A personal angle
The Club and I
Jazz...it's never been healthier
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1972
A lot has happened musically in the last ten years. I must say that Iím not terribly moved by a lot of things that I hear, that have developed during that time. But there have been, nevertheless, some fantastic happenings, I think. The decade has thrown up a lot of very fine young musicians, who have broken out of what were previously considered ironĖclad rules about playing instruments, and music. As a consequence, theyíve opened up all sorts of avenuesówhich is great.
What I find missing in a great deal of todayís music is a variety of emotions. Some of it can tend to be very boring and samey after a while. Iím speaking of the general contemporary music thatís being played all over the world. It lacks a kind of emotional thing, to a certain extent.
As far as the club is concerned, over the last ten years weíve presented some very good new music as well as more established things. And I think the understanding and appreciation of the more advanced ideas is growing, although itís a slow business. But Iíve a funny feeling that it will develop into something that reverts back somehow, in an emotional sense, while still retaining this free outlook. Maybe. I donít know; itís very difficult to say.
Being in a position to hear a lot of great things night after night in the club, youíd have to be a bit thick if you didnít learn something. Influence of some kind, from certain guys, must seep in. I mean, thereís a lot of guys whose music I can take or leave. But some are fantastic musicians, who must have a kind of effect on you.
The basic effect is the one that Iíve always maintained exists: not so much the lessons to be learned, if there are any (and I suppose there must be); not so much in the content of what the guys play, but more in the attitude towards playing. I donít mean just American musicians, either. In the first instance, yes, American musicians were the ones to listen to, but now Iíve heard musicians from everywhere that are really incredible. Japanese musiciansówe havenít had them at the club, but Iíve heard them. Also German, and, of course, British players.
Very few of the jazz greats who have worked at the club have disappointed me on hearing them in person. One or two, but maybe because they were ill, just didnít feel right or something. In general, the players Iíve admired and weíve managed to have appear here have lived up to expectations completely.
For me, the greatest thing Iíve ever heard has been Sonny Rollins. Heís the kind of guy, if he works here for a month Iíll be out there every set, listening. And after a while itís difficult to do that, you know. But with Rollins, Iíd hate to miss a setóbecause you never know whatís going to happen.
Another thing, while weíre on that subject: I canít understand, when a guy like Sonny Rollins is appearing at the club, why at least every saxophone player within a fiftyĖmile radius of the club doesnít come at least once. Just taking saxophone players as an example, Iím amazed that they donít flock to hear people of the Sonny Rollins calibre. Iíve seen musicians that I thought still had an interest in what was happening, and Iíve said: ďDid you come and hear Rollins?Ē ďOh no, I couldnít make it. I was working earlyĒ, or some kind of excuse. I really donít understand it; I think itís a shame. Itís a blasť attitude, a lack of interest or something; I donít know what it is. I know that if I was anywhere and somebody like Rollins was playing, Iíd go and see This applies to a lot of great things that we present at the club. Iím often amazed by this funny attitude. A lot of musicians do come in, the younger ones in particular, but there seem to be a lot of guys who should come in and donít.
Regarding big bands: I think itís much the same as itís been for some years now. Thereís no great boom, or return to the big bandsóthat theyíve all been talking about. But just the same, when there is a big band at the club, like Buddy Rich, Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland, Harry James, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, weíve always done very good business and the atmosphere has always been fantastic, Thereís something about a big band; you canít reproduce it any other way.
Certainly, the Clarke/Boland band has been great for me. Itís the best big band Iíve ever played in, or probably will ever play in, I should think. Thereís been times, sitting in that band, where itís been a really terrific kick. Because I like playing in a saxophone section, and that one was one of the best ever, I think. At one period it was a remarkable thing to play in, and, of course, it still has its moments now. But, you see, the late Derek Humble was really responsible primarily for that kick; so it probably wonít be the same again. Itís still very enjoyable to play with a good saxophone section, and the band as a whole is very good. I like being a member of a big band, if itís like that.
I like that record the band made with Stan Getz very much. Thatís a great piece of writing. Itís the kind of album you should listen to from the beginning to the end; itís a kind of a suite, and themes are reiterated in various settings and so on.
Quite frankly, there are a lot of young writers today who are overĖpraised, as far as Iím concerned. Maybe itís because there are not too many guys writing at all, with any degree of originality or ideas. But I think Francy Boland is very, very underrated, because he writes rings round most of the guys who receive a lot more acclaim than he does. Heís a fantastic talent. Even the best of the young writers canít compare with a guy of Bolandís statureóalthough Iím sure they will, as they develop.
The genera1 outlook of musicians has changed a great deal; yes, it probably is broader. The repertoire has extended to include all sorts of things. Itís a completely different way of looking at music, really; a much more open and allĖembracing way. Which I suppose is a good thing, on the whole.
In the club, weíre forced to present things that I think people would like to come and see, providing theyíre good of their kind. Of course, ideally I would like to have a purist jazz club, but unfortunately, itís very difficult to make such a venture work. Consequently, we have to compromise to a certain extent. Which Iím quite prepared to do, as long as the backbone of the thing is still jazz. At least, ninety per cent of the time. It doesnít even have to be a musical thing. You know, weíve had comedy acts opposite a jazz attraction; thatís okay with me.
To a degree, Iíve been able to fulfil my original concept of having an environment, rather than a club. Weíve got the three floors. The upstairs is a kind of a discotheque thing, where some good music happens. Various undergroundĖtype and AfroĖrock groups are heard, that I think are very good. For instance, Osibisa worked here for a week or two before they were as big as they are. Also we had a group called ĎIgginbotham, which featured a fine young guitarist, Alan Holdsworth, whoís down in London now. A lot of young guys have worked upstairsóand been noticed as a result. With the main room and the downstairs room, itís somewhere you can come in and wander about if you want to, and hear various things. So the environment idea has worked, really.
What Iím a little disappointed in is the fact that it becomes increasingly difficult to find attractions that do good business. There are very few British ones that do well enough. The Dankworth band with Cleo Laine is okay on its own, but in the main, British acts have to be subsidised by sharing the bill with an established American name.
Iíve had rows with British musicians, who say to me: ďWhy donít you employ all British musicians all the time?Ē Well, anyone whoís tried to run any kind of place in London that presents nothing else but British groups will tell you that itís very tough. This has nothing to do with the standard of British musicians which, of course, is very high and getting higher all the time. Itís just to do with the fact that the local guys are just taken for granted, and donít pull people in. At least, they donít pull people in here, and Iím sure that if you ask anyone else who runs a joint theyíll tell you itís difficult anywhere. And so you have to compromise that way as well; if you book a certain number of big foreign attractions, usually American, against them you can put British musicians as much as possible. In my view, itís better to have the place as somewhere for British musicians to work to a degree, rather than not have it at all, or turn it into a disco bar, strip club, gambling joint or whatever.
I feel that we donít really get as much credit as we think is due to us, for keeping any kind of jazz club going six nights a week, and featuring as many British musicians as we do feature. Thatís an achievement in itself, which should be encouraged and helped as much as possible. You know, Iíve had one or two setĖtoís recently with people who write in various musical papers, because I donít think the club itself gets the acknowledgement it deserves, somehow. I mean, the people who appear here usually get reviewed very well, and the club gets publicity in that way. That helps, of course.
But you do get guys who, for some kind of strange reason, because you have existed for so many years and because you try and present things in reasonably decent surroundings, seem to think that youíve become part of the establishmentósomething like that. And as youíre part of the establishment, then you must be knocked, whether youíre right or wrong. I really find it very difficult to comprehend. Itís something to do with a generation gap, perhapsóI donít know. Or itís: as soon as jazz attracts any kind of following, or any kind of commercialism enters into the idea of anyone making a living out of it, it becomes abhorrent. Maybe thatís it.
Itís fine that certain types of British musician can do well financially, here and in the States, but I donít know whether itís got much to do with jazz, however. It depends what you mean by jazz. Sure, thereís improvisationóbut thatís been going for a long time now. Itís only recently that some kids have discovered that itís possible to improvise, and then you read critics who write about it as if it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. How fantastic that some of these groups are actually improvising! Big deal. Whereas, of course, itís what jazz is all about. Again, jazz has not been given credit for the influence itís had. Without jazz music I donít know what kids today would be playing. Either consciously or unconsciously, it motivates them.
There is a kind of music thatís being played today, that I like very much. and which I would honestly rather listen to than a great deal of whatís popularly known as avant garde jazz music. Which is a kind of nice fusion of things. Really, itís accomplished jazz musicians playing good pop tunes that have been wel larranged, or improvising on good pop tunes. The Quincy Jones album ďSmackwater JackĒ is a perfect example of what I mean. I like it basically, I think, because itís so rhythmic, and Iím a sucker for a good rhythm feel.
Sure, itís taking jazz to a wider public. A lot of people will buy Quincyís album, and if you told them it contained a very liberal sprinkling of jazz music they wouldnít know what you were talking about. But they still buy the record and like the music. If it was advertised as a jazz LP, they probably wouldnít look twice at it.
Itís possible to dispense with the word jazz. We just call our place Ronnie Scottís now, but we used to advertise it as a jazz club. Now, not being a purist jazz club, itís not true to term it that. A lot of things that are there arenít really jazzónot to my way of thinking, anyway.
It seems to be a bit of a passť word these days, for some reason.
But I can only use it to describe the kind of attitude and feeling that a certain kind of music has for me. And I find that in recent Quincy Jones records and stuff like this there is an enormous jazz content, although they donít feature any lengthy jazz solos. Theyíre better for not doing so.
The thing is, thereís very few guys I know who can really play an extended improvisation for any length of time without becoming a bit boring and repeating what theyíve said before. And I love to hear a guy present two or three minutes of music which in itself is a kind of concentrated essence of something or other to do with him, rather than a guy play for maybe twenty minutes. Unless heís a Sonny Rollins or a John Coltrane. There are not many of those.
As regards my own playing . . .yes. Iíve worked with many of the younger musicians, and I donít feel in any way alien to the guys themselves oróthe kind of music thatís being played. As I said before. Iím all in favour of their breaking away from the restrictions as to what you could or couldnít do. You can do anything you like if you feel like doing it. If itís validógreat. And I hope that this attitude is reflected in what I play, in that it has accepted various kinds of influence like that. Iíd hate to feel that Iíd stopped.
I believe I have my own identity as a player. When. youíre a young musician, and youíre learning to play an instrument, you hear a guy play that you admire very much and, almost unconsciously, you ape him. Then you get to a stage, I think, where all the influences seem to have been assimilated, and out of that conglomeration of approaches you kind of gravitate towards a style that becomes a natural thing. But, as I say, I hope it doesnít mean that you stop, because I feel that my playing changes almost night to night.
Iíve been working for a while now with the Trio. This is something that I enjoy very muchómainly because Tony Crombie is, for me, a great drummer. Iíd rather play with Tony than most other drummers I know. Itís just incidental that heís a contemporary of mine; the fact is, I just like the way he plays. The same goes for Mike Carr on the organ. Itís very enjoyable, because we play virtually what we want to play, and we seem to get a good reaction from the audience. Which is very important, with the kind of outlook on music that the three of us have. The idea is to communicate to people how we feel about things; to see that weíre doing that is a tremendous kick.
That eightĖpiece band I had was nice, too. It was very difficult to keep it together, simply because all the guysóKenny Wheeler, Ray Warleigh, John Surman, Chris Pyne, Gordon Beck. Ron Mathewsonówere involved in doing other things as well. You canít really maintain a band like that unless youĎre going to do it on a fullĖtime basis, which was just about impossible, But it was great while it lasted; it gave me a chance to play with these guys, and we got some nice writing done. Also I think the record we made live at the club captured the spirit we had. Iíve heard it again recently; it stands up pretty well.
Even if I wanted to, there would be no way I could have a regular big band of my own. Really, Iíve got it very nicely. I play with the Trio a lot, also with the Clarke/Boland band; so I get the best of both worlds, you can say. But to get a big band together under my name, simply to work at the club, would be a bit of an undertaking. Youíve got to get a book written for it, ensure that the right guys are available, get them to spend a week or so rehearsing, then work for a couple of weeks. At the end of it all, apart from the occasional broadcast or concert that might happen out of it. thatís itóitís over.
The other things that weíve done, thoughóbacking singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Jack Jonesóhave been a great pleasure, Iíve tried to pick guys that work well together and, luckily, all the bands have sounded good.
Yes, occasionally I accompany singers in the club, with a small group. Itís nice; I donít mind doing that. I donít know if Iím funny, but Iím not averse to playing any job. For instance, if Iím called upon to do some kind of session or other that involves very commercial music, itís okay. Sure, I took a solo on ďLady MadonnaĒ by the Beatlesóthatís my claim to fame. They broke up shortly after that, I might tell you.
As long as Iím playing my instrument, thatís enough, really. You try and play it the best you can under any given circumstances. It can only help; it canít do any harm. But then again, you get guys who flatly refuse to play anything other than the kind of music theyíre involved in. Which is very admirable; it just happens to be an attitude that I donít have. And itís got nothing to do with the economics of it, either. I mean, maybe some fixer or other has phoned me to do a session early in the morning; itís not really worth a lot of money, and it means I get to bed about five, then get up again about half past eight to do the thing. So I donít do it for the money; I do it because Iíd like to feel that I was competent.
Running a club and being a working musician at the same time have not really conflicted, Iím glad to say. Iím lucky, in that my partner Pete King handles most of the business matters; so I am left fairly free. Itís a bit of a problem sometimes. if heís away and I have to combine playing in some group or other in the club with chasing around dealing with other things. Thatís certainly not ideal where playing is concerned, but I can manage.
Copyright © 1972 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.