One of a great jazz family
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1974
Photo Credit: Andrey Henkin
Off and on since 1955 I’ve been working with Benny Goodman.
Not steadily, you understand. In 1956 and ‘57, I made the Far Eastern tour with him, as you may recall. We went to Bangkok, Rangoon, Singapore, Japan and so forth. Shortly after that, I played a number of college dates with Benny; after which I went into the Waldorf—Astoria with him. Since then, I’ve done scattered club dates with him, mostly in New York. It has been limited to this extent, because for the last fifteen years I’ve been working at CBS on staff.
As for my being ‘buried’ in the studios, that may be half true, in a sense. Although, I’ll tell you—working on staff at any TV or radio station, you get to play a great variety of music. So you’re really not buried; it’s just that you’re not out before the general public any, more. A lot of people don’t see you, and so maybe it’s an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thing. No, you don’t meet people face—to—face. But the work is interesting, I enjoyed it, it was very rewarding, and I think I learned a few things.
What did I learn? Well, I think it adds to the versatility; it broadens your whole musical scope. I’d say I’m a better musician now than I was fifteen years ago, for having done that.
It’s definitely beneficial. Yes, I’m older than either Thad or Elvin. Elvin’s my kid brother, and he’s six feet taller than I am! One thing which stands out still in my mind from our childhood: we used to have these little impromptu sessions. Of course, it was a natural thing: we didn’t consider them sessions, you know. One of us would start playing, and the other two would just start playing along. And this would go on for maybe hours—until my mother ran us out of the house or something! But we had a good time.
When Thad and Mel first organised the band, maybe seven or eight years ago, down at the Village Vanguard, I worked with the band for about a month, and I made the first recording with them. Since then I’ve worked occasional dates with the band, but never anything on a sustained basis.
But it’s always a good experience to work with the band. First of all, as you know, Thad has got to be one of the top arrangers in the business, or in the country. Also his playing has improved considerably—although I do wish he would play more. I don’t think he plays enough, by any means.
The thing is., with a big band you’ve got any number of good soloists: in that band, they’re all very good. Consequently, the solo time for each man is limited—including the leader. Thad is a fantastic player.
As for Elvin—I’ve worked a couple of nights at the Village Vanguard, also a couple of concert jobs wit6 his small group. And that’s another experience. But the three of us don’t work together that often any more—unfortunately. One of these days we’ll get together and do another album. We would certainly like to do it.
The field of accompaniment is something I’ve been involved in, and I do take some pride in doing that. It’s not an easy thing to do; it’s lot harder than most people would think. I learned a great deal about it, I think, from having accompanied Ella Fitzgerald—there I go, name–dropping again! In 1948, you know, we were here, at the Palladium for a week with Ted Heath’s orchestra. I worked for Ella for four–and–a–half years, part of which time I was also with Jazz At The Philharmonic.
With Ella, you have to play a certain way. In general, with singers, you play differently than when you’re playing solo, or with a group. But with Ella in particular, you play more harmonically, rather than melodically. If you play too melodically, you’re really detracting from what the singer is doing. An accompanist must sometimes lead, sometimes follow—but must always be in the background, I think. You have to complement, without getting in the singer’s way. So that’s why I say it’s difficult to do well.
Of course, if you can really manage to interest the listener yourself, without detracting from the singer, that would be an ideal situation. But you have no wish to overshadow the artist at all; the reason you’re there is to complement. Yet you do have to provide an interesting background, if you’re doing the kind of work we’re talking about—in pop and jazz. A lot of it is improvisational; it isn’t the case of where you’re sitting down playing a written part, which is more or less the same every time, with appropriate shading and dynamics. That’s one thing—playing for a jazz singer is improvisation. You must listen at all times. It’s a pretty specialised thing, and I’m not sure at all that I’m the ultimate. I’m still learning a lot. At CBS, I did many thousands of auditions, played for a lot of singers, and I think that helped me, too.
Another name singer I enjoyed accompanying, for a short time, was Sarah Vaughan. Also Dinah Washington, on a record date. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of Ethel Ennis —she’s a very good singer. She was a regular on the Arthur Godfrey show for quite a while. I’ve played for her many times. Others whose record dates I’ve worked on: Dakota Staton, Nancy Wilson. With such people, it’s a matter of paying very close attention to what’s going on. Well, this is really the case with small combinations like Benny Goodman, too—you must listen to whatever is happening around you.
Yes, I thought that time in the ‘fifties when myself, Wendell Marshall and Kenny Clarke were the house rhythm section for the Savoy label was a very productive period. You certainly had a lot of freedom, solo–wise. We made records with Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Milt Jackson, Cannonball and Nat Adderley. Ozzie Cadena was the producer of many of those dates: he was a real jazz fan. In fact, he used to write some of the liner notes on the album covers. So we had a lot of fun there.
Regarding my own record dates: since then—one comes to mind, a date that was arranged by Oliver Nelson, called “The Happenings.” I used an electronic harpsichord for half of the date, piano for the other half. It was a fairly large band, which changed personnel and size on almost every side. Clark Terry was on it, and one of the tunes we did was “Winchester Cathedral”—Clark sang it, using a Louis Armstrong type of gravel voice. He gave a good imitation, actually. As an overall production, it was very interesting.
Another date was a Capitol album called “The Talented Touch”—that’s not my idea for a title. There were several for Savoy, and . . . oh, you’ll never believe this, but I did a ragtime album, called “This Is Ragtime—Now” for AmPar Records some time back. And I think the album has been re–released. As you know, there’s a good deal of interest in ragtime these days.
In a sense, yes, it’s a specialist field, but I think you have to try to understand what the composer had in mind when he wrote it. There’s a tendency on the part of some players to burlesque the music—which I think is a big mistake. Because the music was written in all sincerity, and was certainly played that way back in the days when ragtime was extremely popular. It’s just been rediscovered today, and I believe that when it’s played we have to try to recapture the same feeling that those pianists of that era had when they played it. They were very sincere—that was their life: they lived it. So it ought to be treated with that kind of respect. It is a valid form. It doesn’t sound like what we’re used to hearing today, but it is a part of our musical heritage.
Copyright © 1974 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.