A Les Tomkins interview of 1983
Being here was wonderful; it was especially fun to be here at the same time as Phil Wilson, because we are very close friends and we work together a lot in the States. All of a sudden we accidentally found out that we were both going to be over here. We were planning to go to Sweden to do a camp together this Summer; we've done one there together the last two years—but because of the economic problems that they're having it was cancelled this year. Then I had this thing, coming over to do for Bernard Ebbinghouse, and Phil happened to call the house one day—my wife Mickey explained to him that I was out on another one of my trips playing, and then we were scheduled to go to England. He said: "England? That's where I’m going." So it worked out super-great—one of those things that once in a while happens; it's just extra special.
I worked with a band here called Young Jazz, from North London; I had a short rehearsal with them, and then we had an open rehearsal in front of the audience, explaining, demonstrating and playing some things. That's an excellent band; very good readers—we had a lot of fun. A couple of days later, I went down and rehearsed the Trinity College Big Band, that's run by Bobby Lamb, and had a great time there.
And I love to do that.
Mickey and I were here five years ago —I had been doing a camp in Sweden again; I've been doing those for around six years. We had some time off; so we came into London for ten days. Not to do any work; just to see the sights—we'd never been here. We had a delightful time, but, of course, you can't see everything—so when I had this opportunity to come over, we decided to vacation again. Then these things on the educational kick came up. Now I'm on my way to Germany to do some work for Bernard there—he's written a thing. Yeah—it's just been super.
How did I come to be an exponent of the euphonium and tuba? Well, it was by design, not by accident—my father's design. My father was a band director in the state of Minnesota—he started teaching public school music in the late 'twenties. After World War One there was a movement in the United States for building up music in public schools; he wasn't in the first decade of that. It had really gotten started in Iowa and Illinois. In Minnesota, I guess it would be because of the ethnic background of people there—they wanted city bands; they wanted bands started in schools. And my father was a music teacher who started the band business in several of those cities, in their school programmes.
When I came along, and he started teaching me, the euphonium and the tuba they really weren't hero horns, you know—so he drafted me to learn to play those, because he needed them in the band. You get kids to play the other instruments, but the tuba and the euphonium—no. Kind of like the bassoon—he never in his whole life had a bassoon player in one of his bands—he couldn't get 'em to go, because of the cost of the instrument and that sort of thing. But he did have me start first on the French horn, then transfer to euphonium, then tuba, and then back and forth between tuba and euphonium.
Later on we moved to Illinois, and I got interested in jazz because we lived in a river town—Rock Island, Illinois.
Louie Bellson was from the next town, and he had just gone out of town, started working with name bands, and his brother was a drummer—and I wanted to get involved in jazz. Well, I felt it was too late to take up a new instrument and learn to play jazz; so I started playing on the instruments I knew. I did have to take up valve trombone, and later on bass trumpet, and that kind of opened the doors for me. But it didn't take this dumb Swede too long to figure out that if you played a jazz chorus on a tuba, and it got everybody's attention because the horn was so damn big and funny-looking, that was a selling point. And I'd rather play some jazz on the tuba than not be allowed to play at all.
I played with Bob Scobie's Frisco Jazz Band for a while, and it was a kind of modern Dixieland band—we played all the Dixieland tunes but we used more modern changes and we played in four-beat. And this guy came up to Bob one night and he said: "You know —when that guy plays jazz on the tuba, he really plays it right, but when he plays jazz on the valve trombone he's too modern!" Now, I was playing exactly the same style on both instruments—he was just fooled by the appearance of the thing. I use this comparison: if you see a sports car going down the road at sixty miles an hour, it looks like it's moving; you see a fire engine going down the road at fifty miles an hour, and it looks like it's really moving, because of the size of it —right? So it was a natural gimmick.
That's how I got involved in jazz on those instruments—and, fortunately, over a period of time, met a bunch of wonderful people that were not discriminatory about them. Phil is one of them —he accepted me on my instruments. Now it's proved to be a very good thing for me.
In those early days it was more the tuba that I played, because of the novelty element about it; I did some recording on it—and that helped, of course. It's kind of turned around now—I play the euphonium ninety per cent of the time and the tuba ten per cent, unless the job calls for a turnaround. Euphonium is my jazz voice, really, and the horn is more accepted now. In fact, there are more people using it as a double—and very well. People are more into being interested in different sounds. You remember when the flute wasn't that popular in jazz? The flugelhorn used to be looked on as a weird instrument —now it's more or less expected of a trumpet player to be able to lay out some flugelhorn. Yes, it's what you play on it—absolutely right. There's no taboo instrument. Perhaps—I hesitate to say it over here, but perhaps the bagpipes would be limiting for jazz, although it's true that some guys have tried it. The point being that the horn is never a limitation; it's the attitude of the artist behind it or the attitudes of the composers. But the audience will look at an instrument and maybe not quite believe, simply because they've never heard it. Once they hear it, they're the first to stand up and say: "Hey, man, that's great, I enjoyed hearing that sound." The player's abilities—that's the only limiting factor in any of us. The horn is not guilty.
At North Texas State University I teach Jazz Improvisation. I started there ten years ago—I just finished my tenth year. When I started, I also shared the One O'Clock Band; I was the assistant conductor with Leon Breedon. After a couple of semesters of that, I took the Three O'Clock Band—because I'm gone almost every weekend doing concerts, like Phil is, and I needed to have a band at campus that I could work with, that wasn't that responsible for going out and doing public concerts off campus. I was travelling all the time, and the Dean of the college wanted me to travel, as he still does, to go out and promote and so on.
Then the Improvisation courses grew to the point that I didn't have time to teach anything else. So I would say for about the past six years I have done nothing but teach Jazz Improvisation. For a few of those years I was the only person teaching it; now we have enlarged the faculty, and we have two other people who teach some Jazz Improvisation courses besides their other courses. But the bulk of that course is still my responsibility. And I use the euphonium, just like the other guys use their horns. I do not play the instrument every time the class meets, but I will play it in every class at times during the year, demonstrating, playing along, and trying to help show some things.
As to the question: can you teach somebody to improvise, and hasn't he either got the gift or not? Well, I'm not dodging this now. . . I agree that jazz improvisation cannot be taught in the way we teach Maths or History or languages.
What you are really teaching that person is how to practise and research themselves, to develop their technical ability, to develop harmonically, so that they discover what is within them. I don't think you can teach a person to be a great painter; you can expose him to all of the art from the beginning of time on, show him what to work on, teach him the palette of colours, teach him to appreciate all these various things—but then it's up to him to discover his own individual talent. I feel that those types of fine arts are too personal—and I am wrong if I turn that person into a Xerox machine. The way I put it is: we guide them in the development of their art form. And I agree with Phil that it is not for everybody; some of them don't have the talent –they don't realise what it takes. There are also some who really think that it is quite easy, and they're not prepared to dedicate the hours of practice and the woodshedding to develop that talent. But it takes a great deal of dedication. People like Phil and I still practise every day.
It's not only a matter of learning your instrument, but of building up your jazz vocabulary. It's learning the vocabulary of people before you—and learning all of the music. You know, the guy who started playing jazz in 1950 had it easier than the guy in 1980. Just think of all the tunes of the 'fifties, 'sixties and 'seventies that the guy in the 'eight ies has to learn right off in front. Whereas the guy in the 'fifties absorbed all of those tunes as he went along. The 'eighties guy's got to go clear back to the 'thirties and learn the standards, and then all the way up from there. Sure, it's a big backlog. So we use the word teach perhaps for lack of a better way of saving it, but I tell my students: "I cannot teach you to improvise. You will teach yourselves what you have within yourselves. I will try to guide you." I would love to be able to say: "Yeah, I taught Lyle Mays how to play jazz." Hell, I didn't teach him how to play jazz; he and a whole bunch of others are so good, they'd have discovered it no matter where they went to school, or if they hadn't been to school. All we did was maybe shorten the path a little bit, and get 'em a little further along by the time they were twenty than they normally would have been able to get to, by showing 'em something about jazz theory or how to listen to this guy or some ideas that they may not have thought about: "Why don't you look at the chord changes, where you could do this with it?" But no, we can't say that we made him a great player, because that's a lie. I'm very happy that I was able to enjoy his talent, work with him for a while—and learn from him.
I remember telling Lyle one time: "Get out of here and go on the road. I can't teach you anything on piano, man." You know, I'm a piano 'pounder' as a sideline. We didn't have Dan Haerle then on staff—who is an incredible piano player. If Dan had been there, Lyle would have stayed in school and finished studying from Dan. But I said: "It's time for you to go." And I think we have to be very careful with the students from day one and point that out to them—that we're simply guiding them. A kid'll come up to you, and he's having a problem with a particular passage of music in jazz, a particular style or something; so you advise him to listen to this music or this guy, and you might show him what to work on. Maybe it's simply an unusual key that he thinks he knows, because he can play the scale from one note to the other, but you have to convince him that he has to spend more time living within that key, so that he can really speak in that key.
I use the analogy: kids study French, and they can read it and they speak it among themselves on campus; now a kid says: "Well, I'm going to go over to Paris for the Summer and have a ball." He gets to Paris, starts asking directions, and they don't understand him—and when they speak to him, he doesn't understand them: Because the dialect cannot be learned in a book. He has to get out in the real world, and then it works better—at least you gave him a start. Now he knows: "Oh, that's what I've got to tighten up on." I have a boy who just joined Woody Herman a couple of months ago on bass, and he's an excellent bass player. And, of course, beginning with the first night with Woody, I went and saw him, because it happened in Dallas. So let's say that of the first twenty or so tunes John had already played at least twelve of 'em at North Texas—no problem. He's a young, eager player, and he's very good; Woody was very happy. Well, then they called up a laid-back, very slow ballad, but with that jazz feel —and poor John got ahead of the beat, see. He isn't mature enough yet to lay back—you don't charge all the time. But by the fourth chorus. . . there's a young drummer, but he's been on the band six months, and he's saying: "Just cool it—take it easy." Now, you speak to John about that a hundred times in school, but it's not the same as when he gets out there and Woody or the band says: "Hey, baby—lay back a little bit." Now it has impact. He learned something that night on the second set that he had refused to learn in four years at school. And Woody loves him—he's doing just fine.
What we were able to do was prepare him —in style of playing, to a point, in knowing tunes, giving him some business sense, and definitely helping him harmonically. Because we all discovered that from guys passing it on to us in the street —and there aren't that many places where you can go and sit in nowadays. So that's what we do.
The musicians at North Texas State University, where I teach Jazz Improvisation, are very talented—and they work very hard. We have nine bands, and you've probably usually heard the One O'Clock Band. Yes, they're excellent; we're very proud of them. And they move into the professional bands; some of them go to 'Vegas, New York or L. A. Then they have to wait a while, work and get known—those are dues-paying towns. Just because you arrive in L. A., it's not going to open up all the doors; you have to ease your way through. But they are prepared for it.
The thing that always amazes me is: they get so very good at sight-reading—they really sight-read very, very well.
And that's one of the main things, because the first night they're on that band they have to prove they can read before they ever get a shot at taking solos. At school they read new charts all the time; Neil Slater is now the head of the programme, and he's always got music ready to pass out, to challenge their reading at any level, for any of the bands. The late Leon Breeden did an excellent job of building up the programme and stressing that particular educational detail—learning to read. It's very important; when the phone rings and they get called to do a show or something—whether they're at North Texas or they’ve left and are out there—the contractor expects 'em to walk in and read it. And if you're backing a famous singer, that singer doesn't come to rehearsal; his conductor knows exactly what the singer wants—the retards, the endings and all that—so he goes in and rehearses the band without the singer. When the singer walks in five hours later to do the show, they want it perfect—it's got to be nailed down. You never get sent the music a week ahead of time.
Now, I passed out some tough music to Young Jazz at rehearsal here, and they did a pretty good job of reading it.
Then when we did that little thing at the German school, there were a bunch of guys on the band who hadn't been to rehearsal because they'd had other jobs. So we talked it over, and there were a couple of spots on one tune that I checked out ahead of time, to show 'em: "This is a grand retard" and this sort of thing. We just ran 'em down from the top, I turned my back on the band and played for the people—man, it was excellent. Afterwards I pointed out to the audience: "About a third of these young people sitting up here have not seen the music before now—and they played it for you, they played it right, and you enjoyed it." That is a talent that deserves to be talked about—to take that page, which is just a graph, and to convert it to sound so that the people can enjoy it. That's why Duke, Kenton, whoever, are still living—because those people can take that music, no matter when it was written, and breathe life into it. Which is one thing that I respect very much about the classical player in the symphony. Well, when we say reading, it includes interpretation. Our definition is: you read it in the style and interpretation that was intended for it by the composer. You don't read Kenton like Basie, and you don't read Basie like Kenton—the eighth notes are played different, although they are written exactly the same.
You have to say: "Oh, well, I've got to listen to Stan Kenton, and get into that feel. Oh—and this one's Duke; well, now, if I play this chart of Duke's as if I was in Kenton's trombone section, it's going to sound awful—so I have to listen to Duke's band and capture that interpretation. How would those guys interpret this music of Duke?" And, as you know, in Duke's case that was very particular. he never wrote for first alto—he wrote for Hodges. So when you play that music, don't play first alto—play Johnny Hodges alto; then it'll come off. That's what they have to learn.
As for the musical future—I'm an eternal optimist. I believe that jazz is growing. I think that there's going to be a time when there is a lack of big bands travelling on the road in the United States. If you remember, years ago the big agents used to put money behind the leader with his band, to help him get started—as an investment—that's not happening now, and you can't take a band out on the road economically like you used to. Maybe everything's relative, in a way, but nowadays they want to get a record real quick, and get a TV shot, and be seen by ten million people—instant recognition.
It's very difficult to get an agent to step in and book an unknown band—and work to book it, like they used to. They'd rather book a ghost band, and use that established name, because now they're not really selling the band—they're taking orders over the phone. So it's more on the shoulders of the young leaders and the kicks bands to get themselves known on their own, to try to make a little noise, and get out. But there'll always be combos.
Another point is this: with so much jazz education going on in the States, there is a larger percentage of those kids studying it in high school, plus some of those taking it in college, who do not plan—and never did plan—to be jazz musicians. They partake in it on an educational level and then they go on to whatever they want to do for their lives' work.
But they were exposed to it, and they like it—and it's creating an audience. When you think of the fact that there are over twenty-three thousand jazz bands in the United States—not all good ones, of course, but I'm talking about junior high schools, high schools and colleges—that's quite a number. Now let's take little Johnnie here—he got started playing in a jazz band in the seventh grade, and he enjoyed it for what it was; they played simple rock things and a few little blues.
Then he went into the high school band; he had a good band director, and it was better. In college later, they had a jazz band—not really great, but pretty good—and he was in that band. He finished out, and he became an accountant or a doctor or whatever. Man, when he buys records, he buys jazz records, and when he goes to listen to music, he wants to hear good jazz—because it was part of his growing-up. That's one of the true values of jazz education.
In my travels I'm constantly meeting people who say: "I played in a jazz band when I was in high school, but when I went to college they didn't really have a jazz band, or I wasn't quite good enough to get into it, but I went to all the concerts. Now I'm out here working, and I have this job in this town; I found out that the high school band was going to play, and you came in to play with it—I'm sure glad I came down and heard you." I run into this all the time; so that is growing, very much. The kids want it.
We're hoping to come over here some time, do some camps, and bring over some people like Phil Wilson, who are teacher-players or player-teachers. The danger is getting a player and you hope he can teach—that's not right. Nor is it right to get a teacher in a specialised situation like this who cannot play. So you do a lot of research, and you find some guys who love to play, are good players, and they love to work with kids. Not the kind of guy who says: "Well—I'll work with the kids in order to get the job playing. That's wrong—they have to want to work with kids because they love it. And they remember somebody helped them when they needed it—officially or unofficially.
The jazz potential in Britain has amazed me. Within just a couple of days I met two young bands, full of beautiful kids who just love to play. And those guys at Trinity College are studying especially to be classical players; I didn’t have to say one word to them about how to fill the horn—man, they were doing that. That band has to work a little bit on its reading, but they were doing pretty good. We had a ball together; I never met 'em before, and it was just great. They're all saying: "Well, what's going on in the States?" and "Where can I get a book about this and a book about that?", "Where can we get more music?" etcetera, you know. So there's that intense interest, and I find it wherever I go. I've been to Australia and found it there; Canada, of course, is growing with this. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany. I'm sure this growth is going to continue.
I don't know about the marketing of it, as far as being shown on television and so forth. The only thing I have to go on as a basis is the United States—and I don't think that jazz will ever become that popular with the general public.
Because—well, don't you feel that in order to get something out of jazz you have to listen to it deeper? If you really like it, you get caught up in it, you sit there and you listen not just to the melody—you listen to the jazz players, and you enjoy the harmony. You listen to this song, and then you listen to another band play the same song: why do you like this one better than that one? The feel this band got, or the harmony, the way it was constructed, the individual soloists—all these factors. But the general public likes to listen casually to music; they want it in the background, they don't study it, and they have that right. People who listen to symphony music are the same as jazz listeners—they really listen. They'll sit there and hold an intelligent conversation as to why they like this orchestra's recording of Beethoven's Fifth over this orchestra's, and it's because of everything from the conductor through to the last guy in the orchestra that they like it.
Same thing with jazz. Exposure is the thing that helps most. I find that once the kids are exposed to good music it's another story—and by good music I'm referring to any good music, including good jazz and good rock. Once they're exposed to it: "Oh—yeah!"—then they prefer that over the shabby music. You know, there was a time in the States where it was very, very difficult to find jazz on the radio stations; now more and more stations are playing jazz—and even some of the AM stations have got full jazz programmes. Not twenty-four hours, but they'll have a segment of the day where they'll play some jazz. The FMs have always been in it more. And the reason there is more jazz than ever before is simply because there are more people that are writing in.
We that are involved in jazz are terrible in this respect. We want to hear jazz on radio, but we never call the station; we never write a letter and say: "Hey—will you play some of this and some of that." We just have the radio on, and if we can't find it we get mad and turn it off, or we'll switch stations and find it. When we do find it, we don't go to the phone and tell the guy: "I really enjoyed what you played—I wish you'd play some more." But this is what needs to happen.Copyright © 1983, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.