|Parts 1 2||Talking to Les Tomkins in 1978|
Glad to be here, man—yeah, it’s nice. I’ve never been to England—first time. Well, I met some nice people in Bristol and Southampton. You know, I have no idea who the audiences are going to be, really. Because most of the younger generation have never heard of me; so I didn’t know who was going to be there. And I met lots of people who knew about my records; it was nice to meet them, because I don’t really get out that often. I don’t work in America at all; so I don’t get anything there, I don’t come to Europe too often—just enough to pay the rent, right? I like to come as often as I can, but I haven’t had the opportunity too much. This year’s shaping up better; I’m going to be in Europe in summer this year—in Chateau Vallond; somewhere for Norbert Gamson—I think it’s Antibes; or one of the Scandinavian festivals. So it’s going to be a much better year for me, in getting to play with the band.
We had a false alarm a couple of years ago; we thought you were going to make it, but…
I did, too—yeah, we almost did I come over here. I wonder what happened to that; I forget now, but we were certainly hoping to come. Well, the Jazz Centre Society came through and did it! I’m glad they did, too—it’s a remarkable accomplishment, to get up the money to bring twelve people over like that. It’s really something.
The line–up of this band is one, I suppose, that you try to keep to as much as possible whenever you do anything.
Yes, it’s the same band except that there’s one change now. There are three trumpets instead of two, and I have no trombone. I decided I wanted to try just a little shift in orchestration; eliminating the trombone and one of the French horns takes me off of a certain thing.
You haven’t a guitar with you?
No—I also have organ instead of a guitar. That happened just kind of accidentally, in a way. The guitar player had something else to do, and I called John Abercrombie, because he had worked with me before. And he wasn’t working all the time—like, in December and January—but he was going to go back to work in February. So I couldn’t have him: I was disappointed, because I really like John Abercrombie’s playing, you know he fits in fine with us. Ryo Kawasaki had another job in recording in Germany scheduled for this next week. So there was this friend of mine, Masabumi Kikuchi from Japan, who is a fine pianist and composer—he’s going to play with Miles Davis’ new group, when they start to work. He has his own Yamaha organ, and he wanted to make the trip; so I said: “Fine. We’ll have the organ instead of the guitar.” Because Peter Levin plays clavinet and mini–moog, and he can approximate a lot of the things a guitar would do, if I have to have that kind of sound; he’s very versatile like that he can sound just like a guitar, or just like a bass.
One night we were playing at the Village Vanguard—we used to replace Thad and Mel sometimes on Monday nights—and the bass player was late; so Pete played the bass on the mini–moog, and you’d have never known that it wasn’t fender. It’s fantastic. Well it’s probably because his brother, Tony Levin, is a very good bass player. And I guess brothers are competitors, in a way; so he probably knows how to think bass, even if he didn’t play it.
Right—those lines are in his mind. And the sound was identical; when the bass player got there, he thought I’d gotten somebody else—he said: “I heard a bass, but I didn’t see it!”
Have you had to add a book for the organ, or is he using the guitar book?
Yes he’s using the guitar book. Yeah, right. Also what he did, to tell you the truth—he took my parts, on a lot of the tunes, and copied them all over again for himself. you know. At school in Japan they learn that calligraphy, and that lettering is so fine—when he copies those parts out, they’re so small, but so legible; you can see them, but they’re done with such a fine hand that it really is amazing.
Then I had to add the third trumpet book, and give some of the trombone parts to the third trumpet and some to the second alto. I also added another alto, you see. Because when I came to Europe in ‘76, I just had one saxophone, along with two trumpets, a trombone, a French horn and a tuba. So now I have three saxophones—Dave Sanborn, Arthur Blythe and George Adams. Great sax section—phew!—all three of ‘em are absolutely wonderful. And the three trumpets are Hannibal Marvin Peterson, Ernie Royal, and Lew Soloff—and that’s a great section, too. They’re having fun in playing as a section; before it’s just been two trumpets, and that’s not quite like a section, you know.
But you got Ernie just at the last minute, almost, didn’t you?
Yes, I did, right. It was just one of those happenstances. Lew Soloff had a job in Boston, with a show that was starting there and then coming into Broadway: so he couldn’t get out of the rehearsals for that, and he had to join us on the day that we left for London. I got somebody to take his place at our rehearsal—and I thought: “I’d love to have Ernie Royal play in the band.” He’d kinda level things off—he can declare the time, the pitch and all; he’s got such good experience, and he’s so musical. I felt it would be a big break for me if he would take the job, and he said “Yes.” So I’m happy about it. It’s one more player than I’d planned on bringing, but I don’t care—I’m glad to sacrifice the money for the pleasure. And for my own edification.
Not having, at the time of this conversation, attended one of your concerts, and looking forward to Saturday’s concert at the Festival Hall, I’m not aware how you do your programming. Do you usually mix things up, and have some earlier charts along with the more recent ones?
Oh, sure—we play old and new tunes. Let’s see—how did we start out last night? We played “Thoroughbred” first; that’s an old tune, that I recorded on the “Svengali” album. Then “Up From The Skies”, which is from the Jimi Hendrix album. I forget what we played next.
By now you must have a pretty big library to draw from.
Well, it all depends—sometimes you can look through a book of tunes, and only a tenth of ‘em’ll appeal to you—at that time, you know. Some time later, you’d look through it and a different group may appeal to you; it depends. So I really don’t have that big a library.
We play Charlie Parker tunes—” Cheryl,” “Bird Feathers” and “Relaxin’ At Camarillo”; we play those all in one tune, He wrote them all in C; so we just play a C blues, and we include those three heads. And we start that out with the three–part fugue opening of John Lewis’ “Concorde”. Then we play maybe “The Meaning Of The Blues”; George Adams plays that on tenor—that’s from the new album. It’s the same arrangement that I did with Miles Davis, except that it’s different by now possibly it’s more flashy now.
I did make another record of “Flamingos” with Billy Harper, but it was never released. Gee, he plays it great, too—wow! I’ve got a tape of it at home—I was playing it the other day. We made this album for Capitol but just as we finished it a new administration came in; they cancelled out about twenty–five projects, and ours was one of them. But they gave me the multi–track tapes; I can sell `em somewhere else if I want to, and then pay them a certain amount back—you know, one of those things. So some day it’ll come out.
To jump back in time now—you weren’t born in the States, were you?
I was born in Toronto, Canada, where I lived for about eight years; then in 1920 we came to Spokane, Washington. We lived in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, California. My stepfather was a miner; so we lived in mining counties. Anyway, we ended up in California, and it was there I spent my last two years in high school. Prior to that, we always lived in different places every six months, because my mother liked to keep moving. She worked, and I travelled with her.
Where did your music involvement begin?
Not till I started to high school. I was staying with these people who had a piano; I just started fooling around with the piano, and I realised that I liked to do it.
To start with, I had no background except popular music; that’s what I played then. Later on, I listened to other music, out of curiosity and a desire to know what was happening in my trade. Then I went into the French impressionists and the Russian impressionists; that’s where I started in classical music. I don’t have any background in earlier classical music, like so many people do. I picked up anything I know about Bach, or anything like that, much later—when I came to New York, as a matter of fact, thirty years ago. I started playing Bach, and I realised at that time how people can devote their life to Bach. It’s a fantastic adventure, really, and if it suits your life style, I could see how you could do it, you know; I really could.
And also Chopin. But Bach especially. I could understand completely how people specialise in him, as they do. It seems funny to an outsider—and I thought it was funny, too, until I started playing that music, and I realised how the whole thing can just put you in a trance.
In the beginning, did you visualise a career as a pianist, or were your thoughts predominantly concerned with scoring?
I really wasn’t a pianist at all; I didn’t I study it, after I just took a couple of popular piano lessons and that was the end of it. From then on, I just did it by myself. I started writing, really, because I wanted to hear the music with a group of players, and I was around some kids who could play. So how I really learned it was: I started copying off records. The first one I copied was Red Nichols’ “Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider.” It’s a great record; I can hear it in my mind now—it still sounds beautiful. It’s in a very slow tempo, with Adrian Rollini playing the lead on the bass sax; he really had a great, rhythmic tone. I read an interview years later with Harry Carney, and he said that Adrian was his inspiration, as far as taking up the baritone saxophone was concerned, because he liked his bass sax tone so much. Yet he made his living, and spent most of his life playing vibes, at the Piccadilly Hotel in New York.
Would you say this was implanting in your mind the importance of bringing out the bottom in music—the rich sonorities, the depth of sound to be heard in your writing?
Well, that always appealed to me. I started noticing that kind of thing in the Casa Loma Orchestra; they had a very gifted arranger, Gene Gifford, who worked for them.
Hardly anybody knows about him—he was really a very talented musician; he played guitar also. They were a regular five brass and four saxophones Swing band, but they started breaking the arrangements up more. For example, they’d play a ballad, and the melody would be on the baritone saxophone, and the three harmony parts would be above it on the trombones—they’d have that kind of a thing happening, you know. And they got a lot of depth that wasn’t around that much. So I liked that.
Then I met Claude Thornhill; he wrote that way for this band that we were working for in California at the time—Skinnay Ennis. He was hired to write for him, and I was doing the same. Claude would use the two trombones without vibrato, to sound like French horns; he’d have the clarinets possibly play the melody while the trombones were playing the harmony. It had something to do with the European concert music, in the sense that it called for, as you might say, perfect traditional–type playing. I mean pure, no vibrato, clear tone on the clarinet, for example, or on the saxophone, trumpet or trombone. Claude liked to do that at rehearsals... it called for all that kind of control, in the basic European tradition. So I got into it that way, through that association, and then I pestered him to join his band. When his arranger was drafted, he called me, and I got to spend a year with him—before we were all drafted, including Claude. He had Fazola playing with him when I joined the band, and it was a wonderful experience to play with that clarinet player—he had a most moving tone.
What about Danny Polo –was this before his time?
He came later, and he was wonderful, too—great alto player, also. But Irving Fazola had a liquid soulful sound that he got on that clarinet and it fitted fine with Thornhill’s band; oh, it was great. But he went back home; he was from New Orleans, and he liked that kind of a life. New York was a million miles away from home to him. He cooked his own food, and he was really a home–town man; so he went back.
It was largely due to your writing, I’d say, that the Thornhill band became something that was well away from the Swing band mainstream.
That happened after the war. Prior to the war, the band, rhythmically was Count Basie. But ballad–wise, it was not Count Basie that was the original part of the band. The style there was a big ensemble, everybody voiced in a big four–part harmony way; then also the saxophone section, with the clarinet lead—like Glenn Miller, only an octave lower—and added to that were the French horns playing lead. So it gave it that kind of a sound. We used to experiment with all kinds of combinations like that—the main idea being to play it very soft and without a vibrato.
That set the thing up in the pre–war period—but most of the rhythm tunes that people had written were in the Basie idiom. And I started writing a few things which were not Count Basie—as did Thornhill also. He wrote in a very peculiar style, that was all his own. But it wasn’t the kind of thing that anybody would pick up on much; it was just his, and great for him—nobody else really wanted it, you know. It was high clarinets voiced over the brass, and tunes like “Pizzicato Polka”, “Liebestraum”, My Heart And Thy Sweet Voice”, “Yours Is My Heart Alone”—that type of music. Those were his arrangements—and they were really stunning. Very difficult. High unison clarinets, all five of them way up there, imitating unison violins.
There was one number called “Portrait Of A Guinea Farm”—have you heard that record? No? Well, if you get a chance, on some reissue of Thornhill, you listen to that; that’ll give you a very good portrait of Claud Thornhill. That’s his own composition, his own piano playing; it’s a fascinating number. You’ll get a big kick out of that number, man. It’s just a gimmick title, in a way; I never thought of it as being a literal programme title, though conceivably he did. It’s only three minutes long, but it’s really an experience.
And, of course, he wrote “Snowfall”, too. That was originally called “Fountains In Havana”. There were several tunes that were sort of a suite; so he picked that one out, and changed the title. And that was the pattern for the band, in a way—those five high clarinets, with the double melody on the bottom of the four–part harmony, and the five brass playing like a pentatonic scale underneath. You know, like G flat, A flat, B flat, D flat, E flat or even F—the whole scale, almost, clustered up close together underneath those clarinets playing the melody. That was one of the characteristics of his style, and it was his original creation.
And you’d say that rubbed off on you, to a certain extent?
Of course—I use that all the time. That became part of my timbre box—right?
With the post–war band, though, you felt the music had to evolve?
Yes—we began to play bebop, and I began to write some other arrangements than ballads and things. It was very tough for Claude, because, even though he knew that was the way music was going and that it was a quality thing, basically he did not like it, he was through picking up on things; he wanted to do what he did. It was very understandable; he wanted to have a ballad band that played songs like “Where Or When”—the plain melody, with a nice vocal and some effective piano. The rhythm tunes he wanted to play more like Basie, or what he had done. I wrote the bebop things because I wanted to, and I didn’t care; if he didn’t want me to do it, then he could fire me—because that was the way I felt like going, and I was selfish about it. So, when it turned out okay, half of him liked it, and half of him hated it. He finally fired me; it just wasn’t practical for him to keep me on. He wasn’t getting booked that much, and he thought maybe one of the reasons was that he was playing bebop, and he should be trying to play only his other style. And that was how that ended. Because he was always a man who was very torn for a decision. Decisions were very difficult for him.
But he was such an artist; he had such a wonderful touch on the piano. Phew! Really—his touch and his tone were unique. Somebody once said that he was the only man they ever heard play the piano without a vibrato! Which he did—for some reason, it sounded that way.
About the earliest of your own recordings that I have is a session that included such tracks as “Ella Speed”, “Nobody’s Heart” and “Big Stuff”. But that was a few years after your time with Claude Thornhill, wasn’t it?
That was the first album I ever made, on my own. It was nine years after Thornhill. Because I was still with Thornhill in 1948; that record was made in 1957.
So what had you been doing in the interim—had you been generally working around, writing for different people?
I’d been doing night–club acts, and I things like that; I hadn’t been doing any kind of recorded work at all. With Thornhill, I’d only done three–minute records—you know, 78s. The first album I was ever involved with was called “Dream Of You”, in 1956, with Helen Merrill.
Have you ever heard that album? Oh, it’s a nice album—it’s just been reissued in Japan. Then, the next year, I made the first album with Miles Davis. I was waiting for Miles, but it took him quite a while to get around to up and in, you know, to do it, because he had to go through all his things. He had to go out and have his band, and develop certain things that he was doing himself, with his quintet. So he wasn’t really ready to do this thing until 1957—right? We got together at Columbia one day, talked it over, decided to do it—and did it. Then, later that year I made that record you spoke of.
And that record, to make, cost twenty–five hundred dollars. Now, you would have thought that was two million dollars, the way the owner of that company complained about it. He’d never spent that amount of money before on a record; he could get all these jazz trios, they’d go out there and record all day long, and he’d give them a hundred–and–fifty dollars, or something like that. So, for him to pay twenty–five hundred, he was so impressed with himself that he wouldn’t let me have a fourth session to clean it up. We had the nine hours, and I needed twelve; I needed more time—there were certain things we should have played again. But he wouldn’t do it.
Okay, the record cost that much to make; I got no advance, or anything like that—you have to make back the twenty–five hundred in sales before you can start collecting royalties. Well, the last statement I got from him, I still owe him nine hundred dollars. How can you believe that after all these years? After seventeen years—isn’t that terrible? I don’t know what to do about that—that’s really outrageous. It would cost me more to have a lawyer do anything about it; I wouldn’t make any money on it anyway, and he knows it—right? He moved to the Bahamas—they send the bill from there. And gee, you’d figure that record has sold enough to pay for twenty–five hundred copies, wouldn’t you? Right—it’s been reissued a few times. And, you know—I found out, just through a lawyer friend of mine, who has very kindly pointed it out to me, that when they reissued that album they added five hundred dollars against my royalties for their reissuing, changing the cover! So there’s no end to that greed.
Well, I’m not gonna get sick about it any more. I did get sick about it, but now I must laugh, see—before, I cried. I have to laugh now, man, because it’s so terrible.
Really—I’ve cried and gone through enough nervous breakdowns, or whatever you want to call ‘em. Not really breakdowns—but you know how you finally realise that certain things aren’t the way you were told they were; so you have a nervous reaction, right? Some are very strong, some are not so strong. But all through your life—all through my life, anyway about every ten years I have a nervous reaction about something, because the degree of awareness becomes more, you know, about, as Durante used to say : “The conditions that prevail”. That happens, I get nervous about it, I cry about it—and then, after that, I must laugh—I can’t do anything else And try to dodge as much of it as I can. Now I know what the Artful Dodger means!
Absolutely. But the original Miles Davis recordings are still regarded as all–time jazz classics. Would you agree that this was a turning point in middle–size group writing? It was a nonet, and you were using some of the devices that you would use in a larger band.
Right. Actually it was created that way; the idea was to sound as full as possible, you know, and still not be too large. It could still cover all the harmonic needs that the music could have, and the range and tone colours. That was why I picked out that instrumentation; it would take care of what I had written. The trouble with Thornhill’s band—what happened with him was that he got drafted right when he was about ready to become, in the Swing era, a superstar. But just those four years when he was gone—it just took the edge off it; it took the climax away.
So when he came back again, it was uphill all the way for him, even though he did get bookings. And the band at one time had three trumpets, two trombones, French horn, tuba, five saxophones—plus three other flutes and a rhythm section, of course. It was a great band to write for it was a workshop for me. It was fun, because I had everything I needed. I had four trumpets and two French horns, as a matter of fact, a lot of the time, together with everything else I mentioned. I can tell you—I had some fun with that band. I did one transcription of a Mousorgsky tune for the band; I think they call it “The Old Castle” on the record it’s from “Pictures At An Exhibition”, right? We recorded it for a transcription company in New York called Langworth; later somebody bought it in Japan, and now a Japanese album called “The Real Birth Of The Cool” has got that track in there.
It’s a very interesting track, for the simple reason that it was recorded with one microphone. Because there’s no piano in it, see; its an arrangement for that group without piano. Ordinarily, we could do it with one microphone for the whole orchestra, and one microphone for the piano. But this one has just the one—and really, it picks up everything. You can even hear the string bass, but the number itself didn’t call for any amplification of the bass, because it had a pedal G sharp all the way throughout it—it was based on that. It’s what I’d like to do when I record again now; I’d like to hang a microphone, or two, down over the whole band, so that I can turn one of those channels on sometimes and hear that band with perspective.
Because it’s different. Nowadays, when you record multi–track—that is, if the arrangement is self–balanced, and usually when I write an arrangement, just from habit it’s self–balanced. so here we are out in the room playing, and it’s sounding great, but that sixteen–or twenty–four–track machine is scrambling it. It’s putting it into sixteen tracks, say, each track having something different on it. Then the record date is over, you’ve got these tapes, and then you must go into the studio and unscramble the whole thing, and get it back the way it sounded in the studio, anyway! That’s the thing that gets me down. So, when I record from now on, I’m gonna take that into serious consideration. I’m gonna try some time recording right from the studio to a disc; they’re starting to do that now, you know.
If the arrangement is self–balanced, we’ve got it rehearsed, and we can’t miss, why shouldn’t we try to do it that way?
Many consider the series of orchestral showcases you wrote for Miles Davis as the peak of your career. The well–known ones are the initial “Miles Ahead”, then “Porgy and Bess”, “Sketches Of Spain”. But there’s another that I have—” Quiet Nights”.
Yeah, that was only half done, but they were so hungry to have it that they made a whole album of it; I was only half finished with it. I was drug with that—but later, like a friend of mine says, you finally mellow. How else do you put up with all that? Also, we did one live one, with some parts on it—at Carnegie Hall. I thought there were six. . . No, I guess there were five.
I was told that you virtually closeted yourself away for long spells, while you were working on some of these charts. Is this the way it is sometimes? I forget how long it took; it’s I hard to remember.
Sometimes it takes a long time to get the concept of the sound you want you know, to get it in your mind. Or the pace of the music. But once it’s firmly in your mind, it comes out very fast. On a project like that, you may run into a very difficult time; but after you’ve finished one or two like that, then all of a sudden one’ll come along, and you’ll do it in five minutes. If you’re into that, the whole thing :s not a wonderment any more; you’re committed to a certain sound. So the time element is not even with me.
Although I’m really not a fast writer, I don’t deserve the notoriety for being as slow as I am, because my total product is small—but it’s not because I’m slow to write it that it’s small. It’s small for a number of reasons, I guess—one of them being that because I wasn’t raised around music a lot, I created my own musical world later.
I don’t have the game habit—I mean the musical games that are very important to a prolific writer; it’s a compulsion, almost, to do it. He’ll say to himself: “Well, today I think I’ll write something for. . . ‘ and he’ll name a combination. And he’ll sit down and write it for a combination like that, because he likes the challenge of that game—to do that thing. It may turn out to be a brilliant piece, and it may not, you know—but it’s an interesting work, anyway. But I have not had that habit.
I’ve liked a lot of other things besides music. I’ve liked to be outdoors a lot, for example. Which I never get to be any more in New York, but I like being out in natural surroundings, and I can spend a lot of time like that—which is very non–intellectual. And then, very late, Anita and I were married, and we had two children. They’re now thirteen and fourteen. Up until recently, we were very tight—for the first ten years, say, we lived closely together, and I lived that way, you know; it’s like living a life, to do that. And the only music I would do. . . maybe I did a couple of albums; I did one with Astrud Gilberto, one with Kenny Burrell, and one on my own, I think. I did very little work in there for ten years, almost.
Every day I would play the piano, in a compositional sense; I would come in, turn on the tape, play it, then put the tape away. So, as a result, now I’m beginning to listen to this stack of tapes that I made a long time ago; on some of ‘em I hear my little kids talking, with tiny little voices—because they’re babies; they’d come in and interrupt me. I’m listening to them now, to see if I can find some motifs that I like, and things like that. And it was really a dirty trick to play on myself; I should’ve played the thing, and never let it go past a week or something.
Time went by—and I wasn’t miserable. It’s great when you’re not miserable. Now, though, I’m miserable again, in the sense that the children . . . they no longer belong to us. They belong to life from the beginning, and you take care of them until they’re ready to leave, you know. By now, they’re on their own. When we first moved to this place we’ve lived in for the last eight years, they’d peek out the door and be afraid to go outside.
Now they never want to come home—skateboarding and all the whole thing. So I hardly see them—just to say “Hello” before they go to school, and when they come home. It’s so different now that I’m ready to go back into the music game, so to speak.
Over the years the hallmark of your writing has been your showcasing of particular musicians, or having specific people in mind. Would you say this was the most effective approach to jazz writing?
Well, it all depends. Some people write for sections exclusively—right? When I write for sections—I’m not crazy about cliché section work, you know up to a point.
There’s a point past which it becomes like Muzak, as we call it in the States. And a lot of Muzak is, like, perfect; as a matter of fact, some of the best recording sound you’ll ever hear is from Muzak. You know, on those FM stations that carry all that music, it’s recorded so clear, and everything is perfect in there. It goes all the way from being very, very plain sheet music to sometimes very good or brilliant arrangements—but it’s still Muzak. Mostly because it doesn’t have a personal touch. A lot of times you hear something, and you wait for something to come in and touch you—but it never will. So I don’t like sections that way; I get tired of them, a lot of times, sooner than I should, really. And yet I can go and start all over again, and try a different idea with a section, maybe, and enjoy it. Like, now I’ve got three saxes and three trumpets—so something’s gonna happen with that, you know.
You’ve written, really, for many of the major musicians of our time…
They reissued the Cannonball album did you hear that? Oh, doesn’t he play on that album! Phew! I like that Cannonball album all over again. I mean, he plays on that album. I loved doing that one—really nice. Art Blakey played on that, you know. He still plays the same way; he’s amazing, that man still in there pushing it, all the time. Really great.
Have there been certain individuals you’ve admired and wanted to write for as featured soloists, but have not had the chance to do so?
I’ve had a few disappointments, yeah. One was Pres; we were working on the album, but he died before we could make it. “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” in A flat was one of ‘em. But he didn’t have time. He wanted to make the album, but he wanted to die, and he had no way of timing it. He came in from his home in Long Island, and decided to stay at the Alvin Hotel, across from Birdland. He never ate a thing. Pres lived there about a year, went to Paris, came back—he came from the airport, got into his hotel room again, had a heart attack and died. So that was a disappointment to me.
I met Louis Armstrong once, and after we talked for a while, he thought we ought to make an album. Because I’m a Louis Armstrong expert, you know; his records were the ones that I learned music from. So I knew them all, and when we’d talked he realised that I knew them.
He said we should make an album, but he said we didn’t have to have all those hard chords in, like the Miles Davis things. I said: “Well. they’re really not that hard.” And he’d bought one of the Miles Davis albums and liked it, you know.
He said it reminded him of Buddy Bolden. It was an interesting historical insight, in a way, because there’s no other way of knowing how Buddy Bolden sounded—right? So I got a kick out of that.
But, on account of his manager, Joe Glaser, I didn’t net the job. I went to see Joe Glaser, and he said: “Well, in the first place, I’ve never heard of you. And in the second place, you have to realise that Louis Armstrong is a very kind gentleman, and he doesn’t like to hurt anybody’s feelings.” So—what do you do about a thing like that? Anyway, to make a long story short—it didn’t come through because of him.
I mean, it’s really ridiculous that I shouldn’t have done it. I knew just what to do for him; I knew just how to write the sustained harmony for him that’s what he needed, really. A few people approached it occasionally in his career. There was an early record with Les Hite’s band, of “Memories Of You” and “You’re Lucky To Me”; I don’t know if you know that record—it still sounds beautiful today, and it’s got sustained harmony behind it. It’s not like a lot of his records, where they were playing stock arrangements, you know, and he’s just playing over it—beautiful, but the band’s terrible. The music they’re playing, I mean. But “Memories Of You” with that Les Hite band, with Lionel playing drums and vibes, man—it’s a great record. Then, much later in his career, around 1940 or so, somebody wrote him a sustained harmony of a tune called “I Wonder”. “I wonder, my little darlin’, these things that you”—you ever hear that record? It’s on Decca; Billy Butterfield’s playing behind him in a mute, and the band’s playing sustained harmony—it’s the right idea again.
Then another disappointment was Jimi Hendrix—you’d planned to do something with him.
That’s right. Yeah he was coming into town that following Monday. Alan Douglas had arranged for us to meet; he’d given him the album “Sketches Of Spain”.
And the idea was for him to make a guitar record—not to sing. Because Alan felt, as I felt too, that actually he wasn’t appreciated even by himself. He was acting very shy, about how really good and innovative he was on the guitar: “Oh, that?”—he had that kind of attitude a lot of times. As a matter of fact, I met his recording engineer in New York one time—I think the man’s name was Ed Kramer, and he told me that when Hendrix first sang on that first album, he wouldn’t face the control booth; he had to turn his back to ‘em on a stool and sing, so nobody could see him singing. Imagine that—that’s genuine shyness, right? He got over it, but I mean, that’s how it started.
The way he died—it was just a tough break, to be careless enough to use barbiturate and alcohol. I mean, it happened to Tommy Dorsey—the same thing, exactly—he was taking that barbiturate, and it don’t mix with alcohol. Terrible. It happened to Dorothy Kilgallen and several famous people and yet, don’t you know, they don’t really tell people that enough. That should be standard first–aid knowledge right? But you did the next best thing and did the “Gil Evans plays Jimi Hendrix” album, as your tribute to him.
Yeah, right and RCA never did promote it. I expected to get a lot of AM plays from that album, and it would help me out with my following albums, you know.
And the man who is president of Columbia now even wrote them a letter at that time, telling ‘em what a great album and what a great idea it was. Yet they didn’t promote it—even the administrative people admitted that.
Some day they’ll reissue it and it’ll do better. There was no reason why they shouldn’t have done some promotion on that, made it much more available. That’s got an opening track on it that’s strictly AM music. “Angel” that Dave Sanborn plays—they could just sell that record easy if they’d try; it’s an ideal filler, you know. I was drug about that.
Copyright © 1978, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.