Having a Ball
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976
Photo: Associated Press
If I’d been thinking straight, I wouldn’t have waited till I came over here with Bing; I would have come over maybe four years ago, just for kicks, Because I’m having a ball, and I love being in London.
One of my dearest friends is Jack Parnell: I love the man,and I’ve always had tremendous high regard for his musicianship. As a conductor, writer, player—all the way round, he’s one of the really great cats in the music business. And really one of the most straight–thinking people in the world.
How did I come to know Jack? I was over in 1953, just previous to doing
the seven–week Benny Goodman/Louis Armstrong concert tour. I had just
had a twenty–six weeks’ rubdown at the Embers in
That was till four—we
lost track of the amount of sets we played there, but it was a jumping,
swinging place, and we enjoyed it. At the time, a great pal of mine, Jose
Ferrer was doing a play, and he was in practically every night. He came
up one night. and said he was going to
So, at the last minute, I felt that I’d earned a trip. and I decided
to jump on a plane and come over with Ernestine Anderson and Joe Ferrer.
We went to
Jack is one of the guys, in my world, if I don’t see him for ten years, it’s like I saw him yesterday. It isn’t one of those: “Hey, man, where’ve you been—why didn’t you get in touch”—you know, that kind of stupidity that goes on. I don’t have to see Jack Parnell every day to know he’s there. I really had a ball with him the other night. Jack is playing again, and, like me, he’s realised what a big part of his life it is.
There’s no way in the world I could really be happy, unless I keep playing. I just had to find out the hard way.
I’ve been into horse–breeding, I’ve got my kids with their show horses; it gets complicated, and, actually, it’s related in a sense, because you’re on the road with the kids and the horses, on the horse—show circuit—it’s like doing one–nighters, in a way, doing those three–day horse shows. ‘Obviously, piano is my first love, but I really love playing the trumpet so much, I’ll never understand why I don’t get into it. I don’t mean seriously. You don’t just get into anything seriously—your desire has to be so high that you automatically do whatever has to be done about it, in order to make it go where it can go for you. And I’ve found I’ve had some really great moments, playing the horn. Really, it was a very natural thing to me. In the school marching band, there was no way to lug a piano around—and I sure as hell wanted to get in to see the football games, from an advantageous point of view, without sitting up in the bleaches. See, the band always got a fifty–yard line seat. Because of playing the piano, and knowing chord changes, I found it was just a matter of learning the fingering of the couple of octaves involved in the scale. I was never under the pressure of having to carry a load for an entire evening on trumpet; although at a certain point. when I was younger, I did play some jobs on second or third trumpet. I could always handle it; somehow or other, I managed to get through the evening without the kind of chops you should have.
During the war, I was a master sergeant bandleader; then I was assistant conductor to David Rose with Winged Victory, the Air Force show. When Dave left the show, I was music director of the road tour; we started at the L.A. Philharmonic and went clear across the country—the San Francisco Opera House, the Civic Opera House, Chicago, all the halls. That was a kick —it was really like a symphony orchestra: seventy–five to eighty pieces, including twenty–six strings and four French horns.
Loving the trumpet as I do, I guess it’s logical that I should have worked and recorded with some great exponents—Louis, Bobby Hackett, Billy Butterfield. And, of course, I was with Bunny Berigan from ‘35 on; actually, November of ‘35, I think it was. I was about sixteen or seventeen years old; I loved Bunny—a wonderful cat, and playing just beautiful.
Sure, I recorded I Can’t Get Started myself; that was a perfectly natural thing to do—such a great tune, and one that I know that well. Even If I was never with Bunny Berigan and never knew him, I’d still record that. You don’t have to have any reason to record a song that’s good, beyond the fact that you like to play it. Also—the keyboard: some songs that are great for solo voice or trumpet or clarinet just don’t work out on the piano. Certain material isn’t pianistic, that’s all. People say the piano has no limitations—it all depends on who’s listening, and, mainly, who’s playing! There are chord changes that seem to lend themselves more than others; I don’t think it’s possible to say you can make any song sound good, because there are too many songs written. Some of them by cats who aren’t even listening to music.
You know, Bobbv Hackett used to say: there are two kinds of musicians—guys who play music, and guys who make music. There’s a wide gap there.
When I was coming up in
Musicians who really got to me at that time included Bud Freeman, Bunny Berigan. Above all, Louis Armstrong. You’ve gotta dig anything that’s that clearly great. I mean, Louis made an enormous impact, as far as popular music is concerned—any kind of music. I think his contribution is as great as . . . you name ‘em . . . Ravel, Mozart, I don’t care who it is. It’s just absolutely right there. Who cares when, here it’s proven in time—it’s proven in time as far as I’m concerned. It’s forever. He’ll be around a hundred million years.
His commercial ballad singing? They were great—1 loved those. I don’t think —Louis ever went in the studio saying: “This is commercial . . . that isn’t commercial”. It was a song—they gave him a lead sheet, he’d sing the hell out of it. It’s like—put a great jockey like Willie Schumaker on a horse, he hasn’t counted the purse. He gets on the horse, and if the horse responds—bam, he gets into it. He becomes the animal. . .
Louis became the song, in every case. When you put on a Louis Armstrong record, listen to the lyric, and to his expression—if he’s singing something that’s supposed to be sad, he makes you want to cry; if it’s supposed to be happy, he makes you want to laugh. Now, what more can you expect to hear? That’s the essence of the art; that’s the most you’re gonna get. If you want any more than that—then I really don’t think you’ve got a shot of getting happy, because you ain’t ever gonna find it.
I feel the same way about Bing—absolutely. As a matter of fact, I would challenge any of these lot of singers around, who have a very, very inflated opinion of their delivery, their talent or whatever. I defy them to sing “Them There Eyes” or “Old Man River” or any of the up jazz tempos that Bing’ll throw at you. Again, it’s Louis Armstrong, Bunny Berigan . . you know, where it’s at. I mean, you can hear every word clearly, every note is in tune, and it’s phrased beautifully. There’s no time sequence involved—it might have been thirty years ago, and it could be thirty years from now. No way to say that that’s at a time. It’s swingin’—to me, that’s the heart of the matter, really.
Way back, that still came through—in spite of some of the technical failings, such as in the studio, when they sang into a horn, or recorded on a piece of wax that was about eight inches thick. At RCA Victor, I remember, there was an engineer who was very, very good, but he was a tiny chap, built like a jockey; there was no way he could lift that wax disc that they used to record on—it must have weighed a ton. They’d put a layer of fresh wax on top, and as you used up the disc during the record date, they would be re–waxing them. That was doing it the hard way.
I guess you gotta use the word communication. The guys who really had it, communicated—against tremendous odds. Just listen to some of the musical backgrounds—you’d have to have a built–in pair of stereo headphones within your head, to turn off one side, in order to get through.
Playing the piano, the big difficulty is the fact that you can’t carry your own instrument. All pianos look the same from the front, don’t they? And if they don’t, the owner of the nightclub or the theatre gets in a panic and paints it; they don’t fix the keyboard—that’s the last thing they do.
You got a break occasionally, but this was the problem, all the way down the line—with Berigan, Dorsey, and even as late as Benny Goodman’s band, which I joined after the war, in ’46. During the Summer, we would play lots of amusement parks, all over the place; we played in a ballroom that hadn’t been danced in, let alone played in, for fifteen years. They had some strange–looking upright piano that wasn’t quite a half a tone off—so you couldn’t transpose. Tommy or Bunny would have automatically said: “Oh—see you around Get on the roller coaster, and get your kicks.” Just no point in sitting there, fighting it out of tune———the band sounded great, and all of a sudden you’d hear this. There again, any of the piano players of that era who were able to come through, it had to be almost a freak bit of luck. Because any intelligent bandleader would leave out any piano solos when he recorded—the minute you got out of the studio and got on the road, there wasn’t any piano to play the solo on; so what do you do with the space? And if you’re sensible, you don’t go around asking for eight bars, with hat in hand —or, rather, no piano in hand. Really, if you listen to the big band records, you won’t hear many piano spots.
Occasionally, they would spring and give you a bell note to play. And
that was a real disaster, with the piano bell note, that looked like it
came from another ballroom, or another town! But you live through everything.
Even today, there are obstacles to be overcome. When we played the Palladium
with Bing, they had a couple of Steinways—and I don’t like playing Steinway
myself; it has an accelerated action. I prefer the action of Bechstein.
Then, when you haven’t been playing all the time, you have to, as the
expression goes: “get your chops together”. And throughout the whole tour,
I had no problems at all, up until we got to