Howard Lear

Mr. D and Me

by Howard Lear

January, 2001

 

The guest speaker stood uneasily at the front of Mr. Jaeger’s Grade 5 social studies class at General Gordon School, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. He had come to recruit boys for his band. He spoke softly, confidentially, with a tendency to mumble. Although he was a fit and trim 50 years of age, his hair was silver-white. His demeanor was earnest and serious, but once or twice he flashed a shy grin, displaying teeth whiter-than-white against his swarthy complexion. He talked about a boys’ band which he had started about ten years ago. The band had become very successful, winning a gold medal in a competition at the Chicago World’s Fair. They toured in England prior to the outbreak of World War II and now were planning a trip to Hollywood. The prospect of trips to far-away places was alluring, especially to England, the birthplace of my father and three of my grandparents. I was definitely interested in joining up.
“We practice ‘ere in the basement every Monday and Thursday evenin’,” he added in what remained of his Herefordshire accent. “Thursday,” I thought, “That’s choir practice night. Should I quit the choir?” I had been a choirboy for three years now along with a dozen or so other boys. Singing in the Sunday services had become part of my life and I was enjoying it. The bandmaster asked those interested in joining the band to come forward. A friend, Dave Armstrong, responded eagerly. I stayed seated.
Once in a while years later, I listened to Dave and Glen Buckley gleefully recounting tales of band trips and the terrible temper of the bandmaster, or Mr. D, as they called him, and sometimes on a Monday evening, I would hear Glen, who lived across the street, whistling an improvised tune as he walked home from band practice. On these occasions I often recalled the decision I had made years before.
In the fall of 1947 Dave, Glen and I along with Brian Gurney, who had lived across the lane from me since we were six, joined the Barbershop Quartet Club at Kitsilano High School. With the encouragement of the club sponsor, Mr. Ivor Parfitt, we formed our own quartet, the “Four Notes.” We became quite successful. Mr. D heard about this through Dave and Glen, who were by now veteran members of the baritone section, so he invited us to sing at a couple of band concerts and then to enter a talent contest he had organized to select an act to accompany the band on its forthcoming five-month tour of the British Isles.
Subsequently, he chose the “Four Notes” to be that act. There was a catch, however.

“I don’t want no dead wood on this trip,” he muttered with a wagging of his head.

“The two of you who aren’t in the band, you can’t just sing in the ‘gwardet’. You ‘ll have to learn to play. That’s all there is to it.” I thought to myself, “The trombone. I’d like to play the trombone.” Eventually, he decided that I would play the bass drum and Brian would learn the alto saxophone. And we did. Brian, a natural musician, quickly found his way around on the sax and could play anything by ear – but he couldn’t read a note. (This made him useless for playing in the band, nevertheless Mr. D insisted that Brian attend every practice, every parade, and every concert as a member of the sax section, even though he was not allowed to blow one note.)
In the band at last at age 19, I struggled to learn to play the bass drum and cymbal during Monday and Thursday evening band practices in the basement of General Gordon School, and also at noon hour rehearsals of Mr. D’s U.B.C. Pep Band in one of the “shacks” in the northeast corner of the campus. My playing was somewhat tentative, not the quality Mr. D wanted in his bass drummer. “Hit the thing! Break the blasted thing!” he roared, and bustled through the rows, snatched the drumstick from my hand and walloped the drum with all his might.
Ready or not, I was one of the 39 members of the Vancouver Kitsilano Boys’ Band who, on May 13, 1950, boarded two CPR sleeping cars, which were to be our home during our 11-day trip across Canada. During that time we played 13 concerts before embarking at Wolf’s Cove for England.
At 9:50 a.m. on Thursday, June 1, the band members were assembling for a rehearsal in the Port Garden Lounge of R.M.S. Samaria. Why the word “garden” should be applied to this barren, mean space was a mystery. The bare ceiling, oppressively low, revealed wires and pipes and structural supports and a lone naked light bulb afforded a meager addition to the grey light let in through the salt-sprayed windows. Already the air was stuffy and smelled of breakfast, but now that we were in the English Channel the ship was steady and we expected to be spared the nausea of sea sickness which had dogged us on the Atlantic. Tomorrow we would be landing at Tilbury docks on the Thames and then performing on the BBC Radio show “In Town Tonight”. We had been rehearsing three times a day on the Cunard liner whilst crossing the Atlantic in preparation for our outdoor concerts at various Glasgow parks and at the Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh. As these concerts, fourteen in all, were to be two hours duration with each program entirely different, the rehearsals were necessarily very intense and difficult.
I tightened the skin of the bass drum and awaited the ordeal ahead. A deafening cacophony of squawking clarinets, braying trumpets, rattling snare drums, and groaning tubas, mixed with gruff snatches of conversation filled the crowded room. Suddenly Mr. D burst in and the noise level dropped a notch or two. After adjusting his music stand, he snatched up his trumpet, blew a mad flourish of notes, and silenced the room. He had our attention.
On this day our rehearsal had focused on the piece we would be playing on the BBC, Sousa’s march, “Washington Post”. Mr. D was determined that we create the best possible impression so that our agent could more readily line up engagements for the band in the months ahead. However, he was not pleased with my work on the bass drum and cymbal. Afterward, he called me aside and addressed me quietly and gravely, “I know you’re doing your best, ‘oward, but it just isn’t good enough.” He then went on to tell me that snare-drummer Barrie Gillmore, would replace me for the broadcast.
Several weeks later I was replaced again by Barrie, but this time it happened in the middle of a concert. We were playing the finale of one of Tchaikosky’s symphonies at the elegant Parade Gardens bandstand in Bath and it was not going well. The clarinets were struggling through a busy passage which was originally scored for violins. My problem was to enter after a long rest during which I was counting bars. Then, by my count, it was almost time to enter, but playing outdoors and from the back row it was impossible to hear clearly the shape of the music. Mr. D, head in the score, was intent on keeping things together and gave me no cue. I came in anyway, with drum and cymbal blazing away fortissimo as marked, thereby obliterating the clarinets’ efforts. I winced as I realized I had miscounted. With a menacing glare, Mr. D caught my eye and violently jerked his thumb towards Barrie. I passed the drumstick to him. My embarrassment was heightened because in the audience was my father’s cousin, Cyril Guest. Cyril did not comment on the incident afterwards and neither did I. I regarded Mr. D’s treatment of me in the context of his determination to have his band perform at the highest possible standard, an aim that all the band members supported, including me.
On another occasion, which had nothing to do with music, we were having supper in the cafeteria of the Glasgow YMCA. I left my place to get some dessert. When I returned to the table, Mr. D was sitting in my place, talking to the other boys. I halted behind him.

To myself I thought, “Should I just sneak away and find another place? No, when he realizes that he’s taken my place he’ll probably call out, ‘Why on earth didn’t you say this was your place?’ implying I was too timid to do so.” Dessert bowl in hand I edged up along side him. “Excuse me, sir, you’re in my seat,” I stated politely. “What!” he screamed as he turned toward me and leapt to his feet. “‘oward Lear! I never thought I’d hear that from you!” “B-but, my dirty dinner plate’s right there,” I stammered. As he stomped away angrily Mrs. D approached to calm him down and they exited together. Hot with embarrassment, I sat down in my place and addressed my dessert. The incident was discussed among the boys, the consensus being that the fault was mine. I should have simply taken another place.
In the YMCA dormitory later that night after lights out, restlessness and the need to cut loose resulted in an outbreak of pillow fights, accompanied by hooting and hollering and wild giggling. The noise level increased. The door flew open, and there in his striped flannel pajamas, lit by the light from the hallway, stood Mr. D. He launched into the Riot Act. When he paused for breath, the sudden silence was broken by Brian’s tenor from the far corner crooning “Someone’s Rocking My Dreamboat.” Over the stifled sniggers Mr. D protested petulantly, “We don’t need no lullaby!” and retreated, slamming the door behind him.
The excitable Mr. D was never more excitable than immediately before a concert. His excitement, which was liable to flare up into a display of temper aimed at some “wrongdoer,” served to galvanize the band into taut, focused readiness as, perfectly still, we watched with a bitter taste in our mouths for his swift downbeat which would unleash us into a hectic march. Our state of tension was greater than usual before one show at the Golders Green Hippodrome.  Thirty minutes before curtain time the story flashed through the band.  Arnold Emery, a 15-year old trumpeter and son of a prominent Kitsilano citizen, was drunk.  The story was that between shows he and an older boy had visited the pub around the corner for a pint of beer, Arnold’s first ever. The principal trumpeter, Cyril Battistoni, and some of the others were trying desperately to sober him up.  The call to go on stage came.  Arnold was still pie-eyed. As we waited on stage for the curtain to rise, Arnold tootled a carefree run on his trumpet and was frantically “shushed” by those around him. We were frozen with fear, imagining D’s reaction if he found out.

D Strode in from the wings.  Tense as the skin on the snare drums we awaited
his downbeat.  The first numbers passed without incident, although D glanced at
Arnold a few times with a quizzical frown.  Then came the moment we were
dreading – the trumpet trio, with Arnold on third trumpet.  The three trumpeters
stood and stepped up to the footlights.  Raising his trumpet to his lips, Arnold
swayed back and forth – then steadied.  Somehow he got through it, albeit with
more puzzled looks from D, who never commented on the incident afterwards.
Did he know?  We never found out.

In 1990 the members of the 1950 band tour held a reunion. Mr. D had died a few years earlier, yet we felt his presence among us. We retold stories about him, toasted him, praised him and expressed our gratitude and love for him. When music was distributed and we blew a few tunes with trombonist Ron Collier conducting, we missed him, for without him out front frantically swishing his baton the old excitement just wasn’t there.

by Howard Lear

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