Talking to Les Tomkins in 1965
Do you have definite reasons for playing valve trombone? Yes. I’ve more or less got stuck with it. I played slide for a number of years, but I seemed to gravitate towards the valve trombone.
A lot of trombonists seem to be somewhat prejudiced towards it. They all are, yes.
They tend to think that it isn’t expressive enough. Ah, they’re a vicious bunch.
You find you can say more on it than slide? Well, I can play it better, It’s a kind of a hard question to answer. Can I have an easier question, please? Do you have anything about animals?
Which came first—the piano or the trombone? I started on trombone when I was 13, and I started playing piano a little when I was 16. I play it a bit less than that now.
On a lot of your albums, you do seem to have been making a point of featuring several piano things. It’s not really so much by choice. It just seems that it might sound better. Unfortunately, I pick out the tune first. Then I’ve got to figure out a way to do it. And many tunes that I’ve wound up playing on piano, for better or worse, have been chosen for trombone. But I decided they sounded better on piano. Well—nobody’s perfect.
An album you made in 1958, one of your most enjoyable, is “Traditionalism Revisited”. What do I think about that? Well, sir, I’m glad you asked. There were two very good friends of mine on that—Giuffre and Jim Hall, who are also marvellous musicians. So it was a labour of love. That’s much less possible now than it was then. Now it’s more a labour of trying to sell more albums.
Your piano treatment of “Truck–in” swings all the way. That turned out well, yes. Except for the last major. Had trouble with that.
This link with the past seems to come through in all your work. It’s just part of your make-up, is it? I suppose—yes. It’s not conscious. It’s not like pimping on the past. Or pimping on the future, for that matter. It’s up to the critics to pick out words and categories. I find it hard enough and challenging enough just to try to play, and to write.
Any other album you’re specially pleased with? Yes. “Gloomy Sunday and Other Bright Moments”—I’m very proud of that. It was a large band—17 or 18 pieces. Eddie Sauter, Ralph Burns, Gary McFarland, and I wrote it, I was happy with it. The public wasn’t happy with it. They didn’t buy many copies. But that’s why you make bossa nova albums, you see.
What are your feelings about the bossa nova idiom? It belongs to Brazil. You have to realise that the bossa nova craze, or fad, or idiom, was created expressly for the purpose of making money. It’s not fun—it’s for money. And that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. If a record comes off well musically, and is also commercially feasible—why, then, you made a success of it. But it’s usually lacking in one department or the other. You either have made too good an album musically, and made a commercial failure, or vice versa.
Your compositions were very good—such as the “Blues Bossa Nova”. That was a residue from Clark Terry and our band.
How long has your band with Clark been going? It’ll be four years in August. We’re having a party. Would you care to come?
Thank you. How did it come about? The Half Note asked us to play down there. Gerry Mulligan’s big band broke up in July of 1961. I guess they were short of a band for a week, so they asked Clark and me to come down and form one. So we did, and we’re stuck with it now. We enjoy it also.
What’s the group’s philosophy? Just to play good, swinging jazz? Yes, I suppose. We’re saving to buy new uniforms, though. Our ties wore out.
Do you hope to concentrate more on writing than playing in the future? I would love to. I much prefer to write—for kicks, and also for money sometimes. The opportunity isn’t open right now, but I hope it soon will be. I haven’t written too much since Benny Goodman’s Russian trip. I’ve been mainly occupied with playing in Gerry’s groups, and with Clark.
Quite a lot of big band LPs seem to contain some of your arrangements. Well, as I say, nobody’s perfect.
You appear to be called upon to write by quite a few leaders. Not nearly enough—but some, yes! Well, I’m glad the impression is prevalent.
Are there any kind of things you’d like to write for, that you haven’t done yet? Oh, yes. I would love to get into movie writing—motion picture scores, or possibly the right kind of television scores. Writing in general—any kind of writing.
Do you ever return to your birthplace, Kansas City, these days? I have to go back two or three times a year. My parents still live there. Poor old crippled darlings that they are!
I understand you’re a fan of the Goon shows. I’m an addict, yes. So is Zoot Sims. He introduced me to those records. And he took them away—and I haven’t been well since. I’m getting some more now, so I’m feeling much better today, thank you.
Copyright ©1965 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved