A Positive Reason
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1982
In those early days, they were just all head arrangementsall the big things that they had. Basie, of course and the Woody Herman band: not only that first Flaming Herd, but the Second and Third Herds. I played with that band for about six months in 1949; Stan Kenton didn’t always have a band during those years so I wasn’t with him all the time. And when I was with Woody’s band . . . like, they had things where you’d start off in the middle of one chart, and that’s the introduction; then you go to the beginning of another one, and to the out–chorus of something else. It was a terrible road–map for somebody when they first came in.
Then you’d have one by Shorty Rogers to play; he was very near–sighted at the time, and your sixteen bars would all be in about a half a lineall these notes real close. He’d say: “This is what you play . . .” and show you, because he would be the one who would know back there. Fortunately, he writes bigger now! What you had to do is learn it, that’s all; none of those riffs or things were all that difficult. They’d give you a clue on your part; after a few days, you usually had it pretty well figured out.
Yes, you kept it all in your head. I did with the Kenton band, certainly I wouldn’t open my book for weeks or months at a time. You get to know everything when you’re playing it every night for years. Then when new arrangements came in after we played ‘em three or four times, what I didn’t know I could always glance over at the guy’s part next to me while he was looking at it, see what his notes were, to remind me of the fingering, then go ahead and play. It made it nice when we played theatres, where we would be playing the same show all daythen I could just keep a mystery novel on my stand and read that! Didn’t have to have music in the way!
I was with Kenton eleven–and–a–half years all told really, that covers the whole thing. My favourite band was the swinging one that came to Europe in 1953; that was the best band of that sort you know, that size band. Yeah, with people like Zoot Sims and Lee Konitz. I thought that was the best band he ever had anywhere along, in fact. The large orchestra of 1950 was the only other thing he had to compare with it; that was just marvellous magic, you know. That was the one that recorded “Maynard Ferguson”, “Art Pepper”, “Shelly Manne” and all of those big feature things. If you recall those that’s the band. Or rather, the orchestra.
Stan had three or four guys try to write the “Shelly Manne” side, and none of them worked. Finally, after we’d been trying to record one of ‘em, he went home that night and he wrote one. The next day we recorded it, and it was fantastic but he said: “Oh, that’s just a piece of crap. It was nothing.” He would dismiss his own work like thatbut Stan was a marvellous writer, when he stayed within his natural idiom. What he wanted to write, and to be accepted as a writer of, was jazz. Unfortunately, he was not a wonderful jazz writer. As a motion picture writer, he was very successful—he was really tremendous at that. His orchestration technique was great. He wrote some things for the strings, when we had that orchestra, that were just gorgeous; yet he just cast ‘em aside: “A piece of crap.” Earlier in his life he’d been an avid devotee of Ravel and Debussy; he knew them very well, and he understood how they worked. I was always impressed with his abilities.
But his biggest ability was people his handling of them. And he had an incredible gift of remembering names. If he saw a person once and didn’t see them again for fourteen years, he’d say: “Hello, Les how’re you doing?” just like that.
Until he had the accident; from then on, that part of his mind was shut offhe remembered everybody, but he couldn’t connect the face. I saw him about three months before he died; they had a special tribute concert for him at Cal State, Northridge, out in the San Fernando Valleyone of the earliest colleges in California to have a real jazz programme.
They tried to get as many of us there as possible; I think only five of us made it, but it was good to see Stan. He was in pretty bad shape thenwe knew he wouldn’t be around too long. So I’m very glad I got to see him; we talked a bit, but he was awfully weak. But when he went out to talk to the people, he pulled his voice together and it was still Stan.
At the time I left the Kenton band, I had this burning desire to be a bandleader. I was twenty–eight years old then, I had four kids; I said: “Okay if I’m going to do it, now’s the time to make the move.” And for the first time in my life, I was saying: “Do I really want that?” I started looking around at some of the guys that I knew, who were trying to make it; they’d had albums out and everything else, while I didn’t have much of that going for me at all. They were marvellous players, they had great bands and they couldn’t get started with them. And they were so frustrated by the whole thing; I said : “‘Boy, what a drag.” Then I looked around at the ones who were a success, like Stan, Woody, Basie, Ellington, and I said: “My God if I do make it, that’s even worse. I’ll be on the road the rest of my life, trying to support a bunch of gypsies. Well, if not making it is a big pain, and making it is worse, I ought to change my goals.” So I did and I decided to become a studio player.
Leading a band could have been a good livelihood; I probably would have made a lot more money at it, but I’m really not crazy about doing one–nighters. You don’t mind it if they’re your own, but you can’t keep a band together if you only go out for a week or so. The only people I know who do that are Lew and Toshiko. I’m speaking of the Toshiko Akiyoshi/ Lew Tabackin big band and they have a marvellous thing worked out. They each have their own career, separately with their own trios, they have things that they do together at festivals and so forth, as either a duo or with other people, and then they have the big band, so they each have three separate ways to go. And they’ve done a wonderful job—that’s the only band that I would play with these days. I just left the band because I have too many conflicting assignments coming up, and it’s not fair to them for me to stick around. I do hope, though, that if whoever they get needs a sub at some time in the future, they’ll call me, because I enjoy doing it.
But it hasn’t been non–stop studio work. At one point, I got so fed up with what I was doing musically in Los Angeles . . . the studio scene was so tied up and there was very little studio work in the ‘fifties; you had to rely on other things a few record dates here and there, but they weren’t enough to make a living. You needed to be on one of the staffs in one of the movie studios, or at NBC, ABC or CBS and those jobs were locked up for life. And so much of the music I was playing was so rotten that I said: “Hey I got into this because I love music, and what I’m doing now has nothing to do with music. I love flying, I’m a licensed pilot—maybe I’ll get a job there.” And I did—I went to work flying for a living for three–and–a–half years.
Now, as soon as I started that, I started getting more calls than I’d gotten before. So as I’d get them I’d say: “Do I want to do this okay. I don’t want to do that oneno, sorry, can’t make it.” And I had more darned fun. I had a place where I worked once a week with my own group; it was just so relaxed and so niceI could just pick and choose. I had a deal with the people I worked for: if I had any record dates or any studio calls of any sort, I could take offthere was no hassle there.
That was really a pretty pleasant situation—except that after three–and–a–half years working for these people, I still couldn’t get enough money to support my family, and I had to keep working at night. So I said: “Folks, if you don’t give me some more money, I have to leave.” They said: “Well goodbye” and it took them three–and–a–half years to replace me, because there were so many things that I had built into the job. I don’t regret a bit of it; I had a wonderful time. I flew all over the United States in a Beechcraft Bonanza. More recently, just for fun, I flew charter for an outfit for about four years, in my spare time. But that got to taking up too much of my time, and so I just gave that up.
I’m still an active pilot. That was my first love, before I even knew what music was. When I was about two, I knew then I wanted to be a pilot. So I’ve managed to combine the things that I love the mostI’m a reasonably competent photographer, a trumpet player and a pilot. I’m lucky. As for people who do nothing but play an instrument, that’s great—there’s nothing wrong with that. I might have been a better trumpet player if I’d done nothing but that—I might have out–Doc'd Severinsen, had I put my efforts in that direction. But I never wanted to be married to a trumpet; I love it, I don’t want to be without it, but I wanted to have other options in my life. The music business is a very small portion of the world, really, and yet we within it begin to feel like it’s the world. It isn’t, and I try to keep my head open to that fact.
What I’m trying to do now . . . I have become a Baha’i; I don’t know if you’re familiar with that—Dizzy’s a Baha’i . . .as a Baha’i, I’m just trying to do as much as I can to be of service. And the best way I know is getting out, meeting these kids and doing concerts for them. I’m leaving here Saturday and going to Berlin to do a television show, and then Wednesday I have to get back home, because I have a concert in Fresno on Thursday at Fresno State University. And on Friday and Saturday I’m working a jazz club in Bakersfield, with their rhythm section. If you could only appreciate that Bakersfield has been known as the Nashville of the West for years; so a jazz club in Bakersfield? I can’t wait.
They’ve all played very well. In doing the concerts, I send the music out a couple of months in advance, so they can get acquainted with it. Then when I go there I usually have just one rehearsal with them; that’s what I’ll have in Fresno—a rehearsal at noon and a concert at eight. They play the first half, I play the second half. Usually a clinic also comes into it, but not in this case and clinics are done separately there. They’re not like the workshops that we’re doing here now. We’re doing ‘em as workshops because, unfortunately, although I sent the music, there were some delays, and they didn’t get it here in time to get it out to the different bands. So we’ve been having rehearsals with audiences, as a kind of a workshop. In places like Leeds and Southampton, we’ve had marvellous luck.
Copyright © 1982, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.