Many brass players either have a story to tell, or have heard a good tale about the legendary John “Jumbo” Wilbraham. Some of the stories have no doubt been embellished or exaggerated with subsequent re-telling over the years (could he possibly have carried the equally huge Malcolm Arnold home one drunken evening? Is there really a pub in Maida Vale with his name on the wall, for having the record for drinking the most pints ever in an evening without throwing up?).
Outwardly, John came across as the super-confident, larger than life, 1st Trumpeter with an ego to match and many of these stories reflect this persona. His ‘colourful’ use of the English language was often shocking and humourous in equal measure. However, those who knew him well, will testify that he was actually a relatively shy man, with the same self-doubts and hang-ups as the rest of us.
Anyway, this page has been created to include as many anecdotes about, or simply tributes to the great man. So, if you have one to share, please get in touch as we’d love to add it.
BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
One Saturday, at the age of 14, John had to be asked to stop practising as he had been doing so continually from 9am to 6pm, stopping only for lunch. He replied “I just want to get this right! One day, I’ll be Principal Trumpet with the BBC Symphony Orchestra”. “I know you will!” I said — and he was. [Doreen Wilbraham – John’s mother (aged 94)]
THE VIOLA PLAYER
[Several incarnations of this story turn up]
A story is told about John and a back-desk viola player. One day at rehearsal the viola player turned to Wilbraham sat just behind him and snarled, “Can’t you play a bit quieter, you’re giving me a headache?”. “If only you had practised more,” John quickly replied “you would be sitting a bit nearer the front.”
John was once asked if, being married to a harpist (he was married to Susan Drake at the time), he knew everything about the harp. John replied “No, I’m afraid all I know about the harp, is that you can hang three shirts and a pair of trousers over it”.
My favourite memory of JW was in Parker’s one day when I was trying out a tuba in a different pitch from what was then my normal one. (An F, rather then the ubiquitous EEb that everyone used at the time.) He listened intently to my struggles for a while, and then said, “Ah, that’s the thing about the tuba – the trick is to make it SOUND difficult!” [John D Elliott]
One rehearsal with the London Bach orchestra. There was a lot of discussion between conductor (Martindale Sidwell) and strings about bowings etc. John looked over to me and said “Look at that lot! They don’t know that when we start playing tonight the entire audience will smile!”
THE FRENCH HORN
“How difficult can it be? It points backwards and you put your hand up the end?”
During a recording session for the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No 2, the oboist turned to John and said “I think we should start the trills on the upper note”.
John replied “You worry about the trills, I’ll worry about trying to get the f-ing notes out!”.
“The flute? Difficult? If you stick it out of the window on a windy day, it’ll play itself!”
THE IMAGINARY JAZZ BAND
Many happy years working with John coaching various youth orchestras, but principally NYO. Hours & hours spent helpless with laughter as he regaled us with story after story. I’ll never forget him talking about his imaginary jazz band with its hypothetical characters:
Singer – Norma Stitz
Irish saxophonist – Oliver Guiness
Manager – Robin Bastard
Guitarist – Ian Dee
Swedish trombonist – Bent Sljde
American Jewish trumpeter – Issie Pist
Wonderful stuff! [Peter Stark]
In a concert interval in Winchester cathedral, a diminutive old boy (colonel type complete with handlebar moustache) came up to John (who still had his piccolo in his hands). Having just heard him blaze away in Zadok the man asked “I say, what’s that you got there?”. John peered down at him with a sneer and replied “It’s a harpsichord”. The chap replied “Bloody effective isn’t it!” and sauntered off. [Marvellous] [Wayne Morley]
The year must’ve been around 1960, it was quite a musical class, we were between lessons … John started drumming Ravel’s Bolero on his desk, joined by more and more of us, louder and louder –
dum-da-da-da-dum da-da-da-da-da-da … it wasn’t loud enough to just bang on the desktop, some (led by John) got up on their desks and stamped the rhythm with their boots louder and louder still …
DUM-da-da-da-DUM- da-da-da-DA-DA-Da … bawling out the melody, till “Sir” arrived and inevitably put an end to it, but not before the crescendo had been reached and the love of rhythm planted forever after …. thank you John Wilbraham. Alan Gorman
GET THERE EARLY
John was the model professional when it came to engagements, he knew where he was going and how he was going to get there and was usually one of the first to arrive at rehearsals. He once recalled an occasion when he had been booked to play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in York. After a long train journey from London, he arrived at the venue laden with his luggage to find he was not just a little too early, but had arrived a whole year too soon!
I was told a story years ago about John doing a concert in the Killarney Bach Festival. He was booked to do the Haydn and (I think) the Telemann Concertos. He went on with his E flat trumpet to do the Haydn, only to realise at the last moment that the orchestra was starting the Telemann. Rather than disrupt the concert he just played it, from memory, on the E flat. Apparently he refused the challenge to do the Haydn on the picc! [Graham Hastings]
While studying with John at the Royal Academy he asked me to come in for a couple of lessons during a holiday period.
After my lesson we were stood chatting on the steps of the RAM before heading off for a coffee. The Academy Administrator of the time came out and asked me what I was doing there during the holidays. I explained I’d just had a lesson. He always appeared somewhat pompous (in his bow tie and in manner). He looked up at John, who was at least two foot taller, and said “…..and who are you?”
John, quick as a flash, stooped to shake his hand while saying
” ah Mr ‘X’, I’m Professor John Wilbraham, the biggest f-ing bloke in the Academy and you pay me!”
Needless to say he got no reply and I stood there trying desperately to stifle my laughter. John didn’t suffer fools especially pompous fools! [Oliver Preece]
After teaching at Birmingham Conservatoire one day, John popped into McDonalds for a burger on his way to the train station. The unsuspecting assistant behind the counter asked John “if he would like a hot apple pie with that?” John looked the poor lad in the eye, smiled sweetly and said “If I’d wanted a f***ing hot apple pie, I’d have asked for one, you f***ing c***!”
After his illness (kidney failure and septicaemia) a couple of years before he died, John decided to hold a benefit concert at St Cuthberts Church in Wells for the Renal Unit in Bristol Hospital where he had spent some considerable time being cared for. After waiting behind the scenes, he was walked to the stage and on seeing the audience (rather larger than a regular congregation) he commented “I appear to be more popular than Jesus Christ!”
REST YOUR CHOPS
On one occasion a student of John’s who’d been wrestling with his playing after bruising his chops was told by John to take it easy. “Stick it under the bed for a couple of days and then ease back into your practise” John told him.
Later the same day however he decided to vent his frustrations in the old green room/long room downstairs in the Academy next to the bar. Lots of students practised there when there weren’t rooms available. He stood at one end with his back to the door, blowing as loud as he possibly could…….so much so that his third valve slide shot out of the trumpet across the floor.
Of course he had know idea that John was stood just outside the door watching it all.
” ‘X’, you are a stupid c#$% !” shouted John before wandering off down the corridor. [Oliver Preece]
At the end of my first year at the Academy I was struggling trying to sort out my chops. John was hugely helpful with this slow & difficult process. The end of year performance exam was coming up and getting through or not could well determine whether I would be back the following year. John was determined that I would return so he could carry in teaching and helping me.
I turned up to a lesson with my accompanist who was always a good sport! John told her my predicament saying that one way or another I had to find a way to pass but that I might not guarantee it if my chops didn’t work properly.
“I’ve got a great idea” he said to her, “Why don’t you wear a white blouse and a very short skirt with no underwear! That’ll distract the examiners and keep all the pressure off Olly!!”
I never thought she’d go through with it but I can definitely vouch for the top half and a short skirt. He was right of course, it worked a treat!! [Oliver Preece]
John asked me who my piano teacher was for my second study in my first year at the Academy. I was, at the time, having lessons with Mildred Litherland. She was very down to earth and quite a formidable woman herself both in stature and character. There was always a cigarette on the go during every lesson…….seems unbelievable these days. When I told John she was teaching me he told that when he was a student at the RAM he also had her as a piano teacher. “Do say hello to her won’t you. She’s quite some character.”
So on my next piano lesson I spoke to her.
ML: “Did you say John Wilbraham teaches you the trumpet?”
ML: ” Well I taught him piano…….is he still a very naughty boy?” She obviously liked him as she said this with warmly and with a knowing smile.
Of course I relayed this to John the next time I saw him.
“Bloody hell Olly, I’ve spent years being a naughty boy. And I thought no-one had noticed!” JW with much laughter. [Oliver Preece]
John was affectionately known as Jumbo by close friends. He hated being called this by people he didn’t know well.
A rather over-confident, brash, antipodean trumpet student had made up his mind to try and get a lesson with John. In the middle of one of my trumpet lessons the door suddenly burst open, to both John and my surprise.
STUDENT: “Hey JUMBO, I gather you’re making a great comeback…..!!….so I thought I’d come to you for a lesson” (Clearly this wasn’t going to go too well)
JOHN (Flabbergasted but ready to set the bait): “What is it that you’d like me to help you with?”
STUDENT (taking the bait and on a path to a deflated ego!): “Well JUMBO – I’ve got a great sound, a great high and low register, I can play really quiet and very loud, I’m a brilliant reader, I know all the excerpts, I’m great on the picc, the Bflat and the C etc…….it’s just my single tongue that needs some work!”
JOHN: “F*** me! Looks like I’d better come to you for lessons!”
As the student crept out of the door totally deflated John turned to me and said “Who was that terrible c%@* !!” [Oliver Preece]
After a rather heavy student night partying the brass students at the Academy had a brass repertoire class which John was taking. A few of us (notably John’s students) arrived in good time though hung over! (John was always punctual and prepared and expected the same of everyone else). However there were a lot of empty chairs. John realised what had gone on and proceeded to get the low-down on the previous evenings antics enjoying the hilarity and telling a few stories of his own from similar days in the past (John no longer drank but loved the stories!).
As the class progressed one or two more students arrived……all with hang overs.
“F*** me boys don’t your teachers teach you anything? See Olly here….he had ten pints of guinness and a packet of crisps last night and ‘X’ here had pints of snake bite and black before throwing-up in a bin liner………but they’re still here and ready to learn. The rest of you are bunch of f-ing part timers!”
A lot more laughter was had for the rest of the class! [Oliver Preece]
John played in a little trad jazz group before going to study at the Academy I think. He loved listening to jazz players (Bix Beiderbecke was his favourite) & was friends with and respected many (Kenny Baker, Derek Watkins, Henry Lowther etc….) he used to play ‘Bop Duets’ with Kenny Baker for fun.
I played with another of Johns pupils for a few years in NYJO (National Youth Jazz Orchestra). John came to see us do a gig in Street, Somerset after he moved down there. He came for a chat with us in the interval, having thoroughly enjoyed the first half. One of the band members asked if he fancied joining the section for a couple of numbers.
“Thanks for asking boys. I used to enjoy playing a bit of tish boom down the old ‘C#^€ and Crowbar’ but I’m not really the guy for the more modern stuff!” [Oliver Preece]
Having just completed a lesson at the Academy, the next student came in and John asked me to show her what I had been doing. I asked him whether he meant I should put my chops together and blow a middle c, to which he responded “of course I do you stupid f*ck! What do you think we’ve been talking about for the last f*king hour!?” [Matthew Booth]
A BETTER JUDGE
I was practising one of the brass band triple tongue Polkas in a practice room when John stuck his head around the door and said” that sounds bloody marvellous!” I said ”I don’t think so, I think it sounds a bit duff”. He replied ”Oh, so what you’re saying is either you are a better judge than I am or I’m a c**t”. [Mark David]
I was standing next to Jumbo at a concert in Bath, waiting to go on for the next piece. Just then, Ifor James, who was playing one of the Mozart Horn Concertos, came off stage to rapturous applause from the audience. Jumbo put his arm round his shoulders and said, “… Never mind Ifor. Never mind…” [Brendan Ball]
One of John’s maxims was “MAXIMUM EFFECT WITH MINIMUM EFFORT”. During one of my first lessons with him I was playing an exercise from the Arban which entailed slurring intervals over a seventh. He loomed over me as I proceeded through the exercise. I got through the first three or four bars when he started waving his arm around directing me to stop. I was surprised. It was going well.
– Jonathan. Why do you raise your eyebrows every time you slur from the low note to the high note?
– I don’t know…I wasn’t aware I was doing it.
His massive frame leant in towards me.
– You don’t need your eyebrows to play the trumpet. Keep ’em f****** still!
Anyway, I don’t move my eyebrows any more.
I was blessed with John Wilbraham and his tutelage for three years. A pedagogic genius. Not a day goes by without thinking about him. I miss him so much. [Jonathan Scott]
[more stories to follow…]