|A Les Tomkins interview of 1979|
It was great to hear you play live in this country, Chet—at last. One of the best pieces of news in the last few years was that you had evidently `come back’, and were now active on the New York scene. And the records showed that you sound as good—or rather, better than ever. The first thing I heard, I think, was Jim Hall’s “Concierto”—would that have been, as it were, your comeback performance?
Well, yeah—I did one just before that; “She Was Too Good To Me” it was called, for Creed Taylor, the same company (CTI). A few months later I did the one with Jim Hall. And, of course, there’s the albums from Gerry Mulligan and I at Carnegie Hall, in ‘75 and ‘76—we played there twice. Then the last one, “You Can’t Go Home Again”. Now I have two new ones coming out within the next month or so, that were recorded in Paris, with just a quartet; and I did a duo 12 album with a German boy who played vibes, named Wolfgang Lackerschmid. Just he and I—and he has all those bells and things hanging, a whole big rack of things that he hits, that ring, you know. He wrote some nice tunes; I was surprised—it came out rather nice, that album. Yeah, it gave me a lot of liberty; it was interesting. I’m waiting to hear it myself.
What was the reunion with Gerry like? How did it feel to be back together again?
Oh, it’s always nice to play with Gerry, you know. His music is on a very high level, and it’s always a challenge. Especially when you’re playing at Carnegie Hall. I haven’t run into him now in—oh, two years.
One would hope that you will do some more things together again. Many regard that as one of the most productive partnerships of jazz.
Well, a partnership in a strange sort of way. It was my record company that made those Carnegie Hall albums—I was the one with the contract. So Gerry comes along, we work together, they record it. They release the album, and he arranges it; so, of course, the album is in his name, and I’m a sideman. You know, that sort of thing is very important to him—that his name is the biggest one up there, and he gets the royalties, and so forth. Well, I guess that’s what they call “taking care of business”, but somehow it just doesn’t seem right—that he should be able to arrange something like that, with my record company. But it’s all music—if people enjoy it, buy the album and they like it, then I’m satisfied.
Anyway, the great thing is that you are now having new albums come out under your own name.
I always have. In twenty–five years, I’ve made fifty–six of my own albums. Which is a lot of music—and a lot of experience making them. I’m supposed to record when I get back to New York, whenever that is, for a new company run by John Schneider—it’s called Artists House Records.
But I probably won’t be getting back to New York much before September.
What originally caused you to take up the trumpet as your instrument?
My dad was a musician—he played guitar—and when I reached thirteen, his favourite musician was Jack Teagarden. So he brought home a trombone, but I was rather small for my age; I couldn’t make the positions, and the mouthpiece seemed so big. I messed around with it for a couple of weeks; then he took it away, and brought home a trumpet.
That seemed to be much more comfortable; I could get a sound—the smaller mouthpiece seemed to fit a lot better. I went to a little instrument training class for a year, and I played in the school marching band and the dance band.
When I was sixteen, I went in the army; for a year I played in an army band in Berlin, Germany. After discharge, I studied music at junior college, but at the end of a year–and–a–half I failed that—and I still play by ear. Although I can read, I don’t know the chords. I just hear them, you know, but if you ask me what the name of it is, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.
Yes, it’s purely instinctive. Well, I suppose that makes you what is termed “a natural musician”.
In a sense—I guess so. But it’s nice to be able to read the chords—because a lot of people are writing a lot of music, where the progression doesn’t lead in a logical way. If you can read the chords, though, then it doesn’t matter where it goes; it says a certain chord, you automatically play the notes in that chord, and try to find a line through there. So that’s kind of a setback. To get around that, I have to hear the tune first, if it’s not a logical progression. After I hear it a couple of times then I can understand it.
This would explain why your recordings don’t seem to have any compositions by you on them.
Well the way I could compose would be to sit down at the piano with a tape machine, play a line with my right hand, then play that back and put a bass part to it, and build it in that way.
A lot of trumpet players—notably Freddie Hubbard—have received initial inspiration from your approach to the instrument. When you were coming up, who were your idols?
When I first started playing, Harry James, of course, was a very big star with the trumpet. Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Sweets Edison also impressed me—and Louis Armstrong, of course. But when I heard Dizzy and Miles, everything changed for me, and I found myself getting further and further away from the “sweet” Harry James style of playing, and trying to phrase things in, I guess—for lack of a better word—a ‘hipper’ way.
At the time you came on the scene, in the early fifties, “the cool school” was being talked about. But in your playing I heard a great deal of warmth and feeling, and I always felt that the word cool was not really as applicable to you as it was to some other musicians.
I’ll have to agree with you—although that’s a difficult term, that can be interpreted in a couple of different ways.
By “the cool school” did they imply a lack of emotion’? Or perhaps it was that it didn’t have the drive and the volume of what the East Coast was putting out at that time—it was a lot more laid–back. And the emotional part; cool in that sense’? Maybe a bit—it depended on the compositions that you were playing, you know. So many guys were writing so much music on the West Coast—Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman, Bill Perkins, Marty Paich, Johnny Mandel. Whereas on the East Coast, you had the Wayne Shorters, and. . . AI Cohn, yeah—oh, AI’s such a beautiful writer. And, of course, Gerry, and Gil Evans. . . Miles. . . and I can’t think of that guy’s name, who wrote so many nice tunes. But you never know where you’re going to find a nice song. I know around Boston in the ‘fifties they had the piano player that died in France; he was working with me—Dick Twardzik.
In Boston also you had the baritone saxophone player that died too.
Yeah, Serge Chaloff. But there was a composer there named Bob Zieff, and they were all good friends; I recorded an album of his compositions in Paris, with Dick Twardzik on piano, and I loved that music he wrote—it was so original. But nothing ever happened with. him, because it just wasn’t commercial—it was too far–out for the public.
To me, it was really beautiful, and I hated to see him not get the recognition due to him as far as being a composer and arranger. I still hope that one of these days I’ll be able to go to him, and have him write me a whole thing. Although we did that; he wrote a whole album for me, with bass clarinet, French horn, cello, oboe, bassoon and trumpet—that kind of instrumentation. It had very modern, far–out harmonies.
After spending a lot of money, the record company decided not to release it. So somewhere, after all these years, those tapes are just lying around.
This short–sighted premise of many record companies, that something has to have commercial potential before they’ll put it out, is a perennial problem.
Right. They want to feel that it’s going to pay off for them; it’s all a profit–and–loss thing. They don’t really care about the music—just whether it will make them any money or not.
At the point you started singing, did you find that the record people regarded this as a big selling point?
No—there weren’t any record companies really after me to do anything vocally. I believe they thought it was just kind of a fluke—something that was not going to hold up, as compared to people like Steve Lawrence, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett. I guess they felt that there wasn’t anything of concrete value in my voice and in my way of singing; so there was no rush to get me to sign any big money contracts, or anything like that.
It could be that you were ahead of your time. The current vogue, of course, is to have singers, like George Bcnson, Herbie Hancock, Les McCann, doubling on vocals.
Yeah, and really doing it well, selling a lot of records.
But on the basis of that first album, I tied Nat “King” Cole for third place in the male vocalist section of the jazz polls, and those kind of things. And it’s funny—even four years ago in Italy they had a poll, and they voted me the top singer, even over Sinatra. In Italy—and he’s Italian! So you figure it out.
That earlier singing you did, though, could be said to be straight down the line; you adhered pretty faithfully to the tunes as written. But now you play around more with a song—in fact, you put more musicianship into it. Would you agree?
I do—sure. Because you sing those tunes week after week, year after year, when you get requested to sing ‘em—I mean, it would drive you crazy if you sang ‘em the same way every time. So I try to sing ‘em different each time, in some way—change the phrasing, or whatever. And that’s why scatting is so much fun—then you can really extend yourself, and try to come up with some interesting lines, that fit in the harmony and chord progression, but still swing and still have a meaning. I don’t know really how much people do hear—but it’s a kind of a music for musicians, because you have to have a really trained ear sometimes, to be able to understand why the man sang that note there in particular, instead of another one, and why he went from that one to that one, rather than what you expected him to go to. But you do it in order to keep your own interest up, and not to go and sing in the same way every night.
Some people come in and request a tune, hoping that it will sound exactly like it did on the record—and when it doesn’t, they’re disappointed.
They don’t understand what jazz is all about.
No—not really. They’re disappointed because it’s not the way it was on the record.
They don’t realise that that’s just how it happened to sound when you recorded it. But I’d say the fact that you scat–sing gives the lie to those who say that singers who scat are just emulating musicians, because they can’t play anything. Obviously, that isn’t the case with you: you can play an instrument perfectly well, but you choose to do this as well.
Yes, because it’s a whole other thing—another challenge. To scat with your voice is a very difficult thing to do—and to be inventive at the same time. It’s nothing that’s worked out or thought about beforehand; it’s completely spontaneous—and very risky.
When you’re vocalising a phrase it is quite a different proposition from playing it on the trumpet?
It is—although maybe the style would be similar. In the actual doing of it, it comes out different. Yes—I am trying to use the voice as a separate instrument.
At your only previous British concert, you were allowed to sing, but not to play, as this was when the inter–union ban was still in operation. Did you feel frustrated, only able to express yourself in one way?
Certainly—it was frustrating. And I can’t really understand the reason for those kind of rulings. Music is music, and I feel that a man should be able to travel anywhere in the world and do what he is meant to do, without getting all hung up in all kinds of bureaucratic junk. It seems to me that musicians’ interests are not properly protected and stood up for—like allowing people to dance to records in clubs, and allowing television to use records as backgrounds in certain programmes, without paying any royalties to the artists.
After that concert tour you spent some time in Europe, didn’t you? I came over in ‘59, and stayed till ‘64. And out of the last three years I’ve spent two of them in Europe—a lot in Italy, and in France, Belgium, Holland. Just recently now, I’m able to go back to Germany and play, and that’s opened up a large area for me—that’s a country with a lot of large cities. So it’s working out nice; people have been coming out to see me, business has been very good, in concerts and the clubs. It’s a good feeling to know that people do remember you, and will support you. Because nowadays, you know, it’s hard to get people out—to get ‘em away from the TV sets. Many people prefer just to stay home and listen to their records; they don’t go out to the clubs or to the concerts.
As far as general acceptance is concerned, do you think that, on the average, European listeners are more jazz–conscious than they are in the States?
The average European person, I think, has a better ear than the average American. Basically, America is just one big hill–billy farm town, except for New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Chicago, they go for Dixieland. They just don’t come out and support their artists the way they should in the States. Over here, I think people hear more better music on the radio, they start out listening to classical music at a young age, and they’re really interested in listening to jazz, and trying to understand it. And if you make contact with that kind of audience, it’s a very beautiful thing. We played a concert in Bern, Switzerland, where there was such a rapport between the group and the audience; you could feel that they were really behind us all the way. They were so quiet. And in Zurich the same thing. In fact, everywhere we go in Europe.
Presumably, the high standing you have in Italy relates to the fact that you lived there for—a number of’ years.
Yes, I have a very large audience there. I guess it also has to do with the fact that I went to jail there; it was a big thing in the papers and the magazines for a long time. There was a lot of sympathy for me; they felt, I think, that I suffered unnecessarily really, because I didn’t do anything—I just went to doctors and got a prescription, you know.
I’d like to ask you what thoughts you have about a man who is sadly no longer with us, who recorded with you several times in recent years—Paul Desmond.
Oh, yes. I have a lot of thoughts about Paul. I thought he was a wonderful guy. When I was in the army, and just twenty–one years old, I used to go out at night and play around town; he was with Dave Brubeck, of course, and they were playing at the Black Hawk, in San Francisco. I’d go down there and try to sit in, but Dave never wanted me to—however, Paul always talked him into it. I love the way Paul played; maybe sometimes not with as much drive and fire as some alto saxophone players I could mention, like Bird, Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods—but just as great. So I knew him from ‘51 on. And, of course, the last thing that he did on record was ‘You Can’t Go Home Again”—he died a short time after that. I didn’t even know he was sick, at the time. But he was weak, and I remember they wanted to do another take, but he said he felt that it would be better if he didn’t, because he just hadn’t the strength.
Listening to that track, now, based as it is on one of the most memorable of Rachmaninov’s melodies, it’s quite moving to realise it was the last thing Paul played. And, I must say, you sounded superb together.
He was such a nice guy, I’m sorry that we weren’t able to record more things together during the years. I did a lot of recording with Bud Shank, because Bud was living in Los Angeles, as I was. Paul was always out on the road with Dave Brubeck; so it was just a question of him not being around at the time. But if he had been around, I would have loved to have done some albums with him then. He had such a delicate way of playing. So melodic.
Copyright © 1979, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.