Giant jazzman, gentle wit...
Talking to Les Tomkins
It's always a joy and a delight for me to visit London. This trip was not entirely for pleasure; Im working on a book—that’s one minor reason. Also, I’m going to start working in a club in Toronto as a single, which will be the first time I’ve ever done that kind of thing. And if it works out, by the end of the job I’ll have some arrangements, and there’s a strong chance of my coming over here to play Ronnie’s and other clubs in Europe.
Having such a sheltered life all those years with the Brubeck Quartet kept me away from that, of course; so I never developed the same facility that some guys have for playing with just about anyone. Some can do that, some can’t—it’s never been my major talent. But it seems to be just about the only way of playing, these days. I’ve missed playing a lot—and I just have to get back to it.
I’m contracted now to CTI,
and I have a small group record called "Skylark" released in
the States and due out here shortly. It’s something of a departure from
my previous recent output. What brought it all about, really—I worked
for a while at the Half Note in New York with Jim Hall; it worked out
so perfectly that it reminded me of how nice it was to play with just
a small group. We couldn’t use Jim on this record, because of contract
hassles, but we made up for his absence by getting two guitars—Gabor Szabo
and a player named Gene Bertoncini, who plays classical guitar.
Most of the actual comping is done by Gene, while Gabor plays most of the solos; occasionally they play together. It’s an interesting album, and different in the respect that I have less to do with it than most records I’ve been on under my own name in the past. But a lot of good things happen on it; so I’m happy about the overall results.
In a way, the guitar affinity came from being with the Quartet. Dave and I had this sort of loose arrangement about members of the Quartet recording elsewhere. His only request was: if I do something with a different quartet, it should sound different from the Brubeck Quartet. Which obviously it would if you don’t have a piano! Hence the guitar; then I got very fond of that sound. Again, it’s an individual thing, as much as musical; it depends on who’s playing what.
Yes, there is something Latin on the album—not the same way as the A & M sessions. The longest track—probably the best, actually—is an old Spanish folk song, with a dumb kind of title: "Romance Da Amor". What other kind of Romance can you have? It rounds redundant, and I was thinking of changing it; then I realised, you can’t really go around retitling old Spanish folk songs. Anyway, Don Sebesky organised it into a sort of extended piece, and it’s the one Gabor stretches out on the most. Also a phenomenal keyboard player named Bob James. We had a fine bassist on the record, too—Ron Garter.
What I would really like to do, what I should do, and am annoyed with myself for not having done a lot, is pursue several musical courses that I dabbled with years ago. Like Near Eastern-sounding music. We recorded "Le Souk" on "Jazz Goes To College" in 1954—that’s already twenty years. "Calcutta Blues" from "Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia"—that was ’59. And since then all manner of people have been delving into Near Eastern and Indian sounds. I would like to get back and do some more of that.
Whatever I do, though, it’s on the alto. As a matter of fact, that was one of the hazards of over-dubbing on the records—one, in particular— that I did in the last few years. Playing so long with the Quartet, I got into the habit of trying to make the alto sound like whatever musical area I was getting into. Like, on "Calcutta Blues" I tried to make it sound as close as I could to an Indian flute. The hazard I’m speaking of came when I tried that on some of the Brazilian tunes ("From The Hot Afternoon"). Because originally that was going to be a small group—quartet, I think—and then they decided to over-dub some strings and reeds. So, after my feeble imitation of an alto flute, there come along four of the best alto flute players in New York, trill away, and I feel very dumb when I hear the record! You have to be careful about those sort of things these days. Anyway, there’s none of that on this new record; it’s strictly the group, with no added backgrounds.
Airto Moreira has certainly become a superstar now, hasn’t he? When I first did "Summertime", he was this totally obscure Brazilian musician living up on 72nd Street; you’d call him at two o’clock and say there’s a record date at two-thirty and he’d be there. And he is so spectacular a drummer/percussionist, he spreads like cholera, actually—everybody who’s on a record with him instantly calls him the next day for their record date. Within a month, everybody from Miles Davis to Paul Simon to half the ad agencies in New York would be trying to get him for dates, jingles etc.; he was in the studios from eight a.m. until midnight every day, until he finally got sick of it and went out with his own group. He’s recording for CTI now; they’ve got a record coming out, even as we speak.
As for Creed Taylor—he’s amazing. He doesn’t seem to do much at a record date; mostly he just sort of juggles people around, and sometimes it seems insane. He’ll have in the studio maybe two drummers and three piano players; sort of like a basketball team, he takes one guy out, sends another guy in, and gets a different effect. He switches around with the sound until it’s what he wants.
What I really admire him for: after he left A & M, I thought he might be in for a period of scuffling, but he got his own label off the ground, was stunningly successful— and he did it with jazz, which knocks me out. Most labels tend to produce jazz records as a prestige item, in a way, or for their own amusement. A & M is a bit like that—most of their money came from other groups. But Creed sticks pretty closely to jazz. The farthest away he ever got, that I know of, is the Deodato thing—and that’s pretty jazzy.
Well, just discovering Airto—if he had done nothing else, that would be something in itself. I mean, who would have known? Here’s this nutty-looking guy with the beard, dressed sort of like Moondog, carrying a flight bag full of rattles, jawbones of ass, and things that go clank in the night. Airto’s just a genius. We used to rehearse up in my apartment . . . and all these Brazilians had one thing in common—they all play a little bit of everything: a little piano, a little guitar, a little drums. I would suspect that quite possibly all Brazilians, whatever they do, seem to be quite musical, but the musicians are totally imbued with music—it’s a full-time, no fooling thing with them. I remember once, when we were sitting around and nothing else was happening, Airto picked up a balloon, blew into it till it was about three inches wide, rubbed his thumb against it— and the beat he got with that thing you couldn’t believe. It would have been enough to make a whole album, with just that!
My individual approach to the alto? Yes—basically what I do is: I play wrong. I tried to find a teacher just about the time I started with Brubeck—but for alto, it’s a grave injustice. If you play alto—or any saxophone, for that matter, and you have a teacher, they instantly try to cast you into a studio musician mould, which is a whole different approach, in terms of embouchure and blowing. And once you get that sound, you’re stuck with it. You can’t change it, any more than you can change your nose. It would be more difficult, come to think of it—I should have picked a different simile. You can get a nose job in three days; a change of sound takes you probably a year, and lots of luck. So that’s when players have to figure things out for themselves. If you play piano, drums, bass, anything else, I think, you can just go all the way with their classical instruction and use it for your own purposes. Alto—no.
Then, once I had decided that I just wanted to play jazz, as opposed to being a studio musician, doubling and all that—it required an incredible amount of luck combined with a certain amount of insanity. The year before Dave and I began the Quartet, at which point I was 27 and he was 31 ... in June of that year my total earnings had reached something like fifty-seven dollars—two jazz concerts and a Mexican wedding. In Dave’s case, especially—31, with a wife and two kids, he’d made just about as much money, perhaps less, and he was going to school at the time—you really have to be a nut to hold out, when everybody’s screaming at you: "Why don’t you go out and get a job in a hotel band?" or whatever. We managed to hang in there long enough to get the group together; then there was a certain amount of scuffling after we started, for the first three or four years. After that, as I say, we got very, very lucky.
Looking back on the seventeen continuous years with Dave, I would not change a bit of it. I know so many guys who have almost gotten there but not quite, and have wandered off into other fields. When I was 25 and 26, Dave and I were together, in the sense that we played together; we don’t tack that on to the official Quartet history, because we never got paid for it. At that time I was going to school, and it was clearly impossible ever to make a living playing jazz. That was absolutely crystal clear to all concerned. Even the guys in New York and Hollywood, who had a much better shot at it; that’s where the action was, if there was any—where the records were made, where people would hear you. In San Francisco, at that point in history, you might just as well have been in Alaska, literally; nobody ever came through town.
I was majoring in creative writing: —probably the only other equally impractical thing in life. The standard move, I would imagine, would have been for me to go into an ad. agency and try and make some money writing; that was vaguely my plan. Jazz was always just going to be a hobby All the guys who did that—I see then now; they have gatherings. For instance, in New York there’s a place called the Rough Rider Room at the Roosevelt Hotel, where they have a jam session every Friday. Some of them are excellent musicians, and they’re all doctors, lawyers, guys who work in advertising, any number of things, whose original ambition was to be a jazz player, but they never quite got around to it. So they get together, everybody has a lot of fun they enjoy playing, but sometimes it’s sad, in a way, because you can se that some of them would have been really brilliant, if they’d had the chance.
As I say, the blend of our success formula involves luck and insanity And a certain amount of talent—he said, immodestly. Aside from hanging in there and making .no money like we did. The luck came ultimately, in the fact that we got successful enough to tour, play concerts record and do all that. But, failing that, Dave and I would have kept on playing jazz, if it just meant working; four nights a week at some club in San Francisco, and living on $47.50 a week, or whatever it paid. We’d probably still be there. But by then Dave had two or three more children; they appeared rather rapidly at that point, as I remember—so it’s just as well things got better.
Yes, without the Quartet, there’s no way I’d have travelled the world. Of course, as an American you always want to come to England, to Europe, but there’s an element of frustration in doing it as a musician. No matter how successful the group is, it’s axiomatic that, to finance the transportation cost, you’ve got to work every night. I’d been dying to get to London all my life—I became an Anglophile at a very early age—and here we were, except that we were playing two concerts at the Festival Hall, then off on the bus at the crack of dawn, on the old George Melly route (I just read his book; it made me very nostalgic). You don’t really get to see too much that way. I never got to see London until I came back a few years later, or stayed on for a couple of weeks off after some of the tours. And we may be the only group in existence that was actually fourteen miles from the Taj Mahal and never got to see it. Things like that.
My freedom of movement now is all part of the seventeen-year itch, or whatever you want to call it. We squirreled away a lot of money during that period—enough to live off reasonably for a while; I have a bit yet to go, before I have to start worrying. Certainly, having a hit with "Take Five" was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. And the whole thing of the jazz underground is fantastic. You have just exactly the right amount of recognition, so that you can be totally anonymous. Your life style doesn’t really get ruined the way it would if you were Ringo Starr, or whoever is currently being pursued to the point where you have to hide in your hotel room, and you can’t go out anywhere. In jazz, nobody comes clustering about like that. But if you find yourself any place from Kyoto to Warsaw, you name it, and you would like to be recognised and meet some people, you start mumbling a few words about "jazz", and people sort of spring up out of the woodwork— which is lovely. That doesn’t happen in too many fields.
We reached saturation point early on, really, as regards the hassle of travelling all the time. It was rougher for Dave than me, I’m sure, what with the wife and six kids. Which he’s solved craftily by taking the kids on the road with him. It’s one way of getting a rhythm section; it’s not the way I would choose myself, but you take three of your kids, get one to play bass, one to play drums, and one to play guitar, then wait till they grow up—and there’s your rhythm section. And that’s what he’s doing this year.
I recognise the validity of Dave’s choral works, but I really stayed away from all that; that was primarily Dave’s interest, rather than mine. I prefer the way he plays, actually. Well, it may be a basic principle with me—1 think playing is more fun than writing. That’s why I decided never to be a writer of music, as such; just the odd tune. Or words —in an article or in my book. Although the rule applies there, too—playing’s more fun than anything. It took me a while to realise that.
Dave’s wanting to do this other work was the premise for the end of the original Quartet, really. I guess I was the catalyst; I sort of quit at the end of ’67, and we all decided to disband. Morello went off to do his one-man show, Dave plunged into his choral works, and I plunged into Montego Bay. Then, after about four years doing different things, we got back together again and played. And it felt so marvellous—I realised it’s still the best thing going.
Just recently, we did a few concerts in Boston and New York with the whole tribe—Gerry Mulligan, Alan Dawson, Jack Six and all the kids— and it was very nice, very enjoyable. So it’s quite possible that when Dave gets the kids into orbit after a year or so, he may feel like doing another tour with the over-the-hill gang. In the meantime, I suspect I’ll be wandering around as a single, one way or the other. I have a couple of Machiavellian plans. I got Jim Hall to sign with Creed Taylor—not entirely altruistically, although I must admit, it always bothered me that Jim seemed to go off some place and make a marvellous record on some really obscure label. He made a fantastic record in Germany, for instance; I’m not even sure of the German label it was made on, but theoretically it was to come out in the States, one way or another, and it never did. So with Creed, I know that what he does will come out all right. And he’s recording, I think, even as we speak.
Copyright © 1972, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.