The Man in the Corner
Thrill of Playing
The Man in the Corner
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1979
As the first musician to ever use an amplifier for bass—sometimes I wonder whether the human sound is being replaced by electronics. I was compelled to reflect in this manner at a recent concert with the all—star Lionel Hampton band. Through the first three or four songs we played, in my own fingers I felt balance—and then I would put my own dynamics to that. All of a sudden—we’re playing some blues or something, and there was a strange overtone sound, coming from somewhere on the bandstand.
The majority of the band immediately looked over at me, as if to say: “Chubby, your bass is too loud.” Now, the point I’m trying to bring out is that our motivations in music were now . . . or let’s put it this way —we were at the mercy of the man that was the engineer over there. He felt that he should be turning us up; it was entirely related to the way he thought, which had nothing to do with what we thought. So there’s a declaration of some kind of confrontation right there, which I am not at all happy about—because it takes away, number one, the individuality of the player, and puts him at the mercy, I repeat, of a man—almost certainly a non–musician—who is saying: “Well, I think he should be louder” or “ I think he should be softer.”
That whole thing, I think, got its initial start in the rock field, where the practice is to have twenty–five thousand mikes and amplifiers, with everybody playing as loud as they possibly can. Which effectively covers up the loveliness or the gentility of music, or the sensitivity of music, and makes it just a tremendous emotional sound. When we give into that, we lose some of the articulate qualities that should be worth holding on to.
I’m not much in favour of that kind of sound. I really like the human sound, with a little bit of an edge—so that it’s up to me whether I feel like playing louder or softer. Or using a sense of dynamics that would come from within me—then it’s my own individual approach, and my own little creativity, if we want to use that word, rather than just becoming a mere puppet in the hands of a man that’s sitting over in the corner. A man who does not know the intricacies of jazz, or the feeling of improvisational quality within the individual musician. He makes an arbitrary decision to increase the volume; he sees that now the whole band looks like they’re putting the instruments to their lips, and are really going to blow real loud, and says “Okay. I’ll just turn him up too.” In the meanwhile, it destroys clarity, definition between notes, the complete internal balance of the band.
The whole band suffered for this. I turned around, so did the pianist Ray Bryant and the drummer Panama Francis, and we were all trying to signal in the appropriate direction: “Drop it down it’s getting much too loud.” However, not one of us got across to this gentleman. So I did the only thing I could do—I turned my amplifier completely off.
For the rest of the evening, I just played from brute strength and wasn’t heard worth a doggone. But there was no way to combat his need for recognition or identification. And it was not fair, I mean, this is not just prevalent in this area; this is true just about anywhere. Yes, it is indeed a malaise of today—and I am not for it. I think the closer we get back to natural sound the better off we’ll be—which, as I say, gives you an individual sound. And you know who’s playing.
It’s not just a trumpet player—it’s Joe Newman. or it’s Dizzy. or it’s Clark Terry, or it’s Freddie Hubbard, any of those identifiable giants. Rather than just: “Well, that was a trumpet playing.” That’s one of the fallacies. I believe, that has been occurring in a great deal of today’s music—because of this abominable over–amplification. I feel that musicians have got to band together and say: “Just a moment—let us alone”. Because it all started from us in the first place, after all.
Now there’s a thing in the States called direct–to–disc, That’s going right back to where we started from, without the headstrong engineer who is determining what the sound of today is going to be. In normal taping, we’re being used as mere puppets; they put our sound in this huge box, and then, when we leave, they mix and edit, and it ends up, in many ways, nowhere near the sound that we originally wanted it to be. It ends up their conception of what they want it to be.
There‘s no doubt about it musicians should have control of their own destinies. This is not just a conversation I’m having with you at the moment; a lot of us have been talking about this. In America anyhow, all over the country, a lot of jazz players are starting to realise that they’re being used. At the end of the record date, they realise that they didn’t have the sound they started out to have. Certain people should be made to realise how we musicians feel, Of course, there are many more positive points to discuss about music, but now and then it’s good to be able to voice a genuine insidecomplaint of a musician, As a rule, I’m not a complainer, really. Essentially, I’ve tried, through my career in music, to be a very happy guy. I have a son who is also a very happy player he’s a good drummer. I never really look for some of the more nasty things in music, but sometimes there’s something that seems to declare war on us—and it gets to you a little bit.
Catalyst One other source of some irritation is the way the music business categorises all of us. Young or old—we’re a certain age, and therefore what we do must be put in a certain category.
But the fact is, so much music can be termed infinitely young. Take Igor Stravinsky—one of the most difficult pieces of music I’ve ever heard in my life is “The Rite Of Spring.” I defy anybody to call that old—fashioned, and it was written in 1911. Now, you take a man like ICharlie Parker, who was one of the top innovators in music; there is no reason in this world why that particular form of music shouldn’t be embellished upon.
Players like, say, ICharles McPherson should be encouraged, not to imitate Charlie, but to take that marvellous harmonic and rhythmic quality that Charlie had, and put it into their own hands and thoughts. Because it was too expansive a sound of music to just be discarded because it was done thirty years ago.
I really don’t believe that any musician ever named Swing, bebop, progressive, soul, rhythm ‘n’ blues—I think this all came from a desk of businessmen who were categorising us players to better sell records. They have the power to change an era, to get rid of a certain group of guys, to bring in a new group, so that they can say: “Well, we can sell more records this way. These other guys have been heavily recorded already: let’s get rid of them, bring in some new sounds and sell those.” So they bring in rock, or this or that.
All of us who play it. I think, classify it as just music. The business area has helped, in many different ways, to destroy our contributions, by looking at it from a decimal point only. They’ve forgotten that it’s music, and they’re just thinking how much money it can make. We’ve had to combat that for many years. In the States—and I would assume it’s the same here in Europe or anywhere—money seems to be such a catalyst. To me, it’s not; it’s not the arrival of the artistic. It’s a businessman who strictly is making his living, and everybody else’s who works for him, on the talent of people like us. And there’s nothing we can do about it. Everything I’m saying is very apparent in the States right now.
Country and Western music is huge. And there’s a music, black funk, which does not cook worth a darn; it does not burn in any way, but it is being utilised by record producers. It is being sold tremendously in the market, and it has eliminated a lot of our playing. The record people will not buy our playing as against that—or Country and Western.
Now, rock, to me, is getting closer and closer into Latin. If you put a cowbell to some of the rock things, it can sound like a cha–cha or a mambo. The drummers have graduated into more of a Latin sound; all the percussion things that are going on prove that rock and Latin are like brother and sister.
There’s one thing I can’t get away from. Ray Brown, who is one of my favourite bass players, made a statement about the blues: “When anybody can write something better, then we’ll do it.” The blues seems to give you a freedom, and it’s a happy feeling, albeit that it comes from fifty or more years ago.
What I’d like to know is: who named jazz? I’ve always asked a lot of people about that. I don’t know where it came from; I know it had some very ugly connotations when I was a kid, and many people would look down their noses at us. They’d say: “Oh, he’s a jazz player”—that meant a lot of ugly thoughts. And yet, jazz music is one of the most academic, mathematical, deeply–seated studies that I’ve ever known in my life. You just don’t pick up your horn and ramble back and forth, in and out of chord changes, inversions and whatever—you’ve got to know where you’re at. If you don’t, you’re nowhere—that’s the truth.
Copyright © 1979 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.