A Woman's Angle on Jazz
Woman's Angle on Jazz
Audiences are more open-minded now
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1973
Being a female in the jazz world has never really hindered me, except at the very beginning. It was a handicap then, in that people tended to put you down before they ever heard you. If you were a girl piano player, the tendency was to say: “Oh, how could she possibly play?” You never even got a chance to present what you could do. But then, if you did prove yourself, it almost became a commercial asset, in a sense; you were regarded as unique. Once I began playing, became more established, and really got into it more, then it became a thing that I didn’t really think about too much. The initial difficulty was that there were very few girls playing jazz; so you were something rather strange, to say the least.
All my life, though, I’ve been plagued with two things. One is people saying to me: “You really play well for a girl.” The second ‘compliment’ is: “You play just like a man.” Now, I know that when people say the latter they mean it with great sincerity, and they consider it the highest form of praise. However, if you really think about it a minute, it is rather a matter of male chauvinism, isn’t it? I mean, it’s incredible to them that you can play well and be a woman.
This thing of being compared to a man is because we’ve all been conditioned to think that way. But things are changing a little bit now. Anyway, I don’t want to play like a man. I do think that musicians, certainly, have always been the most open–minded of people. Isn’t it marvellous that music, particularly jazz, was one of the few areas where we never suffered from any kind of bigotry and prejudice, where we accepted people–if they could play, that was it.
I think the Women’s Lib movement has made us all more aware of the fact that there has been subtle discrimination against women for a very long time. In other words, even though I do feel that personally I’ve been quite lucky and I’ve always done what I wanted to do, which was play the piano and play jazz, perhaps I have been discriminated against in areas of which I wasn’t quite aware. In America, undoubtedly, this movement has gained an enormous amount of strength. Which is to the good of both men and women. People are more likely now to think about themselves and others as human beings, rather than as men/male or women/female. And I like to think that the era is coming when, for instance, my daughter, who is ten years old now, will not have to think that she can grow up and be a nurse but not a doctor, if you know what I mean. I want her to feel that there’s no limit as to what she can do, that being a girl is not going to hamper her.
As I say, musicians deserve credit for being far more liberal and freethinking than others. In the male/female thing, as soon as they got over the shock of seeing a girl play piano, the only question was—could you play your instrument? Mary Lou Williams did it way before anybody; she did it first, in fact, and she’s still playing marvellously well today. Then, of course, Marian McPartland, from England, is doing very well in the States.
I’m from Worcester, Massachusetts—where all those folks landed when they first came over. My musical upbringing wasn’t much at all. Neither of my parents were professional musicians. My father was an amateur trumpet player at one time, and, loving music greatly, he gave both of my older sisters all kinds of music lessons, but neither of them seemed to care particularly about it. So by the time I came along, he was really rather depressed with the whole thing.
I wanted to study piano when I was very young, but he said: “No—we’re not going through that any more.” However, at about four or five years old, I had begun playing by myself, anyway. In the end, they saw just how interested in the piano I was; so I began studying classical music when I was about eight, and continued doing so for some seven years. But during that time my real inclination was towards playing jazz. Even though I was playing Chopin and Bach, that isn’t what I was practising. I was listening to Art Tatum, Nat Cole and whoever else I could. It must have been a natural instinct—just something I knew I wanted to do. And it never occurred to me that it was going to be difficult for me because I was a girl. I never thought about any obstacles; it was just straight ahead—I wanted to play, and that was it.
When I got to high school, I began working in bands with various students. I was playing for weddings, and all that kind of thing. After graduating, I went to the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston. I was playing every night with a jazz band, and, with going to school every day, it got to be very difficult, because of the hours—working very late, then getting up early in the morning. So I decided that I had to either concentrate on going to the Conservatory and studying, or do what I preferred to do—play with the band. I gave up school after a year; then I worked with bands in Boston and the surrounding area.
When I came to New York, I knew nobody there except one musician, who introduced me to an agent, and immediately he was fortunate enough to get me a job opposite Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. I had a trio of my own, which consisted of Chuck Wayne on guitar, Clyde Lombardi on bass, and myself. Needless to say, I was so impressed with these two marvellous musicians I was working with that I was practically overwhelmed. Plus sharing the engagement with Dizzy’s band, which at that time included some great players like Ray Brown on bass, John Lewis on piano. Really fantastic.
For a while after that I played by myself around New York. Eventually I became established with a trio comprising piano, bass and drums, and that’s the way I worked most of my career. Incidentally, Chuck Wayne had left me to go with Woody Herman’s band, and Charlie Byrd had played with me for a spell, which was equally exciting. And I figured, after having those two incredible guitar players, what was there left? I didn’t use guitar any more; nothing could top them.
My initiation to New York, as a very young musician, came towards the end of the bebop era, but Dizzy, Charlie and all those greats were still around. I appeared at a club one time that was owned by that wonderful tenorman, Georgie Auld. It was a tiny little place on 49th Street; you went down a few steps, it was sort of dark and smoky—the way really good jazz rooms should be. This job was such fun, because everybody used to come in there and sit in—Charlie Parker, Paul Desmond, Stan Getz. Tony Bennett used to come and sing. Just thrilling; it was really one of the groovy places of all time.
A bass player who worked with me for many years was a most talented musician named Joe Shulman, who I eventually married. We were married for about three years, and then Joe died. Another bass player I used for quite a while was Joe Benjamin—he’s now with Duke Ellington. Also a wonderful English bassist named John Drew, when he was in the States. And just recently, when I was in New York for five months, a beautiful bass player named Aaron Bell played with me, who’s been with Duke and many other people. In fact, Aaron was originally supposed to make the trip over here with me. Now I’m using a young man, Rick Petrone—rather new in the business, but very good.
I’ve made a few recordings with other people’s groups, but not too many. Under my own name, I’ve recorded for a lot of different labels. I made five or six albums for RCA Victor; I’ve recorded for Atlantic, Verve, Kapp—oh, so many labels. Then the last couple of things I did were on the Warner Brothers label, the most recent being a live recording at the London House in Chicago. This was a few years ago, and I’m hoping now that I’ll be bringing out a new album when I go back to the States.
The current film, Lady Sings The Blues, prompts me to mention the fact that I knew Billie Holiday rather well at one point. And I had the distinct honour and great pleasure of accompanying her on television on The Today Show, which is on very early, seven o’clock in the morning, in New York. The man conducting the show at that time was Dave Garroway. This was just a few months before Billie died. I have a tape of that, which, as ,you can imagine, I treasure tremendously. She did all the great tunes on it—“God Bless The Child” and so on; she spoke on it, too, in an interview by Dave Garroway. So it’s really something I would never part with.
But isn’t it fantastic that there has been such a renaissance of interest in Billy? It’s just so overwhelming. Certainly, it’s a pity she didn’t have this respect and adulation when she was alive. She had such a horrible life. Part of it was her own unhappy conditioning, I guess. How strange that now everyone knows who Billie Holiday was. People are getting rich on this film, and it’s made Diana Ross a star—which I’m sure she deserves.
I haven’t seen the film, but I’m sure she’s absolutely super in it, from what I’ve heard. Anyway, I’m glad that it’s happening, because no one deserves it more than Billie, even at this late stage.
I suppose jazz is still a minority music, though. Now, I just went back to work a year or so ago, after not working for several years. My lay–off was for a couple of reasons, one of which was that I remarried and had a child, and therefore wanted to be at home, rather than travelling. Another reason was that there was no place to work.
When rock music came in, in the early ‘sixties, it seemed that that rather took over, and everything was discotheques. All the music rooms just seemed to close up and fade away. Jazz survived underground in New York, but certainly nothing like it was before. For a long time the whole thing was really very dormant.
I’m most happy to say that it’s really coming back now, I feel. People are once again vitally interested in jazz; more music rooms are opening, and seem to be doing well. Even the younger musicians who are playing rock music seem to be far more influenced by jazz than they were previously. All in all, it’s a healthy situation for jazz and for music generally.
In New York today, there are big rooms that feature the big names, and smaller rooms featuring lesser–known people, but it’s all part of the jazz picture. So that if people want to go out and hear some jazz, now they have a choice. There’s the new Half Note. For years it was way downtown in a remote area of Greenwich Village; it was so far out of the way that it was very hard to find. Also, it was rather a dreary area, which meant that lots of people didn’t want to go there, even though they would have wanted to hear the music. Now the club has moved Uptown; it’s located very centrally, and it’s great. All the best people are being featured there. That in itself is a tremendously important development.
I went to work last August, actually. I opened at a place called Michael’s Pub, which is fashioned after an English pub. It was originally a restaurant, with no music at all. I was contracted for a three–week engagement, but it was quite successful–and I ended up staying until the end of December, something like five months. And it was lots of fun. The fact that I was on the scene again, plus the fact that New York was starting to be jazz–orientated again, made the whole thing come together in such a marvellous way for me. I got all kinds of good press reviews.
The place being primarily a restaurant, it wasn’t maybe as quiet as one would have liked early in the evening. But as the evening progressed, then the music–lovers would come in; by the time we went on for the last time, it would be nice and quiet, and it was really terrific. I’m looking forward to going back there in May.
Copyright © 1973 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved