The main ingredient
What drummers need to know
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1980
It was about eight years ago that I was last over here; I came over with a very fine composer from America named Joe Raposo, to do some drumming on a film. But that was strictly a work call, and I recorded steadily perhaps nine or ten hours a day, for three days; I didn’t have a chance to see a soul—I talked to Kenny Clare on the phone, and that was it. Outside of that one trip, this is literally my first professional playing visit to the UK; so it’s a real treat. I did the Continent with Benny Goodman many years ago, in 1950; but that’s a very long while ago, and we did not get to the UK at that time. That was Benny’s first trip to Europe, and, of course, he was extremely well received. With their public playing aspect, these clinics have been great fun. I had some fine British players with me, by the way; Geoff Castle is a fine keyboard player, Ed Speight is a very good guitarist, and Dill Katz is an excellent bass player. I’d like to give credit to them; these three young guys are such a treat to play with—they’re awful, awful good players.
I have a big band—it’s kind of a sideline of mine, because I do work quite regularly on the Johnny Carson Show, that I’ve been with for about sixteen years. Like a lot of people, I had that ambition to run my own big band, and I finally got it going about four years ago. It’s been very. very enjoyable and very rewarding. We work a lot, although, of course, we’re not the typical touring band, like a Basie or a Buddy Rich or a Woody Herman. But I keep the same complement of people; I’d say fourteen out of the sixteen guys have been with me for the four years. So we feel like a real band that’s been together consistently; we have that good feeling going.
To pick out some of the key players—in the saxophone section, I have a wonderful lead alto and jazz player named Glenn Garrett, who also writes a lot for the band An excellent young composer; I don’t think he’s more than about twenty-six—a dynamite talent. He’s an excellent educator, too—he teaches at Cal. State, Northridge; so he’s a man of many parts.
In the trombones, I have the great Bruce Paulsen—he got somewhat of a name with Buddy Rich a few years ago; he enjoyed playing England a lot. Bruce plays both lead and jazz.
In the trumpets are two excellent jazz players—Bob Summers and Denny Christiansen. And a dynamite lead player named Frank Szabbo—he’s built like a great big rugby player, and that’s the way he plays; he’s always there with every note in perfect time.
Interestingly enough, my star guitarist is Peter Woodford, a London–born musician who has been in the States perhaps ten years: I do not use keyboard—so he really has a strong responsibility. Peter has been with me from the very beginning, and is a marvellous player; I had the pleasure of recommending him to Doc Severinsen, when there was a guitar chair open on the Tonight show, and now we play together in both contexts. The other member of my rhythm section is Joel Di Bartolo—he also toured with Buddy Rich for quite a long time, as well as with Chuck Mangione. He plays both upright acoustic and electric bass excellently. It’s a really good band; I’m very proud of it. My aim is to bring it over here, in the near future; I think the folks would like the band —it has a little of its own sound. It’s called Ed Shaughnessy’s Energy Force Big Band.
But we don’t have an album out yet. In the States it’s extremely difficult to record a big band. When I tell you that at the time of his death Duke Ellington did not have a recording contract—that is the biggest crime of all. They’re very, very unsure about taking a chance in this area; yet compared to the price of recording some of the rock albums, the cost of a big band, at normal scale prices, is rather small money. I was very close to talking some good business with Columbia, but we have had a recession—not just with the dollar, but phonograph sales in general have fallen off a lot. After so many sales of Bee Gees and all that, they were literally starting to over–produce; now they’re going to have to take a second look, and not produce so many records without being sure they’re going to sell. From what I’ve been told, they’ve sort of created their own problem. So when the money slows up for the million–sellers, it slows up even more so for the jazz players.
I’m not discouraged, though, because, quite frankly, when we go out and play, we make the same money that all the top bands do—because we’ve created our impression live.
We’re like an old–time band; we’ve travelled a good deal back and forth across the United States, being hired strictly by recommendation or through people having come to hear the band. And I’m very pleased with that; that’s the harder way to do it, but it’s working. Of course, I’m only human—I do get discouraged about the recording thing; but I know it’ll happen, some time in the future. The funny thing is, each year the band is better; by the time we make the record, it’ll be better than if we had done it the first year.
We enjoy it—maybe that’s the most important thing. Nobody goes into the big band business expecting to make a lot of money. You go into it, really, because you love it, and it’s your thing. It’s always been that way, and it will stay that way. But if it’s something you love, you do it. It’s not like shrewdly trying to think: what’s the most commercial approach I can use to make a record, as it’ll sell millions of copies, and I’ll become a millionaire? I’ve just always loved the sound of a big band; I’ve played with Basie, Duke, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Don Ellis, Oliver Nelson—I’ve been lucky to span quite a few styles. You do it for the doing—that’s what it is.
As for the clinic side of things—to tell the truth, I think I’m one of the busiest clinicians in the world. I’m happy to say that, because I love my clinics During all of my career as a professional player, I have always taught. I maintained a studio in New York for twenty years—and I was always a busy player. Usually I was playing in jazz clubs at night, plus a few sessions during the day, but I would always teach three to four days a week. So I think, if my clinics seem to be accepted well, and I do a decent job, it’s because I have the background of teaching.
I’ve tried to explain to a lot of drummers who would like to get into the clinic field that there’s more to it than just playing a drum solo, and trying to dazzle the people. That’s part of it—they like a little showbiz, you know. But for the rest of it, you’re supposed to try to leave them with something that will help them when they go home. So if you can give them an exercise for, let’s say, the left hand, telling them: “Now, try to do that perhaps—fifteen minutes a day, and it’ll really help”——that’s the thing that they really appreciate, maybe more than you just whizzing along on the drums. Sometimes, if you try to dazzle them with too much, it discourages them, I’ve found, because they can’t do that right away, and they say: “Oh, I’ll never be able to do that.” But if you say: “I started out with my left hand not so good, and I used to do this fifteen to twenty minutes a day,” it gives them something to grab on to.
1 never do clinics the same twice, which helps to keep them fresh, but I follow a general outline. I’ve devised a sort of a six–point system of practising drum set over a period of about two hours a day; you give approximately twenty minutes or so to each of six different areas. Such as warming up; such as practising your rhythm, which a lot of drummers don’t do enough—not just solo, but practise rhythm with records and tapes, so that you get equally good at your jazz, Latin and rock playing.
Practising a certain period of time on your sight–reading, so that you’re as good a sight–reader as the first trumpet player is—which is really important in many areas of work. Things like that—this seems to be receiving a good reception from drummers.
The reason I developed this outline was because of what a lot of them said to me in the past. They want to practise, and they’re willing to perspire, but they’re not sure what they should practise on set. And I think there’s an interesting reason, since, in our history, so many of the great drummers were sort of seat–of–the–pants learners, drum set teaching itself is still in its infancy, compared to brass, reeds or strings. We’ve only recently had good drum set books, in the States—in the last few years.
Teachers like myself used to write everything out, and hand—print it or Xerox it on a machine or something. For many years, we didn’t have the texts and things that the other instruments had. I mean for full set things that you use your feet, all your drums for. Not just a snare drum book—we’ve had wonderful snare drum books for fifty years, but we haven’t had too many dealing with all of the components of the drum set. So it’s much better today, for that reason.
Good feedback is important—dealing with the questions that come up. In Manchester, for instance, we had some of the most interesting provocative questions from the audience. I was so pleased, because this helps the clinician. It’s not that you need the questions, but it makes it more interesting, because in one area you might get a lot of different questions than in another area, and sometimes I’ll say: “Thank you. I forgot to mention that.” You know, you might pass over on tuning, and you should have put a little time in on that.
Because I don’t do a word–for–word thing.
I don’t think I can say there are too many standard questions, but the few that get repeated most of all . . .how do you play so fast and stay relaxed, or without getting tired? That’s a very common question. The answer is: I grew up in the bebop era, where playing these super–duper fast tempos was the thing you had to learn. I’m mostly self–taught; I only had one teacher for about two years when I was a kid, and the rest I learned by myself. But I think my two years with a teacher really gave me a good foundation; so I have always respected teaching a great deal. I have studied tympani, vibes and stuff with other teachers, but as far as drum set goes, I think I’m more self–taught than anything. I found out a long time ago that I was able to help other guys; I seem to have a good kind of way of teaching, I guess. It’s basically simple; you must always get back down to their level when you teach. Remember how it was for you at that stage of the game, and don’t teach them on too high a plane for where they are.
I would say another most common question might be about tuning. A lot of chaps are very confused about how to tune the drum set; so we suggest a few things to them. Sometimes we relate certain pitches; like, I have eight tom–toms, and I tune them in minor thirds descending.
That’s a good way, but it’s not the only way to do it—you could use major thirds, or perhaps fourths, but that gives them something to more or less relate to. And I tell them that the majority of drummers who get a good snare drum sound tune the bottom head about a third or fourth higher than the top head—now, a lot of them have never heard that before. That’s good for them, because they can go home, get a nice feel and pitch on the top head, and then sing a third and tune the bottom head to that. That generally gives a very good proportion to the snare drum—it gives a nice zippy sound, you know.
How important rudiments are is a question often asked. Since I am pro–rudimental, the way that I get to the guys who are anti–rudimental is to play some stuff around the drums and ask them if they know what it is. They never do; I say: “That was the flam paradiddle. but I disguised it by moving it around the drums,” and then I play the same beat on the snare drum, which is just like you march down the street to. But by disguising it on different drums, it sells them a little: “Hey—you know, maybe we can use that.” I tell them it’s just like scales and chords, that’s all. No one expects you to play the saxophone and run a C E G Bb on a C7 when you see it—you’re supposed to play a little more than that. But you practise the C E G Bb to get fluent with that, in case you use that passage. I try to explain that rudiments are just like that—they’re not an end–all in themselves—they’re part of our foundation.
When I talk about the two bass drums, I tell them that, although I’ve been playing them since a very young age, two bass drums are never an excuse for poor foot, because you cannot substitute a two bass drum rhythm for a good one bass drum rhythm. If you’re playing in a big band, where you really need a good, strong, firm foot, you can’t substitute right, left, right, left, right, left. It just doesn’t sound good—it sounds like a march beat or something. As I explain, you could almost think of a second bass drum as an extra tom or two; it’s an added colour, but it sure isn’t necessary to the playing of good drums. We have a lot of fine drummers who don’t—certainly Buddy Rich among them. He’s got five drums, and he usually has a towel on the back drum; most of the time he’ll play on four drums, and make as much music as you could ever want to hear out of a drum set—maybe more than you think you could hear. I could make a list of many, many fine drummers who will play on a fairly spare set and make remarkable music—and another chap gets up with a wall–to–wall kit, with twenty drums and thirty cymbals, and he doesn’t make any music. And he’s not creative, mostly. So I try to stress that; in fact, I tell them, when they practise, to use just a basic four–piece set; if you can get your facility moving around your basic four drums, you can always apply it to more drums if you like. I like a lot of drums, because I like a lot of colour. I played a lot of tympani in my time, which has made me used to having different sounds around me, for cross–sticking.
I keep a floor tom–tom over on the other side, by the hi–hat, because I like to do a lot of cross–melodic things. One of my early idols was Jo Jones, with Count Basie; I talked to him once years ago, and he said: “Sure, I knew you played a lot of tympani, because that’s why I always put my drum there—I studied tympani in high school.” It’s great to talk with a player like Jo, and find out where his roots on his set–up came from.
Louie Bellson and I, on the two bass drum thing, have spoken many times about the fact that you should certainly be able to sit down at a standard four–piece set—or, God forbid, a snare drum and a bass drum—and be able to make something interesting happen. I mean, Baby Dodds could, couldn’t he?—and that’s a long time ago. Using just a snare drum and a bass drum, he’d walk you out the room, with all that stuff he did.
Copyright © 1980 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.