A memorable group
The musical aspect
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1968
I guess people will always associate me with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. It sure was a memorable group. You know, the way we were organised was really quite accidental. We had no intention of having a regular vocal group; we were just doing that one album, ‘Sing A Song Of Basie”. We had 13 singers, but they didn’t work out; so we hired Annie and we multitracked.
Annie started hanging out at Dave Lambert’s, where I was living. She was making pretty good money, working on the Patrice Munsel TV show on ABC in the States. Dave and I were starving. Annie would come around every day, and we’d just sit around and talk. We didn’t quite know why we were meeting; we had nothing in rehearsal. I guess making that album, being so close together for six months just created some kind of bond between us.
One day when we were particularly broke—Dave had 13 cents: I had 17 cents—I picked up a Down Beat, and I saw that “Sing A Song Of Basie” was No. 13 in the country. So I said: “Hey, we got a best–selling album. Look, what are we sitting here starving for? Why don’t we go and sing?” Dave and Annie looked at each other, you know. Because I didn’t think about what I had said. At that time there hadn’t been so much talk of integration, or the freedom rides and all the things that have happened to divide people and bring to the fore this idea of different races and all that. I wasn’t thinking in terms of social life, but in terms of music and art.
They didn’t say anything; they just laughed. But I kept badgering them: “Why shouldn’t we sing together?” Finally, after about an hour, Dave says: “Well, look—if you can get us a gig, we’ll make it.” I called a friend of Dave’s, as a matter of fact; he had a club in West New York, New Jersey, called the Bankers’ Club. It had been a bank before it was converted to a night club. And he offered us 25 dollars a night for a weekend—Friday, Saturday, Sunday. The pianist was Al Haig, who was just making his return to the scene after his illness.
We got up and sang our songs, and it was such a sensation that the guy gave us ten dollars extra apiece. Our next gig, which we made on the Greyhound ‘bus. was in Pittsburgh. We never stopped working after that: but nobody had dreamed it could happen.
It was a strange–looking group to be walking out on a stage in the States. An AngIo–Saxon descendant of John Haldane (Dave’s name was David Haldane Lambert, a real Yankee), a girl from England of Scottish descent, and an American Negro descended from a slave. Very weird, really. So they would all look at us; but when we started to sing, everything else disappeared. It was just magic that was created. The people who asked us what we were doing—they were usually those who wouldn’t have understood, even if we could have explained it. The same ones who asked a cat like Bird what he was doing. Most people who heard us didn’t know, but they had enough sensitivity to let the feeling move them. But some people are not only insensitive—they’re just base. They’re in a great minority, though. We only met it a couple of times. There was a guy came up to me in Indianapolis, very a red–faced and belligerent, and said: “I don’t like your group! ” I smiled, patted him, said: “Thank you very much”, walked away and left him there. He was very nonplussed: he had nothing to vent his anger on. You can turn anger around with love, and wipe it out. But if you go against it, then it feeds itself.
Nobody can really ever mistreat me; I simply don’t accept it. I know who I am and what I am. My knowledge of myself cannot be shaken; I’m immune to such things. They can do whatever they want, but I’m always sitting there feeling sorry. for them. I only get incensed at the mistreatment of somebody else.
As to the insensitive critic, who will insinuate that I do what I do because talking I am a frustrated instrumentalist—this always makes me wonder what is in the mind of the person. What is he up to? Because I studied journalism for many years, and I know what a journalist is supposed to do. If you’re going to be a symphonic critic, you have to know how to read a symphonic score: you should know the art of conducting; at least theoretically; you should know the facts of the lives of most of the composers. There are requisites. Plus you have to have an uplifting attitude towards the art form in which you’re functioning as a critic. It’s the same with movies; you should know about angles of cameras. casting. Directing, a smattering of film technique. But anybody with a big mouth and access to a newspaper can be a jazz critic.
If a critic played, he would know that when you’re up on the stage you’re trying to engender warmth, beauty and contentment in the audience. And if you succeed in doing this, then there can be nothing wrong with what you’ve done. It’s just damn foolishness to suggest that there is. One thing I do is please audiences. If people are liking it and applauding, you’re succeeding fin your objective, which is to bring them happiness.
I read a review of me the other day, and I didn’t recognise me there. My picture was there; that’s all I recognised. None of it had to do with what my work really is. That’s amazing. And he said something that purported to be a view of mine, which was, in fact. diametrically opposed to my view. He suggested that I act like a horn because I have come to the conclusion that most of the lyrics of jazz standards are not worth singing anyway. Well. that couldn’t be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, I would rather sing the average lyric to a jazz tune than sing any pop song you can name. And so would he if he were honest with himself. Because at least you’re singing a poem, rather than a bunch of happy doggerel.
I know I have tremendous talent as a lyricist. This is something that I know, not from ego, but from my work that’s been published and accepted by the world. If he’s angry at this, he should say so to himself, so that he can review me objectively, and include some mention of my actual singing. There’s no instrumental music that wasn’t meant to have words. I believe that if you could talk to any composer—Bach, Brahms, Beethoven—they would tell you : “Oh yes, if I could find words, I would love to have them.” Every composer that writes a piece of music would love, I’m sure, to have words to his music. They’re just not lyricists: they’re musicians. Monk told me this, you know: he says every song he writes he’s thinking in terms of words for it eventually. I think with every musician words and music go together. Sibelius: “The marriage of words and music is a magical thing.” And it is.
I call it translating, really. If you translate a novel from Russian into English, you have to get the Vulgate inflections in the one language and transfer them to the other language. Not just a literal translation. I try to translate the feeling of the music lyrically.
That’s why I’ve been successful at it; it’s because I pay close attention to the music, I don’t just rhyme the words to fit the metre. I try to feel the music out. And, in doing this, I create such a new thing in itself that some of the musicians don’t even recognise what I’ve done. Like at Newport one time Buck Clayton told me: “Hey, that thing you did on ‘Goin’ To Chicago’ was one of the most beautiful things I ever heard.” I said: “I only put words to what you played.” He said: “Did I play that?” You know—the words were so incisively and instinctively applied that he lost track of his own music and was wrapped up in my words.
Which is something of which I’m very proud. Well, not proud, really, because it’s a gift. I no more know how I do it than anybody. I’m just thankful that I have the gift—when I have it. Sometimes I sit down deliberately to write a song—nothing; I just get up and leave the paper blank, But when I’m moved, the words flow.
For example, I was in Salt Lake City shortly before I came to Europe and I heard a song on a jukebox at the place where I was working. I said: “What is that? It sounds like Bags with an orchestra.” I looked on this jukebox, found the number and it said “Home” by the Modern Jazz Quartet. So I put 25 cents in and played it three times; then I put another quarter in, and learned it. And I went right in the back room and wrote the words. I heard ‘em when I listened to that music and saw the title was “Home”. It was all there.
It was so home–y, that tune—it sounded like home. I thought it must be written by Milt Jackson. In fact, the next night at the job I was on, I did it, and announced that it was by Milt.
Then I found out that John Lewis wrote it. He went back home! It’s beautiful. I phoned John from San Francisco (he was in New York) and I sang it to him on the telephone. He just laughed, you know; he was very happy.
There’s some talk of me recording here soon; Donovan is going to record me for CBS. And one of the things I want to do is to write a song, sing it on tape, scat on it, and then write lyrics to my scat solo. So far I’ve only done that mentally, created my own improvisation for a lyrical purpose. I haven’t had time. As much as time is my friend, it’s my enemy, too. It’s my friend, inasmuch as I spend a lot of time working, but it’s an enemy of creativity, However, now that I’m living in a less frantic, more civilised community, I will do it.
Copyright © 1968, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved