The end of an era
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976
A highly identifiable player? After all these years, that’s very nice to hear, because over so many years they said so many things, you know. I was a cliché of J. J. Johnson, whatever. I wouldn’t agree with that, either, but, of course, the writers have their own opinions. It’s their prerogative; I respect that.
By birth I’m from Detroit; my parents came from Jamaica, but they died, and I grew up in an orphanage in Detroit. In the public school system, I came up with Paul Chambers, Donald Byrd and that crowd. A very good school of music.
Also some of the older musicians, like Tommy Flanagan, Thad Jones and Milt Jackson—quite a good crowd! That had a lot to do with me becoming a jazz player; I didn’t do it on my own. I sort of got caught up into the spirit of things, and wherever they directed me, that’s the way I went.
With the chain of events that occurred, I more or less think that the trombone was chosen for me. I first selected a violin, which I didn’t do too well with, and, ironically, the only thing left was the trombone. My next choice was a saxophone, but they didn’t have any; so I think that the Creator had a lot to do with what I did, how it went about. Because things just happened, you know, and I had no control over it. And I ended up with my instrument that I play now.
Yes, it’s a very difficult instrument. It’s a position instrument. Which also applies to a violin and a bass; but, of course, the positions are a little closer, aren’t they? So it makes a difference.
We have thirty—two inches to work with, and it’s not at all easy. A bass player or a violinist can just make the change, boom, and we have to make it with our lip and the slide. Quite a bit of technique, I would say—and then someone may disagree with that! Any good musician wouldn’t, but there are a few writers around who may think the saxophone is difficult.
I had a fair amount of musical education, although I had to do a lot of things on my own, because my music teacher was a reed player per se; he had no knowledge of brass instruments. But, you know, when you’re caught up into a force, it really makes no difference. I may do some things wrong, but I do a lot of things right! When you have to get through yourself, studying and practising alone, you hear, you read, and you know the things that you can do well—and what you can’t do. You buy all the books you can buy, with your little money, and you try to do it the best you can.
As kids, we couldn’t afford the good white teachers—but we made out. Oh, yeah—talent has a way, all the time. Certainly, I had my trombone idols. Consequently, I ended up studying with J.J., and I had a lot of help from Frank Rosolino. I had met J.J. in Detroit, but I started really studying with him when I got to New York.
Another very sympathetic teacher I had was Elmer James, who was the bass trombonist with the Detroit Symphony; he put me on the right track—it was just a matter of staying there! When I went into the Service, Cannonball Adderley was the head of the Army band. And Mel Wanzo, who’s my colleague with Basie now, the lead trombone, was also in the band. Well, I was first in the Tank Corps, but they got me into the band—and it worked out beautifully.
There were a lot of good people down there : Junior Mance was the company clerk; Nat Adderley, Paul Chambers were in the band. We played not only jazz, but classical music, marching music—it was a wide variety; the opportunity was unlimited. Very good: I recommend it to anyone. _ Then the Basic band, Hampton, every band would come down to the Service clubs and play—I got a chance to meet and hear everybody, right there in the Army.
Meeting John Coltrane was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It was Miles Davis who took me to New York, and Coltrane was in the band, as well as Paul Chambers, Philly Jo Jones. ‘Trane took me aside, and, of course, we did “Blue ‘Trane”, which was my first album—and that started everything. He had confidence that I didn’t have; he saw something that I didn’t see. A great man. Yes, he had a very spiritual quality—I wish God would reach down and touch me the same way one day. He tried to steer me the right way, but I was a little reckless; I didn’t comprehend at the time—I was still chasing girls, and the whole bit. ‘Trane was giving me a message; unfortunately, I didn’t get it fast enough.
As for Miles—he’s a very great man. I’ve been involved with good guys all my life; I’m one of the few lucky ones out here. I’m very thankful to have been around these beautiful people—God’s been good to me. And I’m with another one now—Count Basie, a wonderful man. Well, I say luck, but I don’t really mean that. I’m where I should be.
Oh, I never have been confined to small groups—I’m a very good big band player. I’ve been with Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Evans, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, a small stint with Duke. How many are there? I did what I had to do. It wasn’t my forte; I’d rather be where I can play a lot more—I’m a soloist primarily. Of course, this band doesn’t afford that opportunity; there’s a lot of good players here, but it’s just not that type of thing. But it’s something that the Creator wanted me to do right now—and here I am.
Yes, it’s very important—that’s why I’m here. For some reason, we all know that this is the last of this, the end of an era. Duke Ellington’s gone, and quite a few of the others; there’s no more Dizzy Gillespie—big bands—none of that. There’s a few goofing around, but I mean a serious, identifiable sound. Oh, Woody Herman’s got a band; I’m not knocking anything, but this is a sound, this is a tradition. Woody Herman’s not a tradition. This is a very serious tradition, for young black people to come up in, an institution to learn about. Woody Herman has nothing to do with that. There is no Herman sound; there might have been Four Brothers, or four others, or whatever, at some point—which was very important to jazz. But this is the very last of its kind; you won’t see this again for a while—if it ever comes back. When Basie hangs it up, that’s it.
It’s the band it is because of Basie, yes; but then again, there’ve always been great players that have produced the Basie sound. Ironically, the people that come in the band are capable of maintaining that sound, regardless of who they are. I’m glad that I, having listened all my life, am able to do it.
This is different to Duke’s band, in that the players traditionally always produced his sound. Whereas in the Basie band, you can still keep your own identity. There’s a Basie swing, a Basie feeling, but not a certain way to play. With Ellington, Lawrence Brown or somebody would play Ellington’s music that way. But I can come in here, be Curtis Fuller, and still get over.
It’s a fact that Basie can play a riff, and from that we know what the tune is; but that’s a thing in itself. I’ve been here a year, and I basically know the book now; I don’t have to look at the music too much any more. I I think a guy should be able to do that; you play it enough, you should know it. Like, in the symphony orchestras, guys read the same thing thirty years, and they’re still looking at it—even though they’re not playing that much to worry about. See, a classical orchestra doesn’t have to swing; so they can concentrate on a few notes. But where you have to get up and give the music that little edge, in order for it to swing, then feeling, interpretation, conception have a lot to do with it.
A situation I feel strongly about is that, in jazz, a whole era of musicians seems to have been overlooked, thanks to writers. It’s very good that so much attention is focussed on sixty–year–old players; I wouldn’t want to get to sixty and be forgotten myself.
But there is no middle. They either talk about Roy Eldridge and all those guys, or about the brand–new guys on the scene. But they miss all the guys in the middle—the guys who keep the clubs open, names that people can identify with. Without Donald Byrd and people like that, many night—clubs would have to turn to rock,’ in order to make a living. They don’t talk about Jackie McLean any more. Kenny Dorham literally died, and nobody talked about him. Let’s face it—the writers make people; if they pan a player or a band, people will take that conception, and go with that—which is very wrong. They panned Ahmad Jamal, and the man had already sold three million records—the public had endorsed what he was doing. The only reason the Beatles made it was because Madison Avenue found a nice little white group, with long hair, for the kids to holler and scream at. That’s good—but we had a thousand groups like that over there.
You see, this is, why the free jazz form was almost forced upon us. They went through these periods when Dave Brubeck or Gerry Mulligan was the only jazz that was acceptable. All these guys are good players, now, but it’s still jazz created by us, and taken from us—like they did with Paul Whiteman. This is what’s happening, and that’s not right. So the guys said: “All right—we’ll really get something to fix you now. Now we’ll fix it so anybody can do it; so you won’t say: ‘You didn’t go to this or that university—you don’t qualify.’ We’ll throw all the European jive out of it, and make it this way. Now what you gonna do with it?” That was a rebellion—I don’t know whether it was right or wrong. A negative answer? Well, there are two wires that go together for any current exchange—positive and negative. Out of negative comes positive. They go hand in hand; you can’t have one without the other.
See, some of the younger people understood this. The older people rejected it: “It doesn’t swing. I can’t pop my fingers or shake my hips any more. What are they doing?” But that’s what they said when Charlie Parker rebelled, and did the same thing—“I don’t hear the melody any more. What’s happening?” All right—so it’s changed. But now there’s a fusion. This gave us a broader scope to deal with; now a good player, one that knows his instrument, can cover the whole bit. It’s not limited to Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman or anybody else; the spectrum belongs to everyone. And who can do it better than a guy that really knows his horn, and can make it swing? Like ‘Trane—he fused the two. But he came from the honking bit, all that stuff—a whole different school, see. He didn’t just come up not knowing anything, and start honking and squeaking. He was a proven musician, who had it all together. But what is wrong is the way all the writers jump on the bandwagon when a new guy comes along. He doesn’t have the time, or the knowledge, behind him, but they’re ready to jump on anything that looks like a saleable item, and say it’s the greatest thing that ever happened.
Are we dealing with fads—or facts? But I’ve been around a while, and I’m not asking questions. I can play, and I know it; I’m not looking for any pats on the back. I don’t have to be endorsed by anybody. I make enough to live and eat, and I’m happy with my music—and that’s all I need. My government just gave me a grant to write a concerto, which I’m working on now. I have a contract to do another recording soon. Then, when I’m off, I work with my old friend Cedar Walton and whoever’s around; we have a ball, stretch out, open up—and we’re happy.
Copyright © 1976 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.