Jazz Professional               



On jazz form

Speaks his mind
On jazz form
Looking at the scene
A Les Tomkins interview

So tell me about the jazz scene in London, Les. What's been happening?

Er—I can't remember!

How about the jazz scene in Poland?

I can't remember that either.

Well, they say three things happen when you get a little older: one, your memory goes a little bit, and. . . I can't remember the other two things.

You're working well. But it's good to see you again, Lee.

Good to see you—I didn't recognise you for a minute. You've had a good haircut.

I don't recognise me these days—but it's me.

It's strange looking in the mirror in the morning sometimes. I prefer to look without my glasses, actually—I get an overall perspective that way. I heard tell that Chet Baker—rest his soul—met Jack Sheldon out in California; Jack hadn't seen him for a while, and he remarked on the deep lines in his face. Chet hesitated for a minute, and he said: "Well, those are laugh lines." And Jack said: "Nothing is that funny!"

Very good—you're on form tonight.

But it's a drag to lose those guys. Someone asked me, after Gil Evans left, how I felt about that—and I just had a clear picture that the world was never going to be the same without him, or without Warne Marsh, or without Al Cohn, or any of those guys. In January, February and March I was on tour, a lot of it being in Germany and Austria, and the weather was pretty bad. They had a record storm there; it was snowing or raining almost all the time—really weird.

Warne had died, and Al had died; then I went up to Holland, where I was supposed to play with the Metropole Orchestra in Hilversum, a fifty—five—piece radio orchestra—the conductor died the night before. I started to carry identification on me, for the first time. I really started to think: "I'm older now. . . going into all these hot places, without air, and all that smoke and everything . . ." I just got a little paranoid—I never thought about that before.

Well—anyway, I'm glad you're still around.

I am too—even more than you are.

And look after yourself—please!

Well I take care of myself. I'm travelling more than ever now, and somebody said to me: "How can you do it?" But the fact is: I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do—except upstate what I'm doing. I'd like to have my own band all the time; I still travel around alone, and I can rationalise, to an extent, about the values of meeting and playing with new people all the time—because this is supposed to be a spontaneous music, at best. But when I hear Phil Woods, or someone with an organised band. . . I heard Stan Getz last week in Hamburg; there he was again, and he's been playing with the best rhythm sections in the world for thirty years or more. He could pull it off—I haven't been able to pull that off. But in August I'm bringing a band over, and I hope that will be the start of a new season.

You had a nine—piece at one time—was that in the nature of a regular band?

It was a regular band; we met once a week in New York at a club, and I was able to build a library that way. But I don't really prefer that kind of a situation, because I'm not really an orchestrator. I thought that would help me to write more—and it really didn't. I still spend all my time trying to develop an improvising technique; that's so much more immediate, and I just prefer that, as long as I can handle it. When it gets to be too much to play, I guess I'll concentrate more on writing. I write every day—but I never really thought orchestrally that much.

Well, you've played in orchestras, but I suppose that's just been a matter of expanding your activities, when you've done that.

Yeah I enjoy that up to a point—but if I had it to do over again, I'd be a drummer in the orchestra. It seems like the most interesting chair. Saxophone in an orchestra generally is padding to the brass section, with occasional solos, or soli—whatever they call 'em. I just did two two—week tours with George Gruntz—one in Europe last April, and one in America.

It was the first tour I've done in America in a number of years—but with a Swiss composer, and with the Swiss Bank sponsoring it. That was fun, up to a point, But I'd much rather play in a small band.

So are you generally spending a lot of time in Europe nowadays?

Six to eight months a year now. I observe that in many respects these kind of jobs still pay the same amount of money—a little more, but they haven't really gone up according to the needed scales, in relation to the value of the money.

But the asset is the fact that there is more. I can go and play twenty clubs in Italy, and at the end of them I have earned my rent for the period, whatever. Whereas Miles has gone on to get sixty or eighty thousand a concert, playing a more popular kind of music; Sonny Rollins is getting a pile of money. A lot of those guys are dealing with contemporary things. I'm still basically interested in the traditional material, and trying to keep it fresh—but there's a limited audience for that, and always will be.

Have you ever been tempted to cross over, as they call it, into these other areas?

Well, you know the reputed remark that Jim Hall made when asked why he never sold out? He said; "No one ever asked me." I'm going to Brazil next week, to record in Rio De Janeiro with a Brazilian rhythm section—so I might come up with a bossa nova hit thirty years later! Stan has been scoring on it all this time; maybe I can come in from left field.

Whatever you do, it has to be your slant on it—which will make it different.

I hope so. I'm concerned to the degree that I've never really played with a Brazilian rhythm section—I've been playing with straight four—four—type rhythm sections all my life. I love the music, but I won't know till I get there how it'll work. I'm going to play some tunes written by Allan Botschinsky, the Danish trumpeter/ composer; so far he's shown me one, and it's very nice—I don't know if it's a Jobim or a Gilberto kind of hit tune, but we'll see.

In your recent Ronnie Scott's engagement with a quintet co—led by yourself and Jiggs Whigham, I enjoyed your composition "Blue Samba". Obviously, you thought it a good idea to merge those two feelings together.

Yes, I did. I just feel that my interest in music has developed, in a way, from the top down to the roots. I started out in very fast company, with Tristano and all those people, but I hadn't really investigated many of the basic things yet. I've been spending my life making sure that I ground everything as strongly as possible—and that's a lifetime's work for me.

So the thought of conceiving a really simple melody is very intriguing, all of a sudden. I've been looking for most complex melodies all the time.

There can be virtues in economy, of course.

There certainly can be. One of the main virtues, for me, is that I can continue to improvise. Unless the sound is really difficult to handle, I can improvise to some degree—and that's the name of the game for me still. By definition, you're going to have a problem with the very people you play with; the rhythm section is not going to be able to anticipate you—like they could at Ronnie's, for example. It was all set up there, and they did it very well—everybody knew their function. We didn't talk about each set we played; at the beginning of the week, we talked about some possible tunes, some original material—so we had rehearsed them. But trying to improvise is the point—and with John Taylor on piano. .. he's just playing better and better, every time I hear him; he's really a fantastic musician. And Jiggs was more than willing to join in, and try to make something spontaneous happen. It was great—I appreciated it.

How did the joining up of you and Jiggs come about? Have you been doing things together?

The first time I ever met Jiggs was a few weeks ago, when we started a project for the Cologne radio—it was a tribute to Stan Kenton. Jiggs was conducting the good big band they have there, and they invited Conte Candoli, Mel Lewis and me; then we did a little tour with a small group. Now I feel like I've known him all my life; he's a very accessible, lovely guy—and a fine musician.

Well, if you're going to have a five—piece group, it's very important to have the right front line partner.

Really. I've really been thinking of who I could team up with. I did some things with Art Farmer last year, and I enjoyed that very much—but Art's involved with Benny Golson again; so he's not that available. I couldn't get together with Chet, although he was supposed to join my group in August for a couple of dates and a record—but his life—style was too frantic for me; I didn't like to be involved in that. So I didn't know who to team up with, and all of a sudden there was Jiggs. We have a definite affinity, and I hope there'll be some future get—togethers.

It's a bit out of the ordinary—you don't that often hear an alto and a trombone together. There was a session one time with Art Pepper and Bill Watrous—that sounded very good.

With Jiggs, it got better every night I'll tell you. We got some free kind of counterpoint going that was very exciting to me. There were comments from people about not having heard a set of music like that for a while. I recall that, at the age of sixty, Artur Rubinstein was reputed to have said that he was just starting to practise then—and, in a way, I feel like that too. I don't see any reason, as long as there's the proper energy left, to continue to study the music, as we did when we were twenty, or fifteen, or whatever. It's a different perspective, in a sense, but it's the same process.

Your mind continues to be adventurous and you are aided by the wisdom you've gained.

I was talking to the young drummer who played so well for us at Ronnie's—Mark Taylor—about a few musicians who I think of as being stuck in the past, and about the way they reacted on the bandstand to their fellow—musicians. Mark couldn't understand how they could do that, and I explained how I felt about that, indicating that, by definition, they have to protect their `stuck—ness', as it were—and if anybody tried to do something to pull them out of that, they would have to fight to preserve it. Otherwise it means getting into an unfamiliar area, that maybe they would have trouble handling. In front of people, that can be rather humiliating. So those people have to have their own bands—they shouldn't travel around singly. Then they've rehearsed, they have their arrangements, and they can do their act.

Do you feel fortunate not to need that kind of security?

I do indeed—that I got enough information along the way to keep me sufficiently interested to avoid staying in one place. Because that's living death, as far as I'm concerned—as well as they can do it. It's still what is called a stopped flow.

The flow of this music has to be free; if it's anchored in some way to some known idea, some fixed concept, it's not going to go any place. Then it's no longer what it's supposed to be—it's just a sham. Well, not a sham, but it's not the vital music it should be.

It's just going through the motions, in a mechanical way, you feel?

It is. I really think that this is spontaneous music still—although most people don't play really spontaneously. They do their spontaneous work at home. Most people feel that that's the way the process goes—you do all your jamming and thinking and everything at home; then when you get out on the job, you just sock it in there, what you've worked on. But I still feel that this was supposed to be an improvised music—and if you don't take advantage of the people, if you do the right kind of homework, then you can still improvise in front of everybody. I think there's a different ambience that happens with that kind of music. It's not the sock—it—in—there, hitting—a—home—run music; rather, it has another quality that some people are receptive to. And there's enough of them to encourage me to keep trying.

You have to be prepared to reveal your every thought, instantaneously, to an audience.

Really. And it can be devastating sometimes—like when sound men mess around with the systems, destroying your spontaneity. When it's not working, nothing's happening—that's the chance you take. But the people who like music are willing to take that chance with you usually, because the rewards are so great when it comes together. The most important thing is not taking advantage of them. Naivety is one thing—jiving is another.

Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.