Keyboard to keyboard

Michael Knipe reads a racy novel about a jazz pianist and meets its piano-playing author


G oodness gracious me! David Lee, the jazz pianist and composer who wrote the 1960s song of that name, which became a big hit for Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, has now written a novel, which is - guess what - the life story of a brilliant, British, Jewish jazz pianist.

Nothing Rhymes with Silver (Volumes 1 and 2, Matador, £8.99 each) is the semi-fictional autobiography of "Jake Silver" and, says Lee, "is 75 per cent from my imagination and 25 per cent based on the life I've led."

Over a career spanning six decades, Lee has been a leading name on the international jazz scene as an orchestra leader, songwriter, arranger and film composer (and founder of Jazz FM). He won a Melody Maker award as the best young jazz pianist of the year when he was 16, joined the Johnny Dankworth band in 1955, went on to be voted Britain's best jazz pianist, spent five years as Judy Garland's accompanist, was musical director and composer for, inter alia, TV's That Was The Week That Was, composed the last song Nat "King" Cole recorded, No Other Love, as well as playing with such jazz stars as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and Sarah Vaughan.

Yet, not content with those achievements and in spite of being an octogenarian, he has written not just one but two volumes describing the life of his fictional pianist who, like Lee, wins the UK's prestigious Young Jazz Musician of the Year award but ends up an embittered old drunk in Cuba.

From there, the fictional Jake Silver recalls experiencing antisemitism in 1920s London, the trauma of being orphaned at the age of 11 by a Nazi bomb, being suffocated by the love of his frum aunt and uncle who try to set him up in business and marry him off to a nice Jewish girl.

In rebellion, he abandons his university studies to take a job playing piano in a fashionable London drinking club and tells of getting laid by an ageing, sexually weird, Hollywood superstar, getting fired, playing in bars in half-a-dozen African countries and in an upmarket whorehouse in Rio before, fleeing from a Mafia family, he ends up in newly communist Cuba, drinking heavily and suffering psychotic and surreal episodes.

The fictional Silver says, "I may be just an old drunk these days, but dammit, I am an honourable old drunk. And honourable people drunk or sober do not reveal confidences about ladies without their express permission… so I am going to give her a false name."

The real-life David Lee does the same thing. "The characters and the events in the book, are based on real people or real events I have experienced, or been told about, but the names are changed," he says.

"I began writing the book four years ago, typing it on my computer every night between 10pm and 2am - the hours I was most used to as a jazz musician. I was locked into that time frame and sometimes I would write through the night. It was an exhilarating exercise."

When working on That Was the Week in the 1960s, Lee had to write six new songs each week and a special jazz tune for Millicent Martin to words that had already been written. "It was creatively demanding but thoroughly enjoyable," he says.

He was clearly looking for a similar challenge in writing Nothing Rhymes with Silver. "The book wrote itself," says its 88-year-old author. "I'm thinking of writing another".

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive