Breaking out of the studios
First English tour
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1969
It feels good to be playing, I must say, I enjoy this rhythm section very much. Having worked with them almost a year makes a difference. It's becoming a little more instinctive, some of the things we do. The level of creation and rapport is a lot higher. A good feeling-one that I've sorely missed.
When I was in London a year ago, I got some correspondence from a lady, the wife of the editor of a French magazine, who was just beginning to get into personal management. She flew over to London during the Ronnie Scott engagement, asked me what my plans were, and said that she knew a very good rhythm section.
Would I be interested in going into the Chameleon in Paris and seeing how it developed from there? The individuals were more or less hand-picked for me. I'd known Daniel Humair ten years ago; George Grunz I knew a little bit as a pianist, but not personally, and I didn't know Henri Texier, the bass player, at all. So I had a ready-made group. I don't think I could have done it by myself. I wouldn't have known where to go, in the first place, to find this calibre of player. Daniel and Henri are from Paris, but George is from Basle, Switzerland-I would never think of looking there.
We've been to the Barcelona Festival; we did a Norwegian tour, Stockholm, a few gigs in Brussels, a tour of the South of France, radio and television in Italy. The only place we haven't hit yet is Germany, and I think that's forthcoming. We've kept quite busy; mostly festivals and concerts, which is essentially where all the work is anyway. Not so much clubs.
Clubs are difficult in the cities because they can't afford the transportation. That's why there's that perpetual thing of doing a single and working with the house rhythm section. Sometimes, in the face of economic tribulation, I have to go out and work with the local musicians. Gradually the quartet is catching on, though. I think we'll be working more and more. I hope so. We're playing at the Montreux Festival. And we go to Newport this year; that should be a good boost for us.
Our conception? Well, we're not teenagers, by any means; we've all been playing for quite a few years. The youngest member is Henri Texier, who's 23. We cover all of our own individual musical backgrounds within the group context. Free collective, but very tight; we're quite aware of form. We use freedom when the tune or the emotion of the moment calls for it. We're not free jazz players, but I don't think I'm a pure bebopper either. I've taken all the elements that have made up my musical experience.
We play some new and some older pieces. If I do a ballad, I play it a
different way. We try to get as much variety as possible within the jazz
quartet form. Because the instrumentation is such that there's not too
much you can do; so you have to rely upon the texture of the tune itself.
On a ballad, I may be the only soloist. We have several fairly extended pieces, where everybody has the chance to get deep. It's a varied book; it covers just about every situation, I think. Everybody in the group has contributed, which makes it a good thing.
Why the name European Rhythm Machine? We had to call it something and I didn't want to just call it the Phil Woods Quartet. And I'm quite proud of the rhythm section; I just like people to know that there's some European swingers. The gap is narrowing. That's a bunch of nonsense about: "Oh well, they don't swing." Maybe that was true thirty or forty years ago.
The rhythmic thing has always been the criticism that you've heard. There were no drummers in Europe, and so forth. I think that's fast dating; the musical level is fantastic, as you know- with people like Dave Holland, Gordon Beck.
And they sound marvellous, by the way. I must put a plug in for the Gordon Beck Trio, which was my rhythm section last year. They've made fantastic development; I can hear it, especially in Cordon. Tony Oxley has certainly mellowed. And Jeff Clyne is, as always, solid as a rock; he's broadened even more. It's a delight for me to hear them again, and they're all very nice cats.
I like Europe very much. Naturally- it's given me the chance to do what I've always wanted to do, and I'll be forever grateful for that. European audiences are very astute. I'm quite content. The family is well- adjusted; the children are all very fluent in French, attending French schools. My French is creeping along; my wife is doing very well. And we like the living, although France right now is a little shaky politically; but we still love the country very much. That's part of the whole world picture; France is going through the throes of economic troubles. I'm not really qualified to speak of politics of my own country, let along the one where I'm a guest; but sometimes it gets a bit unsettled there. I arrived right in the middle of the May riots; the week I opened in the Chameleon was when it began. Fantastic. But it's worked out well. I'm quite pleased.
My reason for leaving the States was that I wanted to play, essentially. I felt the only way I could do this would be to just sever all ties with my image. Which had been cultivated for me; I tried not to contribute to it, but it was unavoidable that I be labelled a studio musician. It was just inevitable for it to happen.
And I never considered myself a studio man at all. Most of the work I did then, even in the studios, was in a jazz- orientated vein, if you check the records. I did my share of the commercial things, television jingles and whatever, but it was usually for the jazz- based writers who would ask for me. I mean the schlochy contractors didn't want to hire a jazz alto player. I was used as a jazzman within. the studio scene, but as far as getting any gigs outside of that scene, I was considered more studio than jazz.
A lot of times people would say: "Well, he's so busy in the studios he wouldn't take a gig in a jazz club." You know, and they wouldn't even call, just figured they'd get a "No". Actually, I'd have been only too glad to do it.
I was very dissatisfied and bored with what I was doing. I felt: "This is not what I set out to do." And I never feel that I tossed the towel in. It was just circumstances. Also it says something for the state of jazz in my country; perhaps the state of jazz all over. I know the same trap occurs in Europe. You have your session musicians that are labelled the same way, and some of them are fine jazz players. It's right back to trying to make a dollar or a pound playing music; it's very difficult.
That's why I consider myself quite fortunate to be able to keep the quartet going. I'm also getting opportunities to do some writing, which I've always been very interested in. The one thing I want to do is more teaching; I haven't started any yet. I'll be doing some clinics in Europe; I did one here with the London Youth Jazz Orchestra. Eventually I intend to get into that.
My school back home went on for five summers. Before I left it had been sold as a remedial reading camp for backward children. It just became financially unfeasible to maintain. We had an administrative staff, the people that owned the school. I was Music Director, generally responsible for the co- relating of the different departments. Like, I'd work with the ballet department if we were doing a jazz piece with some dancers. It wasn't exclusively my camp, although it became more of a jazz camp, because we got a little publicity out of the fact that a jazz musician was teaching. But not enough to keep it going, which was truly a shame.
It was absolutely marvellous while it lasted, a fantastic experience for me and my whole family. Because we only lived a mile from the school out in Pennsylvania, amid an estate of lovely scenic woods. You'd visit the school and over here you'd see some kid with a tenor under the apple tree, practising some Pres licks or something, while some other kids over there would be dancing. We had all of the performing arts represented. Very exciting.
Towards the end we developed quite a few good players. In fact, I'm quite proud of one young man; his name is Richie Cole. He's now playing lead alto with the Buddy Rich band. I get a bigger kick out of seeing his name in print than I do my own. It's a good feeling to see an ex- student of mine, still only around 18 making it like that. He s very talented and I'm sure you're going to hear more from him. Without the school, it's possible that this kid might not be there today.
So if only one had come out of it, it's worth it.
Actually, the band was sounding very, very good, I must say. The general age would be 14 to 18. Then there was a smaller workshop band, almost the full complement, with the younger ones playing simpler things. Then occasionally we would have one of them come and sit in with the big band, and just read along with the part, similar to your Youth Band set- up that I saw here.
This was a two- month period; in that time you can cover a lot of ground. We ran an eight- week course, the kids living right at the camp with swimming, tennis, and all that. We had access to the Lambertville Music Circus. During the week they had theatre- in- the- round and on Mondays they'd bring in Duke, Brubeck, Cannonball, something like that.
Whatever musicians were in town would come and visit the school, or we would visit them a few hours before their performance and ask questions. It gave the kids a chance to meet different musicians. I took a few of the players into New York to my recording sessions, to give them an idea of what that was all about- probably an invaluable aid to those of them that were serious about getting into it. They could obtain more advance knowledge and then carefully consider whether they really wanted to do this as career or not.
Too many kids "just want to blow, man- just want to see my name in that poll" and all that Ambition is great, but you should be fully appraised of all the pitfalls and the problems before you enter, because it's a most hazardous profession.
To be ambitious when you're young is great, but musicians should be fully appraised of the pitfalls and problems before they enter this hazardous profession.
You get some young players now who think they can go straight into a rock group and make a hundred pounds a week right away. We've always had that element in music. It's like in the big band period; you had many, many rotten bands tagging along behind the good big bands. In a sense, it's a little easier to get away with this kind of charlatanism today.
Although, I don't knock the rock thing at all, because a lot of interesting things are developing from it. You have to wade through a lot of garbage to get to some of it, but it can be jewel- like in its refreshing approach.
Whether or not it's in a rock context, I know that you'll always have good musicians coming up. Where the good jazzmen come from, I don't know. Where did Ron Mathewson come from? They just appear full- blown and playing, and it's hard to account for it.
There are always these people who are meant to keep jazz alive. To the best of my knowledge, the young musicians are still coming to New York and to London, to try to make their way. Its always been this way- more players than the demand. It's a high, competitive level: Which is the way an art form should be. Everybody isn't going to get scale; it's not that equal. You have really fierce competition, on the aesthetic level. I mean, I think even the insecurity might be good- for the music itself.
You need to be a strong man to maintain the required level. It's comparatively easy to go through your first ten years of playing. I'm talking about making it over the long haul. I admire people like Ben Webster and the late Coleman Hawkins. This is the thing- to make it your life. Really doing it as a way of life- this is something you're not aware of at all when you're in your twenties. Of course not.
I intend to remain a saxophone player. I'm sure now. After this past couple of years in Europe, I have no doubts at all how I want to spend the remainder of my life- it's as a jazz musician. I'm not interested in. playing any bad music whatsoever; I've contributed enough to that. I could always be a carpenter.
As for changing the jazz image- calling my group the European Rhythm Machine instead of a Quartet is no different than McKinney's Cotton Pickers, you know. I don't care what you call it, as long as it swings. Sure, if some kid is passing in front of the club and he thinks that we're a rock group, then comes in and hears what we do- he might just like it. We're not trying to fool anybody; if they're aware of who I am, they'll know it's a jazz group. If we catch a couple of suckers, we'll take 'em! Maybe we can change 'em.
Certainly, the image of jazz is lamentable. It's so hard to crack that- after years and years. And still everybody says: "Yes, it's an art form." It is much more respectable now than it was, but it's so painfully slow. You'll find that the credit rating of musicians has not changed considerably in the past thirty years; they're still way down low. I mean, in America I know it's that way- bottom of the list when it comes to upstanding citizenship, and all that nonsense.
Maybe a fusion is the answer- I don't know. But then you get into the popular music field. I think, even with the stigma, if it remains that way, then it's still pure, in a sense. I'd hate to think of it becoming a popular music. If everybody dug jazz, it would be a bore, I'm sure. Then I'd try something else.
No, it's essentially an esoteric form. With the exception of a few groups, you won't find many millionaire jazz musicians. Even the ones that have made good money by business- world standards are just comfortable. Of course, some are more comfortable than others; but it's not a fantastically rewarding medium.
If it ever became popular, it would just defeat itself. There would be more work, but the music would be worse.
Probably. Or perhaps it would be an interesting experiment- who knows? Yes, jazz does get to a wider public in certain ways. Twenty years later you hear Bird licks on television commercials, you know. But as soon as the people start to dig it, you'll find the jazzman'll change; he'll go on to something else. That happens in all art, I guess. I'm not an art- conscious man- but this exists. The artist has to stay ahead of the public.
How far you leave the public behind depends on your level of genius- how much you have to say. My own personal way of approaching music is probably linked to a broader based public. It's just that I'm older than some of the younger musicians; I've been playing longer. You know, I don't aim my things to a particular public, but from twenty years of playing I think my musical base is broader.
We try to incorporate a variety into our sets. Some people will hate the first tune, possibly, and love the second tune.
I love Johnny Hodges; I love Ornette Coleman. That about sums it up, really. I steal whatever's good from wherever I can find it! If it's honest, I'm all for it. There's so much dishonesty within life itself. Creating a formula and adhering to it- that's always a trap. I've often said in joking: "I'd love a hit record". I'd be scared to death if that ever happened. To have to play that damn thing every night, and grow to hate it. Then your group becomes categorised and before you know it, insidiously your music starts to change and fit this formula that worked. Even among the most dedicated people.
I'm afraid of that kind of success. A modicum of success is fine enough to keep it going- but a big spurt all of a sudden has destroyed a lot of good musicians, in a sense. I haven't had that problem yet- I've made of lot of records and not one has been a hit! So I don't have to worry. I don't try to make hits. I'm being sort of facetious, but you never know when something might take off. It has been a pitfall for certain groups- I know from seeing them.
People like the MJQ are quite sincere. I know John Lewis is, and I'm sure they all are. But I would be bored to death after that long. I think. The secret is to keep getting new material, to keep developing; not to fall into the pattern of not rehearsing and so forth.
That's the good thing about our home- base job at the Apollo in Paris.
It's a small club and very nice: it's a little different atmosphere. We
can try anything in there, work in our new material. Which we've done
in London also. If you can add five new pieces a month, it keeps you on
your toes. Sometimes you play a tune for a year, and it's just played
out; you've got to give it a rest for a while.
And I must say that I love to work in Britain. It's been said that British audiences are too reserved. In clubs at times, perhaps they are. But the reception I got when I did a Festival Hall concert was fabulous. On a weekend, sometimes, in Ronnie's club, it's not a good jazz audience. You get people that are maybe just coming in to have a bite to eat and drink and talk; they might not be aware that they're a jazz audience.
Although this kills me, you know- I'm sure there are some people saying: "Whatever are they doing- the drummer's banging away." Not having any understanding of jazz at all, this man finds himself in a jazz club. That's like going into a striptease club and saying: "What are they doing? They're taking their clothes off." This total unawareness can be distracting.
You just need a couple of tables like that, and if you're not careful you might judge the whole audience by them and say it's rotten, when it's just a few people making a loud noise and throwing your concentration off. These are the hazards of a club. After many years of working at it, it still bothers me. On bass choruses, especially. They could at least have the intelligence to cool their conversation for the bass chorus; when the rest of us are playing it doesn't notice so much. That's the height of rudeness, I think. Give the poor bass player a chance to play his instrument. I mean, that's what you're paying your thirty shillings for.
Not that I'm in favour of tremendous amplification. I don't think that anybody should be forced to sit there in total silence. I'm just saying: if you want to talk, fine; just keep it down to a low level. Just a matter of being civilised and polite to any artist that's working. The offenders have had a few too many whiskies, perhaps.
I've only made a couple of brief trips back to the States, mainly for jazz festivals. I don't know exactly where I'll be in future years. I know that I can always play for my supper, anywhere in the world. But I like Europe; I plan to stay for an indefinite time, having made my home in Paris.
We would love to live in London. In fact, we would have stayed if we could after the first visit in 1968, but that's impossible. Whereas the French syndicate gave me a special dispensation because of my track record, so to speak. They thought I would be a welcome addition to the music community; so I got my work papers.
When Quincy Jones did the soundtrack here for Mackenna's Gold he called me in Paris, wanting me to be on the recording. I said I'd love to do it, but he couldn't get the clearance for that. So it is difficult. I'm well aware of the problems. I'm not putting it down- you need protection, of course. I can only come on a temporary basis, for a concert tour or a club date.
I love London very much. My wife loves shopping here; you have such lovely clothes at such reasonable prices. We always leave here very poor, but very well- dressed! If I had my choice, I would stay here.
Good to see you again, Les; you were about the first person to come around and ask me about my music when I first left the States a long time ago- I've never forgotten that. Yes, it was at the Odeon, Hammersmith in '67; I was working there with Thelonious Monk. I didn't have the beard then, as you say- didn't have the hat, either! Well, you just got through chatting with Norman Schwartz. Anything that I've achieved musically in the last few years has been directly related to Norman. He's not only my record producer; he's my personal manager, and- most important- he's my good friend. This is really where it's about, isn't it? People say the bottom line is the money- the bottom line is the loyalty and friendship. Our relationship has only been really firmed up in the past four years, but our paths crossed earlier through the late Gary McFarland, who was my dear friend, and through Sky Records, which Norman had; there's a lot of common bonds with musicians of the past. And now that our paths are attuned, there seems to be a certain flow. I'm becoming involved with projects more; he's becoming more involved with my band. It's a team effort- and we need more of them. That's the spirit of jazz, anyway; nobody plays great by themselves- you've got to have a good back- up team, a good rhythm section. It's not just one man.
That ten months I spent in California, when I first returned to the States after being with the European Rhythm Machine, was pretty frustrating- I didn't see a band, except for one backing Aretha Franklin or somebody. The Paul Simon thing was kind of a giggle, actually- I just went in and did it. For the Steely Dan thing, I was in the studio for twenty minutes, and it paid fantastic. And you'd be surprised how much my kids love the fact that I worked with Paul Simon and Steely Dan! They're much more impressed than about me working with Ben Webster.
Now, I'm happy to say, the European Rhythm Machine albums are being reissued- as is a lot of my stuff. I have mixed emotions about reissues, but it's amazing how people have discovered what a good group that was. Yeah, we were good- but where were they when we really needed the support? But this is inevitable, I suppose. There's a company now, Fantasy , that's reissued some stuff I did with Prestige . At the time I was in California, trying to get a record date going. I wrote to the man. My representative, who was helping me get my foot back in the door, said: "How's chances? Phil has a new group." Pete Robinson was in the group, and I was using wah- wah pedal and synthesiser- because that was what I felt I had to do. And the reply came back: "Phil Woods belongs in the category of alto players like James Moody and Lee Konitz. They're very fine artists, but they'll never sell." Now, as soon as "Images" came out, and did so well, this very same person who'd said I didn't sell, put out a twofer package of all my old stuff.
So what do you say? To me, that's just a reflection of the fact that there's some interest, and that can only be to the good- and nobody's in it to lose money. Presumably, this man is astute enough to jump in now. I just wish there'd been a little more astuteness and faith in myself as a musician, and with my track record, to take a chance on recording me when I needed it. It really wouldn't have cost that much, then. Now, it's going to cost him a whole lot.
What you're up against is: if one person is deciding you don't sell, you're denied access to the public. How much do you have to sell to be considered a seller? I mean, the ratio is so out of proportion. When people can make a half a million dollars a night playing three changes- it's hard to figure it out, remain a sane musician, and maintain any perspective. I think that's why we have so few survivors. It really is hard, man.
So I find it very sweet to have the road a bit easier now- and I still have plenty of musical energy, to try to take advantage of it, by making something that I think is important. Believe me, it'd be very easy to make a disco album right now, for a man in my position; I could make a lot of money, playing some horse- manure. The door is open a crack- if I totally compromised, I could relax for the rest of my life. I could really be cool, and be in Acapulco or somewhere, instead of out here trying to work. But I would go crazy. Yes, I like to think I have integrity; plus I've never lost my love affair with music. I know if I ever compromised that, then I'd be just less of a person- I would be valueless to myself. That I refuse to be. It's too late, you see; I didn't sell out when I had a chance to, perhaps I never changed my course as an alto saxophonist, essentially. I stuck with it; I never became a flautist or a doubler- I was primarily an alto soloist, who wrote a bit, who liked to teach. Staying in touch with the music, through young as well as older musicians, has been a great reward; even with lean periods, music has been very satisfying to me. I consider the success of the European Rhythm Machine right along with the lines of what's happening now. I feel it's a natural progression; slowly but surely we're going somewhere- tweaking a few people's ears. It's nice.
I don't think I've ever played better than now, but I also feel the responsibility: now I'd better come up with something- I'm being listened to. I can't deny the pressure- I'm expected to play well, But I've been playing for thirty years- you know, you try to keep it finely honed, and some days you feel absolutely in charge. I've always enjoyed playing, and I still love it; there's nothing that gives me a bigger kick than to have a good night.
A few people have sustained me. Like, we did the opening night of a club called Hopper's; I looked out there, and I saw all my dear friends- the writers. There was Ira Gitler, the person responsible for my getting a contract with Prestige ; Dan Morgenstern, who's been helpful. A lot of jazz musicians have been knocking writers, but I've known what I call the good blokes- the guys who really know, who write well, who haven't gone to work for the Village Voice, but have stuck with jazz. It's the survivors, man- the cats who are still there to support you, as you and Crescendo have done. This is a reward and an honour- it's something that's almost hard to live up to. But that gives you the energy to do it. You don't need mass media recognition- just a few key guys, whose ears and judgement you respect. If they're with you, it's a good feeling.
Yes, I've enjoyed working with large orchestras. I'm a Juilliard graduate- it's been a dream. But our new one is a live double album by my small group. It's about a hundred- and- twenty minutes of music. You get your money's worth- not like some records, that give you seventeen minutes a side. On each side, you get around thirty minutes of a very hot band on a very hot night. Then the one before that, "The New Phil Woods Album", was essentially the Quartet, and it was my first experience of adding strings and brass afterwards- on "The Sun Suite"- something I don't think I'll ever do again, but I had to go through it. The next project, that we've been working on lately, is "The Seven Deadly Sins". That's with seven young American composers- not exactly household names, but they're jazz writers. We have them; we must sustain them.
Getting into larger forms is very important to me- it's a challenge. The real jazz isn't just a couple of guys, or Phil Woods with a rhythm section. That's the essence, perhaps, but let's face it- there's a lot of musicians in the world. If we all reduced ourselves to just doing quartets, a lot of these fiddle sections would have trouble making the rent. I mean, the brotherhood of musicians- we must help each other. The priority is the musical reason, but there are a lot of other benefits, like making music accessible. Hopefully, all the stuff that we're recording will be published, so that they can be played in schools. Most of the stage band things are the hit- and- bang- 'em- down kind of arrangements, and they all sound the same. We hope to get into conservatories, and have repertoire for even symphony orchestras with soloists.
It's being done a little bit; Mangione's done a bit, but I don't think it's great writing. There's been some Sebesky records using a large orchestra, and all that, but they've been aimed at a certain beat. With "The Seven Deadly Sins", we made no restrictions on the writers. They were each assigned a Sin. As the Pope, I passed out seven Sins; I got down the line, and I said: "I have Lust and Gluttony left. Now you'll have to take your pick." But I didn't say: "Write a lusty piece"; I said: "Here's the topic. You can make that fit almost any ill of society- but say something to us. Hopefully, it'll run seven minutes, to keep the Seven thing going." The idea was seven times seven would be forty- nine minutes, and that would be just about right for an album; something would be bound to run over. It has since become a double album; we already have sixty- eight minutes of music, and we think it's so strong that we're going to add some chamber music, supplemented with some poetry, voices and other little things.
The point is to try to use the record medium; it doesn't always have to be the same thing. Take a chance, anyway. At least we must try; it's not pioneering- a lot of people have tried to do it. All of a sudden, a string quartet pops up, in between sections by a sixty- piece orchestra; then an alto and a harp. Why not? A strange phenomenon happened. We had seven different people writing seven different pieces; two of them were on the Coast, a couple were in New York, and Chris Gunning was here in Britain- and it had a certain continuity to the music. I could be reading more into it than is there, because I've never believed in analysing, and saying: "There's a tone row here that represents . ." and all that. But there's a similarity in themes, and in rhythmic approach; I guess because they're street writers- cats that know the idiom of jazz, and that have progressed to knowing about music per se. They can handle a string section, and woodwinds; they can handle long form. Plus they know where I'm coming from, and what I would like. Perhaps knowing who I am would help key it in; at least, what they wrote for me was so logical. As you can see, I'm very pleased with the results so far; I can't wait to put a cap on it. Because we began last January - recording, anyway. Norman's been thinking of this project for years and years, but it's been about two years in the making already.
So- I hope it's not ignored. But it doesn't matter- it'll be done, and it'll be done well.
All you can do then is: let the people make up their own minds. Get beyond the propaganda of the music. I resent it when my records are only found in the Jazz department. I don't think that's the only place "Images" belongs. Or "Floresta Canto", for that matter. I would make no claim for that being a pure jazz album; it's meant to be an album of beautiful music, using Brazilian/ Latin melodies- that's all it is. Yet people come up to me and say: "Oh, that's a dreadful album." So you first spotted it in the pop group section of a record shop? Good- see, sometimes ignorance is great. To be pigeon- holed always as strictly a jazz altoist, with all deference to the fans and the jazz industry per se, is not desirable. The pigeon- holing of artists is more of the same divisiveness that we suffer from. Now we have "loft jazz" in New York. What do all these words mean? Avant garde, loft jazz, fusion, ultrafusion, Dixieland, trad, bebop. Our history is too short to have so many sub- divisions; we've gone through more periods than mankind has in five thousand years, and jazz is not even a hundred years old. It's a matter of an uneducated base for the music, I think- in my country, at least; I can't speak for yours.
The same pigeon- holing occurs in record stores, of course; I guess it has to be that way. It's a convenience, really, so that people don't have to think. But if you find "Images" under `Jazz- Big Bands', and also under `Mood Music', that's fair, I think. Like Miles Davis: he doesn't need a category- he's beyond category- but you'll find Miles in the `Pop' as well as in the `Jazz'. You'll find different records in each, too! I guess the word jazz has always been detrimental; it's just the meaning behind the word. But what are we gonna do? We're stuck with it. I moan, I don't like calling it "American improvised music"- only because it's too long to say! I'm proud of being a jazz musician; I don't mind being called that at all- although it's cost me dearly, in many respects. It's what I do; it's what I am.
Like anything else- I guess life is finding out who you are. I've decided I'm a jazz alto player. I didn't always know this; society didn't help me find it, I must say. You know-" A jazz musician but what do you do for a living?" That's been put to me since I can remember. And "You're a white jazz musician? Oh, you can't possibly swing." Baloney- I'm going to play music, and I'm going to do what I do best.
It's always been the job of the artist to say something. With the efforts of such dedicated people as Norman, we cannot lament that we weren't given a real chance to say it. Now, I just happen to see some inroads being made by what we're doing; I know by the audiences I find when I play clubs in America now. Also there's the fact that I'm playing more clubs. I'm forty- five years old- for the first time, I can now make the jazz circuit with a group. I've been making more money- I think that's a logical progression of life, to have your income progress; because the cost of living certainly does. I'm comfortable; since I don't have to worry about money, I can really concentrate on music now. I can pay my bills, man- to me, that's a plus, after many, many years of not always being able to pay the bills.
But I've never really had to bastardise my art to pay the bills, either. Music has been very good to me; I have no sour grapes feeling at all. I feel very elated about being a jazz musician- especially taking part in music right now. I think it's an interesting period. It'll either really happen, and music will say something to people, and it will be helped and nurtured because of a more sensitive society, or society is just going to go totally bonkers- and then it won't matter anyway, will it? I mean if it's going to become that decadent, I don't know what salvation there is. But I still am optimistic. If nothing else, I see young players continually coming out, and wanting to play And there's a few good men around who want to listen to them, who will talk with them. I'm optimistic to that extent.
An important member of my present group, since its inception in 1974, is pianist Mike Melillo. He's an old friend; we played together in New Jersey, back in the 'fifties. He's been around quite a while. He marches through his own drummer- a very unique musician. As are the other cats in my group- Steve Gilmore on bass, Bill Goodwin on drums.
The newest addition to the quartet is Harry Leahey- we have a guitar now. Yes, it's now a quintet. Harry can be heard on our "Live From The Showboat" ' album on RCA.
He's forty- one years old, from New Jersey, and has never made a record before. Every guitar player in the world knows about him, and he's taught all the guitar players you could name. But I didn't know about him- Mike told me.
We have a nice family relationship. We all live in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania; so we don't have to pay the dues of going to New York and getting a studio to rehearse- we can have an afternoon get- together in our home area.
It's on the Delaware River, on the borders of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, about seventy miles due west of New York; it's convenient to get to the city, but far enough away from it.
We've got a very nice schedule coming up: we do Finland, a couple of nights at the Montmarte, Christianstadt, Aarhus, a few other dates that are being set up, and then we do Italy for a few days. Then we go to New Orleans for a week- I've never been to New Orleans; as a jazz musician, I'm really looking forward to that. After that, we go to South America for two weeks, followed by a spell in New York recording, and a trip to Japan. So it's nice to be able to have a functioning group, where you can say you've booked for three or four months ahead. I've never been able to say this myself as a single- but now I can sustain a group. I feel nothing but optimism about it.
However, I can't paint a rosy picture for young jazz musicians. When a young man comes up to me and says: "What do I do?"- I am hard put to have to answer him, sir. I usually say: "Play your ass off." If you can play well, you won't be denied. I don't have a magic potion, or a few magic words. The competition is increasing now, because there's more information; you can get books with jazz solos written out, you can get all the records, you can tape off the radio with your cassette machine, you have jazz education in all the colleges and high schools. If anything, it's being made almost too easy. A lot of people are being deceived into thinking they're jazz musicians, who have no talent for it. But- jazz will take care of that, you see; one trip on a bus, man, these cats go back to selling cars, or whatever it is they do. But it's harder for the really talented ones; what do they do- go on the road with Buddy Rich? I mean, I went on the road with Charlie Barnet, but that was in the late 'forties, early 'fifties- it was a different situation for jazz music per se. You didn't have quite so much divisiveness. . . life was simpler.
Yes, there is definitely a revival of jazz interest going on. I have to endorse that a hundred per cent, because I see it in the clubs. More and more people in their twenties, who certainly don't know what I was doing in the `fifties, are very curious about this whole bebop period. Because it was the first time that musicians said: "We shall dress as bizarre as we like"; until that time, you always had to wear club date blues. There was Dizzy and Bird and all that; the language, the hip talk that went along with it is now sort of a part of the young culture, and I think they want to trace the roots of it. The only element that I don't endorse is the use of drugs. But the language hasn't changed; now the rock'n'rollers and the bubblegum set are all using it- it all comes directly from bebop. Of course, we know the music comes originally from blues- just the essence of jazz. There's a whole curious phenomenon happening within the young people, whose ears are perhaps ready to move on, to some quality. I think they've had enough pap.
I'd like to think it's deeper than just another revivalist fad. We're dealing with good music. I mean, bebop is like Bach to me- if you talk about improvising within a form and with a certain steady rhythm, which is absolutely timeless and classic. Not the bebop per se, but the technique and the concept are about as clear as you can get linearly and in terms of harmonic structure. Now, if you want to go another step further and play free, that's fine, but I still think that it's an essence of jazz, as Bach is an essence of music. It's a timeless thing, and, I'm sorry, the young people are playing bebop.
Maybe they wouldn't want to call it that; it's modern jazz. Of course, it doesn't sound like Howard McGhee or Fats Navarro- unfortunately. But the phrasing and the ideas are unavoidably linked- and bebop is not that far removed from Bach. What I mean is: it's the way the lines are weaving. It's not to say that it's the end- all, be- all, but it's still a nice point of departure, which hasn't really been exploited yet- before people moved on to the drone.
I'm sure there is this correlation ; I think we're all addicted to Bach. I know I am- there's times when only Bach will satisfy me. You know exactly where to go in your library, to find the solace. Bird does it for me in another respect- although I listened to so much Bird as a young man that I don't listen fo him as much any more. I don't have to- he's all up here.
As for other alto players- yes, Art Pepper is one of my favourites. And he's back in action, which is great. He called, while I was in New York; I flew out on a Tuesday to play a midnight concert, and came back Wednesday- I didn't even put my watch back; I stayed on London time. And Art Pepper was kind enough to call; I told my lady, Jill Goodwin, to send Art my love and say: "Welcome back." Art and I did play together one time; I did a guest appearance at Synanon with the European Rhythm Machine, and Art was still there. He was playing tenor, and he came and sat in for a tune; we played "Three Little Words" together, and that was a treat. I think that, inevitably, we must do something together- however it's brought about, I look forward to it.
But if you're talking about my instrument, don't forget Mr. Konitz- he's doing a lot of very interesting stuff. He's one of the purest of the artists, for me. He has never stopped searching- that's a first- class artist; he's been out there doing it, man, looking, trying to find it. And he does it with a nice sense of humour. Somebody asked him: "Lee, how come you don't copy Charlie Parker, like everybody else did?" He said: "It was too hard !" I must talk about British musicianship, which is absolutely incredible. I've worked a great deal with Gordon Beck, of course, and he's a tremendous pianist, a wonderful musician; yes, make sure and give a plug to G. B. What I find it very hard to realise is that they're not being asked to record for British companies. I mean, they never appear anywhere; if they play, it's a session, selling Brylcreem or something, or they're working in a pit band. It's somewhat different in the States- I guess just because we have more small record companies, and maybe a little more money or whatever. But these cats are not after money; it's not a point that it's going to cost you thousands to record them. It's just a matter of: "Hey, you live in my land, man, and I think you play great. Here's a chance." Let's just let the British jazz- buying public be aware of their own native sons. John Surman spends most of his time on the Continent playing the music he wants to play. Kenny Wheeler's not as busy as he should be, but he's got his own album out in the States, on ECM, which I have, and I think it's the most beautiful record I've heard in a long time. I really love it- the one with Keith Jarrett, called "Gnu High". Ron Mathewson is one of the greatest bass players in the world.
And I'll tell you this- when we do orchestral dates, it's not only for
budgetary reasons that we record them in London. Certainly, it's no secret
that scale is low, studio costs are lower, and you can hire more musicians
for less bread- but the point is: they play so well. I mean, I've checked
the records through "Images", Lena's album, "Floresta Canto"
and "The Seven Deadly Sins"- not only is the recorded sound
magnificent (thanks to Keith Grant), but the playing is absolutely spot-
on, as you say.
You know, old Blighty should wake up to what she's got, and use it. It could help us all. Point the way for the States- why have you got to follow us? Don't do what we do- my God, you have some independent thinkers here, surely.
You have some very creative, imaginative jazz musicians- listen to them. Listen to the writers- Chris Gunning's not bad! I mean, he's getting known in the States; I don't know whether he's going to ever be asked to do his own date here. I don't know whether he'd want to or not, but we're going to try to keep him so busy that there'll be no need. But it's a shame; when a country falls asleep on its artists, a country is really asleep.
I shouldn't have to point these things out, but it's always the way, isn't it? The grass is always greener, in a sense.
But hopefully, it'll change- it's got to. Life is change; it can either change for the better or for the worse. You've got to listen to the jazz cats- the street players. The poets aren't saying anything to us, the classical composers aren't really saying anything to the people. Jazz talks to the people; it touches people, it really does, whether .it's through a rock'n'roll band, a fusion band or whatever. When you touch the kids, you touch tomorrow's people- the people that are going to be in government and in power. Get to them, and just get the message of jazz, of making do with a little less re- cycling, conservation.
Jazz cats have a great philosophical message for the world- you don't need all these bloody machines. A jazz group can play even if there's a power failure; I'd defy a lot of rock'n'roll groups to do that. Or people- people's air- conditioning fails and their car doesn't start, and life is finished. I mean, my biggest problem is finding a good reed; I wish they'd invent that.
Copyright © Les Tomkins 1969. All Right Reserved.