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Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals


I've been having one of my legendary 'clearouts'.
Why legendary? Well, if you consider that a legend is a story surrounded in mystery and intrigue with no real basis in provable fact, then that's pretty much what what constitutes a clearout in the workshop. No matter how much junk I toss out or shift around, the place still looks as cluttered and chaotic as it ever did.

As I'm generally the only inhabitant of the workshop (except the spiders - and they don't count 'cos they don't make the tea) I tend to work on the 'I know exactly where everything is' principle. Menfolk all over the world will gnash their teeth in envy at the prospect of my being able to put something down....and have it stay there until I, and only I, move it again. Piles of CDs can rest precariously atop piles of books, which themselves sit atop piles of...whatever it is that's at the bottom of the pile...and can do so quite safely given that there's only one person likely to knock the whole pile over, and I'm not going to do that...or at least if I do it'll be for a very good reason and not at all an accident, oh no.

The reason for this current bout of tidiness comes out of a decision to join the digital age.
It's not a decision based on quality (I'm not fooled by all things digital), rather it's one of sheer convenience. With three small children in the house at home there never seems to be any time to listen to my records, or indeed anywhere to put my prized Linn Sondek (I've already kissed goodbye to one £300 cartridge after an inquisitive child got his hands on it). I can laugh about it now. OK, I can talk about it now without wincing. Much.
I brought the Linn to the workshop in the hope of being able to indulge myself in vinyl on a regular basis - but it's not the most ideal environment, what with all the dust and grime...and I can't say that I'm all that keen to keep getting up from my workbench to turn discs over or turn the volume down when the phone goes.
So I decided to forego quality for the sake of convenience and start 'ripping' my records to a hard drive - and I have to (grudgingly) admit that it's meant I can listen to a great deal more music simply because it's there at the click of a mouse.

Anyway, whilst I was about it I decided that I really didn't need to keep all my old cassettes. The vast majority of them were made for listening to in the car, but as I have a CD player there now they're pretty much redundant - so I decided to archive the ones I didn't have vinyl or CD copies of and then toss the whole lot away.
Searching though a whole cupboard full of cassettes is a task that brings equal measures of pleasure and pain. The pain undoubtedly comes from having to sort through hundreds of cassettes that have becomes orphaned from their label, or are just plain illegible. I mean, whaddya think 'TSLAE - TC' means?? Only way to find out is to play it, and having played it I find that it means "Tom Scott & the LA Express - Tom Cat". This is where the pleasure part comes in though...because as soon as you press the play button you immediately recall why you bought the album in the first place, and so it becomes time for a cup of tea, a ciggie and a spot of feet-up.

As you might imagine, it took me a fair few days to wade through all the cassettes - and I sped things up a little by shoving all the iffy or grubby looking tapes to one side, to be dealt with at a later date.
It became that date a few days later and I spent an hour or so each morning going through the tapes in search of anything worth archiving. I found a few gems - but one of the most precious was a tape I made as a mere teenager. It wasn't anything special musically, just a tape of the 'chart show' way back in the 70's. It wasn't anything special technically either, having been made by placing a cassette recorder with an inbuilt mic next to the speaker of a small transistor radio. Of course, I had to listen to it.
Funny how it all comes back so easily...the fumbled intros as I'd tried to anticipate when the DJ would shut up and the track would start, and the curses as the DJ yaks over 'the really good bit at the end'...and little snippets of tracks that I hadn't meant to record at all. Best of all though was a break halfway through the tape where my younger brother must have got hold of the cassette recorder at some point and recorded his own 'personal' message to me. I bet I must have been really teed off at the time...

But the gem that far eclipses anything I found in the pile of dusty old tapes was a recording of my old big band doing a live gig. As soon as I pressed play on the unmarked tape I knew exactly what it was, even though I don't for the life of me recall ever making such a tape.

I've mentioned this band a few times in my jottings, but I think now's the time to flesh out some of the history.
The Steve Howard Big Band - or SHBB - started life as a school swing band under the batonage of the school's head of music, and progressed out of school into a small group that used to gather in someone's front room every few weeks for a bit of a blow through some very tired old Jimmy Lally arrangements. A charity gig for a local church-member gained us access to a church hall every Sunday, and from that small group of young musicians grew a 17 piece big band.
I'd emphasise the 'young', because I was barely past my mid teens, and most of the other guys and girls had to be brought along to rehearsals by their parents. We did pretty well though - my father helped out with regards to the repertoire choices, and there was a genuine sense of family within the band that made the whole thing roll along relatively smoothly.

We had a some triumphs, and a few disasters too.
My father knocked up some stage stands for the band - he was always good at helping out with the presentation of the band - and he'd decided to make the stands out of very thin, springy ply. These were cut into squares and then the top cut off to form a semicircle, the principle being that when the two sides of the stand were bent round in a semicircle and secured with wires bent at each end, a flat sheet could then be rested on top at an angle...and hey presto - a neat looking music stand, complete with red paint and logo picked out in gold. Very smart indeed.
Trouble was, the wires that held the stands in shape were secured by poking them through screw eyes fixed into a thin batten down each side of the stand. In theory it was a great idea...simply remove the wires and the stands spring out flat, and you could get the whole lot in the back of a car.
After a couple of months use though, the screw eyes became loose - and they'd sometimes, and quite without warning, give out halfway through a gig. What would happen is that one screw eye would fail...usually from one of the top wires. This would place extra strain on the remaining screw eyes, and in an instant the whole lot would go down one side. The stand would fly apart, throwing the top up and away with the sides taking out whatever happened to be in range...usually the stands either side...which would then, on a bad night, follow suit.
So we looked good, and there was always the chance that we'd explode on a gig.

That might have been the reason we got so many gigs - but it was probably more likely to have been the choice of repertoire.
Back in those days (mid to late 1970s or so), there was quite a healthy youth big band scene going down, but most of them were playing stuff from contemporary American big bands. It all sounded quite impressive but it wasn't really the sort of thing that would inspire you to get up and dance. We were playing quicksteps, foxtrots, waltzes...and pops, and filling dance halls.

I imagine I must have been a bit of an ogre as bandleader, I always felt that the music was more than just the dots.
From time to time we used to get new musicians turn up, and they'd be given a pad and asked to sit in. It always struck me how even quite accomplished musicians (and we'd be talking Grade 6 and above, examwise) would trip up on the phrasing. It was something I worked on with the band, getting that sense of style and swing into the music.
For example, you can read a Billy May arrangement straight and it sounds just fine - but if you get your sections to play that signature 'slide' up the riffs, the arrangements take on a whole new feel. Likewise, getting the Miller vibrato right (or wrong) makes or breaks the number.
So I'd drill the kids mercilessly, and I'd get miffed when I didn't think they were pulling their weight.
I think though that what kept us together was the feeling we got when it all came together (that, and the chance to watch the trombone section take a dive when the stands exploded).

So I have this tape.
I'll be honest, there are some rough moments in it - and even after all these years (and it's been a good 20 or so years since we last played together) I can remember exactly where to cringe in certain arrangements in advance of one of the sections falling over a tricky phrase or a bunch of high notes. But that's the fun - as is listening to the bits where everyone's right on the button and giving it their all.
Judging by the repertoire it's one of our very first gigs...there are a few numbers on the tape that I can well remember we ditched pretty quick once new arrangements became available. I can also tell it's an early recording by my inbetween numbers banter. Whereas these days I'd probably schmooze on about the composer, or the arranger, or perhaps point up a featured soloist, the best that I could think of back then was to yell "Thankyouverymuch, we'll be back in just a moment".
This is real music though, played by real musicians for real people. It's not perfect, but then it started off as an unintelligible mess and gradually got better and better over the months and years...and that's the joy of music, making it better, playing it better, moving and discovering.

I think, as a tribute to the guys and girls that formed SHBB down the years, I'd like to let people hear just a snippet of what we sounded like.
As far as recordings go it's rather iffy. I suspect it was taped straight to a cassette recorder at my feet, probably using a couple of cheap mics plonked centre front of the stage. The balance is quite bad...I must have been right by the mic, so you can hear yours truly pumping out on lead alto (and, if you listen really carefully, my brother on bari sax). I can make apologies for the technical issues, but I shan't apologise for the band itself. What you'll hear is 17 musicians, none (save for me) being much older than mid to late teens having a bloody good time!

The clip is a of the opening section of "Hello Young Lovers". Enjoy.


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