Jazz Professional               





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

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1979

Any other fond recollections of the early days in the Gerrard Street premises?

Well, I remember we had a court case at the old place with the guy who had the firm immediately above us. He insisted that he could hear drums at all times of the day and night. He was in the gown business, and he did a lot of his business on the telephone, often overseas calls; he insisted he couldn’t hear on the telephone because of the drums. It was a real Beachcomber/Justice Cockle–Carrot court case.

Eventually it was settled; we promised not to play the drums. And, of course, no one was playing the drums—the guy was slightly potty. So we just carried on the way we normally did, and it all blew over. There were a few things like that.

But you haven’t had any trouble with the neighbours in Frith Street?

No. It’s amazing; the place, for some reason or other sheer luck—is very, very soundproof. It’s nothing we’ve done about it—it’s just happened that way. I mean, you can have Buddy Rich’s band blazing away on the stand, but until you open the doors, or get within ten feet of the doors, you can’t hear anything. And we’ve got this discotheque upstairs, where they have incredibly loud bands —and you don’t hear a thing downstairs. You may have Blossom Dearie singing very quietly in the main room, while this heavy soul band thunders away upstairs—you can’t hear anything until you actually go up there. And vice versa—they don’t hear a sound from downstairs. It’s very good that way.

A criticism I’ve heard raised against the club is that you have become over–concerned with presenting American artists, and that you don’t give enough showcase space to British bands, What’s your answer to that?

The answer to that is: it’s nonsense. If I wanted to make out a list of British guys who have worked in the club over the last three or four years, for instance, it would be as long as your arm. We employ more British musicians, pay out a larger amount to them, than any other venue. British jazz is presented alongside American jazz and there have been many weeks where we’ve had only British musicians on the bill. No, I don’t accept that as a criticism; it really doesn’t hold water. It’s usually levelled by certain guys, who either don’t work in the club very often or have never worked for us at all. But if they haven’t worked in the club, it’s because, for some reason or other, I don’t think they’d be suitable for the place—it’s as simple as that. Anyway, we’re only open six nights a week—it’s impossible to use everybody. We certainly don’t keep using the same old guys, either; we feature a lot of young guys—and young groups like Landscape, Paz. Most of the British talent has been heard at some time or other, either upstairs or downstairs.

I’ve always said that if any individual, or any group, feels they should be working at the club, if they want to take over the place for a couple of weeks, they’re more than welcome. All they’ve got to do is pay the overheads: rent, rates, repayments on loans, staff wages, electricity, gas, etc. Whatever they make, they’re welcome to keep. I mean, we can’t afford to be a philanthropic organisation. I’ve been looking for a millionaire musical philanthropist all my life—I haven’t found one yet. If they don’t feel they can afford to take a chance and do that, I suggest they do what Pete and I did—find an old basement, slap a couple of coats of paint on it and open up.

Fair enough. Musically speaking, bearing your average clientele in mind, would you say you feel that generally you have to steer a kind of a middle–of–the–road course with jazz, that it’s not wise to go too far over people’s heads?

I don’t know—how would you rate Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp? Do you think they’re middle–of–the–road? They’ve all played in the club—so that’s not true either. What we can’t do is present a non–stop avant garde programme for weeks on end; it’s just not possible. What we try and do is cover the spectrum as far as we can—the criterion is: if they’re good of their kind, that’s all.

A lot of the artists who work for us aren’t jazz artists. John Williams works in the club; we’ve had comedians, we’ve had singers who could hardly be called jazz singers. But, in almost every case, if someone like that’s appeared, then there’s been a jazz group opposite them; so we’ve kept that thread going all the way.

Of course, one does have to keep an eye on how many people are coming through the door, simply because the overheads are absolutely staggering—they’re frightening. So we’re forced to do that, but whenever it’s been humanly possible a hundred per cent of the time, as far as I can remember—there’s always been some kind of jazz music to be heard. Most of the time, it’s a completely jazz programme; now and again there’ll be, say, a singer who isn’t a jazz singer, but she’ll draw a lot of people in. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because you’re going to get people exposed to jazz music who perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have been. And we do—we get people who’ve come to see someone who isn’t a jazz artist, and they’re back some time afterwards, and listening to an absolutely purist jazz group. Which is a worthwhile thing.

Likewise, you haven’t restricted yourselves to solely ‘modern’ jazz; people like George Melly appear regularly.

Sure, George Melly works at the club. Alex Welsh’s band, Bud Freeman, T–Bone Walker—all sorts of guys have played engagements, who aren’t necessarily contemporary jazz musicians, if you like. The majority of the time, it is a contemporary jazz music.

Just to settle a query that comes up sometimes—it is not, in fact, legally a ‘club’, as such, any more, is it? It’s a place of public entertainment.

Yes, it has been that for years now.

Membership, at £5 a year, is available, but it’s not necessary to be a member to get in. If you are a member, the cost of admission is at least £1 less, whatever the programme. Holders of Musicians’ Union cards are automatically members; we also have special reductions for musicians, as well as for students.

Can you say that you’ve learned any particular things from running the place, that you wouldn’t have learned if you hadn’t? I’m sure it’s been an experience, in every possible way, that you wouldn’t have liked to miss.

It’s great; I love it—I really do. You meet a lot of people; you learn to get along with them, to communicate with them that’s really about it. See, the thing is: the way I think of this place, I spend a great deal of my time in it, and I have to like it. I can only run it one way; I’ve never gone around, looked at other places that are successful, and got ideas that way—I’ve always run it as I think it should be run, or be decorated, with the kind of atmosphere that I like. That’s the only way I can do anything, really.

And I do it in the hope that other people will feel the same way. If it was a place that jarred, as far as I was concerned, then I’d go potty; I’d be bored to tears, spending half my life in a place I didn’t like being in. I’d rather be a burglar. So—if I come in the place and something’s wrong, or I see a girl not treating the customers the way I would like to be treated as a customer, then we do something about it. That applies to every aspect of the running of the club. It becomes a personal thing, as opposed to a business, if you like—and it is, in many ways, creative.

Twenty years is, of course, a long time. I suppose you didn’t necessarily think that you would still be running the club twenty years later, when you started it.

No, we never thought: “Are we going to be running another year?” or whatever. It just started, and rolled along, week to week. Sometimes day by day. But the idea is that we’re involved in the music we like, in the setting we like.

And it’s still the only jazz nightclub in this country, isn’t it? There are night–clubs without jazz policies, and jazz clubs that don’t run on into the night. After all these years, you retain that uniqueness.

Well, I suppose nobody else is stupid enough, really! I mean, let’s face it—if a businessman had these premises, the last thing he’d have would be a jazz club. It could make a great deal of money as another type of venue—a gambling club, or a discotheque, or a strip club, whatever. Actually—I was thinking about having a strip club for the next twenty years, quite frankly!

Perhaps you could make it a jazz strip club!

Yes. An underwater jazz strip club—with gambling. It’d make a change. Well, we’ll just have to see what happens.

But by now you’ve just about had everybody you ever wanted to have here . . .

I‘VE never had Raquel Welch. But I hear she’s very interested in me, actually. As far as music is concerned—yes, there are very few people that haven’t worked here. There are some I’d like to have again, that we can’t get now—like, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, George Benson, Chick Corea have worked here? but since then they’ve gone on to bigger things, and they don’t work clubs any more. John Coltrane never worked here; Miles never has—nor did Cannonball. Duke’s band never did. And those are people I would really have loved to have here, but it never happened. But there you are.

Apart from them, though, it’s really only Frank Sinatra who hasn’t worked the club yet,

Well, you see, we have this arrangement—he doesn’t book me, me and I don’t book him.

Copyright © 1979 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.