A Les Tomkins interview of 1978
When you speak of big bands today—I don’t like the big band rock too much, specially when they start getting into that acid type of thing. I know that now the discotheque is becoming such a crave, a lot of the new sounds have to more or less delve into that type of music, but I don’t think it’s really valid—because some of those bands can really swing, and you can hear it in the playing. The only reason they have to elongate those tunes is because that’s the way the discotheques want it to be played.
But if you listen to same of ‘em carefully, there are some good and valid things in some of the arrangements, I don’t put ‘em down if they’re good, but some of ‘em are very bad also—just a bunch of garbage and noise, And when they get overbearing with the electronic things, that’s pretty rough.
I love Woody, Stan, Buddy—I think they’re doing fine. But my point is: when they try to switch away from that, and do the other thing, I don’t particularly go for it. I’d rather for them to go straight ahead, and keep to what they were doing. They shouldn’t change their way; once you try to tailor your style to a current fad, then you get away from what you’re best at. Then people say: “Wait a minute—what’s this?” They expect this from the band not for them to try to show what they can do half–way.
I’d rather see them do their best than to try to cover the whole gamut. Just do what you can do best, and stick at that—play a good ballad, a good swing tune, a good, hot, fast tune, and that’s enough.
All the great bands can do it. Woody has a beautiful band—right now, Buddy’s band is very exciting, full of fire; Maynard’s band’s the same. But they try to get hit records—which I can’t blame ‘em for. By trying to do it, they go in different directions. I hope each and every one of ‘em do well out of it; the whole thing is: they’re gambling. I don’t know how much the people at dances and so forth appreciate those things, but maybe they do. I haven’t been to any of the dancesmaybe the people eat it up; I don’t know. All I can go by is what I hear on the radio; I don’t know how commercial it is, or whatever, but all the bands sound good to me. The young guys are really playing good—they’re coming up.
As for my supposedly having been “buried in the studio”: I was doing four hundred record dates a year, with different people; at four records a date, that’s sixteen hundred records—how can you be buried? A proportion of that used to be a lot of fun; a lot of that was rock’n’roll, too, and a whole lot of stuff you didn’t like, but quite a few of them were nice things to play. It gives you a chance to keep your chops up, and it keeps you playing.
Maybe you haven’t read about me enough, because I never wanted to be an orchestra leader or anything. I was only an orchestra leader once; Wardell Gray and I had a band out in California—I learned my lesson right then. I would never be a leader again; It’s a pain in the butt—literally.
Yeah, playing lead—that’s my forte. I relinquished all the solos and things to the younger guys; I call them jitterbugs—let them have their fun. I did that for a long time, and I had my fun doing it, but I found out that if you want to make any money, you have to lead the sheep. You always have to have somebody to lead ‘em, because most of those guys, when you give them the lead part, they don’t know what to do with it. They have no conception; they tear ‘em up, you know. You get a few good lead players and all of ‘em do very well; they have no problems at all—they make very good livings, they have their nice homes, send their children through college, run three or four automobiles. You’re very well respected in the business, you know; you just don’t get the limelight—you’re not standing up taking solos every five minutes, with people saying: “Oh, that’s soandso.” But they hear you; they know what you’re doing.
Leading the section is an art, for sure. And it’s hard; you have to stay in shape at all times—because you take over. When the first trumpet player misses, everybody in the house knows it. A violin player can miss all night long–he’s got fifteen people covering. It’s a very important chair; that’s why you’ve got to be ready for it. I take exercise; for a mile, I do a brisk walk for a quarter, run a half, walk a quarter. Also I lift weights and things like that. The running I do about three times a week; the weights a little bit every day. If you’re gonna be in the business, you might as well keep in shape; if you’re gonna retire, then retire.
I don’t have to practise any more; once you get that under your belt, it’s pretty much together. But you have to keep your flexibility going, because those muscles in the face are very important too. You can’t lay off the horn too long; if you do, you have to build those muscles back up again when you go back. If I lay off two or three days, then go back, I feel it. I don’t know about anybody who says they can lay off without ill effects—I’d have to hear exactly what type of sound they’re gonna get out of that instrument after laying off for a few days. They can do it, but I doubt if it’s a very feasible thing to do, because I think a little fuzz or something’s gonna came in there. At all times, those muscles do have a tendency to soften up on you.
When it comes to mentioning outstanding recordings I’ve been part of—I loved to do those things with Oliver Nelson and with Quincy Jones; they were really challenging. And the records with Gil Evans—like the Miles Davis things; I loved those. You know, we didn’t have too much time to make those records; they weren’t like a thing where you go in and stay for six or seven hours. We used to go and do four tunes in three or four hours—you know, never seen the music before. We’d do a whole album in three dates—that was kinda weird. We sure were working, I’ll tell you that. But you read the names on those sleeves; they had pretty good guys in there—and Gil knew who he wanted, and he got ‘em.
They worked out well; I still listen to them right today—they’re still as modern as they want to be. Saw Miles the other day, too—looked good.
The albums with Gil weren’t typical Miles; that wasn’t the way he was playing with a small group, now. It was like when you go fishing, to try to see what you can catch; that’s what Miles was doing, see, and he succeeded in catching what he wanted to. It worked out beautifully for him. It wasn’t like the tentette thing he used to do, with “Move” and stuff like that—it was altogether a different type of thing. This was a more controlled type of an operation—and he fit in. I imagine a lot of people would have thought that he wouldn’t have fit into that particular environment, but he did, without too much sweat.
I don’t think there could have been more of those than there were. You can only do so many, and then you have to change the vein, think of something else to do.
Now it’s up to he and Gil to get together again—if they ever doto try to start a new thing going. I think they can, if they want to. Miles is trying to think up something new to do—he’ll break out with something soon, because he’s been in the woodshed now for about two years, So we’ll just have to wait and see.
The electronics? We use ‘em a lot in Gil’s band, but I’m really not too enthused with all that. I think they drown out the phrasing of a band, to the point where they can’t bend like bands should. I know they have footpedals and all this stuff, but there’s just something about it—it sounds plastic to me. It’s just not my speed; I’d rather hear the natural sounds in there. I hate to put down the electronic players, but that’s the way I feel. The only thing—I do kinda like the electric piano; as far as all those other things, synthesisers or whatever, I think they could use ‘em more suitably for other types of music than jazz.
Anything that’s good, I like; it’s the garbage that I don’t like. There’s an awful lot of garbage around—you can listen to the radio and hear that. It’s a shame; I don’t know if people are buying it, but they’re trying all the time to sell it. I was listening to your radio right here in Britain; I turned it on in the hotels, Same of that stuff is pretty far out; I don’t know exactly who they’re trying to copy or whatbut it’s very sad. Yet I hear some of your records, and you have really good musicians here—the jazz bands, the soloists sound fine. You can tell that it’s here. It’s just too bad that it’s not being exploited more.
Copyright © 1978, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.