Talking to Les Tomkins in 1975
Since the Ellington days, I’ve added a few different things—like the ‘mumbling’ that people associate with me. As somebody said to me—you practise all your life, nothing happens: then you mumble one time and you get famous! But it’s nice to be associated with something, you know. I think everybody appreciates some measure of success, from whatever angle it comes.
It came about this way: in my home town, St. Louis, there were many places—dens of iniquity, you might call ‘em, but actually they were just places of refreshment, with sawdust on the floor, where a guy would go and have a beer. There was an upright piano there, which was triply laminated across the top, to withstand the weight of several steins of beer, and if you bought the piano player a beer, you could sing—it didn’t matter how good or how bad you sang, he would play for you. And many times, people would come up, and they’d decide they were gonna create some blues; they’d start singing about how they felt when they got up in the morning, and so on. By the time they got halfway into the second or third measure, the lyrics were highly unintelligible; but nobody cared—the feeling was there, the sawdust was bouncing about two feet off the floor from the footpatting, and the earlobes were tilting, there was finger-popping and so forth. It was just a feeling of gaiety and happiness, you know. And this was my imitation of these scenes, that happened so frequently in my home town.
So we were doing this record date in Toronto with Oscar—“The Ocsar Peterson Trio Plus One”. We had finished the music, and I just wanted to do this for a party record, to have a tape to play at my home when I had guests—just for laughs, you know, so the people would say: “What the heck is he saying?” I asked Oscar, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen to give me an introduction. They said “Sure”; the date had been one take each, because he’s from the Norman Granz clan, and he believes in first-takers, also—so we had lots of time left. We got about two measures into the thing —quite unintelligible, but at least making it swing, thinking of those joints, the gaiety and all that—and I looked over from the little booth I was in, isolated from the rhythm section, and Oscar was so carried away with it, he was practically on the floor, cracking up with laughter. He said: “Wait at minute—let’s start it over again. I’m gonna put this in the album.” And as well as that up-tempo version, I did a slow version, “Incoherent Blues”; he put both of ‘em in this album. That was ten or twelve years ago when we did that; I think they’ve been reissued recently.
Oh, yes, I’ve had several albums, like “Mumbles”, “The Mumbler Returns”, “The Mumbler Strikes Again”, “Electric Mumbles!” I figured I might as well run the gamut, because if I didn’t, somebody else would. And, sure enough, a few people have. Jon Hendricks did one, and Richard Boone, he got involved.
The Varitone? I’m very happy to say that I’m no longer associated with that gadget; I felt like a hypocrite all the while I was promoting it. I’m still a clinician for Selmer, and sometimes they subsidise my fee, when some of the schools find it a bit difficult to come up with it; I was certainly very glad when they disassociated themselves with it, sold it, or whatever.
At the time, the Varitone was the first of the electronic devices that came out with the double-octave thing; it would reproduce the sound you played and then an octave lower. But it was so sensitive, all you had to do was just touch your mouthpiece, without the complete embouchure—you know, without the full imprint of the embouchure from the lips on the mouthpiece. You didn’t have to really dig in and blow. And I felt really terrible about it, because a kid would buy one of these things, and get involved with that before he found the centre of his tone and the true identity of his sound. It was a disservice, really—sort of like passing out crutches to kids. I’ve got two of ‘em in my basement now—I look at ‘em and laugh.
Of course, it’s quite necessary in some clubs for some amplification to be used, because you can’t be heard in all areas of the rooms you play in—I think that’s enough electricity.
Now, there are groups that are centred around the entire electrical concept, using all the electronic gadgets. An electric outfit in New York is Consolidated Edison; so we call all those groups the Con. Ed. groups. If you pull the plug out of ‘em, they’re all finished! Now, I like the group we worked opposite at Ronnie Scott’s—Pacific Eardrum; they do a beautiful job, using the ring modulator, electric piano, electric guitar, electric bass, electric drums. The pianist, Dave McCrae, is an excellent musician; in fact, all those guys are good players, very knowledgeable cats. They put a lot of thought into what they’re doing; not like the general run-of-the-mill younger crop, that just jumps on the electricity and uses it for a quick out, and, hopefully, a fast buck. This group have preconceived it, they enjoy it; it’s a work of art, very good to listen to. Sometimes, in the club, it got a little bit loud, specially if you sat close to one of those speakers. But that little girl, Joy—she’s a fantastic singer; it’s beautiful, the way she uses her voice as an instrument, with the voicing of the other two horns. It really is a great group, and I think they have the potential of becoming a very popular and highly-received international group.
As to my using the trumpet and the flugelhorn alternately, occasionally I can get out a little “poop” with the two together, but to do that you have to have double embouchure! I know a couple of guys who do that: simultaneously playing all the time with the left and the right hand—of course, it’s not very musical. There’s a guy who lives in Canada now, Frank Motley—that’s all he does, just plays the two trumpets that way. It’s rather difficult to think of being able to do two-part harmony like that, or even unison passages, and doing it precisely all the time. So a lot of times you hit a note and you fluff a few. But the gimmick looks good. As long as it doesn’t interfere with musicianship.
I think it’s good to have a certain amount of entertainment on the bandstand. It kinda makes for a little more interesting evening for people who come out to listen. They want to see something too. During my close to ten years with Ellington, because of the boredom sometimes of playing the same charts over and over, after the rigours of travelling in buses and trains and automobiles, from time to time you’d try to figure out things to do, to keep from being bored. So playing left-handed was one of the things that I got involved in. Just to break the monotony, I used to play left-handed; then I’d turn the horn upside-down and play it. I got to the point where it came pretty easy to me. I guess the left-handed bit was not too difficult for me, because I suppose, as a kid, I was somewhat halfway ambidextrous to begin with; I used to bat left-handed when we played softball. But, as I said, it’s good for a change of pace occasionally, so long as you don’t become obsessed with gimmickry. And I don’t think that word should be applied to something that is entertaining.
No, I haven’t tried any multi-recording with my horns. I’ve often thought of doing that, but I’ve had such bad vibes with the record companies in the past ten to fifteen years, till I’ve sort of given up hopes of ever doing anything like that. Record companies and me have been on the outs for years. Until recently, when I signed with Vanguard, which is an associate of Pye over here; they’ve been very beautiful—so maybe it’ll revitalise my interest, and so forth.
There’s just the one Vanguard album out as yet: “The Big Bad Band Live At The Wichita Jazz Festival.” But I’m about to do another, with a smaller group, and, by agreement, the choice of instrumentation and the material has to be stipulated by the A and R man, who is Ed Bland. I had the big band album recorded independently; after it was done, I peddled it around, and Vanguard bought it, but with ,the stipulation that I would do my next album, after they released that one, the way they wanted me to do it. So I don’t know what I’m in store for. You might hear an album come out with me with six harmonicas, twelve recorders and two kazoos! I haven’t yet recorded with strings—not commercially. I’ve done a couple of things with George Rumanis, when we were doing a lot of commercial dates in New York; we did it on a prospective basis, hoping that we would sell ‘em, but nobody ever bought ‘em. Because, at the time, it was being overdone. Everybody and his brother had a record out with strings: “So-and-so With Strings”; “Such-and-such With Strings”. So that’s another thing that went by. I’d say I prefer to play the flugelhorn now. I pounded that steel against my chops on the trumpet for so many years; when I was forced to do it, I had to do it, and now the sound of the flugelhorn is my preference. People ask me why I play it, and I say: “Because I’m fifty-four years old, and at this age you’re supposed to be able to do what you want to do. If I can’t do what I want to do now, I don’t suppose I’ll ever be able to.” Although I play the flugelhorn mostly, I still love the trumpet. Using it intermittently, as I do, is helpful in making a night a little more interesting—for me, at least.
The flugelhorn is a much more intimate sounding instrument. Even before I played it, there was always a quality of intimacy that I was searching for on the trumpet. My thoughts were never on flailing, wailing, blaring type things all the time; just on occasion I would like to play up high, using the plunger for colouration, from the association with Ellington. But for the intimate type of speedy, dancing, skating things, and for the pretty things, for things that involve a lot of thought, chords and so forth, I find that I can get better results with the flugel. Before I got hold of the flugel, I used to put a felt hat on the end of my trumpet; that would give me the sort of .quality that I always sought. It was really the flugel I was looking for.
People have asked me: “Don’t you like your sound on trumpet?” The answer is that I like to do both, and I’ve developed a thing where, when I play the trumpet, I like to do it with the plunger or with a mute. If I’m gonna use an open horn, I prefer to use the flugel. So that’s just my choice, you know; if people accept it, beautiful—if they don’t, I’m sorry. If they like open horn, there’s a lot of guys on trumpet who like that blasting, screeching approach, and do it beautifully. I just don’t feel that I fit in that category. There’s so many who can do it so much better; so why should I get into it?
Regarding jazz—there are clear signs of an up-trend. The reason I think this way: in America there are upwards of twenty-five to thirty thousand high schools alone that are involved in what they call “the stage band movement”. They refer to it that way because in many areas they’re not allowed to call it jazz. So these kids are being exposed to jazz for the first time; a few years ago, a lot of ‘em were only involved in the loud guitars and drums of not very good rock ‘n’ roll. I think it’s very beautiful now to see them getting involved in blending with one another in sections, in taking choruses over backgrounds in charts, in playing nice little hip things in small groups, in learning about chord progressions, how to jam, and all that. Overall, the whole situation looks extremely healthy, and even though some of the kids may not stay involved with music for a livelihood, at least they’re going to be able to influence their associates, friends and families as to what to listen to, what not to listen to, what to buy, what not to buy.
Because, as you well know, the terrible thing is that the media has monopolised the whole scene. As the media goes, that’s the way the popularity of music goes. If the media says bang-bang-ding-a-ling-ding is it—that’s it. Nobody gives a damn how much hard sweat, blood and tears you put into mastering your craft—if you don’t conform to what the media says is it, you’re out. So you either wait your turn, and try to survive in some other medium, until it comes back, or you get on the bandwagon—or you get out completely. And I’ve seen a lot of guys get out, you know.
But as we also know, if there were a little more promotion, a little more effort put forth to educate the listener, jazz could be a thriving thing throughout the world—because whenever it’s attempted to be, it is. It’s a known fact that you can package garbage, and if you promote it properly, you can sell it, you can make a big thing out of it. Why can’t they do that with jazz? They could, if they wanted to.
And some day they’ll get around to it—when they exhaust all other means of milking the people! I don’t suppose there’s anybody that I know of who could go three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year playing pure jazz and make a good living—I mean a living like one of the rock stars would make. Those of us who are involved in jazz, who believe in it, live by it and stick with it, we have to do other things from time to time. You have to subsidise your yen for whatever it is you believe in. I don’t know if the day will ever come when a jazz musician will be able to play jazz all year round. I’d love to reach that point, because for the past ten years now I’ve been doing the clinics: it’s beautiful. and I love working with the kids, but it’s very time-consuming, energy-sapping—very hard work. You have to really be on your toes at all times when you’re confronted with a bunch of kids in a classroom. It’d be great to play jazz three or four hours a night, and just be finished till the next night, to be able to do that maybe four or five days a week—forever. But I can’t afford it. First of all, there are not enough places in the world, since the supporters of jazz are few and far between—the in-crowd, so to speak.
Unless we’re catering for that in-crowd, occasionally dragging somebody in who’s willing to try it for the first time, we’re up against it, you know, for an audience. And we don’t get the kind of subsidy that the symphonies get—that’s another thing that should be looked into. Every major city in the world has a symphony which is subsidised, either through the medium of wealthy people or one form of government or the other. But jazz people—as the old cliché goes, we have to get it from the nub! An age-old controversy is the comparing of the jazz musician with the classical musician. And I think it’s been proven: the jazz musician fares far better in the classical situation than the classical musician fares in the jazz situation. If you have a decent tone and can read, more than likely you could fit into a set-up with classical players. But it’s highly unlikely that a guy who can only play what’s in front of him could sit in and play a chorus of “I Got Rhythm” or blues or whatever. You could write it out for him, and put in all the curlecues, trills, etc.—but he wouldn’t be giving vent to his feelings.
We do have very faithful people involved in our craft—from the standpoint of the listener as well as the guy who produces the sound. This has always been, and I think it always will be. There’ve been times when people claimed jazz was dead—but it’s never even been sick! It just limps right along, you know. When a lot of other things are dead, jazz will still be full of life—you better believe it.
Copyright © 1975 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved