A Les Tomkins interview of 1975
Recently, you played an engagement at Ronnie Scott’s with a British rhythm section—Gordon Beck, Kenny Baldock and Martin Drew. Did that go well?
Yeah—they’re okay. Well, you play together, and it’s only natural that each night you get a better relationship, or a better understanding—if you have those kind of musicians.
You don’t always have that, though; but when you do, it becomes a natural thing.
It’s about a year now, isn’t it, since the MJQ broke up? Over a year—it was July ‘74.
That “Final Concert” album we made in November was just a special thing. We got together just for that occasion, but the group had broken up before that. Right, it was just a reunion.
Twenty–two years is a large slice of anybody’s lifetime. The fact that you stayed together that long obviously meant you had a good thing going there.
Yeah—it was all right, for what it represented.
Would you say you all felt that eventually it would have to come to an end? No, not at all: Because nobody felt that way but me—and that’s the reason for the whole thing. First of all, let me explain it in a simple way: for what the Modern Jazz Quartet was supposed to have represented for twenty–two years, it would have been one of the baddest in its field—by baddest I’m sure you understand what I’m saying—but it never represented itself that way financially. When I first decided to leave, they could have sued me for two million dollars for quitting, and I could have paid it. Simple enough? Now, if you ask me questions for the next forty minutes, man, you ain’t gonna get no better answer, no clearer revelation than that.
Throughout the existence of the group, you did other things outside it, didn’t you? But not on a regular basis.
No—because I devoted a certain amount of time to playing with the Quartet.
Had the group stagnated, to some extent, would you say? I don’t know—but I’d rather not I go into that part of it. I made a personal decision to leave; why I decided that is nobody else’s business. What I felt about the group, or any one of the members of the group, is my own personal opinion—we’ll let it go at that.
Okay, but over the years people who love you as a player have said that, in their opinion, you were held back in the group. But, as you’ve told me be fore, you didn’t feel that way at all. The group was doing all kinds of musical things, and you had a great deal of scope.
Yeah, and I got sick to death of some of those comments. What it amounted to, man : there comes a time in everybody’s life—yours, mine, and everyone else—where you must evaluate what you want to do for yourself and no one else. It has nothing to do with nobody else—you know what I mean? And it really came to that point, where I had to sit down and evaluate : “Hey, what are you gonna do with your life?” Okay? I said : “Well, look—I’ve been with this for twenty–two years. I feel I would prefer spending the remaining years of my musical career doing something else.” It’s really just that simple. And rather than get somebody to replace me, and keep the Quartet going as such, they preferred to just dissolve it.
We sat down and made a mutual agreement on that—and that’s the way it happened.
Other than the reunion concert, you’ve had no get–togethers with any of them since then? Is each of the other three working independently?
Right—they’re all doing independent things on their own. I think John’s teaching school at City College—at least, he was. Percy’s got a group with his two brothers; I think they’re gonna try and go into it, and travel as a group. Which will be very marvellous, because actually they really are a real groovy bunch of guys together. And Connie Kay was working, I believe, with Sy Oliver’s band in New York; Sy has a band at the Rainbow Grill, and I had heard that Connie was on drums with him.
I have two CTI albums under your name: “Sun flower”, with people like Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard, plus strings, and “Olinga”, with people like Jimmy/ Heath and Mickey Roker, plus strings on some tracks. Was “Olinga” your most recent issue?
Yeah, that’s still the most recent out. Although I’ve got a new one about to come out, as a matter of fact, for Pablo. No, I’m no longer with CTI.
How did you feel about that association, the exposure you had on CTI?
Well, for a while it was very good. I thought it was gonna be really great, but, you know, I think the financial situation sort of slowed down progress. Like, promotion facilities, for example. Because it takes a lot of money to keep those labels going, to handle all the artists; you get a hit record, and then when the record begins to die down, there’s a lot of time to make up for there—you know, that kind of thing.
But one of the things about being with this company, though, is the fact that it’s Norman Granz who produces the label. To me, he’s the most sympathetic man, in terms of having respect for the music and for the artist.
That’s very important; it means I’ll be able to record now the kind of music I want to play, without any hang–ups about trying to make a million to sell, to make the money back—because he’s not concerned with that. He’s not a producer who’s struggling, suddenly trying to make a million dollars. And that makes all the difference in the world.
I have to respect him for it, because there’s too few like that. There’s only a few—it’s one of the reasons jazz has never really become large, or. . let’s put it this way—in terms of a commercial level. We just don’t have enough people like that, that would push it. If we did, it would have.
Well, he’s a man who believes a hundred per cent in the value of the music in itself.
Right. See, and it makes it important when you can get a person like that who believes in it, and is also in a position to do something. We can get a whole lot of people that love it to death, but those are not the people that can do anything about it. Now, I’m concerned with all aspects of it, but naturally I’m vitally concerned with positive action.
For example—if we had Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, any number who are no loner here, if those people were alive, then you wouldn’t have people in the other field that would be that big in the music business. At least, that’s my own feeling about it. But it becomes a case of politics, which has to do with money, and any profession or any culture is a victim of it.
And some people who don’t have major talents are built up.
That’s right. It very definitely pertains to all walks of life.
As everybody has told me—recording with Nor man, he gives you a completely free hand, doesn’t he?
He does. He’ll suggest something he likes, if he thinks it might be compatible for you to play—which is only natural. But he doesn’t get in the way, and be bugging you about: “Oh, no, you got to do such–and–such”, because he’s got too much respect for the artist, first of all. He realises that just like he’s been an impresario for thirty years or so, I’ve been a musician for thirty–five, professionally; so I’ve got to know what I’m doing, to be still out here.
When you get hung up with recording companies, though, then they’re interested in trying to make a million and get in the Top Ten; they don’t care nothing about what the music sounds like. And the tragedy is that the one who suffers most is the artist. He goes through a hassle: musically he isn’t satisfied, plus he’s not gonna get none of the money. See, they can exploit you when they want to, any way that they want to, because they’ve got the two things they need to do it—the money and the power.
But I must say, I enjoyed those CTI albums; you stretched out quite a bit on them.
Oh, they were all right. But I’ve learned to enjoy the music. Look, that’s my whole thing, man—my whole life. So, naturally, I’ll always be sympathetic when it comes to music. Sure—Don Sebesky’s a good writer.
Another writer, whose albums you’ve appeared on, is Quincy Jones. I know you have the highest opinion of his writing. But do you feel that he has been swayed by commercial considerations? Sure—very definitely. It’s only natural. Right, you try to make it as musical as possible—that’s the idea. But when you get caught up in the realm of trying to be commercial, or trying to capitalise on the commercialism, it can change your way of thinking, your whole outlook.
But you’ve got to reach an audience; so you can’t go too far out with an audience, can you? Well, you’re not supposed to, but of course, you know they do. Because if they didn’t, then you wouldn’t have none of that music they call ‘far out’, you see. But I think in terms of: you’re obligated to play music and give the audience something of value, in return for them pay ing to come in and see you. If they don’t come and pay, then you ain’t got no fans; so it makes no difference what you play.
And you believe in giving them a variety. In a national paper, while you were at Ronnie’s, a strange reviewer was disappointed because you didn’t swing hard on every tune.
I believe in finding a type of music that will eventually reach the largest part of the audience—that’s what you’re there for. You include whatever you think will be appealing to your audience—it’s that simple—whether it be a ballad, Latin, swing, anything. Whatever it takes, you feel you’re supposed to be able to find it.
Anyway, a ballad is as much of a challenge to you as a stomping, up–tempo thing, isn’t it? You’re playing what you enjoy to play.
Well, for the most part. First of all, though, my feeling is lyrical, you know. And once you really listen to what I’m playing, it’s just as plain as going to kindergarten. It’s right there for you to see. There’s nothing mysterious about my playing, because, first of all, I don’t be lieve in no mysterious thing. I believe in everything being clear–cut, everything making sense, so you can under stand it.
How do you feel now about the period of jazz in which you came along—the bebop era? I came along in the era when music meant some thing, man. Music had a definite meaning, and it made sense—whether you call it bebop, or whatever you call it.
See, but once you go using them words again, right away you’ve restricted music—and that’s where you put the stigma on it. The music, not the people. As soon as you go to saying jazz or bebop, you put that restriction on it, and a whole lot of people immediately frown on it, before they even look into it to see what it’s about—because they’ve been told that. You really don’t need put no labels on music. I wish that it would come a time when you don’t put no label—if it’s music, you enjoy it, and let it go at that. It should be in terms of good music, without it being necessary to classify it.
The only thing is: if somebody’s improvising, then, of course, he must be termed a jazz player.
Well, the idea of putting the name on it is to capitalise on the name—that’s what that means. ‘Cause who is it to draw the line, to say whether it’s jazz or whether it isn’t? You can’t. I can’t either—and I play it. I mean, that makes me no expert whatsoever. Am I to be the one to say: “Okay, from here on out it’s jazz; from this part on it’s something else”? That’s what messed the business up—and the people in the business.
People who don’t have no right whatsoever stand up: “Well, this is so–and–so.” You. can’t classify my music, not better than me. I don’t care how much of an ex pert you are—ain’t no way in the world. Never in life.
‘Cause I’m out here with it every day; no way possible you can get by me with it. And, see, this is what we’ve suffered from all the time: some critic that don’t know nothing about the music, or what it’s about, he’s got an article that reaches fifty million readers, telling ‘em that this is such–and–such. This is the biggest lie in the world, and we’ve got to pay for it, because people believe it.
Can jazz be taught, do you think? Not completely A lot of this music comes from the natural source—which is not out of the book. But through that book intellect thing, they try to interpret what it means and tell you. And that’s where everything gets distorted, and then a lot of the wrong meanings come out, so that people get the wrong understanding. You get the best understanding of this music by listening to it, any way. Not by going to no jazz classroom, with some cat teaching you a chorus on jazz—because nine times out of ten it’s the wrong cat teaching you. ‘Nobody can walk into no university classroom and tell them people he knows more about this music than I do—no way.
They used to tell me I couldn’t go to your university and get a degree; then they said I couldn’t teach your classroom because I don’t have that degree. And that’s really the biggest brainwash there ever was. Man, I’m a self–taught musician; I didn’t get it out no books. So you don’t tell me I got to have your books or your degree to come back and teach it to you. It’s a lie, ‘Cause if you come in and learn it my way, that’s how you’re gonna learn it. That’s how I gave it to you.
But there is an improvement now, isn’t there? A lot of jazz musicians are going into the colleges and telling it the way it really is.
Which should have been happening thirty years ago, and more people would know about jazz music and what it is about. But see, in most of the colleges and universities, it was all mostly whites teaching it. Like I said, I don’t care how good they might be, unless they’re really involved with it and deep into it every day like we are, they can’t teach it to you—not as well as we can. It’s like me going somewhere trying to teach architecture; I don’t know the first thing about architecture. Same difference.
Somebody who has the experience in the craft can defi nitely teach it better than someone who has not. Right, they express theories—but then how many people are hung up by theories?
Referring back to the MJQ—would you say you are a better musician than you were when the Quartet started?
Look, the way I think about music—I feel that any body I play with, as long as it’s progressive and the music means something, that. . .yeah, it s better, cause I think like that. Regardless to who it is—be it with the Quartet or another group of musicians. Musically, I’ve always thought that way.
How do you feel about the vibes, as the instrument is used nowadays? Do you hear some good players?
There’s really not that many; it’s too limited, in terms of the mechanical assets of the instrument. I guess you got a few—but that’s it. Bobby Hutcherson is one of the best, among the young players to came along.
The electronic aspect seems much to the fore now, but, of course, the vibes were already electrified, weren’t they?
Yeah, electronics—and that’s any other reason that music goes over so well in the eyes of the public, because behind it all there are people making millions and millions of dollars selling electronics; so naturally they’re gonna push it, and say it’s great, as long as they can make lots of money out of amplifiers.
You haven’t found any need to add any extra amplification to your instrument, have you?
I tried it, and didn’t like it. So I quit using it. I’m interested in the pure sound of the music, man—not the amplification of it. If you listen, like I say, you don’t need all that amplification, anyway; the music’ll get across.
You see, you turn the fender bass up, turn the amp up on the guitar as loud as it’ll go, till you bust one of the transistors, and then what? It’s all over. Simple as that.
So you’d say, in your opinion, music needs to re turn to some of the basics, and come out of the aerial orbit it’s got into? That’s right—without a shadow of a doubt. Oh yeah, it’s happening—because the young people are beginning to want to learn some more about real music. And that’s the difference.
Would you like to say something about your new Pablo album? It’s a straight live in–person performance. That’s the way they recorded it; that’s the way you’re gonna hear it on the album. I did it at the Montreux Festival, with Oscar Peterson, Niels Pedersen and Mickey Roker. I’ve got a lot of faith that it’s gonna do very well.
How do you see your future now in music? Brighter than it’s ever been from every aspect. I’ve no special plans, at the moment. If the economical situation, specially in our country, gets any better, I’ll go into my original plans of getting a permanent group. Other wise, I’ll just continue to do like I’m doing at the present.
But—nothing like having your own group, man. You know, guys that understand, play what you want, know what you want. Can’t beat that.
Yeah, eventually I’ll get around to doing another al bum with strings—you know, once we think it’s practical.
Or with a big band, maybe.
Recording or in live performance, would you say you feel best when you’re in a small group?
No—there’s no such thing. First of all, it depends on the surroundings. I might feel good with a small group, or out in front of a band, or strings—depending on the circumstances and the environment. On the practical side, a group that I’d have to travel with, like I say, would be a five–piece.
Oh, not a quartet. What would the instrumentation be, then?
My quintet would be Jimmy Heath (tenor saxophone, soprano and flute), Cedar Walton (piano), Sam Jones (bass) and Mickey Roker on drums. Or maybe Bob Cranshaw on bass; he’s another one of my favourite players—but he does a lot of musicals and studio work. Some musicians get to a point, they don’t like to travel too much; so it would be a question of that, maybe. But that’s the kind of a group that I’m talking about. It could cost a lot of money, though, man, to keep that group working.
Which means it’s a matter also of logic and common sense that goes with all of that.
Is the work situation improving, generally? Well, it seems to. It fluctuates, though; just like over here—sort of up and down. Times when it’s good, business is booming—then suddenly it’s not. That applies, you know. And that’s easy to happen with this kind of thing I’m involved in, ‘cause there’s no telling. It’s never been a majority thing, anyway—it’s always been among the minority of the masses.
But is that where it should stay? Is it any good trying to make jazz appeal to a larger audience? Yes—good, and necessary. But it’s just a hell of a project to think about trying to take on. ‘Cause it’s a hard job—you don’t have that many people that believe the same thing. It’s vitally necessary. Something you’ve been involved in all your life, man—wouldn’t you say it’s necessary to try and enhance it? Some kinda way. I’m sure you would like to enlarge your thing to the point where you get more people interested in what you’re doing; it makes you better and a bigger man. Same thing.
Certainly—but not to the point where we had to lower the level.
No such thing as lowering the level! Jazz is not a low–level music. No way.
Of course not, but you can’t deny that many people have lowered the level of their music, in order to try to reach a large audience.
Oh yeah, the level of the music. But the real music—the level of that is never lowered. You don’t lower that. You can’t—you can only elevate it Just a matter of educating the people—that’s where that’s at. You just give them more of a musical education, and that’s simply by making ‘em aware of what’s going on. The book–learning—like I say, that’s just a part of it. A big part is really in showing them, pointing it out to ‘em—you know, demonstrate for ‘em. Open their eyes to what’s really happening. You can’t write all that down in books.
It just has to be a direct experience.
Right. Can’t beat it. The direct experience, you don’t really forget it, if you’ve been impressed by it.
Such as the way I’ve always been impressed by the brilliance of your playing. A final question, Milt—would you say you’re glad you chose vibes as your instrument?
Well, man, if I wasn’t, it s far too late for me to think about changing it! After playing ‘em for over thirty–five years. No, I never felt like playing anything else—not for a living. One time I played five different instruments. But I got all the outlet and scope I need—whatever I need. And I got other scopes to go to. It was just a matter of me choosing; I decided that instrument fascinated me more than any other, and so I chose that as the main instrument. Simple as that. Sure—as long as I play it; every night I’m gonna find something different and new about it. Up until the time I stop playing ‘em. It’s a natural thing—that is, if you’re that conscientious about your music and your instrument and things like this. That’s the difference.Copyright © 1975, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.