Talking to Les Tomkins in 1969
You want to know how I started playing trumpet? My father bought me one, and I studied the trumpet. And everybody I heard that I liked, I picked up things from.
It was when the Billy Eckstine band came to St. Louis that you first got together with Bird and Diz, wasn't it?
I'd heard 'em on records. But I was playing like that, anyway. You got to understand, man. See white folks always think that you have to have a label on everything—you know what I mean?
Well, I don't, necessarily.
That's how you're spelling everything—when you say: "You heard Diz". But two guys can do the same thing, and still won't see each other. So it was happening, like I say. It actually happened in Kansas City. If you listen to Charlie Parker, he sounds like Ben Webster, you know. Dizzy doesn't sound like Charlie Parker; they're two different people. Right?
Yes. But Dizzy's playing underwent certain changes. Or perhaps evolution is a better word. He doesn't play now the same way he played in his earlier years.
Well, on some of the early records he sounded something like Roy Eldridge.
Then the critics were wrong, man.
But you couldn't hear the things that developed later in his playing at that time.
Maybe there was nothing to develop. Right?
At a certain point his playing sort of found a new direction, l suppose.
I don't hold it against Dizzy, you know, but if a guy wants to play a certain way, you work towards that. If he stops—he's full of crap, you know. I mean, I wouldn't do it, for no money, or for no place in the white man's world. Not just to make money, because then you don't have anything. You don't have as much money as whoever you're trying to ape; that's making money by being commercial. Then you don't have anything to give the world; so you're not important. You might as well be dead.
That's the way it goes. I mean, guys should keep on doing it right, no matter what it is. If you sacrifice your art because of some woman, or some man, or for some colour, or for some wealth, you can't be trusted.
I mean that goes for anybody. I'm not putting Dizzy down or anybody else, you know. But I think they should just keep on, no matter what happens.
You've always believed in playing exactly the way you wanted to at all times?
Course. I want to see if I can do it.
There was the period when you seemed to be using the mute quite a lot.
I use it if I want to play something, here and there. Not because some people said to me : "Miles, you sound good with a mute." I know it sounds good, else I wouldn't pick it up.
On a lot of the records that were very successful, tracks like "All Of You" and "Bye Bye Blackbird", when you played with the mute close to the mike, you had what came to be known as the Miles Davis sound.
I got it from Dizzy.
I don't remember hearing that sound from Dizzy.
Listen to `Ko Ko". But, you see, all my ideas of a tone come from listening to trumpet players who play round—with no tag on the end of the tone. I would never try and play like Harry James, because I don't like his tone—for me.
It's too sort of creamy, I suppose.
What you call creamy and what I call creamy may be two different things. It's just white. You know what I mean? He has what we black trumpet players call a white sound. But it's for white music.
Do all white players have a white sound?
Well, no—there's still something that isn't there, you know. I can tell a white trumpet player, just listening to a record. There'll be something he'll do that'll let me know that he's white.
It's like listening to somebody's accent, is it?
Right. I can hear a grey singer that's trying to sing coloured—I don't mean black, I mean coloured—and all of a sudden, like, he'll say "mother" and his "er" won't get that true sound. Tom Jones is funny to me, man. I mean, he really tries to ape Ray Charles and Sammy Davis, you know.
Yes—but he's making a success of it.
Well, see, he's nice–looking; he looks good doing it. I mean, if I was him, I'd do the same thing. If I was only thinking about making money.
What did you think of Chet Baker?
I liked Chet. But white guys play a certain way, man. They lean on notes, you know, when they set a rhythm. I used to enjoy all the white bands when I was a kid listening to the radio.
But the record companies, they take music and label it—like, they say "rock". Because the white singers can't sound like James Brown, they call him "soul". They've been doing that for years. That's the prejudice crap. So you get rock groups that are white, that are actually prejudiced. They say "freedom", but they only mean freedom for themselves.
And I see all those white producers—trying to make young films. But they don't understand that scene. They mess them white kids up; the kids don't know whether to f—or ride. Or get high. I see 'em getting high most of the time.
When white people get high, they say: "It's all right for me." There's a lot of guys in jail, man, for ten years that had two sticks of reefer, you know—because they're black, and with a white girl or something. Now you get a white kid with two sticks of reefer, they'll throw it away—and let him off.
I mean, it's those producers and record companies the way they sell things helps with a lot of prejudice. It builds a white image.
Like, jazz is an Uncle Tom word. They should stop using that word for selling. I told George Wein the other day that he should stop using it.
But is there any substitute word?
Just music, man. We might play anything out there. It gets back to you asking me how I learned how to play a trumpet. I mean, you hear correct fingering and all that crap. But when you sell one side. . . White people can handle a horn and other white people want to see 'em, with their long hair and all that—okay. But also sell the black man, so he can appreciate his black brothers.
Look at John Wayne. He's a sad so–and–so outside movies. You know—the way he thinks. You can get somebody other than Sidney [Poitier] building up the spade guys and groovin' them girls. All the white men want to make love to all them pretty black girls. You know—they're always looking.
I mean, you can have it in movies so the guys can see the girls and the girls can see the guys so they can like their own people—since it's such a sin to make love to a white. But that's the way they sell it, the record companies and the movies.
Nevertheless, though, some of the record producers do have a certain amount of integrity and try to promote the best in music.
A guy might start out with good intentions, you know, and when he comes to—selling it, he goes to somebody else. The sales department sells that stuff.
The beautiful albums you did with Gil Evans—there's an artistic endeavour.
Everybody knows that.
Whoever was responsible for the production was doing something worthwhile.
The first time it came out, it had a white woman with a little boy on the cover.
It didn't get that sleeve in Britain.
The reason you didn't was because I told 'em to take it off. There's some sad things happen, man. I'm 43 and before I die I want to see somebody get something. I can make all the money I'm never going to need. That's not important; I was doing that when I was ten, selling papers. I mean, that's easy—just to make money. But the other part needs straightening out.
I mean, Gil and I might do something, you and I might do something, but when it gets to the sales department, they say : "The young white kids have the most money", which isn't necessarily true. So they say the white kids buy dope because they have too much money. Well, how come there's so many Spanish people and Negroes in jail for dope? It doesn't balance, man, no matter what you say.
I have to play the way I want to play, because that's the only way I can feel like something, you know. I feel like crap, man, out there. If I would go to a war or something, I don't have anything at home. If I go out, I might have to fight. I got shot at six times—I mean, that's all on account of a white man, even if indirectly, trying to make a Negro have as much money as he has. He shoots at me—a black man, you know. But it doesn't do any good, because you can't change no white man. I'd rather die than to be so sad.
In America, the home of jazz, it seems to be treated with contempt, almost.
As I said, we don't even use that word jazz. It's an Uncle Tom expression.
But initially it was just a way of describing improvisation.
Americans don't like any form of art, man. All they like to do is make money. They don't like me, Sammy Davis, or anybody else. They don't like nothing. They just like Sammy because he can make 'em a lot of money.
Well, they like to go out and be entertained by you and Sammy.
I mean, it makes me sick when I see a white man sitting there smiling at me being entertaining, man. When I know what he's gonna do after he gets through. You know, when you see that thing on their face—like: "Entertain me." You know what I mean? Even the black guy that's trying to be white—even he can have that crap on his face.
I'm there because I know how to play music better than most musicians. I mean, my conception is considered by musicians to be top, you know. And I know it; that's the reason I'm there. Those people should know that, that I'm not out there grinning, Tomming. I'm out there doing the best that I can, My lip is cut and I'm still playing. I'm not trying to be cute. I know how I look. I'm not messing around with nobody's woman. If I want a woman I go get her—you know what I mean? So I'm just there performing. I'm straight. Actually, I think, old–fashioned, you know. I'm just straight.
But at least a proportion of the audience is as sincere as you are.
People who like music, man, they seem to like all types. And they don't care whether you're black or white you know, the real music–lover. But those people sitting over there, they care.
I can let Dave [Holland] play sometimes—you hear loud applause; that's all from white people. I know they're gonna do it. It's like it's a boxing match.
But me and the guys I grew up with, we used to sit and listen to music, and we didn't care who was playing or what colour you were. I heard Buddy Rich—damn, he could play! Gene Krupa, you know. All them musicians came down and jammed with us. If they couldn't play, whether they were white or coloured, man, made no difference.
It was either good or bad. Well, that should be the only criterion.
That's the way you judge a car, man, when you start it up. It's just the same thing. I mean, I drive a Ferrari—not to be cute, but because I dig it. I'd rather drive a ten–year–old Ferrari than one of them new things—they don't go.
The movement for playing complete freedom—is this part of a reaction against these attitudes?
No, it's just something that happens, man. We started doing that when we started leaving the piano out. Remember when we'd take the piano out and you could never tell where anything was? You could just kinda fool around. Now piano players are just getting so they can kind of feel you, you know. But your reflexes and ears have to be with it, to take you through. No matter what tempo it is, you have to just feel it right.
But there has to be a lot of sympathy between the musicians to bring it off.
Of course. Sometimes it doesn't happen, because maybe a guy's wife'll come in, you know, and his ego will catch him. If everybody's completely just straight—without any old ladies over here, a fourth of whisky over there; if it's balanced right, it'll come off. It has to be. But when you get egos involved with playing free, you can't do it.
However free you get, though, it's based on a given form, isn't it?
Oh, you have some kind of form. You have to start somewhere. I mean, otherwise we'd all be living outdoors. You have walls and stuff, but you still come in a room and act kinda free. There's a framework, but it's just—we don't want to overdo it, you know. It's hard to balance. Sometimes you don't even know if people like it or not.
Can't you gauge it from the audience reaction you get?
Well, I never really listen to that, you know.
You might wonder whether they're genuine, or just applauding because they think this is `the thing'.
No, I only look at writers like that. The writers that say it was out of sight, and I know it wasn't. But audiences—they like colour, you know. I can go out there wearing a red suit, man, and they'll say I'm out of sight.
But you've got to give 'em some credit, too. You must. I mean, look at Duke, man; he drops some things on 'em. I think they should be educated; you should always drop something on an audience. And friends should educate you, you know.
Or else they shouldn't be around—if they're just gonna drain you.
When you get in front of an audience, you should try to give 'em something. After all, they're there looking at you like this. You can't go out and give 'em nothing .
hen you get in front of an audience, you should try to give 'em something. After all, they're there looking at you like this. You can't go out and give 'em nothing.
You see, women usually make the men satisfied and contented. Bitches like to feel good, have their back rubbed at the same time, look good in the latest clothes, have their man where they want him. You know, they like the comfort. Then, when you come on the stage they want that same thing. They don't want to have to think, or follow you. If they don't like you right away by the way you look, or something, they won't go for you. W Guys should stay away from women—that comfort thing. There's too much crap going on in the world that you're supposed to be comfortable. You've got to be on your toes. You can't just stand—because they're fighting somewhere, man, and it's pretty messy.
You've really got to challenge yourself, and also the people who are listening to you.
If I go to hear someone, I'm at their mercy. I'm listening, you know, but I don't go there and say: "Do something." I'm trying to get whatever they put out. But I don't demand it, because things don't come like that. You know what I mean? I mean, we might visit London once in two years, and it might be an offnight. But you can't say I'm a sad soandso, because I've got too many points.
This is something that people don't always take into account—that musicians are human.
Right. If I go to hear Dizzy, I hear what I want to hear in him, you know. I don't hear what they see. I hear little things that he does, that make me say : "Yeah, okay"—and the rest of the jive, I just don't listen. Or look.
Do you go out and listen a great deal to other music?
All the time.
To classical music some of the time?
Yeah, but not to be comfortable. I want to hear something. I'm 43, man—I've heard Ravel. The only way I'll play Ravel is, if I want to refer to his kind of impressionism in some way. 'Cause this is 1970, man.
Some of Gil's writing on the albums had the feel of the romantic composers. Then you got the Spanish sound.
If you want to sound Spanish, you can do it; but you have to lean to each note. That's the trick right there. To get one of those scores—we used to do 'em together, you know. A lot of people don't know that.
You worked on them together? You would suggest something and he would put it down?
Then I would write something and give it to him. I'd say: "Put this on this note". You know, we have a bigband sound now, that's really out of sight, man. We did that last year. If you'd hear it, you'd say: "Wow ! " .
A large orchestra?
Yes, but it's not that bull—you hear. Because we have a different set of instruments. First of all we have our whitey guitar (John McLaughlin); we have tuba, French horn, double bass, clarinet, bassoon—all sounds like that, you know. Flute, piccolo, harp, mandolin, two electric pianos. But you should hear that sound. I mean, that other big band sound is over. It's been over for quite some time.
If it's dead, there's a lot of people who won't let it lie down.
They should get away from four saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones. Trombones don't serve any purpose at all.
The sound we have—it's out of sight. Then you can write into it, so that a certain part's written and other parts will be ad lib, and you can't even tell it.
On my last date, I used a regular bass and electric bass, two electric pianos, one organ and four drummers. And a bass clarinet. You ought to hear that. Conga drums, and the other drums just played, different sounds. And a guitar.
Interweaving with one another?
Right. A lot of the kind of thing that just falls. Then sometimes a bass line and it swings, just like a pulse. There's a lot of colour. A lot of times I told the bass clarinet to play with other instruments.
I used John McLaughlin on guitar, but I had a bass playing with him—and me, too. Some lines were written and some lines were just played together, you know.
Charlie Parker. and I used to do that. He'd play on top, I'd play on the bottom, and I would never clash with him. But never play the same thing—you know what I mean?
Complementing one another.
Right. You can do that with all sorts of things.
So long as you've got the musicians of the ability to do it.
That's the trick—getting the musicians. You get a good musician, and tell him what to do. And what you tell 'em to do has to be what they want to do; anyway. I mean, you can't tell 'em something they don't want to do. It won't come out. This last album we made was really something.
Was Dave Holland on that? Playing normal bass and electric, was he?
Yeah, I think he might have been playing guitar, too, and electric bass. I mean, if you can get a sound that's supposed to come in and all your feelings go to make that little sound. . . It might be bells; it might be a little flute with the bells.
I know I wrote one thing on just a rhythm pattern. Like, pap–pap–pap, pap–pap–pap—like that, and it kept repeating it. You can't even tell when it stops. But you keep adding chords to it, and sounds, you know. Not building, so much as what's in between, that makes it sound different every time you hit it. You keep on doing it, but the inside is different. You can just keep it going all night, man.
It's like listening to a train a lot of times; you know, sometimes it's the same and other times it changes. Yes, you can hear different things all the time against it.
But watch those people who want to be comfortable, man—they'll turn you in. Who wants to be comfortable? You heard Dave originally in Ronnie Scott's club, didn't you? He doesn't play like that now.
He doesn't play the way he was playing then?
Mmmm. What—over a year ago?
This is because he's been influenced by the whole group, or by you particularly?
Well, Dave plays the way he wants to play. And it's usually what's needed. You know, Dave is such a deep thinker. You can't tell him too much, else it might spoil his spirit. you know. Then when you tell a guy something, you get to thinking—well, who are you to tell him anything, anyway? Let him do what he does; maybe you'll be gaining something.
But you heard enough in him to know he'd be able to grow in the group?
I know whatever he does, it won't be any bull—. That's enough right there. I've had guys say: "Man, why don't you get a brother to play the bass?" I say: "Can he play like that?" I don't give a damn who it is, what colour he is. Miroslav [Vitous] was playing most of it, too.
Oh yes, he was over here with Stan Getz.
Ah, but you couldn't hear it. You can't hear him with Stan.
It seemed, somehow, that the rhythm: section were pulling one way, while Stan was pulling the other.
I can't understand why Stan can't play that other way, you know.
He's too deeply immersed in what he's doing.
That’s hard to say. He's a good player; but it's that ego there again, you know.
As you say, he doesn't want to do anything that's not natural to him.
Oh no—it's back to being comfortable again. You know what I mean? He's just comfortable where he is.
He's not trying to find new fields.
Feelsnot fields. Because you have to. Your point of balance should change, you know. You can't do everything flatfooted. In boxing I learned that; I mean, a lot of times you throw a punch from the upper body, and you might want to throw it lower down. Then you have to do it from the hips. See, a lot of boxers. don't know that stuff—like, how to swivel.
That's what a player has to do.
You see Chick [Corea] do funny kinds of things—because the beat is all messed up. He might play an eleven–note phrase.
That isn't comfortable, either. I mean, the beat might be here, and he might be playing way up on top of it. You have to fix yourself sort of a point of balance—. anywhere. That’s what I mean by not being comfortable.
This is perhaps a big pitfall with many musicians. They get to a certain point, feel that they're established and it is comfortable for them to stay with it.
You should never be comfortable, man. Being comfortable fouled up a lot of musicians.
By the same token, some musicians, by trying too hard to break away completely from their roots, or their past, might have got on to a plane that was unnatural to them.
Well—if you're going to be in that field among a lot of those guys, it shouldn't be unnatural. If you're trying to be hip, be hip.
Like, Coleman Hawkins had been playing in an established swing way for many years, and then he got with other schools of musicians.
You take Coleman, if he had changed instruments, maybe his balance point would have changed. If he'd played, maybe, an alto or a soprano sax, his balance right here (holding hips) would have gone somewhere else: I told Chico to switch—what's his name, that died; he used to play with Coltrane—I told Chico to switch him off of alto.
Eric Dolphy. See, when he got on the bass clarinet, he sounded different. You can take a guy off a trumpet, put him on a bass trumpet, and he plays different. Take a guitar player that you think is bad, and put him on electric bass—that does the trick.
You got yourself a good interview. About the first in the last three years.
Copyright © 1969, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.