The jazz language
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1975
It was good to be back in London, and the engagement at Ronnie’s was real fun. We enjoyed every night—the kind of job where you like to hurry and get to work, and hate when it’s finished. Yeah, it’s a beautiful club.
Sure, there was a lot of interest in the fact that Ernie Wilkins is a member of the group. Most people are quite unaware of the fact that Ernie’s a very talented saxophone player. They know him as an arranger but not as the wailing tenorman that he is. In the last couple of years, I would say, he’s been developing fantastically; he’s always played tenor, but he’s been so busy writing that nobody recognised him as a player.
As a matter of fact, I’ve been coaxing Ernie into all sorts of situations for several years. I was the first to get him to leave home, which is St. Louis, Missouri. Basie needed an alto player and a trombone player—and, for some strange reason, both Basie and Ellington, whenever they’d need a musician to join their bands, they would always ask me to find a guy for them. So I took the liberty of calling St. Louis from Basie’s dressing-room in the Strand Theatre on Broadway.
And I knew that Ernie had never played alto saxophone in his life—he was always a tenor player. But I also knew that he was a competent enough musician to make the switch; most woodwind players, if they can play one of the family excellently, have no problem adjusting to the others..
I says: “Hey, Ernie—wanna come and join Basie’s band?” “Oh, man—stop kidding!” “No, really—seriously. You gotta get an alto.” “An alto?” I says: “Yep, an alto. Bring your brother Jimmy, and come here tomorrow, because Basie doesn’t know where you are, and I told him I’d bring in an alto and a trombone for him tomorrow:” So his mother borrowed a saxophone from one of the fellows who played in the church choir! Ernie and his brother came: I took them up, said: “Basie, here’s your new men.” From that point, of course, it’s history. Having got with Basie’s band, Ernie wrote “Ev’ry Day” for Joe Williams, “Big Red” and all those wailing Basie things that the band recorded during that period.
I work more or less regularly with this group; as soon as we get back, we have an engagement at the Vanguard in New York. Actually, the pianist, Dan Haerle, is a substitute for Ron Matthews: at the last minute, he was, unfortunately, not able to make the trip, because he had just taken a new job, which he would have lost, if he had taken off. But we were lucky enough to get Dan, who is a fantastic player.
It’s the same rhythm section, whatever I work with—the big band or a small group, which might be rhythm and myself, or rhythm, myself, and another horn. The other horn is usually Ernie: sometimes we use Arnie Lawrence, Jimmy Heath or Phil Woods. I change around from time to time, but in order to be able to do this, a rhythm section would have to be rather versatile. There are a number of guys who play well with small combos, but can’t play big band charts. And vice versa, of course. Guys get the stamp: “He’s a great big band drummer”, and so on, ‘but they don’t fit too well with combos. These men fit both categories.
Victor Sproles has been playing with me for about eight or nine years. Ed Soph, close to “two years, since he came out of the Woody Herman band. He’s a graduate of that very popular school in North Texas—Denton, where Leon Breeden has so many excellent bands. The One O’clock Band, the Two O’clock Band , . . now they’ve passed Twelve and run out of Clocks.
I guess it’ll have to be the Thirteen O’clock Band! No, I haven’t worked with Bob Brookmeyer in recent years—other than him sitting in with the group, at a club in Los Angeles called Donte’s, where I work quite regularly. Brookmeyer now lives in Los Angeles, and occasionally he’ll come out of hiding.
He’s sort of in recluse now, so to speak—I don’t know what his problem is, but he just won’t come out, and he doesn’t like to play much any more. Because we were co-leaders, we refer to each other as Co, and when I come to town sometimes, he’ll say: “Co—I think I gotta go home and get the old axe out. You’ve given me the itch!” So he gets his trombone, comes out, and we play a lot of the old things that we used to play together. I enjoyed working with that group—it was a fun group, Well, we had a sort of a mutual admiration society between the two of us. That helps a lot, too. So often, two guys get on the bandstand with a rhythm section, and there’s a notable absence of empathy, you know—and this comes out in the music. We just happened to really dig each other; I loved every note he played, and I think he kinda dug what I was trying to do.
Up until the past few years, a lot of my time was taken up with commercial work. But in recent years I’ve more or less gotten completely away from that scene. I spent so much time in the commercial area. that I just got a little bit sick of it—because I was witnessing so much complacency. I looked around, and here are guys who are playing their instruments like IBM machines. “Okay—next—doing it perfectly and precisely, but with no feeling, no soul whatever. It was just a matter of: “How much money can we make?” and “Let’s hurry and get this over, so I can get to the next date.” With people thinking like that around me—I felt myself kind of slipping into that attitude. And I knew I just didn’t want any part of that.
So I got out of that, and I got involved with kids. I’m doing a lot of teaching in universities, colleges, high schools, junior high, and it’s fun, because there you’re working with people who are trying to achieve goals, whose aim is mastering their crafts.
Imparting some of the knowledge to them, you feel like you’re doing something. And I think that this kind of programme of clinics doesn’t happen here in Britain. I was speaking to some students in the youth band that played at the Louis Armstrong concert the other night; they were saying there’s a great absence of things of that sort, and they would like very much for it to happen here in this country. Possibly, the reason for its virtual non-existence is the lack of sources to tap for funds. In the States, we have a National Endowment for the Arts, and a number of subsidising and sponsoring organisations. Then the universities are generally quite wealthy, because they, too, are subsidised by the Government. It’s a definite trend over there.
I’d like to see it happen everywhere, because it really is a beautiful thing for those of us who have been involved in what we do all our lives: we get with the younger kids, and it kinda helps to keep the craft alive. And there’s no better way to pass it on than from mouth to ear. Because many of the things that are used in jazz—combinations of sounds, productions of certain feelings and moods and so forth—can’t possibly be written down, you know. You have to sort of lay it on the kids through osmosis.
Like years ago when we were coming along—in order to learn how to bend a note, to give the proper inflections and flavouring to a passage, you had to be there sitting next to a guy who’s been doing that all his life. A few years back, there were no books that even attempted to do this sort of thing. So when you were right there with a guy, you hear him say: “Mmmm—mm—mmm—mmm”, and you begin to appreciate how he did it.
This sort of close contact is one of the only ways that you can get the true feeling of the jazz flavour. About which, incidentally, I have a book coming out: “The Interpretation Of The Jazz Language”. That’s what it is—a universal language. Any country in the world that you might go to, if you took out your horn and played a chorus of the blues, if there were other musicians around, they would understand your message. Yes, it breaks down the barriers, absolutely —there’s no problem with that.
My situation now is that I’m involved in a number of things. There’s an old saying, that you can’t have your cake and eat it too—but I find that you can, providing you take small bites! I’m into many facets of employment—and enjoyment. I have an excellent big band, with writing, for the most part, by Ernie, as well as some by Phil Woods and Jimmy Heath; most of the guys are professors and teachers, and we do some college tours occasionally. I get a chance to do that, I do things with my small group, I get out and work with the kids in the schools, I play a lot of the jazz festivals, a lot of the big special jazz parties. Also I’m invited to do special things in various countries, such as: I was invited over by the Swedish Government, to take part in a performance in honour of Duke Ellington; the same thing for Denmark, with the Danish TV and radio bands. And just recently Ernie and I were in Yugoslavia, to do a couple of recordings for the Yugoslavian top players.
It’s kind of interesting to maintain a variety. I hate to think of being stymied in one particular thing, like I was when I was in the studio. There, all you had to look forward to was just going from one studio to another, and sitting with a bunch of complacent guys. Yes, many of the records that included my name in the personnel were very lightweight; they were making an attempt to get into the jazz scene, but it was so commercial, till it was rather trite. Great players—you couldn’t possibly get ‘em to play a wrong note; they all read well, all play with the proper jazz feel. But there’s just something about doing it for real, when you’re really into it, as against walking into a studio for it. That’s why my two big band albums which are out were live performances—I prefer it that way. AS the old saying goes: what you see is what you got.
That’s one thing I love about Norman Granz—when you walk in the studio with him, he turns the set on, and the way you feel, the way you play it, nine times out of ten, he’s gonna take that first take. He says: “That’s what you intended. That’s the way you felt it.” And he’s more than likely right, in most instances.
Unless there’s a very bad blunder, a goof, or something goes askew somewhere along the way; then, of course, you have to do it over again. Norman realises that guys want to do their best. And usually, when you try very hard, if you know your craft, your best thing will come out on the first take, anyhow.
On the subject of Duke Ellington I will say what I’ve always said: he’s the greatest influence, not only on me but many, many musicians around the world, and the best thing that could have possibly happened to jazz—to music, period. He was just a fantastically great person, a great musician, and I don’t think the world will ever know what a fantastic musical mind he had. I don’t think he ever really got his just due; people don’t realise yet what an inspiration he was. YOU know, you’ve probably heard it said many times that his band was his instrument—well, if you were a member of his band. he had a way of getting out of you exactly what he wanted. You may not have been aware of the fact that you could do it, but he would get it out of you.
Just to give you an idea—when we did an album called “A Drum Is A Woman”, he says to me: “Hey, Sweetie, I want to do this little thing about Buddy Bolden, and I want you to portray the role of Buddy Bolden.” I says: “But Maestro, I never knew Buddy Bolden, never heard him play; he’s never made records.” He says: “Oh, of course you know all about him. He lived a great life, the ladies loved him, he was handsome, cool, suave and smooth. He had a powerful sound, and when he played, he bent notes; when he tuned up in New Orleans, you could hear him across the river, and he used to break glasses on the shelves of people’s china closets across in Algiers. You know all that —with that in mind, just give me a little idea of how you think he might have sounded.” So I went into what I thought he was trying to get out of me, and he said: “That’s it, that’s it!”
Same thing with the band. The band played his music just the way he wanted it played, you know. That’s why it’s always been very difficult for any other band to play Ellington’s music. He handpicked guys to do his things. It was said that he didn’t write parts—he wrote for the individual.
Billy Strayhorn used to do this also; I guess it’s something he acquired from his association with Maestro. He would write a chart, and even the voicing, he would have in mind the people who were going to play these various notes. With five notes in a chord, he would think: “Now Harry’s gonna play this, Rabbit’s gonna play this, Procope’s gonna play this, and Paul’s got this.” And there was a certain note, an E natural on the trumpet—the concert D—whenever this note was given to the trumpet section, he would always put it on Rex Stewart’s part, whether it would be the lead, the third, the fourth, or maybe parts that would be sort of abruptly changing lines. It’s said that he used to give this note to Rex because he had a way of playing his E natural with almost a semi-pure tone quality—a half-valve type of sound. And it added some sort of a colour to the chord that he wanted, and wrote for. He missed no opportunity to take advantage of everything that every individual in his group was outstandingly known for.
He was a fantastic man. He was a great wit; a beautiful, warm-hearted man. A good person.
I can’t think of any period, during the ten years I was with the band, that I didn’t enjoy—or I wouldn’t have stayed there that long. You know, there was a saying that if you stayed in the band ten years, you were doomed—you would never get out.
Actually, I think I stayed about nine years and eleven months! But most of the guys stayed right there until the bitter end, and a few left but they returned. I suppose I was one of the few people who did leave and didn’t return. But while I was there, I just enjoyed the whole scene. I refer to my close to ten years’ stay as having attended the University of Ellingtonia for ten years. It was more or less like that, too; every day was a day of learning for me. As great as Pops was, the individual person who had the most influence on me, and on my playing, was Ellington.
Yes, I’ve heard Mercer’s band, and I do think it’s a good idea. Mercer is by no means an idiot; he’s a smart man, and he knows that he couldn’t possibly duplicate the Ellington band. A lot of people think that he is attempting to do this, but he is not. His idea is just to have a good band, and play Ellington compositions, not necessarily the way the band would have played them—because it’s impossible to have that identity.
First of all, without Harry Carney there . . . I recall a few times when Harry had to leave; when a substitute came in to play baritone—many times Procope would fill in for Harry—it just was not the same. When Johnny Hodges wasn’t there—even during the period when Willie Smith played lead alto in Johnny’s place—there was a big difference. But Willie was such a fantastically great person, till even that became a part of Ellingtonia.
Mercer’s band couldn’t play anywhere near the level of the Ellington sound—because of the personnel, of course. However, Mercer has a nice band; he’s got a lot of young, no-name people, which he would naturally have to have, to come out with a new band.
Because finances are one of the problems we have to face with big bands; you have to scout around to find kids who can play, but who don’t require a heck of a lot of loot to travel. It’s really a very serious thing. You can’t get the name guys to go out on the road—everybody’s a bandleader nowadays! Too many chiefs and not enough Indians!
Copyright © 1975 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved