About the size of it
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1970
Although the record books give my birth details as New York, August 1917, I was actually born m 1920. When I went with John Kirby’s band I had to put my age up in order to work—because of the child labour scene.
My first instrument was banjo. I wish I’d kept it up; there’s a lot of banjo work around! I went to military school and the first year I was there I played alto horn in the military band. Then the next year all the trumpet players gradually left. So the guy says: “Well, look, you know something about music to start off with —you switch to trumpet.” That’s when I started playing it. Not that I particularly cared about playing trumpet, at that time.
I’d have quit the music business if I’d judged it by the leader of the jazz band I played with in Philadelphia. That jerk—he was the thief of Baghdad. You may quote me. It’s a long time ago, but I still hold it against him. We were only a bunch of kids; what did we know? He took all the money. He used to tell us things like: “The man didn’t pay off,” and we believed him. We tried to under–cut him one time; that’s how we found out.
After that I was with Tiny Bradshaw and Lucky Millinder. Both very good, especially Tiny—he always had a swinging band. But I still wasn’t into the trumpet too much. To tell you the truth—most of the time the only reason they hired me was because my older brother was a good first trumpet player, and he wouldn’t do it unless they took me with him. I was part of a package deal.
It wasn’t until I joined John Kirby that I finally became interested in the instrument and in really playing something on it. How I got with him: Frankie Newton was the trumpet player in the band: Frankie was about six foot, seven, and Kirby was fooling around with his old lady, I think. Anyhow, Big Sid Catlett took me round to the Onyx Club a couple of times, and we used to sit in. So Kirby was trying to get rid of Frankie, because I think he was kinda scared of him: when he finally fired him, I just happened to be there and got the gig.
It’s funny how that turned out to be such a good band. I’d say it’s the best band I ever played with. They called it “The Biggest Little Band In The Land”. After the band started sounding good, the guys themselves became interested in it. That helped a lot. We got so that we used to memorise most of the music: we didn’t even take the music on the gigs most of the time. That always gives the scene a good sound—when you don’t have to be beating your brains out reading music.
Our sound was unique, really. I’ll tell you what happened. We used to play as loud as you–know–what. But I made an arrangement of “Rose Room”—just the last chorus, and we’d exaggerate playing soft on that. See just how soft we could play—for the fun of it. And so we got a couple of other things that we used to do like that.
This led to our working in the Ambassador East Hotel, which was, and still is, one of the showplaces of the world. The man that owned the hotel happened to come in one night when we were playing soft. Had he come in there about five minutes earlier, we’d have blown him out of the joint! This shows you how fate is, you know. He just caught the quiet sounds, and he hired the band on the spot. He had special white tails made for us, and all that.
From then on. we started writing a lot of things using that soft sound, and it did come off pretty good. What had started, as I say, entirely by accident, became a sort of a successful gimmick for us.
Out of the many recordings we made, a lot of people seemed to like “Anitra’s Dance”. We used to do a thing at the Museum Of Modern Art; Morton Gould had what I guess you’d call a wood–wind band—he’d play the classics legitimately, and then we’d come behind him and play the jazz version. That got to be quite popular.
When I left Kirby I went on staff at CBS; Raymond Scott was on my schedule. During that period I was signed up, but other times I’ve been what they call an ‘outside man’. That’s freelance staff work, which is actually a better deal; you’re free to take other jobs, too.
Between 1945 and about 1950 I toured with Tommy Dorsey’s band. I went with Jazz At The Philharmonic in ‘51 and ‘52. Then I went back with Tommy, left again and went with Benny Goodman for a while—then back with Tommy again.
The Dorsey and Goodman bands were quite different. Tommy had a good band, with a nice book. Sure, they both have the reputation of being disciplinarians. I used to call Tommy ‘the wonderful tyrant’; he could raise hell when he wanted to. But I got along with him; I wasn’t scared of him at all. There was a difference, though, between the hellraising of Tommy and Benny. With Tommy you didn’t mind too much; that other scene got to be a ,drag.
One of the smart things Tommy did: he always used to take us into the recording studio right after we came off one–nighters. So that they captured the band on disc when it was still really tight, you know.
As for my high–note playing, maybe it’s influenced others, but I don’t particularly like to play high notes, to tell you the truth. It’s an effect—that’s all.
I’ve got a new mouthpiece, too—that doesn’t help any! My old mouthpiece that I had for twenty years just started falling to pieces; so I had to get a new one.
I don’t practise much. I wish I did, though—I could use it. You know, when you get home you start watching television, doing this and that; and I like to cook. Before you know it, it’s time to go to work. I have a quartet; we do dates here and there, but we never get too far away from New York.
Actually, I haven’t done too much playing lately. I’m going to start playing more. I’ve been taking it kind of easy, and that’s bad for a trumpet player because it makes the muscles of your chops relax.
The last record I made was for Capitol, called “Excitement Unlimited”, with a seven–piece band. I didn’t particularly like it. I think the best thing I ever did was that Bethlehem album, “Shavers, Gershwin And Strings”. It was mostly ballads, and all arranged by Sy Oliver. That one really came off.
My feeling about jazz as a whole is that it has progressed, but it’s not progressing now. There’s so much junk and noise going on—so much fabricated jazz. It’s losing its quality.
This idea of ‘freedom’ is not for me. There’s got to be some order somewhere. I can’t be playing in one key and you playing in another—if it’s going to make any kind of sense. Music has to have a form—you better believe it. A body has to have a form and a shape to it, doesn’t it? That’s about the size of it.
Copyright © 1970 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.