Hand over mouth
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976
I’ve been playing for (hand over mouth) years now. As you probably know, the playing side got allied, or tangled, whichever way you look at it, with another side—the television, fun–time side. And, at one point, the fun–time bit rather took over, by demand—because I suppose more people want to laugh than want to listen. Well, there’s not an awful lot of fun in life these days, after all, and it’s good to have a laugh. I always liked to think, too, that if I was doing something which was supposed to be funny or amusing, that it was rather in the same context as playing well. Because it wasn’t the broad “That was no lady—that was my wife” type of humour.
Before the fun thing all started, as you know, I was doing mostly jazz playing; then this television thing was mooted, I did a spot with a group, and they seemed to like it.
Consequently, being in television, I wasn’t doing so much jazz club playing and a few, shall we say, purists shook fists and shouted: “Traitor!” Of course, they spoke from a very safe vantage point; their father owned the local bus company, and they were all right—but I was supposed to eat now and again.
When I finally came out of the Minstrels show and all that, they were saying: “He’s back!” I felt like saying: “Well, he never left”—it was just that the phone didn’t ring! The strange thing was: as soon as I was ‘back’, a jazz club rang up, and when I got there, straight away they dug me in the ribs and said: “What about doing one of those crazy routines that you do with the striped jersey on?” But I think jazz is meant to be enjoyed—I don’t mean by that, funny hats and so forth, but it should be fun. I always remember when the MJQ first came over; the four of them came on to the stage with three quarter length black frock coats—they looked like four undertakers! It was all very sepulchral, very dismal. I don’t mean the music was dismal; it was quite clinical, actually, in the beginning, though I think it got a bit more human later.
They looked and sounded, however, I as if it was all meant to be very ‘chamber music’, and terribly, terribly serious.
Like all good music, jazz is meant to be shared, surely, between those who play it and those who listen. These days, particularly, what I find I have against avant garde —not the whole of it, by any means, but a lot of it—is that it is a self indulgent music. It’s almost like turning your back on an audience—it’s for your own kicks, and that’s it. And people are willing to listen and learn, I’m sure, because I’ve found this from my own experience. Not by playing down to them—you have to go a little further, and try and make them think: “Well, this is nice.” It’s either nice in your ear or it’s not.
Some avant garde music is totally selfish in its utter disregard of the listening public. Not to mention the fact that, with its very extreme freeform type thing, I’m sure it does allow people in who are not very good players. All you have to do, they figure—I don’t mean the good avant garde players: I mean the fringe ones—you come in, you just bang up and down your instrument.
If you’re playing a saxophone, if the reed squeaks, that doesn’t matter—that’s all part of the thing. It’s called free form, and you’re told to move with the times. And it works out that there is no such thing as a wrong note—which is a bit disturbing! They say: there’s no bar lines any more, it’s an open key signature, and that’s it. Which is fine, if it’s done properly. I mean, Kenny Wheeler and people like that are absolutely great; I can follow Kenny, but some of the other guys—I try awfully hard, and they lose me somewhere along the line. I’m not really knocking avant garde , because there’s good and bad in everything. Just as there is good and bad in Dixieland music—although I hate labels. Music’s either good or it’s bad.
Yes, I was born in Glasgow.
Like most children I was put to the piano by my parents. I got the usual lessons by the local LRAM, you know; then you get the situation—I’m sure it happens in most homes—where the teacher comes out, addresses the parents, and says: “There is nothing more I can teach your son, Mrs. Chisholm. He’ll have to go on to further fields.” And everybody glows with pride.
Amongst the first records I bought were some by Louis Armstrong, and my father actually had a trumpet lying about the house. He was a semipro drummer, in actual fact. I think he really fancied himself as the original singing drummer; he used to sing through a megaphone—there were no microphones in those days—and the bass drum had a hole in the top, where they used to lower a lighted sixty watt bulb down—so that it would light up the name of the group on the skin of the drum. Very dim psychedelic stuff! So I used to go out on gigs with him, and he had this trumpet, which I used to play completely by ear; I used to get a tremendous kick out of playing along with Louis Armstrong records. I thought: “Well, this is it—I’m going to be a trumpet player.” Until I went on to reading music. I have a fairly accurate ear, for pitch; playing piano, I was thinking and hearing in concert pitch. Technically speaking, when it came to trumpet playing, if I put first and third valve down, that to me was C concert, and not D, on trumpet.
Consequently, when I came to read trumpet music, which is pitched a tone above concert, I found out that I had to transpose. This was a terrible hassle; I said: “What other brass instrument is in concert pitch? I know—trombone, bass clef—that’s it.” So I became a trombone player.
Although I was on trombone, that didn’t necessarily mean that I had to listen to trombone players all the time. Certainly, my idols were people like Teagarden, Lou McGarity. And then, later, Frank Rosolino—who I think is a tremendous player. Absolutely a thing of his own; this is terribly important; because most of the rest I find difficulty in discerning who is who. Just jumping ahead a little—the last time Frank Rosolino was at Ronnie’s I really wanted to go and see him, but I was working that whole wee and I couldn’t get down. I thought: “Oh, that’s terrible.” On the Saturday, the day he finished, I was dressing to go to the gig when the phone rang. And a very dark brown voice said: “This is Frank Rosolino.” We had a chat, and he said he wanted to meet me, we should play together—it was an absolute knockout. He said he was coming back in the Fall, but it didn’t happen that way; I think there’s a slight rumour he may be over next year. It would be marvellous to have a blow with him.
There was an LP lined up for me to do with Bobby Hackett in September; we were both knocked out about doing it. He’s been a idol of mine for years—such a musical player. But unfortunately he died very recently. The same thing happened with Lou McGarity; he was due to come here with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, but he died just before they made the trip.
As for my style—I could only ever put the thing up and blow it, and whatever I thought of came out.
Obviously—to use labels again—if you’re with a Dixieland type group, you tend to play that way. For instance, I do a lot of gigs with Alex Welsh—not that you would call that Dixieland, I suppose; it’s more mainstreamish. That’s a wonderful band with a hell of a good trombone player—Roy Williams. We do a few of those double trombone things; in fact, the last LP we did, I managed to get Roy on three of the tracks. So, when you play with a group like that you adjust automatically—subconsciously, really. If you’re with Kenny Wheeler, you adjust otherwise. Although I was in a bit of a fix when dear old Sandy Brown made that LP of the tunes from Hair . This is where labels are all up the wall—who would think you could have Sandy Brown and Kenny Wheeler on one record? Some people would have said it wouldn’t work, because they’re such different types. But that worked so well—it was just music.
It was hard to know where to play—you just sort of shut up and play the way you play.
I think attitude has a lot to do with it. You get people on both sides: avant gardists or modernists, Dixielanders or mainstreamers, who have a built in thing against the other side. They say: “I don’t play that kind of thing”, and they won’t play it—probably can’t play it, what is more. But you get the giants—like Gerry Mulligan, Bobby Hackett, Frank Rosolino, Zoot Sims, Buddy Rich Thad Jones—if they’re sitting in, it all works; they complement each other, without consciously switching a little lever and saying “What is this—Dixieland? I’d better shift down to here.” You just play.
Happily, I did at least meet Jack Teagarden, though we never got to play together. In fact, he was my reason for not being able to go to the States, when I had my one opportunity. At that time, the Musicians’ Union were insisting on the States accepting groups from this side, to coincide with the visits to Britain by their groups. I was approached by Johnny Gray to go on one of these trips, and I said: “Yeah, great—I can go round and listen to the people I want to hear.” Until I found out that the exchange group coming here for us was Jack Teagarden—I told Johnny: “Sorry—no way!” So I never made the States.
But I met Teagarden—and that was great. I’ve got lots of records of Jack.
In the early days or now, though, it’s not necessarily trombone.
I listened to Art Tatum, to people as far back—or forward, as I always like to look at it—as Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman. And there was a trombone player who Teagarden even said he learned from—Jimmy Harrisson. I think I only heard one record of him, and he was a fantastic player—way ahead of his time, if that’s the phrase to use. It’s not the instrument, it’s the music that comes out—well, you tend to lean a bit if the guy plays the same one as you. I’ve only got one record, but I’m trying desperately to find more, of the trumpeter Clifford Brown: he was an absolutely tremendous player, but he died in a car crash. They’ve issued a double album? Oh, this I must pick up. I’ve got records of Dennis Brain a virtuoso on French horn—who used to sit in with the Squadronaires, during the war, when we were rehearsing up at Uxbridge, and I used to write out jazz choruses for him to play.
Back in Glasgow I was working in the local Palais, Green’s Playhouse, which is notorious. It no longer exists as a ballroom, but all the big bands used to play there.
Every name band went up there, even if they took a nucleus from London and augmented with the local boys—and we used to be the supporting group. A band visited there once called Teddy Joyce; he was a Canadian bandleader with a lot of personality. He heard me, and asked me if I’d like to come to the big city, London—for ten bob more than I was getting at the Playhouse.
Which meant I was getting five pounds ten—old money, of course—and I jumped at the chance.
I got to London to find that he was what is commonly known as ‘resting’—no work. So I was down the famous Archer Street, as was then, hanging about there with the crowds, waiting on some fixer shouting: “Are you free on Monday night?” And in those days we used to go round clubs voluntarily; there was a different atmosphere entirely—clubs used to welcome you, to sit in with the residing group.
Bottle parties, as they were called.
There were all sorts, the famous one being the Nest Club; others were the ShimSham, the Palm Beach, Mother Hubbard’s, the Bag O’Nails.
Eventually, I was engaged to play down the Nest Club, with Duncan Whyte; we were there for some time.
And I think this was almost written into every American musician’s contract: that when he visited London to play, he had to go down the Nest Club. That was the place to go, when all else was finished. That’s it—it was the Ronnie Scott’s of its time. They had the nucleus group, and these guys used to come down and sit in.
One particular night, there was half of Jimmy Lunceford’s band in, also Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller and a couple of other guys. Of course, with me straight down from Glasgow, my eyes were hanging out—looking at this array of giants. They all suddenly decided they felt good, and wanted to come on and have a blow; so we all went to leave the stand, and leave them to it. And Benny Carter said: “No, not you—you stay on.” To me. I thought: “Good God!” I sat there—this terrible little white Glasgow face, in amongst all these black faces—and I had a night never to be forgotten.
Through that, Benny Carter asked me: would I like to do three months with the band in Holland.
Over there we made some records with Hawkins and Benny—a tremendous experience. I was able to watch Benny functioning—as everything. Have you ever heard him play trumpet—he was a phenomenal trumpet player. His favourite trumpet player used to be Bill Coleman, and he played rather like him. He had exactly the same embouchure as Bill—he looked as though he was just smiling at people, when he had the mouthpiece up. His arrangements were great, of course. All his saxophone playing was superb—his alto particularly. He wasn’t called King Carter for nothing. He was very underrated, actually; I don’t know why it was that other people were more fashionable. He seemed to be accepted, but people didn’t really hear him, or dig him, and I couldn’t understand why. It must have been a case of him being taken for granted; people saying: “Oh, well, he’ll keep doing it—as long as he holds a saxophone, he’ll be able to do it.” But it wasn’t as though he wasn’t an exciting player—he was.
You can get this. I remember going into Keith Prowse before the war, with just enough to buy one record. Wax single 78s, as they were then. I asked for the latest Tommy Dorsey and the latest Jack Teagarden, and I had to choose between them. I played the Tommy Dorsey record, and it was absolutely perfect—note perfect, way up high register, fine. Then I played it again, and it’s a terrible thing to say, but I got slightly bored, because I felt: as long as he holds the trombone he’ll never miss a note; this fellow’s too perfect. And I put the Teagarden one on, and I was on the edge of my seat: Oh, he’s going to bust it. . .he’ll miss it. . oh, no, he didn’t miss it! So I could play that, and there was more excitement in that for me. It was more human, right.
Exposure to people like Carter and Hawkins was almost like lessons to musicians over here. Because at one time it used to be: “Yeah, well, he’s American”, and there was a great dividing wall. But nowadays—no, I don’t think so. We have players here who are absolutely tremendous. In the same way as people used to look at women, like Kathy Stobart or Barbara Thompson, and say: “Oh, well, it’s very good—for a woman.” There’s no dividing line any more; they’re both just great players—as players.
Oh yes, we had great players then; it’s just that we have more of them now. And people have listened a lot more to Americans; there’s been a lot of American musicians over here, and it rubbed off. For instance, during the war and slightly after, we had the Miller band over.
Right, so what they played was all rather put into a very tidy package, they had a certain noise, it pleased the public, and that kind of thing.
But they also had the Sam Donahue American Navy Band over—which was basically the old Artie Shaw band—and they had Gozzo in there, Johnny Best, Frankie Beach, Dick Le Fave, as well as Sam Donahue on tenor. This was exactly the same situation as the Teagarden record against the Dorsey. It was so much more human and exciting than Miller. Sam Donahue’s band really was a band to rave about. We knocked about with them, and I learned an awful lot.
It’s more of an attitude towards. music, I think. I’m sure the talent is over here. Like now, a lot of British people knock about and say: “Well, the economy’s very bad—let’s show it in our face.” But if it’s there, it’s there—show it; it doesn’t matter whether you’re British, Irish, coloured, Chinese or what. And there’s a lot of guys here I could put up against American players, and I don’t think there would be much difference—if any.
I was with Ambrose just before the war, and in America that was reckoned to be, precisionwise, just about the best around anywhere.
See, we’re used to hearing the very, very best; when you hear an American band on record, it’s normally the best of a very large contingent. But there’s an awful lot of rubbish—I use the word advisedly—that you wouldn’t listen twice to.
You know, you get the idea that America and Canada are all–powerful. I went over to Canada recently, and I had visions of Oscar Peterson and Maynard Ferguson. And I found the standard there was surprisingly low, to put it mildly.
We have fellows over here that lose them. As you say—even in those days, in the British big bands, there were individuals who, by any standards, were great.
That pre–war restaurant job with the Ambrose band tended to become a bit boring; it was the same thing every night, and there was no chance of expressing yourself too much. It was all rather modified, with cup mutes in all night, because the diners wanted to hear themselves drink the soup. On Saturday night, because we were broadcasting, we had to take the mutes out, and a big notice used to be put up at the side of the Cafe De Paris, apologising that the band was louder than usual.
We used to finish about 1.00 to 1.30, and a few of us then hared it straight down to the nearest nightclub/ bottle party, to blow it all out of our system till 5.0 in the morning. I’d do that practically every night, because it was like life’s blood to me—I had to play somewhere. The fact that I’d appeared at the Cafe De Paris from nine till one didn’t count at all, musically, for the most part. As it is today, it was the guys who cared that hung about together.
People often ask me whether I prefer playing in a big band or a small band. Well, if it had to be for any length of time, it would have to be a small band, because obviously there’s more individual opportunity to cut loose. In a big band, it’s great now and again; I mean, it is a tremendously exciting thing, if you’re sitting in a brass section of eight, and you’re banging out some really good arrangements. But over a long period, unless there was plenty of opportunity to break free from the section, I’d go for a small band.
With Ambrose, we played a lot of very mild backing things, mainly muted and of no musical interest—all tailored to the vocalists. At one point, he had Vera Lynn, Anne Shelton, Sam Browne, Evelyn Dall.
Where you got band numbers, though, maybe arranged by Bert Barnes or Art Strauss—you could play some jazz. He had his little favourites—he used to give Tommy McQuater, Danny Polo and myself a good whack in the middle there, and that did help; we used to look forward to those.
Yes, Danny Polo was a great player. I remember making those records with him at Decca—the Danny Polo Swing Stars, I think they were called; we played tunes like “Maseltov”. That was just like a jazz club; we went into the thing, just knocked it together and played it: “You take sixteen bars, you take thirty–two bars,” and off we went. Great.
On and off, I was with Ambrose about two and a half years.
We did one spell at the Cafe De Paris of six or seven months, followed by a spell of assorted jobs; then we went to the Mayfair Hotel just before the war, in 1939. I got on very well with Ambrose—a great guy; he—I know he won’t mind me saying so—held a fiddle in front of the orchestra. He was a businessman; he couldn’t explain it musically, but he knew what he wanted.
If you saw his head nodding back and forward on the second and fourth beat of the bar, you knew that the band was swinging along and he liked it. He used to love it; he’d turn round and point to Tommy, Danny or I, to take some choruses—he seemed to identify with that. He was one of those guys who respected you because you stood up to him; he tried to knock you down money–wise, of course, and if you went down too quick you didn’t get any respect from him at all. We used to stand out, he used to call us all sorts of names—but he liked us.
Around that time, I was asked to make some records by Leonard Feather—just shortly after the Danny Polo ones. He gave me some titles under my own name—the George Chisholm Jive Five. That was people like Tommy McQuater, Benny Winestone, Alan Ferguson, Dudley Barber on drums, Eddie Macaulay on piano, and Tiny Winters did some on bass. We just dug some tunes out and played them; it was a chance to really play as way–out as you wanted.
There was much more opportunity to do that then than there is now. I suppose, with the economic situation, and the commercial change of things to mostly pop. . recording companies’ll only publish what they’re going to sell. It’s only the odd chap who’ll come out and say: “Well, as long as it covers itself in sales, we’re willing to make a jazz record.” In fact, the one before last LP that I made, when Jed Kearse approached me and said: “How do you feel about making a jazz record?”, I thought he was having me on, Nobody asks you these days to make a jazz record. Then he said: “Oh, just one thing. . .”, and I thought: “This is it—here’s the catch.” He said: “If you don’t mind—we’d like Kenny Baker on trumpet.” What a catch! And there was no hang–up with the tunes—we were left to pick the tunes. So all I did was scribble beginnings, finishes and so forth, little bits of arrangements, just to tidy the ends and things up. For the most part, it was strictly: “You’re on your own.” The date, for the Gold Star label, was thoroughly enjoyed by all of us.
In fact, there was a thing unknown for musicians. If they work for the normal bandleader on a recording session, it’s just a means to an end; at the end of the time, you draw the money and off you go. You do the best you can, obviously. And if overtime is asked, the guys don’t want to know: “Sorry, I can’t go over time”—and they get a bit of a name about this, particularly session boys. On this session—it was two minutes to the finishing time of the session, two minutes to one, and the voice from the box said: “Right, thank you very much, gentlemen—that’s it.” But Kenny Baker said to me: “I don’t think that was quite right. I think we could do a better one.” I said: “Well—the clock.” So he, in a well–chosen word, said “Never mind the clock. Let’s play it.” We played this, and we did—unheard of—twenty–five minutes’ overtime, voluntarily, all the guys.
And they had another session way over the other side of London—Olympic Studios or somewhere—and they had to get lunch in as well.
They’ve bitten into twenty–five minutes of the time for eating; not only that—they wanted to go into the control box and hear the tapes back.
There they were, like a bunch of kids, bubbling with enthusiasm—absolutely great—and all of them, though not old men, not youngsters.
Suddenly they looked at the clock: “Oh—got to go. No lunch, over to this session, it’s one of those where the bandleader gets to the end of the thing: “Can you do. . .?” “No—sorry. No overtime.” But I find a tremendous keenness in all the guys I come into contact with—guys like Kenny, Tommy Whittle, Duncan Lamont. Don Lusher—we did a broadcast a few weeks ago, the Charles Fox programme on Radio 3, Jazz In Britain, just Don and I, with Brian Lemon, Bobby Orr, Lennie Bush, and it was most enjoyable. You’d think just two trombones and rhythm would be a little bit boring after a while, but it worked out marvellous; Don was as keen as any twelve–year–old kid. If it’s worth doing—it rubs off, you know. I shall be incurably enthusiastic about jazz, anyway, even to the last. The last thing I shall say is: “What key am I in?” After Ambrose, the war came, and the Squadronaires was eventually formed. That was a very free band, yes—we had a group within the band as well, but even the arrangements had a lot of scope for having a bang. I used to do an awful lot of arranging for the band; I’d just write beginnings, endings, and unison trombone bits for Eric Breeze and myself, which were virtually jazz choruses played by two people.
Apart from a couple of commercial tunes that the vocalists would sing, the band played mostly jazz. A tremendous band—I stayed with them until 1950.
Having got a little fed up with touring, living out of a suitcase, I decided to stay at home. I was freelancing, doing sessions, jazz clubs and this kind of thing. Then I joined Cyril Stapleton’s BBC Show Band—which was a very good band, with great guys like Laddie Busby, Jackie Armstrong, Tommy McQuater, Stan Roderick, Andy McDevitt, Bill McGuffce. When we had a chance, we had a go. Specially on the Friday night, when they disbanded the strings; strings were used on the other two days, and the Friday night was just the brass, saxes and rhythm, and we had a bang. That was tremendous, and then, of course, into that period, 50 to 55, this other thing took place. I was asked to do an audition for the Black And White Minstrels show, with a group. We did a jolly–type thing, they liked it very much, and they asked us to do the series. I can’t say I minded when they started dressing us up, with me in the striped jersey, black tights and George Robey hat—I found it very enjoyable.
The kidding about all started with the Squadronaires, actually, in the bandroom with the fellows. I suppose every football team has some idiot that larks around; I did it, and it spilled on to the stage. During the war, I used to be the corner–man on the end, taking the Mickey out of the sergeant; which was very easy—all you had to do was put your tongue out, and the troops cheered like mad. Then Sid Colin, who was guitar player and vocalist in the band, wrote a couple of scripts, and we did some more bits.
It went on into the Goon Show. I was in the band first, and then Spike started writing lines for me.
With the Minstrels, the thing was, when the show went into the Victoria Palace, this curtailed playing to a great extent, because I was working twice nightly, six nights a week. I used to have to practice like mad, because I’d get a blow on a Sunday somewhere. But normally, Sundays were taken up, because that was the only time we could do the television show. That was when that story went around, that I’d left the fold—but it wasn’t the case. Eventually, I persuaded the producer to let me play some—to alternate between straight playing and doing the funny spots.
He agreed, grudgingly, thinking of the camera angle, that a fellow playing trombone is not very interesting to the viewing audience. So I told him: “Dress it up—have girls dancing at the back, anything.” He did this, and it was a big success.
Which balanced it up to 50 per cent of each. After I left, the playing steadily took over, and now it’s something like 99 per cent playing and one per cent cabaret/ the odd pantomime /whatever.
Copyright © 1976 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.
In the Wood Green television studio, where we made the Saturday Spectacular TV shows with Jack Parnell's ATV Orchestra, George sometimes would amuse us with his very own version of Tommy Dorsey's Getting Sentimental Over You. He would play the first part of the chorus correctly, but when he came to the middle eight he played the following:
This was always good for a laugh, and he did it absolutely
straight-faced. One night we played a dance with the band somewhere and
he did it later on in the evening while we all cracked up. The dancers
danced right on and gave him a big round of applause afterwards. Nobody