Audiences are more openminded now
Woman's Angle on Jazz
Audiences are more open-minded now
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1973
My reason for returning to London after three or four years was that I’m touring with Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, and we played two concerts at the Albert Hall. It was very thrilling playing there, I must say—what a beautiful auditorium it is! My link–up with Kris and Rita came about originally because my husband, Bert Block, is their manager; that’s how I met them. But our musical association started when I recorded some things with Rita on A&M Records, and musically Rita and I found a lot in common, had a great time, enjoyed it very much.
Then Kris asked me if I wouldn’t like to do a spot on some of the tours. My first reaction was to say “NO”, because I didn’t think that the musical styles were going to be compatible at all. Essentially, what Kris does is far removed from what I do; his is a country/rock sound—I suppose that’s what you’d call it: it’s very difficult for me these days to label and identify all the different kinds of country, rock, POP, or whatever. Anyway, being a jazz musician, I felt that his audiences would not respond well to my music; so I was rather hesitant about. it. But Kris thought that it was a very good idea to try it. I was travelling with my husband on this particular tour, and Kris said: “Why don’t we give it a try?” I said : “Okay, we’ll try it once, and if it doesn’t work, well, we’ll just forget it.” As it happened, it has worked out extremely well.
I just do a very small cameo part of the show, maybe fifteen minutes or so in the second half. But I get a chance to play some blues and stuff, and it’s really a lot of fun. And it does go well with their audiences, because it’s maybe a little different sound, and it’s unexpected—they do react very nicely to it. I’ve been enjoying it a lot. Yes, I do a spot with Rita also—and I don’t play any differently than I would at any other time. I mean, I don’t tailor my playing to fit this particular situation. I play, you know, the way I play—good or bad! Rita definitely does have a feeling for jazz. She loves good songs, and a lot of the old standard jazz things, many of which she’s learned—and it’s great fun. In the show right now she sings “Fever”, one of the things that she recorded a couple of years ago, and we do a long, slow blues—“Stormy Monday Blues”. Then we do some of Kris’s stuff.
But isn’t it lovely that audiences are so much more open–minded, so unconcerned with musical labels now? Oh, I’m crazy about that. I suppose what I’m doing with Kris and Rita is a perfect example of it. They’re not saying: “Oh this is jazz, and we don’t like it, because we’re here to hear country music.” I like the idea of people responding to what they hear. If they like it, terrific; if they don’t, they don’t. That thing about labelling everything, tying it up in a neat little package—I just don’t feel it’s right to do that with music.
Of course, travelling with Kris and Rita is not all I’ve been doing. I’ve been working with my own groups, recording, playing some concerts of my own, doing television and things. Usually, I work with a bass player and drummer; I find that that’s a very good situation for me—it gives me enough freedom. Playing with a bass and a drummer is better for me than a bass and guitar; I feel that it’s less restrictive. Having the rhythmic thing of the drums restricts me less than having the harmonic chord changes that a guitarist would necessarily be playing.
Oh, you heard the new album? I wish you had the one I did last year for the same company, and I think you absolutely must get after United Artists, and get them to issue it over here. It came out on the Blue Note label, which is the jazz division of United Artists. On that album, I did a more traditional piano–bass–drums thing, where I played a lot of standards and some original themes. 1 thought it was a pretty good album, actually; I was rather pleased with it.
Now, the one you’re referring to is my most recent one; it’s called “From The Beginning”, and that’s on the United Artists label. On this one we tried to achieve maybe a little more of a contemporary sound, using a large orchestra on some of the cuts. But I must say, I had the best musicians in New York working with me on that album. Ron Carter, Steve Gadd, Richard Davis, Hugh McCracken—I mean, you can’t do any better than that. I had the best rhythm section, the greatest string players. And, of course, Ron wrote one of the songs, a thing called “Blues Country”–he wrote it, arranged it, conducted it, and plaved bass on it. I played Fender Rhodes electric piano on that particular cut. I was very thrilled about the musicians who played on that record date with me; they were absolutely brilliant. On some of them, I still used just the piano with rhythm section. I did some original songs, I did Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely? “, and I tried to make rather a variety of repertoire there.
We labelled the album “From The Beginning” because that was my tune, and I liked the title, I guess. You know when you have a rehearsal, they say: “Okay, let’s take it one more time, from the beginning”—so that’s where that came from. It had good things on it. For instance, I loved the arrangement Jimmy Wisner did on “Satire”, with a sort of a classical feel to begin with, and then going into a jazz feel: Richard Davis played bass—he sounds just wonderful on it.
It was a great thrill to record the whole thing, because there was a lot of work involved; it wasn’t just going into a studio and saying: “Okay, let’s wail”–it was far more of a production than that. I’d never done anything quite like that. And the idea behind it was to reach a little broader audience perhaps, and maybe produce an album that might be played not only on the jazz stations but also on stations that don’t just specialise in playing jazz. To some degree. I guess that has happened. Hopefully, this kind of thing initiates some people to jazz. I notice that there’s been very good response from the college students, from young people of that age, who maybe when they were younger were rock music fans, and then when they get a little bit older, they turn on to jazz. I love to see that happen.
Yes, you do have to strike a delicate balance—I know exactly what you mean. One doesn’t want to go too far overboard. And the most important thing—speaking for myself, at least, I did not want to do anything in which I didn’t believe: I wanted to play my way, and not try to do something strictly for purposes of attracting this mythical wider audience. I wanted to attract the wider audience, if I could do it within the framework of what I was doing, and do it honestly. Whether we were successful or not, I don’t know, but—yes, I would say that I am happy with the way it turned out. I was going to make one or two reservations there—but the trouble is, I’m very picky about anything I do. It’s a different slant on me; yet at the same time we didn’t diverge completely, because there are at least three tracks on the album that are with the same kind of basic rhythm section I use when I work. So I had more chance to play, actually, on those particular tracks.
As for my bebop influence—who’s playing today, who was playing in the 1950s. who hasn’t been influenced by bebop? I don’t mind being termed a bebop player—I consider it a high compliment. I haven’t heard the term used too much in reference to me, or to most people recently. But bebop has invaded every sphere of music, you know: I don’t think you can be any kind of a jazz player today, and not have been influenced by Charlie Parker, and by Dizzy, and by Thelonious Monk, etcetera–right? I mean, that was the revolution, and we have all learned from the bebop era. We have all absorbed that kind of thing, and it’s a part of what we do now. Even the rock musicians have been influenced by the bebop players, whether they know it or not. It’s a natural evolution of things.
If there’s any kind of a bebop revival, I, for one, am delighted about it, because I love to listen to it. I always found it particularly interesting music, and the good players in that idiom were the best, the most influential, the most marvellous. So I’ll listen to good bebop any time. I think during that era one of the problems was that perhaps the rapport between the players and the audience may have left something to be desired. There was a time when there was a sort of hostility between the musicians and the audience, when people would play with their backs turned, and so forth. That—in the United States, at least—turned off a lot of the jazz fans. But as far as the music is concerned—wow! All those wonderful Bird transcriptions that are coming out—isn’t that great? I’m so happy for all of that stuff, because it must be treasured, you know. It’s all so important, and we should never lose it. It should he required listening for all young musicians.
I also applaud the continued or revived use of the acoustic piano. Look at someone like Keith Jarrett, for instance, who is a brilliant talent, and will have nothing to do with electronic music. I love what he does; I’m a great admirer of that kind of solo piano playing—on the Blue Note album I referred to I did a couple of piano solos. But Keith doesn’t resort to anything of an electric nature; he’s playing on the good old acoustic piano. I must say: the electric piano is a nice little toy. It’s the frosting on the cake, but it’s not the cake, is it? At least, not for me; I find that it’s not satisfying enough.
In order to really feel like I’m playing, I have to have a good old–fashioned acoustic piano. Don’t you love those terms now? I mean, it used to be that a piano was a piano— now it’s an acoustic piano. I find myself saying that, because it’s become a necessity.
So—the acoustic piano is the most satisfying. Once in a while, in certain situations, a nice electric piano can do the trick. For instance, on that “Blues Country” I mentioned, the one that Ron Carter wrote, it fitted in the context of that arrangement—the way Ron wrote it, the kind of instrumentation he had. Actually, we tried it on acoustic piano first, and I didn’t like the way it sounded—there was something wrong, it just didn’t make it, I couldn’t play it, I didn’t feel good about it. Then I played the Fender Rhodes on it, and it just seemed right. So, for that particular situation, it was right. However, as a steady diet, I think I would find it not too nutritious.
Again, synthesisers are terrific, in the right place, I haven’t gotten into them too much. I feel that I can control what I’m playing more on an acoustic piano, that I can express myself dynamically and every other way.
You can control the note by the kind of pressure you apply, whereas with an electronic instrument it’s quite difficult to do that. No matter how you play it, it sounds one way. These shadings, that you can develop, the question of running the whole spectrum, the whole range of dynamics, as you can on an acoustic piano—you cannot do these things by electronics.
If you can, I’d like someone to show me how! I’ve never been able to do it, at least. I don’t have that kind of antagonism towards electronic instruments; I feel they have their place in the overall scheme of things, and it’s terrific—if they’re not overdone.
I think that music generally is at a very good place today. It’s a healthy time for jazz musicians, and young players should be very pleased with what’s happening.
eing 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 © 1978 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved