Bill, Bob and Brass
gets harder all the time
Of great bands and magic moments
Bill, Bob and Brass
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1974
I’ve tried all kinds of things with bands, for records, radio and appearances. But the present band that we’ve got is my favourite, I think. Bobby Midgley, Alan Metcalfe and I—we thought about this eleven years ago. Our idea being to have a band consisting purely of brass, helping the rhythm section along. Featuring myself, but with nine brass pushing it, instead of just the drummer doing it. I always had this vision. We put the idea up to the BBC at the time, and they said it wasn’t a viable proposition; I was very disappointed.
Years went on; then one day John Hooper phoned me. and he said: “Bill. would you like to do a date?” I said. “Yes. What sort of combination?” He said: “Anything you like.” I said: ‘You’re joking, John.” He said: “No—any combination you like.” So I said: “Can I have nine brass and one saxophone?” “Sure” he says—and that was how this band started.
And I phoned Bobby, Alan and Bob Burns. Because I planned to call it Bill, Bob and Brass. The boys couldn’t believe it; I said: “Well, at least we’ve got it off the ground for a broadcast.” We went into the studio on that first one, and, after we’d only played one number, I said to John Hooper: “How’s it going?” He says: “You haven’t got it in your contract, but that’s down for a repeat—I’m booking it now. It’s too good to miss.” Since then—touch wood—we’ve done lots of records and lots of broadcasts.
It’s called the Bill McGuffie Big Band—but I’ll always think of it as Bill, Bob and Brass. I’d like to call it Bill, Bob and Greg Bowen and Johnny McLevy and all the boys that are in it, because we’re all ,part of it.
Most of the writing for it is mine. On our last date, I asked Angela Morley to do one for us. Also ,Gordon Franks did one. Derek Warne wrote us a couple of originals. I’ve done the rest. The idea basically was to have a band that swung all the way.
The small unit is featured: it’s going along, and then, bang! nine brass; hits you like that. But to make it swing —this was it. I’ve got such players as Greg, who swings like a bomb in himself. All great people—Bill Geldard, Bobby Lamb in the trombones, Alfie Reece on tuba—who knocks me out. We thoroughly enjoy ourselves on our sessions.
As for live shows, we’ve played for dancing so far, but we’d like to do some concerts. The band is a little bit different, I think; we don’t copy anyone—we just choose the right numbers, and try and swing. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no greater thrill than to hear a band swing. Really, it’s wonderful: the whole vibrance is there, and you can see everybody trying like mad to make it swing even more. It’s happened a lot of times in my life. I’m glad to say—with Wally Stott’s band, with the Show Band, with Benny Goodman. Yes, sometimes it takes the rhythm section to make it happen. Well, I’m still trying; if it’s swinging, it’s bound to go.
Pianists who knock me out? Well, I think Bill Evans is marvellous; not that his is a swinging style—it’s just beautiful noise he makes. But I like to play the way Bill plays, too—there’s another side to me as well. I love beautiful chords and things. Like Alan Clare is a knock–out that way—he plays some superb sounds. Pete Jolly I like, and some of John Bunch.
I remember playing with John one night at my wife’s mother’s house. That was nice; it’s interesting to see how different pianists approach the same thing. And Alan Branscombe’s playing I adore. I don’t only love to swing; I just love my instrument.
I believe Stan Tracey is saying something; I like Stan’s stuff, though I don’t always agree with it. But he’s trying, and it’s his own idea. Good luck to him—sometimes I think it’s marvellous. And Monk said an awful lot, I think; I couldn’t understand his… what I call just banging for no reason at all. You know—he meant it, but I couldn’t see the reason for it. I liked it.
Bud Powell I like. Peterson I love. I love Peterson sometimes when he hardly plays anything. You know what I mean? Just tinkles. This is another side of Oscar I love. Oh, in the early days, he never stopped—but now, playing delicate things by people like Jim Webb and Jobim, that’s how I like to hear him. Although I still love it when he goes haywire. Erroll Garner’s marvellous, too; I met him once, and he’s an awful nice guy. Oh, there’s so many good piano players that I like. I think they’ve all got a lot to say, and they all say it different ways.
When I sit down myself, I suppose I must play something of all of them. But I have certain voicings and certain cadences that I use, that appeal to me. I think we all do that. I enjoy myself sometimes not being technical, just playing nice things, like Alan Clare does, my way. Probably, anybody listening would never even recognise the tune—but I know what the tune is, and I’m enjoying it. You know, hearing what one tries to do with melody lines; this is my kicks.
And when I play with the quintet, with Johnny McLevy on trumpet, or even with the quartet, we try to make it go with as much swing as possible.
I have the moments when I take tunes like “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside”—because that’s a gorgeous thing, played so slow. I remember the first time I ever tried to broadcast it. I played it through, and the producer said: “Oh, that’s really beautiful, Bill. What’s it called?” He’d never heard it that way before. Then sometimes, with an ordinary tune, my classical side comes in—I love to play it with a classical sort of feel. This is a kick, as well.
But when it comes to what I call playing jazz, it’s got to swing. I never profess to be a great jazz player, but if I play something and the boys say: “That was great”, I come home as, proud as ninepence. At the same time, I’m not liking what I did, but at least I’ve been trying, and they’ve appreciated it. You know—they don’t have to say it. And when Benny Goodman kisses you on the cheek and says: “Oh—man”, that’s just a great thrill—you can’t believe it.
As for Zoot Sims, I never used to play much when he was soloing with the ‘Goodman Sextet. I just liked to listen to Zoot, and leave it to Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar, because they knew each other so well. Accompanying him is wonderful, but you get more fun just listening to Zoot—that tone just knocks me out. After I heard him play Johnny Mandel’s “Emily” for the first time, I orchestrated it for the big band. The boys hadn’t heard it before, either. But Zoot plays any tune like that beautifully. Have you heard him play Rod McKuen’s “Jean”? It’s something else.
A good tune must get home to you. If a musician doesn’t see it, why play it? Another thing about good tunes, too—if you don’t know the lyric, you’ll never really play that tune well. Sometimes the lyric has an awful lot more to say than the beautiful melody.
So if you know them both, you’re thinking of the lyric when you’re playing it. Like, with the kind of beautiful phrasing that Sinatra does, the melody takes on a completely new sphere—but it’s the lyric that does that.
I get people ask me to help them to sing. The first song I give them is “My Funny Valentine”. I say: “If you can sing that, you’ll sing anything”. Because when you think about that lyric—that’s quite a song. And the emotion in that song teaches any singer, I think. If they can’t really see that lyric—how can they see any other? That’s what I think to myself.
And yet sometimes, in my opinion, you hear great singers sing that song badly, according to the way I feel about it, but then on another number they sound fine. I say: “Why did they sing that better than ‘My Funny Valentine’?” Everything is said in that lyric—it’s one of the nicest I’ve ever read in my life. “Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak, when you open it to speak?“—this is sheer poetry. Another one like that is “Little Girl Blue”. So when you’re playing a good tune, you should always look and see what the lyric says. If the lyric’s good, when you play it you automatically play the lyric as well, instead of just a melody. Which alters the phrasing of the melodic line. Instead of saying “Is your fig—ure less than Greek?” evenly spaced, as it’s written, you would say: “Is–your–fig’r . . . less–than–Greek?” You know, this means so much when you’re playing the melody, and you’ve got this rhythm section just pushing it along in front —you can take as long as you want to say those words, although the notation is beautiful.
Now, sometimes when I score, I go on and leave empty beats for the band, just to say the word. There’s one arrangement we do, of “Lollipops And Roses”, which I scored exactly as the lyric is written. The phrasing of the melodic line is all over the place, but it sounds great, because it’s the actual lyric put down with the notation. And it’s funny—if you just join the notes together to say that sentence, you find that you’ve gone maybe nine beats without anything happening, because you feel that you would sing it that way. The boys are waiting for it, too, and you find a special warmth in the band when they’re playing it that way.
Some of them tell me now that when someone says: “Play ‘Lollipops And Roses’,” they can’t play it the way it’s written any more; they start thinking about the lyric, and they play it my way. It feels right that way. They say: “I can’t hear that tune any other way now!” Johnny Franz taught me a lot about this; he came in as an A and R man when I started recording for Philips.
I have great respect for John; he’s a wonderful piano player, and the greatest accompanist in the business, I think. I mean, people like William Walton just used to go to hear John accompanying Anne Shelton, because he’s so fantastic. Also, when he’s teaching a song to a singer, he phrases it for them. I learned a lot from John, just listening to how he played the lyric. And he’d just drop little hints here and there: “You wouldn’t say that that way, would you? So why play it that way?” And it means so much. It goes back even to some of my teachers, who showed me how to flip the note—to make that note say more.
People tell me I grunt while I’m playing these days, but it’s actually singing the phrase, and it’s grown over the years. I’ve got to sing it to myself, to try and get emotion. When I’m practising at home sometimes, I’m sure people outside in the street think I’m crazy—but it’s me trying to be emotional ! A whole section of music will affect me like that. But I don’t feel so bad about it when I hear people like Oscar, Erroll, and Max Harris—he’s another grunter. They always try to get Max and I in the same band! And it happened once; we had a group where Max and I were on two pianos—so it was double grunts! When you hear other people do it, you don’t feel quite so embarrassed about it.
Copyright © 1974, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.