My first affair
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1981
As far as playing over here is concerned, this is my first affair. I’ve been everywhere else—just haven’t got here. I’ve got my regular group with me—Herman Foster on piano, Jeff Fuller on bass and Victor Jones on drums; most of the time, with variations, they’re the guys I have. We play mostly small jazz clubs now; a few years ago, I was doing larger clubs, but I was playing a little more commercial music.
Yeah, I’m way away from that commercial period in the ‘seventies. Well, at that time two of my kids were in college; so it was a different situation then. I needed a whole lot of bread. But they’ve completed it now—and I’m back to normal, Although, whatever they put behind me, I couldn’t really play commercial; nor could I play rock, or anything like that. Like you say, the background that I have would seep through—you know, I couldn’t disguise it at all. See, on the jobs I played the same way I always played—I just made records that other way. I just did that for one day, probably, and then I never played that way again. That’s something people don’t understand—no use trying to explain it to ‘em.
“Colour As A Way Of Life”? Yeah, that was probably my last. record available here. I made two commercial albums around ‘77 for the Cotillion label, a division of Atlantic. But I’ve got a new one out now on Muse Records; I don’t even know the name of it, because they hadn’t really named it when I left the States. It’s completed, anyhow, and it should be out in a couple of weeks. This one is jazz—just like my old albums in ‘57/ ’58. It’s the same premise—with a slight variation, you know. We kind of brought it up to date a little bit but that’s about it. Just four pieces—that’s the way we’ve been playing, and it’s working out fine. Because we’re playing a lot of mainstream, and, well, I would say bebop, really. People have seemed to shy away from the avant garde movement, and they’re coming back to the mainstream . . . straight–ahead jazz, whatever you want to call it. It’s hard to put labels on music; if they like it, they do—if they don’t, they don’t.
Basically, my playing is a cross between Charlie Parker and Johnny Hodges—you know, the people that I listened to when I was coming up. See, when I play my ballads, I play almost identically like Johnny Hodges. A lot of younger musicians don’t know this; they say: “How do you do this? What is that?” But I say: “Well, it’s hard for me to explain it to you, unless you heard Johnny Hodges and Lester Young, people like that.” That’s the way they played ballads, and it’s natural for me to pattern my style slightly after that.
I’m from a small country town in North Carolina; all we heard was hillbilly music—we never heard any jazz at all. The only way I was ever able to listen to a jazz group was on short–wave radio; we’d pick up New York now and then—Symphony Sid, stuff like that. But my mother was a music teacher, and my sisters and brothers were all musicians. All of ‘em except me—I was a baseball player; I didn’t even like music—I hated it. After watching my mother teach kids how to play, it seemed just a drag to me.
I never even thought about it until I was around fifteen years old—and then I picked up a clarinet. They had a military band in my home town, and my mother was very familiar with the bandleader; I just happened to be passing by one day, and she said: “Give him a clarinet.” That’s how I got it, and I started playing it. She didn’t know anything about clarinet, but she knew about lines, spaces, notes and stuff; so she taught me how to read music, and all that. In college, I played in the band, and then when I went into the Service I played in the Navy band. Oh, yeah, I had good background; I worked with a lot of great musicians.
Actually, I hadn’t even really intended to play music for a living then—but after I got in the Navy band, that was it. I got up there to Great Lakes Naval Training Station, and they had a big band there that was superb—the best band I ever heard. It had a lot of great cats—Willie Smith, Clark Terry, Ernie Wilkins—I could name fifteen, twenty guys that you know; all of ‘em were there in the band. They would rehearse, and then they’d have a jam session, when they let the younger musicians come in and play. So once I got that in my head, that’s all I wanted to do. Then the writing, by people like Clark and Ernie, was beautiful—plus they had Alvino Rey, Skitch Henderson. Everybody was there, right in that one spot; it was tremendous.
Before that band, I didn’t play anything but clarinet. That’s how I got in. What happened: they had a pool of about seventy musicians, and they needed only seventeen; so they gave everybody a test, with the idea of keeping the guys who worked out best. When I went for my test, he put the clarinet up, and I played the marches and so forth; he said: “Well, you’re okay. You play saxophone too, of course ?” I had never touched a saxophone in my life; I said: “Yeah, sure,” and he never even gave me a test on it. Which I probably could have played—there’s not that much difference with the fingering. So I passed the test, got in the band, they gave me a saxophone, and I started playing it. Well, it wasn’t anything but playing the written music—not like a jazz group. No major problem.
I’m talking now about ‘45. Shortly after then, we went to Chicago—and who did we see but Charlie Parker, when he was with Billy Eckstine’s band. I was sort of like a junkie picking up a habit; I said: “That’s the way I want to play.” My saxophone style took shape from there, sure. On clarinet, I had been playing like what I heard: Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Jimmie Noone, Buster Bailey, people from way back. As I say, in my home town you couldn’t find too many records.
Having heard Bird, I got to work on the alto. In the Navy, that’s all you did; you had time to play all day, to practise seven or eight hours. Naturally, I didn’t know what was happening; so I just enquired of other musicians who did know, You’d get good instruction for nothing. Everybody I was talking to was much older than I was; they had been around, and had played in professional bands. It was a wonderful education there. I was now absolutely certain where I was going; I had been studying law in school, but I changed that.
Back in my home town, they had an Army post; so when I got back I went over and played with the band there—because there wasn’t anybody in town who played music. I sat in, and the cats were amazed; they didn’t know where I was coming from. They said: “Hey, listen to this farm boy here.” Moody was in that band, also Dave Burns, a trumpet player, and another guy named Joe Gale; Linton Garner, Errol’s brother, was the piano player. They’d have a session every day; so I had a chance to play with anybody I wanted to play with, right there.
I knew that, in the long term, the only way I could play the way I wanted was to go to New York. When I got there, I went to a GI school, down in Manhattan, and, naturally, playing around there people got the word out. So they had a session at Blue Note with Milt Jackson, and it was the first record date I made; it wasn’t even the Modern Jazz Quartet then, but he had Kenny Clarke, John Lewis and Percy Heath. I guess you’ve heard that record—” Bags’ Groove” and stuff like that on it. A good friend of mine was a fighter named Artie Woods; I used to go up and watch him train—in fact, I used to train with him. He knew Alfred Lion at Blue Note, plus he knew Milt, and it was him who got me the session. It worked out good; so they started to record me.
I guess Art Blakey must have heard about it; he called me up to make a few gigs with the big band he had—the original Messengers. After that, we did those albums called “A Night In Birdland”—that was just a small band. Because Clifford Brown had come to New York; in fact, I’m the one who sent for him—nobody else had recorded him. The first date he made was with me. So Art just took that group and put Horace Silver in there; Horace was a friend of mine—we worked and rehearsed together a lot. And with Curly Russell on bass, we made the date.
Everybody knew that Clifford was there, but they never gave him a record date. I never understood it, because I had heard a lot about him before I even met him. We’d go to Philadelphia, and he was from Wilmington, Delaware, which is about fifteen to twenty miles away; they’d talk about this guy down there, who played trumpet like Fats Navarro. I’d said: “I don’t believe that—nobody could play like Fats Navarro.” But when he came up and we heard him play, he did sound a little bit like Fats—not exactly but similar.
It wasn’t really even Art’s group; it was just a group we got together. At Blue Note, they wanted Art to be the leader, because I think he owed them a lot of money, and that was a good way to get it back. Nobody thought about anything like who was the leader then, anyway, As for the Birdland records being regarded as classics––that amazes me; I don’t see how they could be, because we hadn’t played that music for more than a couple of days. A lot of people think that was a group that had been working for a while, but that job was the first time we’d ever played together.
See, everybody liked everybody—that’s all you need, to play jazz. That’s a funny thing; it’s different from any other type of music. If you’ve got the feeling between the drums, piano and rhythm, and the horns—that’s it. In fact, you don’t even have to like ‘em; you can hate ‘em, but you like the way they play.
I’ve heard of bands where guys didn’t even speak to each other for fifteen to twenty years; but they liked the way they played—so they played. That’s right—you can feel it. It’s amazing. Like, when Art is in shape to play his best—you can’t play any better.
I’ll tell you—in those days, it was a pleasure to go to work. In fact, all day you’d be waiting to get back, so you could work some stuff out; you’d say: “I’m going to try this tonight,” you know. It wasn’t even like a job; I would have played it free—which I practically did, anyway, with what they were paying. But that whole spirit has been and gone—that left with bebop. Most everything of intrinsic value in jazz left with bebop—that ended it. From then up to now, it’s nothing—it’s just a waste of time, really. They’ve tried to categorise jazz into something that it’s not. Spontaneous improvisation can be done with any type of music, not just jazz, but what they’re trying to do now—they’ve got ‘harmonic improvisation’ now. They’re concentrating on it in schools, and most of the young musicians are playing that way—and the essence of jazz is gone. You know, the bluesy feeling, and the soul, and the feeling in the rhythm—that’s gone. It even pains me to hear some groups now—some of the top, highly–rated people. It’s really sickening to hear it, because they don’t have the basic ingredients. Like taking the sugar out of cake—it’s got a lot of dough there, nothing else.
I had a young fellow ask me: “Man, why did they rate Lester Young so great? He doesn’t seem to be playing anything.” I said: “Well, my friend. . . I don’t know how to explain it to you. You would have to have lived back in that time, to understand what I’m telling you. It’s not a matter of how many harmonic changes you can play. You’ve got to realise that Lester Young was given two–and three–bar solos, and he had to get something in there, within two or three bars—and that’s really hard to do.” You didn’t have time to stretch out; you had to play what you were going to play, and play it quick. See, in those bands like he played in, it wasn’t a matter of how much a guy could execute a facility—it was just his concept of the music and what was done. And if you didn’t play to suit those bandleaders, that was your last solo. Some guys sat in those bands twenty years, and never got one solo—the bandleader didn’t like their concept. They had to accept it, if they wanted a job.
All they call jazz today is: soloing, knowledge of harmonics and facility on the instrument. Those things are very important—only if you’ve got the other ingredients to go with ‘em. Because actually, musicians in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties could have done what they’re playing now, if they’d wanted to. I heard some Bix Beiderbecke records—he was playing that way then; I guess they were trying to experiment with the music. And what’s that other band—Phil Spitane, or something—I heard a saxophone section of his band, and, man, they played up some stuff. But that was in the ‘twenties.
What people don’t understand is that jazz bands, traditionally, always played for dancing—up till the early ‘fifties. There might have been a concert here and there, but basically they were dance bands, and they had to temper that music to meet the people’s needs. It was a different ball–game.
We counted it up the other day—there are about four or five of us still surviving. I’m referring to alto players who were around in Bird’s time, and whose concept is based on his. Without a doubt, that type of music is the epitome of jazz; in fact, I’m positive that’s just about as far as you can go—the way Bird played. Because Bird had an excellent background in blues and rhythm—that’s why he could do it, with his improvisations and stuff. Unless a kid really has that, he can’t retain the essence of jazz. He can be a genius on his instrument, but he won’t be playing jazz—it’ll be some other type of music. Which is the case with most of the avant garde stuff.
See, a lot of people don’t know that Coltrane was not a great bebop player. He was there all the time, but he never did really capture the bebop feeling in his soloing. Well, he was a hard worker; he practised a lot, and he got a lot of stuff together—but it has nothing to do with jazz. Not really. When you play harmonics, and play through the changes of blues, that’s really not playing blues. Some guys play one note and play blues; if you don’t believe it, you listen to some old records—those cats played at best, four notes, and they played a whole blues chorus. And it sounds good too.
The way I play is from the way I came up. See, I came up listening to Eddie Vinson, Louis Jordan, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Tab Smith, stuff like that. In fact, back then, you had to play that kind of soulful alto if you wanted to get a chorus; otherwise, it was tenor and trumpet—they were just about all the soloists you had. Alto was mostly known for section work. That’s one thing that Charlie Parker did—he brought it out front. Of course, there’d been people like Benny Carter, and he’d listened to them. But he had his own thing; he could improvise and play the weirdest things, but he had that blues feeling. He never lost that; I don’t care how fast, how slow, or whether it was a ballad, a polka, a tango—anything he played, he retained it. That’s hard to do. Whereas the kids today don’t know about it; they play harmonically, and they get good facility of the instrument. That’s not enough—if you don’t have the feeling and the concept of what you’re doing, you can kiss it goodbye.
It bothered me up to a point in the early days when they labelled me a Bird imitator. But I knew that they didn’t know what they were talking about, because if they listened to me play they could hear almost as much Johnny Hodges as Charlie Parker. You know now that goes–it’s just a matter of people not knowing what they’re listening to. In fact, Bird played a lot of Lester Young stuff—so they could have labelled him an “alto Prez”, if they had wanted to. It bugs you when you’re young–but it wouldn’t bug me now.
You couldn’t really duplicate what he was doing, anyway—that’s really hard to do, in any kind of music. But we loved him; at least, I did—I’m pretty sure Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods and Jackie McLean did too. I used to see him and talk to him; he was a very nice, very intelligent fellow—except for one thing. I guess you’ve got to live the way you want to. I played with him, and he knew what was happening; it was a great pity, because he really had a lot of stuff there. I didn’t meet him till 1950, when he was well along the way to what he was doing. There was nothing to talk about then; people get set in their ways of living, and that’s it.
I know he was a genius. Sometimes I’d see him for five or six months, and he’d never even have a horn; when he got a job, they’d go get a horn from somewhere, and he’d play it—and it would sound just like he’d had it practising all the time. In fact, he’s taken my horn many a night, and just started playing it. With a different mouthpiece and everything, that’s tough to do. He was amazing—I could never figure him out.
Another guy I used to work with was like that—Hot Lips Page. I saw him sit in one night with some younger trumpet players—let’s see, they had Miles, Idries Sulieman, Joe Gordon, all guys who could play. They laid bebop on him, stuff that they figured he didn’t know, and man, he played it—he sounded ‘better than they did! I said: “This is amazing” —he just went in there, and whatever they played, he played. But see, people who have that background, and play for years and years, you can’t do anything but sit dawn and listen to ‘em play. If you play something with a jazz feeling, they’ve got you covered.
My years with Blue Note were from 1952 until 1975—on and off. I left in ‘63, and went with Chess Records’ Argo label for three years–that was the only break. In ‘68 with Blue Note we got a hit with a little tune called “Alligator Boogaloo”. In fact, I was the first jazz musician to do something like that; but it sold, man. I made a lot of money—no regrets about that. People like Lonnie Smith and George Benson were on the record; so that was a real good band. As for the commercial–type albums I made in the ‘seventies, the ideas for these came from the company. See, I had put the bite on ‘em for a sizeable amount of money, and it’s like any other business—as long as you play free, you do just about whatever you want to do. The minute you put demands on the company for money, they put demands on you for what to play. They bring in an A. and R. man. What they think they’re doing is bringing in somebody to make sure that they’ve got a saleable product, but actually, what they really do is kill everything they have.
Believe me, I have yet to meet one A. and R. man who knows anything at all about music—let alone jazz. They just don’t know anything about music, period. You could play a wrong note, play in the wrong key, anything—they’d never know. But the reason Blue Note was successful is that they had two guys who really loved jazz. When they’d get in the studio, they’d start the tape, you’d play what you were playing; when it was over, they’d pay you and you’d leave. They wouldn’t come up there in the middle of a song, and say: “Wait a minute—that doesn’t sound right. Do this, do that,” because they didn’t know what to tell you to do, anyway. So, by not getting in your way, they were very successful. Same way with Prestige.
Those two companies made a lot of money, and they got all the best jazz records in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. They’ve been able to reissue ‘em, and you can see now how good those records are—because they didn’t bother musicians. Well, they couldn’t have said anything to many of those musicians, anyhow; the way those guys were, if anybody’d said too many things out of the way, they’d not only have said: “Get out”—they’d probably have put you out. By the time the commercial things were happening, they’d sold out the company to the Liberty/ United Artists group. The two guys were still there; they let ‘em run it, but they didn’t have control of the label any more—so they had to go along with the directions from the people in command. My name was on albums like “Sophisticated Lou”, “Sassy Soul Strut”, “Pretty Things”—and they earned me a lot of money.
What would happen there: they’d record it, and I just overdubbed it. A lot of times, I never saw the musicians; I don’t even know who was on the dates, unless you tell me. Because it was a drag to me, anyway. They’d say: “Why don’t you come and rehearse with the group?” and I’d say: “Not really—because if I do, I’d most likely have the arranger change all the music. So just put it on tape and I’ll come and play it. I’m not going to play it but once, anyway.” I never played ‘em more than once; I listened to it one time, and then I’d cut it—that was it. Because it was nothing to play—everything else was already there.
When I play with a normal group, now—I play according to the way the feeling of it goes. The drummer might do this or that, and I might be playing one thing, but then I’ll change it. That’s right—there’s an interplay. But see, with that commercially packaged kind of stuff, you can’t do that; there’s nothing spontaneous about those records. It’s just one of those things, man. But fortunately, it didn’t hurt me at all; financially, it worked out fine.
A lot of people thought I had stopped playing jazz, you know. But that was stupid anyway, because that’s all I can play. I wish I could play like Boots Randolph or somebody; I’d really make some big money if I could do that.
Copyright © 1963 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.