Talking to Les Tomkins in 1973
It's been great to see you at Ronnie Scott's, Dizzy. How's it been going?
Just fabulous. This is my first time playing in a jazz club in London. Well, I played the Playboy Club for two weeks, but that was for a different type of people. This is really something that I've looked forward to for a long time; it finally materialised. I came in for two weeks, and now the engagement has been extended to three weeks.
Well, we've been looking forward to it, too. We've seen you in concerts, but not in the ideal environment of the club.
Yes, in concerts you don't have a chance to really stretch out, like you do in a club. But a concert has its place; that's when you play your blockbusters. In Ronnie's, you're playing three sets, and if you can maintain a high level of performance in three whole sets—well, man, you're doing pretty good.
What sort of engagements do you work in the States nowadays?
All sorts. I play clubs, colleges and with symphony orchestras. I do clinics with my group; sometimes we spend a week or so on a college campus. Every now and then we get a little TV show. It's highly diversified now. There's a lot of interest in music in the States.
Do you keep this group on a permanent basis?
I do, yes. I'm very fortunate I with this group. I don't work as much as I used to, because I want to stay home; I've got a house, and I want to enjoy it some. So my musicians are picked now under the assumption that I'm not under any pressure to keep working steady, steady all the time. Because they work in New York when. . . what do you call those guys who supply musicians'.. . . the contractors. .
Fixers, we call them here.
Okay. We call 'em contractors. When the contractors find out that my musicians are in town, they are swamped with offers of jobs, you know. So I try to book in advance, and set that up, and then they can work around that, when we're off.
You'd say you pace yourself these days, then?
Oh, of course. I'm like a runner; I know how much energy it takes for any given situation, and I use that energy accordingly.
Would you like to say a few words about your present men?
Oh, yeah. I got Al Gafa on guitar, Mickey Roker on drums, Earl May on bass and Mike Longo on piano. I could spend two or three hours talking about each one of these guys, because they fulfil just what I need in a group; they're beautiful. I think it's the best group I ever had.
1 would say so. 1've never heard you with a better group than this one.
Highly professional; this really gets together. They're sincere about everything: what comes out of the amplifiers, the squeaks, whether you're in tune or not, how everybody sounds with one another—every aspect of the music.
As you make a point of mentioning on the stand, you're from South Carolina. Is that very different from North Carolina?
There is quite a difference ethnically, I guess you'd call it.
Other than that they're all Southerners. But its funny—right across the state line, they have their own ways. In different states, you find different mores of society.
You had a pretty ordered family upbringing, I believe, going into music quite early. You actually started on trombone, didn't you?
Yeah, trombone was the first official instrument; I always fooled around with piano before that. The trombone was be cause none of the other guys wanted to play it. Then, when the guy next door to me, Brother Harrington, got a trumpet, that's when I realised that was the horn I wanted to play. I was thirteen or fourteen or so.
What sort of thing did you originally do on the instrument?
I only played in Bb! A lady named Miss Alice Wilson organised a minstrel show that we did every year in the school. Also she organised a little group to play for the kids to march in and out of the chapel—that was a trumpet, a trombone, a snare drummer, a bass drummer and a piano. Five nieces, and we used to really get it. There was a bass drummer named Wes Buchanan—ooh! I can play bass drums sorta like that. . that's something, man. . . I haven't heard that since I left South Carolina, what he did with the bass drum, except possibly a little bit in the Sanctified church.
A dancing kind of sound, I suppose.
It danced all over the drums. You I played the bass drum with your hand, and your knee was up against it, too.
So you had several rhythms going at once.
Oh, man—it's really beautiful. Sometimes a guy had a cymbal on top of the drum, with another one in his hand so he could hit it like that, and at the same time play the drum in between. Yeah, man, I think I could play one, because I never heard many people could play that in American jazz. The reason we had a bass drummer was: he was the bandleader, see. And then, when trap drummers came out, that sort of messed them up; he had to get out in front, and sing and dance. He was like . . . you ever hear of Snookum Russell?—he plays piano, but he was jumpin' around that way. Tiny Bradshaw, Cab Calloway—you know that style.
Showmanship has always been a part of your performance. 0bvtously, you were exposed to it right away.
All my life, yeah—from the beginning. And I've always been a dancer myself. I dance very well, with or without a partner. I can dance all kinds, too—Afro Cuban. the samba; if necessary, I can do the St. Bernard waltz—I learned that in 1937. Then the Lindy Hop—I'm an expert at that. I was a member of the 400 Club in the Savoy Ballroom. That was a club for dancers; I was the only musician who be longed to it. Members could get in the Savoy free. Tuesday night was exhibition night. I'd play one set with Teddy Hill's band, and dance the next set with the Savoy Sultans. I'd be tired sometimes.
I should think so. Your original idol on trumpet was Roy Eldridge, wasn't he? You once said that the fact of your not completely mastering his style led directly to your own development.
Well, I think that my idea of how the trumpet was supposed to sound—after I had developed to a certain point—took on a different, and maybe a little deeper harmonic view of the trumpet than Roy. It's evident in my music. All this is documented; you can tell by the records that I made in 1937, and then the ones that I made in 1939 and '40, '41, '42 and on up through the years. You can trace the influence of Roy Eldridge all through that. But, see, I was always foolin' around the piano—that's where my greatest source of inspiration came from, not from any of the horns. The technical playing of the instrument came from Roy Eldridge. And a lot of the licks that he played. I learned a lot of them licks, just like all the rest of the young trumpet players of that age did.
And you would play them yourself, of course.
Yes—we used to have jam sessions, with four or five trumpet players playing and Roy Eldridge would be one of them. By the time Roy played, all of his licks would have been used up!
So he had to find some new ones.
Yeah? That's what happens now, you know—that's funny.
You know John Faddis? Have you seen him?
He was over her last year with the Thad Jones– Mel Lewis band.
Yeah. Well he's a young trumpeter, and he knows every one of my solos, from all the records, see—new ones, old ones, everything. But sometimes some of the licks may be made in the wrong place. That's the folly of just playing the licks, and not knowing exactly what's the intent, the idea behind it. Like, when I studied Roy, the moment I found out what one of his licks was, I wanted to find out what the chord was that he played behind that lick, see.
Then, sometimes the same chord is not the right one, because it's according to where you're going to, what it's evolving into. A G minor chord going into C major is different from a G minor going into a C minor, or a G minor going into an A—know what I mean? It's different. But, man, we have a good time, every time I play in New York John Faddis comes and sits in all night with me. And then I have a difficult time the rest of the night, figuring out new things to play!
Because he's played all yours!
Yeah, I let him play first all the time. He won't play if I play first. And it brings to mind the days when you did the same thing with Roy Eldridge.
As regards what you were saying about the piano—1 believe you once advocated to Miles that he should learn to play it.
Yes. That's how he developed so fast—along with his Julliard training.
You consider it important, presumably, whatever instrument a musician plays, that he should also know the piano?
Or one of the instruments, like a guitar, that you can see the whole thing on.
In the late 'thirties and early 'forties you were working your way through various bands. At one time you were a chief arranger to Billy Eckstine, weren't you?
Oh, musical director, they called it. I didn't write too much; I was just the overseer of the orchestra's activities.
Would you say you were as interested in writing as in playing in those days?
Well, my interest in writing was a means of earning my livelihood one time, when I wasn’t working playing too much. I'd write an arrangement, sell it for money, and make enough to keep going.
You sold some to people like Woody Herman, didn't you?
Yeah, and Jimmy Dorsey, Ina Ray Hutton, Boyd Raeburn.
Much has been said about the Minton's situation.
Was this, in fact, just one of several jobs where you and other players of like mind experimented? You'd already met Charlie Parker, hadn't you?
I met Charlie Parker in 1939, with Cab Calloway. But I didn't have a job at Minton's; I just used to go down there to jam all the time. Monk and Kenny Clarke had the job, and Joe Guy was the trumpet player; with Nick Trenton and Tony Scott, that was the band.
Had you had some get– togethers with Charlie Parker before that, to develop ideas?
In Kansas City. Oh, not to develop ideas —just to hear a very gifted musician; I met him through a friend of mine named Buddy Anderson, who told me he'd got some ideas. To hear somebody one time—how are they gonna influence your playing? But it so happened that when we met, both of us were thinking almost in the same line.
And we spent a whole day in a hotel room—Booker T.
Hotel in Kansas City. We finally worked together in 1942 with Earl Hines, then in '43 with Billy Eckstine, but we didn't play together really officially until that time. I'd see Yard at Monroe's Uptown House—that was his hang– out, not Minton's. Every now and then he'd come down to Minton's. Monroe's was the after– hours joint where he had a job; and then we used to o there afterwards. So there's a big question about which place had the most memorable influence on the music. Well, you see, the rhythmic aspect was Minton's, the harmonic aspect was Monroe's Uptown House—it could be divided up that way.
In the early `forties Minton's days, it's been said that you, Parker, Monk and your regular associates deliberately made it difficult for other musicians to follow what you were doing. Was this the case?
Oh, no—not really. We played all 'the standards—" Sweet Georgia Brown", "Indiana", "China Boy", "Body And Soul", "How High The Moon".
Well, I learned "How High The Moon" in 1941, when I left Cab Calloway and went to work in Kelly's Stable. Nat Cole was working there with his trio; he showed it to me, and I thought it was beautiful. I took it uptown to Minton's and I showed it to Monk; then we started playing "How High The Moon".
But it wasn't a question of trying to put the other musicians off, to make them not play. It was just a question of stamina—of the rhythm section. If one guy got up and played twelve choruses, another guy got up and played fifteen choruses, then another guy played nineteen choruses, by the time it got to you sometimes the rhythm section was so petered out that you wouldn't get no kind of feeling out of it. They'd played up to the point.
Or, in the afternoon Monk would sometimes come up to my house, or we'd meet and go down to Minton's and have a little practice. You know, like Monk would be thinking up something and he'd show it to me, and I'd think up something and show it to him. We'd jot down the chords then bring it in at night and we'd play it. Then you'd see a lot of surprised looks.
What you were doing, in effect, was creating a musical revolution, which continues to this day.
Well—it was only an evolution, see. Not necessarily revolution. The music has always been in an evolutionary process. So that was just one of the. . . soapboxes, I guess you'd call it, that we could speak from.
And the criticism you had from jazz die– hards, such as that you were drawing harmonic approaches from European music, didn't bother you?
No When you know that your music is founded on fundamental principles, you don't give a damn what other men say. You know it's the truth if it's fundamentally correct.
It's got to be truth. I don't care nothin' about no critics now.
You've had a series of outstanding big bands. The one that made its mark first was the one that recorded "Things To Come", that contained people like Milt Jackson, Ray Brown and Ceci1 Payne.
I put my big bands in three categories—the Things To Come band, the Manteca band and the World Statesman band. Then there was the last band—I guess you could call that the Anniversary band.
That was really quite ahead of its time, as per its title, that chart by Gil Fuller, "Things To Come".
He didn't write "Things To Come"—I did. He was the arranger. There are few things that he out– and– out wrote.
Gil Fuller was an exceptional organiser of my stuff; he understands me. He and I were like Duke and Billy Strayhorn, but Billy was more independent than Gil. Although they were closely linked and you couldn't tell the difference between their work, Billy Strayhorn had a lot of stuff of his own; when he did one, he wrote it all.
With Gil Fuller, I'd sit down at the piano and say: "This goes here". Every note in "Things To Come" comes from me—all the movements. Well, it's the same chords as "Bebop", only a different melody. The introduction, the first chorus are the same; I just added the interlude in there, for the big band, because you have to have interludes like that. Gil wrote the last chorus, right—but the meat of the piece is mine. You know, I set up what I thought was necessary, and then I'd leave it with him. And he goes with it—beautiful! Another guy that we had a close working relationship with—George Russell.
Oh, yes—he wrote "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop", didn't he?
Three of us wrote "Cubana Be". This was the most successful, unique and the fullest collaboration in the history of jazz, I think, on that number, "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop". Here were three composers who were different, and yet they all fit with one another.
It went this way: George Russell wrote the introduction—all his; I didn't even know what he was gonna write. His introduction led into the whole middle part; I wrote every note of that myself—arranged it and notated it, too. The movement of that melody, and my extra sixteen bars down in there led into Chano Pozo's solo. And all of that was Chano Pozo and me, with the montuna between us, playing counter rhythms together. Then came Chano Pozo by himself, singing and playing all the time there. After that comes George Russell—now he's summing up the part that I had written in the front. All that last part was by him, with my melody woven through it. It was just beautiful, the way it was done. I think there was never anything that came off better—even including Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. There's a lot of things that Duke and Strayhorn wrote together that sounded like one person, but this was three people, each equally involved, producing that affect.
How did you originally come to team up with Chano Pozo?
It was Mario Bauza who got him for me. Chano had been playing on 125th Street; he was like the house band there.
You'd say your interest in Latin American music is part of your natural make– up, would you?
Yes, I always had that, from the beginning. Mario Bauza, who was the director of Machito's band, was instrumental in exposing me to that kind of music. And then I worked with the Cuban flautist Soccarras at the Savoy, playing maracas and trumpet.
Of course, later on you took the big band to South America, didn't you?
South America, but that's not Cuba. Cuba is more important rhythmically. You see, Cuba stresses rhythm, whereas Brazil stresses rhythm and harmony.
Of your tours with the band, would you say Greece was a highspot?
Well, yeah—and the Middle East. As for the difficult political situation when we went to Greece—that didn't have any– thing to do with us; so we just played our music. I'd say our visit helped make the atmosphere more amenable towards America.
What musicians have meant most to you?
Charlie Parker meant more than anybody. Also Art Tatum, Lester Young, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins.
It's very obvious that you're essentially a happy man. Presumably you have a certain philosophy of life that keeps you this way.
We're supposed to be joyous creatures, here on this earth, and if you're anything but joyous, you're not going by what is meant for you. So I try to get as much enjoyment out of life as possible without hurting anybody. I belong to the Baha'i faith, you know; the teaching of Abdul Baha has strengthened me for five years. You know, one of the hands of the cause of God says that the next messenger to come, he won't teach by words—it'll be something else. I just learned that today. Boy, you learn a lot from being around Baha'is; they hear one of the hands of the cause say something, they remember it, and they repeat it to you. And I do the same thing—they tell me things, I repeat it to people, and they learn things like that.
You see, when this religion is over and another prophet comes, before another cause of God comes on this earth, there will be established a world government. And there will be a universal auxiliary language, spoken by everybody on the face of the globe, taught in every school. So therefore, you know what'll happen—the younger kids that's coming up, they will learn the language, and they will teach the older ones—instead of the other way round.
Like now, when the Puerto Ricans come to the United States, they don't speak any English at all. The first words a Puerto Rican child learns in the States is Spanish, all through his family—but when he hits the street, it's English. You understand what I mean? So they speak beautiful English, that they learn at school, and beautiful Spanish, from their parents. But their parents speak only broken English.
So what will happen, with the establishment of this universal language—I can go anywhere in the world. And the world will be one, see, because there'll be a world government in the first place, and all the laws will be in the universal language. After that . . . I can see it. . . that means that people will be communicating on a real heavenly plane. When they understand every word that you say, there's no barriers. If a guy's speaking French and you're speaking English and you don't know what he's saying, you never get together spiritually, But once that barrier of language is leapt, you can start thinking about other ways.
But what part in this do you think music will play, because sure1y music is already a universal language?
Yes, it is—already you can get the feeling from music.
Well, the music will come into that, too. Like, the same with the part that music played in the Christian revelation.
Any music that is written to praise God is good—I don't care what religion it comes under. So there will be, in the future, a groovy number of Baha'is composing music praising God—heavenly music. That's what you get when you're dealing in the spirit. We're dealing in spirit now in jazz. Any work that you do praising God is good. Music, certainly, can transcend the soul to a higher level.
Copyright © 1973, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.