Jazz Professional               


A Positive Reason

The Great Awakening
Head Arrangements
A Positive Reason
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1982

As all musicians do, I have a positive reason for playing my instrument. My cousin Charles found this trumpet in my father’s closet, and he said he wanted it. I said: “No, you can’t have it it’s mine, because it belongs to my father.” That was my reason for choosing it. My father played Solomon for a few minutes, and then he said: “Well, I’ll tell you—if you can learn to play it well enough by the time school starts in September,” this was June “then you can have it. Otherwise Charles gets it.” So, naturally, I really applied myself to playing it. We were taught music in school; so I knew what the notes were, and there was a book that was very explicit, with fingerings and everything. And it wasn’t too hard to figure out. Pretty soon I was playing anything I wanted to play.

My grandmother was instrumental in it too, because my grandfather was a cornet player and she was in love with cornet players. So she wanted my dad to be one, but he never was, and then when I became one she was thrilled.

From the time I started, jazz–type playing was the direction I went in. That’s what I wanted to do. I was listening to Bunny Berigan, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton and those others who were around at the time. Cootie Williams I didn’t hear too much of; Duke Ellington wasn’t heard that much around there. In fact, it was very hard to hear any good music around St. Louis; they tended more to go to the real Chicago tenor band style—only the rural version of that.

They’re still that way there. It was amusing to me eighteen years ago when I took my family on a vacation; we drove from Las Vegas back to St. Louis to see my folks, and we went on a Mississippi riverboat. Now, I expected the band to at least be up to Dixieland standard or something by then but I saw all these young kids sitting in there, with an older bandleader, and they were still playing the same trashiness that I had left that town because of some twenty years earlier. It sounded like 1922, and I’m sure it hasn’t changed much between then and now, except now there would be more rock. At least rock changed that part by now, I’m sure. But there will be bands around St. Louis that will still have that tenor band sound—that real commercial hotel sound. Or at least they feel it’s commercial; I don’t think it is. I think people will gladly listen to good music—they would just as soon hear good music as bad. And I think it should be offered more.

Most of the time during my career I’ve played in the first chair position. So that in itself is why it’s so much fun for me to do these seminar/band sessions. It’s like starting a whole new career, because now I’m going out and playing the solos that I put aside all those years. I’ve always loved to play but I always got stuck in the lead chair. I didn’t mind it, because I love to play lead; that’s a lot of fun—to take a whole band and mould it to the way you want it to sound. But this is fun too. I look forward to coming back to Europe, hopefully by Summer, with my own quintet—that’s what I want to do. As soon as I get home, we start working on that.

As for recording—I set all that aside in the ‘fifties. I made a couple of albums on my own, and I didn’t like them very well. Although I was told by a couple of gentlemen in Paris that in the last big auction . . . I don’t know the name of the man who runs the auction, but several times a year there’s a big rare jazz records auction . . . they told me that my records fetched the highest price. Which surprised the heck out of me, because the last time I saw any of them available they were in the “three for seventy–nine cents” rack in a drug store in Las Vegas. What happened was: when Liberty Records recorded me, they also recorded Jimmie Rowles, Dominic Frontiere, Pete Jolly—a whole bunch of us and apparently all they did it for was a tax write–off. They had no intention of ever releasing or doing anything with our records, other than printing up a bunch of ‘em and letting it go at that. It seems they’ve now become collectors’ items. I said: “I should start trying to get hold of some of those, and sell ‘em in Europe.” He told me they were bringing around seventy dollars each—that was mind–boggling to me.

Are the charts we have to play today more demanding? Well . . . no, there were charts that were written in the ‘forties and ‘fifties that were pretty demanding. I mean, my second parts under Maynard for some of the things that Shorty Rogers wrote for us never got below high C, and that was a second part. There’s one thing that he wrote, “Solo For Coop” there’s a string of high G’s along there on the second part, that are just incredible. In fact, for a while Maynard worked at Paramount Studios, and whenever he had a call coming up where they would tell him ahead of time that they were going to have some hard work for him, he would ask them to call me to play second under him because we worked together very well. We’re very good friends. His playing made it easy for me to play those high notes, and my playing them with ease made it easier for him on top. And you do need that kind of support when you’re playing up there—you can’t pull it off alone.

Sure, I’m impressed by some of the young players. A young fellow named Al Vizzuti—good grief! You heard him with Woody six years ago? You should hear him today—he’s fantastic. But the kids are supposed to be better—they’ve got all of us to learn from: me, the guys who came after me, and so on. If I tried to compare what I do with what they do, for instance you can’t compare apples and oranges. When I came along, I probably scared a lot of people to death, too, that had been around since the ‘twenties but they certainly didn’t stop. What I have to say is valid at this point—I just can’t say it quite as spectacularly as they do, and I shouldn’t. I should say it the way I am and be me.

Certainly, I still have to work on the trumpet. It’s not like a plumber—you can’t go on a vacation and leave your plunger at home; I can leave my plunger at home, but I better take along a horn and a mute, so that I can do some practising. Buzzing on the mouthpiece helps, sure but nothing takes the place of playing the horn. Playing at home in your room doesn’t quite do it; playing with people is what does. But anything is better than nothing, and you must do a minimum of an hour or two a day, if you’re serious about it. There’s some maintenance things you can do, where in a fairly short period of time you can pack a lot of work, and I try to do that when I can. I have range and endurance exercises, but I haven’t been working on those; I’ve just been working on playing—I’ve got all these tunes that I’m playing now. I do some exercises, like scales and things, and some long tones, but then I mainly just have fun with it—just get my fingers working, get my head working, and do what I’m doing now, playing jazz.

There is certainly advance in the instrument. Because what’s going on today is much more demanding in general. Now, being with the Kenton band when I was, that music was very demanding, but most of the other bands weren’t nearly as demanding. The bottom level of the demands that are made today is far higher than it was then. The Bach trumpets that were so great then I don’t think would work that much now, although a lot of guys are using the Bachs that they’re making now. I’m lucky enough to have become affiliated with Yamaha, who have just been great; they’re responsible for my trip to England—for that I’m eternally grateful to them. And they’ve been making some marvellous products; I’ve been through their factories, and I can’t tell you how impressed I am. It’s incredible, what they’re doing. When they get a good product, they don’t just sit back and say: “Well, that’s good; we’ve got the tools to this—we’ll just go with this model.” No, they’re still trying to improve; they know that it can always get better, and so they’re out there trying to do that. The horn I have is perfect for me; it’s a combination of the entire design—the metal that’s in it, the bore. My Bach is a combination of bore sizes, and it wasn’t quite right for what I’m having to do now; I had played a Conn for quite a few years, and that wasn’t right for it. So I was in the process of trying to find a horn that I liked, and about four years ago I went to Japan with Julie Andrews—that was when I first went to the Yamaha plant and bought an instrument from them. Two years later, when I went back, I told the guy who runs the operation in Tokyo at the Ginza store for professional musicians: “This one didn’t quite work.” He said: “Okay try one of these.” I tried several horns, and I took one to work with me that night, and it didn’t work out either.

But the next day, I said: “This isn’t it. I’ll be back in September for three weeks with Toshiko; maybe then, when we have some time, you can get together on making me a horn like I was telling you about.” And he just smiled, folded his hands, and said: “They’re already making it upstairs.” It was just like that you say something to them and they do it. This is the horn they made for me and they made exactly what I needed. Now, Vincent Bach—you told him what you knew you needed, and he would tell you why what you knew you needed wasn’t right, and why what he had was what you really needed. He made a great product, but he wasn’t always right about individuals’ needs; he didn’t much care about that—he knew that the Vincent Bach trumpet was the best in the world, and so that was it. If you thought you needed something different, then you were nuts, or at least you were on the wrong track. But Vince was great I love him.

The quintet I have is a young one. It’s the way to go you get young people, and you keep the young enthusiasm going. I’m not going to try to get a group and say: “Let’s relive the good old days.” Although one thing that I’ve been doing at home for the last couple of years: Tommy Newsom and I get together and play with just a bass and drums in a small club, and that’s a lot of fun. Tommy is a marvellous tenor saxophone player, an incredible arranger, and he is Doc Severinsen’s sub for the Tonight show. When Doc is away or if he’s doing the announcing, he’s the bandleader. Other than that there’s a young fellow who’s been writing for me, by the name of Brad Dechter; he’ll be with me, and I’m not sure who the rhythm section will be at a given time. It depends on the availability; we have to use different guys, but with a pool like we have to draw from in Los Angeles, that’s not too bad. There are quite a few pretty good players.

Over the years, I’ve contributed to some recordings that I’m quite proud of. I worked with Oliver Nelson from the time he moved to Los Angeles until his death. I worked with Quincy Jones for about five or six years there, until Quincy started moving most of his activities to New York. With Oliver I made quite a few records, but the one I was the most proud of is “Live In Los Angeles”. There are some things I did with Pat Williams, one of which is called “Threshold”, that I love. I got to play all the trumpet parts on that; it was all overdubs.

Then there’s one that we did with a French composer, Michael Colombier, called “Wings”, that I just love—it’s a great piece of music, with marvellous performances. That’s definitely one of my high points. They recorded everything in Paris initially, but Herb Alpert, who produced it, felt they could do a better job with the horns in Los Angeles. First of all, when we played it through, it was in French copying—two parts to a line. There were two trumpet parts on this line, first and second, and two parts on this line, third and fourth; this went down, and with all the time changes and everything, we couldn’t keep track of it. So he said: “Well, why don’t you listen to it once.” We listened to this thing and said: “What do you want us to record it for?“, and Herb said: “Because you’ll do it better.” I don’t know if we did it any better, but we did get a pretty good record out of it. And it was done beautifully; the orchestral portion of it was great, the vocals I loved, and I’m not a vocal lover, you know. When Herb said: “This is my vocal, guys,” we thought he was kidding. When we heard the record no, he wasn’t kidding. I’ve made a lot of other records, but those are some that I remember as being outstanding. 

Copyright © 1982, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.