillette to sponsor a weekly live Jazz programme for a period of 52 weeks. Gazali Amit got the gig. With Gazali, guitar, Jimmy van Sanden, bass, Cass Ziard, drums and myself on piano, and two vocalists who alternated, Yolande Wolff , who was to make her name in US jazz circles as Yolanda Bavan, and Bill Forbes. The group was called “The Airwaves”, as was the live broadcast programme every Saturday nite.

The contract was for a whole year, but Gazali moved on, Mervyn Cherrington took the guitar seat, Jimmy van Sanden left for the US and Tony Blake came in on bass. Sometime later, Mervyn left for the UK and Percy Bartholomeusz came in on guitar. Again a great learning curve.

I worked at Donovan’s night Clubs, with a short break from 1953 to 1955, with my trio, right up the Purple Orchid Room in Victoria Park, when I left Ceylon in 1958 on a scholarship from Dave Brubeck to Berkelee College in Boston.

 

Some of the foreign Bands that influenced the Jazz scene in Ceylon.

1939 thru 1941- Teddy Weatherford’s Band at the Galle Face.

This was a legendary Band under a legendary leader. Weatherford had been in Asia since 1930, in Shanghai, Burma, Indonesia and Bombay, India. In 1937, he was working in Cricket Smith’s band, playing piano and singing, at the Taj Mahal in Bombay (other reports have the same band in Java, Indonesia at that time), when they moved to the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo as resident Band from July 1937 through 1942.

Story has it that Weatherford took over the Band from Smith for this contract and they arrived in Colombo in July, 1937.

The Band that played in Colombo definitely had Reuben Solomon (alto & clarinet), Rudy Cotton (ten), Rudy Jackson (alto sax/clarinet), Louis Moreno (trumpet & violin) Paul Gozalvez (tenor, from 1940 to 42), Tony Gonzalvez, (bass) Trevor McCabe or Luis Pedroso (drums). There was a 2nd trumpet, who could have been George Banks (Nepalese born: Pushkar Bahadur Buddaprihiti), and trombonist George Leonardi. On guitar was Cedric West, who, with George Banks, came out of Burma with Reuben Solomon’s Jive Kings in the early ‘30’s.

My father had befriended Weatherford and (from 1939 to 1942) took me to the GFH to hear the band in their Sunday afternoon shows. Weatherford also visited our home on many occasions.

Paul Gonzalvez, the tenor player who was later with Duke Ellington and featured at Newport in that fantastic “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” solo, told me in Paris that he was stationed in Colombo with the US Army and that he did play in Weatherford’s Band 1940 to ’42. Other reports have him stationed in Bombay, but, from what he told me personally, I’ll stick with this.

Rudy Jackson, alto sax and clarinet, was in Duke Ellington’s first band, I think from 1916. I know he recorded with Duke in 1926 and left Duke’s Band in 1927.

Rudy Cotton, came back with his own Band to play for Donovan, around 1952, either at the SSC or BRC. Jimmy Emmanuel, piano player, who stayed on in Sri Lanka till his recent death, came over with him. They both, together with Luis Pedroso were in Louis Moreno’s Muchachos at Donovan’s Silver Fawn in Union Place in 1940, where Erin de Selfa started singing, aged 16, known as Dinah of the Red Tails. The Band there was the Red Tails Minstrels.

Moreno, Pedroso and Reuben Solomon, together with Mario Manricks were in Sacha Borsteins’s band at the GFH, with Mickey Borstein, on piano and our own Frosty Vanlangenberg on bass. Moreno also played vibraphone. Mickey Borstein took over the piano chair from Ossie Halpern around 1955/56 when he left the Band.

There are people who have claimed that Buck Clayton played with Weatherford in Colombo, but records show this cannot be true. Till 1937, he was leading his own Band at the Canidrome in Shanghai, but left China just before the 2nd Sino-Japanese war and returned to the US in 1937, the year Weatherford came to Colombo. That same year he joined Willie Bryant’s Band and while on a tour date in Kansas City, joined Count Basie, where he remained, recording with Lester Young, Buddy Tate, Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, the master Joe Jones, Freddie Green (the rhythm guitarist who never took a solo) and others in the band, with Basie on piano.

1940 thru 1944 – at the Hotel in Slave Island, near the roundabout, owned by Greg Roskovski’s mother, was another Jazz piano player: Dr Jazz. Also African-American, he played a lot of Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson. I was taken often to hear him. He too was a friend of my Dad.

Through the war years, when Colombo was South East Asia Command (SEAC), there was a radio band called the Squadronaires, who did concerts and Radio Broadcasts. They were British, but played a lot of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw arrangements. Never got to meet them, but did get to hear them live. Great music.

 

Some foreign Jazz Groups that played at Donovan Andre’s Nite Clubs

Horrie Dargie, who played chromatic harmonica, brought his Quintet from Australia and played for month. I have not been able to identify the other musicians, but the band comprised of his Harmonica, tenor sax/violin, piano, bass and drums. They played opposite Gerry Crake’s Band.

The Australian Jazz Quartet, based on the Modern Jazz Quartet, had Jackie Brockensha on vibes and drums, Bryce Rohde on piano, Errol Buddle on tenor, alto, soprano and baritone saxes and Dick Healey on bass. They did a one month stint at Donovan’s and were on their way to the UK after. Errol Buddle lives in Perth, Australia, and is still active on the jazz scene here. Brokensha went onto the US and made a name for himself there.

In 1955/56, there was a Band from Singapore, Placido “Ido” Martin’s Quintet, with Jimmy Aaron, alto, Benny, his brother, drums, and guitarist and vocalist, Benny’s wife, Eva. Ido played trumpet, piano and vibes and was superb on all three instruments. Their style was heavily influenced by Bebop and West Coast Jazz.

In more recent years, Albert Mangelsdorff (a superb trombonist) and Joachim Kuhn,piano, and bassist Eberhard Weber, bass, came over with a Quartet, sponsored by the Goethe Institute. All three of them turned up at Jazz Unlimited session and played.( I remember this because Joachim called me up to play while he took a break.) I knew all three of them from Munich in Germany, where I had a 3 month stint in a Jazz Club there.

Then, in 1984, the Australian Embassy brought “Intersection”, a very modern, avant-guard  band. Two of the members, Roger Frampton, piano and soprano sax, and Guy Strazzulo, guitar, turned up at JU at the Capri and we jammed a couple of sets with Lucky Manikawasagar on bass and Aruna Siriwardene , drums and myself on piano, Frampton played soprano sax. Frampton passed away 11 years ago. Strazzulo and I remain in contact in Sydney.

To get back to Commercial Radio: in the 50’s, Greg Roskovski, Mil Sansoni, Chris Greet and Dan Durairaj played a lot of Jazz on Radio. At the time, Dan was the only one into Bebop and played a lot of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the Dutch Bebop piano-accordion Quintet of Art Van Damme, the Jazz piano/singing Duo of Jackie Krall & Roy Crane and many others.

At the time of the “Airwaves”, I had connected by letter with Bud Powell followers “Dizzy” Saldano in Bombay and Toshiko Aiyoshi in Tokyo. Strangely, Toshiko was at Berkelee 2 years before me and “Dizzy” one year before. We never met.

 

Now, to an appreciation of our Ceylon/Sri Lankan musicians:

Piano: Christie Bartholomeusz (played at The Silver Fawn with The Red Tail Minstrels); Sonny Bartholomeusz (stride piano in the style of Earl Hines/Teddy Wilson – I had a series of lessons from him), his sister, Phylis, who played a mean two handed piano); Gerry Crake (a style reminiscent of Count Basie); Chitra Malalasekare( later Ranawake) (who although being a 1st Prize winner in Classical music at the Paris Conservatory in France, was intent on playing bebop piano); Rafe Jansz (boogie-woogie and jazz);Mickey and Helen Menezes; Tom Menezes’ daughter, Cathy; Raddy Ferreira (who led a jazz Big Band in Sydney, played for 18 years at the Hilton Hotel, Sydney, and is now on a World Cruise Luxury Liner with his Trio for the past 5 years); “Doc” Gulasekaram (Gulli) ,who led a long-standing Trio with Gazali and Frosty Van Langenberg, playing Art Tatum Trio and Nat “King” Cole Trio arrangements, which he transcribed from the records); Jimmy Emmanuel (need I say more-he was a great pianist); Gerry Crake’s daughter, Heather Crake; Eric and Conrad Martinez(twins) ( Both taught jazz piano. Conrad moved to Denmark.); Ossie Halpern and Mickey Borstein who were with Sascha Borstein’s Band at the Galle Face Hotel ( both superb and modern jazz pianists); “Blind John” – used to play the Hotel in Slave Island where Dr.Jazz played and in later years at lunchtime at The Pagoda in Chatham Street. Claire Croner, (he also plays accordion, but for a while, was the pianist with Gerry Crake’s Band. I took over the piano seat from him).

To these I must add: Patrick Nelson, Desmond Pompeus, Peter Prins, Harsha Markalanda, Dilup Gabadamudalige, Mignonne Fernando, Neri Fernandez (Erin’s husband), Debbie Arnolda and, I am sure a host of young players I’ve never heard. I never met or got to hear Valentine Manikavasagar, but, from what I’ve been told, he is superb.

 

Bass: Leonard Francke, Jimmy Van Sanden, Tony “Rocky” Latham, Frosty Van Langenberg, Barney Bernardo (Rudy’s father), Ralph de Silva (my cousin, who moved to Australia and played with Graham Belle and other jazz groups, including my Trio), Nesan and Lucky Manikavasagar (both great), Tony Blake, David Sansoni, David Bartholomeusz (Ronnie’s brother), Nilantha Ariyaratne, Nihal Jayewardene (he played beautifully on that Trio I had at the Galadari with Farouk Miskin on drums) Errol Mulholland, Ray Gomez……….A Special Mention for the ever-young Alston Joachim. What a bass player, who can play in any style and make it sound fantastic!

 

Drums: RUDY BERNARDO! Wadham Dole, Godfrey Davidson, Louis Pedroso, Cass Ziard, Faleel Ziard, Adrian Ferdinands, Farouk Miskin ( Latif’s son), Aruna Siriwardene, Hassan Musafer, Mohan Sabaratnam, Lucky Manikavasagar,  Diren Sabaratnam, Chris Dharsan, Christo Prins, Harris Juranpathy……………….

 

Guitar: Gazali Amit, Milroy Passe-deSilva, Mervyn Cherrington, Percy Bartholomeusz, David Sansoni, Raja Jalaldeen, Revel Crake, Rodney Rabot,

 

Sax: Gerry (alto/clt), George (ten) and Ben(ten/bari) Crake, Derek Evarts (ten), Clem Croner(ten/clt), Rodney Van Heer (ten), Reuben Solomon (alto/clt), Randy Peiris (ten) Kumar Mollegoda(ten), Harold Seneviratne (alto), Edgar Heber(alto), Malcolm de Zilwa (ten/alto), Freddie Diaz (ten)*

*Freddie was a Major in the Army and couldn’t play professionally. However, Ariya & Chitra Ranawake, Cass Ziard, Tony Blake and I met on Sundays at his house to go through bebop charts. He had a hard-reed and a style like Coleman Hawkins in his bebop phase.

 

Clarinet: Gerry Crake; Mario Manricks; Reuben Solomon; Clem Croner; Ronnie Bartholomeusz………….

 

Trumpet: LOUIS MISKIN! What can I say about “Rafai”, as we all lovingly called him? His thirst for playing and booze is legendary. When the Band at Donovan’s took a break, he’d run out to the Carnival grounds and play with the Merry-Go-Round Band. Louis NEVER slept. He was in the CLI Marching Band and he would go straight from the Club and join them in their morning march from Maharagama to Reid Avenue. He also played in Major Perry’s CLI Dance Band and Concert Band (Classical). He lived for music. He had a tremendously powerful sound. There’s only one trumpet player I’ve met and played with, on a tour in Germany, with that sound: “Wild Bill” Davidson. That was with the Buddy Tate Quintet in 1973.

During the “Parisian Follies”, there was Sammy Wilde (Fire-eater/Dancer), who danced to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Cubana Be-Cubana Bop”, and Louis handled Dizzy’s solo with ease.

 

Others. Latif Miskin (Crake Bros); Tom Menezes (one fantastic trumpet player); Ariya Ranawake (Bebop only); Luis Moreno; Dallas Achilles; Eden Pompeus…….

 

Vocalists: ERIN de SELFA!!!!!!*; Eileen Nathanielsz*; Dudley Perera*; Kingsley de Mel*; Yolande Wolff*; Jean Van Heer*; Chris Greet*; Gerry Crake*; Marie de Rosairo*; Noeline Honter; Mifanwy Pompeus; Scarlett Hannibelsz;  Mike “Hootie” Gibson (sang only with Doc “Gulli’s Quintet, with Gerry Crake(alto) and Rudy Bernardo added). His repertoire was from Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five Band – the very first R & B/ Rock & Roll Band ever; Bill Forbes*………..

 

Vocal Groups: Gerry Crake & Dudley Perera; The Three Crotchets (Joy Ferdinando-piano/vocals, Lylie Godridge, Bede de Silva); The Kelaart Sisters  (Decima & Mignonne)*; The De Bruin Sisters* (June,  ? and ?); The Four Sharps* (Gamalathge Bros, Roland & Victor, ? Seneviratne and ?);

*These are singers I had the pleasure of accompanying on Radio and Concerts.

 

Other: “Whistling” Georgie Siegertz. He could whistle and improvise on the hit tunes of the period. He had his own 15 minute program on Radio Ceylon in the ‘50’s. Anyone who saw “The Bridge Over The River Kwaii”, will recall the soundtrack of our Georgie whistling “The Colonel Bogey March” – he also acted in the movie as a prisoner of war. (George Siegertz passed away in London in March, 2002, aged 82, in London.)

 

Footnote: In early 1953, my father and I bought the remaining 2 year lease from Julius Mather on the Pigalle Nite Club in Colpetty (3-storey building next to Kreme House), with Donovan Andre’s blessing, help and advice.

I had a Trio, with Wadham Dole and Tony Blake. The Club operated as a Members Only Club, open six days a week, Monday’s off.

Of the Members were Mike Wilson, Sampath Nandalochana and Viswa Selvaratnam, keen Jazz afficianados. After some discussions, we decided to turn Monday’s into a Jazz Club night. With the backing of the USIS in Miller’s Building, and a great deal of help from Ms. Diana Captain (Soli’s sister), who worked there as Manager, we managed to secure an Affiliation Agreement with International Jazz Club in New York to run under their banner.

The Office bearers were Mike, Viswa, Sampath (Treasurer & Accountant) and myself. This Committee was Notarised and Registered, a requirement under the Agreement with New York.

To say it was a success will be an understatement. A lot of the musicians named above would turn up to sit in.

In 1955, when the lease ended, with Sardha Ratnavira (jeweller and gem merchant and fabulous artiste) signing a new lease with Maliban, I went back to playing at Donovan Andre’s Purple Orchid Room in Victoria Park with my Trio. From that time on IJC was held on Sundays, morning and afternoon, at the Greenhouse, the other Room at Donovan’s, where he had his foreign Shows.

I continued to play and the IJC Committee remained the same until I left Ceylon on the Brubeck Scholarship in 1958. When I left, Wadham Dole took my place on the Committee.

Subsequently, IJC made way for Jazz Unlimited under Tommy and Mahes Perera and is still going solidly strong.

 

© Stuart de Silva inc. Sydney Australia. 2011.

Fazil Sameer

A jazz drummer who followed in the steps of Tom Menezes. Having moved to Saudi Arabia since 1979, Fazli enjoys his retired life by teaching drumming for school kids.

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