jazz out from the shadows
Spotlighting the composer
The Mancini Method
The continuing musicianship
Interviews made with Les Tomkins between 1963 and 1974
Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Millerthey were great editors: They knew what to take out. I do my writing at the piano. But I do a lot of the work before I sit down at it."
Writing popular melodies is more of an approachmore of a real discipline than anything else. I had to make a kind of a break-through in learning how to write a simple melody. It's one of the most difficult thingsespecially for a jazz person to do, because most arrangers tend to get so involved with the harmony and the wandering kind of melodies that are not memorable.
My earliest efforts were much more involved. But you find, after you sort it all out, that in the end the Duke Ellington things are simple, and the Gershwin things are simple.
So far as the jazz things are concerned, they're simple, too. "Lullaby Of Birdland" is a typical example of a good rhythm number with a very simple melody. Actually, it sounded involved at the time, but it's fundamentally very simple.
How much do I have to sweat at it? Well, most of my sweating is done before I start writing. I'm always right on assignment.
Trying to find the piece to fit the proper moodthat's what the trick is. In this case, you have to find out what is needed, and what will do the job. That's the important thing about film writingwhat kind of a thing is it? Once you figure that out, then you sit down and formulate.
Composing; so far as I am concerned, has to be a combination of both vertical and horizontal thinking, musically speaking. My "Days Of Wine And Roses" has a nice chordal progression. "Two For The Road" has a kind of interesting harmonic progression But let me say that if something needs an F chord for four barsand that's the way it should bethen I'm going to use that. I'm not going to wander in and about trying to find a substitute.
That's a very good premise.
It's very, very difficult thatand yet it's the main thing. You find that with all top arrangers and composers of popular music and jazz, one thing they have in common is their directness, their ability to unclutter, to take out things that have no place. Goodman, Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Millerone of their greatest talents was that of being great editors. Things would come inI was young then, but I became involved laterbut many arrangements came in and they would know what to cut, what to take out; and what you had left is what we are now hearing, sometimes twenty, twenty-five years later.
I wrote a book on arranging, "Sounds and Scores", in which I tried to say something along these lines. It's on its second printing now, so I presume that it has some interest. It's in all of the universities and libraries in the States now.
Have I thought in terms of extending it? Well, I don't know. I think I'd start afresh, rather than add to it, because in adding I think one would go back and say: "I think this has changed now." Better to start and do it over.
So far as the actual writing is concerned, I have worked out quite a programme for myself. Rarely do I work to a deadline. I have a deadline, but I never get close up to it. With most of the scores and recording arrangements, for some reason I have to have them finished several days before they're due.
I don't have any more time than I used to, but I somehow work it out so there's no panic.
Because if I'm behind my deadline, then that puts the copyists back and everybody's rushing around. I prefer to have everything ready and waiting. I've had to stay up nights a few times, but I really haven't had to work like that for many years now. Most of my work is done in the mornings, from about eight to eleven. Then if I need to do any more I might work at any time. There's no pattern after that But I do know that the mornings are best for me.
I work at the piano. I do a lot of what I may call formulating of ideas without it. The broad outline. But when I get into the actual writing I use the piano: Sometimes the ideas pop up from the subconscious at odd momentson basic ideas, and I try to remember them. I get ideas sometimes driving along in the car. I usually retain them until I can work on them.
You ask me where I go from here, how I can improve upon what I'm doing. It's not so much a matter of improving as of maintaining.
I'm in quite a few spheres of activity right now. . . concerts, records, film music. Some of the scores satisfy my more ambitious needs.
We get into all kinds of atonal music, linear writingthings of that sort. And this is all part of the film-scorer's job. People in the past few years have been conditionedin some cases it's getting worseto hearing. . well, all some people want for a score is some rock tunes and things of that sort; and they let it go at that. But that to me is not film writing.
There is a breach between the concert hall and the film screen. Some composers have managed to get their suites, overtureswhatever you prefer to call themfrom films performed by major symphony orchestras. But so far as I know, very few have been accepted in the broad repertoire as concert music played by everybody. I think this is probably snobbishness on the part of the concert people.
They just feel that film music does not have a place in the concert hall But I've heard many things by Miklos Roza that are excellent pieces of concert music. And several other composers have done work of similar quality.
I think it is just a matter of an imaginary line being drawn up by the people who choose music to be performed on the. concert stage by the major orchestras.
Difference in the approach of musicians around the world to my book? Well, that all depends. I've been to Japan. There we had an orchestra in which the right-hand sideall the blowing sidewas made up of a group called The Sharps And Flats from Tokyo. It's a very good orchestraa dance band. I took the strings from a symphony orchestra.
Twenty strings from there. The fellows in the band, once they got it were very good. These were newer things. Anything that they've been able to go over and over againby rote they are wonderful on. This band is influenced a great deal by the American recordings and I think you'd be surprised how well they do it.
But this is, in effect, the only band in Japan that does it.
The British band that we have has a wonderful conception. I think if they had more of it to do they would be tremendous. I mean there aren't many bands on records. How many times do they go in as featured performers and do an album of big band musicor any kind of music that is featured rather than background for singers? When you're sitting behind a singer, even if you are playing a swinging arrangement, the voice is out front and the band is always a bit softer.
Most of the time I seem to be able to get my ideas across to musicians, regardless of any language barrier. Conducting is all a matter of communication. It might seem at rehearsal that there is not much going onbut it's all done with the eyes and I find that I don't have to wave my arms around like a windmill in order to have the musicians respond. In fact, that kind of leading is very distracting to the audience and I think it's annoying to the musicians. You see, once you start anything in tempo, the rhythm is going.
My function is one of dynamics, of shading, kind of building climaxes when I need them, getting the boys down. But it's not one of time-beating. They can do that for themselves. So many times when I start a piece and there's a solo involved, I'll step off the podium and I'll just listen. I can't play it for them! I'm based on Los Angeles. I like to ski when there is snow. There's a ski-ing resort within an hour and a half Sun Valleywhere they made that Glenn Miller band film, Sun Valley Serenade.
I like to keep up with what's happening so far as current events go. I like photography very, very much. I take pictures quite a bit when we go out. I have a Nikona Japanese camera. I'm not an art photographer. I take people and places, but I try to get good shots and use the right exposures. I had a boat once up at Newport Beacha power boat. Currently I'm doing a new Blake Edwards film with Julie Andrews. Johnny Mercer and I did the score. A Musical. We did eight songs.
We've done a lot of work together" Moon River", "Charade", other things. It's a World War One story. Julie plays a music-hall entertainer who is the Darling of the Allied troopsa sort of backdated Vera Lynnwho performs in hospitals. They're in Dublin right now shooting in one of the theatres.
Having just the songs to do, Johnny and I had no worries about furthering the plot or building atmosphere. He told me the last time he was over in Britain was quite a while agoback in the days when Whiteman came.
Johnny Mercer is an enigma, because he might seem kind of down-home and country-boyish, but he's really a very sophisticated man. His command of wordsthe English language; is marvellous. I don't think that there is anyone like him, really. He stands alone, so far as American lyricists are concerned. The things that he has done prove that. We work very well together. All the things: we have done have been ballads. I do the music first and then he writes the lyrics.
One thing about Johnny: he'll take exactly what I do. He would never say: "Can we have another note here to fit a word." It would kill him before he'd do that. He'll take the melody as I do it and find words to fit. This is the challenge.
There was no particular problem in writing songs in period. I just caught
the tail-end of the great vaudeville era. But there are things that the
memory stores, sounds. There are certain things that you utilise. They
had banjos then; they used tubas. And sometimes, if there's a number that's
kind of pretty, the period seems not to matter, because you're going for
the song. If you can retain a little of the period flavour, that's enough.
Copyright © 1974 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved