Continuing to play great jazz
to play great jazz
When swing began
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1974
In between continuing to play great jazz, the major project for you in recent years has been your Community Development Corporation, hasn’t it? How is this proceeding now? Well, the big news is that we’re going to have a University right there in Harlem. The Arts will be covered—not only the history of music, but painting, sculpture and so forth. Our Communications Department will teach everything about television and radio.
The student will go in front of a camera today as an actor, then tomorrow he’ll be a director, the next day an engineer; the next day a writer—do the whole thing. Then we’ve got a deal going—as the kids advance and graduate in the time allotted to them, about two years, they also get a lesson in electronics. I’m dealing with RCA Victor to bring in their electronic equipment and manage the curriculum. We’ve got the same thing with IBM; they’re going to supply their teachers, and all the latest data machines. That’s Business; then we’re going to have Law, Architecture, Planning. And a student can take two majors—not like some colleges, where it’s a major and a minor. Some of our schooling is going to take three years; not the fourth year, because the courses will go right through, without any Summer vacation.
I’m sure your coverage of music will be very thorough.
Oh yeah, we’ll have Composition—we’re gonna teach some of Bach and Mozart, but some of Fats Waller, too. The whole thing, you know. I got a lot of teachers tapped out that we can use; I got faculties. We’ve got people working on the curriculum now, you understand.
We’re getting funded by the government and by the State, and we’ll probably give out about a thousand scholarships when we first open up the University. Our plans involve every subject but Medicine now.
Of course, this is something you’ve wanted to accomplish for some time.
Yes, it is. You know, when they had the black revolution going on in the ‘sixties, they didn’t do anything to fill that vacuum. It left a lot of hatred among the young blacks, and they were refusing to go into white colleges, because they weren’t getting the right teachers. They said: “We want to learn about ourselves—black history, not this stuff.” Now the kids realise they need to go into a university or college, where they can get doctorates and master’s degrees; you see a whole lot there going wrong now, who didn’t do this.
So I’m getting top backing; they can see that my approach is a really worth–while effort. And it’s handled by the Lionel and Gladys Hampton Foundation. I don’t have no big–shots on my board of directors; only some grass–roots people, that I’ve been working with in Harlem on the housing projects. I’ve got to thank ex–Governor Rockefeller of New York City—he laid a lot of the groundwork down for me. People say to me : “How do you get these projects together?” Well, he gave me his top efforts. His brother David sat down and talked to me about finance He contacted the top people in the New York State housing authorities, and this fabulous set–up was all at my disposal. I learned how to put this together, so that I could go into these programmes with good advice and good know–how.
You just spoke of your late wife Gladys. Now that she’s gone, what change has that made in your life style? Oh man—it hasn’t made no change in my music. It just makes me play harder, because every night I play I’m dedicated to her. And I know that’s the way she’d have wanted it. She gave me such good training before she passed, God bless her soul, that I know just what to do in my day–by–day life. I’m conservative—I’m not a rouster, I do everything that I think is good—because she was good, and that’s what she stood for. Having a woman’s guidance is very, very important, I think. I know my late wife was my eyes and ears; I didn’t have to think—she thought for me. But for her, I’d have made mistakes—a lot of ‘em., I guess I wouldn’t have been the musician that I am today. She once encouraged me to practise, take lessons. And I still take time off every year to check myself out, for studies on the vibes; it’s very helpful.
A great old friend of yours who recently passed away was Gene Krupa. Would you care to say a few words about him? Yes—that was a great loss. Everything you read about Gene was good—and he was good. Extraordinary.
The Benny Goodman Quartet—Teddy, Gene, Benny and myself—we got together and played a few concerts last year, and they were just out of sight. ‘The Goodman Quartet was a very unique and unusual outfit. It set a very dramatic marker in race relationships—the first time that black and white ever played together. And I think this had bearing on a lot of things that happen today, where the doors opened up, such as Jackie Robinson in baseball.
This all proved to be a very worthy effort, not only musically but domestically.
Last year, although he was sick, Gene still sounded good to me. Every place we played, all those concert halls, they put the tickets on sale in the morning, and by noon they would go.
Listening to your playing on the British tour, you sounded even better than ever. Is there something in you, would you say, that drives you to greater heights of improvisation?
Well, improvising means a lot to me—I’m an improviser. I’ll play “Stardust” tonight one way, and tomorrow night I’m gonna play it a different way. Or if I play it an hour from then, it’ll be different: It’s just keeping the idea that music is the only thing I know, that I want to make money out of. But it’s not money to me—it’s just something from the heart. I really love it. Of course, we have to have money to sustain ourselves, but I look at it from the heart. The desire to play that’s what keeps me going, I want to play right now. There doesn’t have to be no boxed deal; I’ll play right in the corner there. I have an instrument that I keep in my apartment in New York City when I’m in there, I’m practising half the time. I like to go on a job two and three hours ahead of time, so I can get there and practise. I got to practise, feel my instrument, you know.
But do you find that a good audience brings something else out of you? Oh, a good audience, applause, always brings things out. But I’ve played some hard audiences, and I kept on playing. I’m always gonna play—I’m not gonna lay down on that.
Travelling all over the world as you do, do you have any favourite audiences? No, no, that would spoil the band—you have to be the same all over. You don’t have no favourites. You got to be conscientious and have the sincerity, no matter who you play for. I play just as hard for five people as I will for five thousand. As I said, it’s wanting to play. I’m just waiting for tonight, so I can perform. I ain’t gonna worry about what type of audience’ll be there—I’m gonna play.
And I’m quite sure that somebody out of the audience will like the endeavours I’m trying to give out.
Now about this present band of yours—is this the one you travel around with these days? Comprising eleven men, it’s smaller than a lot of the bands you’ve had, isn’t it? This is the band I travel around with. Well, I’ll tell you—I was getting demands to play a lot of concerts, in high schools, grammar schools, colleges, for a lot of big conventions, like IBM and ITT. I played seven nights a week, you know, until my doctor made me cut down.
Travelling on one–nighters is not as bad as it used to be, and you got airplanes to take you to different countries.
But I fly into New York in the morning, do business with the housing, then fly out in the afternoon and go and do a gig that night—well, sometimes they think it’s a little too much, but I play all the time.
I had to cut my big band down, because. . . you know, big bands got lazy in the States. You have a big band, eighteen or twenty pieces, you pay a lot of money for arrangements, and you got a guy, a second trumpet player, who, because he hasn’t got a solo, sits up there and starts fluffing over the arrangements. The only time you can get a good performance with a big band, you got to be in a recording studio, and they’re just playing for the money, looking at the clock.
Before she died, my wife told me: “We get a lot of letters—people want to hear you play vibes.” So I got a combination where, although the guys play solos at certain times, I can do my thing and have them as a back–up.
And I make twice as much money with this band than I made with the big band.
Well, this is sufficient to get the big band feel.
Yes, it is. The way the arrangements are made, the organ player has a part where he fills up the cracks m the background. So it always sounds big all the time.
Who does the writing for you nowadays? We have a boy by the name of Frank Como; also a saxophone and organ player named Gerry Capusio wrote some things for me. And then I supervised a lot of things—I changed ‘em all around, see.
Playing having been your life, you presumably intend to continue.
Yeah, and with the set–up I got now, I can play a lot. When I had a big band, I used to play a piece and I barely could take a chorus in it, because there were so many guys I wanted to pass it around to. And the public, too. . when that curtain goes up, and that first note is hit, the people look for the guy they paid their money for. The days of warming–up are gone, I think. They want to see you right there—and you got to get out there and do something.Copyright © 1974, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.