Jazz Professional               


We need only one classification—music

Frankly speaking
A Mann for all seasonings
We need only one classification
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1971

What do you think about the revivals of past sounds that go on?

Well, those, I think, are by people that hate to admit theyíre getting old. Somebodyís been listening to dance bands all their life, and all of a sudden thereís no more dance bands. Then they find out that theyíre fifty years old; but theyíd like to be twenty years old again. So they say: ďThatís where jazz stoppedĒ—wherever it was that the kind of music they had liked was replaced by something they didnít understand.

And dance bands are the dullest, most boring things in the world for me. Everybody sits down reading arrangements. The best thing a dance band can be is tight, and for me music should be loose. Itís an incredibly difficult thing to get a dance band to really be loose and swing. No, if I want to hear arrangements, Iíll listen to Debussy or Shostakovitch. I think itís marvellous that dance bands are finished.

How about an organisation like the Thad Jones–Mel Lewis band, where Thad Jones is trying to break free from some of the strictures, by changing things on the stand?

Oh, they all do that now. But thatís because theyíre not a regular band. Theyíre studio musicians who are doing it for fun. This is their alter ego—their escape from the doldrums of being in the studios all day long.

Presumably, you would hate to be tied to that kind of work?

I had a choice long ago to play in the studios—I couldnít do it. I didnít think it had anything to do with creativity, and I just refused to do it.

In the long run, really, youíve proved to be one of the few jazz performers who have stayed the course, and managed to keep in business, without having to subsidise your work.

I know. People say to me: ďHow do you account for this, considering that critics never pick you as the top flute player?Ē Well, the fans do. But whatever talent I have, I think itís my desire to understand fully this very complex, involved business that has given me advantages over others. Iíve never let anybody run anything for me until Iíve acquired a complete understanding of it myself. Consequently, nobodyís been able to take advantage of me—agents, managers, record companies. The fact that Iíve always understood the record business has been particularly important.

Because Iíve always felt that there might come a time where I canít convince the people any more, or I donít want to. If that happened, I would have some other ammunition. I could get involved with publishing, or run a record company. Or within a week I could run a recording studio as an engineer. Thereís many things I can do, in the business.

Itís like doubles to me. Sometimes itís even more exciting; because now with Embryo, from beginning to end the record is my product. Iíve always had this freedom with Atlantic , anyway. Iím involved with selecting the musicians, mixing the tunes down, recording them, sequencing them, picking the artwork for the covert—he whole thing. So that when the record comes out, whatever happens to it, I canít blame anybody but myself.

Would you advise musicians to do as youíve done, and specialise on the flute? Or do you think that for the majority, other than individualists like yourself, itís better just to have it as one of a family?

Well, it depends what you want to do. If you want to be a studio musician, you have to know it with everything else.

The reason I picked the flute was: for me, I felt it came the closest to my personality. I wouldnít advise anybody; based on their personality, only they would know what instrument is best for them.

As far as specialising—thatís a very individual thing. Sooner or later, somebodyís going to come up with a concept for clarinet again. Thereís a few people Iíve been hearing about. But it would seem to me that it would be far more interesting to make a success with something else, that nobody else became successful with.

Thatís why I stopped playing tenor, because depending on whether I heard Al Cohn or Zoot Sims, thatís who I sounded like. And I figured Iíd never be successful because of me, but because of those other obvious influences.

Do you have any preference between the flute and the alto flute? Is your time divided equally between them?

My moods dictate that. The alto flute is deeper and quieter; itís ideal for ballads. When I have the new group, with the strings, Iíll be able to play it more.

See, because what I feel is: the thing that attracts people is my rhythmic music, but if you do it all the time it tends to water it down. So Iím going to start programming it, so that itís the climax of the music. You know, like the MJQ did with Milt Jacksonís blues playing. Instead of playing the blues all night long they have all this baroque kind of music building up the tensions. And the release of the tensions is the most natural thing in the world—Milt Jackson swinging the blues.

Have you never used the wooden flute?

It doesnít project. I have one; I also had a gold flute, which I subsequently sold because of its lack of projection. Itís fine if youíre a classical flautist and youíre playing with the symphony, and there are no drummers or amplifiers behind you. Sometimes the wooden flute would fit better. Iím planning to do some acoustic things with the group—with classical guitar and Ďcello, maybe. Then I would use it.

What about the amplification theyíre adding to flutes nowadays? You donít see any asset in it, as far as youíre concerned?

No—none whatsoever. I think it all started with the organ, then the electric piano: the ďI canít hear, so Iíd better play louderĒ concept, you know. How about everybody else being quieter—and implying everything, instead of making it so obvious? Iíve never had to do it before, so thereís no reason for me to do it now. Iíve never liked it.

I could never understand how you could concentrate on playing while youíre thinking about pressing buttons, pushing down valves and pedals and all that at the same time.

Youíd say a natural sound is far better than an exaggerated one?

Yes, Iím a naturalist, romanticist, real essentialist! Basic simplicity is the only thing that concerns me—everything else is just bull. Of which thereís enough in every other aspect of life, I feel. Iím sure the jazz purists will laugh when I say this, but music has to be pure. Purely the individualís concept of music—no affectations.

And your use of material by people like Stephen Stills is because you like it?

I love it. One of the groups I happen to be listening to now is Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young—theyíre very talented—itís marvellous, peaceful music. I also listen to Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin. And I play what I like.

As for James Taylorís music, some of it I like but I canít identify with it completely. Although itís very nice, itís a little `whiteí for me. Thereís a tag again, but thatís what it is. I mean, white shouldnít go with sterile, but itíll conjure up an image to the readers—thatís what labels are for.

Other leading jazzmen have commented that the younger generations of jazz listeners are not afflicted by closed minds. Would you agree with this?

Absolutely—and thank God theyíre not. Well, you know, those are the people that were listening to rock bands, and then they found out that they wanted more.

And by accident they started hearing little things in peopleís houses. So the younger you are, the more open you are. I would much rather play for college students than anybody else—because everybody else is set in their minds.

We were playing at the Village Gate last year, and the New York Times called me up, wanting to send John S. Wilson to review us. I said: ďNo—send Mike John.Ē They said: ďWell, he reviews pop groups and rock groups.Ē I told them: ďI want somebody a little bit more open than John S. Wilson—he knows what heís going to write about before he writes it. Send a guy who doesnít know anything about jazz.Ē And I had a very open review.

He said he didnít understand it all, but he pointed out things as a layman. Thatís where the big fallacy with critics is, I think. Most critics think of themselves as musicians. But, after all, theyíre laymen. And—consciously or subconsciously—they put their own tastes into their reviews. It all depends what you think criticism is supposed to be; but it would seem to me itís to point out how a group is playing, and let the reader or the listener judge. All critics become judges and juries, though.

Do you feel that thoughts about the commercial aspect of a musical product can impair some criticsí judgement?

I do. Now, in the States there are critics who are self–confident enough to like something that is successful.

But I find that the minute you come to Europe, theyíre just waiting—if youíre successful. They consider it their duty to show you up to the people, that the devil Success has taken your soul. Itís hilarious, really. But I guess. . . if critics werenít this way, the jazz magazines might be very dull and wouldnít sell.

However, sheer ignorance can be very hard to tolerate. There was a British review of my ďConcerto GrossoĒ that went on and on about how it was like Paul Whiteman and ďsymphonic jazz.Ē Itís ridiculous to compare my piece with Whitemanís music, where everything was written, and nothing was improvised. Theyíre as different as night and day. Mine was a fantastic piece of music, arranged by William Fischer, with the Berlin Symphony; it was the best Iíve ever played.

Iíve had some incredible run–ins with British reviewers—because Iím one of the few people who answers them back in letters. They display a great deal of joy that somebody finally answered them; then they go on, in this childish kind of way, putting each other down. But I think most of them are quite ignorant. I mean, I can say that because theyíve never helped or hindered the sale of a record. The criticís main function it to fill up magazines, and to make a living. Fansíll buy the same records no matter what a critic will say. New people will only hear a group at somebodyís home or by accident on record, and when they choose—when they hear it, if it feels right—thatís the only time they will like that group.

Possibly, some critics are wary of saying what they really feel, in case it would be unfashionable to say it.

Theyíll write eloquent treatises about some so–called avant garde sounds—when, in fact, the musicians might have even been doing it with their tongues in their cheeks.

Oh, I know. The thing is, they never really know whether itís good or bad. They always have to ask somebody whether itís good, bad, fashionable, in or out. If we had never made records before, and you had taken Archie Shepp and me and switched jackets—they would have loved my music because it was called Archie Shepp, and they would have hated his because it was called Herbie Mann. You see, they, really donít have the faintest idea about the music. They donít know when a musicianís playing, when heís faking, when heís repetitive, when heís inventing, when the group is inventing, the interplay that goes on—theyíre not aware of any of it.

What about the critics who are musicians, though?

Well, most of them are frustrated musicians, and theyíre worse—because they base everything on their own frustrations.

You have to ask a child—then youíll find out about the music. If you would have children review albums, you would get incredible insights into the music that would be the closest thing to the truth. Theyíre less sophisticated, less learned and therefore they know more about basic simplicity.

Life is too short to limit yourself. Those things you say are bad are simply the things you donít like. There are these people who specialise in one thing, and they hate everything else.

You have to be open. Thatís the way I listen to music, and the way I always have. And I know Iím right, for me; thatís all that counts. When I go to sleep at night, I know that I did what I could do. Whatever my talent is, however big or small it is, if I do it the best I can—thatís it.

Plus, of course, the fact that you have a public for it.

And they believe it. Because I believe it, and I can convince them. This power that musicians have is amazing. Politicians and religious people could never do what musicians can. They can convince people emotionally.

Well, music is the real means of breaking down barriers. It has nothing to do with language; itís to do with direct communication.

Completely. And imagine being successful without words; thatís the thing Iím going to strive for now with my new group. Iíve almost reached that point, where I can be as communicative to people improvising and without words as any singer, and I think itís time for me to do it now. Iíve built up the plateaux. And I expect to become the most successful music group there is. Itís taken me a number of years to come to it.

See, I think thereís no limitations. I can do better than Herb Alpert ever did, playing his kind of music. It can be done, but too many people have been so insecure about it, and have said: ďWell, I play jazz, but. . . . I say: ďI play my music, and hereís what I can do.Ē I could have my own television show; itís unlimited, if you get people to believe you. Religions and dictatorships started the same way. With people believing you, nothingís impossible.

They have to be convinced that youíre honest, and telling your story the best way you can. Youíd also say itís important not to be restricted to telling it in any one way? Yes. Iíll pick the locale, the site, the time, the place and the how. My fans have accepted that, and thatís marvellous; itís like a constant vote of confidence. No matter what I do, theyíre going to try and listen to it. They may not always like it, and I may tire of it—but they keep coming back.

Would you claim, then, to have counteracted the notion that itís always necessary to have a musical formula of some kind in order to succeed?

Iíd say: throw Ďem all out Ėall the formulas, all the methods, all the ways of being successful. Just look at yourself in the mirror, get into yourself and find out what you are. When you finally become you, and nobody else, then youíre as successful as you can be.

Do you ever have any problems finding the right players?

No problem. Itís endless; thereís always musicians.

The problem is: to get them to create, you try not to be a dictator, to let them do what they want within a set kind of disorganisation. But what happens, with human nature, is that once theyíve got this kind of confidence, it also brings out their own personal self–confidence. Thatís why itís limited, as to how long they will stay. Iíve helped them span four or five years in a year, because Iíve allowed them to be themselves right away. Whereas a musician who plays arrangements in a dance band is in a straitjacket, and it would take him ten times as long to find himself out, because he canít contribute anything to it.

My bands always change in sound when the musicians change. Itís been one huge pot of bouillabaisse, but thereís always been new spices added.

Does the future of creative improvised music lie in this kind of freedom, would you say?

Sure; if I heard a mandolin player tomorrow who knocked me out, Iíd hire him. It wouldnít matter whether heíd ever played in a jazz group before or not; thatís irrelevant, as long as heís a good player and heís honest.

Iíve gotten away with it for years—doing unconventional things and making it believable. So Iím not stopping now.

Yes, music has to be completely wide–open. The sooner thereís only one classification—music, the better itíll be. Because that means that everybody listening to it has enough mentality to decide the different variations of it, without having to label it. And the young people are getting there. Every future generation has more hope, because theyíre broader and broader.

And youíve seen this happening yourself, in a practical way?

Well, Iíve had a band for eleven years, and when I started, it was people in my age group. They stayed with me for about five years, and Iíve lost about sixty or seventy per cent of them; but Iíve gathered in another hundred and fifty per cent of younger people, who are now first hearing my music in their twenties. Thatís the only way for me to stay alive musically—to surround myself with interesting people.

The only constant factor that has come to be expected from you is a valuable one—the element of surprise.

Right. People say to me: ďThereís never a Herbie Mann sound.Ē I say: ďThere is when I play, and I donít want it in the band, because it would be dull as hell.Ē You know: ďHere comes arrangement number two, same as the band four years ago, same as eight years ago—different personnel, same sound. Snore away and go to sleep.Ē And itís kind of fun to be able to mess with peopleís minds, too. Just when they think theyíre pegging me, and everybody else starts doing what weíve done—because most of the time weíre first—weíve already gone past it. I mean, Santana and Mandrill say they started out because of my early Afro–Cuban bands. When everybody was getting into Afro–Cuban, I was already into Brazilian music.

When they got to Brazil, Iíd left that and was into Middle Eastern, and so on. Keep Ďem guessing—but keep Ďem coming.

Copyright © 1971, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.