The Great Awakening
A Positive Reason
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1982
I‘ve been wanting to come to England for many, many years; I had to wait quite a while for this trip, and I know it’s not going to be my last. I’ve had a wonderful time here, thanks to Bill Lewington and the people at Yamahathey set this up, and made it possible for me to do this. It’s been a real thrill. In Southampton, for instance, we had two hundred and fifty children, most of them from the age of about eight to twelve or thirteenthey were just absolutely delightful. They had questions for me, and they really listened very attentively.
All those little boys and girls are brass playersI can’t even figure out how they could hold up the horn, the size of some of them! This is greatit’s happening all over the place now.
The reason I’m doing these seminars I’m doing now is that this business has been so wonderful to me all my lifeit’s time I paid back something it gave me.
I’ve seen some things that are maybe getting lost; so if I can come out here and kind of remind some people of pertinent things in music that shouldn’t be lost. I’m talking about basic phrasing; if you get into eighth notes, the phrasing of them determines what kind of music you’re playing. If it’s rock, you’ve got a certain way of straight eight/eight playing; certain kinds of jazz are twelve/eight; your shuffle goes along at a real twelve/eight.
But then there are other things that just sort of fall in between. Like, the Benny Goodman phrasingthree eights would be straight, and then there would be the twelve/eight on the fourth one. Boo–de–doo—bah that little delay. Where you put that last note determines what style of music you’re playing. That’s one of the things that have been lostanother is the use of dynamics. At any rate, I’m doing what I can; if I can hit one person in each school I go tomy goodness, we’ll have a whole bunch of people who will have learned something new. And so far, I’ve been pretty lucky.
The point is, there are so many types of good phrasing. Now, Lawrence Welk has a very, very commercial band, but it’s a very good onehe has musicians in that band who are very capable people. No matter how corny what you’re doing may be, or how current and hip it may be, there are ways to play them well. Whatever kind of music you put your face to, you should play it well, and do everything you can towards achieving that. As many as there are styles of music, there are ways to play well. Everyone should adapt themselves to that as they play, and no matter where they are, look at the piece of music, say: “Well, I think this is this style”, and play it in that style and really enjoy it. Instead of playing everything in one style, and being locked into it. It’s from studio playing I got like this, I guess, but it’s also from listening. You listen to other things, and then you try to imitate them that’s how I learned to play, and so did most of the great players I know. They took lessons also, of course.
I started playing at twelve; when I was fourteen I joined a band, and I learned things with them. I don’t remember how much they told meI had figured out a lot by that time. It was like the great awakening for me when I went to my first big band rehearsal outside of school. We started off with “In The Mood”, and in the middle of the introduction I’m looking at these notes and then I’m listening to what we start playing . . . suddenly there was this great big light–bulb above my head on “In The Mood”, of all things! I said: “Wait a minute. I’ve been listening to this record, and they don’t do ‘Tata–ta–taa–taa’; they go ‘Boo–a–doo doodoo–doo’. My God! That’s what those notes mean!” And that opened a whole world for me. So when I joined this band . . . it was all men; I was the kidI was at least an eleven–year–old fourteen . . . those guys were all so nice to me, and they helped me so much, that a couple of years later I joined the Kenton band. The Kenton job only happened because of the good band that I’d got to play with, the training I got and listening, and playing with records. I was banished to the basement for most of the time I was homedown there with a record–player and my horn. When my chops would get tired, I had an old snare drum and a pair of beat–up sticks, and I’d play on that.
The Kenton music was a bitter trauma for me at first. I wouldn’t recommend any young fellow of sixteen to go on the road with a band like that. But that was one of the goals that I’d set myself when I was fourteen or fifteen. I’d read that Harry James had been with Ben Pollack, Benny Goodman or somebody when he was sixteen, and that Goodman and Krupa had been with some band when they were sixteen. I saw this sixteen as a magic ageif I got past that without joining an important band, I would be a failure. You know how kids can be. Kenton was the band I chose that I wanted to be with, and I made itI was about a month away from my seventeenth birthday, The band was about a year–and–a–half old when I joined it, and it was going through lots of changes. I went through many, many changes and different styles with that band before it finally settled into the thing that I liked best—the Bill Holman band of the early ‘fifties. There was one other: an orchestra—the first one that he had in 1950 was marvellous just magnificent. It was a grand musical experimentunfortunately it wasn’t heard by enough people, because there was a coal miners’ strike going on in the United States, and just before we started out on tour they banned all public gatherings. Stan went ahead with it anyway we had a lot of days off each week, but when the orchestra played, it was superb. Chico O’Farrill, Johnny Richards and Franklyn Marks wrote some things for it.
Bob Graettinger didn’t write anything for that orchestra. For the next orchestra, the year later, he restored the “City Of Glass”, that he originally wrote for us in 1946. We performed it only once at that time at the Chicago Opera House for two or three days in a row.
That was a very difficult, cohesive piece of music. But the thing that I heard with all the strings and everything didn’t sound anything like the original “City Of Glass”. That was a different composition, and the orchestra wasn’t as good either; the strings weren’t nearly as good as we had had the year before.
Stan lost a fortune on that first “Innovations In Modern Music” tour. It was a four–month tour, and for the last half of it places were allowed to open again. Paying salaries out for two months, and working only maybe two or three days a week instead of six was pretty tough but he did it, and we had a great orchestra. Stan set his goals, and he certainly achieved them. I wouldn’t say he achieved them beyond his wildest dreams, or anything like that—he went to the direction he wanted to go. Knowing and not agreeing with his politics, I was very glad he didn’t decide he wanted to be President because he would have been.
Sure, he always had good players. He loved discovering people every now and then, though, he seemed to take a perverse joy in discovering somebody who really couldn’t play very well, and trying to mould them into a star and I don’t know of any of ‘em who made it! He had a wonderful thing for the underdog “Hey, give everybody a chance, and then if they don’t do it well, at least they had a chance.” And he did that very much.
Of course, any time you have a thing like a big band, it winds up that it isn’t completely yours even though you have to be responsible for the payroll, the bookings, getting the bus. Everybody’s crying on your shoulder; you have to be their banker, their father confessor.
You’ve got to be just about everything to all these people, and yet it’s not fully your band at any point, because the guys in the band feel like it belongs to them. I think the most successful leaders are the ones who have allowed the ideas of the guys to have free rein. They must keep a check on that rein or there wouldn’t be any cheques at the end of the week! Did we feel that some of the music we were playing was pretentious? Yeah, we didbut that was his thing, and it was working for him. We didn’t have to like everything we were getting paid to play.
Musicians can get awfully spoiled—I know I’ve been guilty of this. You go on a band, and on your first day you say: “Boy, this is it!” You’re there three months, and this is wrong, that’s wrong and: “Why is he playing this?’ We want everything but the real world isn’t quite like that. We are so lucky to be able to do what we want to do for a living for all of our lives; we’re amongst such a small minority in the worldwhat is it, one percent? A half a percent? Just that tiny percentage really get to choose what they want to dowe kinda forget that once in a while.
It’s true that many people were initiated into jazz listening by the “Artistry” band and for that we should all be eternally grateful to him. Stan wasn’t perfect, any more than anyone elseall in all, though, he did a lot. He did what he set out to do. I really do believe that the reason he chose that was that somebody along the way wouldn’t let him play with their jazz bandthey didn’t like the way he played. Well, neither did we, really if you listen to his records, you’d understand it. The ten flying thumbs of Stan Kenton were ever present, you know! And when he was playing with the rhythm section . . . it was a problem. But you know, you surmount those problems; we had guys like Shelly Manne, Laurindo Almeida in therethere are no problems when you’ve got players like that. Besides it was Stan’s band; he could do what he wanted to do.
It was wild to have been there through that whole period to watch the changing of the band from the heavy “Rat–ta–ta ta–ta–” of the Balboa band heard on those very first Deccu records into just sort of a nondescript that could have belonged to Louis Prima, Sam Donahue all those bands that were around at the time. It could have been anybody; whoever brought arrangements along we played.
But Stan was looking for a soundhe had been searching all these years, and he’d decided that “Ra–ta–ta–ta” wasn’t it and somewhere around 1944, Gene Howard, a singer with the band, who could also write arrangements, came up with something Stan went for. I guess it was a modified Glenn Miller sound if you can picture voicing the melody of a song with five trumpets real close together, and then sticking five clarinets on the same notes, only an octave above them . . . now sometimes the trumpets went up to C’s, D’s and E’s which meant that the clarinets had to be squawking way up there, and the fourth clarinet would be on a high A. I mean, it was the most horrendous sound you ever heard in your life!
We stuck with that for about a year or so but dogs were coming from three counties away when we played some of those things. I wish I had one of those to play for somebody, and to hear myself, because when I think back on that, it was hysterical. Stan, in fact, detested clarinets—he wouldn’t have anything to do with them, all the time he had a band, except that one period.
You know, clarinet is a very difficult instrument—more so than any of the single–reed instruments, I believe, and to play it correctly is certainly the most difficult. And when you stick clarinets in the hands of five saxophone players, some of whom haven’t even touched one for seven or eight years . . . Bob Gioga hadn’t used a clarinet in God knows how long; Vido Musso couldn’t play clarinet. None of ‘em were good clarinet players and here are these guys with clarinets in their hands, trying to play written close harmony up high. It was funny. But that went by; it was a phase the band had to go through.
Finally, I think what he would have said was: “This commercial crap doesn’t work” that’s about what he must have said to himself, because he didn’t say much to us.
Anyway, it was right after that when he came up with “Artistry In Rhythm”, and everything was going to be “Artistry In Rhythm” from then on. About that time Pete Rugolo started writing a lot of things for the band; Pete got out of the Army, and joined us on a full–time basis. And at that point things really did change, and we got a whole bunch of real great blood into the band. Shelly Manne, Eddie Safranski, Kai Winding, Eddie Bert and all these New York guys came into the band and it was really a shot in the arm for everybody. Suddenly it was a hit band, just like that an overnight success. He only struggled along for about five years before it was called the Number One band, which isn’t too long, really.
The band was with Capitol Records—from 1943 on all the records I made with the band were on that label, which was everything from 1943 to 1954. The first releases you had over here were “Painted Rhythm” and “Eager Beaver”? Now, that’s funny, because “Eager Beaver” was recorded in 1943, and “Painted Rhythm” was recorded in 1946 or ‘47probably ‘44.
“Intermission Riff” was just something that Ray Wetzel was fooling around with; we’d just gotten the fifth trombone. We were at a rehearsal at the Hollywood Palladium, all standing around, and he says: “Hey, guys, will you play these notes?” He gave everybody some notes and a little rhythm pattern. Stan heard it, and he said: “Ray what is it? Write it.” Ray didn’t want to say it was “Yard–Dog Mazurka”—I think he finally did tell him. But Stan said: “Well, just write another melody to it, and we’ll call that the melody, because I like that.” You know what a big hit it became for him but it was just a head arrangement.
“Peanut Vendor” was another head thing. Pete Rugolo came around, and he handed out one concert copy to each section of the melody of the song. To the trombones he gave that riff–type counter theme, and to the trumpets he gave the melody. I don’t know what the saxophones did throughout all of it, because it was mostly a brass piece. Well, on things like that, it’s up to the guys to think of a lick, play it, and make it happen.
Copyright © 1982, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.