Shorty and Bud

Infinity Promenade
The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach
Bud and Shorty
Back into playing
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1984
Photo of Shorty by Denis J. Williams
Photo of Bud Shank by Dick Bogle

It’s great to be back, Les. It’s been a year ago October the two of us talked together last—that’s about a year–and–a–half. I’m really enjoying my third time back; this is the first time in the small group setting—so I’m having fun. I thank you for the nice things you said, about enjoying hearing us in the club that’s what I like to hear. When we talked before, we discussed the fact that I hadn’t played in quite a long time; now I’ve been playing a lot with Bud Shank, and practising a lot I’m starting to feel much better about it. And this marvellous rhythm section we have now (John Critchenson, Ron Mathewson, Kenny Clare) is really inspiring.

You said it was good to hear Bud and I reunited, but there’s even a deeper meaning in that, to me. Because over the last five years or so that I wasn’t playing. I’d see Bud; we weren’t just guys who would see each other on a record date or something—we’re close friends and around this five–year period Bud was number one man in charge of talking to Shorty to get him to get his horn out and start playing again. He wouldn’t let up, and through brotherly love he just kept pushing me. To be teamed up with him now I really feel great about it.

I have vivid memories of that first tour with NYJO in October 1982. I’ll never forget the first gig we played, in Swansea—it was a very important night in my life. Here I was, and it was seventeen years that I hadn’t played in public. I wasn’t keeping track of it, but my daughter was there, and at the end of the gig she was talking to some of the boys in the NYJO band. They said: “How did you like the concert?” She said: “I really enjoyed it. Especially hearing my father play, because I never heard him play before.” And she was seventeen when she said that.

I mean, I was really nervous about playing; I didn’t feel my chops were strong enough—but when it came time for me to play, I got out with the band, and they were giving me this wonderful support, lifting me up.. I had a strange mixture of being nervous on one side, and re–experiencing the joy of being involved with a jazz band and playing jazz again. And it was right there; I said to myself: “Wow this is really fun. How come I didn’t do it in such a long time? This is what I want to do.” I know that gig in Swansea was a turning point in my life. Yeah I knew how much I’d missed it. Absolutely.

I went home, and since then I’ve practised, or done something in an effort to improve myself, every day. In the year–and–a–half, maybe I’ve missed two days when I was on an airplane or something, but I’ve been listening and mainly doing a lot of practice. Fortunately for me, this teaming–up with Bud Shank has happened, we’ve been doing a lot of gigs around the States, and I like it! Working with Bud really comes into the category of having fun. We did a lot of tunes years ago, and the ones that we’re doing now we picked because we thought they’d be fun to play. Surprisingly, I’m finding there’s some really nice ballad things among those older tunes we did and we do ‘em, I feel, differently than we did years ago. It’s a bit of the way we did it before. And Bud is just an amazing, wonderful musician; he’s constantly improving—the guy just keeps getting better and better. Every time I hear him do a song we’ve done before, I’m hearing a newer, fresher and more creative Bud Shank. The thing just doesn’t lay there and be still—it’s alive, and it seems to be growing. As for myself—it’s a lot of work and a slow process, but I do feel that it is developing.

The trip to Japan for some concerts last year was just a joyful experience; the band was four saxophones, three rhythm and myself. It was Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Bill Perkins and Jimmy Giuffre, with Shelly Manne on drums, Pete Jolly on piano, Monty Budwig on bass and myself on flugelhorn. Again, a kind of reunion situation—it was fun. As for the music—we did “Popo”, I wrote an arrangement of Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” that we did, and, as it was the Orax Festival in Japan, I had a new little original that I titled “Orax ‘83”. And Bud played the “For The Love Of Art” piece that I dedicated to Art Pepper. Basically, again, it was a mixture of a few of the newer things I’ve done and the older ones. A lot of the people that come to hear us want to hear tunes like “Popo”; so, without really planning it, it just seems natural and feels good to kind of mix ‘em up together. Some of yesterday, some of today and on into forever! I hadn’t seen Jimmy Giuffre in years; when I heard him, I found he still retained a few kind of far–out things, but thinking over Jimmy’s talent in my mind, I remember him as always being that kind of a guy.

I heard albums he’s done while he was “searching for different avenues of jazz”. But back with us, he was doing these incredible things on clarinet—I mean, just his own thing; he’s the only one that does it that way, and it’s wonderful.

He’s such a marvellous guy; it was just tremendous to see him again and talk to him. He used that original clarinet ‘sound’ not too much, where you’d get an over–abundance of it, but just in good balance. But in your article he said one of the things that led him back to his roots was: he worked on a motion picture, and he felt, for some of the music, the need to go back to some funky blues things like he used to do when he was playing with Shorty. So my eye really caught that; and then, a few months later, to be playing with him again, and hearing him actually doing it, it was great.

Since I last saw you I’ve done three albums—two of them for Japanese release, and then the one on Concord with Bud. In the near future, I’m going to play at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl with a big band. That’ll be interesting; Carl Fontana will be there, and Bill Perkins, Bob Cooper, Pete and Conte Candoli, Bob Enevoldsen—a whole bunch of the guys. So I’m looking forward to that. Yes, we’ll be playing charts from the old book. “Short Stop”? You just named the opener.

I haven’t done any new big band recording yet, but back in the States Bud and I will sometimes work a gig at a college where we’ll do a little concert in the quintet setting, and then I’ll bring out some of the big band arrangements, which we’ll play with the college band. This seems to be getting a little more frequent.

In fact, we did one concert where we started with the quintet, and then we pulled out some of the arrangements that I had taken to Tokyo for an eight—or nine—piece group. We did some of those with pupils sitting in with us, and from that went into a big band so we had three different settings to work with. So in colleges, seminars and that type of thing it happens—but I think it will happen more frequently in regular jazz concerts and so on. We’ll keep trying.

As for my work for the church band when we talked I had done three things, and since then I’ve just been in and out of town so much.. . I’ve done some arranging, but it’s really not in the jazz setting at all—just to help out. But they get some good bands together; Pete Candoli’s there playing lead, and a lot of the guys come and play. I’d like to get more jazz happening there—but I believe it’ll happen; the Lord has control over it all, and I believe he’s going to use jazz that way.

A lot of people have asked me: was I the first one to use the flugelhorn to play jazz? Well, I don’t know how many years ago it was, but the way I remember it: there was a period of time in Los Angeles when there weren’t that many jobs around... I remember Chet Baker playing a flugelhorn. The story I recall is that he didn’t have a trumpet, and there was a flugelhorn in a pawnshop that was very inexpensive; so he got that to have something to play on. He didn’t stay with it; as soon as he got a little money together, he got rid of it and got a trumpet. But I’d heard the sound, and just loved it. And, in fact, Chet’s trumpet sound is similar in many ways to that mellow flugelhorn sound.

One night Shelly, Giuffre and I were playing at the club Zardi’s in Hollywood—we’d gone into the club for a year or a year–and–a–half; it was just a home for us at that time when a friend of mine, whose name I can’t remember, came in. He’d been on tour with one of the well–known Latin bands. In the middle of the set, he walked up to the bandstand, said “Hello” and told me: “I just got back from Europe—I bought this flugelhorn. Do you want to try it out?” I said: “Sure I’ll try it out.” He handed it to me, I put the mouthpiece in and started playing immediately I loved the sound of it. The end of that story is: I gave him the horn back more than a year later. From just trying a tune on it, I borrowed it and kept it a long time. Eventually I got one of my own. Right now I’m playing a new Yamaha. The one I borrowed and finally returned was a Cousenon.

A friend in Los Angeles, who owns a French restaurant, was going to Paris to visit his mother; when I showed him the address of the Besson factory, he said: “That’s two blocks from my mother’s house.” I said: “Will you do me a favour? I’ll give you some money just walk in and buy a flugelhorn for me.” He got back, gave me the instrument; it was only ninety dollars, and it was wrapped in cellophane. I said: “You forgot to get the case.” He said: “Well, you didn’t ask for a case just the horn!” So I had to order a case which was a hundred–fifty. But that particular Besson was the one I started recording on, and used those years ago. I still have it, but I’m experimenting with this Yamaha now. When I played here with NYJO I had my old Besson.

The flugelhorn is a more mellow tone; the brass players refer to it as a “darker” or “rounder” sound, but it’s just a more mellow sound. I just like it. I haven’t given up the trumpet, although I didn’t bring it with me now. I like to use the trumpet when I’m going to play in a mute. But I have to work some more on the trumpet too! What I found was that the sound I had been searching for on trumpet was right there on flugelhorn it’s that mellowness I love. Art Farmer really has that beautiful round tone. For me, personally, Les, there’s a connection... see, beside Louis Armstrong and Dizzy and Roy Eldridge, which is the era I grew up in, my favourite along with these great talents was Bobby Hackett. And that mellow cornet sound is something related in my ear to the flugelhorn sound. You can get more fire, and do all kinds of things, but there’s a basic sound that is more pleasing to your ear; it’s more rewarding to the player, if that’s what he’s searching for—and I feel that’s what guys like myself and Art are looking for.

Now, I don’t keep track of it, but some friends of mine that I’ve met recently, who will do research and discography type things, tell me I was the first one to record on the flugelhorn in today’s setting. It’s come up in conversations involving Bud and I and it turns out that in the ‘fifties Bud was possibly the first one to record jazz flute since Wayman Carver played it with Chick Webb years earlier. It’s not conclusive, but there is the possibility that, between Bud and I, we were lucky enough to be there at the beginning of something.

Yes, at one time the flugelhorn was looked on as a kind of a military band instrument. I’ve picked up some other brass, like euphonium. and played a little—just to try a few notes out. There’s the baritone horn, and John Mandel used to play bass trumpet—sounded wonderful. Some of the guys call the flugelhorn a piccolo tuba which is a new one on me.

When I made the change–over from trumpet, there was no work about it at all. I’d been playing a lot, and my embouchure was very strong; I just took the trumpet mouthpiece and fit it into the flugelhorn. If you look at some of my old albums, you’ll see that the mouthpiece is sticking way out just the very end of it would go in. And looking back the further the mouthpiece sticks out, the tubing becomes longer and the horn gets flatter. So I don’t know how I was playing it—with my lip making the whole horn go sharper or something, to get up to pitch with the other guys!

I do feel that brass instruments have been improved. When it comes to testing one out, I can take it and blow for twenty minutes, but I can’t really make a judgement; I have to take it home and spend ten days or two weeks on it. it takes a while for your lip to get used to it. I guess the instrument manufacturers realise there’s a bigger market for it; so they’re experimenting a lot and working on it. I’m going to try the Boosey and Hawkes flugelhorn—I heard some wonderful reports about it.

Copyright © 1984, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.