Jazz Professional               



Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976

Speaks his mind
On jazz form
Looking at the scene

Very nice to see you around town, Lee. What have been and will be your activities, these recent and current months?

I've been here since November 10, at which time I played for three weeks in Ronnie's club. After that I toured out of London. I'm now in town for three months actually, this next five weeks or so uninterrupted, and then going in and out until the end of April. Warne Marsh—who is playing better than ever is coming back in March to join me, Martial Solal, Peter Ind and Al Levitt (who's living in Paris now), to do three concerts in France. Then the quartet, without Martial, is going to do some more touring; there's a concert in Bergamo, near Milan, and a series up in Holland. Also, we're playing here, at the Camden Festival, on March 15.

I'll look forward to that. Recently, I enjoyed a record of yours, "Oleo" on the Sonet label, made last year with Wilbur Little and Dick Katz.

Thank you. That was a pub groove. The three of us had been working in a little club in New York for about six months, two nights a week. Sam Charters, the guy who produced that date, heard the group and asked us to record. He asked us if we wanted to use a drum; we thought about it for just a second, and realised we had been working as a trio for all that time—so why not bring that special thing to it? It would have been silly to add a foreign element. And it came off better than in the club some of the time, because we could hear better, and it was more controlled.

Not having drums was a practical move, because it was a very small club we were working at. And as much as I hate drummers! No, that's not true—I just hate the weight of a drum sound, and the kind of control it has over me.

You feel they tend to take over a bit sometimes?

All the time! A good drummer is less than a great drummer, and only a great drummer—like Elvin Jones, for example—has enough control of everything so he can do everything that is called far, in any situation. Otherwise, in order to play strongly and as meaningfully as possible, they tend to play too heavy—they hit too hard. Which wipes out the overtones, and cancels out things like sanity and reality. I see Chet Baker has been working without drums, too.

Would you say Chet is regaining his former glory on the jazz scene now?

Well, he came around a club I working at; when they opened up extra nights, he proceeded to work two other nights in that club also. Now he's been coming right behind me in Europe, doing clubs that I just finished doing. I think he's a very musical guy; he's a singer, and he plays as a singer plays. He sounds just beautiful sometimes. One night, when he was working at the Half Note, I came by, and he asked me to play with him. I brought my horn the next night—and the next week there was a word from George Gruntz in Switzerland, asking us to join the Berlin Festival. The word had got over here that quickly, that there was a new/ old team.

You've also been doing some jobs at a New York club with a larger group, haven't you?

Yes, a nine—piece. That was quite nice, and a new experience for me. Part of it was my writing, and then I just opened it up as an ideas workshop; you know, there's always people looking for something to write for. It's the same all over, I guess—all these good players look forward to an evening of playing some good music, and I give them all a lot of space to improvise in. So the few dollars a night pays for the drinks and expenses; we're all doing okay with our journeyman gigs.

It was going very strong; I didn't want to leave New York, actually, because of all the various things I had going there, to come here. And now that I'm here I've got involved in a whole bunch of things, and I don't want to go back to New York. Very strange.

The great thing is to be involved. I'm sure you don't like to lay off playing at all.

Well, I don't, and I haven't. And in the last couple of years, for the first time, really, I've been able to think of myself as a pro—able to work in New York, primarily, all the time, just playing my horn the way I play it. Well, I mean, the way you hear it on that Sonet record, there's a certain level of playing, but it's improvising—it's not the same as I play with Warne Marsh, or whatever.

You'd say you react differently, depending on who you're with?

And wherever I'm at. I'm happy to have a chance to play, after I've been invited in a little pub, and I'm not about to take over the place and make a concert out of it. I just play my tunes, try to keep my eyes open, and realise that some people are there to talk and drink, etcetera; so it becomes some kind of a reality to me. People come in and say: "How can you work in this noisy little joint?" I say, "Very easy. I take the horn out of the bag, and I put it in my mouth." I appreciate the opportunity.

Cedar Walton talks of the same thing — this apathy you have to face in some of the clubs.

Yeah—it's amazing to me, that I've been able to overcome that for a couple of years. And to support a nine—piece band. Just before I left for Europe, I was doing two nights a week with that band, and going into four nights—another club offered us two nights. So that was a total of six steady nights, in three different clubs. It can be done on a very modest scale, because a whole series of neighbourhood kind of places has opened up. In one of the clubs, right across the street from where I live, Wilbur Little and I worked as a duo for months. It was the only band like that in town, and the word got around—like, that's happening. So we could support ourselves, doing that. On a modest level, you get enough nights a week, and you can pay the rent and everything, without having to think about working in the big, first—line jazz clubs—because that only means a week or something at a time, maybe twice a year.

Way back, you started on clarinet, then played tenor, before you settled on the alto. Have you ever been back to the other instruments?

Oh, I like to play the tenor every once in a while. Clarinet is out of the question for me; it's too difficult to lend itself to bebop kind of phrasing. I haven't heard anybody do it. Buddy De Franco? Not really; not for my taste, as well as he does it. But the soprano saxophone has kind of satisfied that for me.

In Chicago originally, you worked with various dance bands, rather than in jazz, didn't you?

Now that you mention it, my first jabs were with some little groups, playing tunes and singing; one of the groups I played with used to sing four—and five—part harmony, and things like that. Then I had some offers to do some ballroom jobs, with dance bands. But jazz was the first music that really got to me, as a kid. I used to hear the Swing bands broadcasting at night, from various hotel rooms around the country. That was always very exciting to me. Benny Goodman had to be one of the first bands I identified with. Jewish and white—how could I miss? So I got a clarinet.

Would you say the job with Claude Thornhill was your first important jazz work?

I think so. I played with a couple of bands before that, but they were short—lived. Playing the music of Gil Evans with Thornhill was a great thrill, I'll tell you. That was a great ballad band, essentially. No, I haven't followed Gil's recent work. It stopped, somewhere after some of the first Miles Davis records. When he did less and less writing, and got more and more involved in the contemporary rock—type approach, I lost interest.

You joined Miles in 1948. Was he the fiery type of character then that we think of him as being today?

Well, I didn't know Miles really to hang out with him a lot, but I never had an impression of him as being fiery. I just had an impression of him as being all ears—surrounding himself with very knowledgeable and talented people, and some way being able to help direct all their energies into a musical product. He had a genius for that. He must have been partly Jewish! You know, there's a famous club—date leader in New York called Meyer Davis, that Miles is jokingly confused with!

But Miles, as well, has gone into a rock—based style of group. Do you think he brings it off, or is it a misdirection on his part also?

I'm not entirely able to judge misdirection for other people. All I know is, he's been very successful doing it. I also know that he's been a sick man for a long time. Playing the other kind of music is harder; I think he's just kind of coasting along with the fad right now. From what I know, which isn't too much, he doesn't play a great deal in this context he's created. He brings the group together, plays a little bit, then leaves the stage and lets them do the rest of it. I'm told it's because it's very difficult for him to play.

The next significant phase in your career was going to study and play with Lennie Tristano. What would you say you learned from Lennie?

Well I'd studied with Lennie earlier, actually—when I was fifteen, in Chicago. One of the great things I learned was: how much of a discipline this music calls for. And that it's possible, through picking important people and learning as much as possible about them, to go through the motions of playing this music. As with any art form, I think you try to go through the motion. You find out what it's like to paint like Van Gogh, play like Charlie Parker, and then, if it's possible, you go on, use that energy and that information, and do something of your own with it. If not, at least you've had that experience.

Your exposure to Lennie's philosophies completely shaped your own approach to playing?

No question. I was just a kid; I didn't know which end was up. I just had a feeling to play, and Lennie was serious about it by that time. He had a way of telling people in no uncertain terms, almost dogmatically, where it's at—as has probably been discussed, over the years, about him. So I accepted that as the truth.

On those records you made with Lennie, I'd say the sheer fluidity of the lines, the obvious empathy between the musicians in his groups is still amazing to listen to today.

It amazes me to hear it, and it amazes me that someone else hears it and it means that much to them. I was just thinking today, with Warne Marsh and I getting together, just by accident, really, in December here. . . when we first played, those techniques were still kind of new, and people discussed them as something that they hadn't heard before; it presented a certain kind of technical challenge for musicians who wanted to understand that way of playing. Well, it still does, in a way, because this particular conception has never become standardised like bebop; it's still a specialised way of playing, the so—called Tristano school.

So we met this time; in the meantime, people have played faster, more notes, weirder notes—everything has been tried by now. We're no longer the avant garde, or whatever they want to call it. But it still is what it was, in essence. As it did before, it depends on the skill of the players. What I'm trying to say is: it's still the same challenge to us, even though the whole world has grown up around us in twenty—five years. I'm still trying, and so is Warne, to play a new set of variations on "All The Things You Are"—and that ain't that easy. And it never will be, no matter how the techniques change. And with all of the new things that have happened—Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Chick Corea, etcetera—we still, whatever this means, were very well—received, when the music was swinging right. Well, what it means is that there is a little place for something worthwhile.

Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.