The main ingredient
The main ingredient
What drummers need to know
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1980
I’m from the Eastern part of the States. I was born in Jersey City, in the state of New Jersey. Although, mile–wise, it wasn’t terribly far from New York. it was just as far as if I was born a thousand miles away. You know, it was a very small town, and I had to kind of make the assault on New York City, the way any kid would who came from any part of the country. I scrabbled around, like everybody does, working at little odd jobs, like telegraph boy and things, while at night I hung out in the clubs, meeting people like Sidney Catlett, Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke—all of them who were terrifically inspiring to me.
Big Sid was my first, main idol, and I think I was very lucky to hear him when I was about fifteen or sixteen, when I started to play. He had that smooth musical approach, that he could play bebop with Charlie Parker, walk across the street, sit in with Eddie Condon and the Dixielanders, and sound magnificent — and make each band sound good. And I admired that quality in him so much—that flexibility that he had. I’ve always tried to push it with that attitude. Sidney was my primary influence in this way. I realised that if a player kept his mind and his attitude open, he could play well in a few contexts.
Eventually I ended up doing a few summer stints with Condon and those guys, even though I came up as a bebop drummer — and I was very pleased that they accepted me, and thought I did a decent job there. Yes, I always enjoyed that . . . I guess you’d say crossing over the musical lines. Plus if something swings, it swings, doesn’t it? Right—that’s the main ingredient, really.
Even in those early bebop days, 1 did use brushes a lot. Because at the same time I did some work with Bud Powell and a few other players—even with Joe Bushkin, who is more of a mainstream player, but loves to play those frisky tempos. So I had many years of experience of what I call the piano trio thing where you play brushes ninety per cent of the time, and at very brisk tempos. Brush playing is, I’m sure you know, quite a skill into itself. I kinda pride myself on being a decent brush player, because I think brushes are fun when they’re played well. And we’ve had wonderful exponents—Sidney was a fantastic brushman; it was just like velvet. Jo Jones—a remarkable player with brushes. Although I’ve only heard him on record, O’Neil Spencer had an amazing quality; with John Kirby, he could get some shuftle-off-to-Buffalo that was really fun. I never saw him play in person, but they tell me he sounded even better in person than on the records. It’s a challenge to make it swing.
Dave Tough was my other great idol: Sidney and Dave were my two real boyhood idols. I had never heard Buddy play, until I was a bit older. Just physically. it never happened; when I was in New York, he wasn’t, or when 1 started on the road at seventeen, he would be in New York. So I really was playing professionally for some years before I heard Buddy play. I mention that because I was so struck with his playing, as most drummers are. but I caught up with him later—strictlv due to a geographical thing, I guess.
Oh, I started to say, about Dave Tough he actually would stay on brushes for a whole tune with Woody Herman’s band—a medium swing–type tune and get a remarkable drive going. 1 used to think that was phenomenal—that he could drive that big, roaring band, with the five trumpets and everything else, with the brushes. God, it was incredible. Now, another guy might not have dared to try it. But Dave was known for that fiery. consistent pulsation, and he could do it with brushes equally as well as with sticks.
So see how lucky a young guy is, to hear players like that. That’s why1 feel for some of my younger friends in the States, and I’m sure in the UK, who are in small towns and villages, and seldom ever get a chance to hear a really first-class player. That’s why I like to do clinics in small towns all over. They can learn so much—not just because it’s me; any decent professional. It might be their first opportunity up close to see: “How do you hold the sticks?“; “What type of cymbals do you use?“; “How do you tune?” and so on. I think I was very fortunate in being around an area like New York, so that I could hear these fine players. Sneak in on one Coca Cola and stay all night! Outside of school playing, little local pubs and things, my first professional job was with George Shearing.
1 think I was eighteen, and George gave me a job working with him when he first had come over from England. He was on the famous 52nd Street—the swing alley—and I played with George in a trio context. He had not yet formed his famous Quintet. And I’ve always been grateful to George; he gave me a good break, other people heard me, and as a result I started getting some work on 52nd Street. It’s to George’s credit that he would take a chance with a young player like that, who was not known—that’s always something a guy should be put up for. The old problem, as I keep telling young players—it’s not just: can you play? but: has anyone heard you play? If you feel you have the goods, you got to get out there and let people hear you, otherwise they don’t know. George Shearing, and nice people like him, give younger players a chance. That’s why, now that I have a band, I love to bring a new, young player in when we need a sub, or a guy for a night. Maybe he’s just come to California: I give him a chance to play in Donte’s or another well-known club, and let people know what he can do. It’s a way that I can pay back a little bit.
When I was coming up, too, we had apprentice bands. We had bands that were good, but they weren’t yet up to the stature of the Dorseys and the Basies, you know. You could work your way up through these ranks; certainly, a lot of times, the standard was higher than you played, but you could learn to play and then, hopefully, move up. But we don’t have that any more; I’m sure in the UK you have the same problem. All you can do is get into a rehearsal band, and try to develop your skills there. As you know, big band playing is a certain feeling, and I like to say it’s as much what you leave out as what you put in. It’s taste, selectivity, being a good team player—and that calls for a lot of practice. Sure, the money was low in those touring apprentice bands, and sometimes the living conditions were really deplorable, but that’s the way you paid your dues. And by the time you’d played with four or five of those, maybe you were ready to step up a notch to one of the really top bands.
I think the most important thing that happened to me, initially, was that I took Buddy Rich’s place with Tommy Dorsey when I was about twenty-one. This was when Buddy was making a big band attempt of his own; I think it might have been his second organisation—he had tried one in the ‘forties for a couple of years. That probably did more for me than anything, because naturally the drum chair always got a got of attention in Tommy’s band. Unfortunately, I had a family problem, and could not stay with Tommy for too long a time. He was about to start a long tour; he wanted me to sign a three year contract, and told me it would really work out good for me, but, due to my obligations at home, I couldn’t take advantage of his offer. But the time that I worked with him—which was only perhaps a half a year, in and around New York—was very valuable to me. Again, it let other people hear me play in a big band context.
The most meaningful big band things have been my sixteen years with Doc Severinsen, because he’s a marvellous leader as well as a virtuoso trumpet player. He has always had a superb big band. And the six albums I did with Count Basie, in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, were a great treat for me—I’ve always been an ardent admirer of Basie. If you’ve admired and loved a band and a man like Basie, you’re finally sitting in the drum chair, playing and recording with him. and he likes what you’re doing for the band—why, that’s a really terrific feeling.
I’ve done a lot of studio playing, but I have never let it interfere with my jazz career. I have always stayed active as a jazz player. I think that’s the important thing that you do—you treat the bread and butter work simply as that. Some guys get in a slot, and it becomes their only work; then their skills in other areas may start to fall off. I’ve always been extremely on guard about that. In all of my New York years, it was not common for me to do a session in the afternoon or the morning and be working a six-nights-a-week jazz job at night, at Birdland or somewhere.
The same thing in California; I just had a good gig with my friend Don Menza—we had a hot little quartet in a club. As soon as I get back, I’m taking my big band into another fine new club, called Carmello’s.
I do a lot of playing, both in the big band and the small band contexts. But you have to make an effort at it; I mean, if you’re primarily a jazz player, and you not only want to keep your jazz skills up, but you hope to improve a little as you go, you have to do it. And if it’s still fifteen dollars American, the way maybe it was even ten years ago, in a club, you go in to play. You don’t go in for the fifteen dollars. Sometimes we go into some places and we all split it up, and it might be five dollars. That’s the way we all started, though, isn’t it? As long as you always keep the music as the main thing, you’re in fine shape.
You liked that “Black Coffee” album I made with Peggy Lee? Well, with Peggy, you better be a good accompanist, because she needs sensitive support—not just from drums, but from everybody—because she’s a very sensitive performer. She always had wonderful sidemen to work with. On that album, if I remember, she had the fabulous Jimmie Rowles on piano and Pete Candoli on trumpet.
That was a group, by the way, that we performed with live quite a bit; that’s why it sounded as good as it did. That wasn’t one of those “Let’s go in and do a session” groups; we’d been working together for perhaps six months, in a lot of clubs, and by the time we went in, it was just like fingers on a hand, you know. Don’t you always feel that comes across a little better on a session when you’ve done all that live playing together? Yes, it sounds like a team. Which is why I like live recordings, of people who have been teamed up a while; there seems to be that extra live spark, or something like that. I know the best tapes that I have of my band are from a live concert. It may not be letter-perfect technically, but it’s got that certain fire to it—they’re the ones I like the best.
A particular favourite track of mine was made with fine organist Jimmy Smith. It’s “Walk On The Wild Side” from an album called “Bash”. Oliver Nelson did all the writing for the album; it was real fun to make, because Oliver always left a lot of freedom in his record dates, for the rhythm section to improvise patterns and figures. With “Walk On The Wild Side”, I remember, he said: “Well, what are we going to do with this?” It starts out with boom-chick-a-boom, boom-boom-boom, like a twelve-eight, you know.” So I had the idea: “Why don’t we go into a real fast waltz, with the bass playing ‘one-two-three, one-two-three’, and I’ll play ‘ding-tick-a-ding, ding-tick-a-ding’.” And once we did it, Jimmy Smith said: “That’s good for the second chorus! ” Whenever I hear that, I remember the fun we had sort of making it up at the time. It wasn’t all just on the paper. Oliver used to like to let that freedom happen; he claimed it made for greater spontaneity on recording sessions.
He’s a gentleman I miss a great deal; I thought he was one of our foremost writers. They used to always talk about: where are the great ,writers coming from, after some of our classic people, like Duke, Kenton and Gil Evans? And I always felt that Oliver was sure in the forefront of some of the younger and newer people. He had that same depth to his writing. Of course, he was a great Duke admirer, and he had a lot of the quality I always loved so much about Duke—he had that real innate jazz sense, and yet he had a lot of tools to go along with it. Colour and imagination, you know, without ever losing that essential jazz quality. Some writers can write well technically, but they don’t have that ingredient always in their writing. They don’t quite have that underneath thing all the time.
Copyright © 1980 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.