Talking to Les Tomkins in 1981
My two major influences on flugelhorn have been Shorty Rogers and Art Farmer. Art, I felt, was a little more deeply involved jazz player than Shorty—more into music harmonically. As far as I can recall, the first I heard Art was with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet; to this day, he’s still one of my favourite jazz players of all time. He’s underrated, I would say, as far as the recognition he deserves is concerned, but that’s an ageold story in this business. He’s certainly made the flugelhorn his own thing—to my knowledge, he hasn’t even played on a trumpet in years. I’ve been tempted to do the same thing myself—although in the last yearandahalf or so I’ve started to get inter-ested in playing jazz on the trumpet again.
For many years I really loathed playing jazz on the trumpet—primarily because of the fact that the trumpet was something that I associated more with lead playing; it was always the instrument that I was called upon to hit high notes with and things like that. At the same time, my equipment—the instrument and the mouthpiece—were set up more along those lines, and they didn’t really offer the kind of flexibility, sound qualities and other attributes that you would want to be a good jazz player. So I’ve made a pretty drastic change in my whole playing concept—mostly in a gradual way.
A little over a year ago, I got on to a new horn. I started playing a Yamaha—a new prototype model that has a tribore setup.
It contains a small 448 bore, goes to a medium large 4S9, and then extends further, into the bell section, at 463 bore size. The advantage to me is that the horn seems capable of functioning at any different level. The small aspect gives you the benefits of playing in, let’s say, the classical situation—a brass quintet or something like that—where you would prefer to have a small bore horn. For the jazz thing, it opens up really nice into the middle bore. And the fact that it has the large bore coming out into the bell section opens it up for the lead playing. So it’s the first horn I’ve ever played on that really functions across the board for me.
The flugelhorn was always the instrument for me because of its warmth and the personal qualities, and because I felt reasonably comfortable playing on it, as regards flexibility and so forth. Now that I’ve made this change in the trumpet, what I have to do is get with a mouthpiece company and come up with something a little better there; I’ve been just playing random things out of an old box of mouthpieces. One of these days I’ll sit down with a manufacturer, and find something that’s really comfortable for me.
Essentially, I’m making a drastic move away from lead trumpet playing at this point in my life. The reputa-tion part of it, actually, is not something that I’m really concerned particularly about—other than the fact that it’s sensible to have a reputation so that you can work. What it’s more a matter of is artistic integrity. I’ve been playing for thirty years, and twentyeight of those years I’ve been working professionally. When I was twelve I started doing club dates. Initially, I worked with quartets—just faking tunes for dances, parties, whatever; so I kind of grew up as a jazz player, and had a nice little jazz combo of my own when I was about fifteen. Jazz was always the basic thing for me. But I kind of got shoved into that lead playing position most abruptly and most dramatically by Buddy Rich. That certainly did great things for me inasmuch as making me known and in demand for work. I spent years on the road with different bands, I lived in Las Vegas for nine years and played all those shows, I travelled around working for big stars like Elvis Presley, Paul Anka, Tom Jones. It was nice; the salaries, in most cases, were quite a surprise to me. And I was certainly learning a great deal, I can tell you—it’s a constant learning experience.
Las Vegas? Well, it was a nice stoppingoff place; it was a good education, and I think it offers good things for some musicians. But if you’re the kind of musician who really has to play, rather than the type who just wants to play, it’s not so good. I think there are definitely two different types; there are the musicians who learn to become good instrumentalists, and they want to be studio players, they want to get a nice secure job in some Las Vegas show band, make the six hundred dollars a week, and buy two big Cadillacs. In my case—I’ve always felt a really deep, spiritual need for jazz playing, and once you’ve been touched by that real understanding and feeling for creativity in that particular form—it’s something that you can never put down. I guess you become addicted to it; it becomes a lifeblood kind of thing.
My move to L. A. was in order to get away from what I considered was a wasteland for me, artistically, in ‘Vegas. When I first moved there, quite a bit of jazz playing was going on, in some little afterhours clubs—and there were certainly some incredible musicians in that town. People like Carl Fontana live there; James Moody was there. There was a trumpet player who became one of my favourites on the instrument—Carl Saunders—he and I were really kind of sidekicks for the nine years that I lived up there.
We still are the greatest of friends; he comes to Los Angeles, and it’s a hullabaloo every time we run into each other. He’s an amazing, inspiring kind of a trumpet player; he’s probably got more fluency on the instrument than anybody going. He’s done one album with Eddie Harris, and that’s basically all he’s put on record—as a matter of fact, he. works as a keyboard player at the Hilton Hotel there.
However, the opportunities to play jazz in ‘Vegas gradually declined. Each year the number of clubs got to be less and less. In the early days, they used to bring in Duke’s band, Stan Getz, Cannonball, Dizzy, Mongo Santamaria to work the lounges; there were big bands in and out of there constantly. Then the lounges started closing down, or being turned into kino parlours, casinos and things. And when the Howard Hughes thing became so prominent there, that changed the employeeemployer relations tremendously; the corporation structure became more prominent, and the human factors were disappearing. It became like some sort of an android factory. You started to feel incapable of expressing yourself artistically.
My wife was a dancer there—which, in reality, was why I was there. I was contracting for a lot of hotels, I had a lot of bands working, and I had a little music copying service for some years. A lot of activity was going on, and I was making a lot of money. I mean, that’s the trap itself—you start making huge amounts of money, and the temptation to stay there is very great. You have to go through a soulsearching experience to reestablish values. For me, it just happened like I’d been hit over the head with a hammer one night.
I will leave unmentioned the name of the man whose show I was working; it was just another dumb act, with an inconsiderate attitude towards the band. We were working for one of those insane bandleaders who wants to monopolise the industry. He had no business being in the music profession at all—he shouldn’t even be a refuse collector! We were sitting way down in the dark pit, and after the show we got reprimanded by this guy because we weren’t laughing at the comedian’s jokes. And the thing was, they weren’t jokes, because he had a routine like a tape machine; he repeated the same socalled jokes in the same order every night, two shows a night, seven nights a week and there wasn’t anything funny about it in the first place. So I thought: “Enough.” We’d been wearing funny hats, and had to tapdance, march onstage and everything else; I said: “I thought I was a musician. What is all this?” If I’d wanted to go out and be a clown, I would have pursued that. I just felt degraded by it all, and really disgusted about the condition I’d allowed myself to get into. I went home after the first show and I told my wife: “Start clearing the closets, sorting stuff out, and let’s move.” And four days later we were in L. A. I just yanked it up like a weed, you know. We leased the house quickly, gave away and sold furniture; I drove my little Porsche up into a rented truck, and surrounded it with my records, books and a few clothes. As we pulled out of town, I looked in the rear view mirror of that truck; I could see the town disappearing behind me, and it was like a huge weight was lifting off of me.
I didn’t even know what I was going to do, because I’d never really wanted to go to Los Angeles, and fight that huge populated area down there. We just figured we’d go down there anyway; it seemed the most logical move, and we had a lot of friends there. One thing led to another, and next thing I knew, I was busy in the studios—and that was certainly a lot better than being busy in the Las Vegas show rooms. But after about six years of being totally buried in the studio scene, sitting there grinding out Mork And Mindy, and show after show after show. . . I found it quite a bit like the ‘Vegas scene after a while. The same neurotic leaders were standing in front of us most of the time. Although it must be said that there are also some really great leaders. The first guy who comes to mind is Pat Williams—he’s one of the most amazing people, and really an inspiration to work with.
I’ve worked with him on Lou Grant , some Mary Tyler Moore shows and things like that.
You do run into a multitude of bad arrangers who get to do things for record dates, etc. You come in and you try to do a show, but the guy doesn’t really know how to arrange. He’s writing ridiculous things for the instrument, and he won’t listen when you try to explain that to him. He’s asking for miracles in one take, screaming and hollering because you bobbled one little note in a run—and by the time it goes on to the album anyway it’s mixed way in the background, and you couldn’t hear it if you had ears like an elephant. They just drive you nuts in there; they get into these ego things, and the worse the arranger, the less talent, the more neurotic he is, the more difficult it is to do the job, naturally. Whereas, when you work with somebody like Pat Williams, the voicings are all correct, everything works; he’s sensible, he makes everything logical—and he treats you with dignity.
That’s the whole magic, I think a musician ought to be able to be respected for the craft that he’s mastered, and be able to go and sit down and do a job with dignity.
The anonymity doesn’t matter to me—it’s the dignity that you’re allowed to do your job with, so that you can walk home and feel that you did something good and it was appreciated by the people you’re working for. That goes for any job—exactly. Why are you suddenly the scourge of the earth when you pick up a musical instrument? I’m very adamant about that whole situation, and I would like to get myself in a position to be able to do something, tactfully, about it.. I’m not really on any kind of a crusade, but it’s going to take more than one person to change that—that’s an educational thing, really. Plus it all comes from the top line of the producers, who don’t know anything about music and they hire the wrong writer for things. A guy goes in with good PR kind of backup, and if he’s a good talker he can hype his way into the job.
Comparatively, though, L. A. is a better proposition than ‘Vegas. And the thing that I really enjoyed about it is: even though you’re sitting there being treated in an undignified manner and playing a lot of real crap music, you’re in the company of some of the greatest musicians and the nicest people in the world.
I was honoured to be invited by the BBC to join the BBC Big Band in a tribute to Stan Kenton. It was quite an experience playing in the trumpet section. It was a change as it is not something I do a great deal these days. This was the more enjoyable as I have got to know the trumpet players over the years when I have appeared as guest soloist. Playing with Nigel Carter, Bill Turner, Brian Rankine and Paul Eshelby was great, like getting in a section with good friends.
It was a real kick to sit there and get the feeling that I used to get when sitting in with Maynard Ferguson and Conte Candoli in the Kenton band. You mentioned, Dennis, my playing the Kenton piece called Maynard Ferguson . And the incredible audience reaction and stomping of feet and shouting—more like an American audience than a British one. Someone after the show said to me that they never thought they would hear anyone ever attempt to play that piece again and I don’t know if anyone ever has, but I can most certainly understand why.
I hope I don’t have to play it again. This was originally written for Maynard among a series written for many of the soloists in Stan’s band. The thing about it is, it’s not the kind of piece you can go in a room and practise. If you were to do it two or three times, you would need to call an ambulance.
Concerning the charts, I had a big band in Las Vegas in 1968, for about two years or so, and as I was so much an admirer of Stan’s music I did everything I could to get Stan’s charts. We had the whole of the ‘West Side Story’, and some ‘Cuban Fire’ things. Stan gave most of his original library to the North Texas State University who put it all on microfilm. I got one chart from them, ‘Invention for Guitar and Trombone’, but we were not able to use it in the programme for the BBC show. We had enough material for a full programme but the BBC felt it was wiser to divide the programme in two parts—the music of Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Basie, etc., for first half and Kenton the second half.
An interesting thing about Stan’s band in its earlier years. It was always reckoned to be a blood bath. And, with all respect to the trumpet players, a lot of them dreaded going on it, simply because you felt that a gorilla held your face muscles. Of course, that was what made the Kenton sound big and powerful.
I remember when I was a kid, the first time I heard the band was, I guess, when I was around fourteen yeas of age. I was just totally overwhelmed by the power of it, I had never heard a band quite like it. I stared in amazement.
It was an unforgettable experience. I used to grab every moment to see the band and I bought every Kenton record I could lay my hands on. I used to memorise all the solos of people like Ed Safranski, et al, and even the drum solos. I loved it. I admired Stan very much, he did an awful lot for me as a kid. Whenever the band came through Albuquerque, I would always get to see them.
After a couple of times, Stan got to know me. He remembered my face—probably because I was the only kid who was into his music. I have in my scrapbook several photographs of me and Stan together at that time. My head just about reached his trouser belt. I remember when he had the first jazz clinics in 1959/ 60, first of all at Indiana University, in Bloomington. In 1959, I saw an advertisement in a magazine: “Summer Jazz workshops, Kenton Clinics”. I thought: What are they? And then I read on some of the names were Shelly Manne, Laurindo Almeida, Russ Garcia, Stan, of course, and Don Jacoby, and a lot of other people I didn’t know. And I thought I must go to this. I saved up as much money as I could.
That was the year I graduated from High School.
So, straight away I took off, along with a friend, who was a flute player, called Roger Genata. He lives in Vienna these days. We went to Indiana University, and it was awesome. Here is Stan, every day. He is talking to us and listening to us play. I was in the John LaPorta band and I played also in a small combo, with Gary Burton on piano. Stan’s band was also around and we had a chance to sit in with them. When Stan saw me the first time he simply said: “Albuquerque”. The excitement of all this was nearly too much for me. It was quite unbelievable.
I guess nowadays we take too much for granted. But having experienced those things with the band, and being around Stan, made a lasting impression. Then, all of a sudden, I am at the Kenton tribute in Balboa, for the 50 th anniversary. And a few days later, I’m here in Britain for the BBC tribute to Stan Kenton. Those fond memories come flooding back. You reach back in time and pull forward all those thoughts and feelings. It has been quite an emotional experience these past two weeks.
Stan was a very paternal man. I guess he would have made a great school teacher or athletics coach, the type who would put a young kid under his arm and say: “Go out there, son, and show them what you can do.” I certainly feel honoured that I knew him. One piece of philosophy I remember from Stan was an occasion at the Kenton clinic of 1959, when he came in to lecture. This, he gave for about an hour every day. It consisted of one hour in which he talked music, philosophy and about life in general. Something he said on one occasion stuck with me in a very positive way.
He said: “You young kids out there who want to be musicians must go out to music. Don’t expect music to come to you. If you sit at home, tied to your mother’s apron strings and expect all the music industry to come and discover you, it never happens. Cut the strings, pack up your horns and gear and move to where the music is, and go reach for it. That’s the way you make it in this world of music. You have to go after it.” That philosophy sunk into me. Music is not a kind of thing where you sit by the phone and wait for things to happen.
It’s like a stream, you can either go with it or drop back off it. It does not reach out to pick you up, it’s a hundred per cent commitment.
Some people seem to get in to music for the wrong reasons. Always complaining about something or other.
They have one foot in the door, trying to get a free ride; so they can sit in a chair play a few parts and then go home. You can’t do that in music. It’s a hundred per cent commitment.
Look at Stan, Woody, the Duke, and all those people: they were all completely committed to music. They couldn’t sit at home, even if they had the greatest mansion in the world to live in. Stan was always the man who pushed that point and this is what motivates me. When I have been in a quandary at going through a slow period, Stan gave me that kind of ability to look straight in the mirror and ask the person I see who is responsible.
I really have only one regret. When I was with Stan, things never worked out where I could have spent a couple of years, say, with the band on the road. It was the one band I wanted to play with a lot, I also wanted to play with the Basie band. My relationship with Basie was similar to that with Stan. I just subbed a few times, when somebody left or fell ill. Sadly, when I was offered regular work with the Kenton band, it no longer had the likes of Lee Konitz, Buddy Childers or Bud Brisbois. The band was getting young kids from university.
I thought it was great that he gave these young people a chance, but the band no longer had the same attraction for me. I heard it play in Disneyland a few times in the Seventies. But I had to walk away from it. It was just too sad.
Copyright © 1981, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.