“The girl in Bennett’s who knows about jazz” — a story about Elvis Costello’s mother (and the smuggling of Lennie Tristano recordings!)

March 29th, 2018

The Lennie Tristano Sextet (late 1940’s)
Lennie Tristano, Joe Shulman, Kee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Bauer, Jeff Morton

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     On a whim I recently picked up the rock musician Elvis Costello’s 2015 biography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, a strange and (as far as I can tell — only 100 pages into it) occasionally brilliant reflection on his life.  

     Costello, born Declan Patrick MacManus in 1954, began his career in London’s pub scene before becoming an important contributor to the British punk and new wave movement of the mid-1970’s.  Long a darling of rock critics, Costello was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, and is known to contemporary jazz fans as the husband to popular pianist/singer Diana Krall.

    The following excerpt from the book is a colorful story of Costello’s mother Lillian’s employment as a clerk in the record departments of two Liverpool retailers — first, Rushworth & Dreaper (a renowned seller of musical instruments), and three years later, Bennett’s, a smaller shop that catered to musicians.  Along the way, you will discover how Costello’s parents met (he was Ross MacManus, a trumpeter and singer in Joe Loss Orchestra who eventually led his own band), and how Lillian had the revolutionary recordings of Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz smuggled into Liverpool from New York (which eventually led to Costello’s employing Konitz on a recording of his own, some forty years later).

 

 

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     A job as a sales assistant was proposed at Rushworth & Dreaper, then a prestigious four-storey establishment that sold pianos, organs, and brass instruments that had a fine record department on the ground floor vying for space with a massive stock of sheet music.  There were a number of grand places in Liverpool that a woman of (Costello’s grandmother) Aba Ablett’s background would not have thought to enter.  One was the Adelphi Hotel, then resplendent in imitation of a Cunard luxury liner.  Another such location was Rushworth’s.

     However, Lillian was unabashed and did not emerge from the job interview to rejoin her mother on the pavement outside for fifteen minutes, during which she did enough to convince the manager to take her on and have her trained in the mysteries of record catalogs by a senior sales assistant for a wage of ten shillings a week.  Lillian’s confidence in her own opinions about music made her valuable to the senior staff, who knew little or nothing about dance band music or jazz.  In return, my Mam got a basic education in the classical and opera catalog, part of which was to work as an unpaid usher at the Philharmonic Hall.  She was eventually able to recognize and recommend the key works of the repertoire.

     At the time, individual movements of symphonies and concerti were split up over the four-minute sides of 78 rpm records, so the sales assistants were expected to handle the fragile discs and play them for prospective customers in a soundproof audition booth.  None of the young women working at the shop ever really wanted to find themselves in this confined space with one particularly famous conductor, who would use his guest appearances with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as a prelude to attempted seductions of the sales staff.

     After three years at Rushworth’s, Lillian took a job at a rival store on Parker Street of Clayton Square.  As a small boy, I remember the square being filled with flower stalls, a taxi stand, and containing the Jacey cinema, which offered a continuous program of cartoons.

     It was a perfect place.

     Later, the Jacey became an art cinema showing such titles as Street of Shame and The Subject is Sex, before mutating again into an X-rated cinema, and eventually into the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

     Back in the late ’40’s, the scene was somewhat different.  The shop in which Lillian now worked was called Bennett’s, a smaller operation that attracted musicians on their break from tea dances at Reece’s, a fancy restaurant and bakery with a ballroom on the first floor.  Needless to say, these musicians never bought anything, and only wanted to have my Mam audition records for them, so Sol Bennett would periodically chase these deadbeats out of the shop.  However, word eventually got around that Lillian was “the girl in Bennett’s who knows about jazz,” and that is how my parents met – across the counter of a record shop.

     My father had just returned from his national service in Egypt with the RAF, and had started to play trumpet in the Merseyside clubs.  Ross McManus and His Quintette were sometimes billed as coming “Direct from Their Engagements in Paris and London,” when they had yet to cross the Mersey from the British Legion Hall on Park Road East, Birkenhead, to achieve the dizzying heights of playing a cellar in Liverpool.

     Ross would perch on the stairs below Mr. Bennett’s office in yellow socks and a secondhand American sports jacket.  He and his friends all wanted to be Americans.  They even started playing baseball in Birkenhead Park in a team called the Bidston Indians and took to standing around in wire-rimmed sunglasses and old USAAF flying jackets with a cartoon Indian painted on the back.

     One of the gang changed his name to the more Yankee-sounding handle “Zeke,” so I suppose “Ronald McManus” got off lightly when he decided to go by his third given name of “Ross.”

     He’d roll out his plans for the future until my mother ran out of new releases to spin or Mr. Bennett had him ejected from the shop.  Eventually, he persuaded Lillian to sing at band rehearsals, as his vocalist could never get there in time from her day job at Littlewoods Pools.

     Lillian knew all the songs even though she never had the confidence to sing in public.

     Ross started to lead the Bop City All-Stars and evenings that offered “Rocking with Ross” at any venue that would have them.  My mother would collect a small entrance fee that barely covered the band’s costs, while the partrons often had to smuggle in their own alcohol if the hall lacked a license.

     Not everyone was so thrilled about what they were playing.  A trumpet player from the Merseysippi Jazz Band – a popular traditional jazz group – punched Ross for belligerently pestering him for a loan of his mouthpiece in order to play this weird new music. 

     Lillian found it equally difficult to persuade Mr. Bennett to stock obscure items on the understanding that there was a small and probably penniless pool of potential buyers.  One of her customers was absolutely determined to hear the revolutionary new recordings of Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz – discs that had not yet been issued in England.  To order such a record directly from America was prohibitively expensive due to the levy of import taxes.  So Lillian took matters into her own hands.

     She was friendly with a young man named Norman Milne, who sang part-time in the clubs around town.  He was working as a merchant seaman until he could make his living in music, so when she heard he was shipping out for New York, my mother gave him five pounds of her own money and the details of the Tristano/Konitz records.

     Norman must have smuggled them back into Liverpool in his suitcase.  But then, “Norman” doesn’t sound like the name of anyone responsible for sneaking dutiable items past the Customs and Excise officer.

     My mother’s ingenuity and her seafaring pal kept her customers supplied with rare and unavailable music and Norman, the vocalizing merchant seaman, went on to win a singing contest at Radio City Music Hall during one of his working passages to New York and, emboldened by this, took up a full-time career in show business.  He changes his name to Michael Holliday and became a popular recording artist in the easy-going style of Bing Crosby.  He had UK hits with “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Sixteen Tons,” and later sang the theme song to Gerry Anderson’s marionette western series, Four Feather Falls.

     In 1958, he had his first number-one record with “The Story of My Life,” a song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

     One morning in 1963, my mother and I were listening to Jack de Manio on the Home Service when the death of Michael Holliday was announced.  My Mam gasped and perhaps even stifled some tears. 

     My Dad was still living with us then.  He was sleeping off whatever he had been up to after leaving work the night before.  When it came time to wake him, I carelessly blurted out the news, having no way to appreciate the coded implication of the report.

     The BBC said that the singer suffered from “stage fright” and had had a “nervous breakdown.”  I had no idea what those terms meant, just that my parents were upset by the news.  It was not until I was much older that I became aware of the secrets a man might have been obliged to keep in those days.

     Forty years later, I invited Lee Konitz to come to a New York studio to play on a track for an album of lost-and-found love songs called North.  He added a beautiful alto saxophone solo on the coda of my song “Someone Took the Words Away.”

     At the end of the session, I told Lee about my mother smuggling his records into England and asked if he would sign and dedicate the lead sheet to her.  With characteristically terse economy, he wrote:

    Lillian, Thanks, Lee Konitz.

 

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Excerpted from 

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

by Elvis Costello

 

 

 

A 1964 film of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh performing at the Half Note

 

 

“Someone Took the Words Away,” from Costello’s recording North, featuring Lee Konitz on alto

 

 

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