I'm still learning
Buddies with Pres
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1977
The two days I spent over here for the Beaulieu Festival followed two days at the Nice Festival, to which we had to return afterwards for George Wein. I sort of compare it to the baseball teams in America, where the clubs farm players out; this is what they did with us. But it was nice; I was really very pleased to come here, after such a long time—about eighteen years. Yes, the last time was with Basie. I was taking my wife back with me, from Sweden; we came through here and played, then went on back, and I stayed with Basie for the rest of that year—1960. I left the band in January of ‘61, after we’d completed an engagement at the Apollo Theatre; as a matter of fact, Joe Williams and myself, we left at the same time.
For a number of years now, I’ve tried to come here to play, and I’ve sort of given up on it; I just feel maybe they don’t want me. I don’t mean the public; it’s the people who are doing the booking—they’re not booking me. I’ve been in the thick of things—all over the world—except coming to Great Britain. Most people here remember me from Count Basie’s band, but they have never really heard what I have to say—and I have grown since that time. I mean, seventeen years is quite a spell; I have matured much more, I’m still learning, and there’s still a great deal to do in playing. That’s really the most important thing to me. You know, I still feel like a young kid about playing; there’s a great excitement in it for me. And when the situation is right, It can be so overwhelming.
I have a number of friends here, and it’s always nice to renew old acquaintances. Actually, when I was with Basie’s band, we seemed to come here so much, I got to think of it—London, particularly—as a second home, more or less. I found such a good feeling among the people that I knew; I liked them very much, and I felt that they added to my life. But I just never got back here. I’ve come through, going other places. There was one time when I thought I might take a taxi from the airport, and come in town, but it was pointed out to me that I’d only have time to get there, turn around and come right back.
That would have been a great waste, and very frustrating; so I didn’t bother about it—but I’ve often wanted to come into town, and maybe see some of the people that I knew. I don’t hold any malice towards anyone about it; they don’t see fit, I guess.
I would like for them to hear the things that I do now, and to hear me with my own group. Coming abroad a lot, I know that it’s a great transportation problem with many of the promoters; unless you have a really big record, they’re tight on that end of things. Yet I think they owe something to the general public, not to isolate other artists from them, but to give them a chance to decide for themselves about them.
When I first came over here with the Basie band, we were by ourselves, with Joe Williams along with the band; we played concerts that way, and I enjoyed them. But then, after we’d been here a couple of times, they started to bring over package deals. Someone here said to me: “Well how are we going to enjoy that? It’s so much—we won’t really have time to take it all in.” At that time, I don’t think this public was ready for that; but they were made ready—it was just shoved on ‘em.
If you have so much, you can’t enjoy it all. It’s like if you see a lot of food, and it all looks good, and maybe you like it all, you can’t enjoy it as well as if you had just one good meal there.
Promoters know their business, to a great extent, although they make mistakes, like anybody does. But it would open things up, if you didn’t keep getting the same people. I’m sure that all the younger listeners here have never even heard of me, because I haven’t been here for so long; it’s another generation. I know that certain artists have come over, been able to get bookings—and I don’t think some of ‘em can even compare themselves to me. I guess that’s the way the ball bounces.
In the rest of the world, there’s a lot to do, and the people are really very nice, all over. The fact is, I like people; something rubs off from them, and gives me some enjoyment in my life. Some like more privacy; I like privacy, too, but I just don’t like to be away from people. I’ve toured the Soviet Union a couple of times—but they always keep the people away from us. We play to audiences of twenty thousand a performance; some days we do two performances—so that’ll be over two thousand people listening to us. They like you, they come back, and maybe like to get an autograph; but we’d come off, and there’d be cordons of policemen, preventing them from coming near you.
After a while, I just went out, signed autographs, and mixed with the people a little bit. If I come somewhere, I like to know what the people are like. No place you go is so great without people. It’s the people that you meet and come to know, that make you enjoy any place you go.
I really became a musician because of my father. My earliest recollections of my childhood in New Orleans are of him playing music. He was a chauffeur, originally; the next thing I knew, he was playing piano, although I never was aware of him studying before that. Perhaps he was already a player before I was born; I’m not sure about that. I came up in the Depression; I guess that’s why he was driving a car—but pretty soon he’d given it UD to play full–time.
I’ve been involved in a lot of school work—which I haven’t found quite as rewarding as I thought it might be. I taught for two years, and then I decided it was too frustrating for me.
There were too many people within the schools that were really bucking against you, rather than helping things to progress.
What has been more rewarding has been my work as president of Jazz Interactions. Since I left the Basie band, I’ve spent twelve years of my life on this: in fact. I’m one of the founders of it. We founded the organisation to promote jazz, because it was in such a serious plight at the time. Everybody talked about it, but nobody did anything to alleviate the problem. A number of us got together, and formed Jazz Interactions with the idea of promoting jazz on an educational basis. We thought we could do that best by going into the schools, getting with the young people, and acquainting them with jazz.
Many of the kids carried pocket radios around, listening only to the rock’n’roll; there was a part of their heritage they knew nothing about. We did a pilot programme, and invited the New York State Council of the Arts, the Musicians’ Union and some people from the School Board. Finally we got a grant—the first jazz organisation to be funded. With our in–school programmes, we didn’t go there just to play for them; we went to give them some knowledge, but in a way that it didn’t bore them, listening to us talk all the time. We played, and we mixed it up.
Now, we’re copied by other organisations; which is good, because we are not capable of servicing all of New York. We’ll go into the Bronx, or Brooklyn and so on, we’ll do maybe four or five schools, but there are a lot more than that.
The ideas that other organisations form on are a little different from what we do. Ours is to promote jazz as an art form; also to get a better rapport between the audience and the musicians, as well as creating new audiences. We also have a Young Musicians’ Workshop, which I helped put together. To do this, I went over with Billy Taylor and Jazzmobile. I became vice–president of that, too, but it was too much; it was best for me to concentrate on Jazz Interactions.
But the situation is that some of the students from our Workshop go there also. It’s a free service, and with us they’re taught by top professionals—people that they can hear on record, and identify with. We bring in guest musicians to speak to them from time to time—guys like Dizzy and Roland Kirk, who have so much to say to them.
It would really be a nice thing throughout the world if some of the universities would have some jazz musicians with some experience behind them—guys of my age bracket, who have more than what’s happened in the past ten or twenty years to draw from. Eventually we’ll be gone, and there won’t be anybody around to tell them about it. No matter how many books are written, there’s no way they’ll give all of that information.
We have chosen to go and help the young people. In my day, musicians coming up got no help at all. You’ve heard about Louis Armstrong putting a handkerchief over his valves, so that guys couldn’t see what he was playing.
That’s the sort of thing they did—so nobody could steal their stuff. I think I was more fortunate than many guys, because the musicians knew me through my father. Not that they really showed me anything—but I had a chance to play with them.
I started playing trumpet when I was six years old, and I learned to play it within two years, by myself. At eight, I had my first formal lesson.
That came about when some musicians were having a band rehearsal at my house with my father; I was out on the back step, blowing along with them. They heard me, and they stopped, but I was still out there blowing. I didn’t see them standing there at the screen door; next thing I heard was: “Why don’t you give that kid some lessons?” That’s really how I got started.
Before that, I’d wanted to play tenor saxophone. I used to have a lead pipe plumbing fixture, and it was sort of shaped like a saxophone; I blew that and made music with it.
Another kid played a banjo, my brother had a trumpet made from some tubing and a funnel, and we used to play little parties. Then one of my playmates stole my lead pipe; so I had another one made, that looked more like a saxophone.
I far as I was concerned, I thought that jazz had been here ever since the world began. When God made the world., that was one of the things he made—that was my understanding.
It wasn’t until recently, when I started to put together lectures on Louis Armstrong, for colleges and different places, and I was reading books to gather material, that I saw these names of so many guys that I grew up around—playing with my father, friends of our family. These guys were creating it then, man, and I didn’t know it. Some of the earlier history was being made.
At eight years old, I could play some songs, and I started to do gigs with some of the same men my father had worked with. My mother would let me go if they’d come get me and bring me home. These were three and four piece bands; then after a while I started working with some bigger bands around New Orleans—about thirteen pieces, something like that. Such as Henry Hart, Bill Phillips. Richard Gray and his Society Syncopators—that was one of the first bands that operated in the Carlton area, what they called Uptown in New Orleans. On Sundays I would go up there; I was beginning to get interested in girls, too, and I was such a young kid playing—it was a lot of fun. Then I played in clubs like the Rhythm Club; all the big bands used to come there to play.
After that, I went to the Alabama State Teachers College; I was still in high school then. Erskine Hawkins’ band was there before. The ‘Bama State bands travelled around, just like the big bands did; they filled the halls, they made money, and that helped to support the school. It’s a state school, but at that time they had to make up for what the state didn’t give them.
And, being a black school, they didn’t give ‘em that much; so the athletes and the musicians provided the finance. What had happened was: Erskine Hawkins had made contact with an agent, who had signed them up for a booking in New York; they left the school, and sent the bus back empty. At that time, I didn’t know anything at all about Erskine Hawkins; it wasn’t until later, when he made “Tuxedo Junction”, that I came to know who he was.
Anyway, there was a friend of mine from New Orleans, named Teddy Hart, who was going to school there. I met him in New York just recently, for the first time in many years; I said: “Who are you—what’s your name?” He said “Teddy Hart”, and I really felt embarrassed—because it was through him that I went to ‘Bama State. He told them about little Joe Newman, who could really play the trumpet, and said: “You should have him.” So they called me up, and they sent me a ticket, to come to school on a scholarship. Which was something they hadn’t done for anybody else; I didn’t know it, but later I found out about it.
We had a lot of good musicians and good bands down there. We did the same thing the rest of the guys did—but they never sent us to New York any more! They didn’t want to risk losing another band.
The arrangers we had would copy things from records, to quite an extent. See, I got a great deal of my experience from records; we used to sit up and listen to ‘em. And I’d have my ears glued to a little radio—like, when Roy Eldridge would come on, from the Arcadia Ballroom, and all that kind of stuff. My idol had always been Louis Armstrong; as a matter of fact, he was really the person responsible for me becoming interested in jazz music—and in the trumpet, of course. When I heard him, it was just unbelievable. People take it for granted, but so much of what he created is just a part of the overall library of music now—smears, slurs, different ways of attacking the notes.
As well as copying, we would play stock arrangements, put out by the publishing companies; you could go buy them for fifty cents, or seventy five cents, and you’d have your whole book. Now, when Count Basie came we played all of his stuff. I was so thrilled with that band—that was really what I wanted to do, the band I wanted to play with. Harry Edison was so much of an idol to Joe that he had to make a serious effort to avoid sounding like him.
Because I was patterning my solos after Buck Clayton. There are a lot of other trumpet players in me, in my soul, although I think I play like myself now. But all of us stand on somebody else’s shoulders. After learning the solos of so many other musicians, I reached a saturation point where I didn’t want to sound like any of those guys. It really came home to me, I remember, one time when a good friend of mine, who I hadn’t seen for a long time, came up to me and said: “Gee, Joe, you really played your ass off there—you sound great, man. You sound just like Harry Edison.” I felt quite disappointed. Not that I don’t love Harry Edison—but I wanted to be me. If you’re going to play that horn, you got to really try to be an individual, because you can’t do something better than the creator. From there on, I decided I would just play my own ideas. And as it turns out, when you get to that point, there’s a lot of ideas within you.
It was in December ‘43 that I joined Basie’s band. I was with Lionel Hampton, and people like Cat Anderson were in the band; we were working at a new club in New York, the Famous Door. One day I had a very bad cold; so I stayed in my hotel room instead of going in to work. Count Basie was playing at the Lincoln Hotel, and the next day Jo Jones came to my room. He said: “Why don’t you come and play with us tonight? Buck went into the Army yesterday, and we need a trumpet player.” I said: “Sure”; I got out of bed, went down and played—and then they asked me to stay. I didn’t even give Hamp my notice—I just said: “Man, I’m not coming back.” He didn’t bother; he knew this was what I wanted.
Copyright © 1977 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.