Looking backand forward
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976
Playing the drums again is niceówell, trying, anyway. Itís a long time: well. the last time I really played was about nine years ago, just the occasional session, and then before that 1950. I think you give up playing when you stop playing regularly every day. Various people were on to me to play again wish theyíd kept quiet! Yes, itís like riding a bike but you donít half wobble when youíre starting! But it is fun. Iíve been playing with Betty Smith, Kenny Baker, George Chisholm, as well as Tommy Whittle, Tony Lee, Tony Archer, Lennie Bush.
Really, I thought to myself: ďWell, thatís what I came in the business to do,Ē and there were times when I was ecstatically happy playing the drums; I never felt like that at any other time, not conducting or anythingóit seemed to me that maybe I could catch another glimpse of that. I made the decision, both through not wanting to let it go, and for therapy reasons. I worked out on the drums a little bit, and then I came to the conclusion that that wasnít it. Youíve got to play with peopleóthatís the fun. Working up a technique againóI suppose if you put in many hours of practice youíd get it, but making music is enjoying other peopleís playing; thatís what its all about. The only trouble is, you always have to hope youíre not so rusty youíre going to stop them enjoying themselves. Certainly, itís great to work with a lovely player like Tom Whittle, who Iíve known for years, right back to 1947.
Yes, Iíve been including some drumming in the TV band series, but thatís commercial; being a drummer, and doing nostalgia, youíve got to do the things that you used to do. Actually, the funny thing is that I decided to play before that series ever came into mind. Probably, if I hadnít have started to play a bit of jazz again, I wouldnít have done anything with the big band. But thatís part of the nostalgia scene; so I thought Iíd better do a bit of that. That used to be our big gimmick you know, a double drum thing, with Phil Seamen, Kenny Clare, Bobby Orr. It always went over well with the people and after all, Iíve got to get it across! Of course; the band plays very well on these shows. Itís a little bit of a shame that weíve got to play the old stuff. I mean, itís great stuff to play and itís hard to play; they were marvellous musicians in those days, and it was marvellous writing for its time. But one gets the feeling: oh, I wish the people could hear the band play something a bit more modern.
We did sneak it in very, very slightly. Overall, it was a very enjoyable series; we all got a big kick out of it. It felt marvellous to be the centre of the thing, for a change, instead of at the background. It put us on our mettle a bit. I hope the public likes it, because itíll be great for bands, if they do.
The nostalgia trend is quite understandable. To musicians playing it, it is a bit of a job; it isnít the most rewarding, because things have moved on a bit. What is rewarding is the fact that people like it. In any case, we still donít play them as good as they were originally played; so itís a kick to try. Yes, we do hope to inject our own spirit into them, and I think that does happen; thereís a more modern feel. Although we tried to keep it sort of authentic-sounding.
What nostalgia is really saying is: the times arenít very good at the moment. Although that may not be the whole of the case, and I hope it isnít. Because it can also be that a lot of those things were attractive enough to now appeal to people who have had sufficient time for them to have completely died in their time.
Now they seem new. Itís rather like the terrific upsurge that happened of very old, mediaeval music. People suddenly found it tremendously attractive, in a very strange way which it is. Itís had so long to die, that itís new again. I think thatís got something to do with nostalgia thatís looking on the bright side of it.
The nostalgia for things that arenít so old is really looking at a past that you still know, to be reassured that it still has stability. It probably has that kind of feeling to it, because it was art of its time. And, in its way, it can provide something that enriches peopleís lives.
When we did that first concert with Caterina Valente at the Palladium, way back at the beginning of last year, where it all happened, I had no library. Derek Boulton told me we had to play the first half, and I said: ďBut I havenít got anything to play.Ē He said: ďWell. canít you think of something?Ē So I knew that there were these cover albums being made of all the old music, and we located where those arrangements were coming from. I thought, why didnít we do a little ďlook backĒ thing, just to see what would happen? Because the band was there mainly to accompany Caterina, and the audience didnít know what we were going to play or anything about us, really. And to our surprise, they loved itónot only the older people, who remember the things, but the people whoíd never heard them before.
Thatís how it all started, really. It seemed to me that, with reaction like that, that must mean thereís a public for this. As to whether theyíll go on from there to later big band developments, thatís going to be an interesting thing to see. Certain of them will; they love Buddy Richís band, and Thad and Mel, which is up-to-date big band music. We didnít include any of that in the television programmes for the moment, with the first series. With the next series, we might move on; weíll see.
Of course, the Swing era feel comes naturally to meóI came up with that. I canít help thinking, you know when I started to play, when I first came in the business, they still had what they called ďthe transĒ.
They had a console round the bass drum, with wheels on it, and big swan neck cymbal holders, and Korean temple-blocks all set up on the top.
Show business has been in my family for hundreds of years. As to my being a drummer as far as I can remember, I was always banging; from a little kid, drums seemed to be part of me. I wish it was the same at the moment! But I started playing when I was three or something; by the time I was about fifteen years old, I decided to be a professional. I knew before that thatís what I wanted to do, but I flirted with other things. I wanted to be a doctor, would you believe. and I wanted to go in the Navy at one time. At the back of my mind always was the drums, and at fifteen I said: ďThatís what it is,Ē and started seriously.
It was when we were in the Air Force, playing with Buddy Featherstonehaugh, that Vic Lewis and I met. We had a recording contract with Buddy, and both Vic and I independently asked Oscar Preuss if we could try our own recording session. He said: ďWell. Iíll give you a session togetherĒ; so we had to team up, and thatís how the Vic Lewis-Jack Parnell Jazzmen were born! But we were good friends, of course, and it was fine. That was long before the Trad boom; Vic has always said, if weíd have stuck to it, weíd have made a lot of money. My thoughts, though, were on playing with a big band, and Ted Heathís offer came along.
For a drummer, when youíre young, big band playing is what you want to do. Oh, Iíd admired Buddyóeverybody, way back to Sonny Greer with Ellington; he was the first one. I first heard Buddy during the war, when he was with Bunny Beriganís bandóno, the first record I heard was when he was with Joe Marsala. He was sixteen, and he shone out of the record then; heís been doing it ever since heís unbelievable.
Undoubtedly, that original Ted Heath band was a terrific one; we all enjoyed it tremendously. Yes, there was a certain magic about it, although I wasnít necessarily aware of itóI was just darned glad that we were making it. For quite a long time, our mainstay, too, was repertoire from other bands. A lot of the style of the thing actually came from Sam Donohueís Navy Band; a marvellous musician, Alan Bristow, studied those arrangements closely and wrote in that vein, brilliantly. Then Norman Stenfalt did some beautiful things for us.
Yes, I had a band-within-the-band, the Quintet, which recorded ďOld Man RebopĒ that record did well in America, you know. Sure, I loved that new style and it definitely changed my direction in drumming, I think itís got to change again! Some of the drumming now is just impeccable. Lennie Bush made me laugh, talking about Mickey Roker; he said: ďHe plays like a surgeon.Ē Lovely, isnít it? That describes itóeverything is perfect. Drumming keeps progressing, and itís hard to keep up with itóespecially when youíre getting older.
Itís the same on all the instruments, really. It seems to me that in the jazz fieldóand Iím including all of it; jazz, rock, the whole thing itís rather like athletes. They seem to be beating the four-minute mile all the time getting better and better. Not that they say any more than has always been said by the great musicians, but they seem to have pushed it further, in some way. Each succeeding generation seems to build on the achievements of the pastóstarts off with that. Which I think is miraculous, really. Where does it end? I was very happy as a player in the Ted Heath band; really, I was pushed into having my own bandóLeslie Grade kept on to me about it. I got married for the first time, we had the child, and I felt a bit obliged to be ambitious. As I say, Iíd have been content to stay where I was.
With the band, we tried to do something of our own and I think we succeeded. We were very much a jazz band, when we started, with a lot of very good guys. That touring scene for bands was all going on, and we did all that. Thatís what prompted me to go into television, actually because I could see the end of that current big band era coming. It was just a feeling I had, that this wasnít going to go on long; I can remember thinking: ďWeíve got to make a move soonódo something else.Ē Originally, when the television offer came, we took the complete band in.
But, as time went on, guys fell away, because they still wanted to play; they didnít want to be restricted in that way. At one time, though, we had the band that was on the road, and we were doing three or four television shows, then going off and doing concerts on Sunday; it was getting very hard.
Because I was trying to learn the job I didnít know anything about conducting. I rushed off to George Malcolm, and started getting lessons from him. He taught me a tremendous amount. I learnt more about music with him, I think, than at any other time in my career. Everything else has just been experience.
I donít think conducting is any more demanding than sitting behind the drums. Thereís an awful lot of the same thing in it. The heart of the band is really the drummer, and the heart of the time, for an orchestra, is the conductor. Without any doubt, I found a clear parallel. In conducting, itís a sense of finding the tempo, the time, that makes the music sound at its best. And itís precisely the same thing with a drummer itís finding the point in the time to play on, to demonstrate where the time is, that makes the music sound at its best.
The two jobs are very similar itís just that one is silent, and one is noisy! In the resident conductor capacity, Iíve found a tremendous number of challenges; itís been exciting in a different way. Iíve had to conduct opera, ballet, accompany singers. Iíve done a bit of composition, arrangingóquite a few things now. Itís tiringóbut a great experience. But I really enjoy playing the drums; all the years I didnít play, it used to be in my mind quite a bit. What I missed was actually making the sound.
My music listening has become more widespread than it once was. Itís a bit difficult to follow the two schools in listening. I got very much into straight music, and, at one time, that sort of pushed jazz out of me for a while. Then the jazz came creeping back. At the moment, I think Iím listening to more jazz than I am classical musicóI still love it, of course.
Today, I really think the general level of talent is the highest itís ever been. because theyíve got access to such high standards. The level of singing is something that has improved tremendously. I hear singers who have got things off that were a knockout with the good singers of the past like great time, and beautiful control of the voice. I mean, even in jazz, there are people like Joni Mitchell; thereís so many of them now that are so good. Things that they have, that are just a natural part of what they do, are things that knocked you out in maybe one particular singer twenty or thirty years ago. Itís very exciting.
The idea of merging jazz with other idioms, in the way itís being done, is terrific. Some marvellous things are happening; the standards are frightening. On the records I hear, itís fantasticóthe time is so good, the swing is so easy and so controlled, the music is so extended, the harmony is so beautiful, the facility of the soloist is so great. Tremendous.
Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved