Buddies with Pres
Buddies with Pres
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1977
Playing with the Basie band was glorious. To be honest with you—although I wanted very much to play with the band, the big lure to me was Lester Young. And to be able to sit in there and play with Lester—that was really it. I’d loved his playing; I used to play his solos on trumpet, and try to make the trumpet sound like a saxophone. He, more than anybody in that band at that time, was the giant. For me he was just electrifying: I have some old tapes of Lester with Basie’s band before Basie became really famous; he was young and very vital then—he had all of his facilities. He was doing something that nobody else could do—the way he was playing, the sound, his whole approach was just magnificent. Really, he outdated all the other styles.
He was put down because of his sound, but, you know, Lester was originally an alto player. He was playing with a band, and the tenor player was always late—they always had to wait for him before they could leave to go on a job. It seems this guy’s parents had some money, he dressed nice, and he didn’t’ t care—but they were getting tired of this. One day Lester told the leader: “If you buy me a tenor, I’ll play it.” Pretty soon, the guy bought the tenor, to see what Lester could do. Lester started playing it—and he never put it down till the day he died.
To be in that band, and become running buddies with Pres, was a real nice thing. It was educational, just to talk with him. Pres was not a flamboyant person; he was more of an introvert. He was great with the people he liked, that he felt comfortable around; but he could go back and be by himself in a minute. A gracious person; he would never say anything bad about anyone. He was lots of fun—even in his speech, he was very creative: he coined so many phrases, that have become part of our vernacular now. The young people nowadays, they think they’ve created everything, but in fact, there’s nothing new.
Somewhere around 1946–47, I left Count Basie’s band with Illinois Jacquet, to form his band, This was on the strength of “Blues, Part Two” that he made with Jazz At The Philharmonic; this record skyrocketed, and Jacquet realised that it was his solo that did it—so he went out to capitalize on it. It was just him and myself, and we’d get a rhythm section in towns where we went. When we played Washington, Leo Parker joined us on baritone; then people like Sir Charles Thompson and Shadow Wilson came in.
In the middle ‘fifties, Basie was re–organising his big band, and he gave me a call. I really didn’t have a regular job at the time; I was just staying in New York, working around there. So I thought I might as well go back out. And Basie’s the type of guy who asks you about things; he’s really about the greatest bandleader I’ve ever worked with. He asked me to help him get musicians for the band, and I put Frank Foster, Eddie Davis on tenors, Reunald Jones on trumpet, Eddie Jones on bass, and a number of other guys. I didn’t put in Frank Wess, but I sanctioned him.
Well, I only wanted to make the band better; I knew I would get a great enjoyment from it. If it was my band, I would have done the same thing. No big deal: just a matter of recommending the right people.
Yes, that was quite a band. When you first heard that band, we were such an organisation—it was really a close family. I remember, we’d be down in Texas somewhere, just walking around, and we’d start humming and singing our parts—we’d have an orchestration right there, man, in voices. That’s how close we were, and how enthused about what we were doing. So when we played, it had to be good. As for the dynamics, all of that stuff we kept right under our belts. It was enjoyable, educational, it had so much to offer . . . well. it was another world.
As opposed to a lot of guys Basie has had in later years, I know that, speaking for myself, I tried to fit my solos to the arrangements, and not to force what I wanted to play. That’s why it’s nice now to be able to play with my own group, because then I can play my own music, my own feeling. I mean, a lot of times there were things that I wanted to do in a solo that I didn’t do, because I just didn’t feel that it would fit there. By exerting myself less, it still sounded good, and I could enjoy playing as well.
When you play in a band night after night, and you play the same arrangements year after year, then it’s a challenge to play the music well every night. That’s how it was to me, and I guess to all the rest of the guys at that time.
The feature for me and Frank Wess, “The Midgets” occurred during that period. It’ s funny—I don’t play it that much now, although a lot of people ask for it. It wasn’t a gimmick, though, because a gimmick is something that is not really real. How that came about—warming up in the bandroom one night, I hit on this melody; Frank Wess heard me, liked it, came over and said: “What’s that you’ re playing, man?” I said: “Oh, it’ s a little thing I just came across.”
He said: “Play it again, man”, and we started playing it together, with him on flute.
Originally, I was going to call it “The Mute And The Flute”. But we started doing the Birdland All Stars tour, and Pres called the little guys in the band the Midgets; the big guys, like Eddie Jones, were the Bombers. And the Bombers used to feud with the Midgets; we had little war games, with water guns. That was really fun. Morris Levi, the owner of Birdland, was one of the ringleaders; he was with the Bombers—and somehow the Midgets always used to beat them.
Morris was a wealthy guy; he’d fly into a town ahead of us, and buy all the water guns anywhere near where we were going to be, so that we couldn’t get any to retaliate. But the Midgets would manage to confiscate these guns, when they didn’t know about it, and we’d still wind up tearing ‘em up! Pres was one of the Midgets; as I told you, he was always with the underdog. We had this really little midget called Pee Wee Marquette, who was the doorman at Birdland; although he never got into the rough stuff, like the wrestling with Sonny Payne, myself and the others. This thing got to be so big, that I named the tune “The Midgets”. It became popular among the people who came to Birdland when we played there; this is why Basie came to play it a lot.
Another thing—here weren’t many flute players around. In fact, Frank Wess was the first one to use it. I remember John Hammond didn’t even want me to have him on my first album; after we made the record, he was satisfied with it. And, of course, flute became an accepted jazz instrument—but a lot of people don’t realise that it was Frank who brought that about.
Eventually, having left Basie, I decided I wasn’t going to travel extensively any more. I’ve gone to Europe almost every year, with very few exceptions, since I was last here. My wife is Swedish; so naturally I hooked up tours that would take me there. Then my family started to grow, and I just didn’t want to hit the road like I had been hitting it. Also my wife didn’t speak English very well at the time, and neither of us had any relatives in New York; so I couldn’t leave her there by herself.
The first year she’d travelled with me with Count Basie’s band; after that I stayed in New York. I worked in the studios, and I had my own group right from the beginning—one of the first jobs I had was in Count Basie’s Bar.
To begin with, it was a quintet: saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass and drums. Lately, I’ve done a. lot of things with just a quartet. The reason for that is that in latter years I’ve become a little more sensitive to my horn; rather than just get out there and blast, I like to play a lot of easygoing things, with open horn. I’ve found that all the good, strong piano players are the ones that I want to play with, but on the other hand, all piano players have a tendency, I think, to overplay sometimes. If you’re trying to create a certain mood, it can’t be that busy; there has to be that open space. And so I thought I would use a guitar, which gave me different colours; my group could have more than one colour—a sort of dry sound, at times. I’ve been using Ted Dunbar, and with him on guitar you don’t miss a piano.
My whole concept for music as I play it is swing. My music is happy, and it makes other people feel happy; because when we get in a groove there’s just no way in the world that you cannot have a good, happy feeling about it. First of all, we like each other very much; we have a good rapport among ourselves. We’ve never really argued or anything, and if there was something, we’ d talk it over. We have made sacrifices to be together. That’ s really what it’ s all about; music just parallels life, and when you come to realise that, it’ll work.
I have about eighteen different albums out under my name, but I haven’ t recorded recently. I stopped for a while, because things weren’t happening the way I wanted. Now, we’re preparing to make an album with this group.
I’ve really tried to contribute creatively to my field, I can say. All the work that I’ve done with Jazz Interactions is unpaid; it’s volunteer work. And I know that this involvement has hindered my career as a playing musician; people have tended to think of me as a business person. I’ve even been left out of some things as a result. But now I think our organisation is becoming pretty stable; we have a worldwide membership, and are known all over the world.
I felt that whatever I did to help promote the music, I would be helping myself that way. We are certainly greatly responsible for the growing of jazz again—the way it’ s taken off now. Certainly, George Wein could never have come to New York with the Newport Festival if we hadn’t done all the groundwork that we had done. I don’t really want to go into it, but we’ve done an awful lot of things to create a new climate for all the big bands and everything. We have now over fifty jazz clubs in New York: some of ‘em are small, and just have duos in them, but they’re all still there. We don’ t have any really large clubs there any more; Storyville, the club my wife runs, is about one of the largest, along with the Village Gate. But when we started out, there were only two jazz clubs in the whole of the New York area, anywhere around.
We started off by having what we called Sunday Sessions. We’ d book young musicians, and name ones when we could; just operating on a grant, we couldn’t pay a lot of money—they were doing it for token amounts. The idea of it was for young musicians who nobody knew about to get heard. Billy Cobham, Dave Liebman and several others came through our Workshop, and they are now top musicians in the field of jazz. So I feel pretty good about it.
Copyright © 1977 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.