Spotlighting the composer


Bringing jazz out from the shadows
Spotlighting the composer
The Mancini Method
The continuing musicianship
Interviews made with Les Tomkins between 1963 and 1974

My film and television writing breaks would not have happened had I not had my earlier experience with dance bands. I did a lot of writing for Army bands, and continued afterwards. I was with the Tex Beneke/ Glenn Miller bands right after the war, playing piano and arranging. I never played too well—that's why I prefer writing. I was forced into it. I couldn't keep up with the boys who were playing around that time—so I kind of gravitated to writing.

My wife, whose name was originally Ginny O'Connor, was singing with the band. We left the band and went out to California to be married. In Hollywood I worked a great deal for Jerry Gray on the Bob Crosby radio show. Ginny was with Mel Torme's Meltones, then a group called the Mellolarks.

This vocal group did a musical short for Universal—International. I being the official arranger—which meant that we were all starving—went into the studio, too. As a result of my arrangements being liked, I got a call to go in and do a picture. A two-week deal, but I stayed with them two years.

I was lucky, because it's a tremendously hard field to get into. And it's hard to learn that trade. So I was under contract—just doing anything and everything that came along. I had done about fifty or sixty scores before I received my first credit—on The Glenn Miller Story. And even as I look at that picture today, it's at the end of about seven or eight other little names on a big card. But I was very thrilled to get that. The recognition led to two hit TV shows Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky and my subsequent film work.

No non—musical sound, nothing inanimate suggests themes to me. It's only in the movies, if they're depicting the life of a musician, that a composer hears something and a light goes on in his head! The only way, really, is to sit down and think about it. Then your own personal taste gets into it. Such as my being a flautist myself probably leads to my fondness for using four bass flutes who also double four alto flutes in the woodwind section.

But I don't have any backlog of ideas. It's just that what I do is suggested by what's on the screen. I always try to get different, more oblique sounds that have a particular effect in a film sequence. My opening Breakfast at Tiffany's with sustained strings, voices and harmonica—and no brass—is a case in point.

Right from the moment the very first frame of the picture is set it's so quiet—you look around you and wonder what's going to happen—and that takes you right into the Moon River theme.

Some pictures need more of an overall orchestral thing—but even within that I can get section sounds. Others require more of a personal touch, where I have to have a certain type of player or certain key men, anyway.

If I inject elements of jazz into my scores, it's just part of the way I do things. I'm not taking something from outside and replacing it some place else. I try to get that feeling—only because that's the way I feel. In one of the sequences in the film Hatari , where the baby elephants go down to the river to take a bath, it turned out to be a light jazz piece. Not in the Miles Davis sense, or that hard—swinging stuff, but light, very tasteful jazz.

One thing I do always try to inject is the personality of the musician. I try to get what he can do best. And this, of course, is the essence of the jazz band—you know, the old days when the guys used to write pieces around various soloists, like Duke did for years.

This is in opposition to the idea that you write for a standard symphony-type orchestra, and you can interchange any of the parts and it'll run. That's not the case with what I do.

Many times I've had to change recording dates because one, two or three of the men couldn't make it—and it just wouldn't have been the same without them.

You might be interested to know how I first encountered Victor Feldman. In all movies in the States, the men that you see playing the music on the screen are not necessarily the ones who are playing it on the soundtrack. Usually the men that do that make a living at it because they're not really good players. And most of them have hair.

So they were filming a scene for Peter Gunn. We had a little jazz combo that appeared in almost every episode. They were supposed to be working in a place called `Mother's'—she was the proprietress. I happened to walk down on the set and there was a little guy playing vibes there between takes—and he was really excellent. It was Victor. I asked him what he was doing, and he said: 'I'm waiting. ' So I asked him to come and record the music for the show with us. And he did most of my early albums, too. As you know, he's very much in demand now.

There's quite a difference between writing for television and writing for films. The heavy orchestral approach is not so applicable to TV, I don't think, because the sound has to come out of a very small speaker. You can figure on your bottom and your top being cut off, to start with. I thought about that, and my answer to the thing was—just do it the best you can, and if it is cut off, you still have the better part of it left, you see.

So the `Gunn' show was one of the very first times that people heard the best recording available done for television. I wanted a good recorded sound, and we got it. Everything was very clear and precise—and it was so unusual.

Previously, most TV series had music that was recorded—in Rome, Germany or somewhere—by the yard, you know. Then they'd get it back, get the scissors out, shove it in there. And, as a result, sometimes you'd be watching at home and you'd hear two shows in a row that had the same music in them. We had big tape libraries doing that in the States.

But it's far better to have music tailored for the production. Movies have proved that time and time again. If only for the distinctive element of a theme for the show—not like pseudo Tchaikowsky or pseudo Bartok.

One field in which I've been very successful is that of staging concerts with the original band that did the recordings. I've done the Hollywood Bowl several times. It's been thrilling to get them all in one place and get the right soloists, such as Pete Candoli, Ted and Dick Nash, Ronnie Lang, Victor Feldman, Larry Bunker and Shelly Manne.

My albums have been with predominantly large bands, except for one called `Combo', which was a small group session. On that I used Art Pepper playing clarinet, the reason being that I had heard him play it on an album that was written by Marty Paich. He had played it, not just like a saxophone player doubling, but with an approach all his own.

And it was a clarinet sound—which is something that nobody had been worried about lately. I'd never used clarinet before on any of the albums that I'd done. So I asked Art to come in and play it, and he added a nice spark to the whole thing.

He had worked on it, you know. He would play nothing but clarinet, because he just wanted to. Certain wind players feel at home on certain instruments. And, although he played wonderful alto, he was very much at home on the clarinet. I'm sure that the minute Art returns to the scene, he's going to have plenty of work again. He's too good a player. Such a wonderful fellow, too—never any problem to anybody. He's very conscientious, and never says a word outside of when he has to.

I also do what we call 'Pops' concerts. It's the symphony orchestra's normal complement, but during the summer or even sometimes during the Fall season they have light music.

Arthur Fiedler is the biggest exponent of this, with the Boston Pops. I've had a good part of my library rewritten so that I can do these.

There's no jazz involved, because I find that when I get outside of Hollywood and New York, and maybe Chicago, that you're taking a chance in trying to get eight brass to really blow. So I take the other approach, and, as a result, everybody stays happy with each other and there's no hard feelings. I don't expect the symphony men to be able to swing, and I think they respect my judgement in not asking them to.

The only other framework that I've been thinking about is the Broadway musical. But, as far as writing any extended works—I have no desire to. I may have had at one time, but it's not my idiom. I've been trained in this particular field. I like it, and I think I'll stay with it.

Copyright © 1974 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved