Talking to Les Tomkins in 1
It was good to be back here; I havent been here since 63. Well, Ive been here, but I didnt work. After doing the Montreux Festival in Switzerland in 71, I flew to London; then I flew to Paris to do a concert with my late friend Hampton Hawes, for the television network there. Then I flew back to London, and took a train from Southampton to Morocco. So its been 1963 since I was here in a playing capacity: I played one night, and flew back to Basin Street East in New York. Its a pleasure being back-having a lot of fun.
Structurally, Ronnies is very pleasant; he has it tiered off. Its a nice piano there, and the club is very intimate-looking. At times, it gets a little noisy for me, but there are pleasantries that make up for the various groups who come in there, that dont know a damn thing about music. Pete King and Ronnie are very nice to work for, and they provide the best facilities. So Im ninety per cent enjoying it.
The response has been good; its going to get better, I hope, when my company starts releasing more records here in Europe. Im a little appalled at the scarcity of my LPs that I find in the record shops. Ive been with 20th Century Fox, which is basically a motion picture company.
Most of the records have still been coming from my alma maters-ABC, Cadet, Argo, the whole bunch-but very little, if any, from 20th Century.
Theres been one just released, out of five LPs-and weve done some tremendous things on the label, with people like John Heard on bass and Calvin Keys on guitar. Theres one particular album, Stepping Out With A Dream, that I think is a jewel, with the quintet-and its never been released over here. But the one that has now been put out-thanks to Liz Gardner, our international rep is my latest recording. Im busy perusing the record shops for that; its called One.
Actually, its one of my departures from producing my own albums. I really dont work with producers; I usually do my own things, because some producers have strange ideas.
I think the best producer, ninety-nine per cent of the time, is a musician himself-or herself, whatever. There are three things on there that I think are almost perfect records. One is a piano solo, Sumayah, that I dedicated to my daughter; another is Dynamo, a quintet track.
And theres a marvellous piece on there by a friend of mine-just a three-note thing we develop into something rather spectacular, called One. The other things Im not too much in love with, and they werent really slated for release; the company released them over my head. But the record stands on its own just on the basis of those three. I mean, after all, most of the albums you hear today, if they have one good track youre lucky.. I think those three tracks are worth buying the record for. I like it with that reservation; the other tracks were ideas suggested by someone else.
For the past three years, Ive been working back and forth, sometimes trio, sometimes quintet. But I found it rather expensive, and burdensome detail-wise, to bring the quintet this time. So I brought the trio, which is a vehicle Ive performed with for so many years. Aesthetically, from the standpoint of pure art form, Im better off with the trio-but its a lot of work. I still have to do some trio things within the quintet, but it affords me a little broader spectrum. Ill do a duo thing with the bass and piano, a trio thing, a quintet thing, a solo thing. I can leave the piano and let some of the other soloists work; with the trio Im constantly working. Except when theres a drum solo, which Payton Crossley handles very well; not to be confused with Crosby-a lot of people think its Israels son or something! And Mike Taylor is a very fine bassist from my home town, Pittsburgh, which has somehow always produced some great musicians. Particularly bass players-Ray Brown being one of them. In the quintet, I have several percussionists that I use, including a marvellous player who was over here with Stan Getz-Iphraim Toro, from Puerto Rico; also Jumma Santos, and Kenneth Nash, who is heard on about three hundred different albums. My regular guitarist, who constitutes the fifth voice, is Calvin Keys, whos done a lot of things on Black Jazz; he was over here with Ray Charles big band many years ago.
Yes, my birthplace was Pittsburgh -a town that has a lot of coal, a lot of steel mills, some great industrialists, as well as all the musicians. From Pittsburgh came Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Errol1 Garner, Dodo Marmarosa and myself-and we all went to the same high school. Some other pianists from there are Oscar Levant, Earl Wild, Henry Mancini; then theres Billy May, Roy Eldridge, Joe Harris, a great drummer who was first seen with Dizzy Gillespie many years ago,
George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Art Blakey, Ray Brown-so many others.
What I really like to remember about coming up in Pittsburgh is the fact that we didnt have this terrible separation between the classicists and contemporary musicians-jazz musicians, so-called. I rather hate the word, but for want of a replacement at this time, Ill say there werent any lines of demarcation separating classical and jazz-we studied everything. Which .is what Duke Ellington subscribed to: what he used to say is: Music is of two kinds-good or bad. I remember vividly as a child playing both Liszt and Ellington in competition. Then there were the great jam sessions we had, which were historic and certainly priceless as far as education for the young musician was concerned -its something that is not happening today, there or anywhere. Thats how I met Art Tatum, in a jam session.
We used to have these tremendous sessions, till four, five or more in the morning. As young players, our lives would be enormously heightened by people like Errol1 Garner, Ray Brown and Joe Harris coming back and performing, or playing along with us.
Its really unfortunate that you dont get that type of camaraderie now. I respect the organisation that there is today-I think everything should be organised. But you just dont have the comradeship. like it was before. You have total competition, of a kind that sometimes is not healthy. We were competing, but it was a healthy competition, that made you strive to achieve greatness. Now, its all monetary greatness; artistic greatness is in the shadows many, many times. I like money as well as anybody else-but its not everything.
I guess Ive done well, but Im not making a great deal of money. The people who are doing that are the Elton Johns, the Rolling Stones, and all the other rock groups that have to do with drama, putting costumes on, rather than with music. Myself, Art Blakey, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck-we made our share, but compared to what these non-musical rocknrollers are making, its a pittance. Im happy as long as I know that Im doing the right thing at the right time; as long as I can do that, I manage to survive monetarily and artistically. Thats a struggle, of course-to keep up with the pace and the philosophy of things. But its a challenge; life is still interesting for me, and fortunately I can enjoy each day.
As for success, Ive had a shot at it. Which is very rare, because we know that the oldest instrument in the world is the human voice; most of the big successes and the big money are enjoyed by singers-people like Stevie Wonder, Sinatra and so forth.
However, there are some instances where an instrumentalist manages to get through. And I did that in 1958 when I recorded Argo LP 628, At The Pershing, with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernell Fournier on drums.
I think it was one of the most brilliant records Ive ever done. Out of forty-three tracks, I only used eight; I spent a couple of weeks editing. I knew it was going to do something, but I didnt know it was going to stay on the charts for a hundred-and-eight weeks-which has no parallel in the history of our music. It stayed there because of its quality. Today, records are released, and the most theyll do is six months. But this, at one point, was beyond category; it became part of what we call Must Stock Inventory, along with an album Van Cliburn did in Russia, the My Fair Lady album, and about three others.
The way I always look at it is: whether its me, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck-if its quality, its going to get some kind of audience. Then you get this stupid thing, when, after all these struggles, a great instrumentalist finally gets through, and they say: Well, hes gone commercial. As theyre saying now about George Benson. This is ridiculous. Salk vaccine is a work of art, but its very commercial-thank God, because its saved a hell of a lot of lives. Look at the audience that Charlie Parker reached-so are you going to say that he was commercial? Anything that has quality is going to reach an audience sooner or later.
When it happens, its always a combination of things. First of all, the material was there. And I had a marvellous man named Leonard Chess, who owned the record company; he started out with about four or five artists: me, James Moody, Chuck Berry. Muddy Waters. Bo Diddley and a few other artists around Chicago. Heres a man who came from Poland with his shoes in his hands, and he built a fabulous company. You can have great records, but if the companys no good it doesnt mean a thing, because theyre not going to expose the product. So it was the combination of the right time, the right place, the right music, the right management.
Also, I was an artist who was travelling at the time; its very important to do some promotion on your own. I was willing to do interviews, and to make tours in order to expose the group. Its no good sitting at home; if you have a jewel you want to expose, you have to put it on display. I had my own promo team, aside from the companys. Thats how we did it.
Ill tell you this, as far as quality is concerned: actually, Im painfully slow when it comes to record companies, for the amount of time Ive been recording. I started recording in 1951; so were talking about twenty-eight years-in fact, Dave Brubeck and I started our groups the same year. Now, I only have twenty-six or twenty-seven albums out, at the most, which is approximately one album per year. The average artist who has been recording as long as I have has around seventy-five to eighty pieces of product on the market. But I never made a bad record in my life, and I dont intend ever to do so. Im not rich today because of that; I just wont go in the studio until Im ready. Its unfortunate sometimes for me, because I would like to enjoy having a little more leeway in paying the mortgage than I have, and the company would like for me to be in the studio more-but if the quality isnt there, I simply will not record. As I said, I felt there was still some more work to be done on this latest one.
There have been instances when I have done things with a co-producer, and they havent come off well, because the ideas conflict. You just cannot sit down and say to yourself: Im going to make a hit record. And this is what most producers want to do. Were in the age of producers and musicians-which I dont understand at all. Collaborations, suggestions, fine; consulting with people is one of the best formulas for success. But producers, as understood in this business, are for the rocknrollers, the people who have no concept, where its a case of trying to make something out of nothing.
A musician does not have to be produced. You cant produce a Robert Farnon, an André Previn or a George Shearing; you can produce with them, but theres no actual production needed-its already there.
What you have to do is set up studio time, maybe get the right musicians,
make out some contracts-the things that they shouldnt have to
be involved with. Then maybe you suggest some songs, or whatever. But
this business of the whole thing supposedly being in the hands of a
producer is totally absurd. I resent it most strongly, and Im
glad I have the opportunity to say it.
Copyright © 1979 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.