The continuing musicianship


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

Good to see you back in town, Henry—having completed a tour, eh?

Oh, it wasn't so bad—we just had four cities. It worked out very well; had a really marvellous band, and we'll be back in October for the Filmharmonic concert. On this show, we had Labi Siffre with us, and he did about six numbers. Which was nice; it gave me a break—and it gave the boys a chance to rest their lips just a little bit! It's a lot of music, if you're not used to playing that much every night, you know. The Albert Hall concert was one of the better ones of the lot; it was a really great audience. Yes, I was there before with Andy Williams—that was over five years back, I think.

When it comes to putting on complete concerts, do you have a certain routine laid down?

Well, yes—I keep changing, bringing it up to date all the time. I mix it up; in this last programme we did "A Portrait Of Simon And Garfunkel", which was a twelve minute piece on their music. And we did "Big Band Montage"—the theme songs of all the great big bands. But these are all things I keep changing around; like, at the Filmharmonic I'm going to do "A Tribute To Victor Young", When people come to hear an orchestral concert, especially if it's on the popular side, I think it gets very segmented when you play a two—minute number, then a three—minute number, then a three—minute number. It just becomes too choppy, you're up and off the stand, and all of that business. So I devised the longer form when I started doing concerts; it gets people a little more into the music, and it's more interesting. It's a more absorbing form for me to write in, because I like to combine numbers in overture or medley sequences. And the musicians have to watch, too. You just don't beat them off and say: "All right, I'll meet you at the last bar", without any thought about what happens in between. They have to keep their eyes on me all the time; it is very symphonic in nature, with the various developments. It's really a little form in itself, to get it to come off correctly.

In such a situation, many other composers, if they'd written as much music as you have over the years, might be tempted to hog the whole thing for themselves. But you don't—in concerts or on LPs. You tend to spotlight the work of such contemporaries as Bacharach and Michel Legrand.

Sure, on a concert presentation, I have enough material, with all the numbers from all of the pictures, that I could go on for many hours. But you have to consider your audience, you know, and I like to give them the more popular items. Every once in a while I'll just slip in something like the theme from Sunflower , which is a very pretty piece that I like very much, from a more or less unsuccessful film—in the United States, anyhow. Or I'll slip in "Two For The Road", or other little pieces that I wrote, but yet they're not the most popular ones.

I believe that people in a concert audience are very much interested in people's music.

About Victor Young or Simon and Garfunkel; or the Beatles—I had the "Portrait Of The Beatles" the last time we did Albert Hall with Andy.

But I can't do this unless they have written things that I can interpret. I like a lot of the heavy rock stuff that's going on, but I can't make it work for me; it only works for them. If I try to do it, it loses its edge, and it becomes another animal, you know.

As a composer of some notably beautiful ballads, you feel that people like Bacharach and Legrand are also excellent in the ballad style?

Oh yes, of course—that's obvious. The rarest style, though, strangely enough. . . I think it's a carry—over from big band days, but I love instrumental numbers. And I can get away from the ballad medley by reason of having done "The Pink Panther", "Peter Gunn", "The Baby Elephant Walk", the music from The Great Race—various things like that, that are up and descriptive; they give great pace to a show. For me, instrumental pieces are a lot of fun.

Regarding your own instrument—would you say you're using the piano a lot more nowadays than you once did?

Yes, I started with RCA Victor y in '59, and I recorded "Romeo And Juliet" in '69, which was ten years. I guess it was that theme that made me do it; it was kind of a very easy, very melodic piece to play—so I decided I might as well play it myself. That's on "A Warm Shade Of Ivory"; it was a Gold Record. I play very simply, and I try to be more communicative than, let's say, have virtuosity—because I don't have that. I can't do things that a lot of other boys do on piano, but I think I have the ability to relate a melody.

I've just been listening to a very nice record you made with Doc Severinsen.

I like those; they're lovely. We did two, you know—" Brass On Ivory", and then "Brass, Ivory And Strings". He's marvellous. I don't think he's that well—known here, but he is a great, great trumpet player. We've been friends a long time, and we were. both on RCA; so I told Doc : "I think the part of you that hasn't been exploited is the ballad part. Because you have a beautiful sound." He has a big band on Johnny Carson's Tonight show in the States, and they're always up there blowing their brains out; they rarely get a chance to settle down. As a result, Doc was not known for his ballad style. But on our records, he played in the best traditions of all the great ballad players—Spivak, Harry James or any of those people. He can do it.

To speak of your recent film—scoring work—I believe you've done four in the last six months.

That's right. One is out already, and doing brilliantly in the States—That's Entertainment , the MGM fiftieth anniversary musical. The others will be out later this year.

The White Dawn is heavy drama; then the Richard Harris film, NinetyNine And Forty—Four/ One Hundred Per Cent Dead. I haven't figured out what that is. I mean, it's really an unusual picture; it's funny, it has farce, it's outrageous—one of those indefinable subjects. It's a very good audience picture; I think it's going to be very successful. The other one is a love story with Goldie Hawn, The Girl From Petrovka.

Do you regard any particular kind of film writing as most challenging?

Oh, I think the dramatic scores demand a little more thought—well, a lot more than your popular types of romantic comedy scores. Although I'm not minimising the approach that was used in Pink Panther —they're not easy to come by. I guess to get the right approach is hard, no matter what kind of a picture you've got going.

Music can heighten the impact of drama, but also that's been overlooked in comedy for many years. There's a difference between being funny and being humorous, as far as music goes. I try to have a sense of humour without being obviously funny. Some of the pieces have borne that out "Baby Elephant Walk" from Hatari , "Pink Panther", of course, and various other things along the way.

Well, it's given you a kind of a sound that people associate with you, really.

On certain things, yes. On records it's more obvious than in films. If my sound comes through in a picture like The White Dawn , I'm in trouble, because it shouldn't.

In the last few years, have a lot of, shall we say, less qualified people infiltrated into the movie music field, and is this now lessening at all?

Well, non—film composers is actually what it is. Easy Rider started a whole trend, of records being used. Although The Graduate was in before—but Easy Rider used more of the rock, as opposed to the music of Simon and Garfunkel. The rock score became the hit item on the charts now; the idea was not so much: can he write film music, but can he write a chart hit? It's still there now, in fact; you get some people coming in whose only qualification is that they're writer—singers.

They have no feeling at all for the screen, other than knowing that there should be music behind it that will apply itself to a soundtrack album later, and make itself a million dollars on its own.

But you can't put it down, because the type of picture that uses that kind of score deserves it—if someone does not see what they need. It's been done on many pictures that really couldn't take it. People get greedy, especially since the movie companies own their own record companies and publishing houses now—it goes from one hand to another, without even going outside the door. They have their own interests at heart. I must say, it does not work very often.

Do you find yourself to any extent drawing in some of the rock type of feelings for your own devices?

Sure—you have to. But that's different, you see; I assimilate it, and then apply it to what the needs of the screen are. See, rock is a very personal music—that's why you'll find the only recordings of the Deep Purple songs are usually made by the Deep Purple group; or Grand Funk Railroad, whatever. It's very personal to them.

But that applies to a lot of specialised jazz, too, doesn't it?

Yes, that's true, but in jazz they are more interpreters than creators. It's a fine line there. Like a great jazzman can take any song out of the air—a standard song or any pop song of the day—and contribute something to it. That's not the case with the rock groups, nor is it their purpose to do that.

How about the electronics that seem to be invading a lot of fields? Do you feel this has something to offer as well?

Very much so; I like it. In fact in two of the films I've banked on the Arp synthesiser, and I used it on a lot of records that I have. I think it's an added voice. And it's a lot of added colours; the problem is you have to know how to use it. I don't know how to programme the synthesiser—my son does it for me. We sit down, and I say: "I want this . .. no, that's not right. . get a little more air in it." We talk to each other in a language that someone outside would probably not understand. But we work at it until it's set, because there are an infinite number of things you can do on that. And I think they're going to become more sophisticated, more complex as time goes on.

I've seen a credit: "H. and F. Mancini". Is that your son?

That's my daughter, Felice. We wrote one song together, called "Sometimes", that has been very successful. The Carpenters recorded it, also Johnny Mathis, and I think Peggy Lee just did it. Instrumentally, it's on one of those albums I did with Doc Severinsen. No, I don't think this will be a continuing team. The way this happened was purely almost an accident; I don't believe she has that much interest in it.

Of all the people you've worked with, do you have any favourite lyricists?

Well, with all due respect to everyone—I've worked with a lot of 'em, and I think they would all pass the crown on to Johnny Mercer. I'm sure I'm on safe ground when I say that I think Johnny is the finest I've ever worked with. Our biggest hit, "Moon River", of course, is still being recorded over and over again.

A recent very sad happening was the death of Duke Ellington. How have you felt about him as a composer?

You know, you forget, if you don't listen all the time. He died, I believe, on the Thursday or Friday; then on the Sunday there were several FM stations just went throughout the clock with all of his things—the various versions of them. I sat and listened, and I was just amazed at the depth, at the things that I'd forgotten about that he had done. People do that; they remember the big ones, but they forget the things that are hidden away in albums, third and fourth cuts, or extended pieces that haven't been performed much.

He was quite a man; I respected him, and I knew him. He was always very genial, very nice to everybody, but still with somewhat of an edge. You know what I mean—it wasn't all bonbons. Without being a soft man in any way, he was kind and gentle; his integrity always came through. He kept that right at the top of his list of priorities.

In your different fields, the Duke and yourself have always tried to move ahead. These days, though, there is this nostalgia movement, with sounds of past eras being replayed. Is this a valid thing to happen?

Not especially, no. Primarily, people are being told what nostalgia is, whereas it's not really a huge thing at all. It's something that is triggered off in the strangest places and times. The way it's being programmed now, nostalgia with a capital N is a big business.

But to me, it should be a personal thing; you don't have to force—feed everybody with the big dosage of it all the time. Just because a thing is old. it .doesn't mean it necessarily has nostalgia. To be nostalgic, it has to have a relationship to you.

Do you listen to music a great deal in private?

Oh, I do. I have a good set–up in the office, with record player and tape player, and I manage to hear most things that surface, that I need to hear.

Do you hear much in the classical field?

Yes, things that I like, or a composer I like; if I want to get into him and really understand him, I'll just stay with him for months. Like Mahler; or . . there are two big new recordings of "Romeo And Juliet", the Prokafiev, one by Andre and the LSO, and then the other one by Maasel with the Cleveland. So I bought them both, and I have one at the office and one at home. I think it's a brilliant piece of music, and it's interesting to see how the two conductors and orchestras interpret it.

Is there some point in the mixing of idioms that goes on to some extent nowadays, with people trying to merge popular music and classical influences?

I do think that's becoming more successful than it was when they tried to do it in the Swing era. And strangely enough, it's going to happen with the rock–jazz orientation, because, for some reason, a large orchestra is more easily assimilated in the rock idiom. I don't know exactly why that is; maybe it's because they can play it easier. You don't have to have an ability to swing, so to speak, you know. Which is just not a string player's cup of tea; yet they can sit and play things with rock. Because the beats are up; the syncopation is different and it's usually right on the beat. There's no pushing ahead, like Lester Young used to do—let the rhythm do one thing and you go ahead, and bend it, and play around with it. Rock being pretty stable rhythmically, the fusion is a little bit easier than it was in the past.

With your constant contact with studio musicians—would you say their playing is having a wider scope than ever?

Oh, they have to, yeah. Well, you know, there was a time, when I was with Universal Studios, that. the only time you'd call a jazzman in was when you needed a jazz solo, or something very special. And that's all changed now, because the jazzmen are the best readers—I mean, they'll read anything that comes on now, and they're usually up on their instruments; they can play just about everything. They're called upon by the symphony orchestras now to come in as specialists. In the studios, most of your stable people are from the Swing era, from jazz. They know their instruments, and the ones that are smart keep up with the changes.

Do you still have a certain group of musicians, like Dick Nash, that you like to use?

Of course, Dick always. There's a set band I have, more or less, with Vince De Rosa on French horn, Dick Nash on trombone, Ted Nash and Ronnie Lang on saxophones. Shelly Manne is usually my drummer; Jimmy Rowles, up until the time he went to New York, was the pianist.

Is there some young blood coming in, though? It's not a closed shop?

No, I don't think so. Sure I look around; I've used other people on all instruments. You tend to keep the. same ones on most of in, but that's only because these fellows have been with me for a long time and they're doing their job well. But if I need people that do certain specialised things, I certainly know who to call. There are a lot of 'em.

And over here, of course, the same thing applies, you would say?

Yeah. Well, in London, you know, you have goodness knows how many symphony orchestras. That's a lot of people. And that uses up a lot of the manpower that is in town.

You see, that's the opposite to the way it is in California. We have one symphony orchestra, and then all the other orchestras are in the studios; there's no such thing as a staff orchestra any more, but that's where the bulk of the musicians are. Whereas here you have actually one group doing session work, and then. everyone else is in the symphony orchestras. The exact opposite.

See, we have a tremendous amount of television, a lot of movie work, records, jingles, and all of that business going on all the time—more so than any city in the country.

What have you done so far in the area of extended concert works—possibly of a symphonic–type nature?

Well, I have an album out that I did with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in that there's a suite called "Beaver Valley–'37". It's a three–part suite, about fifteen minutes long, and it's autobiographical, having to do with my early life in Pennsylvania, around the year 1937. Then on the other side of the record are six original instrumental pieces for orchestra.

It's available here; it's called "Debut"—actually, they call it the Philadelphia Orchestra Pops. They were getting into the lighter music at the time. The music for that is in print, and it's being played all over; in fact, I think it was played here on BBC.

Yes, I think I probably will do more in that vein. It's just that I've been kinda busy, going in and out of various film things and concerts.

You don't run your life to a plan, in that you necessarily know what you're doing six months ahead? It's just meeting the commitments as they came your way, is it?

Yes. Specially when you do symphony orchestra concerts, people want you to commit two years ahead of time. And I say: "Well, I can't. If you want me, you'll wait till I say that I can do it, and then we'll do it." Which is usually about eight to ten months ahead. But some of the symphonies want to have their programmes laid out for the next three years! I have to tell 'em I can't make it.

I usually plan the breaks I'm going to take. Like, we came over to do some concerts, and followed it with a week in the South of France; so we try to work things around the schedule, to keep it all from getting too frantic.

Are there unfulfilled areas you'd like to get into? A stage musical, for instance?

Oh yeah, I've been thinking about that a long time, but nothing concrete has come up yet. I'm still hoping, you know. I don't think I'll hold my breath until it happens, but if it does, it'll be welcome.

Do you maintain pour record output at a constant level?

It's been about three albums a year, and sometimes I feel that's too much; so we'll see. I might cut that down. If something gets going, then you just play it out, you know. But I try to have an orderly release of things, so that they can be properly promoted; I try not to have too many things out at once.

Out of the whole volume of albums you've done, do you feel that any particular ones encapsulate the best of your work?

I keep going back to one called "Mr.Lucky Goes Latin"—I don't know whether you have that over here. It came out after the original "Mr. Lucky", and it consisted of twelve pieces of mine, several of which have been used elsewhere. The song "I Love You And Don't You Forget It" came out of that album; also another one called "Siesta". There were a lot of nice instrumental things in there that I liked very much. It was a little body of work on one album; it was well–recorded—I liked it.

Looking back, do you feel pleased with the general course your writing career has taken?

I think so. There was no premeditated course, because all you can do is hope that you go in the direction you want to go in. But you can get side—tracked, and there's just no control over it sometimes. Yes, it has gone pretty much as I hoped it would, and I just hope it continues the same way. Because I'm still working very hard at it—you have to.

You have to keep after it—it doesn't take care of itself. The minute you ball out for a while, and say: "I'm gonna take it easy for a year and see what happens", then I think you probably lose five years by doing that.

You can certainly take credit, for one thing, for having raised the musical level of film music, and for bringing in some ingredients that were lacking.

There are different little orchestral devices, yes, but I think in general it's maintaining a pretty good level, with the new writers that are coming in—you know, people like JohnWilliams, Lalo Schifrin and, of course, Jerry Goldsmith, who's not really a new writer, but he's one of the good oldies. There are various writers that I like very much, that I think are holding up the quality.

The thing is: a lot of film scores can stand on their own as pieces of music.

They have in the past, too—as the Warner Brothers things proved. There was a period when film music was just washing about, not really knowing which direction to go in. And strangely enough, the IJP, or just the recording industry, is what brought the focus of attention on to film music.

And the advancements of recording quality, for home consumption, with the advent of stereophonic and quadraphonic sound.

Right. Yes, technically it's getting on quite well. Although the quadraphonic—I don't feel that that's the answer to a composer's prayer. I think he still has to put it on paper, and how they make it is different. If you have a good piece, it's gonna sound good monaurally, stereo, three–sided or eight–sided, whatever you want. It's still on paper.

Copyright © 1974 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved