Woody Herman’s Right–Hand Man

talks to Les Tomkins

Piano is the only instrument I’ve ever played. Oh, I guess when I was real young, in Boston, Mass., I had a clarinet for a few weeks, but I couldn’t seem to make any sense out of that. It was one of those things—I guess it happens to a lot of musicians—where my father was a very big sports fan. Of course baseball is a big game in .the United States, and he always used to say: ‘Well, we gotta play baseball.’ But my mother said : ‘No—you’re gonna take piano lessons’—which I hated with a vengeance. I couldn’t stand it, but they almost forced me into this thing. At least, for three years, when I was nine or ten years old. So I took the required three years that my mother forced on me, and I said ‘Later.’ No more piano, I didn’t want to know about it; I went out and played some baseball.

Came high school and we had these assemblies going on, and they wanted somebody to play the piano. There was nobody available. I could play a little boogie woogie at the time: Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons instruction books were appearing on the market. I learned a few of those things, and I played some miserable–sounding boogie woogie pieces while everybody gathered in the hall for the meeting. Eventually they had a high school dance band going. The piano player got sick. so I was drafted into that. And I started to get interested in it.

The last couple of years I was in high school, I started to work around professionally in the Boston area, playing in shows, little clubs. jazz groups. I know a lot of the people from those days are still around there. I’d really hate to ask ‘em how it sounded. It must have sounded terrible, unbelievable. But you just keep going until you reach a certain degree of professionalism, and somebody hires you. Then you can actually make a living playing music!

In the middle and late ‘forties, when I was there, the Boston scene was very stimulating. I wasn’t married at the time. I had an apartment right around the corner from the jazz club, the High Hat. And everybody came there and played with us—Charlie Parker; Basie was in and out of there with a sextet, and I used to play every last set for him. I worked there for two or three years with Serge Chaloff and a quartet. There was a place out in Framingham, called Christie’s, where we used to go after hours. Bird was also there, and Bill Harris, Wardell Gray, Jo Jones, Milt Jackson, Roy Haynes, Howard McGhee, Kenny Drew—everybody. It was just like an all–star roster of jazz.

We had a chance to sit in with these guys, and talk to ‘em. They made a lot of tapes, and I think a few of ‘em from Christie’s have been issued in the States on the Charlie Parker label. I wasn’t on them, but Dick Twardzik, another piano player that came, from up there, was on a few tapes with Bird during that era.

Stan Getz would come up there. One night we played with Stan until about seven or eight in the morning. It was just in the Fall, and ‘as we came out, there were swarms of birds up in the sky flying South, as the sun was coming up: You know, it was a beautiful sight.

Gigi Gryce was there and Joe Gordon, the trumpet player. And, of course, all the guys from round Boston—Charlie Mariano, Joe Macdonald, Sonny Truitt. It seemed like every other guy was a musician. Of course, we were only hanging out with musicians at the time.

I had a big band up there for about three years. There was another band before mine, called Ray Borden’s Band. I played piano and wrote for it. Things weren’t going along too smoothly and everybody was very unhappy—so they fired him! And they elected me to be bandleader. So I took over and made a few changes. But we didn’t actually make a living from the band. I guess it was an experimental venture.

We made a few 78 records on a Boston label—which subsequently went out of business, naturally. They had no distribution. A few people still have copies. Wardell Gray used to carry a couple around all the time in his travelling outfit with record player. They were It Might As Well Be Spring and Autumn In New York, both featuring Charlie Mariano on alto. I didn’t know that until years later, because I met him for the first time when he came with Basie’s small band. He said: ‘I know you’, and so on, and he pulled out this record. I couldn’t believe it, but he was actually serious about this.

Then, when George Shearing came over from England, he worked around New York for a while, and he organised his now famous Quintet. He came to Boston for a one–nighter—his first outside exposure. Somehow, my band was opposite his. He went on twice a night, I think, and we had a sensational thing going there for about three days, with people lined up out in the streets. And he fell in love with the girl that was singing with my band at the time—Teddi King.

He said: ‘What are you going to do with this girl?’ I said: ‘Well—there’s nothing much I can do. We’re up here in Boston, and nobody could care less.’ So he said: ‘Well. I think I’ll see what I can do for her.’ And he took her to New York, and she worked and recorded with him for a while. That’s what actually started her on her career—outside of Boston, anyway. She’d sung around night clubs, and made records with my band before that.

There were some outstanding musicians, like Sonny Truitt. in that band of mine. Also a fellow that’s since retired from music—he’s a public accountant. His name was Mert Goodspeed—a very excellent trombonist. And a trumpet player by the name of Willis Reeves Preddy—known as Gates to his friends—who is now a jeweller down in Orange, Virginia.

Most of the guys were all single, like I say, in those days. We didn’t have a dime, we couldn’t care about making money—as long as we had enough to exist on. So we had a very good thing going there. We had a certain amount of professionalism. I guess when I listen back to some of those records now, they sound kinda trite—with all the so–called bebop licks that we wrote into the arrangements. Double–time trumpet figures and everything—it was kinda patterned after Woody’s band at the time.

We made one record date, to which a lot of the guys from Woody’s band showed up—Lou Levy, Earl Swope, Zoot, Serge and so on. They all came around to help us on our way. It was nice. It was a very friendly situation up there in Boston at that time. So my direction was towards the Herman noise. It was a little cruder then, though. Some of the voicings were strange, and then we wrote too many notes. We did things that were completely uncomfortable to play. In fact, we couldn’t even play ‘em!

I don’t think this band or any other could play some of the things we played up in Boston. We just killed ourselves, trying to get these things down, you know—for no reason at all. It was just a lot of flash. But we thought we were doing something that was good. Most young people do play many extra notes. It takes many years to learn what to leave out. My influence in writing at the very beginning—I was working with smaller bands that had three or four horns, or maybe only two horns. I was very impressed with the small band versions of Duke Ellington, that featured Johnny Hodges. Barney Bigard—they’re all on Bluebird Records in the States—Squatty Roo, Hodge Podge etc. I used to kinda write like that.

Never having written for a big band, I had no idea how to set about it. I just copied a few phrases off those records of Woody’s and made up my own tunes or wrote ‘em into arrangements of standards, or whatever. I was just trying to evolve something that I could do. There was nobody to teach me arranging.

I went to the Conservatory up there for a year. It was basically a classical education. You go at the rate of the slowest student in the class, which wasn’t very fast. Six months later, and we’re still going over the same thing in counterpoint and all that. After about a year of that I just got disgusted. I was working at night in order to get enough money to get through the school. But it got very boring, and I gave it up after a year. It wasn’t what I wanted to learn, anyway. I couldn’t care less about Beethoven and all those people at that time.

So I just went out and jumped on a job and hoped for the best. Guys said: ‘Play this chord’, and ‘Play that chord’. ‘Put this in here’. ‘Figure that out’. You know. You got little pointers from everybody that came through.

In the early ‘forties a lot of big bands came and played in a place called the Tick Tack Club. Mostly the large coloured bands. And I used to go every Sunday, when they rehearsed all day, starting in the morning. Then they would do two or three shows from about four in the afternoon until one that night. I heard some fabulous music there. Lionel Hampton’s original first band with Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Ernie Royal. Marshall Royal.

Fletcher Henderson’s last big band was up there, with Art Blakey on drums. Billy Eckstine’s band came up, which also had Dexter. Lucky Thompson was in the band. Bird had left, and they had John Jackson in his place. I saw one of Jimmy Lunceford’s last big bands, right before all the guys got drafted out of there. Kenny Kersey had just replaced Mary Lou with Andy Kirk. And Fats Waller had a big band. Earl Hines had a band—almost thirty pieces, it seems to me—an all–girl violin section, five trumpets, six trombones.

One trombone doubled on guitar, another doubled on piano. Huge scenes like that would go on, you know! And they just kept coming week after week. We would save our money and run up there and try to catch ‘em. It was very interesting. I wish all that was happening now. I’d like to hear some of that again.

I never get a chance to see many bands, because we travel around so much. You may catch an Ellington concert one day, spend an hour and a half at a Basie record date. Like, a year goes by and you never get to see anybody. It makes it hard, because I’m so interested in what’s happening. My joining Woody’s band came about because one of the trumpet players that was with my band in Boston had gone with Woody, and somehow he convinced him that he should call me up when Dave McKenna went into the army for the Korean war.

That was in 1951. Of course, Ralph Burns was the head man at that point. He was writing all kinds of things—pop tunes, originals, novelties. They had everything going on. He had just left MGM when I joined. Wonderful people like Doug Mettome and Don Fagerquist on trumpets, Urbie Green on trombone, Sonny Igoe on drums were still with the band. Then Chubby Jackson reappeared on the scene with his bass. This was, I guess, around September or October of 1951.

By the next Spring we were making records for Woody’s own label, Mars. On the first session we made Terrisita, Moten Stomp, Stompin’ At The Savoy and Jump In The Line. Those were the first records I ever made with a so–called big time band. After that I started writing for the band. Buck Dance—I wrote the beginning and the last chorus and Ralph Burns wrote the middle part—all the little four–bar send–offs for the soloists.

Woody wanted to have a thing where we brought in all kinds of different dances. The Sailor’s Hornpipe, Turkey In The Straw and so on. We still play Buck Dance—we do it as a cha–cha now, during dance engagements. We may build another monster in that vein, but we never get around to it with so many other things to do.

Then I got more into the vocal arranging field. I’d previously done some for Teddi King with my band, and I was now doing some for Woody. I wrote vocal arrangements for Ella Fitzgerald—they came out under Frank De Vol’s name, but I wrote ‘em! And I wrote a couple for Bixie Crawford, the vocalist that Basie used to have in the early ‘fifties.

I try to put as little into a vocal arrangement as I can. Because people want to hear the vocal, not the arrangement. Even if it’s a jazz vocal, you shouldn’t be distracted by a big, dazzling array of technique going on in the background.

In the New York recording field, if the A. and R. man’s got any ear at all, he’ll cut half of that stuff out. So you’ve spent many hours working all these things out, and you’ll never hear it, anyway. And sometimes it’s recorded so badly that even if it is there, it’s just a mumble. So who cares—just let the rhythm section take it for eight bars, with a Harmon mute in the back, or something very simple. Why kill yourself?

Woody has a thing going against intros. A long time ago he made a record of Let It Snow, Let It Snow with the original Herd—Bill Harris and all those people. Neal Hefti wrote this monster intro—I think it was 24 bars long. Quotes from Stravinsky—it was great. Woody loved it. But it took 24 bars to get into the song. And Vaughn Monroe came out—like, it went one, two, three, four and in. It became a national hit. So Woody said: ‘It must be the fault of the intro.’ So even to this day, it’s very short intros—we go right in.

I don’t know how many beautiful intros Woody chopped out on Ralph, when he was writing for the band.. I have most of the scores at home. and I think one time, if I ever get a chance, I’ll just take all those four bars, eight bars and twelve bars that he wrote, put ‘em all in the same key and have, like, a great composition. He wrote some wild things—just intros for stupid, pop tunes of the time. I was always impressed by Ralph’s writing. I still am, although he doesn’t write much for our field any more. He does Broadway shows, things like that.

He wrote for Ray Charles, but that’s very commercial, I would say—not under the heading of Jazz. It’s not like a band that plays the same things every night and gets a feel for a certain type of arrangement. On these vocal things, I’m sure they just brought ‘em in on the date, they played ‘em over a couple of times, made a take and on to the next one. You never get that real feel for the music going—especially since the guys have already done three or four record dates earlier that day, and, they couldn’t care less whether it was Ray Charles or Ralph Burns or The Twelve Disciples and their orchestra.

I mean, they do like it; they’re sympathetic towards it, but you can’t turn music off and on with a switch. Sometimes they go for two or three months in New York without actually playing on a record date where there’s music involved. Just a rock ‘n’ roll thing, or it’s a huge symphonic over–arranged Andre Kostelanetz–type thing.

It’s very frustrating. So all those guys—the Milt Hintons and Clark Terrys—that do almost every record date there is, keep themselves in shape by playing a little job at night for a few weeks once in a while. Trying to stay abreast of the times and doing something for their own enjoyment, even though there’s not much money involved. Because some of these arrangers that they have writing for record dates are just impossible. You have to re–arrange the music right on the date. But they get found out sooner or later, and another guy moves in, has a very good year, then he goes down.

They’ve been going up and down in New York for the last ten years! Must be twenty arrangers that have disappeared off the scene—and twenty more have come in. It’s all very political. It’s who you know, how much you can drink in comparison to this guy. It gets to be like a rat race.

That’s one of the reasons I came back with Woody. I just gave up on the whole thing. 

How did I get into that scene? I decided I’d had enough of travelling at the time. I had a young daughter that was just about a year old, and I didn’t even get to see her born, or anything like that. Up until that time my wife was still up in Boston. So we decided: ‘Well, we’ll move to New York and see what happens.’ And I felt that I was missing a lot of things by staying on the road with the band. There were some musicians I was very interested in, and I wanted to be able to play with those guys. That’s one of the things I’ve done all my life—if I like somebody’s music. I want to be part of it. Even if it’s lust for a record date or a job at night.

I’d heard some records by Osie Johnson, and I just flipped out. He sounded beautiful on the drums, so I went to New York and I made it a point that I should be on a job some place where he was. And most of the guys that I’ve looked at that way, I’ve ended up working with. I did a few things with Jimmy Rushing, Buck Clayton. I had my own big band around there for a little while, utilising Gus Johnson, Paul Quinichette, Doug Mettome. Dick Hafer, a tenor player that was with me in Woody’s old band—a lot of different people like that. It was nice—as long as I could make a living and support my family.

Those small group dates with Joe Newman and Al Cohn—the Natural Seven and such—I did those in 1954, when I was still with Woody. Of course, I was supposed to be Count Basie, you know. This is the unfortunate point of playing another man’s style. Not that anybody actually does that—they’ll never be a substitute for the original. You can get close, but they can always tell you apart.

There’s not as much individualism going on these days. In the ‘thirties, when the giant of the trumpet was Roy Eldridge, I guess, there were ten trumpet players all copying him—and Louis naturally. Buck, Sweets, Emmett Berry—they were all trying to play like Roy Eldridge, using the same tools that he used, but it all came out their own way. Today, starting about 1956 or ‘57, you can put on a Sonny Stitt record, then a Hank Mobley record, and if you get the same keys and the same basic tune going down, the same licks will fall in the same place by all these guys. Now how are you going to tell ‘em apart? Naturally, if you listen to them constantly you can identify them. But at first hearing it sounds like just another rehash of the same thing.

They may call it advancement, but I don’t. It’s just a mess. That’s why I think Coltrane decided: ‘Later with this whole thing’, and pulled out on his own. Whether it’s right or wrong, at least he made the attempt. He did at one time, I know, play similar to Lucky Thompson—when he was with Dizzy’s small band in the early ‘fifties. He made some records for Prestige. One I remember is Nice Work If You Can Get It—he played a tenor solo on there that has nothing to do with what he’s playing today. And, of course, he didn’t evolve all that overnight. I’m not very sympathetic towards it, because I don’t like the accompaniment. It’s too bombastic and overbearing. There’s no reason to have all that going on in the back—it sounds like a hurricane or a war, instead of a rhythm section. And I imagine in later years from now that he will water his knowledge down to a simpler form, and it’ll be just as meaningful as it is now.

All the kids in our band, they love all that. But it gets very boring, a half–hour or more on the tenor, without even a piano solo. It gets ridiculous—just on and on and on. I don’t think there’s any reason for all that. It’s not a question of him practising on the bandstand, because he’s worked all that out in his room before that, I’m sure. There’s nobody that’s up on the stand creating anything that startling and brand new.

You have to have a certain amount of knowledge and technique to even start trying to play anything like that—and he’s had all that for years. So it’s just a matter of working on his patterns and things. That’s where big band discipline is good for a musician. There was no problem with Lester Young when he did the things with Basie. Whether he had thirty–two bars or eight bars, they were eight beautiful bars went down. He didn’t try to put everything he knew in those eight bars. It wasn’t necessary. He was just creating melodies—composing on his instrument. Which is one of the things that Al Cohn does so well. Every time he picks up the horn. Zoot is more of a swinger, but Al is the real composer of that whole era. He’s really the musician.

I go to hear him every time he’s down at the Half Note when I’m in town, and he never fails to amaze me. The things he can draw out of the same old tired chord changes that everybody’s known for a thousand years. As for me being called on to represent Basie, I found after a while that it was a very comfortable style for me to play,. and I began to enjoy it. Then it got ridiculous, because Basie got sick and they chose me to show up and play with the band. It became so hopeless that when Basie’s wife used to hear a record that I played on, she would say: ‘Bill, when did you make that record?’ And he would listen to the record for a little while and say: ‘You know that isn’t me.’

We joke about that all the time, Basie and myself. He calls me his son and I call him my father. So I guess I’m stuck with this thing now, for the rest of my life. But it’s very enjoyable. And I don’t care really. I’d rather be associated with something like that, that has a meaning, than just anything that comes along.

You know, every year there’s a new Messiah of jazz, who’s supposed to be forging a new way out, or whatever. Everybody jumps in: ‘That’s the greatest.’ All of a sudden it dies, and all these people are caught out there, with all their big statements that they made about this guy. And where is he? He’s not around any more. As for my future, I enjoy being with this band and I intend to stay with it for a period from now.

Eventually I want to get into A and R work and things like that around New York, so that I can stay home with my family and still be involved in music in some way. I like to play—but sometimes I hate to play. It’s drudgery because I should be home writing. It’s kind of a conflict when you do both things like that. There’s really not enough time to do them both well. One suffers from the other all the time. When I play every night, I don’t write every night. And if you lay off writing for a few months, then all of a sudden you’ve got to write, it takes a little time to get all that together again.

(Talking in 1966)

 Copyright © 1966, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved