Jazz Professional               



Each film has its own sound

A Third Sream Triumph
Each Film has its own sound
My approaches to the film score
A musical alchemist
A new direction
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1967

Photo: Howard Lucraft

Since I left Dizzy, my main function has become the composing of background music for films. Upon leaving the group, I wanted to stay in New York. I was a little bit tired of being on the road all the time. So I started to work as an arranger for different artists, especially those with Verve Records—like Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Smith,. Stan Getz, Pat Thomas—involving many albums. And since Verve is a subsidiary of MGM, they decided, after one year, to send me to Hollywood.

I’ve had over four years of writing for movies and television and it’s very pleasant. I really enjoy it. Sometimes I miss playing, but I have to sacrifice either one or the other. For the time being, I don’t feel ready in my mind for performing again. I’ve thought about forming a trio or a big band; but again, that would mean going on the road, which takes a lot of time and energy. I’d rather write and stay in one place, like Hollywood.

Two or three times a year I go to New York to make records there. Then occasionally I come to Europe to do a movie. I did Joy House in Paris, The Liquidator in London.

The interesting thing is that in some movies I’ve been using jazz scores. Like in Once A Thief, which was said to be the first completely jazz background since I Want To Live. I had an all–star band, featuring people like Paul Horn on reeds, Conte Candoli and Al Porcino on trumpets, Frank Rosolino and Milt Bernhart on trombones, Red Callendar on tuba, Howard Roberts on guitar, Red Mitchell on bass, Shelly Manne on drums. Very interesting; it came out very nice. But most of the time jazz doesn’t work for a picture, because with the many dramatic elements involved, different types of music are required. Jazz cannot solve all the problems. In this case, it was about gangsters and set in San Francisco today. Many scenes took place in jazz joints; so I had that kind of sound to fit the idea of the picture.

You have to be versatile enough to be able to handle a lot of varied idioms when you are scoring a picture. Each film has its own sound. I approach every one differently, since the stories, characters, locations are all different. The worst thing that could happen to a movie composer is to become stagnant in one particular sound or device. That would be an easy way out, but at the same time he wouldn’t be honest with himself, or with the film.

If I have influences, they do not come from the movie world, but from the music world—period. Like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Alban Berg.

I don’t know if my approach is a fresh one or not; it’s not for me to judge. The only thing I know is I have a sensitivity for movies. I believe in the so–called audio–visual counterpoint. It’s a relatively new art; movies with sound have been with us for less than 50 years. When you see a picture without the music, all the action on the screen, it’s very good and complete in itself. This is one thing. Now you listen to a tape of the score, without seeing the picture. Fine. That’s a completely different thing. They don’t have any apparent relation to each other. But then you put them together—a kind of a magic alchemy happens all of a sudden. You don’t know what it is, but the transformation is fantastic. It’s a new thing again, that has nothing to do with what you’ve seen or heard before. A totality of its own.

It’s fascinating. And when you have the opportunity to do a good picture, where the camera work is a little bit creative, it develops your imagination. I think it’s a very interesting field, and that’s why I’m doing it. This is as much of a challenge as any other writing, absolutely.

At the beginning, my writing and playing were closely allied. Actually, I didn’t know what I wanted; I enjoyed them both. Until I discovered that I was happier writing; I could express myself better with the pen than with the keyboard. This is my particular problem.

If I were Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson, maybe I wouldn’t say this. But I feel that I need all the colours of the orchestra; my ideas are concerned with instrumentation. Handling harmonies, rhythms, all kinds of devices, I can be myself better than playing the piano. Which I enjoy, too; but writing gives me more satisfaction.

I had quite a thorough musical education, I would say. Partly in Buenos Aires, my birthplace: and I studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire for three years. Although I don’t think my education is completed yet; it never can be, because there’s always something new. Like medicine, or any other profession. The more you know, the more you realise how much you have to learn.

My father was concert–master of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic for thirty years; now he’s retired. So as a child I heard all classical music. I discovered jazz while I was going to college, and became fascinated with this music. And since then I’ve been dealing with both idioms equally.

Sometimes people say that I have a split personality. When I was studying in Paris during the day, I was playing at the Club St. Germain at night with the late Bobby Jaspar.

There’s nothing schizophrenic about it. People don’t realise that good music is all one. I don’t differentiate between jazz and classical music. If they are musically good—that’s all. For me, Dizzy, Miles and Monk have a very high level of natural musicianship. Which I could compare with a different kind of musicianship possessed by Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner. They give me exactly equal pleasure, as masters of their art.

It’s funny. I was not going to be a musician; I had a career as a lawyer in view. But there was a school band, and we started to play for dances and various types of concert. The leader of that band was also the arranger; I felt that his arrangements were very poor. I was sure that I could do better. Not to show off, but just because I wanted the band to sound better than it did. So that’s the way it started.

While advancing with my law studies, I was also studying music on the side, only as a hobby. And I had a very good teacher, who is probably the most important South American composer—Juan Carlos Paz. He’s known among avant garde circles all over the world, because he’s the one who introduced twelve–tone music and the serial techniques in Argentina. He was a disciple of Schoenberg himself. Studying with him made me very aware of music problems.

All of a sudden, the French Embassy in Buenos Aires offered a scholarship to the Conservatoire of Music. I went for the examination and won the scholarship. That meant that I abandoned my plans for a law career, and I decided to go to Europe. During those three years in Paris, my techniques of composition, harmony, etc., were greatly developed and reinforced. At the same time, my jazz approach improved, because I’d been in contact with authentic American jazz musicians who were coming in every month, such as Jazz At The Philharmonic, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson. I had the opportunity to listen to jazz at its source. Also the Europeans were very good musicians, I found, and I could learn things from them that would have been impossible in South America.

When I got back to Argentina, I put together a big band that became very successful. It was the first modern jazz orchestra in all South America. We did tours, playing a repertoire of themes by people like Horace Silver. My big band version of “Doodlin’” was a big hit record at the time. It was more successful than I was expecting, probably because it was the first time that somebody decided to do anything of this sort.

After that, Dizzy Gillespie came to South America with his own band and offered me a job with him. I couldn’t go right away, because I had some business to take care of. I was writing for movies already in Argentina. I won the equivalent ,of the Academy Award in 1958 for an Argentinean picture.

With that group there was a real enthusiasm; we were always having a good time. It’s a hedonistic feeling, playing with Dizzy. Even when we played the blues, it wasn’t sad. There’s some sort of joy of life that he conveys, which communicates to all the members of the group.

I stayed with Dizzy about three years. In addition to writing many things for the small group, I rearranged his band book for a type of orchestra with no saxophones in it—only brass. Horns and tuba replaced the saxophones. We did some concerts at Carnegie Hall, also at the University of Los Angeles. We came to Europe with that book, too, and put together a band for the Antibes Festival. The French horns were British, if I remember rightly.

Mainly for recording, I composed two long pieces for Dizzy to play with a big orchestra, “The Gillespiana Suite” and “The New Continent”. The latter was commissioned by the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival. That same year, incidentally, I wrote a jazz ballet based on “Faust” for the Washington Jazz Festival, commissioned by the late President Kennedy. More recently, I did a jazz suite for Paul Horn to record, based on the text of the Mass.

One thing that bothers me more and more is when you have to write for preconceived orchestras. For instance, the standard four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones and rhythm is a nice sound, and I realise that not everything has been said yet with that particular grouping. Once in a while I enjoy writing for this kind of set–up, but most of the time I try to create my own combinations of sound.

I like to work like a painter. You know, mixing colours and different kinds of sounds. And sometimes a sound comes from three or four instruments, played as one note; then I drop an instrument out. Bringing a variable colour to the orchestra all the time. Everything depends on what you are writing, and what it is intended for.

 Copyright © 1968 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.