The Club and I
Jazz...it's never been healthier
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1972
In the last four or five years, I’ve been able to get away quite often. I’m only in the club for about sixty or seventy per cent of the year; the rest of the time I’m either away with the trio or the big band. Then; some of that seventy per cent provides the enjoyment of playing. So I’ve no grumbles, really.
The last time I went to the States was about eighteen months ago. I was in New York and Las Vegas for about a week each. There were a few things happening in New York, but nothing that I had a terrific interest in, really.
I suppose a certain kind of jazz music is virtually passing away, but there is some interesting activity in related fields. I heard a band called Dreams at the Village Gate, and that was as good music as anything else in New York, with Billy Cobham on drums, Randy Brecker on trumpet and flugelhorn, also his brother, Mike Brecker, who’s a fantastic saxophone player: The whole band was great; that was lovely. But, I mean, as for the straight ahead tenor saxophone and rhythm section, or the trumpet, tenor and three rhythm kind of things—nothing too much seemed to be going on in that area.
Although I did hear Freddie Hubbard’s Quintet, which was marvellous. That Freddie Hubbard/ Joe Henderson school is fantastic I think. That to me is a very logical culmination of what’s gone before. And I can’t see much farther than that, as far as contemporary music is concerned. It’s great and it knocks me out, but I’m not sure about a lot of other things.
Then I was in ‘Vegas, where the jazz scene as such isn’t much; I don’t think there is really a jazz club in Las Vegas. People don’t go there for that. But the bands that I heard in shows, and accompanying units, and individual musicians—they were very enjoyable.
I didn’t get to hear any college bands, although I’ve heard that there are some very good ones. But, of course, a lot of the young musicians that come here, especially in the big bands, and that I heard in the States obviously must have come from college bands. They’re terrific.
I’m sure there will always be young musicians who want something more than just the pop thing. They’ll probably start off as pop musicians, and then their talent will no doubt develop to such an extent that they’ll need a greater degree of self–expression, and so forth. There are young players around with all sorts of potential. It remains to be seen whether they’re going to arouse the same kind of appreciation as a guy like Roland Kirk has done.
But, after all, he’s rather unique, with a certain showmanship that comes from his very peculiar abilities, that most guys don’t have. When I say showmanship, though, as far as Roland is concerned, I don’t think it’s a calculated thing with him. It just happens. Any guy who can play three saxophones at once is a showman, whether he likes it or not! It is important to try and get your music across. As with the Trio—one of the main reasons we’re there playing in the first place is to communicate. But a lot of guys today seem to feel that the music is a kind of an end in itself. It’s enough to them to be playing, writing or whatever, and to produce pure music divorced from any kind of public. If there’s a public there and they hear it, okay; if there’s not, that’s also all, right. If they dig it, okay; if they don’t, okay. Well, the way I feel is: to some degree or other, you’re expressing yourself, and if you can get a reaction from an audience, then surely that’s one of the names of the game—communicating. So I think there could be more rapport, as it were, between a lot of musician and the audience today. This is not to say they should wear funny hats or go cavorting all over the bandstand; it’s to do with an attitude regarding making music, I think. I don’t mean that they’re wrong; as far as they’re concerned, they’re right. It’s just not the way I see it.
But those days of a group staying together for fifteen or twenty years, without changes of personnel, seem to be over. Jazz groups seem to change personnel now much the same way as pop groups do—always breaking up and reforming under another name, or another leader. That’s okay; there’s nothing wrong with that. After a certain period of time. I suppose it’s hard to avoid a group getting a bit stereotyped. All the guys know exactly what everyone else can do or can’t do; they’ve heard them at their best and at their worst; there are no more surprises. And you just concentrate on polishing the product, really. Whereas, if you’re playing with fresh faces, it must provide some kind of boost.
As for my meeting personally, in the course of running the club, many guys whose music I’ve admired—yes, it can be a bit disillusioning sometimes. And sometimes it can be the opposite, and you can find out that they’re very nice people. But it’s always interesting. Of course, everyone’s got his foibles. Once or twice I’ve been taken by surprise—but nothing earth–shattering. We all have moods, and better days than others.
Some guys may be used to dealing with gangsters in New York clubs, and so they come over here with that kind of attitude. But once they’ve been here two or three days they realise it’s not like that. I think it’s a fairly pleasant place to work. Most people who work at the club seem to like it. It’s not ideal, by any means, but we’re always working on the place and trying to make it better.
I would say our audiences have changed, though. I think we’re getting more young people than we were ten years ago—more students and that kind of thing. There seems to be more of an interest in jazz music among the young than there was. But then again. we find that the clientele varies according to who we’re presenting. For someone like Roland Kirk you’ll get a majority of young people. And then, say, for Buddy Rich’s band you’ll get an older, more show–business kind of audience, and a lot of musicians.
I was very pleasantly surprised in the case of the Modern Jazz Quartet, because we expected them to be the older ones, mainly. In fact, a great many young people came to hear the MJQ. Which was very encouraging; you could see them really digging what was going on, even though it’ s the opposite of a loud pop group. Then there is a certain hard core of people, who come whatever is happening here, just using the place as their club.
Are there any other people I’d particularly like to have work in the club, who haven’t yet done so? Yes, I’d like Cannonball Adderley, Pharaoh Sanders, Duke Ellington’ s band, Sarah Vaughan. But there aren’t too many things that we haven’t had that I’m frantic to get. Not from a personal point of view. From a business point of view, there’s a lot of things. For my personal taste, most of the things I like I’ve already heard in the club. Of course, you’re always restricted economically.
The man–for–man exchange system is much the same as it always has been. As far as getting American musicians is concerned, it’s usually done with British pop groups going to America. It’s when you get an international band—like the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland band, for instance—that it becomes a problem. You’ve got guys from all over Europe as well as from America in the band; so working out all the exchanges is very difficult. But it can be done.
Pete and I are associated with the Harold Davison office—and he’s been fantastically helpful to us. Not only financially, but from this point about exchanges. I don’t think anything we’ve done in latter years could have been possible without his help. And it really is a marvellous thing, because here is a guy who’s made a great deal of money out of music—including jazz, to a certain extent—and he’s quite prepared to plough some of it back in return. I mean, as far as his business goes, it wouldn’t matter two hoots to him if we closed or not. It’s just the fact that he feels, I think, that we’re doing something that’s worth doing, and he wants to give us his support and assistance in doing it. Which is great.
Certainly, though, musicians have more varied opportunities than ever before. And, in a lot of ways, the calls on them are more demanding than they were twenty years ago. Yes, I was a member of the Ted Heath band, and that wasn’t easy, but then again, I only lasted nine months in that band! But remember this: twenty years ago you couldn’t make any kind of living playing any kind of jazz music in this country. You had to have some kind of commercial job, and you played jazz as and when you could, for whatever you could get for it. The idea of trying to earn a living just playing jazz was not even considered. Whereas today it’s possible—and a lot of guys do it. They make records, and they sell quite well, which brings them in royalties: they do nothing else but jazz jobs; they go abroad, maybe, for two or three weeks, playing purely jazz concerts or jazz clubs around Europe. This is something that just wasn’t there twenty years ago.
But I really haven’t a lot of time for guys who sit around bemoaning the fact that there isn’t anywhere for them to display their talents, they’re not earning any money at what they believe in, and that kind of thing. To me, they’ve just got to do what we did in the same position, which was: to do anything, provided it was playing your instrument, and play what you want to whenever you can. If there really is any kind of intrinsic validity in what they’re doing, then sooner or later it’ll get across.
The obvious thing for them to do is to get hold of a little basement somewhere, or rent a pub room, or make a deal with the publican so that he lets them have the room for nothing and makes on the booze. Then they can do their thing, and if people come—great. But I don’t see that the onus should be on anyone else to sponsor them, or subsidise them, or anything like that. They act like the world owes them a living. I don’t think it does.
You’ve got to get some kind of reaction from people; otherwise there’s something wrong in what you’re doing. If it’s an adverse reaction, you’re unlucky. Some jazz has driven people away—and I’ve really no time for that kind of music. If people aren’t going to come, or when they do come, walk out on you, then you’d better find out why. What may be wrong with it is that it’s ahead of its time; which is what a lot of guys believe. That may well be true, but you’re stuck with it. You battle on, until the public comes round to your way of thinking, or you accept your lot. But I don’t see that you should berate other people, and blame them for not presenting you. Or not giving you Arts Council grants, or whatever it is. I just can’t condone that attitude.
The apologists for a lot of music today seem to say: “This is relevant to what’s happening now. It reflects the chaos of modern living . . . ” and so forth. Well, first of all, I don’t think that’s the function of art. Art’s function is to offer some order in what certainty is a chaotic world.
We know there are a lot of mixed–up attitudes, racialism and insane things going on; I’m convinced that in generations to come this era will be looked back on as a kind of a Middle Ages—just having birth pangs of what is really to come in the future. But then again, you see, I’m contemporary, I’m of this age, and I live in this world—and a lot of things that I like, which aren’t at all chaotic things, are relevant, to me. So I don’t believe that to be relevant and contemporary it has to be chaotic; I know from my own feelings it isn’t true.
A good parallel is the jazz that was being played while the war was going on. You can hardly get more chaotic than living in a blitz. But one of the things that helped people retain some sanity was the fact that there was order to be found in the artistic aspects of life, as it were. Music was needed to provide some light and beauty.
I certainly don’t think music has to express anger and so forth. It communicates on another plane altogether. If you want to be angry, to rant and rave about conditions, then you can go to Speakers’ Corner and get your point over without any possibility of being misunderstood; you can just say what you mean.
Also, I think a lot of avant garde is more akin to classical music than it is to jazz, because of a certain kind of feeling that it has. And I don’t see why jazz and classical music should even trv to meet. It’s like poetry and jazz—that’s another attempted fusion that I’ve never been able to stand. Two separate arts trying to fuse and, of course, they don’t. There’s no point in mixing chalk and cheese; you get a horrible end–product—you can’t eat it and you can’t write on a blackboard with it.
No, I wouldn’t care to play with a symphony orchestra—not in any kind of a fusion of classical music and jazz. Then again, there’s some very nice things I’ve heard that feature a jazz soloist with a string background —the Getz/Sauter kind of thing. But that isn’t really trying to mix jazz and classical music; it’s just putting jazz in a different setting.
What of the next ten years? Well, they’re going to be different—I know that. Things are changing, certainly, all the time. But I wouldn’t like to prophesy what’s going to happen. I’ve an idea there’ll be some fantastic music heard within the next ten years, but I haven’t the faintest idea how it will sound. I do know that there are many young musicians at the moment who have quite incredible command and technical facility. So it’s got to develop some way into something fantastic.
And I believe that England is going to be a centre, as much as any other country in the world, in the future. There’s certain young English musicians who are really going to be great.
As for a specific British style, it’s in a kind of an embryo stage, perhaps, but it’s certainly forming. Travelling on the Continent, you’d be amazed how many people you talk to—musicians and other people who like jazz—who are conversant with British jazz players, and very impressed by them. Just about every young saxophone player knows, admires and is no doubt influenced by people like John Surman.
It’s a great pity that an audience, as far as our club is concerned, anyway. is influenced still by the fact that a group is American. For instance, recently we featured the Mike Gibbs band—which I thought was great. Fantastic writing, very good soloists; the whole band was of a very high standard. Now, if they hadn’t been heard here before. and they’d suddenly appeared from America, then they would have been raved about. I mean, the band received good reviews anyway, but we’d have done double the business, with the music being exactly the same, if they’d been American and Mike Gibbs’ name had been Quincy Jones or whatever—any big name.
This isn’t exactly a prejudice. It’s a thing that’s built up; we do our best to change it, but it’s very difficult. People just take the home product for granted. It’s exactly the same in America, really; there’s only a handful of groups that fill clubs there, but there’s some very good guys playing around, who I know would be great in our club and knock everyone out. In America they work in clubs to very ordinary business, simply because they’re local. I mean, about fifteen years or so ago I saw the Miles Davis Quintet with John Coltrane in a club over there, and there couldn’t have been more than half–a–dozen people in the place. The music was fantastic, of course, but in those days Miles was just considered a good trumpet player, and Coltrane was virtually unknown. They were local guys; you could go and hear them any night of the week. So this audience problem is unrelated to musical quality.
I visualise the next ten years being a general broadening–out process, with regard to the club. The last ten years certainly saw some fantastic happenings. Musically speaking, I personally have had a few of the best nights I’ve ever known. That’s really what the place is here for. It’s like playing an instrument, where maybe one per cent of the time you’ll hit what for you is a high–spot. Night after night, you do the job well, but now and again it really kicks off.Copyright © 1972 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.