Infinity Promenade

Infinity Promenade
The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach
Bud and Shorty
Back into playing
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1983
Photo by Denis J. Williams

It’s the third time I’ve been to London, but the first time I’ve played over here. One previous time was with a film project I was working on as an arranger, and the other was a Broadway–type stage show that actually didn’t happen. I really feel this is the first time I’m here for a good reason.

I went into the initial rehearsal with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, passed out my arrangements, and the boys did a great job. I was very happily surprised, although I’d been told by a lot of friends of mine what a fine band this was, but there’s nothing like hearing it with your own ears. Great players, great guys I knew it was going to be fun. Incidentally, we don’t have any equivalent to NYJO in the States.

When I’d spoken to Bill Ashton, he’d said he thought it’d be a good idea to bring a lot of the things from the ‘fifties, and whatever I’d like to hear from a later time. So I brought “Sweetheart Of Siegmund Freud”, “Infinity Promenade”, “Boar–Jibu” and a lot of those; I’d put it in front of them, count from one to four, they came in, and first time through they mostly sounded just perfect. Those charts are still cooking! I mean, it was a thrill for me—here’s a bunch of wonderful young guys who weren’t born when this music was written, and they just gave it new life. Born again it was beautiful.

Of the later things, only some have been recorded. See, I haven’t made an album of my own in quite a while; however, I do have something in the works I’ll be recording again quite soon. I have some big band charts—I didn’t write them last week; they have a little age on them. They’ve been kind of salted away in storage. There’s a few nice things there. It’s actually part of an unreleased album I did; I keep changing the titles of them. Yes, I’ve had a little vacation from playing—I’m not counting the years! Luckily for me, I’ve been very busy arranging and composing. But as you spend some time, you learn some important things about yourself and I’ve had this growing hunger to get back into playing. Because that’s where I came from; my arranging and my composing came out of my playing. For my own personal satisfaction, at least, it’s a necessity that I return to it. I just hope that it’ll be pleasing to everyone.

This tour with NYJO is really the start of my getting back. I’ve been playing on my own, with the band at church, and some little session things. I’m still in the process of reorganising myself. People who didn’t hear me play for a long time would say: “We haven’t heard you have you quit?” Just to hear those words kind of upset me, because although I hadn’t played in public for a few years, the feeling was always in my heart.

I’m playing strictly flugelhorn now. I’ll probably get back into trumpet, but I switched over to a flugelhorn mouthpiece, which is a different type than the one for trumpet. When you put it in the trumpet it doesn’t really fit tightly; so I have to get an adaptor made.

What I’ve been doing over the years is practising at home, and doing what we jazz refer to as lip calisthenics —just things to build up the muscular strength in your embouchure. Also ‘sitting in’ with albums of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins—that’s kind of fun, but it’s not enough.

I’m actually from a little town named Lee, Massachusetts, but Lee was such a small town there was no hospital for my mother to give birth in. So I was born in the next town, which was Great Barrington—which has given rise to a little confusion over the years. When people have said: “Where were you born?” I’ve said “Great Barrington” but they really meant: “Where was your home town?” Lee had about three thousand population when I was born; I think it’s maybe five or six by now. I haven’t been there in years and years—I’d like to see it again.

How did I begin in music? Well, you’ll laugh, but when I was five years old . . . my father had a little tailor’s shop in Lee, and one day a young fellow who worked for him came into the shop carrying a bugle; they had just organised a local bugle and drum corps. They handed me the bugle, and said: “Here see if you can play it.” Five years old . . . I blew, and a note came out! And, as they told me later, everyone started raving about me being able to get a note out of the horn. That was the beginning of it—a few weeks later I was playing in the bugle and drum corps, and I continued to do that. From the age of five till when I was thirteen, I was playing in different bugle and drum bands.

In the meantime, we’d moved from Massachusetts to New York City. Just before I was thirteen, my father asked me what I wanted for a present you know, the thirteenth birthday is the barmitzvah time for a Jewish boy. So I said: “Buy me a trumpet.” He got me a trumpet for fifteen dollars, and I’ve been pushing the valves down ever since then.

This was in the late nineteen–thirties; it was just at the time the big band era had exploded on the scene. Benny Goodman was very big. And my sister who, incidentally, at a later time was married to Red Norvo, loved jazz. At that time, jazz was the in thing; the way the young kids now love their rock music and so forth, it was just the thing that all the young people shared. Between my sister and my brother, who loved jazz also . . . we .would go to the Paramount Theatre in New York City to hear bands, and I became interested. I entered the High School of Music and Art —which was really the basis of my training in music. Quite a few of the kids in high school were symphonic players, but the large element that loved jazz—we’d all kind of congregate together, and share our interest. Yes, it was around all the time.

My inspirations on trumpet are possibly the history of jazz. I mean, Louis Armstrong first, and Roy Eldridge; going up the family tree of trumpets, so to speak Dizzy Gillespie. In the middle of it, the one who really became a favourite of mine was Bobby Hackett on cornet. And after Dizzy, Miles Davis; then Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis and here we are! Yes, Will Bradley was my first professional band. I was still in high school, just about ready to graduate I think I had another two months or so; I was playing a little high school dance, and Will Bradley came in as a guest star. He organised a jam session, and somehow they picked me out to be the trumpet player, playing with Will and a saxophone player. I don’t remember how it sounded, but it must have been passable or something, because at the end of it Will came up and spoke to me. “Are you still in high school? . . . When are you going to graduate? , . . Well, here’s my phone number. Call me I’m reorganising my band.” As I look back it was a tremendous gift. I just feel the Lord was watching over me way back then, when I was a little kid. When you’re getting out of high school, you’re being cast out into the world, and it’s a very traumatic experience. But I had all that anxiety removed, as far as: “What will I do?” I had this beautiful job waiting for me. Incidentally, Shelly Manne was the drummer in the band, and we’ve been friends ever since . . . forty years, I guess.

That band didn’t record; I don’t remember if there was a recording ban on. Actually, the time we were on the road was probably less than a half a year. It was a very important experience for me, but it was also a very short one. The band broke up mainly because too many of the musicians were being drafted into the Army.

They’d had those hits like “Scrub Me, Mama, With A Boogie Beat” and “Beat Me, Daddy, Eight To The Bar” when Ray McKinley was Will Bradley’s partner. The cute thing is that when Shelly Manne took Ray’s place, Shelly was singing all these vocals that Ray used to do and he did a great job with them. He took over the chair completely.

In a way, you could call it an enlarged Dixieland band, because we played all of the Will Bradley book, which contained a lot of these boogie woogie kind of things. But a lot of the personnel came in from Bob Astor—not a really well–known band, but he had Shelly, Neal Hefti and a lot of people that later were with Woody Herman’s band, and when this transition occurred a lot of real wonderful Neal Hefti arrangements came into the book, even though Neal wasn’t with Will Bradley’s band. Somehow they got their hands on them. So there was quite a mixture. And at that time the Jimmy Lunceford–Count Basie–type things were the avant garde of what was going on. I wish they had recorded that particular Will Bradley band—it’d be really interesting to listen to it now.

After that, I went with Red Norvo —for approximately a year, I’d say. It was a small group, and we played a lot at 52nd Street clubs in New York. It was just a wonderful group, with Eddie Bert on trombone, Aaron Sachs on clarinet and Ralph Burns on piano. From there I got drafted into the Army for two years, four months and seven days it says on my discharge! Then I had another one of these wonderful gifts from the Lord —the same kind of miraculous thing happened to me again. I was still in the Army, I knew I was going to get out in a short period of time, and, without me really doing anything, a series of events led to me getting a call from Woody Herman, inviting me to join his band as soon as I got out of the Army.

And at that time Woody’s band was really the band the First Herd. A lot of guys called it “the Wild Root band”—we did a radio programme for the Wild Root Hair Cream Company or something. It was the band with Bill Harris, Flip Phillips, Chubby Jackson, Don Lamond, Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti, Sonny Berman, Pete Candoli—quite an experience. Sure, it was the supreme test as a player but the supreme gift, too, for a young guy getting out of the Army, half scared to death. It was just great.

Some of that music is still being played by Woody’s band today. On a new album I got last week before I left home, they just recorded my old chart of “Lemon Drop” again. The band is full of fire it just sounds marvellous.

I would call it my break–in period as a writer, with Woody’s band. When I was in the Army, I was part of a group with a four–horn front–line and a rhythm section, and we were doing a lot of the material that Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges or Barney Bigard would do on dates, where they would use a smaller group rather than the whole Ellington orchestra. We had a whole book of “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”, “Squatty Roo” and a bunch like that. So the few arrangements I got to write in the Army were my very first things very beginnerish.

I remember we were in Chicago with Woody, and all of a sudden they spoke about making a small group album. And by this time Red Norvo was with the band. So it was: “Hey, we’re going to start recording tomorrow, but we don’t have any arrangements or tunes.” Red and I got together, remembered some of the things we used to do with Red’s group, and collaborated on a few of them—maybe three or four. I wrote the\ arrangements for the Woodchoppers, and—another miracle—they sounded okay. One was “Igor”, for Stravinsky; another was “Steps”, which was a nickname for Barney Bigard.

They came off great, and Woody encouraged me: “Hey, it sounds good. Why don’t you write some more stuff?” So I wrote a thing called “Keeper Of The Flame” which was really a head arrangement, but instead of committing it to everyone’s memory, it was written down. Very simple—just a beginning chorus for a small group, a few little unison riffs for backgrounds to ad lib solos, and then some kind of ensemble at the end. Which was also a style of quite a few things Woody’s band was doing at the time. Woody said: “Sounds great. If you feel like writing anything more, go ahead and do it.” I wrote a few more; they came out okay. Then it changed a little; Woody came to me and said: “We have a need for a song”. He’d give me the name of the song and maybe a lead–sheet of it, and say: “Would you do the arrangement?” Instead of doing something if I felt like it, he was commissioning me as an arranger—that was great. As for my leaving a stamp on Woody’s music I hope so; they certainly left a big stamp on me.

I was with the next edition of Woody’s band—the “Four Brothers” band. Between the two bands, this covered, I’d say, 1945 through to 1950. In the middle of that period I was in California doing nothing, and I spent some time with a real nice group that Butch Stone had. Stan Getz was on the group; the bass player was Arnold Fishkind, who was with Lennie Tristano later. Towards the end of the duration of the “Four Brothers” band, there was quite an influx of people who had been with Stan Kenton formerly: Shelly Manne came in on drums, Buddy Childers was playing lead trumpet, Bart Varsalona was on bass trombone, and several more.

All of a sudden, at Christmas 1949, Woody broke the band up, and most of us came back to California. Then, in the beginning of 1950, Stan Kenton was organising this larger orchestra, that he called the “Innovations In Modern Music” adding the strings, French horns and so forth. I had met Stan, but hadn’t worked for him; when he organised the “Innovations” orchestra, he called Shelly Manne, Buddy Childers and a few of the guys who had been with Woody’s band. Pete Rugolo spoke on my behalf, recommending me to Stan; so did Shelly and Buddy Childers. And Stan called me and invited me to be a member of the band, playing, arranging and composing.

I had been studying composition; by this time I felt I had grown somewhat as an arranger/composer. Now Stan Kenton turns me loose with this large orchestra. As I think of it again . . . like getting out of high school, like getting with Woody’s band, it was another thing where I was being led into an ideal situation.

Stan commissioned me to write a piece of music to feature Art Pepper; in fact, the name of the piece was “Art Pepper”. I could be wrong, but I think it’s the first time I had ever written anything for strings—the first time I got a piece of paper out and wrote: “Violins” and “Violas” and so on. It was a school, in its way. The whole atmosphere was very much of an experimental place where composers/ arrangers could express themselves. They had me doing my thing, but you couldn’t help letting some of the experimentation rub off on you. They had people writing twelve–tone things of the Schoenberg school, and jazz and blues and Bob Graettinger I mean, there was an incredible mixture. Just everything.

See, because Stan was himself an arranger/composer, I think he maintained and expressed an appreciation for other people’s efforts in this area that possibly a non–arranger couldn’t even feel. I mean, there was no jealousy or anything—I feel funny even mentioning the word; it was just the complete opposite. He was so nice to me, and made such an issue out of things I’d write that it was almost embarrassing. It was a new experience for me, and I just didn’t know what to make of it.

If I had a function there, it was probably to inject the swing element. Not that it was a premeditated thing, because I can only do what I can do; I can just be myself. But maybe there was a need for something I could do, that just fit into the jigsaw puzzle. Well, I guess I got it cooking a little.

Copyright © 1983, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.