Terry Prone: Fond memories of Vileda mops and the jazz band that never was

Terry Prone: Fond memories of Vileda mops and the jazz band that never was

The prizes won were pretty ropy, with the outstanding exception of one LP awarded in an essay competition.

Vileda mops speak to me. Nothing inanimate other than Vileda mops speaks to me or triggers me into reliving times of trouble. But every time I see the Vileda brand in the supermarket, it transports me back to when, returning home after school, I would be put by my mother sitting at the kitchen table with a sheet of paper across the top of which she had written: “I love my Vileda cloth because…”.

My mission, whether or not I accepted it, was to finish that first sentence in no more than 15 words in order to win some competition.

Since I had no particular relationship with household cleaning, other than generating the need for it, I hated this task and fruitlessly asked why my brainy sister wasn’t doing it, especially as she was naturally cleaner than me, although this wasn’t hard. A deranged skunk would be cleaner than me.

The answer, crisply delivered by my mother, was that my sister was good on facts and data, but that I was creative. You might think my sister would be offended to be portrayed as a mathematical savant, but not by the smirk on her. I had to produce 10 assertions of undying love for Vileda cloths before I was allowed to resume my own life.

This was part of the phase in my mother’s life when she set out to win every competition that offered anything, even if winning filled up our box room with prizes nobody would be seen dead with.

The same applied to competitions in school. In one year, I won a fortnight in the Gaeltacht and a week in Butlins holiday camp.

The prospect of being sent to the Gaeltacht terrified me to such an extent that my mother did plea-bargaining with the organisers and got cash instead. After the week in Butlins, my father muttered that my mother would have been better off to plea-bargain her way out of that too, but I didn’t know why, since all the meals included chips and custard. In separate courses.

In general, though, the prizes I won by being a mother-driven over-achiever were pretty ropy, with the outstanding exception of one LP awarded in an essay competition.

My sister owned the record player and regarded any LP other than Flight of the Valkyries (when she was in a bad temper, which wasn’t rare) or Pat Boone (when she was in a good temper) as not worth a needle. I produced the LP for its inaugural spin and we all sat in judgement.

Even my sister thought it was blindingly good, even if we’d never heard of the jazz band involved, called The Left-Bank Bearcats.

The Left-Bank Bearcats, according to the sleeve notes, were Parisian musicians who were taking an American-born form of jazz and owning it for La France. None of the young male musicians, the writer explained, had undergone formal musical training, with the exception of Marcel Durand.

Marcel was offered up in the reverential tones you might expect if the reference was to King Oliver or Satchmo. He was the trombonist and led the Bearcats as they played at cool coffee shops and bistros in Montmartre.

The album had been recorded in Maison Diabolique, 'after hours'. We guessed that we had never heard of Maison Diabolique because we were not cosmopolitan and also had to spend so much of our time writing love letters to Vileda washcloths, but the idea of recording 'after hours' lent a flavour of the illicit and possibly illegal to the LP.

The big cover carried no photographs of the players. Just a growing-up-on-Fry’s illustration of upright bears playing instruments, each standing on a slanted letter of the band’s brand. 

It was like being knighted or being visited by an archangel, our family relationship with the Bearcats. Because we knew jazz, we knew these guys were good. Because we’d never been to Paris, they were something to aim at seeing in the future, like the Eiffel Tower. And because nobody else had ever heard of them, we felt extra special, up to the point of being insufferable.

Except we were codded up to the two eyes, the whole lot of us.

They never existed, those talented young Frenchmen (one of them allegedly a former ocean liner deck-hand) who adopted and developed the jazz of their time. Mon cher ami, Marcel Durand, was really a Philadelphian trombonist named Al Leopold, and nothing supports the notion that he or his fellow Philadelphian musicians ever went near a Paris café.

The recordings were undoubtedly done in a clandestine way, but they were made in Philadelphia, using well-established jazz musicians of the day. They played around with musical standards as jazz musicians do when they get together, most notably breathing vividness into the compositions of George M Cohan.

They had fun, secretly making those recordings, and that fun is evident in every groove. The first album sold well and generated two more.

The Left Bank Bearcats created a minor cult, with people flattering themselves with the knowledge that this French band was doing some of the contemporaneously most interesting work in jazz.

One fan even told Al Leopold that he, the fan, had witnessed one of the Bearcats’ performances in Paris and had been blown away by it. Leopold did not destroy the fan’s illusion by revealing the identity of the real Marcel Durand.

It was not, however, a complete secret. Other Philadelphian musicians, listening to the LPs, picked up on aspects of style peculiar to players they knew, and kidded them about it, but never had their suspicions confirmed. Over time, the Bearcats became an aspect of jazz history, and when no new albums emerged from Maison Diabolique, fans like me figured that the young Frenchmen had grown out of their early musical love affair and moved on to other things.

And then, a few years ago, the False Ducks Blahg, which researches early-20th-century bands, exploded the whole Bearcats myth, right down to presenting audio interviews with Al, the trombonist, AKA Marcel Durand.

My sister, who keeps the family vinyl collection, got squirrelly when I asked her recently to find my school prize album. She was not sure she ever had it, but she was sure she didn’t have it now.

I accused her of incompetence or wanting to make a fortune on the web by flogging my prize. She told me to get over it. I told her I bet she still has the Pat Boone LPs and she got even more squirrely, as you would if you were on the cusp of being revealed as a life-long Pat Boone fan.

I have bought a replacement copy online. Anyone who’s seriously into jazz might do likewise.

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