My present group

My present group
This way and that
A personality thing
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1974
Photo by Howard Lucraft

Of my present group, with which I played my recent Ronnie Scott’s engagement, two members have been with me quite a few months. We lost our drummer just before coming over, and Harold White agreed to make the trip with us; he did a very good job. Earl Klugh is the other guitar with me: he plays the finger style or classical technique. The bass player’s name is Ron Chandler. He and Earl are from Detroit: Harold and myself are from New York.

Working with another guitarist is a new experience for me—since the “White Rabbit” album, which was the first time I ever did that kind of thing. I felt I would give it a go, and see what would happen on a tour.

Earl is a great player; it’s a good contrast, especially when we use the certain formula that I worked out for the two guitars. People seem to like it. No matter where you go, you’ll find ninety per cent of the groups have guitars in ‘em—so you can’t miss with guitars, anyway! I don’t use a lot of amplification and other devices, because I just find that they take my attention away from my thing. There are some masters of wa–wa, certainly; you got some cats who can really put over a tune with a wa–wa pedal. The instrument is one that can also be used in creating synthesised rhythms, instead of something that’s real. It sort of finds a slot; the percussion and everything gives it a very primitive, funky feel, that makes it for some people. I more or less tend to go towards the harmonics of things, to try to get as close a natural sound as I can. Because I’m still striving for that kind of thing, that was handed down to me from cats like Django Rheinhardt, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, who didn’t have any added devices. I kinda like just being myself, and not depending so much on any attachments. I think the amplifier’s enough—if I could get rid of that, I’d be happy. But, of course, it’s necessary in order to be heard properly.

If anything, I try to use the amplifier to improve the mellowness—that is, to cut out any unpleasant things, like the plucking of the pick. I use a plectrum most of the time, but it has a tendency to become very plucky, and the amplifier can reduce that, if used right.

I use the octaves in the way that Wes did, because I don’t believe in putting a damper on a master. Some people might say that’s copying—and if they want to say that, it’s all right with me, because I know where I am. You can’t play with inhibitions—worrying about this, that and the other. Play what you hear and feel.

I wish I could wake up and play like Wes Montgomery. If I could mimic Django, it would be my pleasure to do that. In fact, years ago I used to play sometimes with his approach to octaves—the strumming effect. You know, he would get a very flamencoish type of sound with the octaves, and it was real exciting. As a matter of fact, now that I’ve brought it to mind, I’m going to get back to that.

I’ve forgotten so many things that I used to try to do, because I’m caught up, more or less, in what’s happening all around me, and trying to operate a group. But I do believe in self–rehearsal, to make sure I always stay at a certain standard, anyway.

Basically, I’m a self–taught musician. My father taught me the very basic chords on the instrument, at the beginning. Then, from there, he didn’t hear me play for ten years. He heard cats talk about me, but he doesn’t believe there’s ever going to be any other guitar player than Charlie Christian; so he’s not interested in hearing anybody else. But one day I was in town briefly for a visit, and I decided to take him out on the town.

We went to a couple of spots, and they asked me to play—and he finally heard me, after this ten–year period. He wanted to know then where I’d learned to play; he hadn’t believed that I could. It was because of his criticisms that my playing developed—and his direction as far as standard is concerned. I mean, he set such a high standard.

He played Charlie Christian records to me all day—that’s all I heard when I was a kid. And so I tried my best to get up to that standard. Musically speaking, that is. I don’t have a thing about being a big star, or anything like that. Those things come, somewhere or another, when you get yourself together. Sometimes it happens while you’re living, sometimes when you’re dead—but if you worry about it, it’s only going to hamper your style.

I just play, and I let the people form their own opinions. I used to try to please each and every individual, because I like people to be happy. But I find it’s like being a public official—it’s just impossible to please everybody. So if you put out what you believe in, at least any criticism will be against the real you, and not one that’s trying to please various individuals.

When I first started travelling, I worked with an organist named Jack McDuff, who was very critical. He stayed on me every day—as a matter of fact, he would cuss me out every night. Because I had just started playing chord changes or jazz tunes, and I didn’t know very much about what was happening. He would have me play lines in unison or harmony with the saxophone player, and they would be at ridiculous tempos. And by the fact that the saxophone player did them, I didn’t question the fact that they could be done. I decided it was just my ability at fault; I’d go home and practise them, play them sideways, until I came up with a way to play these tunes that I didn’t even understand. And eventually I began to fit into his repertoire, and became a valuable member of the group; we sold a lot of records, and so forth. But what had helped me was the way he’d stayed on me all the time, until I learned what to do.

Another good thing about his group was: due to the fact that I couldn’t play very well, he would only give me one or two choruses in any song. So whatever I could play, I had to cram it into a chorus or two—which made me learn to fire up very early in my solo. I said: “Well, this is gonna be short”, and I’d just rumble away at a lot of notes, and throw in funky things, pretty things, every kind of thing I could think of. And it was good for records, because when I got in the studio I could do that naturally.

When I started my own group, and became known among the musicians in New York, they knew I could fire up early. That’s what they strive for in record studios; they don’t have time to wait till you warm up.

Like everything else, depending on the individual playing, extended solos can become boring—especially if you’re playing things that people don’t understand. Jazz musicians of today are experimenters; they’ve got a lot of things on their minds, but they’re experimenting at people’s expense sometimes. People will say: “Do your own thing”, but when you do it, they’ll be the first ones to down you for it. In some cases, that has driven a lot of people away from the music.

The trouble is, if you advertise a jazz concert, people don’t know what they’re going to hear. They might hear anything from Louis Armstrong’s music to John Coltrane, or even further. Now, that’s too wide a gap to have one name. They should give the proper title to what they’re doing. Because jazz music is a definite, distinguishable music. Louis Armstrong —that music was very distinguishable. It had no guessing about it; when you heard it, you knew it was jazz. It had all the ingredients.

I mean, nobody has to tell you when there’s a rock tune—you know it. When it’s a straight rock tune, that is. They have a lot of what I call bastard musics, that are a combination of this and that. They’re hard to put a label on; so they give ‘em all sorts of names, like rock–jazz, jazz–rock, rhythm–and–country, country–and–jazz. But I don’t see it. I say that jazz is almost a classical music, in the sense that it takes a lot of time to develop your imagination, to be able to interpret your own self through your instrument. We’re all born with some form of imagination, but to take something that is completely away from your body and make it speak for you—I think that’s a hell of a feat. Classical musicians learn to interpret other people’s music, and that takes a lifetime. It takes all your life just to get a portion of the things out of your head, to be able to say what you’re really hearing. Some people think one thing and say another, but the real masters, their point comes across and there’s no question about what they’re trying to say.

And you can’t take that music, put three years in it, and say: “Well, now that I’ve mastered this, I’ll add a little bit of this to it,” because that way you’ve only half done it, I believe. That’s not a cop–out or an excuse for not playing jazz–rock or other things. I have respect for all music, when it’s done by a serious person, you know.

When I hear B. B. King, I know he’s serious. When I hear James Brown into one of those very infectious tunes, I know when he’s putting me on and when he’s being real, because it comes out. It really doesn’t make any difference what you play—the thing is to be sincere. I like to hear music in a pure form; if I go to hear Jascha Heifetz, I want to hear him play classical music—it’s as simple as that.

Copyright © 1974, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.