Les Stevenson, a true gentleman, and President and founding member of the Heswall Concert Band, has died in his late nineties. Only a few years ago Les was still making music three times a week - on tenor saxophone in the Heswall Band (everything from Shostakovich to Rodgers and Hammerstein), on tenor sax again with Swing Era (jazz big band classics) and on alto sax with the Red Rose Band in Liverpool.
Les started early. When he left school at 14 in South Yorkshire there were only two careers available: the coal mines or the steel works. His father worked in the steel works, so that settled that. As a boy he had piano lessons, but these stopped when his father heard that Les had his knuckles rapped by the teacher. Yet a seed had clearly been planted. Les bought his first alto saxophone from a shop in Leeds at age 17, just scraping together the £12 needed from his earnings, and taught himself to play. It proved a good investment.
Since steelworkers were, for obvious reasons, protected occupations in the Second World War, Les did not join the forces. He first started to hear the music of American musicians in the dance bands operating in Yorkshire in the early 1940s, and remembers playing outside a Town Hall on VE day. With the war ended, Les was called up in 1946. His Selection Officer knew about his interest in music and said he could find him a role in the Royal Signals: ' Musicians have a good ear and can pick up Morse Code very quickly' the Officer explained.
'He must have thought he was doing me a favour' said Les 'But what I wanted was a job as a musician'. So he was duly auditioned for the Forces Orchestra by a chap who had once been Music Director for the London Hippodrome. Passing the audition he became a staff clarinettist. The Orchestra went on the road: to Hamburg in 1949, then to Egypt and on to Khartoum in the Sudan.
Les returned to the Army Music College at Kneller Hall as a student, amongst other things learning how to conduct a 350 strong band. He was taught by a former London Symphony Orchestra Musician. There is a huge difference between conducting and just beating time, Les explains. Conducting is about bringing something elusive out of the music and the musicians.
Kneller Hall opened the door to another musical education. It was a 20 minute tube train ride away from central London, where Les began to frequent a tiny jazz club, the Club 11, just opposite the Windmill Theatre. Club 11 had been opened in 1949 by two young men who would become the leading lights of post war British Jazz: John Dankworth and Ronnie Scott.
'It was a tiny room ' Les recalls 'so you mingled with everyone, once you had found your way through the smoke'. He got to know Scott and Dankworth and met many of the American musicians visiting London: 'I remember them all. Dave Brubeck, Harry James, Buddy De Franco - he was a brilliant clarinet player'. Scott, Dankworth and Club 11 also introduced Les to the music of Charlie Parker, perhaps the greatest jazz alto sax player: 'Parker invented bebop and it was such terrific music. Of course it never became popular in Britain because it was simply too difficult for the dance band players'.
After the Army, Les returned to life as a musician in Yorkshire. The move to Wirral was unexpected. His son had moved to Liverpool as a doctor and started a family, and Les's wife wanted to be near her grandchildren. So he agreed to move, but frankly, he said: 'I was horrified to be asked to move. All my l contacts were in Sheffield. I didn't know anyone in Wirral'. Yet new musical roots were put down, playing in dance bands and quartets, where he met his friend the drummer John Booth in 1979. From another friend in Lincoln, Les had acquired a huge music library with thousands of orchestrations. He'd stored the music in his garage. Hearing of the library John said: 'Well if you've got the music why don't we form a band?' Thus was born the Heswall Concert band, still going strong with its 25 plus musicians.
What are the greatest benefits of being a musician? The answer came swiftly and without hesitation: 'Friendship. You accumulate a vast number of friends and are accepted everywhere in the world'. And, almost as an afterthought, he added: 'Of course playing the music is a pleasure too'.
By a poignant coincidence the Heswall Concert Band has just commissioned a piece of music from composer Grace Evangeline Mason, to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The piece is entitled ‘The Safe Kept Memory’ and was inspired by Les Stevenson’s comments on the value of making music as a true and lasting source of friendship.