Goodbye to those dance band days
My approach to the trombone
Goodbye to those dance band days
Listen to others
The trombone's possibilities
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1981
Photo by Denis J. Williams
My involvement with jazz developed little by little, I suppose. I played with Dean Benedetti’s band very early on, and the very first job I got with a small group was with Red Dorris, a tenor saxophone who had been a member of the Stan Kenton band. In Red’s little band, we tried some of the Ellington pieces, learned “How High The Moon”, played around generally and found out how it was done. Year by year, it progressed from there.
Sure, I’ve had to do commercial work—dance bands, mainly.
I’ve played a lot of different kinds of music—Hawaiian music, Dorothy Lamour, I did a Broadway show, played behind acts, and various dance bands. Whatever comes up.
As for those dance bands—I hope I don’t have to do it any more. It’s something that had to be done; it’s the work that was available. I’m not too crazy about playing dance band music; a lot of it is just drivel, and some of it is just drivel that’s written well—it’s competently arranged.
Gil Evans is probably the best and most enjoyable big band I’ve played with. And I enjoyed Thad Jones somewhat—every now and then. Stan Kenton was a marvellous person to work for; it was quite a band—trying to play above all that brass and everything. I was with Kenton in 1959; right after I left, they did a whole flock of recordings that I missed. I worked with Toshiko a little bit. I did a few weeks with Woody Herman. Others have been Benny Goodman, Ralph Marterie, Sam Donahue, Freddie Slack, Les Elgart, Larry Elgart, Ralph Flanagan, Ray Bauduc, Charlie Barnet.
There must be some more too. . . I try to forget ‘em.
One of the best bands I worked with—not the best band, but some of the best music—was the very first band I worked with: Cass Callas, in about 1943. He was Johnny Richard’s brother, and he had a lot of Johnny’s discard arrangements. Plus an excellent writer, Pat McCarthy, who is another legend—I don’t know whether or not he’s still living, but he was a marvellous composer and arranger. I enjoyed that very much, and being my first band, I learned a lot from it, I guess. Some of the music I played in later bands wasn’t written as well as that.
When I first started out with Gil , he had about six weeks’ work in the Village Gate. I’d just luckily called him up; I heard that he needed a trombone—that phone call proved a very rewarding, because I started a happy association with Gil. He found out that I copied, and I could read his scores; he did a sketch score in concert, with different voicing every few bars—or every note, sometimes–and since I was able to decipher it all, I used to help him prepare the music. And I worked with a few of the bands that he had.
That very first one, though, was probably the biggest that he’s had in recent years.
We made an album called “Out Of The Cool”; there was a piece on there that I played a solo on—”Where Flamingos Fly”. It wasn’t meant for me at all; it was meant for Keg Johnson, who was with the band. When we recorded it, that was the first time we played it in its entirety—Gil put together all the little sections that he’d been working on.
And Keg wasn’t in the kind of mood, producing the kind of sound, or whatever, that Gil wanted; so we just made a track, and the next day I came in and ovedubbed it. That record’s an overdub. There I was in an empty studio, listening to this out–of–time thing. . . yeah, it came off.
You can hear the obvious splice there, though. It was badly spliced—on the second bridge, I think; you can almost hear the scissors go click, click, click on that splice. You know, that sounded so mournful. . .
this trombone player in Holland, who collects records from all over Europe, told me that they used it as the background music for a Polish film about the death camps. It’s a beautiful tune, but mournful; I think John Benson Brooks was the composer.
I must say, I’m tickled to death that I am able to play jazz at the present time, and, hopefully, will continue for many years. One thing I found out; just to have the opportunity to play, you have to be a star.
So, here I go–I’m a star, I’m a star. I didn’t actively pursue being a star until. . . well, I still haven’t really pursued it, because I haven’t taken care of business very well at all; I could work much more than I do, but I‘ m reasonably content. It’s enough of a struggle just to keep some kind of strength going, and to have the opportunity to learn more about the instrument, and about music—it never ends. If you live long enough, you’ll learn something about playing.
When it comes to practice, I haven’t got a good discipline, actually but I realise the importance of it, and I try as best I can to learn. One thing that hangs a lot of players, including me, is that you may not necessarily be learning anything, but the time that you have available is needed to stay on an even keel—just to keep what you do have. To keep your chops up, as they say. It’s true that maintaining your flexibility and the ease with which you play can occupy your time, aside from advancing and becoming even more flexible.
I don’t know about the trombone being something you can’t lay off—you probably can’t lay off any instrument. Some players seem to be able to—especially the old–timers; I know some of them don’t practice at all but still they’ve got excellent range and facility. It might have something to do with the background they have—that when they were youngsters, the jobs that they did involved playing heavy and hard, six hours a night, and they learned to get to a state where they can always produce. They can lay off for a month and still produce music. But with any instrument, you do have to keep up on it. Some fa-mous pianist remarked that if he didn’t play his scales for one day, he’d know; if he didn’t play ‘em for two days, the orchestra would know; if he didn’t play ‘em for three days, the public would know. There’s some truth in that too. I’ve got so that I can lay off for a week and fool somebody; they think it’s marvellous, and they don’t know it but I’m at the end of my rope, and I’m thinking: “Thank God I got through that.” I could feel badly about confessing something like that, but it happens to be the truth, sometimes.
On the question of range on the trombone–there’s a range where it sounds best; it’s very warm right in the middle register. But it’s a utility instrument; it can be as brilliant as a trumpet, and in the high register it’s got quite an intensity to it. Players can hit notes up there, but there’s not too many of them who are really flexible about playing eighth notes or moving passages up there. The positions get very close together.
But anywhere you can make music. . . there’s a place for high notes—I think they should be worked into the rest of the music, for the intensity that’s possible in that register. It’s a matter of, depending on what key you’re in, what the effect is of playing a high fifth, a high root, a high minor third or whatever, screaming away. There are tools for producing music; they shouldn’t be an end in themselves–although the one thing players worry about most, probably, is their range. It seems to be almost a truism that a trumpet player can play marvellously, he can be a whizz, have a fantastic mind, imagination, plenty of emotion and everything else, but if he doesn’t play high, he won’t even be heard. He won’t be considered as a serious player, for somebody to really listen to. And it’s true, in a way; trumpet players have to play the high Gs and the high Cs nowadays. They realise it, and they do it very well.
On the other hand, you might notice that Charlie Parker could play high notes, but he rarely played even above the horn. A flat concert was the highest note that he usually played. I’ve heard him play high C concerts, and even a high F one time, but that’s extremely rare.
There’s just one commercial record that I can think of. . . he played a high D flat concert on a Jazz At The Philharmonic performance. Oh, and I think there was a high C on “Bird On 52nd Street”. Yet nowadays alto and tenor players play chorus after chorus above the horn; I don’t know what you call it, but beyond the notes that you play with your side fingers. It’s A flat concert on the alto and E flat concert on the tenor–but they play two octaves above that now. John Handy is fantastic at that; he’s got a range that won’t quit–as, in fact, have most alto players and most tenor players. And thirty years ago, the guys didn’t even know how to finger a half–step above, to that A natural. Some did, of course, but it was pretty rare. It is hard to play up there, and some of the high players don’t have very much distinction between notes, and intonation gets very faulty. I don’t know. . . it’s up to them. It should be part of your easy playing ability; you use it for the effect, the intensity that it has, or the melodic need that you have to finish off a phrase. There’s a note that will just finish it off perfectly, but it happens to be way up there.
With my graduation to jazz stardom, the recording picture seems to be opening up. I spent quite a few years raising a family, and getting settled into a house. Now, if being a star involves being leader on an album, that’s the way it is. I did one with Lew Tabackin, Shelly Manne, Roger Kellaway and Monty Budwig in Los Angeles, called “Jimmy Knepper In L. A.” That’s on Discomate Records—probably Inner City is the distributor in the States. Another one was for a Danish com-pany, Steeplechase, called “Cunningbird”. And I did one for a Dutch company, called “Tell Me”; that’s Daybreak Records. There was one put out in Japan, on which I wasn’t supposed to be the leader: it was released under Pepper Adams’ and my name, called “Pepper .and Knepper Together Again”. I wasn’t meant to be the leader on one that was released in England also; it came out as Joe Temperley and Jimmy Knepper; “Just Friends” is the title of that, I think. Maybe I shouldn’t say it, but I don’t think it’s right that when I’m only supposed to be a sideman on a record, it should come out, without my being considered in advance, with my name exploited as a leader.
But there’s enough albums of me out now. I don’t know whether or not it’s a good idea to keep an album coming out every six months or every year, but if that’s essential in order for me to have the opportunity to play, then it’s something I’ll have to do.Copyright © 1981 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.