A Mann for all Seasonings
A Mann for all seasonings
We need only one classification
|Talking to Les Tomkins in 1971|
How did you enjoy your stint at Ronnie Scott’s club? Oh, it’s been fine. A little tedious; we haven’t played too many clubs recently. And it’s a little hard, doing it every night, three sets a night. We’ve done only concerts for almost six months.
What made you engage this group, Air, to work with you? Well, I produce records for a label that I run, Embryo Records, which is a division of Atlantic . And I heard some tapes that they had made, and I liked their enthusiasm and their basic talent. I thought I’d like to see if I could help it along, and at the same time have some musicians who would play my music. So we’ve been together since last October.
First of all, I thought the tracks with the girl singer, Googie Coppola, were exceptional in their originality.
Also I liked the bass player and the pianist very much.
They were incredibly musical, if you’d call them a pop group, or very talented, if you’d call them a jazz group. It has worked out very well; they have added some new thoughts to the music.
How about Sonny Sharrock? He wasn’t with them, was he? No, he’s been with my band for three years. He’s still with me, because I like the way he plays guitar. Lots of people say they can’t understand how Sonny Sharrock can be in my band. The only reason for them saying that is: possibly they think that when you’re a bandleader you expect all your children to be brought up in your exact image. Which just shows that people and critics don’t know anything about individuals. People have assumed that they know me and my music because of the way I play— or their interpretation of how I play. But nobody has hit on it yet. They don’t know me.
Well, I can’t see how they can pin you down, because your music has always been so very diversified.
I know. Well, it’s because I keep on hearing many things that I want to incorporate in my music; and I never concern myself with other people’s views of the matter.
I’m the one responsible for it— not them.
You’ve achieved fame as a flautist. but you didn’t start on flute, did you? I played clarinet and saxophone, but those were just the beginning instruments, you know. I started playing flute when I was fifteen, and by the time I was twenty– one I already knew that the other instruments were the doubles.
What was it that made you want to specialise on flute? There was nobody else playing it at the time— that’s why. There was Wayman Carver with the Chick Webb band, and Harry Klee. Then the only record that was out before my first one with Mat Mathews was a Sam Most recording, “Undercurrent Blues”. That was it. So it was an incredible challenge for me— and I enjoy challenges. Setting up thing for myself to develop, that gives me an interest in it. It doesn’t always work out; but I very gladly try new music the same way I try new restaurants, and new countries.
Why was it, would you say, that before you exploited the instrument, the flute had been neglected so much in jazz? I don’t think anybody else had any guts to do it. In order to initiate a jazz instrument, you have to be able to take abuse from other musicians, and be able to tell them that they should mind their own business. I mean, since then they’ve all changed their minds, but at the time I got negative remarks from Kenny Clarke, Jerome Richardson (who became a flute player), Art Farmer— many people like that. But it didn’t bother me. Lots of musicians need the support of other musicians— because of their insecurity, you see. And I don’t.
What had been said was that it was too thin a sound.
Well, you know— Frank Sinatra doesn’t sing like Caruso. And Paul McCartney doesn’t sing like Frank Sinatra. So compared with what is it too thin? If a player is a jazz player, and if he’s believable —he’s believable on anything, any vehicle he chooses.
People say: Well, it’s not a jazz instrument. And I say: Well, it’s not a classical instrument either. It’s just a piece of metal, until either a jazz player or a classical player picks it up; then it becomes what he does to it.
A lot of people in jazz have tended to try to overcome what they possibly regard as the limitations of the instrument by extraneous sounds. You know, the humming. But you’ve never gone in for that, have you? You haven’t felt that necessary? No. Sam Most was the first to do that.
Yes, on a record with you— I remember it.
Right; in ‘54 or ‘55. And I didn’t like it. I still don’t.
I think whatever it is I do I’d like it to be me, and to let the good of it and the bad of it also come from me. I don’t think I want to add any affectations to it, you know. I stand responsible. I don’t like the way it makes the instrument sound.
And if people say because of my not using it that I don’t play with excitement— if that’s what their concept of excitement is, just loudness, then they don’t know the first thing about excitement. Because excitement can be implied. It doesn’t have to be flaunted. But it takes a cleverer mind to understand that.
Of course, Roland Kirk has done that most prominently.
Well, he can also play that way without doing it, because he’s a very strong person, with lots of things he wants to say. And he’s an angry man, justifiably. So that’s the way he plays. People say to me: “Why don’t you play that way”, and I say: “Well, I’m not angry, and if I did play that way I’d be lying”. I’m happy, or I’m sad, whatever I am— but I’m not usually angry. When I’m angry, you know it— but I’ll be angry my way, not Roland Kirk’s way. It’s an insult to both musicians, to compare them.
How can you? It’s like French food and Italian food— there’s a night for each.
Another thing he does is the tapping on the keys.
I’d say that was a light– hearted form of expression.
Oh, well, Roland has got this whole thing down, you know. Let’s understand something— this is show business. And anybody who thinks of it as “serious” is mistaken. Every performer has his own little way of getting his message across to the people. Miles Davis is the world’s biggest showman. People won’t admit it, but everything he does is, either consciously or unconsciously, planned— and his audience loves it. By the same token, what Roland Kirk does people love. And symphony conductors, classical players all do the same thing.
You have to let the people know that you’re not challenging them, and that it’s all part of the overall art of the individual. Not just the playing, but everything else around him.
Do you feel that you’ve managed to extend the boundaries of jazz? No question of it. I know the purists would like to assume that the only people that will be successful will be the Charlie Parkers and the Ben Websters. So they make comparisons. But I say that the more people hear improvised music, the better it is for everybody. I think the best thing that ever happened to me was Jethro Tull– Ian Anderson’s playing; because of it, more people know the flute now.
There are many people who say they like me, but they don’t like jazz. That means a lot more people who started listening to music, and it’s possible for many others to do the same. I’m not really out doing missionary work— but it seems to work out that way.
Would you say the jazz label has been a hang– up? It’s a false label. I don’t think anybody has ever come up with a clear and definite description of what— and only what— jazz is, and nothing else. Nobody’s ever been able to figure it out. Every time they come up with it, there’s somebody who’s able, very logically, to fill it full of holes.
That’s been a major problem in Europe. The purists who grew up with Ben Webster, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald don’t want to accept that maybe the new jazz– pop– jazz, or whatever they call it— also is music, and that there’s a big public for it. I don’t think they like to have lots of people like their music. They like to regard it as suitable for a small group of intelligentsia, and not for the mass of stupid people. And they use that as a weather vane, too. You know— if it’s too successful, it can’t be good.
But you’ve always believed in taking jazz to the people? Undoubtedly. The best thing that would ever happen to me is if all the jazz magazines would vote together and definitely say I don’t play jazz. That would be marvellous— excommunicating in reverse. It’d be a blessing, because then once and for all this stigma of “It can’t be for masses of people, if it’s jazz” would be removed.
I play music. If they don’t want to say it’s jazz, it’s fine. It’s my music; it’s improvised according to my life, where I’ve been and what I’ve enjoyed. It can’t be compared with anybody else, because nobody else has lived my life.
You’ve picked things up as you’ve travelled around, heard different rhythms and musical forms.
I don’t see how a musician cannot incorporate what he hears. Unless he’s a complete egomaniac and thinks: “Only if I do it, it’s right. I don’t want to have anybody else’s influences.” But then he’s lying, because everybody’s been influenced. And how else can you keep yourself interested in it? You translate these things into your own terms.
Right. I don’t try to play any music pure, because if I hear, say, some Brazilian music, it’s perfect in its pure sense. What I have to do is combine it with me.
Did you find that people were surprised when you didn’t keep to a set instrumentation or a set group? Only the first couple of times. Then after a while they got to the point where, if I came back to the same club twice with the same band, they thought I was sick.
Some people say to me: “Aren’t you ever going to settle down?” And I say: “Look how boring the Count Basie band is, or the George Shearing band, or the Duke Ellington band— because they’ve settled down.” You know, all these things are nostalgia; there’s nothing fresh there. Unless Duke writes a new song— but then the same people play it.
I mean, imagine if John Coltrane had been in Duke Ellington’s band— what it would have done for the band.
If he’d gotten a young rhythm section, you know. Or Charlie Mingus, There’s so many things that could be done. Ornette Coleman would be incredible with the Duke Ellington band.
But many people don’t like change. This is my make– up— I’m constantly changing. My whole life is a smorgasbord table. I don’t know, you may say it’s insecurity. I say it’s fun.
Really, it’s probably the reason for your success.
Because stagnation has caused quite a few downfalls.
No doubt of it. Like, this band we’ve had nearly a year, but the concept did not work out. I tried hiring a complete band to back me up. I don’t hesitate about trying anything, and I know that as long as I can project a feeling out to the audience, it will be acceptable, no matter what it is— Middle Eastern, Afro– Cuban, Brazilian, trombones, trumpets, whatever.
The band has not worked out— mainly because they are a band in themselves, and I’ve been trying to suggest to them what they should do to make their music more successful, but they don’t want to hear this. What happens, though, is that the overall show reflects on me; so my people aren’t really understanding the band completely.
So when I get back to the States, which will be October 6th, I think, I’ve already started working on changing the band. Just keeping Sonny Sharrock and possibly the bass player, if he stays with me; bringing Bruno Carr back in the band; using Rogers Grant, who used to play with Mongo Santamaria, on piano, plus a string quartet, and tenor and flugelhorn, maybe.
You see, the thing is, I have a very large black pop audience that listens to me the same way they listen to Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin or Marvin Gaye. And I’m the only white musician in that market.
They’ve accepted you? Is this because you use a lot of black musicians? No, no, it has nothing to do with it, because on “Memphis Underground” the only black musicians on the album were Roy Ayers and Sonny Sharrock: the whole rhythm section’s white. No, there’s a feeling that goes beyond black and white colour: it’s black/ white Southern rhythmic feeling. Colour isn’t involved; lots of black musicians can’t play it. It’s just rhythm– and– blues, really.
So I’m going to get myself a band that can start playing that again. I have an album coming out, called “Push, Push”, that we recorded in New York, with people like Bernard Purdie, Dwayne Allman, David Sainoza and Chuck Ramey. They’ve already pressed 100,000 copies and they expect it to even out– sell “Memphis Underground”.
I tried something else, and it didn’t work. But I always know that whatever I do will be successful, because if it’s not I can slide in and out of it so fast that nobody else’ll know. I’ve sometimes tried things and after a week or two, even in the same club, figured out a way to adapt it so gently that nobody’s aware it’s so drastic.
Has it sometimes been a problem, in that you’ve tended to use individualists Like Larry Coryell and Roy Ayers, for instance? No, on the contrary. The problem with individualists is that until they really know themselves they will play other people’s music and will play together; it’s only once they start feeling their oats and thinking they’re right— that’s when all– star bands break up. My last band I had, with Miroslav Vitous, Steve Marcus, Roy Avers and Sonny Sharrock— in the beginning it was just marvellous, incredible. But then people in the band started thinking that what they were doing was right, and everything else was wrong.
That’s what I mean— it’s because they’re letting their individuality override the band.
Yes, but at the time, it’s marvellous, when you get extraordinary talents to play with. I think one of the reasons my bands have always been successful is that they’ve been so loose and sloppy. Just a jam session, really with some basic organisation. That way it’s always changing, and you can’t pin– point when it’s going to be good or bad— but it’s always interesting, and most of the time there are surprises. That, for me, is still the fun of the music.
How much writing usually goes into it? Very little. Almost zero. We just talk about it. . .
What about a band like the trombone band you had? Oh yeah. But even that— one time I took all the arrangements away and said: “Well, remember what you can and fake the rest.” Only then can they create, once they’ve got an understanding. And at the time, the trombones didn’t want to do it; so I figured that it was time for me to keep on moving. See, that’s another thing: when I keep on finding new music to play, if the musicians that are in the band don’t want to go along with it, I don’t let them stop me. I just find other musicians. Because when I stop finding interesting things, it’s time for me to stop playing.
Listening to your current sets, there’s still a strong Latin feel in what you do. The predominant flavour seems to be a kind of a Latin/ rock idea.
Right. Well, that’s been there. Being brought up in New York and listening to Ray Charles, Machito and Esy Morales, it’s going to be there forever.
Do you have any Latin blood in you? None whatsoever. Blood doesn’t mean anything; it’s environment that counts. I came up listening to Spanish music, along with jazz— anything that was swinging. You know, pop music of the time was ludicrous.
As for the present so– called rock field, do you feel that there is a lot of talent there? Without question. I mean, the reason there’s so many people in the rock field is because it’s the only field. If you want to get from London to Scotland and there’s only one road to go on and one automobile, you go on that automobile and you use that road. It opens up work, and gives you a chance to improve musically and to play your instrument in front of people— which is the most important thing. And through it you get the experience, enabling you to start writing music.
About seven years ago I heard the first Bacharach– David records, and in an interview I said that Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney would be far more important than Rodgers and Hart ever were. And everybody laughed. But I wasn’t stepping out on any limb: it was obvious.
There are some incredibly talented people around now. They’re writing what they hear, what they were brought up in, which happens to be rock, rhythm– and– es, soul— whatever you want to call it. The result is a lot of beautiful music.
Probably a lot of musicians now who, twenty years ago, would have automatically become jazz musicians, are going into broader fields.
Well, that’s because there’s no work for a strict jazz musician. Years ago, if you were eighteen years old, you used to go with the dance bands and, if you were the jazz player in the band, you played two choruses a night. Well, now the dance bands are the rock groups, and the musicians have more experience, because they’re swinging more. They’re playing good music behind the singer; they get a chance to improvise. That’s the music business now.
So you’d say there’s more improvisation going on now, rather than less? Absolutely. Oh, before— the only musicians that would really swing would be the black musicians that would play with rhythm– and– blues bands. Tiny Bradshaw, Willis Jackson, Buddy Johnson— those kind of bands. But now even the white musicians are able to grow up rhythmically, instead of just harmonically. Which always used to be why people would say: “Black musicians swing more.” Sure they do— they’ve been swinging longer. The first job they had— that rhythm– and– blues band was cooking every night.
Whereas the white musician was playing with Guy Lombardo or some ricky– ticky band— how could he begin to understand feeling? From the fact that all the records that came out featured people having a blow, jazz enthusiasts over here probably assumed this was the whole scene. But, in fact, those musicians were having their only blow when the got into the recording studio; the rest of the time they were playing in the commercial dance bands.
Many times. It was a false impression. I mean, there are some guys making it with jazz, but there aren’t as many groups and clubs as there are records. The United States is an incredibly big market. A bad– selling jazz album sells 5,000 copies; in Britain it would be on the charts if it sold that many.
Sure, the Embryo records that I produce, of brand– new people, sell 5,000 each. That’s not even enough to make up the costs of the album. But when a thing sells— that’s something else. “Memphis Underground” sold 450,000 albums. Now, there’s not 450,000 jazz fans— there’s 450,000 people that like my music. Whoever they are— God bless ‘em.
Copyright © 1971, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.