Jazz Professional               



Jazz...it's never been healthier


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

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1979

What do you feel about the general state of jazz today?

Well, as far as I can see, itís never been healthier. There are more guys playingóand playing good.

I wonít say there are more jazz clubs, but there are more venues that are using jazz. I know, when I go on the road with the group, we play a lot of places that youíd never think would have jazzóbut they do. A lot of discotheques up and down the country will have a jazz night once a week, once a month or whenever, which they never used to do. Not as many as I would have hoped, but some universities occasionally have a jazz thing; whenever weíve played at a university thing, itís always been very successfulóI donít know why they donít have more than they do. But, in general, thereís certainly more venues; sometimes weíre away for ten days or two weeks with the quintet, doing oneĖnight stands up and down the country, working in all sorts of places. Which is something that didnít exist twenty years ago; you were lucky if you did two nights a week in London. And really, London was the only place where there was anywhere to play jazzóthere were very few other places in the country.

Also, guys are finding a lot of work on the Continent; they couldnít do that twenty years ago, either. So, all in all, thereís no argument that itís a much healthier scene than ever before.

It is sometimes said that in European countries they tend to look upon jazz more as a parallel art form with classical music, whereas it is not really regarded that way in Britain. Travelling on the Continent as you do, do you find this?

I donít know; Iíve never found audiences on the Continent any better educated, if you like, as far as jazz is concerned, than British audiences. In Germany, I find that, as a general rule, theyíre not interested in anything really unless itís violently avant garde. Iím not too sure that they know what theyíre listening to anyway. I honestly donít think European audiences are any better. As a matter of fact, jazz audiences in England, on the whole, are the best in the world. I mean, Iíve been in clubs in America, and, to a large extent, the audiences are not very with it. They think they are óbut much of it is a pose. A lot of people are far too swayed by what critics write; they let the critics be their guideówhich is not a very good idea.

Musicians like Johnny Griffin, who have settled in Europe, obviously find something in Europe that they donít find in the States.

YesóI think what they find is much more work, and much less of a hassleóa much more congenial wav of life. Iím sure that Griffin or any of the American musicians living in Europe, if things were better in the States, would be just as happy, and probably happier, working in the States. And why not? Thatís their native country. But things are tough for them over there; itís a rat race. I donít think theyíre over here because the audiences are any more knowledgeable, or anything like that.

Running the club here is bound to anchor you, of course, but have you never had any thoughts about spending a period working in the States? I believe youíve had offers at times.

I have. But I like to visit America maybe once or twice a year, listen to whatís happening, and get around. I donít really have any great desire to live in America. Maybe if I was seventeen years old, or something like that. Itís a marvellous schoolóhard, tough, competitiveóif youíre a young musician, then thereís nowhere really better. But Iím not mad about the kind of way of life over there.

How about the British jazz scene in itself? Sometimes there has seemed to be a sort of a British sound. Is there such a thing?

No, I donít think so. Jazz is an American music; itís the music of the American Negro, basically. If youíre not going to play in that idiom, then youíre making some other kind of music; which may be perfectly valid, but it isnít jazz music. Thatís why I donít think thereís a British sound, or a Portuguese sound, or whatever. Itís likeóyou can get a Chinaman playing Flamenco guitar, but thereís never going to be a Chinese Flamenco sound, because that can only be Spanish music. I mean, there may be a British jazz sound, where guys somehow sound European; but that, to me, is not as good as the Americans are. The Americans are the best, and itís perfectly natural that they should be the best. Itís their music, in the same way as the Spanish are the best Flamenco guitarists.

But, of course, players like you can stand alongside Americans, as youíve done many times, and play to the same technical and creative standard . . .

Oh, itís not to say that a British guy canít play jazz, or a Chinaman canít play Flamenco. But you were talking about a British jazz sound. Itís either jazz or it isnítóand jazz is an American sound, an American art form. A musician can have his own sound, certainlyósure, thatís the idea, to develop that. He doesnít have to ape one of the American jazz musicians, note for note, sound for sound. Of course notóbut heís got to play in that idiom. If heís outside of that idiom, then heís making a different music.

Your own playing always sounds very good to me. That was a beautiful album you madeóďSerious GoldĒ.

Thank you. Well, hopefully, it evolves. I canít find it in myself, I donít have the capability of forming a set style, and preserving that, as it were, in aspic, and thatís it, thatís me. I hear all sorts of things; some I take in, others I rejectóconsciously or unconsciously. But whenever I think Iíve done something thatís okay, all Iíve got to do is listen to somebody like Coltrane or Rollinsóor, apart from them, young guys like Mike Brecker, Bob Berg or Larry Schneider. Then I know just how far there is to go. I just kind of keep trying.

This is a natural musicianís lack of selfĖsatisfaction, isnít it? Youíre always striving for something else.

Something like thatóobviously, nobody is ever selfĖsatisfied about their playing; otherwise, they would just stop. But, I mean, some guys do hit on, or evolve, a kind of set style. To me, Iíve never had that; I canít hear it in my playingóitís always in a constant state of flux. Which has its good and its bad pointsóbut thereís nothing I can do about it. Of course, as every musician will tell you, there are ups and downs; the downs are usually ninety per cent of the time, and the ups, such as they are, are maybe ten per centóif youíre lucky. Thatís the story.

Has the soprano added a lot to your playing, do you feel?

Iíve sold it. I havenít played the soprano for about two years, because I found it very difficult to play it the way I would like to. After I bought it, I realised that you donít just pick up the soprano and play itóat least, I donít. It required a lot of work, and I found that it was interfering, to some extent, with my tenor saxophone embouchure. And I love the instrument; Iím terribly envious of those guys who can really play itóthat knocks me out. As things are at present, Iím not ready for that. Maybe later on in the year Iíll get another one and try and work on itóif I back a winner.

What I tend to feel about a lot of playersóeven Phil Woods or Zoot Simsóif they double on the soprano, theyíre only duplicating what they do on their normal instrument; so they might as well stay on that.

Thatís a natural thing, I supposeóyou donít change your musical way of thinking because youíre playing another instrument. The way you think is going to be transferred to anything you play. But it has a different sound; itís a completely different feeling from playing the tenor or the alto or whatever, and that can tend to give you a fresh outlook on some things; thatís why guys play it a lot. I used to like playing ballads on the soprano.

Was clarinet the instrument you started on originally?

No, I never started on it; I used to play the clarinet a little, when I was working in dance bands, and it was an obligatory double. Now, in dance bands and in the studios, youíve got to double on the clarinet, the flute, the bassoon, the oboe, the cor anglais, the piccoloóyou know, itís out of sight now. I have enough trouble with the tenor. But I was maybe the worst clarinet player in the world. MaybeóIím not sure. Certainly, itís also a marvellous instrument, when itís played right.

Obviously, youíve never had eyes to do session work.

It hasnít worked out that way. On the very rare occasions when someoneís asked me to do something in the studio, Iíve always enjoyed it. I find the occasional things where you play with an orchestra very challenging and enjoyable. But apart from all the doubling, those studio guys are marvellous readersówhich Iím not. Iíve done very little reading for years now; I suppose I could get back into it. I enjoy playing in a saxophone section very much.

I suppose you havenít done that often enough, since the demise of the Clarke/Boland band?

Not at allóthatís what I enjoyed really about that band, playing in that section. Yes, it is a very sad loss. I used to like playing with Derek HumbleóI thought he was fantastic. That band had some marvellous moments, really. At its best, it was almost as good as any band Iíve ever heardówith the possible exception of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, maybe. Oh, yes, I think you could put it up there with the Jones/Lewis band. Their music was a little more complex than ours; our band was a little more downĖtoĖearth, I think. When it was at its peak, that Clarke/Boland band was something else.

As for recordingsóyou donít seem to make any of your own that often.

Well, you knowóI hate making records, really. I envy those guys who canít wait to get in the studio and make a record, and get it put out. Itís such a personal thing, playing, that to have it on a record I find disconcerting. Once itís there, I know that three months after Iíll hear it and say: ďChrist, I can do better than that nowĒ; itís not really what I want to put down on a record.

So I donít like doing it; to me, I enjoy just playing in clubsóIím not mad about concerts. As long as I can play with guys I know, that I like working with, in a clubóthatís enough for me. If Iím going to make a record, I prefer it to be a live thing, rather than in the studio. I just canít play that way: when the red light goes on, youíve got to turn it on. I wish I could be like the guys who have such a consistent standard that they can go in and turn out good stuff to order. If it happens with me on the stand, itís more luck than judgement. As a general rule, I prefer to hear live recordings; you donít get the sound that you get in the studio, but you usually get better music. Not always.

But Iíve found that when I was present when a live recording was madeósuch as in the clubówhen, later, I heard the record, somehow it hadnít quite captured the feeling I got on the spot.

Yes, I know what you mean. Thatís largely, I suppose, to do with the actual technical production of the thing. But, in any case, to me itís hard to capture these things on record. Jazz is essentially a music of the moment; when itís gone, itís gone. Even if you get it on record, it loses something through you not being there and it happening at the moment. Thereís something else, apart from the actual notes and the sound of the musicósome kind of communication that happens momentarily. This is not to say that there havenít been very many great jazz records; of course, there have. But I can imagine it must have been marvellous to have been in the studio when they were happening, and listened to them live.

Do you do a lot of listening to records?

I hear a lot of music in the club, and, as I said, I prefer to hear it that way. But there are records that I play a lotóperhaps not as much as some people.

Is the listening you do restricted to jazz, or do you spend time on other forms as well?

Sometimes I listen to other things, such as some operaóI like Italian opera. And there are some classical writers that I like: some of the impressionists Debussy and Ravel, people like that. Also, Chopinís music I find fantasticóI canít believe it. Iím assured by people who have had a classical music education that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are the ones. Brahms I can listen to, but Bach and Beethoven I havenít got to yet. Iím sure thereís so much music there that Iím not ready for. Iíll probably get to it, hopefully. Yes, I do like the melodic aspect. Thatís why I like Italian opera so much, because of some of the tunes. When I think that a guy has sat down and written those melodies, I find that fantastic. That really moves me.

Copyright © 1979 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.