Jazz Professional               



Back to that applause
The broadening world of a player/writer
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1965
That great two–tenor team, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, are making it a jumping June in Ronnie Scott’s 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 time—a 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 bands—Basie, Ellington, Goodman. And from clarinet the natural thing is saxophone. One of my big influences was Sam Donahue, who was with Gene Krupa’s 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 you’re 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 didn’t 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 didn’t know much about it. But if you can play the clarinet, the tenor follows.

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 Auld’s 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 there’s a fellow that was around New York years ago. Nobody’s ever heard of him—his name was Ray Turner. He was a pretty big influence.

Zoot: I met Al originally in 1948, when he joined Woody’s band in Salt Lake City. And we became very good friends right away. I don’t 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 while—in ‘57, I think. Ever since then we’ve been working together off and on. We work mainly the Half Note, New York, around four times a year. Al writes for our group—not as much as I’d like him to. He’s busy writing for other people. That’s Al’s main livelihood—writing. 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. It’s just grown from there. After Woody Herman, we were briefly with Artie Shaw’s 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 weren’t working so much.

When Zoot and I went out on the road for about four months in 1957, we did the night club circuit—New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago. We never went to California—we’ve been talking about it for years. Nowadays we work about 12 to 15 weeks a year at the Half Note. Occasionally, we’ve done a couple of private parties. Once in a while we play a concert. It’s nice this way—we don’t get tired of it. We’ve 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. I’ve 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. There’s more freedom—especially if you’re 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 don’t have to play boring things over and over again. You’re 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 Herman’s 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. Then—I guess you know the story—in California we had this little group, and Woody just took the group into his band, and used the sound. It wasn’t 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 weren’t. It was just that sort of heavy sound. And the record doesn’t slow down.

Al: Woody has a really excellent band now. I don’t think it’s only the Four Brothers sound that identifies Woody. Woody himself has a lot to do with identifying the Herman band. His playing—always you know it’s 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 it’s pretty nice—it’s the best I’ve ever heard Woody play that thing. He always plays pretty alto. I like Woody.

Zoot: It’s 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 I’d known you were here, I would have called you.” Just nothing happened out there. Except for the record dates, but I didn’t do enough of them for it to mean much. Records take three hours. It had nothing to do with groceries. I’m 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 don’t know if I was leading any East Coast. school. I don’t think so. But I started getting a lot of calls in those days. Fortunately I’ve been getting them ever since.

Zoot: The main reason I went back is, Gerry Mulligan called me up for the Sextet. I’ve been in New York ever since. I enjoyed working with that group very much. It is an experience—especially 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 one’s going to do. They do more of that than Zoot and I—just the two of them playing at the same time, and weaving in and out. They’re both very quick at it.

Zoot: Playing with Al inspires me. I’m 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 Mulligan—they’ve really got that going. It’s just from working together for so long, and knowing each other’s playing that well.

Of course, a lot of tunes we play, we’ve been playing for a long time, too. Which has got to be. You can’t 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 completely different.

Al: We have patterns, but we don’t 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 it’s loose. You know, it’s not strictly on the paper. Then we have a few things that we play that we never did arrange, but it sounds like it’s an arrangement. It just happened. If, as has been said, our joint creativity seems to reach a peak during an engagement, that’s due possibly to the fact that I don’t 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 wouldn’t touch my horn at all. I should practise, but I’m 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 don’t play for a week or so. It’s 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 won’t hurt you. It kind of refreshes you. But I still get that feeling that I’d like to blow again.

Playing jazz has been my whole life, from the age of ten. It’s the only thing I know. There’s 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. There’s times when, instead of going to work, I’d 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 I’ve been playing, I’ve never got over having people sitting staring at me. But after the first set, I calm down and get relaxed. Sometimes, the first set, I’m thinking about so many other things that I can’t 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 you’re playing jazz, once you’ve played it, it’s there. You can always erase a note when you’re writing, or tear up the paper and start again. That makes playing more fun, Another thing I like about playing is that it’s 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. It’s just you and your enemy, the score paper.

I like to do both. actually. and I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to. I get enough playing opportunities to keep facile on my horn. And I don’t have to travel too much. I was born and raised in New York, and I’ll always be a New Yorker. My arranging (which I do mostly) and composing is done by the perspiration method. I don’t find it easy. If I knew more about it, maybe I’d have more of a scientific approach to it. But I’m 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 can’t be too much difference. It’s always very easy. But when I read out of an exercise book, I have to stop once in a while and figure it out. It’s a little different.

Sometimes, if a score is very difficult, even if I don’t figure it out, if I hear it once I can play it. I remember when I was in Woody’s band I always used to nudge Sam Marowitz, the lead alto plaver. and say “How’s that go?” if it was ‘difficult. He’d sing it over a couple of times, and then I’d 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 don’t need it too much. But when you play jazz on some of these record dates—that’s where the trouble begins with me. Because when they just throw a bunch of changes at you and a tune you don’t know, it’s a lot different to just reading music. Most of us can do that. But to play something inspired—I can’t just have something thrown in front of me and feel at home with it. I’m not that type of musician. I don’t 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 down.

Al: Writing so much, it’s easy to be caught in the similarity trap. Like, for instance, if you’re doing an album of twelve tunes, it’s 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: “Oh—I 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 be—well, dynamic and powerful—nothing 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 arranging—with jazz overtones, you know. But, when you’re working for other people, you don’t 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 don’t 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 couldn’t do what I think really swings. I’d have to figure out what he thinks swings. Guy Lombardo probably thinks that Kay Kyser had a swing band.

Zoot: Yes, I’ve never been bothered with time. It’s the other elements that I’m worried about. As natural as breathing? I never thought of it that way, but it’s true. Time has always been very easy for me—just to keep a tempo, you know. Harmonically, I could improve immensely, I believe. I don’t see how you can learn to swing. I really don’t. My whole family’s 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 it’s either there or it isn’t. The other part you can always develop.

Al: The only way to develop as a writer is to keep writing. It’s the easiest thing to talk yourself out of it, to make excuses and say “Oh, I don’t 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 I’d be forced to sit there. As for tenor, I don’t practise. I’ve 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 time—every night we weren’t working. That was the way I developed.

There’s no accepted pattern for saxophone, After you’ve learned to breathe properly and blow correctly, there’s 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 don’t have that on saxophone. Being a comparatively recently invented instrument, it doesn’t 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 it—not trying to see if we could cut anybody, or be better, or something. I mean, naturally, you can’t get away from that completely. Everybody wants to be the best, and all that. But I find there’s not much of that going on any more—at least, back home.

That was the main thing in life in the ‘forties—around ‘49, ‘50. Mulligan, Miles, George Wallington—nobody was working. or had any money. But we still took a collection up, rented a studio and just played all night—for ourselves. Because we—wanted to play. You can learn more with that than anything.

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 harmony—especially these days, the way jazz is going.

Oh yes, it’s the sound I want. Much too late to change it, anyway. I’ve had two mouthpieces in the last—let me see —well, since ‘43. And I just changed recently, but it’s almost the same mouthpiece. It’s a very old rubber Brilhart. But I don’t know much about mouthpieces—very little. And I find that they really don’t mean that much. Because you can take Stan Getz, Lester Young, or anybody you name, and they can play your horn—and they’ll still sound like themselves.

It’s 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 don’t think it’s anything to ho with the set–up.

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 don’t like those that play very busy and very loud all the time, and don’t listen to what you’re doing. You know, egotist—type drummers that want to be leaders. Well, I have no use for that. I want a drummer that, if I feel like playing soft, he’ll play soft with me. So I want a guy that listens. To me that’s 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 you’re playing. Because when a drummer drops a bomb or fills in, it should be only in one place. And that’s 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. I’ve heard it done so many times, where a drummer is just noodling around, and it’s completely in the way of what’s going on musically with the horn.

 Copyright © 1965, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved