That great twotenor team, Zoot Sims and Al
Cohn, are making it a jumping June in Ronnie Scotts club.
Ronnie calls them my favourite group. Mine too. To illustrate
their parallel philosophies, I have juxtaposed extracts from separate
interviews with the two musicians. Les Tomkins in 1965
Zoot: There were six boys and one girl in our family, in Inglewood,
California. All of us had a very happy childhood. We had an open
house all the timea lot of friends, a lot of jam sessions.
None of the others ever took it up for a livelihood, except my
brother, Ray, who plays trombone. But they were all musical and
sang, danced and played.
I played drums in school for a very short time. Then the school
gave me an old metal clarinet. I started listening to bandsBasie,
Ellington, Goodman. And from clarinet the natural thing is saxophone.
One of my big influences was Sam Donahue, who was with Gene Krupas
band at the time. And Ben Webster. So I used to dream about getting
a tenor saxophone. Sure, I was very influenced by Lester Young.
When you begin, unless youre a complete genius, you have
to be influenced.
With the Bobby Sherwood band, which I joined at 16, I made my
first and greatest trip across the country. I learned quite a
bit from it, including how to read.
Al: My musical background started with piano lessons when I was
6 years old. which I didnt like. but my parents wanted me
to have culture. I studied piano for six years. Then,
when I was about 12 years old, I became interested in jazz, and
I got a clarinet. I became a Benny Goodman fan. Two years later,
I heard Lester Young, and immediately wanted to become a saxophone
player. So my indulgent father bought me a saxophone, and I just
took two lessons on the tenor from my clarinet teacher, who didnt
know much about it. But if you can play the clarinet, the tenor
I started writing very young. When I was about 15, we had a band
in high school, and I learned by the trial and error method. I
just tried to copy off records. About eight months after
joining the union, when I was 17, I joined Georgie Aulds
band. I had written for a few other bands before that, such as
Lee Castle and Joe Marsala. But I guess Georgie Auld was really
the start of me going about it more than just occasionally.
I consider my two influences on saxophone to be Lester and Charlie
Parker. After that, my taste broadened a little bit. I like Coleman
Hawkins and Ben Webster. And theres a fellow that was around
New York years ago. Nobodys ever heard of himhis name
was Ray Turner. He was a pretty big influence.
Zoot: I met Al originally in 1948, when he joined Woodys
band in Salt Lake City. And we became very good friends right
away. I dont know what year it was, but the two of us were
called for a Victor album. Later, we took the arrangements from
the record date, got a little band, two cars, and went on the
road for a whilein 57, I think. Ever since then weve
been working together off and on. We work mainly the Half Note,
New York, around four times a year. Al writes for our groupnot
as much as Id like him to. Hes busy writing for other
people. Thats Als main livelihoodwriting. But
he loves to play, and the Half Note is perfect for him because
he can stay in town.
Al: We hit it off immediately as soon as we met each other. Its
just grown from there. After Woody Herman, we were briefly with
Artie Shaws band together in 1949. And we played a
lot together before we ever had our group. We used to blow around
New York, in the days when we werent working so much.
When Zoot and I went out on the road for about four months in
1957, we did the night club circuitNew York, Philadelphia,
Boston, Cleveland, Chicago. We never went to Californiaweve
been talking about it for years. Nowadays we work about 12 to
15 weeks a year at the Half Note. Occasionally, weve done
a couple of private parties. Once in a while we play a concert.
Its nice this waywe dont get tired of it. Weve
always been friends, aside from business associates. We think
alike, although we play differently.
Zoot: I feel equally at home in large or small bands. Ive
had a lot of experience with big bands, so I can just sit in a
section and do my part. Although I like small bands better. Theres
more freedomespecially if youre the leader. You can
play the tune you want and the tempo you want.
Al: I like writing for a big band better, but I like playing
in a small group better. When you play with a small group, you
dont have to play boring things over and over again. Youre
not within the confines of an arrangement and you can play as
long as you want. But writing for a big band, of course, is easier.
You can get more varieties of colours, more combinations of instruments.
Writing for small groups, having less to work with, you need to
use more ingenuity.
Zoot: Woody Hermans band was about the first I recorded
with. I enjoyed it mainly because of my youth and enthusiasm at
that time. And I had a lot of respect for everybody in the band.
That saxophone sound was first used by Gene Roland in New York
in 46. ThenI guess you know the storyin California
we had this little group, and Woody just took the group into his
band, and used the sound. It wasnt hard to get that blend,
because we all liked it and felt it. It was a little sluggish,
being a deep sound.
I remember, when we recorded Four Brothers, Woody
kept thinking we were slowing down. I know why he was thinking
that, but actually we werent. It was just that sort of heavy
sound. And the record doesnt slow down.
Al: Woody has a really excellent band now. I dont think
its only the Four Brothers sound that identifies Woody.
Woody himself has a lot to do with identifying the Herman band.
His playingalways you know its Woody, whether you
like it or not. What he does, he does very well. As a matter of
fact, I heard him on a record he did on clarinet with just a rhythm
section. And its pretty niceits the best Ive
ever heard Woody play that thing. He always plays pretty alto.
I like Woody.
Zoot: Its a funny thing. I was born and raised on the West
Coast. Yet when I went there in the mid 50s, that was actually
a very rough period of my career, financially. Very bad. I worked
for about eight months, and then everything dropped. People used
to tell you: Zoot! Jeez, if Id known you were here,
I would have called you. Just nothing happened out there.
Except for the record dates, but I didnt do enough of them
for it to mean much. Records take three hours. It had nothing
to do with groceries. Im not drug about it, or bitter or
anything. But I like it much better in New York.
Al: The mid 50s was the time I got busy. I dont know
if I was leading any East Coast. school. I dont think so.
But I started getting a lot of calls in those days. Fortunately
Ive been getting them ever since.
Zoot: The main reason I went back is, Gerry Mulligan called me
up for the Sextet. Ive been in New York ever since. I enjoyed
working with that group very much. It is an experienceespecially
without a piano. It was very strange at first, not hearing the
chords, which I rely on. So I made my own chords up.
Al: In the Mulligan Quartet, Bob Brookmeyer and Gerry have that
sort of empathy and instinct together. They play together. Each
can sense what the other ones going to do. They do more
of that than Zoot and Ijust the two of them playing at the
same time, and weaving in and out. Theyre both very quick
Zoot: Playing with Al inspires me. Im a big fan of his.
Yes, a kind of a telepathy does happen. Pretty soon you know what
the other is thinking, more or less, and it just comes out. Now,
Brookmeyer Mulligantheyve really got that going. Its
just from working together for so long, and knowing each others
playing that well.
Of course, a lot of tunes we play, weve been playing for
a long time, too. Which has got to be. You cant just play
something new every night. But you never play it the same way
twice, and you can still get inspired on it. Some nights you may
just get bored with it, but the next time you play it you feel
Al: We have patterns, but we dont play the exact same notes
and phrases every time. There are certain sequences that are the
same all the time. Other things vary. Our music is arranged, but
its loose. You know, its not strictly on the paper.
Then we have a few things that we play that we never did arrange,
but it sounds like its an arrangement. It just happened.
If, as has been said, our joint creativity seems to reach a peak
during an engagement, thats due possibly to the fact that
I dont play most of the time in between. and I may get a
little stale. And it takes me a few days to get back with it.
It feels a little strange at first. We work, say, every three
months or so. So there might be a few weeks where I wouldnt
touch my horn at all. I should practise, but Im very lazy.
Then we go right back in, and I just take it out of the case,
find a reed, and blow it for a couple of weeks.
Zoot: Even now, at my age, I still get hungry after a while,
if I dont play for a week or so. Its nice to play
again, you know. Sometimes I go two weeks without playing. But
I think that can be good for you, too, if you play professionally
all the time. A little time off wont hurt you. It kind of
refreshes you. But I still get that feeling that Id like
to blow again.
Playing jazz has been my whole life, from the age of ten. Its
the only thing I know. Theres a lot of joy in it for me.
But it can be drudgery, too. I guess, no matter what you do, you
have moments of that. Theres times when, instead of going
to work, Id rather stay home. Because it is work, sometimes.
But, once you get up there, you just have to forget it, and try
and enjoy it as much as you can.
My big problem is playing the first set. You feel sort of nervous
and cold. I may not show it, but I feel it. You know, as long
as Ive been playing, Ive never got over having people
sitting staring at me. But after the first set, I calm down and
get relaxed. Sometimes, the first set, Im thinking about
so many other things that I cant really get with it.
Al: I enjoy playing more than writing, because all I play is
jazz. Whereas, with writing I do other things which are not as
much fun, but sometimes more lucrative. One of the big differences
is that, when youre playing jazz, once youve played
it, its there. You can always erase a note when youre
writing, or tear up the paper and start again. That makes playing
more fun, Another thing I like about playing is that its
more of a sociable type of thing. You get together with your friends
and fellow musicians. In writing, you sit behind the scenes, at
a desk or at a piano somewhere. Its just you and your enemy,
the score paper.
I like to do both. actually. and Im very fortunate that
Ive been able to. I get enough playing opportunities to
keep facile on my horn. And I dont have to travel too much.
I was born and raised in New York, and Ill always be a New
Yorker. My arranging (which I do mostly) and composing is done
by the perspiration method. I dont find it easy. If I knew
more about it, maybe Id have more of a scientific approach
to it. But Im really quite ignorant.
Zoot: Reading has never been a problem to me. In grade school
I had a teacher. My brother, Ray, taught me a lot about reading,
too. And, in dance band reading. there cant be too much
difference. Its always very easy. But when I read out of
an exercise book, I have to stop once in a while and figure it
out. Its a little different.
Sometimes, if a score is very difficult, even if I dont
figure it out, if I hear it once I can play it. I remember when
I was in Woodys band I always used to nudge Sam Marowitz,
the lead alto plaver. and say Hows that go?
if it was difficult. Hed sing it over a couple of
times, and then Id get it. Then, the next time I saw it,
I could read it.
Now in the States you never have a rehearsal for a record date.
But with the calibre of the musicianship right now, for most dates
you really dont need it too much. But when you play jazz
on some of these record datesthats where the trouble
begins with me. Because when they just throw a bunch of changes
at you and a tune you dont know, its a lot different
to just reading music. Most of us can do that. But to play something
inspiredI cant just have something thrown in front
of me and feel at home with it. Im not that type of musician.
I dont read changes that fast and well. There are some musicians
who can do it. But I have to really know it before I can settle
Al: Writing so much, its easy to be caught in the similarity
trap. Like, for instance, if youre doing an album of twelve
tunes, its easy to fall into certain habits. Especially
if you have to write twelve arrangements in a week or ten days
or something. Often these dates are put together rather quickly.
Sometimes you say: OhI wrote that yesterday,
you know. That can happen if the material is very similar to begin
with. Like on that Buddy Greco album. He wanted everything to
bewell, dynamic and powerfulnothing too subtle, nothing
soft and subdued. So I felt if you listened to the whole album
at one sitting, it would start to get a little boring and repetitious.
Most of my income is from commercial arrangingwith jazz
overtones, you know. But, when youre working for other people,
you dont try to put your personality into it. You just try
to give them what they want. I mostly get good assignments, for
people that are pretty hip. Usually, the reason they call me is
that they want what I can do.
Most of these people are singers, not musicians, and they dont
know how to explain what they want. When they say they want something
that really swings, you have to know what they mean by that.
Now, if Guy Lombardo were to come to me and say that, I couldnt
do what I think really swings. Id have to figure out what
he thinks swings. Guy Lombardo probably thinks that Kay Kyser
had a swing band.
Zoot: Yes, Ive never been bothered with time. Its
the other elements that Im worried about. As natural as
breathing? I never thought of it that way, but its true.
Time has always been very easy for mejust to keep a tempo,
you know. Harmonically, I could improve immensely, I believe.
I dont see how you can learn to swing. I really dont.
My whole familys very musical, like we said before, and
when I was very young, my eldest brother took up saxophone and
clarinet. And he became very adept as far as reading and technique
were concerned. But he has no sense of metre, no time. Very strange.
So, as far as that part, I think its either there or it
isnt. The other part you can always develop.
Al: The only way to develop as a writer is to keep writing. Its
the easiest thing to talk yourself out of it, to make excuses
and say Oh, I dont feel well today or something.
All you need is a piece of paper and a pencil, For myself, I should
get a belt with a lock on it, and give somebody else the key,
so Id be forced to sit there. As for tenor, I dont
practise. Ive always hated practising, even as a child.
Practising and rehearsing. My experience was all of the practical
kind, playing with bands and then at sessions around New York.
We used to chip in and rent studios, and play all the timeevery
night we werent working. That was the way I developed.
Theres no accepted pattern for saxophone, After youve
learned to breathe properly and blow correctly, theres not
much else they can tell you. Like, on a clarinet, they can tell
you whether your sound is not this, or not that. We dont
have that on saxophone. Being a comparatively recently invented
instrument, it doesnt have that tradition of what is considered
an ideal sound. Every saxophone player has a different sound.
You might admire two fellows, and then what you have to play might
sound like both of them.
Zoot: What we did when we were kids was play all we could together.
And play for the fun of itnot trying to see if we could
cut anybody, or be better, or something. I mean, naturally, you
cant get away from that completely. Everybody wants to be
the best, and all that. But I find theres not much of that
going on any moreat least, back home.
That was the main thing in life in the fortiesaround
49, 50. Mulligan, Miles, George Wallingtonnobody
was working. or had any money. But we still took a collection
up, rented a studio and just played all nightfor ourselves.
Because wewanted to play. You can learn more with that than
I think one of the best things you can do, no matter what you
play, is to take up piano. Music is based on chord changes and
harmonies, and you can get em more out of an instrument
like piano, where you can hear all the notes at once. I feel that
I lack a lot of that in my own music. I mean, it broadens your
ear so much when you know harmonyespecially these days,
the way jazz is going.
Oh yes, its the sound I want. Much too late to change it,
anyway. Ive had two mouthpieces in the lastlet me
see well, since 43. And I just changed recently, but
its almost the same mouthpiece. Its a very old rubber
Brilhart. But I dont know much about mouthpiecesvery
little. And I find that they really dont mean that much.
Because you can take Stan Getz, Lester Young, or anybody you name,
and they can play your hornand theyll still sound
Its the individual. You get the sound you hear. It comes
from within, the way you grip the mouthpiece with your mouth and
your lips. I dont think its anything to ho with the
Al: I like the percussive type of pianist, like John Williams,
Dave McKenna, John Bunch. They goose you a little bit. If you
feel a little lazy one time, they make you get in there and blow,
and forget about your laziness. Stan Tracey is very good in the
section. As for drummers, I dont like those that play very
busy and very loud all the time, and dont listen to what
youre doing. You know, egotisttype drummers that want
to be leaders. Well, I have no use for that. I want a drummer
that, if I feel like playing soft, hell play soft with me.
So I want a guy that listens. To me thats the difference
between just being a drummer and being a musician.
Zoot: I like a drummer that plays fairly hard, and all that,
but one that listens to what youre playing. Because when
a drummer drops a bomb or fills in, it should be only in one place.
And thats when you, the soloist, leave room for it. Some
drummers get carried away with learning all those tricks of filling
in, and they just do it automatically any time they feel
like it, because they know how to do it. But if he tries to supplement
the soloist, the outcome will be much more tasty. Ive heard
it done so many times, where a drummer is just noodling around,
and its completely in the way of whats going on musically
with the horn.