|Parts 1 2||Talking to Les Tomkins in 1978|
In latter years you’ve tended to use quite a lot of electricity. Would you say you have become addicted to electronic sounds?
Gee, somebody told me that they were surprised that the band was so non–electric last night. Sometimes I feel like having a whole electric band, and sometimes I don’t, you know. Just right now, I want to play the music I have now, try to get a live recording on Saturday, and then maybe not play that music again with my band. It may move and switch, and I may have more electric. I don’t own a synthesiser myself now, and soon as I can afford one I’m gonna buy one. But now, we only have electric bass, electric organ, electric piano, and an electric clavinet and mini–moog; somehow, we’ve got a lot of acoustic, I guess that’s why we don’t sound so electric. We have eight acoustic wind instruments, and they’re featured a lot more now; the electric now kind of offers support, decoration, impetus and that kind of thing. And we improvise interludes some day I’m gonna do an album and call it “Intros, Interludes and Codas”; they get very interesting sometimes, because they’re entirely improvised. You can’t always tell an acoustic instrument from an electric, anyway; if they play certain effects, you don’t know whether it’s electric or acoustic. So we can sound like a big electric orchestra at times, doing that kind of stuff.
What are your general thoughts about jazz writing these days? Is it looking healthy, or do you think there’s a lot of stereotyped writing going on?
Well, I mean—I guess I haven’t heard, that much, but all the writing I do hear is not stereotyped. You know, like the writing from here in England; Michael Gibbs, man not stereotyped music at all. Now, in America there’s Toshiko, the Japanese pianist—she writes. She’s writing for a traditional saxophones–and–brass band, but she’s doing it with such enthusiasm and all that, that she’s renewing the whole thing. I only heard the first Toshiko Akiyoshi–Lew Tabackin band album, and I’m told that the next albums are much better than that even. But I was very impressed with her; there’s one track on there—it’s an up–tempo tune, and she’s got that ensemble moving like, wow! It’s one of those real fast tempos—you know, like Duke Ellington’s “Giddybug Gallop”. She’s okay—she’s not kidding; she’s serious. So that kind of writing—and what about Thad? He writes for a traditional band—and what he writes, man! Phew! He plays, too. He has a number now where the band just plays sustained harmony, and he plays and it’s got a Louis Armstrong feel to it. It’s beautiful, but I don’t know the name of it; I heard it down the Vanguard recently—wow, it thrilled me.
I guess there is stereotyped writing around, but I don’t ever hear it; I guess I’m lucky I don’t have to listen to it, uh? Naturally, there’s bound to be a lot of imitative writing going on. Like stage band kind of orchestrations; somebody told me that there were, I think, seven–hundred–and–fifty thousand jazz students in the United States singing the blues.
You don’t have a regular band; you record very occasionally; this is quite an occasion, for you to come out on this tour. What, in fact, is your means of livelihood?
This last year a man named John Snyder, who ran Horizon Records for A& M, advanced me ten thousand dollars for a solo album. Which I haven’t done yet, because he’s not ready for it, but when he is and when I’m ready, I’ll make it. But that’s what helped me go—that plus the fact that I get Social Benefit now; I get 330 dollars a month, which pays my rent. Oh, and I get two thousand a year from BMI; I don’t make any money according to their system of—the pop music you know—but some day they’ll get it back, and they feel like it’s a courtesy kind of thing—it makes them feel good, man. And I don’t mind making them feel good—so I take the two thousand.
See, up until now, economically, I’ve been living a loser’s life. I’ve been an arranger, and you can’t get any royalties for arranging. All the albums I’ve ever made, I have no royalties from them, you know. The Columbia president told me the other day that those albums I made with Miles Davis have gone what they call gold, over these years and yet I only got the original five hundred dollars apiece for the arrangements; after that, nothing. So now I have to start trying to collect either artist’s royalties or/ and composing royalties. That’s how I’m gonna do it.
And I have to change my goal from three thousand a year to three hundred thousand, because it’s impossible to make thirty thousand in New York. I don’t know if it’s possible here, but the only people around there that can do it are civil service workers, teachers, that kind of thing—they can hit a thirty or forty thousand mark. I was naive enough to think I could do it—but you can’t, You have to starve or be rich; there’s no in–between—so now I’m out for three hundred thousand.
Well, I wish you success in these ventures. And, anyway, now that you have got over here with the band, I hope this will be followed by further visits in the future.
Thank you, man. I do, too. Both places we worked so far, they invited us back—Bristol and Southampton. So it sounds good. Southampton’s quite a jazz town—they got a lot of activity going on there; I was surprised.
I really enjoyed your opening night with the British band at the Camden Jazz Festival, Gil—and afterwards you seemed very happy with the way it had gone. How did it go on the second night?
Just as good—really good. A lot of people thought it was better, but I had a good time both nights, and it seemed the same to me. It was wonderful. See, because the thing about it is that the band is good and very co–operative—very creative. Now, they might only be good and not co–operative—right? Or they might be very co–operative and not so good. But I’m lucky that they’re both.
Yeah, it’s really a very fine band.
This trip came about, I understand, as the result of a special commission by the Jazz Centre Society.
I guess so, yeah. I got the job through a publisher in New York named Eckhart Ronn, who publishes many jazz musicians’ compositions. Last summer I was looking around for some work, and he lined this thing up for me.
I’m glad he did, because it is going to be, and is, a pleasure.
You’re playing mainly existing music, aren’t you?
Some of ‘em I haven’t played before here. They’re fairly new.
Had you any prior knowledge of the musicians in this band in relation to preparing for the assignment?
No—the only one I knew is Don Weller, because he worked with me last time here at the Bracknell Festival.
And I had known him when we were on a tour in 1978, with Stan Tracey’s Band—and I liked his playing very much. He’s very good.
Presumably, then. you had to go on other people’s word about the rest of the musicians.
Right. They didn’t let me down. I’d heard of others—I’d heard of John Surman, and I’d seen him once in Paris, when he did an electronic score for a dancer, at the Paris Opera House; I went to hear him there, but I didn’t know him. And I’d heard of John Marshall as a drummer.
But I had never even heard of the bass player, Mo Foster, the guitar, Ray Russell or the other trombone, Rick Taylor—I knew Malcolm Griffiths from Stan Tracey’s band. I hadn’t heard of Henry Lowther, Guy Barker, Stan Sulzmann, the other tenorman, or Chris Hunter, the alto player. I’d heard of John Taylor, but I didn’t know him.
So you met them all when you got here to rehearse?
They fell in right away with it, you know—with all the. . . well, with the idea of taking care of some of the parts of the arrangement, either in bringing themselves in or in creating something—in other words, improvising.
They fell right in with that right away, and co–operated with me—it was fine. ‘Cause I get right on the edge of formlessness sometimes—you know what I mean? Then something happens, because somebody wants to pull us out of it; they don’t want us to fall over—right? So somebody’ll do something, and then off we’ll go again. It’s like thriving on vagueness—because out of that comes something.
You keep it free for whatever takes place as the piece progresses.
Yeah, right. And I play cheer–leader piano; I put a little impetus here and there, or add a little intensity—which the band picks up, because they’ve put the piano in the monitors, so that they can hear me. And that helps too; they pick up on some little thing I might do—or not even what I do, but just the intensity of it. That keeps it rolling, that way. They’re responsive to that—there’s no resentment or anything. Because sometimes you can run into a certain amount of resentment from a player who is conditioned and prepared to read anything put in front of him, and that’s the thing he can do. When you’re not called upon to do what you can do, sometimes you feel a little insecure, you know. I have run into that problem, but it didn’t happen here at all. I felt so lucky. One of my favourite sayings is that I love to be lucky.
You would say that these are your kind of musicians?
And how—really. Yeah, I could go on a tour with them easy. I am on a tour with them, but I mean, any kind of tour I took, I’d be glad to have them.
And in the performance of your music they match up to their counterparts in the States?
Oh, yeah—absolutely. I’m just grateful for all of them.
You’re impressed with their solo capabilities as well as the ensemble quality they get?
Well, you heard them—what do you think?
I would say that if anybody tended to underrate British musicians, then there’s some proof to the contrary.
Really. I never had heard them underrated either. I’d never heard that.
Well, there can be an assumption that jazz players from the place of origin have to be the best. But. in fact, jazz has become an international language.
It’s more a spirit than it is a language because the idea of jazz is international. The details are not. For example, now there is much improvising that goes on in other parts of the world that has hardly any Afro–American content, but the spirit and the idea of improvising is contagious—it infected everybody. That’s the way I really put it—rather than a language. The language is not the same, if you consider the content of it—but what they do with the content is the thing that’s international.
It’s interesting to see that you have your son with you, that he’s playing trumpet and that his name is Miles.
Yeah—I named him after Miles Davis. As a matter of fact, Miles Davis is the one who suggested that I bring him. He called one day—the day I was packing up—and he said: “What are you doing?” I said: “Well, I’m getting the music ready, to go to England’: ‘Miles was helping me stack it up there, and he said: “Why don’t you take him with you?” I told him: “The promoters won’t pay for the ticket”. He said: “I’ll buy the ticket”. So he bought the ticket for him. Nice, huh? Right, he’s playing third trumpet. He didn’t know he was going to be able to play with the band, because of the Union, but it turns out that it’s okay for him to play if he doesn’t get paid. So he’s having some nice experiences, to play some parts, you know. Because he’s been working hard on the reading part of it and all that; so that’s what he’s doing. He’s practised those parts—he can play ‘em. I don’t want him to play any solos.
How old is he?
Seventeen. He’s six foot four and he’s seventeen—can you believe that? He takes a size fourteen shoe.
Do you feel that he’s going to make a career in the jazz field.
Well, it’s hard to predict, you know—at this age. He seems to have selected that as his lifetime profession. The only other thing he likes is chess, which he plays quite often—all the time, as a matter of fact. His mother said to him: “What do you want to be a trumpet player for? Your lips are going to get all ugly and everything. Be a basketball player”. But he didn’t want to.
Has he sat in with your band in New York?
He sits in, yeah. He sat in with me in 1981, when we played Bracknell—he played a few times on that tour.
Was this a new experience for you, to take your music outside the States, and have it played by an unknown quantity, as it were?
Yeah, the first time. No, it isn’t either—it’s not the first time; it’s the second time. Around ‘79 or ‘80 I went to Bergen, Norway, and they had a band there, of players that I’d also heard of. It was the same size as this band—two trumpets, two trombones, three saxes and rhythm.
The drummer was Jon Christiansen, the bass player was Niels–Henning Pedersen; the trumpets were Benny somebody from Denmark and Palle Mikkelborg; the trombones were Albert Mangelsdorff and Aje Thulin—it was really a very good band. We only played twice—a little student place one night and then TV one night—after we finished, we wished they’d booked us somewhere else.
Like, with this band now, if we’d only played once, it would have been very frustrating. The fact that we’re playing five times is nice; it makes it kind of a consummation, in a sense. So I’m looking forward to the next three nights—nothing but pleasure.
It was quite remarkable that it came together so well on that very first performance. How much rehearsal had you actually had, to get to that degree?
We rehearsed Friday afternoon, Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon—about nine or ten hours altogether, I guess.
In any case, it’s always a fresh performance, isn’t it? No piece of yours, by the nature of your approach, is ever played the same twice.
That’s right. They change because it’s a different band, they’re allowed to do what they want to do, the improvisation is variable. I have the feeling that they renew themselves—to me, and so I don’t get tired of them. Ones I’m tired of, I don’t play any more. Some of these maybe I’ll get tired of, and then I’ll get some others, gradually but I do always keep a few that I’ve played a long time.
Obviously you identify with the music of the rock field in that a lot of your compositions and arrangements in latter years have had hat flavour.
Three men came backstage last night and gave me hell for that, too! They said it was terrible, the rhythm was boring, and why did I play that awful music? I said: “Well, jazz has always used the rhythm of the times. I mean, it’s nothing new for jazz to use popular rhythm—that’s the only kind of rhythm jazz has ever used.” Naturally, the elaboration, the jazz feeling and all that has been put into it, but the basic rhythm has been the way people have danced—right? I bought my first record in 1927, when people were dancing the Charleston, the Black Bottom and all that kind of stuff, and jazz in the ‘twenties was using that kind of rhythm. The same with the Swing era. And so it’s natural that jazz should use the rhythm of the times now, which, for want of a better word, is called “funky” rhythm. But these people didn’t like it at all. It was funny; I was laughing at them. I said: “Gee, don’t you even like to dance?” “No—never been near a disco!” We wrangled around a little bit.
The point is: it’s the way you use these things for your own purposes—to make your kind of music with it.
It’s just a song. If I like a song, and that’s the rhythm it needs, then I use that rhythm.
Probably it’s puzzling to some people that, being of your generation, you can identify so much with teenage–orientated music.
It has to do with exposure and involvement. People who stop at a certain point have no longer been involved with that much. They don’t get out as much as they used to, and they really don’t follow it. But if they listened all the time as much as they used to, then they would just develop along with things too. Because it’s not an unnatural thing; it’s not a jump from one thing to the other. It’s all a natural connection—it’s organic. If it weren’t organic, it wouldn’t work, for me.
As far as your listening is concerned do you listen to rock groups a great deal, then? More or as much as what can be termed ‘straight–ahead’ jazz groups?
Gee, to tell you the truth, I don’t know. I just listen to music, but, I mean, I couldn’t say what the percentage is exactly. I listen to symphonic music and jazz and folk music and popular music. Some popular music I’m very low on interest on. Country ‘n’ Western doesn’t really interest me very much—it’s really not the feeling I have in my heart. Of course, it’s very popular, and it hits home to a lot of people. I just get tired of that certain cry; it’s the wrong kind of cry—it’s a whine, that I’m not too crazy about. I’m just not part of it, that’s all. I was raised on Louis Armstrong—so I learned how to handle a song from him.
Do you feel t there is an unusual amount of monotony in pop music nowadays? I must say that there have been eras of pop, or popular music, with which I’ve been able to identify much more. Such as with somebody like Stevie Wonder—whose output, as far as my taste is concerned, has had definite musical value.
Oh yeah—absolutely. And Stevie Wonder’s been ripped off plenty, man. I hear so much of his music in other people’s pop music—his little ideas and everything.
But he put out a fabulous series of about six albums full of his songs. Just glorious, weren’t they? Wow! Loved his music. I’m going to do an album of his songs one of these days. We have the same birthday, incidentally—that’s a coincidence. Yeah, I’m crazy about him; he can also play harmonica—and he’s a great singer.
The way he presents his songs is always interesting.
Absolutely. He knows how to handle a song; he’s a song man—since he was nine or ten years old, right? As far as the monotony of popular music is concerned—it’s really no more monotonous than any other kind of music, except that it’s promoted so much. It’s promoted so much that you hear all the mediocre and dumb stuff as well as the good stuff. If only jazz was promoted. . . . But there’s an awful lot of dumb jazz fusion that they try to make too, you know—that came and went without causing any stir at all, because it really was too artificial. It’s not organic; it’s like trying to graft one thing to another, without having it just develop, so it can come through a funnel, synthesised. So any idiom can have a lot of monotonous music in it—it’s just that we happen to be flooded with one idiom now. The programme directors are just ruthless, in catering to people who only like pop music. It’s not really right—especially in New York. In America it’s outrageous; I don’t know how it is here—maybe there’s more variety here. As a matter of fact, there I—because last night I turned the radio on real late, and this lady was playing jazz records and talking about the jazz players.
She was giving little thumbnail sketches of who wrote certain arrangements—like “Tubby Hayes wrote this, and it’s probably the best arrangement of this number. . ‘—she was going through all that. I was so surprised—it was great. We have nothing like that in New York.
Oh, we do have jazz exposure on radio and TV—and there have been some signs of improvement recently. But it still bears no comparison at all with the mass blanket coverage that the media gives to the parade of untalented, jumped–up nobodies, They create these false idols, when there are great people like yourself who more people should know about—this is the injustice of it all.
It’s outrageous. But see, the thing that they have on their side is that every generation loves to have its own thing—even if it’s not as good as the previous one. Even if they improve on it, they start out loving to have their own thing, right? I used to say to my kids: “You’d rather hear crap from your friends than the fact from me.” Which they would—they’d take some information from their friends that was totally wrong, and find out later, but they’d rather take it from them at first—just so the group could belong together. I’d say to ‘em: “I don’t mind you bullshooting; everybody has to learn to do that, in order to exist in this culture—but you should always know when you are. If you do it and don’t know it, then that’s pitiful.”
I suppose the fact that this big hype scene exists is why you encounter resentment from people who see you using those kinds of rhythms in your music—they see it as some kind of justification for the existence of the sub–standard stuff.
I guess it reminds them of that—yeah. Well, those rhythms don’t necessarily come from anybody who’s using them, you know. For example the eight–beat part of pop music comes from Brazilian music. It didn’t exist before that, but now every time a tune is played on four beats there’s always a double–time feeling, right? That’s from Brazil. So, I mean, the ingredients of the basic rhythm that’s in popular music. . . if you want to take the organic part of it apart, you’ll find out that it’s from all other kinds of bona fide rhythms—natural rhythms.
Well, Brazil is a whole pop culture in itself. of course.
Right. Their whole rhythm is like a tree—it just grew. It’s so organic, it’s incredible—you can almost play anything over that.
I’ve wondered sometimes why you haven’t used Latin rhythms more than you have—I mean, you used the Spanish feel earlier on, but not necessarily LA rhythms.
No, I haven’t—gee, I don’t know why either. Well, I haven’t done very much of anything, really, to tell you the truth—I have a very low output, you know. So maybe I’ll get around to it. We did some Brazilian songs with Miles, but we didn’t use terribly noticeably Brazilian rhythm.
The only ones I did, really, were with Astrud. I love Brazilian music, though—wow—some great songwriters. And great musicians. There’s one musician down there who’s really a genius—his name is Hermeto Pascoal.
He’s an international musician—he’s not just Brazilian; he transcends all that—he’s music. Every country has somebody like that—I just know a few. Like, there’s a man from Japan, named Masabumi Kikuchi; he’s like that too—he’s an international musician and a genius. Yeah, he did work with me. He’s a great composer and a great performer—same as Hermeto Pascoal is fabulous.
Do you get to Japan a lot?
No—I was there in ‘72 and ‘76, and then I’m going again this year.
Generally speaking, what amount of performing does your music get?
Usually once a year—I go somewhere for a couple of weeks, you know. This year’ll be the most I’ve ever done.
So do you apportion a certain amount of time to composing?
Well, I got so lonesome from sitting in front of that piano all those years—trying to figure out a new way to voice a minor 7th chord—that I decided. . . when Anita and I got married, I decided to have a band, for the adventure of it—just to get out of the house. Because when we were first married, she said: “You’ve got calluses on your backside!” I had pads I didn’t even know about from sitting there all those years. Well, so I got some music together, got out of the house and organised a band—around l971, something like that—I started working like that, and I’ve been doing that ever since. And then we had the children, and I lived a domestic life—and I didn’t really write much during that time. I’m just really getting back into writing now again. Now that my children belong to life and not me, I have more privacy. Anita and I are not married now—so I have the kind of privacy I used to have a long time ago. I’m into writing more now.
Do you ever write for a special project these day’s—something like the Kenny Burrell album, say—or is it only for what you’re planning to do with the band?
Just the band—I haven’t written for anybody else for a long time, that I can think of. But I’m starting to work with Miles again now; so something’ll come out of that—but I don’t know when or what. I help him out now with the sextet—you know, write a few of the things out for him. Sometimes he’ll do something I asked him to do years ago—he finally does it now—he puts his mute in at his apartment and he plays an idea that he gets into the tape recorder. Then he gives me the tape, so I can go over it and transcribe it. If it’s a chorus he’s played several times, maybe I’ll pick out the best sections of each one and make a chorus out of it, and write it out for the group—that kind of thing. But eventually we’ll get into another project, I’m sure, for recording with a bigger group.
He was off the scene for a long time, wasn’t he? What do you feel about Miles now? Do you think he’s getting into a new plateau of playing?
Well, he feels good—which makes a big difference, you know. And, of course, music is his life; so you’ll hear plenty from him—no doubt about that. I saw Paul Buckmaster last night—Paul had come over one time to work with Miles, but Miles finally wasn’t well enough to do the project; so Paul came home again. Do you know Paul? Right, he wrote Elton John’s first album. Paul’s a very great artist—a great musician.
It’s interesting to see that a friendship has come about between you and a British fellow–composer—Stan Tracey. Have you found that you have a lot of affinity with Stan?
Yeah. Stan’s a great artist—a great arranger and composer. We toured with him in 1978, of course, with his Octet. I never heard of him before, until I met him on the tour—and he’s okay. I mean, I heard some big band arrangements of his that are absolutely marvellous. Wow! Like you. he’s a complete individualist in what he does.
Really. That’s right. Yeah, I like Stan—he’s great.
I suppose it’s a new area of discovery for you—to find out what talent there is in this little island. Particularly now that you’ve been working with British musicians comprising your band.
Like I said—I certainly was lucky to have them.
They sure do play the music very well—as you heard. I couldn’t ask for more than that. I hardly had to tell them anything. Some of it they just got through osmosis:. . .
As for the synthesiser element—did you tell John Taylor just to add whatever decorations he felt were suitable?
Well, he has a part, and I told him just to use his own sense of fitness as to where he would play. Both he and John Surman did that. Actually, I gave them a score of what everybody else is doing.
So you’d obviously say that the use of electronics in music is a good thing.
It’s really great, yeah. It’s only wrong when it’s wrong—right? Sure, it has been misused: it’s all a question of taste, balance, a sense of fitness and the right thing at the right time. The right thing at the wrong time is wrong—and that’s the problem some people don’t understand.
Clearly, you have developed positive ideas about the mixing of synthesised music with organic music.
The balance is the main thing—to get the proper balance. The main thing in life is balance, isn’t it? I don’t want to have anything overbearing—because it’s just a physical fact that a person can’t blow as hard as an electronic instrument can play. So you certainly don’t want to have any more volume competition.
The type of guitar sound that Ray Russell gets is presumably to your liking—the Jimi Hendrix sound, rather than the ‘dry’ sound of Kenny Burrell. Would you say that amount of extra amplification is a good thing for the guitar?
I don’t think of it in terms of amplification so much as a tone spectrum available from that kind of guitar—with the pedals and all. Like the man who worked with me when I was over here in Bracknell, named Hiram Bullock—he has these pedals and he just knows how to work ‘em, right? And so does Ray. It leans towards the electronics, in a sense, you know, with all the kinds of sounds you can get. I don’t like it any better than a plain guitar, amplified on solos—that’s beautiful in itself too. And most guitar players who do what Ray does can do that too.
But you’ve been using that sound in your music in latter years, rather than the other one.
Right—I use that now. I didn’t use to have that much tone variety in guitar. When I first worked, I had several guitar players who just played . . . Charlie Christian, basically—you know, amplified guitar. I like that kind too. Ted Dunbar played that kind; he worked with me a long time—a beautiful player. But there’s something about a guitar, that allows you to do those certain things, though, even if you’re just amplified. You have a possibility of doing a lot of twanging there, if you want to—if your spirit wants you to—on a plain guitar which just has an amplifier with it. It doesn’t have to have a lot of other available things like the new guitars do. Even unamplified, you can get emotional on a guitar. The old folk singers could do that—the way they’d twang it when they got excited or angry or something.
Being in favour of expressiveness in solos, do you actively encourage players to lose their inhibitions and play out more?
Well you can’t say that to players. You can intimate it, but sometimes it’s not a good idea to be specific about the way you want a soloist to play. Because if you ask the soloist to play with your group, it means that you basically like what he plays, right? So it really is not the sensible thing to do—to mention his component parts, so to speak. Volume or activity or whatever. We can discuss a song as to its harmonic construction and what is to be used, but not what you’re going to do with it. Early in life I found out that certain suggestions you make may clam somebody up totally, you know. Without wanting to, they might sulk. I never talk to soloists any more about content. If I’ve asked ‘em to play, I know what I hope to hear from them. That’s a day–to–day thing, anyway. And if I have players that I’ve never met before, I have no control; I would never ask them anything like that—I just accept what they play. And I enjoy attempting to accompany them, and giving them a little impetus here and there—or a cushion or whatever.
Some of the younger players in your bands—saxophonists, in particular—have been those who appear to be addicted in their solos to the use of what some listeners regard as “sound effects” or even “noise–making” Do you feel that the high harmonics and the animalistic squealing are just a natural part of the jazz language?
Gee, I don’t know—I never thought of it, to tell you the truth. I guess it’s happened so gradually in my life that by now I don’t think of it as hollering any more—I just think of it as notes above the normal range of the instrument, or just an outburst of some kind. But it doesn’t seem to me to be unmusical; I’ve liked it, as a matter of fact. You have to know how to do it, that’s all.
Well, in context with other things, of course—if you did just that, it wouldn’t make sense.
That’s right—and if you didn’t know how to do it, either. Sometimes when players are learning to do it, they don’t hit the notes that they want to hit! But someone like John Surman, for example—he knows everything he’s going to play, right? He’s an expert at playing above the normal range of the baritone; he’s been doing that for years—as a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t the first one to do it. I mean, I don’t think I’d ever heard anybody play the baritone like that before him—the high range. Because I know, a player who worked with me, Howard Johnson—John was the first one he’d heard do that. Howard used to try to do it, and for a long time it was hard for him to do—now he can do it. It wasn’t easy for him to play those high notes and get what he really wanted, but he stuck with it and now he can play them.
But I did a little suffering there for a while, while he was learning! Still, you can’t say anything—you have to let ‘em go ahead. Because the job I had mainly in New York at one time was a Monday night thing at the Village Vanguard when Thad and Mel would go on the road. The job paid twenty dollars; they kept asking us, but we didn’t want to do it—so everybody came and did what they wanted to do. So we all learned on the job. Yeah, it was a workshop situation.
But I suppose essentially no player, unless he’s paid to do it, will do what he doesn’t want to do.
The majority of baritone players probably don’t want to do what John Surman does.
It all depends on whether you try to make a go of it in the commercial field or not. If you do, then when the phone rings you don’t say “What?”—you say “Yes”. So if you say “Yes”, then you have to do anything they ask you to do—and you have to be able to do anything. It takes a strong technique to be a commercial player—and possibly a strong stomach too!
Evidently, you have found yourself able to resist any temptations to go into commercial work.
No, I didn’t have any resisting to do. The reason I didn’t get into commercial work, mainly, was because I didn’t have the technique for it. I couldn’t say “Yes” when the phone rang, because I can only do what I do, and I don’t necessarily even do that readily. It was a question of technique, really, that kept me from doing that work. And something to do with my stomach also. You know, you sit around and they make a federal case out of those fifty–seven seconds!
It seems strange, though: I mean. we think of you as a master of orchestral technique—with all those unique voicings that you’re able to create.
I just mean overall technique—the technique to be able to do anything somebody wants you to do. Sometimes they might ask me to do a very simple thing, that I’ve never done—and it might take me ages to do it.
If you can discipline yourself to work to order, you’ll make that kind of money: if you are not prepared to undergo those kinds of disciplines, then you won’t do it.
I couldn’t say that I wouldn’t have become a commercial musician, if I’d been raised to become one. A lot of men come to New York with a briefcase full of know–how—they’ve studied and gone to college for four years, and they’ve learned how to write every kind of music. So when they arrive there with that briefcase they’re ready to say “Yes” when the phone rings—because they’re prepared for it. Those evening commercial spots are okay; I mean, the music is first–rate—even though I’d rather see cartoon commercials, I think, than the ones with people!
In your big band arranger days you were subject to a certain amount of discipline. though, weren’t you?
Not that much. The band I worked for was Claude Thornhill; so to a degree, in order to use his band as a workshop, I couldn’t really write like some other band that I had in mind necessarily. Except that when I started to write some bebop things, then we had to part company, because it wasn’t really what he had in mind. He had developed a ballad style, which was very beautiful, and he had his own way of writing rhythm arrangements too. But he gave me a nice opportunity to learn my trade—I’ll tell you that. It was a very good workshop—because he had three trumpets, two trombones, two French horns, five saxophones, piano, bass, drums, guitar. Plus he had a separate flute section—three flutes and a tuba—added to the rest of the band. So it was a wonderful opportunity for me.
It gave you your first taste for colours in writing.
Right. He let me do that, and I wrote some okay things for him—so it was an even exchange. Finally, when it wasn’t working out any more, we went our separate ways.
Did you regard the onset of bebop as an important development?
Oh, I loved bebop—and yet I never really was a bebopper, in a sense. My basic music was from 1927; so even though it gradually developed, and I love bebop, I could never have claimed to have been really a straight bebopper. They have fabulous technique, too, for one thing. My favourite piano player was Bud Powell; there was nobody since Earl Hines who had done that to me.
Even though a lot of wonderful pianists came in between, and I loved them all, I never sat up like that between Earl Hines and Bud Powell. They had an intensity there that really got me. Because Earl Hines was fabulous when he was young—phew! A lot of people of course, never did hear him then. Even though he was okay in later years, his intensity when he was a young man with Louis Armstrong was just unheard of. No one had ever heard that style—the way he broke up rhythm and all that. He was a powerhouse. Swing, man—he swung! Wow!
Did you prefer him to Tatum?
I guess I did. . . I don’t know. Prefer’s a funny word; I loved Tatum, but I can’t really compare. I never have really been able to say who my favourite anything is, because there’s so many I like, you know. If somebody gives you a thrill, there’s no point in saying you can think of somebody you like better. There it is and for the moment that’s the best.
What do you hear in big band writing today? Do you find a lot of imagination being applied to the idiom?
Yeah, there’s a lot of good writers—some in England, that you never heard of. When I was here before, somebody gave me some tape of a broadcast. This man wrote wonderful big band arrangements, and, you know, I’d never heard of him. Duncan Lamont—do you know him?
Yes, I do. He’s known as a tenor player, but he’s underrated as a writer.
Well he’s a fabulous writer for a big band. He’s not only underrated, but nobody ever heard of him—he’s not rated at all. He’s unknown. I even asked English people, and they don’t know who he is. But what he wrote was just marvellous.
When he reads this I hope it spurs him on to do some more.
I don’t imagine he’s discouraged. If you do that good, you’re always going to keep doing it, somehow. I’ll bet today he’s still writing, for something. I’d like to hear his writing now.
Copyright © 1978, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.