They can't take that away from me
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1962
I was never really away from jazz—not a final, absolute separation. It’s just that there were so many other things that put great demands on my time that I wasn’t able to function jazz–wise as much as I would have liked—or should have been doing. I wasn’t always available for public appearances but inside of me it was still swinging. I kept hearing the changes. As the song says, they can’t take that away from me.
There’s not a great deal of light shed on West Coast activities. It’s not in the centre. And it has a tendency to be cliquey out there—especially during the ‘fifties with the era of West Coast Jazz—is that what it was called? The guys who were participating in that were getting all the gigs and all the publicity. Other people like myself were kind of shuffled aside. Fortunately I came out of it and the last couple of years things have been picking up momentum for me.
I guess the start of it all really was the play, “The Connection.” I was asked to write the music and to act in the play. I played the part of what the script called the Number One musician—the bandleader, in fact. This was quite a challenge to me. The themes had to be specific to the plot or the scene. It really built up my self–confidence and at that time I needed it. It did a lot for me.
My writing otherwise has been confined to what the cats call charts—mainly for record dates. When you’re doing a record date you want to have two or three originals so you scribble off some things. If I have two or more horns then naturally I have to write out harmony parts, but I’ve never been over–interested in arranging. That’s an art in itself. But I do like composing and I seem to have a little talent there for melodic composition, Then an agent in Hollywood, Bob Leonard, approached me. We talked and he said he was going to try and get some things for me. He wrote to several companies, saying that he was acting on my behalf, that I was available and he could produce me for record dates. He had offers from different companies and the best was from Blue Note.
I’m very happy about the Blue Note association. They’re a very responsible, conscientious label. So many of the jazz record companies are unreliable in some ways. This is the first company I’ve been with that I’ve got any statements and royalties from. Everything’s right on time. They conduct business like a major company, such as Victor, Decca, Capitol—on that level. I’ve been with them since November, 1960—that’s when I signed the contract. I didn’t do those albums until May, 1961. I went back to New York for a week and did the two albums.
I returned to New York in April this year and since I’ve been back I’ve done two more albums of my own and a couple as a sideman with other artists. One was with Herbie Hancock and I did one for Columbia with Pony Poindexter. Pony had some charts for reeds and rhythm and I think they came out pretty nice. He was playing alto and soprano and he used Phil Woods and Gene Quill on altos, Billy Mitchell and myself on tenors and Pepper Adams on baritone. Gildo Mahones was on piano, Charlie Persip made it and the bass–player was a cat from Chicago—I can’t think of his name.
Was I conscious back in the early ‘forties that I was taking part in a musical revolution? Yes, I was, but perhaps not to the extent that I realise now. I knew this was something new and different and it was very exciting.
I went into the Eckstine band from Louis Armstrong’s band, which was a very mediocre big band. Pops, as far as I can remember, never really had any good big bands. In fact, he didn’t even run the band. The straw–boss was really the leader. When I was in there Teddy McRae, who was a very fine tenorman himself—he was the straw and he was rehearsing the band and so forth.
None of those bands seemed to be units, really. Actually all they were doing was backing up Pops, and they didn’t have that real togetherness. Most of the arrangements they had were from the ‘thirties—“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Sleepy Time Down South”–all those type of things that he’s built his reputation on.
Actually I enjoyed it for the chance to get to know Pops, and play with him and hear him. Beautiful—that gassed me. And he’s a wonderful person.
I was in that band for about six months, then I went directly into Eckstine’s band, which I hadn’t heard before. I really didn’t know what to expect. I joined them in the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., taking the chair of Lucky Thompson, who had just left the band. And man, I didn’t have any rehearsal, just sat in with the band cold—and I didn’t know what was going on. The whole conception was new.
Art Blakey was on drums, Tommy Potter on bass, John Malachi was the piano, Connie Wainwright on guitar and that was the rhythm section. The reed section was Gene Ammons, myself, John Jackson, Leo Parker and a third alto–player named Billy Frazier. A few months later Sonny Stitt took his place.
But Gee, man, that first night there was so much going on that I couldn’t believe it. It was such a difference, coming out of Louis’ band to a band like this. It was a whole new world for me because here was the exact opposite—crazy arrangements, wild young musicians, the esprit de corps—I was just thrilled. This was the kind of band that I think every musician dreams of playing in.
It was the last show on the last night of the engagement at the theatre. They opened up with a number called “Blitz” —an up–tempo Jerry Valentine arrangement. They were off to the races—everything was flying. Every time Art would roll and kick I’d just come up out of the chair! Yeah, Billy’s band was the band—the first modern jazz big band. It’s just too bad that it started during the war at a time when big bands were on the way out. It stayed together a couple of years until things really started getting tight. The cost of living was rising every day, so the handwriting was on the wall regarding the big bands. I was with the band about a year, leaving before it broke up.
Bird was in there originally when the band was formed in ‘44. When I joined in September, 1944 he had already left and John Jackson had taken over on first alto. Diz was still in the band and, of course, that was a gas.
I first met Bird in ‘41, when he was still with Jay McShann. I was with Lionel Hampton’s band. McShann’s band was the house band at the Savoy ballroom and we worked in there opposite them. They had a wild, swinging band, too—very groovy. That was Bird’s initial exposure there, I guess. I liked him and everything but I didn’t hear him enough to realise at the time that this was the cat. But he sounded real great and I dug him. I dug the whole band, in fact.
It was with the Lionel Hampton band that I got my schooling. I learned an awful lot during my stay with them. I left school when I was 17 and Hamp had just left Benny Goodman. He was forming the band out on the West coast. His idea was to build a band mainly of young musicians. He had a few key men who were established professionals, such as Marshall Royal, who was the first alto–man and also the straw–boss, Carl George, who was playing first trumpet and Fred Beckett, who was first trombone. They were the sound of the band really.
Illinois Jacquet was the other tenor, Jack McVea was playing baritone, Marshall on first alto, Ray Perry on third alto. Ernie Royal and Joe Newman were in the trumpet section. Shadow Wilson was the drummer and Sir Charles Thompson was the pianist. This was a very musical band—nothing like the band is today—no circus or anything. What we were playing was very modern at that time, though there wasn’t anybody doing the things that Bird and Diz were later to do. I think it was one of the most clean and musical bands in the business at the time.
Unfortunately, part of the time I was with Hamp there was a record ban on. There was only about one year when I was with them that the band recorded. I didn’t do any solo work but I was on the original recordings of “Flying Home,” “ In the Bag” and several others.
Copyright © 1962, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.