In the Media...

Road less travelled

By Jim Day, The Guardian, 14 January, 2006

Island jazz musician Graham Rhodes has followed an unconventional path that has included being raised by a nude dancer and an unsettling stint with the British army.

There appears to be life in every nook and cranny of Grahame Rhodes rural home in North Wiltshire. No less than 10 cats prowl the property indoors, while two large, young dogs pounce playfully with reckless abandon. Even Rhodes' spirited wife, Miriam, infuses considerable energy as she bounds into the kitchen, proudly displaying her furry, purple sleepers that, like countless decorations in the house, are the likeness of cats.

Grahame Rhodes, a native Brit, takes it all in stride. This busy place, with its constant parade of pets, is actually quite a calming environment for the 61-year-old musician.

Miriam and Grahame with Pets
Grahame Rhodes finds peace living in his rural home with wife Miriam. The couple only managed to gather a few of their pets - they have 10 cats and three dogs - to pose for a photo.
(The Guardian Photo by Jim Day)

And each day spent in this home that sits at the end of a long driveway with a sign declaring that "love lives here" distances him just a bit more from a troubling past. Nightmares have grown less frequent, he noted solemnly in a recent interview.

Rhodes lived a remarkable, yet unsettling, life that is fit for a movie script. Indeed, he has enough material for two books already penned about growing up in a fantasy world of entertainers, a lengthy run in the military, which included assuming a role he likens to being a highly-trained assassin, and what he embraces as the key to his survival - playing jazz.

"I'm just one person in a long line of psychologically damaged people - and it has taken me years and years and years to get over it," he said.

"And if it hadn't been for playing trombone - or playing jazz - then I doubt if I would have made it. I would have certainly drunk myself to death because guilt is a terrible thing."

Rhodes said he was subjected to a type of psychological warfare after joining the British army at age 16 and being tagged as a prime candidate to be moulded into a special agent capable of doing what he calls the government's dirty work.

While serving in the Kings Own Royal Border Regiment, which was disbanded years ago, he was involved in special operations for roughly a three-year period starting at age 18 in the early 1960s. He served in many parts of the world, including Germany, Angola and South America.

He learned how to make explosives and how to turn seemingly innocuous items into deadly weapons. Rhodes said the full enormity of what he was doing hit home later - and it hit home hard.

"I'm not proud of the fact," he said. "We were just kids that were filled with propaganda . . . We were very naive."

Rhodes is keen to get published his bulky written recollections and observations of the type of physical and psychological moulding special forces troops like he and his comrades have undergone. He considers himself a survivor. He knows a lot of others that were in his military shoes that have not fared well at all.

"I have survived what a lot of people haven't," he said. "A lot of people, if they are not dead, are in psych wards."

Rhodes' lifeline was jazz - the same vehicle used for escape during his unconventional childhood. He said he lived in a world of make believe. His mother was a nude dancer at the Windmill Theatre in London, England. She also ran a boarding house for show business people. Comedians, female impersonators and a lot of chorus girls were all living under the same roof as Rhodes.

Entertainers were his extended family. Former sex queen Norma Sykes, who became known simply as Sabrina to legions of panting fans, was "Auntie Norma" to Rhodes.

He counts as one of his surrogate fathers the well-known female impersonator Danny La Rue - an entertainer Bob Hope once called the most glamorous woman in the world. Rhodes was even coaxed to perform for one week on stage in drag as Marlene Dietrich.

"Everybody in show business is related," Rhodes said of the close fraternity. "I had a lot of uncles. I had a different uncle for every day of the week." His real father, though, was not much of a presence in his life. A piano player, dad was constantly touring and seldom home. Rhodes also recalls his father's habit of dumping him at the bar to be babysat by his buddies while he played golf. The buddies, in turn, would give a young Rhodes booze to keep him quiet and out of their hair. Rhodes' mother would often take him to movies in the afternoon, rather than send him off to school.

"So I lived on popcorn and pop," he said. "I was never normal. I have discovered what passes for normality since and it has absolutely nothing at all to do with my childhood."

Mom did, however, try somewhat to shelter Rhodes from all the grown up activity of the show business set who wouldn't just live at her house, but live it up on a regular basis. The boarding home was nothing short of party central. At night, before the party got into full swing, Rhodes' mother would put him to bed and turn his radio on to a French jazz channel so he wouldn't be disturbed.

The combination of constantly being surrounded by entertainers and falling asleep to a steady diet of jazz left Rhodes interested in one pursuit only - to become a jazz musician. Ironically, the British Army provided the opening.

Rhodes wanted to play saxophone but the army decided he would either be a trombone player or a regular soldier. He said talent spotters looking for impressionable young men they could psychologically mould for undercover work were delighted to shape him into a special agent with the cover of a band musician. To improve his playing, he attended Knellor Hall and Royal Trinity Colleges of Music in London, but spent most of his time at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Soho. While posted in Germany, he joined a traditional jazz group called The Team Valley Jazzmen made up of local and military musicians. He travelled around Germany in an old VW bus opening for the likes of Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band.

His career as a jazz trombonist has taken him to celebrated jazz festivals in Switzerland, Newport, Rhode Island, and Montreal.

He has three recordings. The first was a bust but the later two have been well received, particularly his 2005 CD called Rhodes Less Traveled.

"The Grahame Rhodes Less Traveled should make the big time for those looking for technical and creative trombone achievements," wrote Bruce Tater, a music reviewer in Texas.

Jazz has not proved lucrative, though. He has relied on 43 years of military service, primarily playing with military bands in Canada, for steady income.

Rhodes currently performs with the PEI Symphony Orchestra, the Charlottetown Jazz Ensemble and has regular gigs in Toronto jazz clubs.

"I think he is a very, very versatile musician," said James Mark, conductor of the PEI Symphony. "He has had experience in all kinds of things . . . He is a really good jazz player."

Today, Rhodes seems to have great harmony at home, not just in his music. His wife of nearly eight years says the pair are cut from the same cloth. "He's the male version of me," said Miriam, who plays flute with the PEI Regiment Military Band and will sing and play the flute and keyboards with a new group called Odyssey. Grahame Rhodes plans to keep playing - and practicing - the trombone for many years to come.

"I'm a better person and a better jazz performer now than I have ever been in my life," he said.