Speaks his mind
of the extroverts of jazz
Art Blakey speaks his mind
More messages from the Messenger
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1963
Photo courtesy of Bernhard
I wonder if the people will start dancing again, because jazz is very much a danceable music. I remember when they did, and that was very nice, too. But people don’t do it any more—and it’s ‘terrible. I think it’ll come back.
Now, during the Newport Festival this year, they had a Nostalgia Of The ‘Forties night at the Roseland Ballroom, New York, with Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, and a group of singing sisters. That was fantastic—it was sold out, and I was very happy to see that. You know, I think everything should go forward, but I don’t like to see things dropped completely, because they did mean something to many people. The same place was packed also when they had Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Count Basie there one night. It was a good idea; it brought back many memories.
Sure, the Jazz Messengers have played for dancing.
We play a different type of thing in New York, where they have a Latin group, a West Indian group with the steel drums, and our group. And people dance when we play; most of the time they listen, but they also dance. We did a lot of that; it didn’t go too far outside of New York, but it was fantastic.
The thing was, when this type of music came in, people were ignorant of it. Ignorance breeds fear, and fear breeds hate. They couldn’t understand it; so they didn’t want to listen. If they’d listened, they could dance to it.
And now they’re finding out that they can. As I see it, things go in a cycle. They’ll come round to it. It’s nothing but rhythm.
And rock is bringing it around, too. Some of our best musicians are in the rock field now, and they’re putting out good music.. What the rock drummers are doing is: they’re opening up the things that us jazz drummers are playing three or four times as fast, and playing ‘em slower. And it’s real beautiful, the way they got to this idea. Very clever, too. They started out with rhythm ’n’ blues, and it was called “chopping wood”. Now it’s more rhythm; it’s an opening up of the thing. But they’ll come where we’re at. I figure they all come back to the mother same day! For a musician, this is the most fascinating way to play; it’s the most exciting and everything. I’ve checked out the other ways to play—Dixieland, ragtime, rock, rhythm ’n’ blues, I went all through that. :But this is the way for a drummer to really put it together. He doesn’t have to pound himself to death, and he’s got to play with all musicians, because everybody’s got to know where the beat is.
That’s why they had to have the rock beat—so the people could dance. The drummers had gone so far ahead.
Because once a thing starts out, and you say “One, two, three, four”. it really isn’t necessary for you to keep this up; if you do, you lock yourself in, and you don’t get a chance to explore and advance.
Because this is the thing: we use the European harmonic structure; all my life I’ve been trying to bring that together with the African rhythms. I think we’ll have something very fantastic. And today we’re closer to it than ever. When that comes, it’s not that repetitious thing.
The “one” is there, just as sure as you know the sun is rising or setting, but you’re not supposed to be given credit for that—you just explore. It’s gonna take time, that’s all. The Africans have been dancing to that kind of thing for it’s very nice.
When I went to West Africa, it wasn’t to check out any music, though. I went out there just to learn, you know—to find out what was happening. And at that time over there, I accepted Islam. I just wanted to find out other things about life, like a lot of young people do today—“ Why? What am I here for?” I wasn’t satisfied with what I was taught in school, or by my parents. I felt that they were in a little darkness, too, and I had to go there and find out. I found out. I felt much better about it.
If you find out why, it helps to make the real you. I was able to appreciate more where I came from, the system in which I was raised, what I was doing, and how this thing came about. In other words, I would have gone along in ignorance, hating where I came from. I began to see: no America, no jazz; if I hadn’t been in jazz, I wouldn’t be able to travel and see the world. One thing brought on another, you know. That put my head together.
So I came back, and started playing again. We formed the Seventeen Messengers, but that broke up, because big bands were going out, anyway. No, it hadn’t been my idea. The guys put the band together, just picked me out, and said; “You’re the leader.” I never had any hopes of ever being a bandleader—never thought about it.
But I always had a ‘motor mouth’. I had a way of talking to guys; I could organise, and people liked me for that. I’d had a lot of experience in doing that.
I’d been in other big bands, like Billy Eckstine’s.
There were no combos to be in, other than John Kirby, at that time. I worked with Mary Lou Williams; she brought me to New York for the first time, and we played on 52nd Street for a few weeks. Then I played in some small combos in Pittsburgh. I had my own small combo, playing drums, and I had a big band, playing piano, but I never wanted to get into being a bandleader. Just wanted to make a livelihood. But when the guys picked me, I just went out there, did my best, said what I had to say. Being outgoing helped, I guess.
So, when that didn’t work, Horace Silver, ,Kenny Dorham, Doug Watkins, Hank Mobley and I got together, and Horace suggested that we call this the Jazz Messengers—which was beautiful. Again they made me the leader. It started out as a corporation, but that didn’t last too long. They went and formed their groups, leaving me out there to carry on. That’s how I became mostly a leader since 1955.
I thank God for Horace, Kenny and the guys, too—they gave me a big push forward. ‘‘ Because I wasn’t really doing anything for myself before that.
Thelonious Monk was the guy that was keeping me busy, recording and things, but I didn’t care too much about it; I just took the attitude; “Well, here it is.” They came along and gave me that push.
I don’t think musicians ever said Monk was difficult to play with. I think people were saying that, not musicians. Because musicians are the ones who make musicians. And anybody who knew anything about music knew, revered and feared Monk, as far as music is concerned. It was just that the musicians couldn’t get a chance to play with him. Thelonious was very selective, and I was just fortunate he selected me. He’d take me and Bud Powell around, and he’d stop all the band and let Bud play, and let me play.
Sometimes the musicians would get up and walk off the stand; then Bud and I or Thelonious and I would play by ourselves.
He was very outspoken—and they respected him for it. This man was so fantastic; he knew what he wanted to do, and he did it. He just had that personality, that aura about him. I was so happy to play with him, I tried the best I could; and anyway, I was experimenting. He let you experiment all you wanted, and that was good. I learned a lot with him; that helped to develop me quite a bit, at that time. Because coming out of the big band, I didn’t know that much.
See, playing in a combo and playing in a big band is two different things. In a combo, every tub’s got to sit on its own bottom. I was out there to learn. And when you lead a group, you really got to be into it. As far as I’m concerned, I like to hear big bands, but I don’t want to play with ‘em. I’ve had that. If I had a big band, it would have to be something entirely different rhythmically.
Because I get very angry with musicians loafing, and the rhythm is working. You know, the horns just standing around, looking. I mean, I feel that they should write insurance; everybody’s got to get into the act. There shouldn’t be that laying out a chorus or more, while the band is playing. They should be busy creating something, trying to change the music around, or to move it forward.
But this doesn’t happen. Then you’re carrying a lot of dead weight. See, and the drummer is the stoker; he’s got to pull all this weight.
Some guys, who may be good musicians and able to read, don’t know nothing about rhythm. Thinking about the rhythm—this is what brings out good soloists. That’s what makes Dizzy and what made Charlie Parker great musicians—they’re rhythm experts. Guys like that understand drummers, and they can turn round and explain things. The others figure: “Well, I can blow a horn: I got a sound”, and it’s like you’re pulling a ton of bricks.
They’re going one way, the rhythm’s going another.
Then there are the musicians, if they’ve had a fight with their old lady, they bring it to the bandstand. I don’t allow that in a combo. Whatever you had—I don’t care if your mother just died—you come to the bandstand, that’s it. ‘Cause you don’t know if you’re gonna get back there again. Tomorrow’s not promised to you. If you’re playing music, you’re one of the chosen few, a lucky guy; so, if you get up there—play. If you ain’t gonna play—forget it; this is not your thing.
And that’s what caused the fall of big bands—guys taking it as a job. This is not a job. It’s not a right—it’s a privilege to be able to play music. A privilege from the almighty.
We’re only here for a minute, just little people, small cogs in a big wheel. You’re no big deal; so you get up and do your very best. You play to the people—not down to the people.
If they had done that, this thing would not have failed. But there were so many of ‘em: “I play first trombone”; “I play second trombone”. I learned better than that—Dizzy taught me, when he was musical director of Billy Eckstine’s band. There was no such thing as first trumpet player, first trombone, first alto. You played whatever they passed out. Thelonious would write music; they’d say : “Hey, Monk, how’m I gonna play this, man? How do I get this note up here?” Monk’d say: “It’s on the horn. Find it. Play it.” And this is the way it is.
For big band playing, I think Mel Lewis is doing a tremendous job. He’s one of those personalities that can carry that. I couldn’t; I feel the big band’s got to move in another direction from what it’s moving in today, to come out to be fantastic. Sure, Thad is a genius in the way he writes. If he could be as fortunate as Billy Eckstine was, and he and Mel could get the musicians they want—my God! But Thad is a smart man—he works with the material he has. He certainly hasn’t reached his peak in writing yet, nor as a trumpet and flugelhorn player. He’s just fantastic, and so is Mel. I like their whole thing—the framework of it, all the thoughts behind it. They feel the same; way I do. With what they have, they’re doing a hell of a job.
There’ve been times when I’ve had musicians in the group who hadn’t had a chance to develop. Then people look for me to play a lot of drum solos. But how many drum solos can you play? A drum is not a melody instrument. If you play too much drums, it becomes noise to people; they don’t understand. I like it to be effective, and I do mean to get attention when I play that drum. You know, I don’t try to be technical about it. Technique don’t mean nothing to me; what I want to do is get into the bowels and the guts of the human soul—and I have the instrument to do it with. If you chew your food, you chew it on time; your heart beats on time. When I hit that drum, I get your attention, and try to shake you up inside. Now, I can’t do that all night. You’ve got to have melody instruments, because you’ll get people so disturbed they won’t know what to do with themselves. Many nights I know I’ve upset many people inside; afterwards I’m exhausted.
Well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I like to let the people know how I feel, that I feel like they feel.
I ain’t there to get no musicians up off the ground—I’m playing to the people. If the musicians want to come on, they better come on along. If they don’t, I’m just gonna run ‘em off the bandstand. I see how far they can go, how far I can push ‘em, but I don’t try to overplay the soloist. I come to a point, then I’ll slack down and stay behind, because I am an accompaniment—that’s what the rhythm section is for. But I’m not gonna sit back there and keep time for him—he has to play. So you try to develop him in that way. And I don’t want the bass player or the piano player to feel that they have to sit and play time.
He should know time; if he don’t, it’s time he learned. If he doesn’t develop, another musician comes along and takes his place. They’ve all been tremendous, but some of ‘em don’t have time to develop; and sometimes I don’t have time to let them. If things come up that are urgent, then I have to change. And some you get that just won’t—they’re in it for something else, maybe.
I’ve seen the opportunists, who said: “I’m gonna do this, or that”. But I feel they’re very stupid, because if anybody’s gonna do anything, my track record will check ‘em out. I’ll help ‘em, but I don’t want anybody to try to use me as a stepping–stone for their career; if they do that, they’ll fail. The ones that have come through and become leaders are real pure. Horace Silver, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Benny Golson—these cats are for real.
Some of the others forget that the Jazz Messengers is an institution, and they’re not gonna roll over this thing.
What is so fortunate, the record companies and the agencies are now beginning to see it. My manager, especially, is something else. Jack Whittimore and I have been together for twenty years, and he knows me inside out. He lets nothing pass; if somebody’s kinda weird, or becomes an opportunist, they’re in trouble—all he has to do is pick up the telephone. He just guides my whole thing.
This man and I just go together. He has most of the cats, like Roland Kirk. He’s responsible to a large degree for Miles Davis, I think. Miles had the talent, but I mean the business guidance; he was so sincere about him, because he loved Miles. He loves musicians. You know, he’s been offered fabulous amounts of money under the table, tax free—he looked at them and turned that down, man. That’s a hell of a man. He doesn’t have two faces; he has one face, and he calls a spade a spade. And I like that type of man. It’s a man—and there’s very few of ‘em out here. Lots of males, few men. I hear a lot of people talk about how much man they are, but a tree is known by the fruit it bears. Let’s see what you have done in your life.
I never gotten into that thing of saving money, and buying insurance to bury you with. I’m not worried about that. If you’re able to buy you some land, build a house on it, grow food on it, bury yourself in it when you die—that’s the way I think. ‘The first source of wealth is land.
Because I’ve never seen an armoured car following a hearse, man. So I’m not going to break my neck, taking money off people; I just want to be out here and play, and be at peace. Had I got into this big money thing, it’d have been nice. I don’t know what I would have done. Money changes people—maybe it’d have been the worse far me.
You have to change, if you’re making a lot of money.
You’re not in the same circles; it’s different. You can’t sort out your friends—all that kind of stuff. I don’t want that: I’ve had access to a lot of money in my life; it wasn’t mine. I just want to play some music, make people happy.
Oh, if I had to play that commercial kind of music, I’m telling you—I’d rather go on and be a gambler, make more money shooting crap than doing that. You see, I come out the streets. I know how to do other things and make money. I certainly don’t need to sit down and play in no studio, with no guy waving no stick over my head, that don’t know as much about it as I do. That isn’t what I’m out here for.
I’d love to make a lot of money. I’ve got some definite plans; I’ve got sense enough to know I’m gonna retire sooner or later; nature will take care of that. But I’d like to retire into something, you know. I think the best investment is in another human being. I’d like to have a whole lot of kids, and just have a place for them. Not my kids; I wouldn’t want to sire no kids. No, just get a whole bunch of ‘em—not too many, just enough I could take care of, support and put ‘em out in the country somewhere.
Let ‘em live life, close to nature—not in the city, like where I was raised. If they want to play music, they can, but at least give ‘em a chance. I don’t want to upset the world, or change nothing; I just want my little corner.
But as for the Jazz Messengers—the funny thing is how our music goes in a circle. And since Benny Golson wrote “Blues March” and Bobby Timmons wrote “Moanin’,” we just can’t get away from them. People demand them. Now they’re demanding more of the old things we did. We just recorded “Along Came Betty” with Jon Hendricks; he put some words on it, with the permission of Benny Golson. It was a beautiful thing. There’s such a thing as going too fast for your public; they have to catch up. Boy, that must have been originally recorded fifteen years ago. That’s how the cycle goes.
Time passes so damn fast; I turn around and say: “What happened? Where did it go?” I look up and I see my son standing up there; he’s got a beard and a moustache—damn, he’s a man. He’s a drummer now; he grew up and became our road manager, and travelled with us for years. Oh—there’s so much going on, so many kids.
Horace has a little daughter now, growing up. Donald Byrd’s son is old enough to play. How time went! When it gets home to you, it really shocks you.
I met Chuck Mangione here the other day. Now, when he was a young trumpet player, about eleven years old, his father brought him to the club, and he told me: “I’d sure like to play with the Jazz Messengers.” I said: “Well, son—one day you will.” And what do you know—I turned around and he was a grown man, married, and he joined the band! That thing knocked me out. He had a ball out there with me—something else, ‘cause he never imagined that I would be like I am, when I’m his father’s age. He’d just look at me and shake his head, and say: “Man, you’re something else!” You know, I’ve been around young guys all my life. I mean, I don’t feel any older. It’s only when I look in the mirror and I think about the age that I know. But I act the same way I always did.
And I ain’t got time to look back. You look back—by the time you turn forward somebody’s shot right past you.
You gotta keep getting up, and running as fast as you can.
My present group is not my set group. I just started working regularly again, really, because there came a time when work was hard to get, and we slacked up on everything Horace, all of us. I had cats with me all the time working, enough to exist. But now it’s started picking up, I’m in the throes of really putting it together, and getting guys that’s gonna be in the band for a while, for a couple of years or so, like I used to. I like to set guys together; to get the right combination, you got to set ‘em together spiritually and emotionally. You just can’t take any musician, just because he can play.
It’s got to be a group thing, for us to move forward musically. Then we can move forward financially. But if a guy comes in the group talking about finance, he don’t come here to work. You don’t built no castles playing jazz. You can forget it. Go play rock, you want to make some money. The only thing we got is: if we stay out here and play, we know we’re going down in history. What’s important is building a good reputation.
I just don’t want to be bothered with those guys who talk about money all the time—they make me sick. Or a fly–by–night promoter or club owner, who wants to make a whole lot of money off of jazz. And they only want to half do it; they don’t want to advertise or anything. If a rock group comes, they take a whole page in a newspaper.
Advertisement is the secret of success. Then, when the jazz makes no money, they tell the lie: “Oh, that jazz is no good.” The truth is that jazz has been selling for years. It surprises me, really, to find that records I made almost a quarter of a century ago, with Monk and all the cats, are still selling. Fantastic. And all the flyby–night rock and rhythm ’n’ blues—I don’t know where they went.
And as for the people who stop using the word jazz—well, they made their reputations playing jazz; so they’re jive. Any of ‘em are jive, who do that. You don’t change horses in mid–stream. I don’t care who they are, or where they are, they’ll never come up to me and tell me that. They may tell some pressman, that they’re trying to make some kind of impression on, but they ain’t gonna say that in front of me. They’re liars, because it’s the only way they got here.
So they’re fortunate, and they get a few write–ups.
That doesn’t mean that you’re great. You made a good record or something, and you’re all pleased about it. I ain’t never made a record I liked—I got that yet to do. People say it’s good, but I don’t think so. I could tear it apart in my own mind when I listen to it; I’m never satisfied with it. So when they get satisfied with themselves, I think it’s very dangerous. They got that. Because there’s always room for improvement.
I don’t understand anybody putting down jazz. And I know a lot of people have done that. I’m sincerely sorry for them. They made a mistake, and they had to come back and eat it up later.
This business of music is hard, with a lot of frustration, too. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’m not going to make the mistake of turning my back on jazz. I love it and appreciate it too much. So many people helped me to come up in this field—Sid Catlett, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke—all the cats, as far back as I can remember. They’re all something to do with my life. Monk, Dizzy, Billie, Charlie Parker—can’t turn my back on them. They made me what I am today, helped me put everything together. I’m staying where I belong.
Copyright © 1973 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.