The musical aspect

A memorable group
The musical aspect
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1973

Naturally, living in Britain with my family for four–and–a–half years left me with quite a few impressions. Really, the thing that makes me the happiest is that it gave me the opportunity to bring my children into a fairly stable society. We came over here at the time of the riots in America. My daughters have had the four–and–a–half years of schooling in England; if you had known them before and see them now, you see the difference it made in their personalities and their characters. For the rest of my life I will be grateful for the hospitality that I’ve been shown in this country.

As for the musical aspect . . . if I may say things in a very open way that may appear to be critical, I don’t mean them to be, because I don’t believe that when you’re a guest in someone’s house you should offer criticism. But I am a jazz musician, as well as a jazz critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and I can make a few comments.

I noticed that there is a very live British jazz scene, but what depressed me was that very often there is either a lack of appreciation of many of the musicians, probably because they’re British and not American, or it goes to the other extreme. Sometimes there’s a tendency to over–praise someone because he is British. And in either of those extremes it’s just bad for the artist. I understand the reasons for it, though.

Another thing is that many of the jazz artists, probably all of them to an extent, are very much influenced by what is happening in the States jazzwise. This, I think, can be very unfortunate, and I refer specifically to the avant garde movement. Because it’s my considered opinion that it’s not really a valid movement in jazz.

It’s a movement away from jazz. For British or any other European musicians or anyone outside the United States to be influenced by it, is a very sad mistake. I’m sure there are going to be people who don’t agree with that, but they’ll usually be people who somehow or other are involved in the avant garde.

You can hear a thousand definitions of what jazz is, but one definition that you’ll always hear is that it swings. As Mr. Ellington says: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Well, one thing I notice about the avant garde: it doesn’t swing. Therefore to call it jazz is, in some cases, misguided; in others, it’s pure charlatanism, chicanery—just phoney posing. I think it will pass, but in the meantime it will have caught in its snare many otherwise promising musicians, some of whom may be ruined for ever by it.

By and large, though, I find that the people in this country who are good jazz musicians are, able to absorb what they want from the avant garde movement–like the execution, the width of ideas and so forth–but they continue, to swing. And there are some very, very wonderful musicians in Britain.

As a matter of fact, one of them, a pianist named Reg Powell, whom I like to say I discovered, is now Lou Rawls’ musical director. I gave him to Lou to take to America; he and his family are very happy there now. I found him in the Pickwick Club; he was there with a trio when I went to work there. I also discovered a guy on bass there, named Daryll Runswick.

When I brought Reg Powell and Daryll Runswick into Ronnie Scott’s, with a guy named Bill Moody, who’s an American drummer, married to an English girl here, I received comments from certain people in the club such as: “Where did you find these guys?” and “Someone of your stature ought not to be playing with guys like these.” And now, as I say, Reg is doing very well, and Daryll is one of the most in–demand bassists around.

So I think people have a tendency not to be able to see their own artists. They make the mistake of overlooking what’s right under their nose all the time.

There’s also something that I’ve seen here, that perhaps I ought to ignore, but as a newspaper reporter myself, I can’t ignore—and I don’t really want to ignore it. It’s the fact that there are many musicians who are from the West Indies that I’ve never known to play in the major jazz places. That’s a very sad and tragic thing. It’s not that they’re not worthy. You know, there’s a bass player named Coleridge Goode, who’s definitely as good and much better than many bassists—I’ve never seen him, say, in Ronnie’s. And that’s some kind of an oversight that I’d like to see corrected.

Frankly, this is a dangerous and unhealthy situation, I was very surprised, when I had to do my “Evolution Of The Blues” at Hampstead Theatre Club. They told me that for purposes of the staging of the story it would be better if I got together a group of good Negro musicians. Well, having worked at Ronnie’s for five years, I had never really come across any, and didn’t think there were any.

But on investigation, I found that not only are there some but there are some extremely good ones—who have never had calls from the club; nor do they anticipate it. Which I think is just damn foolishness, and something ought to be done about that. Of course, I’m stirring up a hornets’ nest, probably, but I believe that I would rather speak the truth on this earth than have someone’s good–will. If what I say that’s true makes anyone angry, they ought to check their own thinking on the subject.

It’s not that I didn’t expect to find prejudice here, because I know it’s a condition of humanity existing everywhere in the world. Nonetheless, it’s still distressing, especially in a music like jazz, which is relatively free of it in the States. Sure, they have plenty of American Negro musicians playing for London audiences, but they ought to pay attention to their own, too, you see.

This is a kind of blindness. People are inclined to deprecate what’s natural to the home country when they’re embracing an art form that originates elsewhere. It’s the same in the States with acting. For years the only Shakespearean actors seen on American stages came from England; they ignored the fact that there were actors in America who could, and do, do Shakespeare very well.

It’s not that anybody is trying to do these things calculatedly—that I really don’t believe. I think it’s just a matter of not really looking properly at home.

I mean, I’ve been here long enough to know there’s tremendous talent, right here. In many instances, you don’t have to go anywhere to find anybody better. For example, Pete King on alto—to me, he’s an absolutely superb jazz musician, wherever he comes from and in whatever country he may be. He doesn’t need any labels, like: “Well, he’s good for an Englishman” and all that stuff; it doesn’t apply.

On the accepted British jazz scene, about the only Negro musician is Harold Beckett, but there are a lot of other guys. Russ Henderson is a great pianist; another West Indian piano player, who did this thing with me at Hampstead, is Ignatius Quail. He’s one of the finest pianists I’ve heard any place. He can play stride, like James P. Johnson; he can make those wild runs like Art Tatum. He’s superb, and if I hadn’t had to discover him for my “Evolution” show, I would have remained ignorant of this man. People should be able to hear him in a top–notch jazz club; that’s where he belongs. As it is, he plays in a strip joint. It’s the most remarkable and criminal waste of good jazz talent that I’ve seen in years. There should be some effort made to find out who the musicians are. Somebody should put on blinders and just listen with their ears. There’s some really wonderful guys here, who can play, that you never hear about.

Anyway, I went back to the States for one month–and I stayed for six. I got back to New York at the height of the Newport Jazz Festival.

We did the “Evolution Of The Blues” in Town Hall; I had Illinois Jacquet, Milt Buckner and Jo Jones, plus Leonard Gaskin on bass and Russell Jacquet on trumpet. We had a marvellous time. Also I had a girl dancer, Sandra Macpherson, who broke the show up, and a brilliant male dancer from one of the Broadway shows. That was on July 4th—a wonderful experience.

Then I went to Monterey and staged the “Evolution” there, on September 16th—that was just great. I had a band composed of John Lewis on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Louie Bellson on drums, Mundell Lowe on guitar, with a front–line of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Mr. Clark Terry. So I called it the Clean–Clark–Ron–John–Mundey–Louie Big Time Jazz Band! In addition I had a choir consisting of a hundred young people, called the Seaside Community Gospel Choir. Plus the voices of Miss Bessie Griffin, Jimmy Witherspoon and Joe Williams.

We had originally gone to America because my wife’s sister had a child, and she wanted to be present at the birth; then, after these two events were over, Judy and I suddenly realised that—through no design of our own—we had performed our entire family show (my three daughters are in the show, as well as my wife and myself) on two auspicious occasions, July 4th being my wife’s birthday and September 16th being my birthday.

I worked in several clubs while I was there, and I found that a healthy revival of jazz is going on. And I’ll be spending much more time there now than I have in the last four–and–a–half years—it having taken four years for me to get my residence here in Britain. Now I’ll be able to go and come much more easily.

We have a house in Mill Valley, outside San Francisco. It’s a huge and very beautiful old house, with a half–acre of land; it was built in 1905, and withstood the earthquake of 1906. We had been renting it to someone else for the duration of our stay here; we went and fixed it up again, and we intend to move back into it, so that we can enjoy our house for a change. As I said earlier, I’ve now taken a job in jazz journalism, which I’ve always loved. Of course, writing about jazz is no problem.

While here, I’ve also been picked up every morning at 9.30 and taken out to Twickenham Studios, to work on a movie all day. I’m writing material for Georgie Fame; he’s making a film with Olivia Newton–John. He’ll be doing five of my songs, that he’s done before “Moanin”, “Cloudburst”, “Yeh Yeh”, “Li’l Darlin’ ” and “Feed Me”; I’ll provide two extra original pieces for him, plus some linking dialogue and that type of stuff.

I’ve enjoyed it, except that it was very tiring to work all day at Twickenham, come home, get a few hours sleep, then go to Ronnie’s and work into the early morning. But I’ve made it okay. And I like very much writing in that capacity; I find it interesting to be behind the scenes and let someone else do the performing. Also seeing how they put a show together. The writers play the main part; without them nothing can move—not the choreographer, the director or producer—it’s the most important job.

And I enjoy being in the production department, having lunch with John Schlesinger and Richard Lester, and seeing other people who are also busy on films. I like it a lot.

Certainly, there were marked differences in the States. For example, when I left, all the managers and agents were white people, who can often take a very prejudiced view if, like me, you have what they refer to as an inter–marriage—my wife being Jewish. To me, those kind of things are for children. I regard mankind as one family, but I realise that’s a minority opinion, and that there are people who have very insidious thoughts on that, who can go out of their way to harm you. However, when I went back this time, my agent, my manager, my lawyer and my accountant were all blacks. And responsible, and doing very well. I found that a very healthy sign; they were more respectful towards me, more honest to me—it was very much better. There’s a viable and active film industry dealing in black movies—most of which I don’t think are worth very much artistically, or even culturally.

But they do at least give black artists work. One that I thought was a great work of art was Buck And The Preacher, with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.

And I’ve just seen Lady Sings The Blues, which I can’t say enough about—it’s just a most magnificent film.

Many people are going to criticise it, because it’s not completely true to the life of Billie Holiday, but, in showing what a Negro woman goes through in the United States, it’s superb. And it also puts on the screen aspects of Negro life that no one’s ever seen in a film before, anywhere in the world. As for Diana Ross—she has won my complete respect. She’s fantastic. Her performance is just beautiful—sympathetic, and really artistic. I was surprised, I must say; I had no idea.

The contribution of Michel Legrand to the film was movie music, to link dramatic scenes together. When it came to the music that she did, there was someone else who did that; I don’t know who, but it was true to the idiom—hip, funky, jazzy and beautifully done. They probably picked Michel on some kind of a package deal; maybe he owed Paramount a picture.

Mr. Gordy deserves everyone’s respect, because he didn’t let Michel or anyone intrude on the authenticity of the Negro sequences; he kept them very true. When she does the scene in the club—I’ve worked in clubs exactly like that. And I’ve known owners like that. He was a Jewish man up in Harlem; well, this is what went on—the one ethnic group that moved into the Negro areas and did business were the Jews, probably because they’re aware of their own African heritage, and they’ve always been sympathetic to us in one way or another. Many of the people who took a social position in favour of Negroes were Jewish, probably remembering the fact that they themselves have been persecuted for so many years.

It’s been the same in England. If it hadn’t been for Benjamin Disraeli and the house of Rothschild, it would still be true in England, of the people of Jewish extraction. It was the need of money to fight Napoleon at Waterloo, and the fact that they got it from the Rothschilds, that made it possible for Rothschild to insist that the Jewish people became citizens and had the respect that everyone else had. So that scene was very authentic, very warm, very real. I enjoy seeing and hearing someone tell the truth. They’ve never told anything near the true story before: this was the nearest thing I’ve ever seen.

He really is a great man, that Berry Gordy Jr. His method of earning his money upset everybody’s mind, you know; he disguised it very well. They thought he really was the teeny–bop type of a man he was pretending to be. But, in fact, he’s very serious and very artistic. He pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes; he made his money, and then he did his work of art. And so did Diana Ross. I think they’re great people.

Because you have to hide from people to do anything decent; otherwise they’re not going to let you do it. You have to disguise it. Like they did in a picture called The Ruling Class. If you stood up on a soapbox and said what they said about the ruling class in England, you’d be put in jail. But you have Peter O’Toole acting crazy in a picture, and you can say all these things. That’s wonderful, I think; you have to find ways of telling the truth artistically, that don’t get these people’s dander up. And that’s very difficult, too, because it’s not easy to say nothing for two–and–a–half hours. Which most of them have succeeded in doing very well!

Copyright © 1973, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved