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Félix Simtaine, the baguette between his teeth

A sort of captain Haddock of jazz in Belgium, both in his appearance and in, uh…yes, his sometimes flowery language, Félix Simtaine is a rhythmic pillar. From the trio to the large orchestra, everything suits the drummer, founder of the Act Big Band.

The great jazz drummers are not legion in Belgium, and if there is one who imposes himself by his stature as much as by his status, it is Félix Simtaine. Verviétois, born in 1938, he made the history of modern jazz, while his first emotions were the most classic: a dixieland concert given in Verviers by the amateur orchestra Hot Session.

Impressed despite the fact that “the public was making a lot of noise”, the young Félix took it into his head to play plunger trombone. An instrument from which he cannot make a sound.

Brushes on fluted chairs

Returning to the store where he had bought the trombone, to return it and be reimbursed, Félix Simtaine comes across a gaslight, but he receives all the same, in compensation, a pair of chopsticks and brooms. “And it started like that. I put myself brushes on my grandmother’s fluted chairs, pinning wrapping paper on them. It sounded like a snare drum.”

Like the Hot Club de France, initiated by Charles Delaunay and whose world-renowned Quintet starred Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, there was, from 1939, a Hot Club of Belgium. Carlos de Radzitzky was one of its founders.

Many locals organized jam sessions allowing young people to rub shoulders with elders. Since there were no jazz schools, it was one of the ways of learning music and integrating into the milieu.

In the moonlight boogie woogie

Thus Félix Simtaine regularly took part in the jam session of the Verviers section of the Hot Club of Belgium, Sunday morning. “We were playing ‘In the moonlight boogie woogie’, you know the kind…”

Nevertheless: after having had the opportunity to jam with the alto sax Jacques Pelzerthen with tenor sax Robert Jeanne (see L’Echo of Tuesday August 2). The latter involved him in what was to become one of the leading formations of modern jazz, with a hard-bop tendency, the New Jazz Quintet.

With Robert Jeanne’s quintet, concerts and festivals, including that of Comblain-la-Tour, follow one another. The opportunity for the drummer from Verviers to come across all the cream of Belgian jazz.

Jacques Pelzer, he was always late. When the Cultural Center of Alleur opened, the joke was to say that he would never play there.” For Félix Simtaine, the guitarist “Rene Thomas was quite an extraordinary character, quite primitive in a way, and musically brilliant. A lovely guy, world class.”

Same international level, according to him, for the bassist Benoît Quersin, creator of the Blue Note, club in the Galerie des Princes in Brussels. “He was a bit of an aristocrat, he came from a family where the first Belgian airmen came from, a very distinguished person.”

Sideman of Great Americans

As drummer, mainstay of the rhythm section, Félix Simtaine had the opportunity to accompany a host of american jazzmen in Europe. It would be tedious to list them all.

He remembers the trombonist Slide Hamptonsaxophonists George Coleman, Lew Tabackin (“with whom I recorded”), from the trumpeter Chet Baker. Strong bonds of friendship have been forged, especially with the great saxophonist Joe Lovanoregular at venues and festivals in Belgium.

But his most regular collaboration was that, between 1969 and 1973, with the organist Rhoda Scott, then at the height of his glory. He played at Pol’s Jazz Club, rue de Stassart in Brussels. With his usual delicacy, Pol Lenders, who ran the shop before opening the Bierodrome place Fernand Cocq, shouts at him: “You see this black girl, I don’t want her to come with a French drummer!”.

“That’s how I started playing with Rhoda. Daniel Humair had just left them, and her husband offered to accompany her. I traveled a lot with her, Africa, France in all directions…”

“Lightning Opening”

In the seventies, with Michael Herrpianist, composer, arranger, and bassist Freddie Deronde, Félix Simtaine forms a reference rhythm. Under the name of Michel Herr Trio, they published the excellent “Ouverture éclair” in 1978.

“Freddie, rest his soul, he was always working like a madman, with an extraordinary talent. If he had been a little more serious, he would have had an exceptional career, but a lot of excess undermined his health, and he ended quite sadly.”

Of which Act

Meanwhile, Jean-Louis Rassinfosse takes the double bass, and the trio with Michel Herr and Félix Simtaine becomes the nucleus of one of the most formidable large orchestras that we have had in Belgium, Big Band Act. “At the beginning, we were called Act 12, because there were thirteen of us”.

Created on the reference model that was the big band of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Félix Simtaine’s Act also boasts “a little air of Globe Unity Orchestra“of more free inspiration.

simply titled “Act Big Band”the first album, released in 1981, is a milestone, including two compositions by the American guitarist Bill Frisell, who would soon become a six-string star. The Act Big Band made an international career, but just missed out on an American tour.

“The reaction of the French Community of Belgium, as it was called, was to wonder about the advantage of going to play in America! Let us go and play the music of Jacques Brel in Quebec, that, they wanted to .” The great drummer and arranger Mel Lewis even if he sent a letter of recommendation where he offered to share the stage of one of the most famous clubs in New York, Vanguard Villagewith the great Belgian orchestra, nothing helped.

Ten Tamarre

“All the budding Mozarts and Beethovens at the moment, that annoys me a little.”

This did not prevent the Act Big Band, also a magnificent school for young musicians, from working for thirty years. Extrapolated from the orchestra at the turn of the 2000s, the group of ten musicians Ten Tamarre made some noise, indeed.

Today, this electric train enthusiast is tidy up wagons, professionally at least: “I’ve always been a big fan of jazz standards, and all the budding Mozarts and Beethovens at the moment, that annoys me a little”, he concludes from his residence in Aveyron, south of the Massif Central.

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