Speaks his mind
A Les Tomkins interview of 1980
The one thing I would hope never to lose is my love of playing. One simple note just laid down with that real joy is worth a hundred fast licks. As you get older, you slow down a little, but it isn’t just a matter of slowing down—it’s getting a kind of a wisdom where you distil things into simpler form. I’d much rather say a simple thing, with a twist to it, than be off into a fast thing like juggling with six balls at once. In this country, the younger guys can learn this from someone like Bob Burns—the way he can get a powerful message over with a few simple phrases. Somewhere, a historian wrote that the ancient Greek music became lost because, at that time, the musicians got so complex they lost their audience—and I think there’s a lesson there.
If we’re not careful, we could do that with jazz—but it doesn’t have to go that way. It’s not that I’m putting down music that has fast licks in it, or really is fireworks—I only put that down if it doesn’t have that love in it. Then it’s empty. But it can be anything. Then again, the words change; at one time, when the word ‘soul’ was coined, back in the ‘fifties, it was as a reaction against getting too cool, too fast, too far–out, without any kind of feeling. They were saying; “Don’t forget there’s some kind of love there.” But that had its bad effect; musicians avoided getting too complex, and the music kind of bogged down for a while.
As to the advent of the electric bass—I think that not only has it done a lot for musicians, it’s done a lot for the public. Years ago, people were unable to distinguish between a good bass line and a mediocre one. Now, they’ve become so aware of the electric bass, and recording characteristics and so forth have improved so much—people really hear the bass now. Then, because of the frets, it’s given a sort of logic to it, a whole new approach; you can get things right across with frets. I mean, I’ve learned a lot from it; I only play it a little, and I’m not really good at it—but it’s helped to give me an approach.
Above all, I welcome the use of amplifiers. Not to blast people’s heads off; you can say things now on a string bass, if you’ve got a good pickup, and you can get ideas across so completely. I remember, before amplifiers, I’d be working like mad to try to get an idea across—and you realised that it wouldn’t mean anything. Nowadays, if you’ve got the gain just right—not overdoing it, but just enough—all of a sudden, you can put something in there, and they react to it. It gives you a whole feeling of expansion—which I didn’t know in my first years of playing, because acoustically it was impossible. And then it’s nice to be able to play real soft, but you get it across, and, at a given point, you want a strong accent; so you just lay it in there, and people get it. In the old days, you put a mike in front of the bass, and all the speakers in the club rattled; all the people got was a big booming noise. Yes, I welcome all this.
The challenge of producing a good sound is still there; of course, guys shouldn’t rely on amplification alone. To my ears, anyway, it comes across. Like, there’s a certain sound that Ray Brown gets—and he learned it the hard way, in the same sense that I did. I had to do it without an amp—which can sound lovely. You get guys sometimes, especially when they first start, who produce the initial reaction of: “Oh, what a strong sound.” Then, somehow, it comes. across as a bit hollow and empty, and you realise they haven’t found themselves yet. But I wouldn’t say you need to do without amps.
No, they’ve got to go through a deepening process, which is part of growing up in music. You have to know how to use an amp, and they’re a challenge too; it’s not just easy because of it. And if guys can play faster or more complex things—as long as they don’t lose their feeling, great.
To me, the essence of great music is that it has a thread of logic, love, real dedication and sensitivity to musical beauty—not succumbing to the fireworks of the particular age you live in. To play ‘free’, as it’s called, the greatest discipline is to be able to play really well on changes. Because the problem is: very seldom is there a distinction made between freedom and licence. If guys just get carried away, and don’t listen to each other, you may get some kind of a social thing out of it, but the musical value often leaves a lot to be desired. Actually, I love the idea of playing free music. When Louis Stewart and I recorded an album, which I put out oh my Wave label, it was just free form and it came out beautiful. Of course, we listened, and the less people you have the easier it is. But the tendency is to throw caution to the winds, just steam in and not listen—that’s when they part company with me. Sometimes I’ve been in groups where I just sat and listened, rather than played. When it’s right, though, it can be the most ecstatic experience. I’m all for freedom, but I’m definitely against licence. I do think, too, that a lot of the music we hear today is an attempt to come to grips with the enormities of the world, and to somehow express it in music. They say that art reflects the time, or even predates the times that are coming; I think there’s a lot of room for thought about that.
Regarding the output of my record label—there are three guys that I think I’ve been able to really give a lot of people an idea of what they were into. Lee Konitz is one, and Warne Marsh, who, until we did some things with Wave, was very poorly represented. The great thing about Warne’s contribution, I think, is that he is unique, in that his strength has been just in improvisation alone; he hasn’t surrounded himself with a band, or particular lines, or a kind of a sound—it’s just been purely in his ideas. We put out two albums of music that he played around 1961, and I do feel that they’re actually high–spots in jazz music. One is called “Jazz From The East Village”, and the cover of the other just says: “Send Tape–Release Record”—it was a post–card that he sent me in response to my asking him if I should do it. They both contain absolute gems of improvisation. The other guy is less well–known, and that’s Sal Mosca. The things he was doing in the late ‘fifties were far, far beyond what you would hear anywhere. He hasn’t developed that much of a reputation, but when you go back and listen to what he played, it still sounds beautiful. There’s still a lot there that people could profit by, in listening to today; even though some of it’s twenty years old, it still comes up fresh.
These tapes were, in fact, made in stereo. I used to record for various jazz labels in New York from about 1957 onwards, and I started recording in stereo in 1957. I had a hard time convincing the companies to take stereo tapes. They said: “Well, that’s only a gimmick—we’ll never want that,” So I said: “Well, look, I’ll give you a mono copy if you want, but I think you’d be wiser taking stereo.” Things have changed since then! So, fortunately, most of the stuff that I have is in stereo. The recording quality wasn’t always that good because we’d put the machine on, leave it at a fairly low level, so that it didn’t distort, and just take our chances. In the re–mastering it wouldn’t come out too bad; at least it’s better than if we’d had just a little old mono recorder going. Because one of the things I felt that deterred a lot from the various things that were put out of Charlie Parker’s is that they were just done on little portable recorders—you’ve really got to love the music to get past the poor sound quality in many cases. It’s hard to take. One company in California put out a record of Warne’s which was, I think, either a third–or fourth–hand copy, and the fidelity was so bad that it even put me off listening to it. It’s so bad that you’ve got to struggle to hear just where the tune is, because Warne takes his elaborate patterns over the top, and it’s very hard to recognise. So I would say that some of that music could well be left alone. I’m fortunate myself, in that most of the tape library I have, the fidelity is good. I did take pains over recording.
Yes, since my return to Britain fourteen years ago I’ve added considerably to my original store of recordings. I did a very nice recording of Lee recently, of solos that spanned a period of about twenty–three years. The earliest ones were late ‘53 or ‘54; the most recent were from the tour that we did in 1976. I’ve done some things with some British musicians, such as the duo album with Louis Stewart called “Baubles, Bangles and Beads”. There’s been some albums with Dave Cliff on, a couple of rhythm albums, not only for students but other jazz musicians to play with. One’s called “Time For Improvisation” and the other “Your Friendly Neighbourhood Rhythm Section”. We did an album of the Great Jazz Solos Revisited band. And I took on this mammoth thing of recording the New Paul Whiteman Orchestra. It’s quite an album, and really out of the usual run of things. When Richard Sudhalter invited me to play with the band, it was an experience that I learned a lot from. It brought me an awareness of how much thought had gone into that music, how painstaking those guys were to arrange it. There’s a lot in it, which I’d been inclined to dismiss; when I heard it again, I got enthused about it, and subsequently re–recorded it. About ten years ago I did a solo bass album, and I have been in the process of preparing another one; it takes about a year to get anything released. What development I’ve made will be shown, I suppose; it’s progress in a way—it’s like a painter. When I see Van Gogh’s early paintings, I think they’re beautiful, and I love the later ones too. It’s just a different perspective because of what’s gone on in the world, what I’ve learned.
The dichotomy between being a performer and a record producer only exists because of Customs and Excise and income tax authorities—the amount of work that this makes for me. We’re not a company that pays enough that I can say to somebody: “Look, will you come in and be my accountant,” or “be my secretary?” I’d have to do ninety–five per cent of that on my own. And I think it’s unfortunate, in this day and age, that what is essentially a labour of love has to be involved with such things. I’m fully aware of the reasons why; I’m not trying to evade any of it, but it’s just that it does make for a burden—it makes life much, much harder. it makes it hard to live life on a level of celebration and joy, you know.
Certainly, ,I wouldn’t want to give up playing. Recording, I don’t know—Wave has been a project very dear to me, and that’s been good. I might suddenly go off in a different direction—I’ve got no idea—but while I’m doing it, I’d have to be totally tied up with it. Otherwise I get those little green and red forms reminding me to make my returns for VAT, and so forth. Bo I’ve got to be on the ball.
Sometimes, when I’m recording performances I’m taking part in, I get some help. Like, for the concert I played with Stan Tracey, Art Themen and Bryan Spring, a friend of mine came along and just monitored the machine. But today, using four–track equipment, it’s fairly simple. If we’re recording a quartet, it’s as simple as: one mike for each guy, and then we do the remixing afterwards, including any equalisation that has to be done. Just as long as the meters aren’t too overloaded, everything’s fine. It’s a lot simpler than it was in the days when you’d only get either a mono or a stereo machine, which meant you had to get a balance, and check it all from there.
Yes, I have my own recording studio also. I have this house in Twickenham, and there’s a nice front room—almost thirty foot long, fifteen foot wide, with a nice high ceiling. The acoustics are excellent; we’ve got a couple of grand pianos in there, and we have some nice music anyway—sometimes we record it. The Great Jazz Solos album was recorded there.
It’s good to have those facilities in one’s home; it’s something I’ve worked towards for a long time.
There are times, you know, when the gig book’s empty, and I’m inclined to panic. Then I think: well, I’ve lived all these years, and all the financial crises I’ve been through, I’ve always come through it; I’ll get out of it all right—and I generally do. Although I am inclined to get bitter over it; having passed my fiftieth birthday, it’s the irony of feeling, from an inner sense, I’ve done so much, and I’m still having to struggle. I know when l talk about Wave and the house and the studio, from the outside it sounds great, but the amount of fighting to reach that, and the constant insecurity—this is the truth behind at. This, of course, affects not only myself: but so many jazz musicians, that it’s inclined to alienate them from the rest of the world. You open the paper and you read that the Government says its salaries have got to go up again, and you say: “For what?” What is not realised by people generally is the importance of keeping a spirit of living, and it is creative people like jazz musicians who are very much a part of the spirit of a country. This is completely ignored by economists and such; everything is looked on in terms of bread.
Maybe we should update that old biblical saying; we shouldn’t try to live by bread alone. Of course, money is very important; it just seems so ironical that they can find thirty thousand pounds a year for somebody who heads a Coal Board, but for a musician to prise a thousand pounds out of the Arts Council, he’s got to work his ass off and maybe it works out ultimately to fifty pence an hour. There’s something wrong somewhere; I’m not saying at from a personal angle as much as for the whole scene: I’m fairly successful, and I try very hard not to get bitter, but I do have the moments when I think: “To ‘hell with it all.” And I know that other people aren’t as patient as I am, when they’ve got a great deal to say musically, but they’ve got the constant worry of how they’re going to pay the rent. You know, you can’t eat beans all your life.Copyright © 1980, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.