From the bands to the films
the bands to the films
Speak the truth
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1974
The film scoring assignment that I’ve most recently been working on, recording the music in London, is a Sam Peckinpah picture, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia. We did Straw Dogs with him here a couple of years ago, and I’ve made five films with Michael Winner here. I’m not prepared to comment on the value of those films—that’s up to anybody else but me to say—but I think the scores were among the best recordings I’ve gotten anywhere in the world. To me, recording music of that kind in London is the biggest bargain in the world —if anybody’s thinking about money, which I’m not. In my opinion, the quality of recording here is two–thirds better than where I come from, and I know it’s two–thirds less expensive. In fact. from the points of view of the technicians and the musicians, I would say it’s a little too inexpensive.
Whenever anybody gives me a choice as to the scoring of a picture, I always recommend this place, because I know the people here, I’ve come to love it very much, and I like working here. So I’m very happy with what we got; it’s an interesting and a very heavy film, and I think it’s a very interesting score. Just before that, I finished a picture for a British director, which was an American production, and was scored there. This was Karel Reisz’s The Gambler. That one was an adaptation largely; the whole score was taken from Symphony No. 1 of Gustav Mahler. I had to do considerable excavation on it to suit these purposes. .
By and large, that’s what I’ve been about for the last six or seven years; I have been out of touch completely with all recordings any kind. Well, it’s been ten years, really, since I’ve withdrawn into this. I’ve become more and more orientated towards serious music, and I guess moving away from that old limelight that everybody wants to bathe in. This is my thirty–third, or maybe thirty–fourth year in this business, and, fortunately for me, a good bit of that time was spent in that marvellous, fruitful period of the absolute peak of the band era.
How did it begin for me? It began out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when I was seventeen years old. Pittsburgh is a town in the Eastern Midlands, I suppose you would have to say. It’s a very similar town to Birmingham—an ugly, coal–mining, steel town. Which is not nearly so ugly any more, but it was then. But it was a good music town, and I don’t know why.
A lot of people came out of there—Roy Eldridge, Billy Strayhorn, Billy May, Henry Mancini, Mary Lou Williams, Lena Horne all came from that nest. It just seemed to be a place where there was an awful lot of activity.
We all had a teacher there, named Max Atkins; he kind of had a little stable of active young fellows. He was a conductor in the pit of the Stanley Theatre orchestra when they had the two–a–day, three–a–day, four–a–day and sometimes seven–a–day vaudeville—the stage show, which is all completely disappeared. But in those days every week a new name band’d come through, and they almost always picked up somebody from Max —whichever of us kids he thought was ready. His stable became well known on the circuit. And Max exposed me at the time to what was then the Alvino Rey band, with the King Sisters. I left town with them, and I’ve never been back since.
Shortly thereafter, that band became one of the best I ever heard. It didn’t last long, but for a while there we had Neal Hefti, Nick Fatool, Skeets Herfurt, Joe Howard. A lot of those guys, like Joe Howard, are still working with me. Alvino’s still around. The girls have got their family business now. But I went on from that to all the other bands that I was with: Tommy for a long time. Claude Thornhill for a little while, Lunceford, Charlie Barnet—almost all of ‘em. Then I wound up on the West Coast, and I got the opportunity to get into the media there, by way of Kay Kyser.
The biggest influence on me, in those days, was the Jimmy Lunceford band. As far as the music of that period was concerned, it was the nest for an awful lot of others. I’m not talking about the Benny Goodman syndrome, which was a thing all of its own. But the more relaxed, spread out two–beat kind of thing followed Lunceford, and I certainly leaned in that direction. Sadly enough, too many people don’t remember the Lunceford band now, but I do recall it would always come in first in the specialist polls. It was the thinking man’s Swing band. And some of the fellows that were in that band are still around, too. Snooky Young worked on Supercops with me just a few months ago. It’s funny to run into them now. The Basie band’s still somewhat intact, I guess; I think it’s about the only one that is. Other than Kenton, and I’m not certain what he’s doing. All I know is: in my view, he hasn’t really progressed very far whom where it was when he started.
Yes, I was with Tommy Dorsey for quite a while. Those were very hairy years. It’s a period I would hope that someone would rekindle some interest in, just historically. Because it seems to me that it was a way of life that a lot of things that happened afterwards grew out of. It not only set a standard, it set a life–style, and some of the things that were set were not particularly admirable, after all. Most of the vernacular that is still around today came from there—such as the very expression ‘hip’.
Traditionally, like gypsies, it’s a hard, very telling life for the travelling musician, Moving around like that, working every night, getting in the bus, driving another four hundred miles, doing it night and day, year round, standing on your feet and blowing your head off, and not even sticking around to see what happens after you’ve opened—it’s murder.
From about 1942 on, shortly after Pearl Harbour, when we went back out to Hollywood for the second time, I stayed. And, as I wanted to do, I slowly inched into radio—there was no television then. I wanted to write more serious things; rather quickly I realised that there was a lot to be done that I was never going to get to touch if I didn’t have some incentive.
There were a lot of fellows I admired, who wrote for bands that I don’t think have ever been duplicated and will certainly never be topped—like some of the Woody Herman Herds. Sure, I think Blood, Sweat And Tears is fine; they do good things. But I’m not gonna fall about over what they do, because any three of the Woody Herman bands did that stuff twenty years ago, and I’d like to see any of ‘em play that now. But that’s all forgotten.
Oh, some of the boys that wrote that stuff, like Ralph Burns, are still around. But people like Eddie Sauter are now doing Broadway scores; I don’t know whether Billy Finegan is functioning any more—I doubt it. Somehow, a lot of those guys never got fulfilled. I think they wanted to go on, but the band era fell apart for a variety of reasons. Two reasons in particular, I think—one was the collapse of the machinery to keep it going, which was the ballroom network; when that folded, there was just no financial possibility that you could keep a band in existence. It was not only unfeasible—it was impossible.
Around 1950 and ‘51, I was doing a lot of radio. Prior to that, I’d done my years of apprenticeship with Kay Kyser. Now, people laugh at the mention of the Kay Kyser band, because record–wise during the band period the product they put out was indeed kinda laughable. Nobody takes that seriously as a contribution to worth–while jazz; it was commercial rubbish. But when he got the radio show, the so–called College Of Musical Knowledge, I’ll grant you it was a silly show, but musically and personnel–wise, that was possibly the tightest band I’ve ever had to work with in my life. And Kyser himself, in between all the silliness, really tried.
That was largely my function—to try and upgrade matters a little bit. And I learned a lot about the medium then, about presentation, showmanship, the dynamics of the whole thing; it was a general education of great value to me. I had a group on the show called the Town Criers, which was prior to the Hi–Los and just after groups like the Merry Macs and Six Hits And A Miss. It was a very advanced group for the time, and we did some rather brave things.
Right about then—what was I, thirty?—some of us old road guys, as we considered ourselves, began to get a little nostalgic. There was Frank De Vol, Billy May. And the guys were getting that way, too; they’d decided they’d put up the laundry bags, stay there in the sun, and wouldn’t it be groovy to become a Hollywood studio musician—so they did; they went out in the Valley, bought a house, got married, and settled down with a few orange trees or whatever, and life became very soft. Then suddenly they began to realise they were sterilising themselves to death.
So a couple of guys formed little bands, not to go in buses on the road, but to record with, do a few weekends at the Palladium, just rehearse, and keep the thing going. We were doing it for each other, really. And the first records I made—that’s what they were. Frank had put a band together for the Palladium: and I said: “If he can do it, I can do it.” I had five radio shows at the time, or something: so we put this bunch together, and we started to do some wild things.
Then somebody offered. us some nights at the Crescendo on the Strip, which was owned by Gene Norman at the time. Mort Sahl was working there; it was a terribly ‘in’, very posh night–club—a small, glamorous kind of place. I think this was the first time in that town that a band went into a club like that. And there was nowhere to dance; you didn’t dance. You didn’t stand. You sat there, you could drink all you wanted and we played a concert for you. It was great fun, and those nights were some of the strongest I’ll ever have.
At the time I was doing a show called Saturday Night Revue, an hour–and–a–half long, in what were the earliest days of television. There was no tape then; the light went on, you were being seen in New York, and that was it; you tripped, a lot of people saw you fall. We had guest bands come through to play it with us—Basie and all those.
In that band were Conrad Gozzo, Sam Donahue, Shelly Manne, Johnny Williams, Buddy Collette, Red Callender—everybody. I knew what these guys could do, and I wrote to the absolute limit of their abilities, which no one else did. We did some spectacular performances. Albert Marks recorded us a couple of times, and those are the early Trend records which are such collector’s items now. I think they were collector’s items the day they went in the store; they never really sold well.
I did this for therapeutic reasons, and then, after the records came out, there were a couple of ballrooms down in Balboa and on in towards San Diego where they were running out of people to hire. The agents booked us in there a couple of nights and we did pretty well. Next thing was: I ran foul of the Hollywood blacklist at that period, because I’ve always been a very loud–mouthed crusader on very many issues; I always will be. I got hit very hard, and I was kinda run out of town for ten years. During which spell I put the travelling band together; that was in late 1953 and 1954. That was the only time I went with a band on the road under my own name. It’s good that I did it that year, because that was the last year the ballroom circuit was in existence; it caved in right after that. That was the second year that the Billy May band was on the road, and its last. Sauter–Finegan were trying desperately hard to make it, and failing just miserably, financially. Basie followed us, and that was the one tour we did. After that I went with Decca and I recorded quite a few more things. And then I got into some experimental things, for the time.
There was a thing surfacing called Progressive Jazz. Then there was a brief period of West Coast versus East Coast jazz, and a lot of other arbitrary delineations. The Bird had surfaced, Coltrane had surfaced, and some funny things were beginning to happen. A band by the name of Boyd Raeburn appeared, doing even funnier things. People began playing in the extensions, and the influences of the avant garde serious composers began to leak over. The time disappeared; people began playing melodic jazz lines—or unmelodic jazz lines—that were kind of new, and some of them kind of strange to grab on to.
Yes, I think they were going too fast—Dizzy was, and even Miles Davis. For us, that was wild, but for the average person who wanted to tap his toes—there was nothing to tap to. It was this introspection, along with the collapse of the economic superstructure, that did so much harm. There was a terrible leaving behind of the masses in that period. Also all of the glory and the journalism that helped to make the early good bands understandable had disappeared; there were no critics worth a damn any more.
It was after the war, and there had to be a next step. I guess I’d have to say that the musicians involved in the band era, I suppose, in a sense, turned their backs on the public. We began doing it for each other—and that was a mistake, because the people responded by going back to the most elemental kind of early rock there was. On the heels of that came Big Jay McNeely, we went two thousand years backwards and started all over again, to the basic twelve–bar blues, and we haven’t quite grown out of it yet. It was a retrogression, and I’m sorry to have to say this, but what’s around today in the so–called jazz world is not as advanced as “Benny Rides Again”, written by Eddie Sauter in the year 1942. Match that against the rock–jazz junk that’s around now.
I’m kind of unimpressed with what I’m hearing; it’s not intellectual, but purely emotional. I’m not putting it down; surely, it has its place.
As for the defence about “getting to the people”—Benny Goodman went to the people and got to them, and wasn’t doing rubbish. So for a while did Tommy. So did Sauter and Finegan for a minute. But somehow—it’s just like anything else—the people themselves have got to have some reason to put in a little effort to keep up with you. They’ve got to learn a little bit. too. Then when they stopped music education in the public schools in the United States, that killed it all. That’s why we have no serious composers there now.
There isn’t one heavyweight serious American composer. Oh, we have a lot of avant garde boys, you know, who are making all kinds of novel noises. I’m not putting that down, either; there has to always be an avant garde. But it’s approaching Dadaism from time to time.. I think everybody has to admit that a good bit of it’s got to be facetious, if not an out–and–out put–on.
It seems to me that we’re totally adrift at the moment, culturally—the Western world generally is. I don’t know what the serious musical idiom of this time is. I’ve no idea who history will designate as the proper spokesman seriously for this period. It isn’t like you could pinpoint Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, whoever. Even Stravinsky—there was a time that was right for him. Right now, the time seems to be wrong for everybody—or everybody seems to be wrong for the time.Copyright © 1974, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved