An American in Europe
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1978
It was very nice to come to Britain again; this was my third or fourth time here. In August and September, I came over and did a set of sessions for the Jazz Centre Society; I came back this time more or less on a busman’s holiday. I’ve done a couple of jobs again, but I really wanted to get away from Germany, because I’d had so much work in the last few months, and was anxious to get a bit of a holiday.
I live in Cologne now, together with my wife and two children. I work with what they call the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, which is the German radio in Cologne. This has been the case for practically nine years, and now it’s come to the point that they’ve decided they want the orchestra I work with to be full–time. In other words, when I can’t play the trumpet any more they’ll still pay me. Because of the fact that I am married and have children, I don’t like to travel too much. You can understand that—I like to be around my children while they’re growing up.
Therefore it’s a good base of operations for me; from there, I can go practically anywhere in Europe. Every once in a while, when I feel like going around to do some concerts, and so forth.
Yes, Herb Geller is another American in Germany. He has the same situation that I have now—only in Hamburg. It’s very strange, you know I’ve been in contact with Herb through other people, but, although he’s been where he is for even longer than I’ve been in Cologne, we haven’t met person to person yet. And it’s because both of us are so unendingly busy; we do so much playing. As far as we’re both concerned, though, we know what kind of music each of us is doing—and a lot of it is quite good music, to tell you the truth. We do quite a bit of everything, but the orchestras we’re both with do a lot of jazz things as well.
In fact, the Germans in both orchestras are very jazz strong; they’re well orientated towards jazz, and they want to play, you know. And it’s very, very nice to be in the atmosphere, because of that.
Every now and again I run into British musicians over there; this past year I met up with Pete King and Mike Carr. Not too many groups come through Cologne, because there’s not too much of a jazz club scene there. But they do come quite a lot to Hamburg and Berlin.
Unfortunately, I haven’t heard a lot of jazz here; I would like to hear considerably more than I have. Of course, I’ve heard some things on record, that I think are very nice. There are some amazing British jazz musicians living today; I don’t know whether they’re being well taken care of here in their own country, but if they’re not, they certainly should be, I can tell you. People like Pete King and Kenny Wheeler—they’re absolute giants in their own fields, and the whole world should know about them.
The extent to which they are heard, and recorded, is not nearly as much as they deserve.
I’ve been working with the pianist Mike Pyne, and the last job was with Allan Ganley on drums and Peter Ind on bass. Very nice. Every job I’ve worked over here has been very, very much fun. I really enjoy playing with them—otherwise I wouldn’t have come back so soon.
As for my origins—I was born in Altuna, Pennsylvania. Which is not a very large town; I’d say it has between fifty and seventy thousand people—that’s not considered a large town in America. Anyway, it’s where I grew up and went to school. My father played trumpet; at one time he was on the road with one of the Paul Whiteman orchestras. And he was the one who really taught me the beginnings of what I had to do to play the trumpet, as well as an early approach to jazz. He had a very good idea of jazz music and the way the trumpet should be played.
He introduced me to such people as Louis Armstrong and Red Nichols. For a while he sat right in the Whiteman trumpet section, with Bix Beiderbecke right next to him. That must have been an honour—at least, he thought it was; I do, too. He talked to me very much about Bix; in fact, Bix even came to the house when I was a very small child—he used to play with me on his knee. Of course, I was much too young to really know him, but they have pictures of it at home.
The first jazz I listened to was on records of Louis with the Hot Five, and of Red Nichols with the Five Pennies. I heard some of the very few recordings that Bix made—some of them with the Whiteman group, and with Bing Crosby, Harry Barris and those people. From the little I heard, it was clear that he was a fantastic player.
Those bell tones—even with the old way of recording; you can imagine what they would have sounded like, should they have been recorded today.
I remember, the first music that I ever wrote down—I took Louis’ solo off the record of “Potato Head Blues”. The breaks, and everything that he played. I was fascinated by that, and I said to myself: “I’ve got to be able to play that one day.” As a result, I could one day—naturally, not so very good as he. That was a marvellous recording.
So I was geared towards jazz; although, at the same time, my father insisted that I learned the trumpet correctly. Actually, he taught me what I knew: the scales and a few other things; then I had about six lessons from a classical instructor, and he more or less taught me to read.
From there on, I took it myself; I ended up playing with the junior and senior high school orchestras—even as soloist in senior high school, I’d developed a tremendous interest for it. I didn’t like it at first, you know; I’d rather play baseball than practice my trumpet. But my father made me see it another way—and I’m very glad that he did, because I’ve had so much fun from it.
I’ve played several instruments of the trumpet family—all of them, actually. The first horn I had, that my father gave to me, was a cornet. Then the next horn was a trumpet, and I played that all through school. Now, at the time I was with Gerry Mulligan I played trumpet as well, but shortly thereafter—in between the time that I left Gerry and the time that I came to Europe—I was playing E flat contralto trumpet, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And that was another marvellous instrument. I’ve been trying to find one ever since mine was stolen in Pittsburgh—but I haven’t been able to do so. One of the things I’ve done since I’ve been here in Britain is look for one. I had one built for me in Brussels, but it was made as a trumpet, and I didn’t really care too much for that. What I used to have was an old Conn E flat contralto cornet; it was absolutely a museum piece, really—a collector’s item. See, it’s the same thing as they call here in Britain a tenor horn, with the lower sound only built like a cornet. In the States we call that an alto horn; so that’s why I call it E flat contralto trumpet. Yes, if anybody reading this knows of one, I’d surely like to hear about it—it would be really a marvellous thing if I could locate one.
When I left high school, I went into the Army, and I was quite fortunate to get a position with the United States Air Force Band, in Washington, DC, where I went immediately after my basic training in Texas. And here in DC, I came in contact with the Washington musicians—and I had my first impressions of modern jazz. The jazz of Charlie Parker. Before that, I guess you could have called me strictly a Dixieland trumpet player; when I came to Washington, I learned about so many other musicians.
Lester Young was really a milestone in my education; Charlie Parker as well, and naturally the trumpet players that went with them—like Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown.
I heard the Billy Eckstine band when Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Freddie Webster were all in the trumpet section; that was a tremendous experience for me. This was in 1946/ 47; being in Washington wasn’t the same as New York, but nevertheless I saw so many important people, because there were a couple of clubs in DC that presented them.
Hearing all that, naturally my brain took off in another direction; I started to try to get with it, so to speak—to play that style. And I became friends with some of the younger musicians in Washington—people like Jack Payne, Spencer Sinatra, Bob Swope and Marky Markowitz. I played with them quite a bit while I was in the Service; we used to have sessions several places, right around the DC area—in Virginia, Maryland and so forth. Really, I guess you could say it was there that I developed the way I play today—that was the beginning of it.
After I left the Army, I went home to Pennsylvania, and I got together with a young piano player from Cleveland, by the name of Rudy Black, who was a fantastic musician. We formed our own quartet, with two local fellows from Altuna, who weren’t bad at all; in the ensuing two or three years they became really top–class. They were Jay Cave, who played bass, and Christie Febbo, who played drums. I believe Jay is somewhere around New Orleans today, if I’m not mistaken; he was with one of the Tony Bennett orchestras on the road not too long ago. So we worked an awful lot around Pennsylvania with this quartet. At these times, naturally, we played only jazz; the greatest people for me were Diz, Fats, Miles, Freddie Webster—people like that.
But it got to be a thing around there: “Jon Eardley plays good jazz trumpet, but he doesn’t play good enough—that’s the reason he’s here in Altuna.” I got sick of hearing it from so many people; one day I said: “Okay, we’ll find out”, and I just left, went to New York, got a small apartment there.
About three–and–a–half to four weeks after I got there, I was playing a session one night in the Open Door, in Greenwich Village, where there were a rhythm section and three trumpet players playing. The trumpet players were myself, Tony Fruscella and Don Josephs; I didn’t have any idea what was happening—I was just enjoying myself. And after we’d finished one tune, a young lady came over and asked me a question; she said: “Tell me, how many white shirts do you have?” I said: “Well three or four. Why?” She said: “Come over here. My husband wants to meet you.” I walked over to the table, and there sat Gerry Mulligan.
Gerry said: “Would you like to come to work for me?” I said: “Well, sure—why not?” This was a Friday evening; he said: “Okay, we open Monday in Baltimore.” I said: “Well we’re not going to rehearse or anything like that?” He said: “No. I’ll stop by your house tomorrow, and bring you a record player and a stack of records.” He brought me about a ten–inch stack of records, and told me: “You must learn them by Monday.” So I did; I learned all the tunes that were on the recordings with him and Chet, or him and Bob Brookmeyer. We opened up in Baltimore, and after that I was with Gerry, on and off, for three or four years.
We got along very well, Gerry and I. He’s quite an intense personality, but we still got on well. That first quartet we had, with Frank Isola and Red Mitchell, was one we had an awful lot of fun with—and Gerry will vouch for that as well as me, I’m sure. Then, when it was made into a sextet—we still had a lot of fun. It was with Bob Brookmeyer and Zoot Sims; the bass and drums changed a bit, with Chico Hamilton coming in every once in a while on drums, and Dave Bailey staying towards the end. On bass, it was Bill Crow, then Peck Morrison.
Prior to this time, though, I did do some other recordings. Just before I went with Gerry, I did a recording with Phil Woods, where we did one thing of mine called “Pot Pie”, as well as “Mad About The Boy” and “Robin’s Bobbin’”; I think the album was just called “The New Jazz Quintet: Jon Eardley and Phil Woods”. And I really enjoyed working with that group as well, because Phil is such a magnificent musician, and we always got along very well, too. Also I did a recording with J. R. Monterose that I was happy about.
After joining Gerry, I did another album in Hollywood, called “Jon Eardley In Hollywood”, with Pete Jolly, Red Mitchell and Larry Bunker; we had a very nice time playing together as well. Later, I did some more records with Phil; one was a septet, including Milty Gold and Zoot Sims. Almost all of them were with the same rhythm section—George Syran, Teddy Kotick and Nick Stabulas.
Phil and I worked with that rhythm section during the course of a couple of years, because we both worked at a place called The Nut Club, right at Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village; it was a strip club, and we were the house band. We had a lot of fun there. Actually, Phil Rafio played the piano at the beginning down at this place; George Syran came on later. For a while, J. R. Monterose worked on the band also.
For me, Phil Woods sounds just as great now as he did then. Yes, that’s for sure—he’s been a completely consistent player. I worked some jobs with Bird as well—a couple of Sunday afternoon concerts at the Open Door—and that was very instructive. But Phil was very young then, you know, and he was like a whole mountain—full of fire. Certainly, those recordings we made at that time weren’t bad at all.
When I left Gerry’s band in ‘57, I went back home for a while to Altuna, where I stayed for about four years. Of course, I had a few problems then—adjusting to different scenes and everything. Now, in 1956, I did a European tour with Gerry Mulligan, with Zoot Sims, Bobby Brookmeyer, Bill Crow and Dave Bailey—and I met my wife of today in Brussels at this time. I went back to the States, but I kept writing to her, though I didn’t come back. Finally, it got to the place where we decided: why just write? So I came back, and we’ve been together ever since—that was ‘63.
From ‘63 till ‘69 I was right around the Brussels area in Belgium. I worked with the Flemish TV orchestra for a time, and I did quite a few jazz concerts, such as one with Klaus Doldinger in Munich. For one of the Festivals, I wrote a number for seven trumpets; that was myself, Benny Bailey, Idries Suliemann, Jano Morales, Nick Fizette . . . Dusko Goykovich, I believe—it’s been quite a while now.
Anyhow, we lived around Brussels for about six years. Then, in ‘68 and ‘69, I was doing a lot of jazz gigs with a group known as the George Maycock Trio. And both of them–the pianist George Maycock and the drummer—Big Fletcher, that is—lived in Dusseldorf, Germany. They’re both originally from Panama, I think; they came to Germany with a show, in the ‘fifties some time, and liked it so well that they stayed there. I liked especially working with them, because they had that American feel, from swinging, you know.
We did quite a bit of playing here and there, and then in ‘69, I believe it was, we got a job in a jazz club in Dusseldorf, the Pork ‘n’ Beans, six nights a week—we stayed there for over seven months. Naturally, I met and got to know quite a number of German people there. And I liked it so very much the people, the language, everything that when there was an opening, that a saxophonist friend of mine told me about, with the Harold Banter Orchestra, with the West German Radio in Cologne, for a trumpet player, I was interested. I talked it over with my wife, and she said: “Well, why not? Go check it out.” So I went down to Cologne, tried out with the orchestra; everybody, including Mr. Banter, liked the way I played very much. and they asked me to join. This I did, and in the end moved my entire family from Belgium over to Cologne. I’ve been with that orchestra now since the beginning of ‘70.
I’ve been very happy there, really. They’ve given me quite a lot of solo work to do with the orchestra, and we’ve recorded some very interesting things, that I think you’d enjoy hearing. My contentment is mainly because of the fact that, after doing a great deal of travelling in my life, I can now settle down and relax in one place. I’m making a good living there. My children are growing up.
I would go back to America, but only for a slight jazz tour—maybe a few concerts, something like that. I don’t really have any intention of living there any more. My family have practically all passed away; so, other than the friends that I write to occasionally, I don’t have any reasons to go back. My life, I’m afraid, is as an expatriate–and I dig it, that’s all.
I love coming to England very much; well, actually, I’m an Englishman twice removed, because my family came from Stoke. The Englishness in my accent is something that my grandfather made sure of: every time I’d go there speaking like an American, he would threaten to give me a thick ear, you know. And my grandfather was as English as you can get, I’ll tell you—that’s definite. So coming here is really like returning to a natural habitat.
The question of whether jazz has made progress since the ‘forties and ‘fifties is a very interesting one. Let’s face it, there’s not as much being produced today as there was then, when you really come down to it. In the ‘forties and ‘fifties we had several giants, who came up and blossomed at the same time. Today, we have fantastic musicians as well, but they’re orientated into an entirely different scope. I don’t put today’s music down I think it’s great. Some of the things that I’ve heard from the States. .. like, for instance, Tom Scott, and New York rhythm sections with people like Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Dave Grusin—they’re fantastic musicians, and I appreciate listening to what they do. But it’s an entirely different thing to what the musicians did in the ‘forties and ‘fifties. At the same time, I imagine in fact, I’m sure—that these musicians that are recording with people like Tom Scott can play anything. They play what they’re playing today because it sells, you know. And I can say this much in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, they didn’t play it because it sold.
Now, Quincy Jones, as we know, has done some absolutely tremendous things, with the likes of Frank Rosolino, Hubert Laws, and complete orchestras. I mean, those are the good things that have come out of jazz recently, in my estimation. Of course, I hear Phil Woods every once in a while, on a transcription or something.
But there are hundreds of good young American players—people like Bill Watrous. In Germany, in the last two or three years, I’ve heard orchestras that come over from the States that are absolutely marvellous; Woody Herman, Buddy Rich—they’re superb orchestras. The young Americans—they play beautiful, but somehow they have a different orientation.
When the soloists play yes, they play good, correct, fine but there’s a little melodic warmth missing, that used to be there in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, and that made that extra little something that turned you on. Otherwise—as far as musicians and music are concerned, they’re fantastic.
When I listen to anybody who plays good, my feeling is: let him make a few mistakes; that doesn’t make any difference, but if he plays it from the heart, that’s something else. But today the thinking seems to be: you’re not allowed to make a mistake. It’s even the same way in Germany; they’re striving for perfection sometimes a little bit too much so. Jazz shouldn’t be like that; if you get a good feel from listening to somebody play, that’s the important thing—not exactly what he played, whether he was in tune, or whether he made any mistakes. What matters is the feel that comes out of the music, that conveys itself from him to you.
As for the electronic things today well, I’ve had some good feelings
from some heavy stuff like that.
But I think electronic attachments to the trumpet are a waste of time, personally. Now, you can go so far with the electronics; I’m talking about microphones, sound and so forth, but when you need echo devices, modulators and things like that—maybe they’re great on an electric piano, or for a singer, when used with taste. For the trumpet I can listen to about five minutes of such things, and then I don’t want to hear any more for at least another year. I just know that’s the way I feel about the trumpet. Now, don’t let me say that I don’t have any respect for Miles Davis, because he’s a fantastic trumpet player—but what he’s been doing recently, as far as I’m concerned, is rubbish. I’m sorry, that’s my feeling—I don’t get turned on from listening to him any more. I only hear a bunch of funny noises. Well—I’m entitled to my opinion.
There are certainly some very good trumpet players around today. One of the best is right here in Britain—Kenny Wheeler. And then again I’ve heard another one here who sounds very nice—Henry Lowther. In LA there’s Chuck Findley, and people like that. Sure, there are trumpet players around—but there are very few who can constantly get that warmth through like Kenny Wheeler does. Specially on that last album he did in the States with Keith Jarrett. That’s beautiful—I absolutely adore it.
To speak of my own recorded efforts—I have a new one out now on Spotlite . It’s a recording I did with just flugelhorn and piano, together with Mike Pyne. The majority of the tunes are old standards. I was very happy doing that, and I really do think it got a very good feeling.
In addition, I’ve done two other albums for Spotlite in the recent months. One was a quintet album with Pete King on saxophone, John Taylor on piano, Ron Mathewson on bass. And Mickey Roker was the drummer; he was in town at the time with Dizzy Gillespie, at Ronnie’s.
Then the most recent one I’ve done is with that wonderful pianist Al Haig. That as well was done with three British musicians—Allan Ganley was on drums, Daryll Runswick was on bass and Art Themen played saxophone. Al Haig and I played bits of sessions together in New York in earlier days, but we don’t remember where and when. But we knew each other’s playing; naturally, I knew Al’s—he always sounds beautiful. The feel was good on the album, I think; that should be coming out in the next few months also, you know. Yes, it’s very good that Al is back on the scene, after an interval; he’s sounding just as good as ever, too.
Recently, I’ve been doing quite a bit of flugelhorn playing. The Germans, where I work in Cologne, they like that flugelhorn very much; as a result, I’ve been recording a lot on it. Then again, overall more is being done on flugelhorn today than was done before.
My recent short tour here, which included such London venues as the Seven Dials and the Bull’s Head, was with, basically, Pete King, Mike Pyne, Peter Ind and Allan Ganley, and it was certainly a lot of fun. After going back to Germany for four days’ work, I returned again to visit Tony Williams of Spotlite Records and his family at their home, with my entire family. In fact, we spent Christmas here—which we enjoyed immensely.
I’ve had a beautiful arrangement as well, since I’ve been put in contact with Dick Knowles, from the Jazz Centre Society. The JCS set up both of my recent trips for me, and they’ve really done a beautiful job. I’m so very happy to know them, to be in contact, and be able to do some things here in Britain. It makes me feel very good.
Dick Knowles and I have already talked about me doing another round of concerts here in the Spring; so I’m looking forward to that.
Copyright © 1978 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.