My travelling Drum School

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976

Session King
Kenny & Jake Hanna Parts 1 2 3
Drum School
Every night a first night
Atmosphere and adaptability

What prompted you to start your one-man travelling drum school?

When you go and do drum clinics, it’s only about two hours. Usually there’s a commercial by the drum company about what’s new, and later a movie about how things are made in the factory. Then some of my two hours is taken up by drum breaks, which they seem to like you to do on clinics. So I wanted to do a bit more than that; that’s why I started this travelling school idea. I go to a given town over a weekend, and I do twelve hours altogether, six hours each day, with some prepared material.

One of the things I go into is reading—how I learned to read by association, rather than by actually reading drum books; I could read before I ever read a drum book. That was because at the time I was a kid all the hot records of the day were things like “American Patrol”, “String Of Pearls”; only a few were issued per month, and, being a fan of that kind of music, I’d rush out and buy all the records as soon as they came out, and play them till they were grey. Invariably, in those days, one side was a vocal, one a band tune; so you never played the vocal. On average, you’d get three records a month—maybe a Glenn Miller, a Benny Goodman and a Count Basie one month, and a Tommy Dorsey, a Woody Herman and an Artie Shaw the next. So you got to know those things backwards; even now, if I try, I can sing old arrangements from that period—things like Artie Shaw’s “Bedford Drive”.

When you went on a gig, they gave you the music, and said: “Do you read, kid?” I said: “Oh, sure, of course I read.” You took the part, and made it look very professional, but you didn’t need it, because those arrangements, in those days, were transcribed pretty thoroughly. They were actually all there, even if they didn’t always sound like it with one trumpet, two saxes, piano and drums. All the actual phrasing, as such, was there; so I just kind of roared through these things, and they all thought I was reading. After a while, that became a bit boring, and I actually started to look at the parts. A thing like “American Patrol” I learned to read the other way round—knowing how it sounded, and then seeing what it looked like written down. Then, the next time I came to an arrangement I didn’t know, I’d recognise odd phrases, and say: “Oh, that’s a bit from ‘American Patrol’—yeah, perfect.” And I built up a kind of memory log of phrases from various arrangements that I knew, and adapted ‘em to ones I didn’t know—and it worked.

So, certainly before I bought my first drum book, which was when I went in the Air Force, I’d been playing for four years without any books, lessons or anything—yet by then I could read most things. When I actually started in Les Evans’ rehearsal band, in 1948, I still had no training as such, but read those things without any problems at all.

What I’m doing is writing out the parts, giving them to them, telling them how to get the record, so that they can learn in the same way, by association. They learn a thing parrot fashion, and then look at the part afterwards.

Would you call it any kind of a short cut?

I guess it is a short cut, but it’s a practical cut—because most of those drum books are like Morse code drum parts. The only exception is the old independence book by Jim Chapin, which does actually give you some clue to where things are in the bar, because it gives you the cymbal rhythm over the top and the bass drum rhythm underneath, then the various tricks with the other hand; that does show you how things are written down, particularly the easy ones, when you see a drum part. Whereas the Morse code—type ones, that you see in nearly every drum book you ever buy, have no relation to anything you ever see on an actual drum part. So this is a much more practical way to do it.

That’s one interesting thing. Then I go into how to construct drum solos, how to try and accompany and listen to people you’re playing with. It’s more a thing of trying to teach drummers taste, rather than how to be the fastest drummer in the world. Because I’m not a lover of that style of drumming, anyway; I don’t like the hundred–mile–an–hour drummer, unless they’re like Buddy and Louie; but some of the others just play technique for technique’s sake—they’re really sitting on the bandstand waiting for their next lick to come, or their next big solo, and the rest of it’s a bore. I like to play whatever you’re doing; what you’re there for is to provide a backing for whatever it is that’s going on.

Do you remember that Max Roach album, the one he did on his own? It was so musical—there were six tracks on it, and each one is a gem. And that wasn’t particularly any fast playing—it was just good, rhythmical, musical playing, and I liked it.

That’s what I’m trying to get the people to do. But as soon as you get drummers together, they want to become competitive—and music, certainly drumming, isn’t a competition. I mean, who can be the fastest drummer in the world—who knows who they are?

Doing something like this, is there a big problem in that drummers tend to want to do everything at once?

I suppose so. Well, the techniques, as such, have improved a million times in the last twenty–five years. You can take any young rock’n’roll drummer today—had he been able to play like that twenty–five years ago, certainly thirty–five years ago, he would have been an instant star. If you listen to those old records, the guys weren’t really very proficient technically, although they had a great feel, sense of swing, sound.

I try to tell the young rock drummers that a good feeling of jazz is very important. Billy Cobham seems to be the Number One boy for the kids at the moment; his jazz training gives me a chance to tell them that they should listen to jazz as well, because the two are coming much closer together now.

What has been your main organisational problem?

Finding rooms to do the thing in. I know it sounds strange, but you try and get a room at a weekend, that can seat between twenty–five and fifty people comfortably, and it’s very difficult. Because people have a nasty habit of getting married on Saturday, and having their receptions in the afternoon. And if you do it in a church it destroys their Sunday morning service. Whichever way you look, there’s something wrong. Like, a pub is sometimes pretty good on a Saturday, but on Sunday, if they’ve got a room that’s suitable, they want to open out as a kind of an extra lunchtime thing.

In fact, I’m going to have to change things now, and find the places first, then try to get it going, as opposed to picking a town and a day, getting the advertising arranged, and then trying to find a place. It’s been pretty difficult. The one I planned to do in Cardiff, in the end I had to do it in Newport, as there was just no place. I spent a whole day walking around to pubs, church halls and so on—because a hotel, which would be very good, is usually far too expensive. As yet, it’s not financially a winner in any way; the time it takes me to do it, going to the town an extra day, the cost of petrol, the hire of the room—there isn’t much left.

The first one I did, at Swindon, after I’d turned down a couple of TV things that came in at the last minute, I was well out of pocket. Physically, they’re very difficult to do, too—twelve hours on your own is a long time, to talk and demonstrate.

Even so, it’s very rewarding. The thing I like about it is the fact that they seem to start off on a Saturday morning all kind of shy and nervous, but by the time it gets to the tea break Sunday morning, they’re all talking among themselves—I can’t stop them talking so as I can start again. Which is great—get them together, and they can learn more from each other.

I came from East London; that was a great area for all that. A whole bunch of us were friends. Even when I started playing professionally, Monday afternoon in Archer Street, or Boosey and Hawkes in Denman Street were meeting places for all the drummers. We’d all go through our licks, see how we were getting on with the various books; there was a great feeling of camaraderie, and this seems to be happening on my weekends.

You’d think it’s taking on too much, to handle it all by yourself? Would you think about getting someone else to help with it?

If we could get more people, yes, I would; at the moment, it’s not feasible. It would be much nicer with two of us; it then gives you a talking point between each other. Each person’s got their own idea of how it should be; consequently, even a simple rudiment can be played very many ways. When I joined Jack Parnell’s band, I used to practise out of a book called “Swing Solos For The Advanced Drummer” by Charlie Wilcoxon. One day, I was in a band room somewhere, practising away, and Jack came in. He said: “Oh, I’ve got that book,” and he played ‘em a completely different way to me—still correct, but another conception.

That’s a thing I go into a lot, anyway—how to make up things from books. Most drummers are inclined to just read it the way that it says in the book and leave it at that, but there’s many exercises that you can play three or four different ways, adding bits, taking away bits, playing some time with the simple ones, playing it all on the bass drum, or whatever. But it doesn’t have to be just the way it looks. The ones that think of those things are obviously better, because they’ve got imagination. The ones that learn it as it is, and never think of any other way to do it, they’re the ones I’m trying to reach.

So this is a service that you feel drummers are really in need of?

They seem to be enjoying it, inasmuch as it’s something different to what they’ve ever had before. I can’t say that I’ve stolen the idea from anybody, because I haven’t. I guess I got the idea when I did a clinic at North Texas earlier in the year, and again when I did a couple of days at John Dankworth’s Easter Course; I felt that there are people who are more keen, and prepared to pay a small amount, rather than just go along to free clinics. On a clinic, they’re just there for an evening out, to hear you play a couple of drum solos.

So you’re really meeting the ones that are as keen as you are, and that’s nice. You don’t always get a chance to talk to people at a clinic, individually, as much as you want to—but in this case, you do.

Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.