Give credit to the innovators
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1972
The type of band that I have now, the type of music that weíre playing you either like it or you dislike it. If you dislike it, you probably donít know why. By the same token, you canít even really say why you like it. Itís not anything new, but itís something different.
Along with my drums, the other components are the saxophone of Mark Cohen, the guitar of John Abercrombie and the bass of Victor Gaskin. The thing is, we are electrified; we play in a very contemporary vein, using the electric saxophone and guitar. We incorporate various electronic devicesĖthe echo plugs and things like that. Actually, all weíre trying to do is make that sound musical. As opposed to just making sounds, we do musical things with them.
But it seems to be shocking to some people. Not most, but some. I donít know what they expected; they know the name, especially the older people who recall my music for Sweet Smell Of Success, Repulsion and such, and they say: ďHey, man, what the hell is this?Ē What they donít realise is the fact that I must continue to progress just like everyone else. I donít dig staying in one groove. Most people would be disappointed, myself particularly, if I were to come up with the sound of the early Ďsixties, or of the Ďfifties even. It was fine then; itís still fine but that was then, not now. And itís impossible for me to have those players play with me at this stage of the game; all those guys are famous and, I suppose, wealthy now. Also, I donít know whether I would want to play that kind of music again, to that extent.
Iíll say this much, about the direction weíre in: I think we are as contemporary with what weíre doing as the young pop/rock players are with their thing. You know, there are a lot of jazz players that arenít as contemporary as these young pop players are; they havenít kept up with it.
Whatís happening with us is an intermingling. My roots and Victorís are jazz, basically, but these two young fellows that we have with us come out of rock bands. And theyíre tremendously exciting players. Thatís what the name of the game is today: excitement. Iím not doing this just to please myself, although I do hope that it can become successful. Because it also has to do with the fact that, like: ďHey,. Iím back in the musicĖplaying business again.Ē While in London, we were also occupied in making our first album, at Morgan Studios. The playbacks sounded tremendous. I hadnít recorded with these musicians before, other than a live concert at Montreux last June, when the band was first organised. In the studio together we produced some pretty groovy things, I think.
Yes, there is a lot of volume involved. This was one thing that was difficult at first for me to get adjusted to. In fact, I had to make an enormous adjustment to this, not only in listening to it but in playing with it. Itís a full sound. In some instances, you must have the volume to get the effect. Fortunately, I would say that, with anyone under the age of twentyĖfive, thatís all they know is this volume.
But then, my experience comes into it, where I apply shading and things. We mix it up pretty well, as far as volume and highlights are concerned, to .make it interesting, rather than just at one level. It really is a very emotional sound, and you get caught up in it. Two-thirds of our material are originals; weíre dealing with polychords, you knowótriads upon triads, things like that.
As for freedom: as far as Iím concerned, thereís no such thing as freedom in music, regardless of what form it takes. Music is a plan or a form, whether youíre doing polytones, scalewise patterns, twelveĖtones or anything. You have a certain amount of restriction because of the tones themselves. So weíre looseóletís put it like that. But you canít extend, or go beyond any point musically, without the basic fundamentals. I suppose, in the sense of the percussive aspect of the structure of everything weíre doing, you can call it swinging. It moves, in a pulsation sort of approach. Itís not the one, two, three, four type of thing, or even the relaxed, fingerĖsnapping, walking bass type of thing. We have a jettison type of movement, constantly; everyone is percussive at the same time, to a certain degree. Itís interesting.
Iíve changed my drumming considerably. Iíve had to, in order to play this way, in order to have a fulfilment with regard to the overall sound. Sometime: I might be more or less playing the part of the piano, or of a baritone saxophone, or of a trombone or a trumpet. Iím constantly weaving, in and out; so thereís no holes, as you might say, yet itís not offensive to the extent that it gets in anyoneís way. The other players are able to interweave. Thatís the only wav that it really is effective. Otherwise, if it was a straightaway, rightĖonĖtheĖhead type of playing, it would fall very, very flat.
Everything Iíve done in the past has led to this: otherwise I wouldnít be in this direction. And thereís no turning back; Iíve declared myself: ďThis is where my head is now.Ē Just as Iíve said in the past, and Iíve been very fortunate. Now whether itíll go so well this time, I donít know.
One thing for sure, though, about this time with this group, as opposed to the groups Iíve had before, this is what Iím going to be doing. At this stage of my life, Iíve dedicated myself to playing what I want to play, how I want to play it for the rest of my time. Regardless of whether one might like it or one might not like it, this is where I am.
Luckily, Iím in the position now of being able to play purely because I have the desire to do so. It isnít a question of me having to play because I depend on it for my livelihood.
I donít. For the last five years Iíve been in the production business. I have a company in New York City producing music for commercials, for radio, TV, features, etc. Thatís how Iíve been making my living. And now the company is very successfulóto the extent that I can afford to come out and play.
This is rewarding to me, because Iím still able to playóand Iím playing with some young dudes who love to play. Mentally and physically, I find I can play with these people. Sure, Iíve had the good fortune to work with some fine talentsóthe late Eric Dolphy, Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo. Jim Hall, Buddy Collette. Ron Carter, just to name a few of the people that Iíve introduced throughout the years.
But this group is really something. At Ronnieís, we had young kids who enjoyed it so much they came in every night. Something elseóa lot of the old jazz diehards dug it, too.
Theyíd say, well, they didnít understand it, but they liked it. Plus the fact that they liked watching us doing what weíre doing. Because we donít have that angry approach about it. Whatís there to protest about? Not for musicís sake.
I mean, thereís a hell of a lot of grounds for protest, but you donít do it through music. Well, thatís my own personal opinion, anyway. You know, music is so demanding that you donít have time for that other thing. If youíre going to do that, then you should do it by way of the proper channels, where itís really going to mean something. All you can do is try to play your instrument to the best of your ability, to perform the music to its peak form.
Iím quite sure that all true professional artists, of every description, in all walks of life, whether their craft is painting, music, sculpture, medicine or anything, have one primary concernómankind. Not to protest at all, but to give of themselves, for the benefit of man. Now, I donít know about all this other junk that came later. Personally, I canít see how anyone can produce any beautiful music out of being angry. My views are my own, but I donít think Iím wrong. Iíve been a little more fortunate, perhaps, than a lot of people have, for the simple reason that Iíve constantly been moving: so nobody can hit meóyou know what I mean? Protesting is not the answerónot along those lines. Itís not that Iím that religious, perhaps Iím not religious at all, but I do believe in the human race of mankind. And Iím happy to say that Iím able to find people wherever I go that are not black, not whiteótheyíre just human beings. Thatís where I am, where Iíve been and where I intend to stay.
When I think back to the Ďforties era . . . during that time, people were doing a lot of things away from their regular jobs, regardless of whether they were musicians or not. People enjoyed themselves. There wasnít that much money around; consequently you had to make do. I was involved here, in London, back in 1950, when I happened to be the first American musician in twentyĖfive years to be able to plav in Britain.
At that time I was accompanying Lena Home. This was in the old Club Eleven days, and I met Ronnie Scott, Tony Crombie, Lennie Bush, all the guys. As a matter of fact, Charlie Short was playing bass with us. Weíve all been friends since that first time over here. Heck, it does my heart good to see these guys still on the scene. We played all over this town for nothingójust to be able to play: Unfortunately, there is no such thing as that any more. It just doesnít happenónot only here, but anywhere. Itís a question of economics; guys who canít make a living playing music have to fill their daytimes doing other types of jobs. But whenever they can get a chance to play, they will. A lot of musicians arenít proud; theyíll do other work, just to be able to play music. I guess thatís the way itís always going to beómusicians will have to suffer to a certain degree in order to obtain their outlet.
It was just circumstantial, really, that I got involved with small groups. Coming out of the big bands, I started accompanying, and I guess that is what led up to it. Because I learned quite a bit, by being an accompanist. Iíd like to pay tribute to the late Lennie Hayton. I thought he was a tremendous musician, one of the most fascinating that I have ever known. He was a fantastic composer, arranger and so on; he taught me plentyóeven how to play chess! Of course he helped Lena a lot; he helped anyone who came in contact with him musically. For me, he was a Robert Farnonóthatís who he reminds me of.
Incidentally, I must mention here that I also think Robert Farnon is a really wonderful musician. Music is music, regardless of what form that itís in; a C7th chord is still a C7th chord, whoever plays it. I heard something that Farnon did on a Tony Bennett TV show, manóit just wiped me out! And the drummer on that show,. Kenny Clareóheís dynamite. My kind of drummer? Iíll say he is. And so is Tony CrombieóTonyís playing his ass off, too. All these guys are playingóthey really are. Theyíre doing it as they feel it, and good things are coming out.
That first early Ďfifties quintet of mine, with Buddy Collette, Jim Hall, Fred Katz and Carson Smith, was organised in selfĖdefence, just to play in tune and play some good music. I didnít think in terms of it being a big step; it wasnít organised for that reason. I donít know what success is, really. If Iíve had some, itís just that on several occasions Iíve had the luck to be in the right place with the right people at the right time, as far as the music scene is concerned. Iíve always been considered a forerunner in a lot of directions, I know.
Here again, my reward has been in the fact that thereís always good young players who want to play with me. They seek me out and say: ďHey, man, Iíd sure like to play in your band.Ē And I get just as much from them as they do from me.
Yes, I was a part of the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet. It was the cool era; well, everyone was cool then. Everything was by design, you know. You didnít have the competitive aspect of music as you do today.
There was only one kind of music being played, and that was strictly jazz. No matter what form it took, it was just jazz. There was no pop or rock. As you recall, even the singers during that time were considered jazz singers. The only exceptions were the ones who specialised in the chic cafť type of acts, because they had chic cafťs then. And people had been playing the blues for years: it wasnít question of† rhythm íní blues or anything like that.
But what happens today: when you have a contemporary band or orchestra or group, people in general always put a group on a competitive basis with other groups. If itís a jazz group, theyíre going to compare it to a rock group; they donít know the difference. So youíre forced to compete.
The fact is, music is a multiĖbillion dollar business now; itís come a long way. Theyíve got away from using the word jazz, in many cases, and, as a matter of fact, itís not too good a word, anyway. Originally, it didnít have anything to do with music.
Thatís Mr. Ellingtonís bone of contention also, that it should be called something else. But people have to identify, and thatís the only way they can. Unfortunately, the average young people have no idea what itís all about, and they automatically turn off, because of the word. Thatís why Iím glad to see so many young people listening to what weíre doing. If itís presented to them under the title of jazz, then they might think a little different about jazz, or the average jazz player, the next time they hear it or read about it.
The thing about becoming the leader of any kind of a musical group irrespective of what instrument you play, is that, if you intend to keep a group, you must become the gimmickóif there is such a thing. In other words, you solely depend upon yourself for your resources. You have to hold everything together, in more ways than one.
In order to play musicóperiod, you must have patience and fortitude. But if youíre going to have a band or group, you must have patience to the extent that you give your players, if theyíre young or immature, an opportunity to develop. Because who knows, manóyou might have some giants on your hands. And nine times out of ten they are. Well, it takes time for them to find out what direction they want to go in. This is where Iíve been particularly fortunate, because Iím able to let guys just go ahead and do their thing. Which makes me strong, you see. I have to be as strong in my will and my way of thinking as they are in theirs.
That album I made with Tony Bennett, ďThe Beat Of My HeartĒ, is one of the classics, Iíd say. It was the first time a singer had ventured to do something like that. Tonyís fantastic, man. Like Frank Sinatra said, he is the best singer around. Iíve seen him from different angles: as a player accompanying him, Iíve seen what he does to an audience; and then Iíve seen him from the front, just watching him like anyone else. In every sense of the word, the man is a troubadour. Now, he sings for people. He gives you everything you could possibly want, as far as the treatment of a song is concerned. And he picks some of the grooviest songs; plus the fact that he sings some difficult songs also. As a singer, Tony Bennett is dynamite.
Copyright © 1972 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.