Jazz Professional               



Frith Street


A personal angle
No grumbles
The Club and I
Frith Street
Jazz...it's never been healthier

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1979

Was it mainly the fact that you were having to turn people away at the old place that caused you and Pete King to make the transfer to larger premises in Frith Street?

Yes—when the Bill Evans Trio and the Horace Silver Quintet worked at the club, the place was just jam–packed. The only way we were going to continue what was then the existing policy—never mind about getting more ambitious—was to find somewhere bigger. Also, at the end of the engagement, you were still paying the band, the rent and the staff, and coming out with very little—you couldn’t get enough people in the door. So we moved—December ‘65, wasn’t it? Yes, we found these premises in Frith Street. We had no money at the end of it, but we went to Harold Davison, who we’d known for a long time, because he had been involved in presenting jazz. That’s how he started in the business; he became very successful, and ended up handling Sinatra, Engelbert Humperdinck and all that. But he still kept an interest in jazz, and he liked what we were doing. When we told him about our idea, he lent us some money—which we’re still paying back. We’ll always be paying back—it’s just one of those things. But we’re very grateful to him for it: there was no one else around who was interested enough to do it. So his long–term loan financed the move.

Then, a couple of years later, the premises next door became available. We were doing okay; we knew that if we wanted to put on the Buddy Rich band or Sonny Rollins with his own band, we’d have to cater to more people. We went to Harold once again, he lent us some more money, and that was it. It helped him to a certain extent, because this was a venue where he could place certain artists who maybe came over and had a week to spare, or wanted to work in London for a week or two. The beautiful thing is, though, that the money was lent without any strings attached at all.

He didn’t ask to have a say in the policy of the club?

Not at all. No one has. There’s nobody else who has any say in what happens at the club except Pete and I. Which is great. I mean, Norman Granz also lent us a little money, but on the other hand, that was in his interest as well, because there was a place for his artists in London. These loans have enabled us to expand, and to keep going.

Looking back, there must have been no end of magic nights, memorable climaxes during the twenty years.

Well, so many of them. When Zoot first opened, that was, as you say, a magic period. Then Sonny Rollins was fantastic when he appeared at the club. Stan Getz at the old place was a marvellous experience—as he has been at the present club. Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Basie’s band, Buddy Rich’s band—they’ve all had wonderful moments. There’ve been all sorts of fantastic nights. It’s rare that somebody of that stature will come over here, and there won’t be some very memorable music during the course of the engagement. Countless nights.

Then you get the unscheduled events—when various musicians sit in.

Of course—that happens all the time. Guys’ll come in—like, members of Ellington’s band who were around, or somebody who’s doing a concert—they’ll sit in, and there’ll be a fantastic jam session of some kind.

Have you seen any specific change in the clientele over the years? I mean, nowadays, for instance, it has certainly become the in–place for business executives to bring their wives or girl–friends for a night out.

Yes, but audiences vary, according to whom we’re presenting. If we have Sonny Rollins in the club, or Ornette Coleman, or Cecil Taylor, or Horace Silver, we get a younger audience. And if you’ve got someone like Ella, or Oscar Peterson, or Sarah Vaughan, then you get a little more well–heeled, older audience. Then, of course, there are people who come in just because they’ve heard about the place, and want to visit it, whoever’s working here.

I don’t think the audience has changed so much as it’s been added to. In the old place, it was always the young enthusiast, plus the hipper young executive with his girl—friend; we still get those kind of people now, but also you’re getting the people who perhaps were interested in jazz fifteen or twenty years ago—there they are in their forties and fifties, but they’ll still come to a jazz club. Also you get some of the tourists, who have to see this naughty jazz club while they’re in town. The other thing, that’s very encouraging, is that the percentage of young people, students and so on, seems to be on the increase all the time—which is marvellous. There was a time when you thought that there was nobody under the age of, say, twenty that was going to want to hear jazz—they were all into rock’n’roll. For a period it looked like that, but now they seem to be coming back. The young people seem to be looking for something a little more interesting than rock music. I just think they’re getting a bit disillusioned with a lot of the rubbish that’s slung at them.

Probably they’ve had their tastebuds tickled a few times by the jazz elements that have filtered into some of the rock groups.

Exactly. Right, I think it’s served its purpose in that way; it’s got a lot of young people interested in music they wouldn’t have been, perhaps, thirty years ago. So that’s good.

So you don’t feel there’s any question of you having lost touch with the basic jazz fan? I’m thinking in terms of the fact that you run so late at night, and the fact that you’re a bit pricey, possibly, some of the time.

The lateness is a problem, but I’d take issue with you about being a bit pricey—because we’re not. First of all, we have a reduction for students, which is virtually half–price, from Mondays to Thursdays. And once they’re in, they’re not obliged to spend a penny; they can sit there all night with a glass of water. or if they feel flush, they can have a coke! So I don’t see that we’re pricey. As a matter of fact, I got a marvellous letter today from a guy who couldn’t’ believe that we were, in fact, in these days, so reasonable. Our entrance prices, anyway, are geared to the cost of the artists we’re presenting—it’s as simple as that. If we’re presenting Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich or whatever, then we can’t charge thirty bob to come in—it just doesn’t work.

But for most of the year and for most of the attractions, a student can come in for something like a couple of quid, which, to me—to be able to hear, let’s say, Horace Silver’s Quintet opposite Stan Tracey’s Quartet—that’s not a lot of money, from 8.30 till 3.0 in the morning. And the fact is that we do get a great many young people coming. No, I don’t feel we’ve lost touch at all—on the contrary.

How about the time of night—doesn’t that put a limitation on some people?

I suppose it does—some people do have to leave, and get trains and tubes and whatever. But there’s really not much we can do about that. You know, it is a night club. We start as early as we can; the music usually starts around 10.0, and we open at 8.30. If you’re going to run till 3.0 in the morning, as we do—we’re licensed till that time—it’s very hard to start the music earlier than 10.0. Otherwise, you’d have guys working from, what—nine till three—that’s just not on.

When it gets beyond the time public transport closes down, you’re limited to people who can get out of town by car.

Oh, yes, but it doesn’t seem to deter people from coming. You get parties of young people, five or six kids, who’ll stay late and get a cab between them home.

In your opinion, has there been a deterioration in the general atmosphere of the Soho area in which the club is located?

Well, of course, Soho isn’t like it used to be—it’s certainly changed. But I’ve thought about this, and, quite frankly, a place like this has to be in the heart of the West End, in the middle of the theatres; it adds something. If you were out somewhere else, it just wouldn’t be the same. And we never get any trouble; just none at all—it’s amazing. I know a few of the gangsters, and they’re very nice to me; they like the music, they come in sometimes, and there’s no problems at all. When we opened the new premises, one of the bosses of the West End—who isn’t with us any longer, in fact—he brought me a magnum of champagne, and he said: “Open this when you’re out of the red. The best of luck to you.” Very nice of him—and the bottle is still down in the cellar; when we get out of the red, we’ll open it.

I mean, we’ll never be out of the red, insofar as we’ll always be repaying guys, but that’s part of the expense of running the place. I’ve no grumbles about it; I make a reasonable living. Some weeks are better than others, but, in the normal course of events, it’s better than working.

How much is your living geared to the club or to your own playing outside the club?

About fifty–fifty, I suppose; I’ve never worked it out, really. I’ve always got somewhere to eat, you see; I can sleep here if I want to—have done. Being associated with the club helps the outside engagements, I imagine—but I like to think that, whatever the reason people come to see the group I work with, they go away at the end of it thinking the music is okay. It’s just not some kind of a name and that’s the end of it.

Well, you’ve continued to aim at having the best possible group at any given time, haven’t you, according to the musicians who are on the scene.

I would always like to work with the best guys around. Also, I like to work with guys that I can learn from—otherwise you’re going to go backwards. So I’ve tried to have guys in the band that I admire and respect: so far, luckily, it’s been pretty good that way.

How much has the club contributed to your learning? Over so many years, you’ve had concentrated exposure to so many first–rate players.

That’s exactly it. It’s something that I feel very privileged to have had happen to me. By the same token, it’s not only happened for me—it’s happened for a lot of guys. I think it’s fantastic for a young saxophone player to come down and hear Phil Woods or Frank Strozier, Stan Getz or George Coleman—that’s something that I never had, when I was learning to play. I think that’s one reason why the Americans are the best—simply because a young musician in New York, for instance, can go around and hear all these marvellous players. And having the place here in London has perhaps helped British guys to learn a bit. It’s certainly helped me. The fact is, the whole standard has soared up, of rhythm players, horn players, everybody. And I think the club has contributed something towards that, certainly—not everything, of course, but something. All over the world now, the general standard is quite sensational; it’s quite commonplace, really, to get young guys, eighteen to twenty–two, who have incredible technical facility. If a guy like that had appeared thirty years ago, he would have been an absolute prodigy—but now there are a lot of them. It’s terrifying, actually.

Has everything you visualised, about the ideal environment a club should be, come to full fruition?

No—you can never say that. It’s like playing, like saying: “Oh, well, this is as far as I can get. I’m never going to do anything else.” If that happened, you’d just stop. The same criterion applies to the club; we’re always looking to improve the place in every way—the decor, the service, the presentation, whatever. To me, that’s a kind of creative thing, in the same way as trying to play.

We’re trying. to the best of our ability, the best of our finances. It’s a never–ending thing; there’s always something to do—at the moment we’re in the throes of improving the sound system. This place should have the best sound system possible, and we haven’t got it at the moment, but we’re going to get it. The present system is okay, it works—but I want the best.

As for dealing with the artists themselves—I know you’ve had occasional difficulties. I suppose some people, irrespective of status, are easier to satisfy than others.

Right. There’s always someone who’s going to be awkward in some way or other. But the vast majority of artists who come over here are great to get on with and they’re no problem. Now and again you’ll get some guy who’s temperamental, but once they get here and they know that we’re not gangsters and not the Mafia, as some of the club–owners in America are, and they have a decent dressing–room to change in and practise in, and it’s kind of an easy–going thing—once they realise all that, everything’s okay.

One thing they particularly like about it, they tell me, is the fact that it’s run by musicians.

Sure, that must make them feel easier about things, knowing that I appreciate what the problems are, and am concerned about the fact that the sound is okay for them, and the rest of it. That helps, certainly.

One time, I remember, you had to get a new piano, because of Bill Evans.

Well, that was in the old place, when Bill first came over. We had a piano in the club which was okay, but it wasn’t the kind of thing Bill Evans would be very taken with. I mean, I’m sure he could have worked on it, but we wanted the best we could possibly get. So we arranged with a firm in Covent Garden to hire us a good grand piano; they would bring it in on the Monday that Bill was due to start. We sold our existing piano, and it was taken away on Sunday, after the week at the club. There was the club, then, with no piano. And the guy who we were hiring the grand from came down to the club in Gerrard Street, and decided that he wasn’t going to hire it to us after all. It was a difficult stairway to get down with a grand—if you remember those wooden stairs outside—and then getting it round a corner into the club wouldn’t be easy.

He didn’t realise it was a jazz club, and he had visions of girls dancing on the piano, people pouring beer into it, and that kind of thing. He flatly refused to hire it; so we’re stuck with no piano. We talked to him for about an hour–and–a–half, and offered him everything we could think of. We said: “All right, we’ll buy the piano from you” —and he said: “Right—cash, £1200”, or whatever it was. Well, we never had £1200; we said we’d give him post–dated cheques. “No.” “Okay, we’ll give you £100, and if there’s any damage to the piano, take it out of that.” But he said “No” again.

Eventually, after Pete and I had talked to him all this time, when we realised that he wasn’t under any circumstances going to hire us this piano, Pete just said to him: “Look—f . . .off.”

He did so—and there we were without a piano. So we went to Steinways, I remember, to hire one; they had a place in Marble Arch, run by this German lady. And she had no grand pianos she could hire us, but she did have an upright. I said: “You can’t have Bill Evans playing an upright piano.” She said: “Vy not? He can see der boys over der top.” Eventually what happened was that Alan Clare helped us out; he knew someone who had a good piano, and was prepared to lend it, or hire it, to us. It was all a panic by then—and we finally got the piano in about an hour before Bill played his first set. Well—it was one of those things.

Copyright © 1979 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.