Balancing creativity and commercialism
Variety and its virtues
How to succeed
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1983
There are various views about a jazz player’s relationship to his audience, but would you agree that it is a pity that styles should be followed that have the result of alienating many listeners?
Yes, I would. People come in to support the musicians, to help them to have a livelihood—but they chase them away.
Free form playing never did appeal to me personally. Not from a performance point of view. Oh, I enjoy listening to some of it, but it’s not for me; I don’t feel that I personally want to give my time to it. High harmonics? Occasionally I might go up and touch something, if the spirit hits me. I’m not saying that it’s forbidden; I might do it for a certain feeling, but very judiciously. I’m not putting it down; I just don’t feel it for me. I can appreciate, objectively, things in other people that I wouldn’t ever care to be associated with.
Obviously, there are a few musicians who feel they have to shout and scream, sure. It didn’t just start—it started years and years ago. I guess it’s become more pronounced now. However, I don’t feel akin to that kind of thing—black or white or rich or poor—because I have another point of view: one that just sort of washes that all away. I believe that all men are created equal; we all have the same opportunities—whether we take advantage of them or not is up to us.
It’s good that there are sufficient jazz men like yourself, playing in a straight–ahead manner, to counteract that kind of damage.
Well I must say, what we do is out of a heartfelt motive. Of course, we want to make a living when we play, but we don’t do it just for that. I have to play and write what I feel in my heart; I can’t do it with the object of pleasing the people. Yes, I hope they like it—but if they don’t, it’s too bad. It’s got to be what I feel; otherwise it would be a lie. I’ve got to be fair to myself, and what I want to do. And, with divine guidance, I’m able to have a broader and deeper viewpoint, that goes beyond what we see in front of our eyes. By being at peace with myself, I can avoid any kind of subterfuge. I can concentrate on what I’m doing, and not become involved in political alliances, racial hatreds and things like that—that’s a total waste of time. I don’t even address myself to those things, unless somebody pins me down. I ignore it.
What is the ratio in your work now between creative endeavours in the jazz field and, as you might say, work for money?
That’s a good way to put it, and actually ... it varies, but about fifty–fifty now. For eight years I was so enmeshed in my composing for TV series that I didn’t even open my saxophone case, and I didn’t write anything in the jazz idiom. But now I’ve turned out quite a few jazz things; so in the moments where I’m not making any money for myself I’m trying out these songs, one after the other, and I’m sending some to different friends of mine.
The way my tunes got around when I first started out: I was a travelling musician; I mean, I was out all the time, with Earl Bostic, Bull Moose Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, and I would always take my songs. We went to a lot of places—and I’d just leave ‘em around! I guess if you leave enough around, something’s bound to happen—and they caught on that way. I’m not travelling that much now; so I have to resort to the mail.
In your commercial work, you write for large orchestras, and inevitably some of your voicings must stem from your jazz background. But is there any likelihood of our hearing from you—even for a potential album—some scores for a large jazz ensemble?
You’re asking me some very provocative questions here—things that have been going through my mind.
Strange—are you sure you can’t read minds? I did a lot of big band writing, and small band, and a lot of composition after I first came to New York. Recently I haven’t done any ‘big band’ writing, for the five saxes, four trombones and five trumpets ... I’ve done some, yeah, for the kids up at Monterey, and for the North Texas band. I’ve done some rock–oriented things, of the kind Buddy Rich played. But certainly, most of the thrust of what I’ve been doing since I came out to California has been the large orchestral things, with the strings, woodwinds and all that.
But I’ve been thinking ... seven or eight years ago, BS bought the Fender company and at that time they were getting into many things; for them I wrote three, I think it was, big band charts that went to stage bands in high schools and colleges everywhere. Then another outfit, out of Maryland, came by, and I wrote more for the stage band series—and I thought: “Why don’t I do this for myself?” And what I think I’m going to do is: write big band arrangements on “Killer Joe”, “I Remember Clifford”, “Stablemates”, “Whisper Not”, and some of the newer pieces I’ve written—with the hope that maybe somebody might want to play Benny Golson’s arrangement of this or that. And start shipping some of them out.
I did do one book for Jamey Aebersold on some of my songs. Maybe I’ll put out some things like that on my own. I think I should—and when I say that, I’m thinking about the time when I was coming up as a kid; we didn’t have any of that—you’d have to buy the records, and copy it off, to get what you heard. So any time any student approaches me, or any college—and a lot of ‘em have—about using one of my songs for the students, I always do it, and it doesn’t cost them any money. Because I remember the days when I was a student, we didn’t have the opportunities to do that. I would want to fix it so that if the student felt that he wanted to play things of mine ...
obviously, it wouldn’t be only mine; it would be everybody’s, because they’re all doing it ... then he would have the opportunity to do it.
It seems totally logical to me—you have all these themes, which so many other people have utilised, but you yourself are thoroughly skilled in orchestration as well as composing, and should be contributing that in jazz.
Yes, I definitely have the desire to do it—it’s just a matter of having sufficient time to do it.
The sad reality of the present day, of course, is that for you and other talented artists jazz is only a sideline. Economically, very few people are able to support themselves wholly from it.
You’re right—the remuneration being so much greater in the commercial writing field. But I also feel that I don’t want to discard my playing—because I’ve discovered that, in the end, I do really love it. I thought I was going to give it all up, but I’m glad I didn’t sell that horn and that mouthpiece. During that interim non–playing period, I remember I would hear a group somewhere, and my foot would start patting—and mentally I was up there playing with them. I was worn out at the end of the set! So I saw the positive need to come back into it to satisfy that void.
Well, thank goodness it’s now viable for you to spend some segments of your time as a performer.
It didn’t happen overnight—I got out there slowly.
When you go from here to there slowly, you tend to know what exists between here and there—you’ve had a chance to examine it thoroughly. You have to use your wisdom, and make sure that you’re associating with wise people, and not wasting your time. When it comes to promoters, we need the kind who have a lot on the ball—not the ones who are just after the dollar. I’m happy to know a particular guy over here who has integrity—he has taken a loss from time to time on projects that he felt had to be done.
In an era when mediocrity reigns supreme, we’ve never needed such people more. Musical values just have to break through.
And we certainly need the integrity that you have—you bring the truth to your readers in a clear, unobstructed way. All the elements are important for what we’re trying to do; if any one of them breaks down, it makes it all the harder. A musician doesn’t like to be taken advantage of in any way—but it happens so much, with corrupt promoters, or something will come out in a magazine and it’s angled and contorted out of its true shape.
Listening to the right recordings is very important. Since getting back on the scene, have you put much on record yet?
Only in Japan, sad to say recently—about half a dozen albums, including some with Art Farmer and the Jazztet. Now, I signed with Columbia (CBS) Records after I came back in ‘77, and I did two albums on which I played soprano saxophone—I didn’t even play tenor—and I was trying to get into the rock/ jazz kind of thing.
But that was a catastrophe—I tried, and I died! They finally let me go, thankfully—I didn’t want to do any more of that. I simply couldn’t play it well—I guess my heart wasn’t really in it. Although I like a lot of the rock music, I was not able to play in that idiom myself. It sounded terrible—two albums, and that was enough. Lots of money too, but I had to let it go: “This is not for me—let me go back to the bebop”. And I’m back where I feel good, and where I belong. This is it. So I’ll go as far as I can with that; where that’ll be, I have no idea—but I’m not going to stop. I’ll wind up somewhere, and hopefully, people will like it.
Well, I hope the jazz opportunities will open up for you, both as a player and as a writer.
Thank you. It has been kind to me up to now, and if it continues on that course, it’ll be fine.
Copyright © 1983, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.