The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach

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

Quite a few musicians who had been members of the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman bands settled down in L.A. in the ‘fifties; a lot of them had lived there already. Most of us had been on the road so long that we just wanted to get off the road and get into a little different life–style. As I think back, many of us were able to get a job at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach—I know that’s where I went when I left the Kenton band. And I think Shelly Manne did the same thing. Jimmy Guiffre was there, although he hadn’t been with Kenton’s band; he did play with Stan, but wasn’t on the road as much as we were. Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Stan Levey, and later Frank Rosolino it was like a way–station! You had John Graas on French horn—so many of ‘em.

I feel the so–called West Coast Jazz era was a good thing. But we are musicians and jazz players, and the main thing we wanted out of life was to keep occupied in the thing we wanted to do—to play jazz—and what it did was to offer this opportunity. I mean, we were busy just having the greatest time of our lives—recording, playing at the Lighthouse. It’s so rare making a living doing what you love to do. I just said: “Thank you, Lord—this is great”. In my mind I was more wrapped up in just having fun than worrying about: is it West Coast or East Coast, and are we doing something that’s better than something else? I didn’t have time to think that way; it was more important for me to concentrate my thoughts on: “I’ll have a record session next week—I have to get the arrangements done. I want to compose a tune; I’ve got a little idea, but the tune’s not finished—I have to keep working on it”. That’s the world I lived in.

A lot of people asked me: was West Coast better than East Coast? But we weren’t engaged in a battle—no way. I’m from the East Coast, anyhow, and as I think about the music that was labelled as West Coast Jazz . . . well, for instance, at that time I think Al Cohn was the strongest influence we had. I just loved and adored what Miles Davis did with his ten–piece band, and I wanted to do something that sounded that way. Why? Because it would be the most fun; I would enjoy it the most. Miles Davis, Al Cohn, Bud Powell were tremendous influences on me—maybe people couldn’t hear it in the music, but I know the input that was going into my head, and the source of things I love. That’s where it was from.

I guess, with each individual . . . if you talk to twenty guys who were involved in music in the West Coast at that time, you’re going to get twenty different answers, but I do feel this thing of just seeking enjoyment and fun and being able to express yourself was the majority of what was going on, really. You know, we were playing non–stop.

Another exciting thing that was happening in a small way then: myself and all the guys were starting to be used in some film projects. Previous to that time it was kind of unheard of; you know: “Jazz in a film? Get out of here—it just doesn’t happen.‘ But we were involved in quite a few, and I feel that at least two of them were very important historically. I mean, I have to say they’re important—not just because I think so, but because I’ve seen articles that were done on film research and so forth.

The Wild One, with Marlon Brando, that Leith Stevens composed and I did some arranging, was a very aggressive step in the use of jazz—it was unprecedented. Yes, those were undiluted big band sounds. Then it was the same with Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Man With The Golden Arm. You can step back years later and look at them—you can’t dispute things like that; they’re just there. And I just feel very fortunate that I was able to be a part of that; it was great.

Since those years I’ve continued to be associated with a lot of the same guys in the studio, But. . . I spoke about this hunger I have to get back into jazz playing—it isn’t just me; it’s Bud Shank—it’s all the guys we’re speaking about. Bob Cooper is experiencing the same thing. Shelly has really never changed; he’s continued to be involved in jazz, and all his studio work has been going on simultaneously. But a guy like Pete Jolly, who has been kind of swallowed up in the studios, is going through this hunger to get back into the mainstream too—so he’ll be coming around. To have jazz where it’s just background for a car riding down the street or something—there’s a need for that, but there’s a need in the players for a much more rewarding feeling.

Of course, I enjoy writing for a show like Starsky And Hutch, where there’s a chance to use a jazz approach—a chance for some ad lib solos once in a while. I’m sure I’ve grown as a writer, but film, in a way, is kind of like being a actor—it’s another world from jazz. In writing for film, jazz would be one of the things you’re expected to do, but they may go into a Russian restaurant and there’s a balalaika orchestra playing—I mean, you have to be able to come up with everything from soup to nuts. As a jazz person, I would hope it was always a jazz situation, but it doesn’t work out that way. The people you work for want things that are pleasing to them, and will enhance the film. Unfortunately, at a certain point, they couldn’t care less if it’s a great jazz player or not. They could call on me or Pete Rugolo or Lalo Schifrin and they just want the needs of the film taken care of; if there’s a need for jazz, they want it to be the greatest jazz that will work in that situation. But if it’s a situation that doesn’t call for jazz, and you try to put something in because that’s your thing, they say: “It doesn’t work”—and a week later you don’t work! You have to be very versatile, very sympathetic to the film, as well as the underlying psychological make—up of the producer and everyone. It’s a world of its own.

One great musician who played a major part in my contributions to West Coast Jazz was Art Pepper—who passed away last June in a hospital not far from my house. I had written a book; it’s a collection of tunes, and I named one of them “A Work Of Art”. Then I looked at the title, and I said to myself: “Oh, Shorty’s writing a tune and he’s calling it ‘A Work Of Art’—it sounds like an ego trip!” So I told the people: “Please put underneath ‘dedicated to Art Pepper’, because that’s the whole meaning of this title”. Here’s what I think is a pretty ballad—and I was going to surprise Art; I would hand him a copy of the book and say: “Hey, turn to page seventeen and check that tune out”. By this time I had the book in my hand; the first edition had come out—and I was thinking: “I wonder when I’ll see this guy to give him this.” Then a few days later I got a post–card from the Motion Picture Academy, inviting me to a presentation a half–hour film documentary about Art Pepper. I said: “Well, that’s it—I’ll go and see it. I know Art’ll be there”.

A few days after that, the news started to come out, that Art was in the hospital, in critical condition. I was praying very hard about it, and enlisting a lot of friends of mine—we were all praying for him. It was Saturday of the week, and I had to drive by the hospital; my son lives up past there—I had to go and visit him. I went into the hospital, and I’ll be honest with you—I’m kind of a little chicken about that; I don’t enjoy being around a hospital—it kind of upsets me. But I had this compulsion; this little voice told me to go in and see him, even though it was sort of frightening to me. Well, I’m enquiring: what floor is he on, and how can I get up there? Being Saturday, the place was half closed. I went from one window to another, and finally one lady said: “He’s on the seventh floor.”

When I got the elevator, I found it only went to the fourth floor, and I kept getting turned around. Finally I found myself at another window, and I said: “I’m a friend of Art Pepper. I’d like to get up there and visit him.” “Well, hold it—I have the list. Are you a member of the family?” I said: “Well, I feel I’m a member of the family, but I’m not an immediate member.”

He said: “Well, he’s in critical condition. You can’t go and see him”. I said: “Well, I know his wife Laurie is here. I tried to speak to her on the phone, and the answering service said she’s here. Can I just go and talk to her?” He told me: “The family said: absolutely no visitors”. So I was turned down, but I felt somehow in a strange way that I did all I could do to get to see him. I think it was the next day, Sunday, that he passed away. The showing of that film was the Monday . . . I couldn’t go.

I went to his memorial service and many of the guys we mentioned were there, along with the guys who had most recently been playing with Art, like Milcho Leviev and George Cables, who was one of the speakers. In the background they were playing Art’s latest, unreleased album.

None of us wanted to be there, but I felt privileged that I had gotten to know him as a person, and over the years had played with him and heard him so much. We first worked together all the way back before Kenton’s band.

Art never played less than great, at any time. It’s just such a shame that the poor guy had such a miserable time here. As for music that stands the test of time, he’s an incredible example of that—the old things, like the new things, just keep sounding better. It’s still to be established, when all the weights are put on the scales. . . . I don’t think people still realise what a very special, outstanding player this guy was and is. I mean, everyone respects him, but I think in the final reckoning it’s going to be a stature no one imagines.

As for myself—I would say that the West Coast era was a certain peak, but I just put myself in the hands of the Lord as far as my life and my career are concerned. I just expect things to get bigger and better, and to be led into a more prolific, more productive part of my life. I believe that’s what’s going on; I think that’s why I’m here. I didn’t say: “I have to do this,” but just as when I got out of high school and when I got out of the Army, things were waiting for me, that’s the way I see it happening.

The religious faith I have now is something I’ve grown into during the last five years and seven months. It’s the best period of my life. I’m writing some music for the church; I’ve written three cantatas for a hundred–voice and a hundred–and–twenty–voice choir, plus a big orchestra we put together. And who’s in the church band? Pete Candoli, Bob Cooper and some of the other guys. Some good jazz things are happening too! It’s sacred music, but more or less in a way that I’m having fun with it. In church before, they would never have any ad lib solos—now it’s really cooking, with some great players. It’s as good a band as any I’ve ever had—nothing like the old bass–drum–and–cornet–style church band. If that’s the direction the Lord wants me to go in, I’m not going to argue, because it’s not only fun—it’s palatable to me and to the people I know who love jazz, and it also serves the purpose. I think it’s an area that can afford to be looked into a lot more.

 Copyright © 1983, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.