The primary purpose
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1980
My tour as a soloist with Lionel Hampton’s band the year before last led to Curtis Fuller and I doing a feature spot with Lionel last year, and that was what led Curtis and I appearing this year as Giant Bones ’80. This five–piece group has made an album for Sonet; we’re recording again soon, and we’ll be going on working together as time progresses. There’s really no relationship with the old Jay and Kai group, outside of the fact that it’s a two–trombone thing. That was then; this is now.
Throughout my career I’ve been associated with multiple trombone situations; for several years I had a group that was composed of four trombones with rhythm. This is just a different extension of it.
Of course, there have been a lot of groupings of this kind, such as two trumpets or two saxophones or whatever. However, two trombones seem to be very compatible; somehow, the musical blend is a very warm sound—and a very exciting one, in many ways. If you’re going to have two identical instruments as a duo within the framework of jazz, two trombones create a particularly good ambiance. That’s why I’m looking forward to the British tour I’m doing in October with my dear friend Don Lusher.
For the past three years, I’ve made my home in Spain. I do not perform there that much; on occasion I do—Madrid and Barcelona are the main cities, where the main activity is, as far as jazz is concerned. But I did not move to Spain with the idea in mind of working there; no, I live there, and I work elsewhere. I work throughout Europe, as well as in the United States; I go to the States once or twice a year to do a tour–in between, I relax and enjoy myself.
I’ve lived in the States most of my life, of course–mostly in New York City, which is where I grew up. In ‘69, I moved to California. I like Spain very much; I’d been there many times, and about five years ago I went for the first time to the Southern part, to the Costa Del Sol. My wife and I enjoyed it very much, and decided that we might some day want to live there. Some day became today. Fortunately, it ties in with the operation of what I’m doing now professionally–which is just playing jazz.
I was involved in commercial forms of music in the States for many, many years–producing records, being a musical director, being many different things besides a jazz musician. Finally, I arrived at the point where I decided I no longer wanted to do these particular things, that were not really related to my primary purpose. I said: “Well, this is it”. And it doesn’t matter where I live, because I have an international reputation.
It’s just as easy to get from Spain to England, say, as it is to get to England from New York or California. I decided on Spain because, first of all, I like the climate—which is very comparable to Southern California. Most of my life I’ve lived in the Northern climes, and suffered the discomforts of the cold. Since I have my options as to where I can live I choose where I’m comfortable –in the sunshine.
As for my work with Chuck Mangione—Chuck and I have been friends for a long, long time; we go back to when he was a young lad of eleven or twelve years old, and his father brought him into a jazz club that I was playing in, in his home town—Rochester, New York. This happened to be a situation where Sunday afternoons we had a matinee; it was when I had my trombone band. A gentleman came up with this young boy, and said: “Would you let my boy sit in and play trumpet? He plays very well.” I thought to myself: “Oh–oh, here’s another one of those situations.” Anyway, he mentioned that his son had sat in with Dizzy Gillespie; Dizzy, of course, is my contemporary, and we sort of grew up in music together–so I figured if he had sat in and played with Dizzy, there must be something happening, I said: “Sure–why not? Let him play a couple of numbers.” Which he did –and it was clear that he had a lot of talent.
Through the years, whenever I used to come to Rochester, I’d see Chuck and his family. I told Chuck: “When you finally decide to become a professional musician—if you ever come to New York, look me up.” Which he did, some years later, and again he played with me–this time in a different context, that of a big band. Later still, when he started to be involved in recording, and came to California when I was living there, we again established contact. He started to record for A & M Records, which is a California–based company; at that time, back in the ‘seventies, I was involved in production, and this and that. He asked me if I’d get together personnel for him, to record his things, and we had an association for several years, where I was coordinating his orchestras. Yes, I’d play too, on occasion.
I think Chuck is a very special musician. Of course, he grew up being very much influenced by . . . when I say “our kind of music’, I mean the Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie era that I was involved in, that we all contributed to. Although he is from a more recent generation, he still retains the basic values of the quality of the music that we produced and that we created.
Not only that–Chuck’s talent as a composer is quite unique, in that he has this simplicity to the music he writes. I don’t mean that in a derogatory manner–I mean that the melodies he creates prove that you don’t have to be complicated to write good music. His melodies are very valid musically, first of all; secondly, they have a certain appeal. If you have a capacity for appreciating music, you hear some of Chuck’s things once, and they stay with you –you retain them. Many of us write music, of course, and it can be great in many respects–but there’s a special gift, of writing something that immediately is retained. Chuck has that gift. To speak of the trombone, and the advances made on it–I’ve written my first book; it relates to my method of playing. As I say, for many years, within the jazz idiom, the trombone was looked upon as an instrument with limitations. In the pre-bop era, it was really sort of a secondary melodic instrument somehow. With the advent of bebop, when the lines became more technical and required more ability than the normal procedure of trombone playing, then guys like myself, J.J. and many others came along and changed the whole concept of technique on the instrument. The people who became fans and advocates of what we were doing realised that this could be done; so I suppose we pioneered this direction. Today, of course, it’s very common for trombonists to be able to play as fast, and to do things technically just as easily and with as much facility as someone with a saxophone or any keyed instrument. This book has been a very interesting project; it’s called “The Kai Winding Method of Improvisation”. What I do is explain my approach, not only technically but harmonically, and I deal with all of the phases that encompass the way I play jazz—such as breathing, for instance. The tonguing techniques are specially important. You see, being that on trombone we do not have the valves or the keys, so that we can manually execute, we have to rely entirely on the tonguing concept—along with the slide, of course. Ninety per cent or more of it is within the tonguing aspect of the execution. What I go into in depth in my book is a completely revolutionary form of articulation in brass instrument playing. We refer to it as doodle–tonguing. Rather than the legitimate “ta–ca–ta–ca–ta–ca–taca” form of tonguing, we go into the “doodle oodle oodle oodle oodle oo”, which is much faster. It’s one of the first books where this has really been analysed to perfection.
This concept applies to trumpet as well. As a matter of fact, I was talking to Clark Terry recently—he’s been a very good friend of mine for many, many years. Apparently, he has also written a book—which I wasn’t aware of—where he explains his approach to this type of tonguing. When he saw my book, he said that it was very close to what he’d put down in his book. So it seems we’re on the same track.
I wouldn’t say I’ve necessarily developed any different technique with the slide. The slide is just the mechanical part of the trombone. With the slide positions, it really works as a violin does. Of course, we have what are called alternate positions; we utilise nuances by this means, but, again, it is purely a mechanical situation. A note can be accomplished in so many positions, and it’s just a matter of choosing them, within the framework of the keys and the harmonics you are working with. But the important thing really is the articulation-the tonguing. Well, the breathing, which actually precedes the articulation. We must breathe to play-as we must breathe to live: Foundation What is very important is the way we maintain our air column; this is the secret to all musical accomplishment on the brass instrument. It’s like speaking: when we say a long sentence, we must have enough breath to complete it—then if we have to sneak a breath in the middle, we have to. Breathing properly is the complete foundation. One of the major parts of the book I’ve written deals with the proper type of breathing. It’s a natural approach, and most professional brass players do it instinctively. For the novice, there’s a certain way of thinking about it, and concentrating on where the breath originates and how to sustain it. Everything is founded on keeping that air column going. Beyond that is the tonguing, which is the articulation; then beyond that is the sound that you create on your instrument.
And beyond the whole thing is your head-your thinking. So it’s quite an involved concept, As for mouthpieces—you know, so many players get into a situation where they think a mouthpiece is going to save them, or create something beyond their expectations. But the answer is not the mouthpiece, not the instrument—it’s the person. You must play the instrument; it does not play itself. The mouthpiece is merely a tool.
The bass trombone is quite a separate thing. In order to really be a proficient bass trombone player, I think you must almost start out on that instrument-or at least, you must get to it at an early stage. It’s a much bigger instrument, as far as bore is concerned; it takes a completely different concept, as regards putting air into it and creating a sound. It has its own tonality; it is actually an instrument to its own.
There are many, many very proficient players of it, and most of them have either started on the bass trombone, or decided at a very early age to specialise in it. It takes a much bigger mouthpiece, it takes much more air, much more concentration in the lower register. Whereas, in the tenor trombone range there’s much less air space to cover.
Of course, bass trombone is primarily used within a section of trombones, or in a large orchestra where you have the whole spectrum. You go below when you get into your tubas and things like that, ,but within the trombone/trumpet range, you have your bass trombone on the bottom. It’s very interesting, within jazz . . . I think the early stages of it was the era when I was with Stan Kenton—-the mid–‘forties. Kenton was one of the first jazz bands of renown to use five trombones to begin with—and, of course. the fifth trombone was a bass trombone. Which, up until that time, was pretty much an instrument that was not seen in jazz bands. Big bands usually had three, or four, trumpets with two, or three, trombones—and they were all tenor trombones. Before Kenton, I had played with Benny Goodman and many other bands where we basically had three trombones, or if we did have four, it would be four tenors.
But from time to time Kenton started using the bass, and the idea expanded. Some of the great bass trombone players came out of Kenton’s band. Bart Varsalona was the original one, who was in the band I was in, and George Roberts became one of the deans of the instrument. Of course, now it’s common for any kind of big band to have a bass trombone.
For improvisation, the tenor trombone has it—although, obviously there are bass trombone players who improvise. That’s an interesting point too, because there are not that many, to my knowledge, who really utilise that lower range of the trombone for improvisational playing. In my experience with my trombone groups, I had several players who did specialise in that. In other words, it’s a very versatile instrument; even though it’s essentially built for that register, with proper training and everything, you can still get quite a high range on it. To me, of course, that defeats the purpose; the higher range of the bass trombone thins out, and then you may as well play a tenor trombone. However there should be more players who improvise in that natural register; I mean from middle B flat below middle C down all the way to the pedals.
There are many of them, I know, and I have seen some of them when they went through my bands—but that is a beautiful range of the instrument. I find that a lot of bass trombone players want to play way up there above middle F—up to the high B flat and above that. But why play bass trombone if you play that high? Get down into that register. The same thing with tenor trombone, of course.
Okay, I play within the range of my instrument. There are many, many trombone players who play altissimo high B flat and well above it. I don’t—I’m not capable of it, and I have no desire to do it. Many of them who do it, play beautifully; I love to hear them, but to me the range of the trombone is that from low B flat to high B flat—and a fourth above, if you want to go that high. That’s where the beauty is—if you want to play above that, play the trumpet or some other instrument. But—to each his own, I guess. I admire guys who play three octaves above it; if that’s what they want to do, that’s fine. One of the prime examples of what I’m talking about was a very good friend of mine, Bobby Hackett. I loved the way he played his instrument within its range. His range on cornet, or trumpet, was probably no more than two octaves, at the most and the things he did within those two octaves were magnificent. You know, you don’t have to go beyond that. It’s a matter of staying within your limits, or your desires, whatever. Each instrument has, I think, its limitations. And the sound; to me, the sound of the trombone is the middle register.
That’s the way I hear it. You have to play what you hear; if you hear it above or below-that’s great. Perhaps there are areas that I don’t know about—but I know the way I feel comfortable, within my capability and the way I feel. My range is what I play, together with the importance of the sound. So many people are so concerned about technique and superficial things; anyone can play twice as fast as whatever.
What is overlooked too often is the quality; what really matters is getting a beautiful sound and filling your instrument with it.
Copyright © 1980, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.