Jazz Professional               



Different kinds of things

Different kinds of things
You have to do it yourself

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1968
Photo: Denis J. Williams

Our concert at the Royal Albert Hall on February 29 was a very good success, musically and socially, and we hope to do it again. It was really a challenge all the way, from the amount of time in which we had to get it together to the actual performing of the music.

We try, at least, to stay in the concert field. We havenít been in any clubs this year so far, and it doesnít seem like weíre going to be in any. Which I prefer, because you get a chance to do more different kinds of things. If you want to use violins on a concert, people are familiar with those. In night clubs theyíre not. A variety of instruments doesnít necessarily fit in the mood of cabaret listening. I could never have had done what I did Thursday night. in a club. With the singer (Yoko Ono) and everything. At least, thatís what I think. And this wider scope has got to be healthy musically.

That unusualĖsounding instrument I played is called a musette. I got it in New York City. in Chinatown. Yes, itís a very intriguing sound; Iíve had lots of comments about it. The public in general likes the sound. Which is very nice. Iíve been using itóoh, maybe seven months. Not real long. I have to learn how to play it better.

Yes, Iíve been working at the violin, too. Well, I always say if you can play one bad, you can play Ďem all bad! The increased rangeóthatís because of the amount of time Iíve been exposed to it. I still donít put in enough time on it, as I used to, because I spend more time writing music than playing it. And writing music is what I like best.

The way I play, I couldnít do it every night. One reason is that we use a much broader format to the music. In other words, if youíre playing ďMelancholy BabyĒ you have a different attitude towards what youíre trying to express. You know exactly what the key, the changes and the melody are all about, in some kind of way. If you do that every night, itís like social survival. You know, itís just a matter of punching the clock so you can get off. But some people donít believe thatís musicóand Iím one of them.

I think that music has to do with trying to give everybody the full pleasure of the opportunity to hear and feel whatever someone does musically. You shouldnít ever fit music to a social class. Just because they donít work in a bank or something, it doesnít mean that they canít appreciate music. Youíre a human being, projecting human emotions.

The music should try to be as sincere as you can express, whatever it is that has meaning to you and to people. And the more human that is, the more meaningful it is. There is a definite reason for my using two basses now. One is harmonic and the otherís melodic. In other words, I find that the bass fiddle has always had one function. Which was to be, like, a translator for other instruments. Well, since I donít play from a strict form of chord patterns, I donít need the bass to spell out everything that Iím going to do before I do it. So if I have two bass players, is just opens up the scope much wider concerning the direction you wish to take when youíre playing with what are known as rhythm instruments.

In fact, Iíve never regarded the bass and the drums as Ďrhythmí. To me they have the same function as I have when I play the saxophone or the violin or the trumpetójust another instrument playing in a different register. I donít think any instrument is inferior to another. The others in the band reproduce the effects and sounds of their instruments, and have the same authority as I have. Their own expressions have an equal share in the total expression. The only thing I do is to write most of the music.

Yes, we rehearseóevery time we get a chance. Because when I write new music we have to find out what it is that we should do and shouldnít do. I guess Iíve, as they say, paid my dues. Looks like Iím still paying Ďem.

As for having proved my pointóIíve never tried to prove that I had a point. I think I was always trying to do what I could do. If it had that connotation, then thatís just the way things have to be, I suppose. But as far as Iím concerned, Iíve just always tried to get better. Maybe if Iíve gotten better, some people think that constitutes proving my point. However, apart from any technical improvement, thereís nothing different in my music from the way it was years ago, when they say I wasnít doing what Iím doing today.

I just wanted to play because I liked the sound of the saxophone, and I liked several people that were playing it. But then when I tried to play with them. I found out it was more than just picking up a horn, that you had to know some music. I thought that all they had to do was just blow into the horn and out would come beautiful music.

That story about my fingering the alto wrongly for the first couple of yearsóthatís something I told Gunther Schuller and the Press picked it up. But actually, what happened is that when I was studying music they said the first seven letters of the alphabet were the musical notes.

Which is true, but it doesnít mean that is the same way instruments are built. Mostly theyíre built, from middle C upwardsóif itís a wind instrument. What I was doing was using a fingering as if my first seven notes on the saxophone started with A.

Actually, those first seven notes are considered concert notes, which means, that the saxophone would have to play a different set of notes. In a way, I learned something from being that naÔve, though, because it turned out to be the same thing. I mean, when you go into harmony you find that C natural is really A natural.

Which is exactly what I was doing at the beginning. But I didnít know enough about harmony to realise that I was wrong as regards unisons but right as regards harmony. Harmony is the ability of taking a note and giving it a new name; unisons is taking the same note and giving it only one name, So, in a way, the only thing I was wrong about was not knowing harmony.

I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas in an allĖNegro neighbourhood, where youíre not allowed certain privileges if youíre Negro that you would have if you were white. Well, the white people were the law. It was just like any other place where people that are nonĖwhite have certain laws applied against them to harness their behaviour.

I used to think that the reason why that was happening was because I came from a very poor family. Which meant that white people could be prejudiced against white people, if they were poor. I thought that prejudice was related only to poverty, but I later learned that itís many, many things. Prejudice is peopleís opinions and values that have to do with their own existence.

Listening to music, I didnít know jazz from anything. Whenever I heard a saxophone, whatever context it was played in, it sounded good. Regardless of what someone else said be was playing. I used to like to hear Jimmy Dorsey, Johnny Hodgesóanybody that played the saxophone very well. Of course, Charlie Parker to me was, and is, the master of the modern expression of music on the instrument. I donít think anyone has done any more for free expression than Charlie Parker did, playing the saxophone. And Bud Powell.

Another thing I didnít realise was that there were people writing music for other people to play. It never dawned on me when I heard a song played that somebody else had written it. I used to think that everybody made up their own music in their own minds.

I did many kinds of jobs, including rhythmĖandĖblues bands. I enjoyed it. I have enjoyed all music. It is just that I prefer to express more than just one part. No, to me music is music and categories are another thing.

Yes, I heard a lot of musicians modelling themselves on Charlie Parker. I just felt that in order for them to have something to play, and since Charlie Parker represented playing good, if they played like him it meant they were good. They just wanted to be a part of that acceptance.

I donít think thatís important these days, though. People are trying to say: ďListen to me. I might not be well known, but Iíve got something just as important to say.Ē And thatís a very healthy attitude.

Iíve always tried to play the way Iím playing nowówithout thinking that I was doing something to offend anybody.

I used to hang out with all the guys in California, and they liked the tunes I wrote. So Red Mitchell suggested I go and see if I could get Lester Koenig of Contemporary, to buy some of the tunes I had written. When I went out there, he said: ďWell, if you wrote them, you probably know best how to play them.Ē That led to an audition, and I made two records for him. Which I havenít ever made a dime from. Theyíre ten years old.

I hope everybodyís not that concerned about being known. Thereís something that makes everybody sell out, but what it is you—can only know that when you sell out.

Copyright © 1968 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.