Our pop music was on a much higher level
says Teddy Wilson
Goodman and Reginald Kell
On tour with a British Big Band
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1970
Some of the reviews of the original Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet said we were making jazz more sophisticated, but if you listen to some of the earlier groups, like Bix Beiderbecke, Ed Lang and Joe Venuti, or the Louis Armstrong Hot Five, Earl Hines on piano—I wouldn't say what we were doing was more advanced than that. You play what you feel, you know. I'm just not as force ful a piano player as Hines or Fats Waller. That's the only thing there that might make you say it had more polish.
I never played a real driving style like Earl. Armstrong had a tremendous power in his music—which was a big influence on him. Earl is a very strong piano player his time is very definite, very powerful, and he has a very keen sense of rhythm when he plays.
It was nice to see Lionel in London last year; the previous time I had seen him was when we worked together on an out door programme in Rochester, New York. I remember it was a very hot day in the summer of 1968. I keep track of him, though; different fans tell me they saw Lionel somewhere. Incidentally, he and Benny inaugurated the summer concert se ries in Central Park last June. I wasn't on it, but I know that the initial programme featured both their groups.
That 1964 record date, "Together Again", with the old Quartet reconstituted, came out very well. Yes, I was very happy with that album. An interesting thing about it, I think, is that Lionel's playing showed more change than that of my self, Gene or Benny. Lionel is a little more contemporary than we are, but there's no drastic change. It’s just that there are certain little harmonic refinements, some nice little patterns and things that have become more in vogue over the years; Lionel is using them, whereas Benny, Gene or I don't. We play more of the same way we did back in the 'thirties. Lionel hasn't made any basic style changes; anything he's added is for the better. But there's no change to his actual foundation whatsoever. Which is the way it should be.
It's a great pity that the old Goodman band never toured Europe. You'd have really seen something. On some of those performances we used to put on at the Paramount Theatre, the kids'd jump up in the aisles and dance and scream and holler. They'd destroy the seats of the theatre jumping up and down in them. You should have seen what was going on in ‘36 and ‘37—they were riots, really. Just as the Beatles and the rock groups have excited kids in these times, we excited their fathers or grandfathers. They re acted silly, too, when they were twenty. Well, not silly—they'd just get caught up in the music. Younger people react to music more than when they're older, that’s all.
When we played a theatre, you wouldn't believe the damage after we finished. They'd come and stay all day, too—bring their lunch, stay away from school. And all during the movie they'd talk. .See, they had films and then the stage show. You couldn't hear the movie for the kids' chattering; then, when the band came gradually rising up out of the pit, playing the theme song, they just went crazy.
And one thing I do feel is that the pop music we wer playing in the 'thirties was on a much higher musical level than the young people's music today. This rock is like kindergarten music, whereas we were at the collegiate or graduation stage. What these people are doing is baby music. I can't get interested in it at all musically. It's like a college man going back and reading c a t spells cat; it's that simple.
Its main interest, I find, is as a sociological phenomenon. It's a music that brings together many, many cultures.
From the wealthiest socialites to the poorest sharecropper in Tennessee or the Negro in the deep South to the teenagers in England—all can get with this rock music. So this has to be examined.
As a common denominator for people of various economic classes and age groups, it must be healthy. It breaks down the colour lines; you find kids at Harvard who love Lou Rawls, the backwoods music of the South, Beatle music.
There's something happening there—but not in a musical sense.
Maybe the drum rhythms are infectious, but they're not interesting to a jazz drummer. Jazz music and classical mu sic are much more complex technically, and express a much wider variety of feelings than rock music. Certain techniques are called for in jazz that you just don't need in rock.
Yes, jazz has brought a lot of different people together, too. But the type of music 1 play is a highly developed thing based on that folk stuff. And this also applies to written jazz—you take what Fletcher Henderson was writing for Benny Goodman and his own band, back in the 'twenties; his music was much more advanced than the earthy type of music that is in such popular vogue today.
Honestly, a lot of us became jazz musicians when we were children because we got so tired of what was really good folk music, through hearing so much of it in the South of the United States. The religious music; the pop music of the region. I was born in Texas and raised in Alabama—I got so tired of this stuff, by the time I was eight years old I was ready for jazz music, you know. Or classical music. Because that other stuff was all you heard down there. But it was imported North in 1953 by a disc jockey; a man named Alan Freed brought it to Cleveland, Ohio, where people had never heard it.
People like myself grew up with it; the Beatles and the Dylan groups picked up on it long after we'd got sick of it.
What I'm finding now, interestingly, is that I'm getting across to some young people with my music.
Copyright © 1970, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.