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Allan Street and Nott'num Town

John Robert Brown

Whenever I travel through Derby railway station I think of Allan Street.

We first met in 1969. Mr Street (as I had to address him) was in his late fifties. A tutor at Nottingham College of Education, in the Clifton suburb of the city, he was a trumpet player and conductor who lived in a small bachelor flat on campus. I was in my late twenties, newly retired from being a full-time professional saxophonist.

I'd become jaded by freelance playing. I could see that despite the perception of glamour - playing on the then new BBC Radios One and Radio Two, for instance - my work as a jobbing saxophonist would lead nowhere. So I decided to 'turn to teaching', as the DES adverts of the day put it. Britain needed class teachers. I needed a degree, with the stability that a job in education would bring. My young wife Wendy had already embarked on a university course in Nottingham. So that's where I applied to do a B.Ed, in maths and music.

Thus, in the spring of 1969 I drove up to Nottingham to audition in front of the head of the music department at Clifton, Edwin Smith. He was Allan Street's boss. The piece I chose to play was the last movement of Poulenc's Sonata for clarinet and piano, Allegro con fuoco.

I gave it all the fuoco that I could. To this day I marvel at how Edwin Smith coped with the piano accompaniment, reading it at sight. Such virtuosity settled any qualms I may have had about the competence of the lecturers from whom I would be receiving my higher education in music. In fact, we both passed that audition because, to my relief, I was offered a place.

Edwin Smith agreed for me to have clarinet consultations outside college, first with Frank Allen of the CBSO, and later with Paul Harvey, at Kneller Hall. When I started the Nottingham course during the autumn of 1969, I finally met Allan Street.

A short wiry man, with a full head of grey hair, Allan wore rimless spectacles of the sort that had been fashionable in the Glen Miller era. He was a chain-smoker, always had a stub of pencil in his pocket, jotted personal reminders on the back of a cigarette packet, and used a different set of dentures for playing the trumpet. He called these his playing teeth. Allan ran the college wind band with his own brand of strict-but-kind discipline. Rehearsals took place on Monday nights, so that he could call on a mixture of full-time students (there were only 60 in the music department), plus those ex-students and wind teachers who lived locally. I led an enormous clarinet section of at least twenty players. As you'd expect, Allan used the wind band at Nottingham to test out his new compositions. His popular suite Nott'num Town, which dates from 1970, was one such composition, which I observed being created, and played in the first performance.

In that pre-PC era (we were beginning to use computers, but only in maths), scores were still written in pencil and copied by hand, in ink. Allan was very proud of his small collection of 'Time Is Money' pen knibs, with which he prepared his carefully written parts. The most impressive kindness of all I remember was that when I was on a very tight deadline for copying the instrumental parts for a BBC broadcast of an octet I was running, Alan was kind enough to take out his pens and copy a couple of the scores for me. How many music lecturers would do that for a student?

Allan was gregarious. Though still 'Mr Street' to all of us, he would meet students for ice-skating sessions in Nottingham. But the high spot of the calendar was the end-of-year wind-band concert, when precise and energetic playing by an enormous wind band would be spiced with fun and high jinks - always kept well under control, of course. The music never suffered.

Later I found out that Allan had once been a class teacher in a brand new school at Pastures Hill, Littleover, in 1951-1953. Littleover is a large suburb of Derby. During that period Allan had built a reputation as the conductor of the Derby Light Orchestra, which gave concerts in the Central Hall in Derby. Such practical experience showed. His baton technique was clear and unequivocal. He had a repertoire of wrinkles and dodges to achieve good results with a bunch of players of varied abilities.

Before long Allan had unearthed Saxo-Rhapsody (1936), by Eric Coates, who also came from the East Midlands, from Hucknall. As you may know, there exists a version of the Rhapsody for saxophone and wind band. Soon, Allan had organised a concert featuring the college wind band accompanying me in Saxo-Rhapsody, which we duly played on local radio. Allan then introduced me to a saxophone concerto by another local composer who made his name writing for the Mantovani orchestra, Derby-born Ronald Binge. The Binge concerto is an excellent piece, still insufficiently played.

One day Allan called me into his tutorial room, where a pencil-written Eb melody lay on the music stand. 'Have you got your sax?' he asked. Of course I had. 'Let's try this,' he said. He accompanied, from memory.

The piece was Rondino, now well-known as a trumpet solo on the Trinity Guildhall exam syllabus for grade six. 'The melody came to me when I was waiting for a train, late one night long ago, on Derby station,' he said.

Which is why Derby station always reminds me of Allan Street.

First published in Winds magazine, October 2009. Used by permission, reproduction forbidden.

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