Jazz Professional               





Talking to
Les Tomkins in 1966

It seems that a lot of people, who haven’t known of me as a pianist, think I’ve just started off as a comedian. And so for them the piano was something extra. But, of course, playing the piano was something that came before all of what’s happened now.

I was taught the piano when I was eight, having been persuaded by my parents to play that first, rather than what I wanted to learn—the violin. It was not until I was about eleven that I started the violin, and I went in for what was called a Junior Exhibition at the Guildhall School Of Music. Between the ages of twelve and eighteen I went there every Saturday morning, learning the history and appreciation of music, aural training and having lessons on the violin.

Then, when I was about seventeen, I took up the organ because the headmistress at my school, which was a mixed school (which is why we had a headmistress, presumably), suggested that it would be a good idea if I tried for an organ scholarship at either Oxford or Cambridge.  So I spent a year doing that at the Guildhall as well. And playing at my local church in Dagenham, where I also used to sing in the choir.

I got the scholarship—to Magdalen College in Oxford. It lasted for three years, and was for my B.A. degree in Music. Then it was extended another year while I did a Bachelor of Music degree in composition.  I left Oxford when I was twenty-two and I’ve had no further tuition since then.

I’d started getting interested in jazz at the age of fifteen or sixteen, or even earlier. I remember there was one club in Chadwell Heath where I was allowed to play. I did a couple of jobs there for a man who owned a rather seedy record shop. Very nice bloke, I must admit. Later, up at Oxford I started playing in the jazz club there—in the Union cellars. And directly I came out of Oxford I was working in clubs, doing the odd bit of television and so forth. I joined Vic Lewis, then Johnny Dankworth. I went into Beyond The Fringe and formed my own Trio, which I still have today.

Obviously, I had planned to bring music into my career, having gone up to Oxford and done four years of it. It had been a great part of my life. But I found myself more and more interested in doing comedy. My fooling about started when I was fourteen, really. So, in a way, comedy and music went side by side.

Before leaving Oxford, I had vague feelings that I might become an organist and choirmaster. Or I would have quite liked to have taught in Oxford, in a way, although I knew it wasn’t really what I wanted. It’s been a pattern of just pure chance—I’ve drifted in and out of things and found a certain amount of satisfaction in everything I’ve done. When I left Oxford, though, I did know I’d like to work in the theatre, writing music for plays. And playing jazz as well.

The first jazz that really knocked me potty was Erroll Garner. Prior to that, I used to go to a little shop in Ilford, buy sheet music of George Shearing’s arrangements and play through those. Also an occasional thing by Fats Waller. But I never played in a stride piano style. In those days I always used to like the idea of a guitar-type accompaniment. So Garner was the ideal thing to get booked on.

As I say, I’d listened to a bit of jazz here and there—not a great deal. I think I used to like the early Stan Kenton records and things like that. And one day a friend of mine played me a record of Garner playing The Way You Look Tonight.  I was just bowled off my feet by it—I’d never heard anything like it before. There’s something so complete and rounded in his playing that it struck me immediately I heard it. In fact, he is, and will probably continue to be, one of the most complete of all pianists.

And ever after that I chased Garner records all over the place, and spent hours and hours trying to play like him— copying his style quite slavishly, because I just feel, as I felt then, that his sense of time is so unique and so extraordinary that it was a very good basis to start from. It’s more extraordinary than, say, somebody like Fats Waller, or even Art Tatum. Somehow, Garner has a special time conception that is all his own.

I remember the first time I got a glimpse of the style— how it felt to play it. The action of the right hand dragging behind the left, then the left dragging behind the right had sort of evaded me for a long time. But I was playing in a room in the Edinburgh Festival one day, for about an hour continuously—just the same sort of tempo—and suddenly it seemed to come. And it was almost as if I could see both hands doing separate things at the same time, which I hadn’t been able to until then. I got very excited by it, went on playing and I had my first success at gaining something from his style.  I gained a lot, really, from his approach to the piano, which is very earthy and outgoing as well as being very rich and full of contrasts.

It was when I was, I suppose, twenty-three that I heard some Peterson, who I hadn’t really cared for at all before then.  I’d heard a few rather old records, where he was playing in a very sort of fiddly, florid way—a style I’ve never liked. Which is why I’m afraid I don’t like Art Tatum. I know that’s quite a heinous thing to say in the world of jazz, but I really can’t take it at all—even though it’s shaped people like Peterson. I just like what Peterson is now—not what the influences were on him.

Listening to the contemporary Peterson, I got very impressed by the clarity of his fingerwork which, again, is quite unique and staggering. And I found that his approach to time had something to offer as well.

There are very few pianists who are really a hundred per cent aware of time. And by time, of course, I mean aware of the placing of notes in relation to the beat. You know, slightly holding them back or anticipating them—not just playing with no reference to the beat. A lot of pianists play in a slightly squarish way—and I don’t mean square as opposed to hip. I mean their actual phrasing is very cornered, somehow.

My ideal of jazz is a very heavy beat going on, with very relaxed, melodic work on top. Which makes the beat both heavy and light at the same time. It seems to sort of froth over. When you get that kind of combination of tremendous heaviness and tremendous lightness, I think you get real swing. Stomping—but not in the sense that it’s just banging your foot through the floorboards.  It’s a sort of incredible floating feeling that one gets.

And I think Garner and Peterson both get this sometimes. Not all the time—I mean, there are times when they do it better than others. I can’t recall Peterson doing anything as fluid as that record: The Jazz Soul Of Oscar Peterson or the Stratford Shakespearean Festival record with Herb Ellis, which was marvellous for the spirit and feel.  As for Garner— Concert By The Sea stands out, and some of the earlier records. I don’t listen that much to him now, because as you get your own style, I think you tend to just forge ahead in your own way. And I don’t entirely like the eccentricities he goes in for nowadays.

Not that I’m against eccentricity, but many modern pianists seem to feel it’s their duty to be eccentric. They’re afraid of repeating themselves—they have this terrible preoccupation with newness. You get musicians saying: ‘Isn’t he marvellous? He produces something new every phrase.’   There’s not necessarily any virtue in that. You know, if one compares it, rightly or wrongly, to a classical work, where one theme is developed throughout a movement—I think something of this can happen in jazz.

I don’t think one has to play new rhythms and new sounds every time one plays. Garner and Peterson certainly don’t, but I wouldn’t say they were inhibited by their clichés. Sometimes they’re resting points—and one is often pleased to hear these old favourite phrases coming through again. One doesn’t have to produce them every time, but there’s too much insistence on the other extreme. In fact, one does, of course, produce something original every time, because it’s difficult to reproduce exactness, obviously.

So I can’t say I’ve really been influenced by many other people. I find myself disapproving of so many people—not in a prudish way. But I get rather embarrassed at the number of musicians who don’t really excite me.

I find Dave Brubeck a little self-conscious about ‘stretching the frontiers of time’, as he seems to imagine it is—by playing in 5/4. As he was the first one to play in that time, he can certainly take credit for it. And I have heard him play some very nice things. I suppose his attitude is what I object to.

Bill Evans I’m afraid I’m not mad about—because there’s a feeling of constant death in his playing at the moment. There’s something about a lot of modern jazz today that is so negative.

I get the impression of a great deal of cruelty. Well, fine— so the modern world is cruel. But it’s not the element of cruelty so much that aggravates me—it’s the way it’s expressed. I don’t mind ugliness in music—if it’s done artistically. A lot of jazz being played now is purely coarse without having, I feel, any artistic merit.

But I think jazz has to go through these stages of expansion, where people experiment, fiddle about all over their instruments, trying to squeeze something extra out of them. Certain innovations are probably very necessary to give jazz, or any sort of music, an injection or a lift. Eventually, there has to come a time when the effect of this will simmer down, and one will get artistic productions. In other words, one sees the good and the bad points of any revolution.

Influences, though, apart from Garner and Peterson—getting back to that—I’ve been influenced by people like Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Mingus, the Mitchell/Ruff Duo—who aren’t heard nearly enough in this country. Ellington, of course. And others who don’t exactly figure strongly in my own style, but whom I certainly like.

I quite like Ahmad Jamal at times. And I’m not meaning to be in any way disparaging when I say: ‘I quite like’—but I suppose I must be honest, since I’m so obsessed now with what I should do. I mean, I’ve always played in a way that some may term unadventurous.  Jazz musicians probably say: ‘Well, what he’s doing is very ordinary. It’s nothing new.’ And what they mean is: you’re doing nothing new harmonically. Which is the thing that fascinates many of them.

I suppose the fact is that, having had a classical education, I always take the harmonic side of things for granted. I’ve never tried to do anything outlandish harmonically. I was drawn to jazz by the particular qualities that it is supreme for—time and rhythm. I feel that it is essential to continue to bring out this element in my work—however far out I might go with jazz in the future. And I intend to do much more, if you like, adventurous things.

I mean, in this record that’s on release now, called Genuine Dud, and on the first record I did with Decca, I’m playing standards, mainly, and a few originals—none of which are at all strange. I’ve merely concentrated on contrast and variety in building a piece through the accumulation of excitement to do with time and rhythm, rather than anything to do with harmony.

It’s strange, in a way, to have divorced any real fascination with harmony from my jazz. Although it does come through in certain of my originals, and I should like to go even further. Like everybody else, I’ve been slightly dogged by the French impressionists, whose influence has dominated the harmonic scheme of jazz for so many years.

In the past, I suppose, I’ve fought shy of going out on a limb and doing things that I would really like to do. I’ve had Chris Karan and Pete McGurk with me for some years now— but one has to wait for the right moment. What I’ve been doing is important—at least, to me. My obsession with time and rhythm has been brought about because I was particularly poor at that in the early days. It’s a side of jazz that I’m glad to have solidified in myself. Now I can do the more adventurous things—and feel happier about it.                 

At the age of twenty-two, I remember I was very thrilled to get a job out of Oxford so soon. With a jazz band, too— which struck me as being rather a good idea. I went into Vic Lewis’s band playing nothing but Garner and so, I think, annoying many of the front-line men, who didn’t like to have this sort of chugging going on behind. And I got quite a bit of hostility from a few members of the band. I learned that it’s very difficult to accompany horn-players—if you’re not naturally an accompanist.

By the time I joined Johnny Dankworth I’d got off the Garner kick.  The Vic Lewis thing had really been a bit of a schooling for me, in jazz and in the accepted ways of going about playing.  I mean, my rhythm was very bad indeed. I’ve only been able to listen to myself on tape in recent years, really. Certainly I couldn’t while I was with Vic Lewis. I started to be able to listen to myself a little with Johnny Dankworth—and I improved a lot there.

Again—I wasn’t really suitable for the band. Mainly because my sort of accompaniment—for some reason—didn’t please many of the band. I think they felt I got in the way too much. So I used to lean back and not play much—and then they complained that there was no support. The result was: I found myself in a bit of a cleft stick, and very unhappy. And I think John and I both knew that. Well, I know John felt that I wasn’t doing enough for the band, in the sense that I wasn’t contributing the right sort of background for the soloists. Why it wasn’t right is something I couldn’t understand. And, in a way, it might be a blind spot.

Although, I find I get along very well with certain soloists. Like Tony Coe, who is certainly my favourite tenor sax player over here, and is probably among my two or three favourites in the world. His attitude—putting it in reverse—makes him the perfect horn-man for our Trio.

For a period of about nine months before I went to the States with Beyond The Fringe, the Trio was playing down in the Establishment every night after the show. Tony came down a couple of times and played. And we all used to push the rhythm along as hard as we could and make it very, very solid behind him—which is what I’d always tried to do. He really took advantage of it, and sort of wriggled about all over the place on top of it.  Which gave an incredible excitement to the music.

But I don’t think everybody reacts in the right way to a hard beat of this kind. To accompany a horn-man properly, you need to get to know him very well and become aware of exactly what he wants.

Speaking of accompanists—there’s nobody greater than Oscar Peterson. Yet a lot of people think he gets in the way. He does busy himself about a great deal, but I don’t think this matters. He generates a magnificent swing—especially with singers. Those Ella and Louis albums were really memorable. The things he’s done with Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt and so on—beautiful. And, more recently, the Clark Terry album was absolutely fabulous.

Anyway, I went to the States and I played over there in the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel for a while. But I wasn’t really happy because, strangely enough, good musicians are quite difficult to get hold of in America. The really good ones are always booked up. And I didn’t exactly have a smooth time with the people I had to use.

But it was all useful experience. You begin to realise that you just have to work with a couple of musicians whom you know will do what you want—because they want to as well. So you just go ahead with them.

It’s really been Pete McGurk and Chris Karan pretty well all along. Originally, I had a bass player called Hugo Boyd, who was killed in a car crash about six years ago. Pete joined me soon after that.

Chris is a fantastic timekeeper. In fact, for my money he’s one of the best timekeepers I know. He doesn’t do a great deal of fooling about and filling in. But there’s a crispness to his playing, plus the actual rhythmic instinct and sensitivity to the beat that he has. It’s not only a good, solid beat, but also it’s one that’s buoyant. And combined with Pete, who’s a very driving bass player—well, I think they’re marvellous.

We had some tremendous times down the Establishment— really unforgettable for me. I still dream about them, rather nostalgically. It was unbelievable down there some nights. We used to just take off, and everybody was, as it were, egging us on. Absolutely marvellous fun—the sort of real excitement that one doesn’t often get. I do miss that kind of thing terribly.

We often get frustrated that we’re not able to reproduce that feeling all the time.  But, of course, over the years attitudes change and it’s more difficult to be more uninhibited in certain areas, and less difficult to be uninhibited in others. That’s the way it goes.

I’ve always tried to feature the Trio in as many areas as possible. In Beyond The Fringe it was only featured in the interval, when we played in the pit for about five minutes. Being the only musician in the show, it rested on my shoulders to do the musical humour. I did sort of musical sketches. It was all parodies of classical songs—Schubert, Faure, Benjamin Britten, Kurt Weill, Beethoven and so forth.

Yes, I think humour in music is important. I suppose I take it for granted a great deal now, and underestimate its value. Things that one does in music for a humourous purpose quite often go down very well—just because they’re musical. The actual presence of music takes over—gives an extra dimension to humour. It’s a very unique type of comedy— something that can either fall flat on its face or get an audience really going.

Doing Beyond The Fringe for two years here and then two years in the States was, in a way, the turn of the tide for me. But the popularity I’ve received didn’t really arrive until the TV series with Peter Cook. And also doing the Eamonn Andrews Show—I got a lot of publicity out of that. So it took off from there, really. I’ve been very fortunate in that way.

Of course, the scope of the Trio’s playing is limited at the moment. In the first series of Not Only, But Also, for instance, I used to do a number each show. But then Peter and I shortened the show to half an hour—so I found myself doing pieces of about one minute, fifteen seconds’ duration, which is sort of like a flash in the pan. But I like plugging the Trio by doing guest spots on television fairly often.

I’d really like to have a club job again, but it’s not that one isn’t available.  It’s just that it’s very difficult to pin myself down to a regular evening engagement, with films coming up, and so on.

Certainly I enjoy the kind of stretching out from night to night that you can do in a club situation.. You get familiar with a tune, and you like to sort of pull it about more and more as you go along. It’s a temptation that mustn’t be denied.

I think there’s a lot more to be done as well. I plan to stretch a little further—I hope not so far that the elastic breaks. But, being a naturally cautious person, I think I shall do it by degrees.

I’m happy about the way things are going. I couldn’t really complain at all about the last couple of years. It’s been a very wonderful time for me. Now, luckily, I’m in the position to make films. And I’m bringing jazz into films a bit more— on film, actually—not just as sound tracks. Which isn’t done a great deal, except in sort of cheap budget beach party films. You know, where you get a few jazz items thrown in, like the Jimmy Smith Trio every now and again—which is nice.

As well as writing the score, I’m going to have the Trio on film as part of the story. I’ve done nothing like that before, but this film I’m working on now is going to be exactly like that. Not involving the Trio entirely, but certainly featuring them. I’m looking forward to it.

The whole thing of taking good jazz to a wider public means a lot to me. I’m very honoured and flattered—if those are the right words—to be able to put jazz across. Because in a comedy programme you can slip a jazz number in and nobody will object. And, in fact, the sales of my two Decca albums have really been very heartening, in the sense that it shows that people will appreciate jazz. I think there’s got to be some effort made in the way of presentation. People aren’t really interested in a music that quite often is presented as being something terribly serious and intense and dull. If they get the impression that the person who’s playing it is enjoying it, then I think they have a good chance of enjoying it, too.

Musically, I’ve made no sort of compromise. I’ve continued to play jazz as I would do normally. I remember being accused of playing to the crowd a couple of times. But I must admit that I think that playing to the crowd is—in its best sense—the best way one can possibly do music, anyway. Something to try and communicate itself to other people, not be stored away in a miserly fashion on the stage.

It seems that many jazz musicians have been very against exposing themselves in any way. I mean, they are often very shy, retiring people. Quite often inhibited, which makes them sometimes aggressive—unfortunately. Like Miles Davis, who does rather despise his audiences, on the whole. Whenever I’ve seen him in England or America, it’s a question of him turning his back on people all the time, and wandering on and off the stage as if he’s God. And I find this really despicable, even though I think his playing is marvellous. It’s just a nasty, stupid thing to do—a terrible sort of egocentric behaviour. You know, that’s the worst side of shyness, that show of hostility. And, of course, people like Davis probably despise anybody who would make any outgoing sort of performance.

I suspect that a lot of musicians do things for a gimmick —in the worst sense of the word. But it’s just as reprehensible for Miles Davis to turn his back and walk off as it is for, say, a black musician to start hamming about in a grotesque, affected fashion. Which lowers him—makes him a very cheap sort of performer.

There is a half-way measure, you know. There’s no reason why a musician shouldn’t be polite to his audience. I’m damned if I’ll ever go and see Miles Davis in the flesh again, because his rudeness disappoints me so.

In fact, I never go out to see any jazz now. Maybe I’ll catch a glimpse of Garner or Peterson on the television. And, of course, they’re always pretty happy performers. Certainly Garner couldn’t seem to be anything else but happy. Which is possibly one of his limitations—if one can be so bold as to say that.

I don’t go out and listen to jazz, because I dislike the listening atmosphere that I find. So often there’s a peculiar air of supreme dedication. Either that or they’re unbearably blasé. There’s so many cruel things said all the time about jazz. I mean, God knows I feel a lot of very violent things against lots of musicians in their work. But there’s an attitude of devaluing everything that’s pretty prevalent, not only in music, but in people’s minds, affecting their activities generally. It’s a sort of nihilism—a negative approach to things—which I can’t take at all.

So I hope its not being egocentric when I say I don’t enjoy outings to jazz functions. It’s just that I don’t listen to a lot of music, anyway, nowadays. When I get the time, I don’t always have the inclination. I’ve not followed the trends of jazz at all for a long time. I sort of get echoes of them every now and again when I turn on the wireless or hear records.

I think, when you play or compose yourself, you do stop, to a certain extent, listening to music every day. Maybe you listen to a lot of music, say, one day a month or something like that. And you get enough inspiration from that to keep you going for the next month yourself.

In the main, I’m just concentrating on what I’m doing myself now, and playing my own music. Which is, I suppose, the only way to survive. My musical aims are concerned with going on playing jazz and hoping to expand the type of thing I do. I think doing it on film will help a great deal.

I’m not really interested in finding any context to play in other than that of the Trio. Except that I’d like to maybe use a big band. That would interest me—doing big band work. In this connection, also, I’m grateful to be able to use the name I have as a comedian to try and win over a larger audience for this-kind of jazz. It makes the responsibility bigger, but the chance more exciting.

No, the comedy will never take over to the exclusion of the music. Nor the other way round, either. They’ll just go on, side by side—hopefully. I just hope I can make good use of this double—and have the strength to do something extra.

Dudley Moore died in New Jersey on March 27th, 2002, aged 66.