Blowing the bugle for Britain
|Talking to Les Tomkins in 1987||
Photo: Jim Simpson
Well, Kenny, having been a great admirer of your work for a long time, it seems remarkable that I haven’t done a one-to-one interview with you before now.
You’ve been threatening it, though, haven’t you?
Yes! We finally made it. Anyway—you keep as active as you’ve ever done? Maybe more so.
Yes—more so. I enjoy everything I am doing at the present time—studio work, things with Don Lusher’s big band. We had a lovely lunchtime set at the Barbican the other day, with Don, Bill Le Sage, Terry Jenkins—the people really liked it. I’m going to Margam in Wales to do a concert with NYJO; next week we’re going to Leeds to do a television show with Don; then the Wigan Jazz Festival. So I move around a bit.
Are you actually playing more jazz than anything else?
I think so—yes. I still do a fair amount of studio work—but I prefer working to a live audience. And if I can do jazz dates, and be paid for it, so much the better.
Has the studio thing fallen off to any degree?
No—it’s become more erratic; I think all the boys are still working, but it’s a much more erratic situation. Probably the work has fallen off a little; in days gone by, not so long ago, we used to have a chance of maybe doing three sessions a day throughout the week, and you could work quite hard. Now, I think we’re all keen to take a little time off; so if the work doesn’t come in, the bank manager might be sad, but some of us are quite pleased to be able to go out and play golf or have a bit of free time.
How have you found the input of younger players to the general scene in recent years? Has there always been a good supply of new blood?
There must be. I’ve worked with NYJO and a lot of the other youth 20 orchestras, and you’ll suddenly find, a little later, you’re working with a drummer in a session, and you say: “I remember you . ..”—he says: “Yes, I was with NYJO” or whatever. There’s obviously an input from the younger people coming in. As for the standard today—it’s very good. Even in the brass band world, there’s some very fine younger players working alongside the older fraternity. And in the youth orchestras you get a lot of girls who have taken up instruments now—excellent flute, excellent piano, excellent cellos, everything—there’s a lot of them, with a very high standard.
So it’s a healthy situation, you’d say.
It is, but I just wonder where they’re all going to work. Mind you, we’ve got a particularly healthy situation in the West End now, with the theatres, as against the studios, because there’s a lot of shows—and they use a lot of musicians. Which is a good thing.
I believe you worked recently with Gerry Mulligan, didn’t you?
That was San Remo. The agent from Italy rang me up about this Peace Orchestra that Gerry was putting on—a mixture of Continental, American and English musicians. When I got over there, I found he was doing a concert in San Remo, where there was a big festival, and a television show. And the trumpet section was myself from England, Dusko Goykovic from Yugoslavia, Jerry van Rooyen’s brother, Ack van Rooyen from Holland, and a young Italian trumpet player who played tremendous flugel, whose name I can’t remember. The trombones were from America, Germany, etc., and Gerry brought his own rhythm section over—they were tremendous. And Gerry himself is playing fabulous these days—a lot of soprano as well as the baritone.
Did he know you and choose you himself?
He knew of me, and I have a feeling he chose me. I don’t know exactly how it came about—but I was glad to be able to go over and do it. I was playing lead mainly—I left all the solos to the other guys, who were all very good.
How did you enjoy that Ellington concert at the Albert Hall the other day?
Another challenge—it was quite nice, yes. I think it’s always good when people put bands in front of an audience, whatever they do. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t—on the whole, I think that worked quite well.
To speak of your overall career now, Kenny: you came from the North, of course.
Yes, from Yorkshire—a good place to come from! No, I still go back there occasionally. I was very fortunate, in fact, because my mother was a musician, my father played the saxophone, clarinet and things, and my uncle played in the local brass band—so there were always instruments around the house. And my mother found out at an early age for me that I had the ear; she said: “You’re going to be a musician” and that was it. She made me practice. I tried the piano, the violin, the saxophone, the clarinet, the accordion—and eventually somebody gave me a cornet. 1 found that the best one of the lot; so I stayed with it.
And you gravitated into your natural musical idiom.
It’s funny—I always feel my people wanted me to be an orchestral player. My mother loved opera and all that stuff. I’d started in the brass band, and it wasn’t until a friend of mine suddenly played me an early Ellington, then an early Louis . . . as soon as I heard it, I thought: “To hell with this symphonic world—I want to play that”—that’s what did it. I mean, Louis has always been a great influence, right through my career. And I’m sure he’s been an influence on all other trumpet players that have followed since.
You’ll hear Louis in a lot of players; they never sound like Louis, because there’s only one sound, and that’s him. Nobody else can copy his sound—but they pinch all his phrases, and twist them around.
The advent of bebop more or less coincided with your being hailed as a new young trumpet talent in British jazz. What were your initial thoughts about that development?
Oh, I loved it—I thought: “Hello, what’s all this?” And when Charlie Parker came on the scene, that was marvellous. I mean, there was a lot of rubbish, until it sorted itself out. Miles is rather strange these days, but I still admire Dizzy—he’s a one-off. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting Dizzy and working with him, and I think he’s a delightful character. Yeah, great.
Talking of characters—the Ted Heath band had a fair quota of them, didn’t it? Including yourself.
Oh yes—there were some good characters in that band. But the nice thing about the original Heath band, when we first started . . . we’d been fortunate, during the war, hearing the original Miller band that was stationed over here, plus the Sam Donahue band, which had Conrad Gozzo, Johnny Best, Frankie Beach—the best trumpet section I’ve ever heard in my life; I’ve never heard anything as good since—they were all tremendous players. We used to follow the band around. Fortunately, I worked occasionally with the Squadronaires, and we used to do double concerts with the Donahue band. Then the next minute we’d be over to catch the Miller band, and having a blow with Mel Powell, Peanuts Hucko and people like that. So all that brushed off, and when Ted started his band, all the boys that had heard all this, plus the pre-war music, had seen the Miller and Donahue bands working, and said: “That’s the way we ought to go.” I think Ted wanted purely a Miller-type band, but it didn’t work that way in the beginning. Luckily, the fans loved what we did, and we were all very, very keen to make it work; everybody worked very hard.
Well, you started to put some things in, like “Bakerloo Non-Stop”, which added some excitement to the music.
We were starting concerts, and looking for vehicles to work on. Ted would say: “We need some showstoppers, Ken—can you do something?” And I got this idea of trumpets and drums; so I worked the routine out, and wrote it down, very quickly. I was still in the RAF at the time, and I came down from Grantham—I was in the RAF Regiment towards the end of the war; Frank Reidy, a dear old friend of mine, was on saxophone at the time in the original Heath band—he roared up in a lovely old Alvis, picked me up at the gates, drove me straight down to Decca studios, where we made four tracks.
“Bakerloo” was one of them; I think we made one take of it—and I went back to camp again. And that went into the library. That was before I came out of the Forces. Les Gilbert, Laddie Busby, Harry Roche and myself—we were all in the Forces, and due for demob. When we eventually got demobbed, I remember going to Decca, making some more records with Ted, and driving straight from there to open our first season at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool. We did six weeks up there, and that was the beginning of the Heath band as a show band—that was ‘46.
Somehow, that original band clicked into place right away, didn’t it?
It did, yes. There were some good players in it—characters, but good players. We had Jack Parnell on the drums, and there were Jackie Armstrong, Jack Bentley—Back Gently, we used to call him—“Topper” Jimmy Coombes and Harry Roche; they were the trombones. I don’t think Norman Stenfalt was the first pianist; Ralph Sharon came along—I’m not sure who started. Dear old Charlie Short was the bass player.
Those Sunday night Palladium sessions had a lot to do with the projection of the band, I’d say.
Certainly, that was where it projected itself firmly on my youthful awareness. Well, Ted thought a regular sbowcase for the band would be nice, and I think it was Alvar Lidell of the BBC who came up with the idea of doing Sunday nights at the Palladium. So we started our long series of Swing Sessions—and packed the place every time. And if there was anybody in town, Ted would get them on. Like, there was a very strange sequence of events . . . we’d done a few Sundays there, and the variety bill at the Palladium consisted of—how about this for daft booking—Gracie Fields topping the bill, and, closing the first half, Ella Fitzgerald. I think she bad a miserable week, because everybody in London went to see Gracie; they didn’t know Ella in those days. She finished at the end of the week; Sunday night we were in the Palladium—so Ted got her in. She was married to Ray Brown at the time, and he was with her; so Ted got Ray to do “One Bass Hit” with the band, and Ella did “Lady Be Good”. And she was knocked out with such a change of audience, in the same theatre, from the previous week.
I was there—it was a magic night.
It was pretty good for her, I think—after working a bill with the opposite side of the fence. Yes, we had some good nights at the Palladium. We had some good ones afterwards too, when we started again doing Sunday night Palladium concerts with Jack Parnell’s orchestra—that was another series, when I joined the Parnell band. Then, of course, we did five years on The Muppet Show.
The thing I always look back on as something outstanding at the time is your radio series Let’s Settle For Music with the Baker’s Dozen.
Thanks to the BBC producer Pat Dixon. Pat came up to me one day and said: “I’ve had a good idea, of doing a programme of just jazz. Get a group together, play what you feel like, and I think we’ll get somebody to talk about it, to make it informative, so that the people on the other end of the radio know what you’re playing.” So he got Wilfred Thomas, and we put this programme together. Within three weeks I said to Wilf: “Look, this isn’t going to work.
They want to go out live, on the air, with no arrangements, and I’m saying to a group of guys: ‘We’ll play so-and-so in F, you play an intro, and then . ..’ We can’t do it that way—I’ll have to start writing.” So the arrangements started evolving—with lots of blanks—and eventually they built up and built up until we were doing Basie, Ellington, Goodman, Dorsey and everything else. Plus certain things that Pat had a great love for, like Red Nichols and Bix; also he used to pull out the weirdest old tunes sometimes—I’d say: “I don’t know what I can make of this.” “Go on—you can work it.” I used to go home and do a big arrangement of it, and when we got it going in the studio it usually worked pretty good. We had a good line-up, with George Chisholm, Keith Christie, Keith Bird; it changed throughout the eight years we ran, because Pat wanted to keep the listening public’s interest. He used to say: “If there’s any new faces coming around, I want them in the next programme.”
That brings to mind a story about Bruce Turner. He’d heard about Bruce, and I said: “Yes, he plays great jazz.” So we got Bruce in for a time, and after a while dear old Keith Bird came up to me and said: “Bruce is driving me mad!” I said: “What’s the matter?” He said: “Well, you know he’s not a great reader.” And I’ve got charts by this time; we just do a quick rehearsal, break, and do it as a show. And Keith told me that Bruce was tapping him on the arm, saying: “Dad, dad, I’m lost—where are we?” Keith would say: “There—letter F.” Two seconds later, it’s: “Dad—I’m lost again, Where are we?” In the end I had to say to Pat: “Look, I’ve got to tell Bruce we’ll have to change it.” Although he played great jazz, he wasn’t good for the format of the programme—we didn’t have enough time. I mean, if he worked with Humph, say, and they got a loose routine set, he could memorise it and they could put that on the air. But we didn’t have time to memorise; we had to read, have the freedom in the middle for the extemporisation, and then go back to the part. It made it very difficult at times.
It was very flexible, though, wasn’t it? Not only in styles but in sizes of groups.
The whole programme was flexible. We used the Dozen, the Half-Dozen, and other small groups occasionally. And nearly every week we used to have a solo piano feature—whether it was Bill McGuffie, Derek Smith or Norman Stenfalt—which made a nice break.
Is any of that music preserved?
There’s a new LP of the Dozen out now. My old friend Brian Hainsworth in Leeds rang me up and said: “If I can get the tapes, do you mind if I reissue the Dozen?” I said: “I’d love you to.” And he’s reissued some 1957 tracks of the Dozen, and there’s been a lot of interest. I’m specially pleased that one of the first tracks on it is dear old Bill McGuffie, playing a boogie I wrote for him.
I’m glad to hear that, because all that memorable music went by every week—and then the series ended.
It’s a shame—it ended because Pat died, like so many other good programmes he did. I mean, he did the Peter Ustinov series, Breakfast With Braden, Bedtime With Braden, The Goon Show—you can go on and on. And Pat was very keen about using musicians; if he could put music in any programme he would, always. Which was a good thing for us. He loved music. And he knew what was going on—he’d listened to Bix since 1926, when he was a kid; he knew all those early recordings.
Your own small group activities really started after your Heath band association had run its course . . .
What happened was that I left Ted after about three-and-a-half years, because I got fed up with playing the same music. I wasn’t reading—I used to sit on the library book every night; unless we got a new arrangement to play, I never got the dots out. “Trumpet Blues” and all the solos I did, I’d learned. I found that my solos were getting a bit stereotyped and my reading was getting bad; so I said to Ted: “Look, I’ll have to leave.” He said: “Do you want more money?” I said: “No—I’ve got to change my musical environment.” So eventually, after giving three months’ notice, I left. And that’s when I started the group with Tubby Hayes, Jimmy Skidmore, Vic Ash, Harry Klein, Stan Tracey. I took that band out on tour—we didn’t make much money, but we had a lot of fun.
I had to disband that in ‘51, because I had to go in for a hernia operation; which stopped me playing for a few weeks. It was when I was recuperating from it that the Dozen started—and on the original programmes we did, I didn’t play. I just put all the stuff together, and Tommy McQuater and George Chisholm were the only brass. After a few weeks, when I was well enough, I started blowing; when we added Keith Christie we had four brass. With five saxes and rhythm including vibes, that was the Dozen.
And it was during those years, wasn’t it, that you actually pioneered the use of the flugelhorn?
I started with the flugel in 1952, before Art Farmer or anybody else—correct. On the Dozen, we were looking for new sounds. We had Poggy (E. 0. Pogson) on the bass sax, Freddie Ballerini on fiddle, as well as clarinet and tenor.
And I thought of the flugel—I used to play it in the brass band. So I got an old flugel, and I used to write occasionally for a flugel lead, with trumpet under that and two trombones, which gave me four brass but the flugel lead. It was another different sound I was trying to make. In the saxes we had one alto, three tenors and a bari; so we could do the Four Brothers type of thing, and a solo alto on his own.
So you’ve continued with the flugelhorn ever since.
All the way through. Then, of course, being in the brass band world, in later years—which is fairly recently—I decided to start using the cornet again. Now I don’t feel right if I don’t go on the stand with trumpet, cornet and flugel. I prefer to give, if I can, different tone colours, and I’ve found that it does work quite well. Like, with Don Lusher, I do “Tea For Two” as a solo, and I use cornet and trumpet on that. Sometimes I’ll do a flugel thing—but mainly I use the cornet, because I like to go back to the Bix.
Oh, that’s another thing—we did the Beiderbecke Affair television drama series recently, and we’re doing a new one very shortly, called The Bix Tapes for Yorkshire Television. So we’re doing a load of new music—what the production is going to be, I don’t know, but we’ll go in the studio and do all the Bix tapes, and with a bit of luck there’ll be a bit more Bix coming out. Can’t tell you any more about it yet.
I must say, Frank Ricotti, who is one of the new, up-and-coming percussion players—a tremendous musician, who plays marvellous vibes—took down all the early Bix, note for note, and we went in the studio, rerecorded it, and got it as near as dammit. If you play the early Bix and play our tracks that they used on the Beiderbecke story, it’s pretty well spot-on—which I’m very, very pleased about. It’s nice to do—a bit of a challenge. It captured the atmosphere because he wrote it down so well.
You mentioned Don Lusher—presumably, you work with his bands quite a lot.
Yes, and it’s lovely to work with Don. Occasionally he recreates the Heath band, with which we do a few concerts. Mostly it’s the Don Lusher Band, which is nothing to do with the Heath band. The line-up is roughly the same—eight brass, five saxes and rhythm—but the personnel is different, and we play entirely different things. When we do the Heath band, it’s got to be Lita Roza and Dennis Lotis singing, and we’ve got to play “Opus One”—heaven forbid, but that’s what they want; they love it—if we don’t play it, they say “Where is it?” And the same goes for “Swinging Shepherd Blues”, etc. Well, we did the Barbican last Summer and they loved it—they must still like it, the way they packed the place. So I’m enjoying a living, living in the past—still—yet again.
Nevertheless, when you play a jazz solo, it’s whatever you feel at that time.
I don't play in the past—yes, I try and play how I feel. It gave me a little eye-opener, listening to Gerry Mulligan the other week—he just stood in front of the band and played what he felt, and whatever came out was tremendous. He’s a sort of timeless player, and I would really like to think that that’s what I could be named as. You know, you don’t fit into a slot. If somebody says: “Play a solo”, you play it. If they sav: “Can you play a 1930s solo?“, that’s different. Otherwise, it’s nice to be able to do your own thing. It’s whatever comes out the end of the instrument—sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s indifferent. If it’s bad, one tries to cover it up and make it sound good.
What sort of work do you have to put in on the instrument these days? Is it something you take for granted?
Quite a lot of work. No—I never, ever take the instrument for granted. Never. The main problem with us in the studios—or, as a work force, all the musicians these days—is the variable work conditions. I mean, to keep the lip right, or to keep the mind right, and the fingers, you should play every day in a similar sort of pattern. Nowadays, you find that you might be in the studio—like, I was doing studio work a couple of weeks back with Laurie Johnson; we did some new film music for him—and two weeks before that, I was doing the new James Bond film. Sometimes there’s a lot of hard music to play; sometimes you get in there, and there’s nothing to play—it’s all strings. And you don’t practice, you don’t play, you go home, and you have a day off the instrument. Then the next day, you’ve got to blow hard again.
It’s very irregular—and that’s one of the hardest things to deal with. So when you’ve got time off, you’ve got to practice, to keep the lip in a consistency, so that when you go out you know it’s going to work. You don’t want to have to think: “Christ, I won’t get the top F at the end tonight, because I haven’t blown all day!” No, you’ve got to make sure, and be conscientious enough to get round to practising before you get on the stand.
Any thoughts about instruments in general?
I’m not too bothered about getting bogged down with instruments, or mouthpieces. No, I just pick a bugle up, and as long as it’s in tune, the valves work, and it’s got a good sound, I’ll blow it.
Well, all I can say is: keep playing that thing.
I hope to, for a long time yet, Les. Nice to talk to you.
Copyright © 1987 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.