Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Victor Feldman: A Long Way from Piccadilly by John Tynan

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Strictly speaking, I know he was just doing his job as the West Coast Editor of Down Beat [1955-1965], but if John Tynan had not written profiles about them for the magazine, many of the superb Jazz musician performing on “The Left Coast” would have gone from relative obscurity to total obscurity.

As a case in point, the following piece covers approximately the first decade of Victor Feldman’s career in the United States and I daresay that without the stints he had with Cannonball’s group and the recordings he made with Miles Davis for Columbia, only his fellow musicians and fans in Los Angeles, CA would known about the work of this standout player.

“THE SHOCKED-HAIRED kid in the white shirt presented an appealing picture to the packed house as he mounted the stool behind a set of drums almost as tall as he was. Around him the tested veterans of Glenn Miller's famed AEF orchestra nudged one another. Waiting for Major Miller's downbeat, they watched the youngster heft the sticks. They smiled encouragement. Then, as the kid slammed the band into the opening measures of the first number, audience and sidemen alike knew suddenly that Victor Feldman, aged 10, had arrived.

"It was easy to see that the kid had a whole lot of talent," said an ex-Miller sideman recently. "We knew then that his future in music was going to be an escalator up."

From the huge city on the Thames, where Feldman was born on April 7, 1934, to the bucolic suburbia of Woodland Hills, Calif., where he now lives with his wife, Marilyn, and infant son, Joshua, stretches a highway of musical aspiration and achievement unusual in jazz.

With a plethora of dues-paying in his wake, Feldman at 29 is considered by those alert to what is vital in contemporary jazz as one of the more fertile pianists now active and a vibraharpist of strength, skill, and an inventiveness almost on a par with his piano prowess.

But what today of the drumming that caused him to be heralded at 7 in England's music press as "child genius," "Kid Krupa," and like superlatives?

Recently, after a 2:30 p.m. breakfast of hotcakes and honey at his home (he works with his trio nightly at The Scene in Hollywood until 2 a.m.), he discussed at length the chain of circumstances that led him virtually to abandon drums in favor of piano and vibes. Feldman delved back to beginnings.

"I started playing when I was about 6," he began, his English-accented voice still furred from sleep. "I started on drums."

His older brothers, he went on, were "always rehearsing, having group rehearsals. I got brought up in that environment. I guess I had some kind of natural ability, and I started to play.

"What happened was that my uncle had been a very prominent and fine drummer. He came around to the house and heard me play and decided it would be good if I played in public with my brothers. Bob played clarinet and Monty played accordion,  and later piano."

The Feldman trio was to endure as a working and celebrated jazz group from 1941 till '48, years during which it played in a variety of settings and for wartime causes such as Red Cross benefits and Aid-to-Russia fund drives.

"At 9," Feldman continued, "I took piano lessons from a local teacher who taught me kind of farmyard tunes. I think maybe my ear must have been a bit developed then, because I hated to play them. And the effort was enough to learn to read. It was kind of very hard for me to learn to read."

"Meanwhile, I was playing drums all the time," Feldman emphasized. "I was playing concerts and so on. I wanted a set of vibes. I used to go into the drum shop and mess around with the xylophone and marimbas. I used to love it. But I couldn't seem to get my wish. You know, it was a lot of money, particularly in England at that time. It was during the war; money was scarce. I can understand now why I didn't get it at that time. I finally did get a set of vibes when I was about 13. I remember coming home from school and setting them up. It was very exciting."

Study with Carlo Krahmer, a well-known London mallet man, followed, and the teenaged vibist began to blossom under tuition. But for the broader aspects of musical learning, Feldman's parents sent him, when he was about 15, to the London College of Music. Here the youngster came a cropper, not so much over his studies but because of his teacher's attitudes.

"This guy," he recalled unsentimentally, "used to put jazz down, and he used to bring racial prejudice into it. And that really made me hate him. He used to say something about the colored guys on Tottenham Court Road. I felt resentment swelling in me. I wanted to say something but I didn't have the tools of expression to tell him off. Besides, in England you're the little one and he's the big man.

Anyway, I went into the harmony class in the middle of the term, and I didn't really get too much out of that. In fact, I quit after a few months."

THE NEW SOUNDS of bebop began hypnotizing younger British jazzmen after the war. By the time Feldman's interlude at the London College of Music had raced its unhappy course, bop had taken firm hold. In the jazz clubs and hangouts throughout London's west end, local trumpeters aped Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, and Miles Davis. Drummers kloop-mopped with Kenny Clarke and dropped bombs a la Max Roach. And the alto sax men were little Birds to a fledgling.

"My brothers took me down to the Club 11, where everything was changing musically," Feldman said.

For Feldman, his drumming influences up till the entry of bop had been, he said, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich— and from records, at that. "I'd prefer to say Buddy Rich than Gene Krupa," he confessed in latter-day cognizance. "But by the time I went down to the bebop club, I'd been listening. I'd heard Charlie Parker. I hadn't heard Kenny Clarke yet. That was to come."

In the Feldman home some discord jangled. "My parents wanted me to go into a trade," he said. "You know, something 'in case you can't make a living.' "

With both brothers not dependent on music for a living, the youngest felt himself ill-equipped to argue the point. Besides, he was bogged at the time in a period of adolescent indecision.

"I went and stared," he said somberly, "outside the tailor and cutter on Gerrard St. But I couldn't make that. I'd been playing since I was 7, where my brothers started playing when they were 14, 15. So it was harder to make my parents understand that I couldn't do anything else. Yet I understood their point. So it was kind of frustrating."

One day at the Club 11, Tony Crombie, a drummer prominent on London's modern-jazz scene, gave Feldman's burgeoning career a decisive nudge.

"He gave me a chord chart he'd written himself," he recalled and smiled. "I remember he charged me five shillings for it.

"I started voicing chords on the piano. And then somebody else gave me the chords to Embraceable You the way Bird used to play it — the altered changes and so on. It took me a long time to figure it out.

"Sometimes when I teach the occasional pupils I have now, I give the chart to them. It seems to help them a lot so far as voicing chords and everything."

Still predominantly a drummer, Feldman became an habitue of the Club 11, a fuzz-cheeked fixture of the bop groups blowing there. Gradually, he said, he turned to comping chords on piano ("It kind of opened up something for me"). Pretty soon he was alternating between drums and piano. Then he began playing vibes.

Feldman believes his father, now deceased, helped him get his first professional band job with pianist Ralph Sharon. (Sharon since 1953 has lived in the United States. He is now music director for singer Tony Bennett.) This meant one-night stands and a trip to Switzerland with the Sharon band in 1949.

Feldman, in company with many another musician, abhors one-nighters and road work in general, but after he left Sharon and joined Roy Fox, the one-night stands continued — as did Feldman's misery with the execrable food, the abominable weather, and the grueling schedule. Now he was paying dues.

Just about the time the sun was setting on the British empire, Feldman was auditioning for the piano chair with Eddie Carroll's band for an extended engagement in India. Then he was summoned for military duty.

"The idea of going to India," he said, "really fascinated me. I wanted to get away from the English weather, and I wasn't very well, anyway. The [Carroll] band was very commercial, and the guys were very nice and good musicians. It was just that that brand of music wasn't my type. But I went along with it and did the audition. About three days later I got called up."

It was as though the bottom had fallen out of his life.

"It didn't seem like I was going to be put in the band or anything," he recalled gloomily. "I hated the army or anything like that. . . .

"I remember Eddie got me deferred. He had been a lieutenant, I think. I was supposed to report when I got back from India. I didn't report when I got back. You can quote any of that; I don't care. They can't do anything. Some people in America might read it and say, 'Golly, he's not patriotic—he hates the army.'"

RETURNED TO England from India in 1953, Feldman said he was starved for a steady jazz job. He joined Ronnie Scott's band, a modern little-big outfit with trumpet, trombone, four reeds, vibes, and rhythm section.

It was during Feldman's tenure with this band that he made the crucial decision to emigrate to the United States.

He recalled:

"I remember Ronnie saying — and I respected him and still do  —one day in a café, with a certain look in his face, that Victor ought to go to America. The way he said it, he seemed so sure. I had been thinking of it in my mind, and it gave me added confidence."

Feldman after that directed his thinking more and more toward the U.S.

"We played for nothing at an American base," he said of Scott's band, "just so we could hear Woody Herman's band. You see, there weren't any American bands coming over to England at that time. The union ban was still on. So I heard my first American band with adult ears since Glenn Miller. I was just knocked out completely."

Feldman met and became friendly with such Herman sidemen of the time as trumpeter Al Porcino, drummer Chuck Flores, baritone sax man Jack Nimitz, tenor man Bill Perkins, trumpeter Dick Collins, bassist Red Kelly, pianist Nat Pierce, and bass trumpeter Cy Touff. Their brief encounter with the young Englishman was probably forgotten by most of them, but later, in New York, it was to be happily remembered.

In October, 1955, Feldman made the plunge and sailed on the French liner Liberte, landing in New York City on Oct. 25. He said:

"I stayed in the Manhattan Towers Hotel on 91st St. Then I went 'round to Charlie's, and I started to meet musicians. They were very, very friendly, I found. It was very nice. If it hadn't been like that, I probably would've gone back in a couple of weeks."

Feldman sweated out his Local 802 union card for the prescribed three months, working casuals; his first in America, he recalled, was with a group led by trombonist Willie Dennis. It was an anxious, frustrating period, a baptism by fire of sorts in the New York jazz jungle. "I had my return ticket in case I couldn't make it here," he said.

Fate, as they say, took a hand in Feldman's destiny. Woody Herman's band was in town, and Feldman ran into Cy Touff.

"Cy asked me if I was interested in going with the band," he recalled. "He said Woody would be interested. Woody spoke to me about joining the band. . . .

"I didn't want to go on the road. Even as great a feeling as it was — to go with Woody's band — I just didn't want to go on the road, 'cause I know how my physical and mental capabilities work on the road. It's a bit too rough for the kind of personality I am. But naturally I just couldn't turn it down. I wasn't working much in town and Woody was so nice and everything. He made me feel so relaxed.

"I went with the band [playing vibes]. . . . Woody went overboard to make me feel relaxed. He said I could wear whatever I wanted on the stand."

Off and running in his first "name" job in the United States, Feldman found himself on the band bus with many of the Herdsmen he had met in England as well as such men as pianist Vince Guaraldi, tenor man Bob Hardaway, trumpeter John Coppola, and others.

Following nine months with the Herd, on the road constantly, Feldman welcomed a respite from one-night stands when Herman disbanded and took a small group to work in Las Vegas. But Vegas didn't appeal to him. ("To have to live in Vegas is like having to live in a madhouse. It's like a cup of money jingling all over the place. Completely ridiculous.")

Feldman first visited California with Herman's small group.

"I liked the West Coast," he said. "I'd been hearing about it. Vince [Guaraldi] was telling me about it, and he said he thought I'd like it better out here. He was right. I feel there's more of a compromise between the European way of life and the New York madhouse."

WHEN  HERMAN'S small group disbanded for a vacation, Feldman returned to England for a couple of months in 1957. Since then he has been back a half-dozen times.

"The first time," he recalled with a smile, "it was funny to see the smaller roads and the smaller cars. Everything was of different dimensions. After having been in Vegas, when I went back to England it was like going to a rest home."

Back in this country after his visit home, Feldman rejoined the Herman band and took a medical examination for U.S. Army induction. He passed the medical.

"This thing was haunting me again," he said candidly. "I knew that I'd have to come back to America and serve in the army — or might have to serve in the army — or I could just decide not to go back. I decided to come back and take my chance.

"I failed the second medical. I have a chest - an asthma thing there." That settled that.

"I was with Woody for quite a number of months," he said of his second stint as vibist with the Herd. "I just couldn't stand one-night stands anymore. Against the advice of musicians who'd been out to L.A., I decided that I was going to come out here. I rented a car. It was one of those deals where you drive the car out. I got taken on that. I never got the money back at the end of the trip — and I needed the money like mad. I got to L.A. with $150-$200."

Before locating a cheap apartment in Hollywood, Feldman stayed at the homes of Monty Budwig and Bob Hardaway. Then he began exploring the jazz scene.

"I met Leroy Vinnegar and played with him. And I met Carl Perkins. Carl showed me a lot. I learned a lot just from watching him play and going around to his house. He didn't know the name of any chord, hardly; he didn't know much more than what a C minor or a C major was, or a major or minor chord. But the way he voiced his chords — I never heard anything like it in my life."

At first, Feldman played many jobs around Los Angeles still on drums, working for the rent.

"I was very fortunate," he said, "in winding up playing at the Lighthouse. I went and played there one day, and a couple of weeks later I got a call to work there. I ended up working at the Lighthouse for 18 months." At the Lighthouse he played both vibes and piano.

"The Lighthouse was what set me on my feet," he went on, "because it was a steady gig. Howard [Rumsey] was very nice to me, and it was a ball playing with Rosolino and Levey and Conte [Candoli]. Bob Cooper, too. It was a very relaxed atmosphere."

While still at the Lighthouse, Feldman began getting more and more calls for a variety of record dates. He got movie studio calls too. Gradually he stopped playing drums altogether.

He finally left the Lighthouse, he said, "because I felt I had been in one place too long and I was getting the feeling I had in England. Musically, you can stay in one place just so long. If it is a jazz gig that's what can happen. If it's a commercial thing, that's something else."

The Victor Feldman Trio began making appearances around the Los Angeles area. Bob Whitlock was the trio's bassist, as now; the drummer at the time was John Clauder. The present drummer is fellow-Englishman Colin Bailey.

While his trio was working at a now-defunct Hollywood jazz room, Feldman first met Marilyn; he married her some nine months later.

"I decided all of a sudden," he said, "that I'd like to take her to England." He had saved some money, and away went the newly weds. In the three months they were gone, Feldman played at the Blue Note in Paris and appeared with Kenny Clarke on a Dinah Shore TV special.

Before the England-France trip, however, another important jazz element entered his life:

"Cannonball Adderley called me about a month before I went back to England. He called me to make a record with Ray Brown, Wes Montgomery, Louis Hayes, and himself. It completely knocked me out."

Then, while in England, Feldman received a cable from Adderley with a definite offer of a job as pianist-vibist with the altoist's group.

"I was very knocked out about that," Feldman said.

The first job he played with the Adderley group was the  1960 Monterey Jazz Festival. ("I remember we played This Here that night, and I got lost on it.")

But life on the road with Cannonball began to be the same old thing after awhile, and Marilyn was now pregnant. He said: "I was getting that old feeling back again about being on the road, which I'd been on since I was 15. Although I was having a ball playing, there was this tug of war going on with me. Had I been single, I would have stayed maybe a little longer."

He left Adderley in 1961.

Back in Hollywood, Feldman found things "very slow." It is invariably "very slow" for a musician active in studio work after he returns from a stint of road work; the contacts he's made and the contractors who hire musicians for such work tend to forget about him. Out of sight, out of mind. The musician comes back and starts from scratch.

After a couple of months, however, Feldman had an offer to go with Peggy Lee. The singer was to work for six weeks in England, then head south for the French Riviera for 10 days. So it was back on the jet for Victor Feldman.

After Peggy Lee, Feldman's activity with his trio increased. He recorded the music from the show Stop the World, I Want to Get Off for Pacific Jazz, and the score of A Taste of Honey for Infinity.

Last summer, in a domestic musical atmosphere curiously clouded with parochial recrimination, the Benny Goodman Band flew off on a special tour of the USSR. Feldman went along.

"There's always this temptation to travel," said Feldman. "There was something about that I couldn't turn down. I take an interest in world affairs. I wanted to see for myself what it was like. I always felt that both sides have such a lot of propaganda. Most of my ideas were confirmed. . . ."

VICTOR FELDMAN is such a busy Hollywood musician these days that his wife frequently despairs at seeing so little of him, as she puts it.

He is now signed to an exclusive recording contract with Fred Astaire's Ava records. One of the first recording projects under the pact was to record an album of compositions by Russian jazz musicians unearthed by Leonard Feather during his trip to Russia to hear the Goodman band. Recently the Feldman trio cut for Ava the soundtrack music from the highly praised picture David and Lisa.

"The other day," Feldman said with considerable relish, "I was fortunate enough to record with Miles Davis. When I was 16, I went to Paris with a friend of mine. Charlie Parker was supposed to play; he never did play there. But meanwhile, we'd walk along the Paris streets and I'd be singing Miles Davis solos. We'd learnt them off the records. I'd never, ever thought that I would record with Miles."

And it is a long way from Piccadilly, isn't it?”

June 6, 1963
Down Beat

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