Back into playing

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

Being back into playing means I’m doing less writing. As time goes on, though, I find myself getting more involved in what’s most pleasing to me writing jazz. So I’m going through a kind of a re–entry in that part of my musical personality too. It’s a growing hunger to be writing, just to get some things cooking. I wouldn’t turn down a picture score—but I’m not pursuing it with the tenacity I would have maybe ten years ago. Playing jazz and writing jazz—that’s my first priority now. There’s nothing as healthy as enjoying your work; that’s what I want to do just have fun.

I’ll just write little things down that maybe Bud Shank and I can play in the small group, and later maybe write it for a big band. It’s enjoyable to write and not be under the stress of: you have to get it done by tomorrow or the world’s going to come to an end. Which, in film work, is the world you live in; there’s a lot of stress to it—I don’t think it’s good for your body. But now, I’ll be practising or just improvising on my horn, when an idea will come to me, and I’ll start jotting it down.

Before, when I wasn’t playing. I wouldn’t be writing with the horn that way. That’s another part of this different experience I’m going through. Yes, the playing is stimulating the writing. I’ll play things and try to picture them for a full big band, then voice it out accordingly.

In the big band field generally, a lot of wonderful things are going on, not only in the States. but over here also. All over the world, in fact. There’s so much of a really high creative calibre that the problem is no longer in the area of: “I wonder if anyone’s doing anything good”; the problem is: there are so many good things being done. what do you do with all of them? When Vic Lewis picked me up at the airport he played me a cassette in the car by the trombone player Jiggs Whigham.

The guy’s unbelievable—as a player. as a writer and arranger. Back in the States there’s this twenty–four–hour jazz station in Los Angeles; you’re listening whenever you sit down in your car to drive somewhere, and I hear such a lot of really good things. Like Matt Catingub, who’s been on Louie Bellson’s band and is the son of Mavis Rivers—he’s got a big band going that’s just marvellous. It’s very Basie orientated, but very high–spirited, and just very tasty—just nice. There’s several bands around L.A.. and really there’s something good, something valid happening in all of them. So we have an overabundance of talent looking for a place to be utilised.

Being part of the Playboy Jazz Festival they had me judge a band contest this year, involving high school and college bands. The winner of which had a spot on one of the Playboy Festival concerts. I got there at 5.30. only to find out they didn’t really need me till 8.30 that evening. I’d been around these situations before. but this was kind of overwhelming: there were three auditoriums with big bands going simultaneously. They had started at 8.0 in the morning, and they were going through till 8.30 in the evening. with each band playing only three or four tunes I think over a hundred bands were there. And the ensemble work was all fine—I mean good lead trumpet players; young kids just playing great. The only time you could notice that maybe they weren’t really thoroughly seasoned musicians was on some of the solo work. I guess the ensembles had been drilled by the bandleader, but they played cleanly and with a very sympathetic feeling of a jazz concept. I’d say ninety–nine per cent of them were playing straight–ahead mainstream jazz, not fusion and they were all teenagers.

It’s that same situation: here’s this incredible amount of talent, and what’s going to happen later on? It’s just a shame—all of ‘em can’t go on the road with Woody Herman! Then you get to NYJO and your other equally marvellous big bands; you get to North Texas State Teachers College in Denton, Texas and there’s some others I still haven’t heard yet. There’s a very wonderful, healthy interest in jazz; I would say the big band experience is in very good shape, as far as people being interested in it. But it needs more support, so more bands can go ahead and do it. It would be nice to think of a resurgence of big bands—I hope and pray it could happen, but I’m waiting to see it.

In the big band era, I don’t think the bands consciously compromised to be successful. The musical goals that a lot of them were seeking just fell into more or less of a natural compromise with dance music and vocalists doing pretty songs, that just happened to appeal to the audience, but to my knowledge, through the late ‘thirties and ‘forties all the bands felt they were trying to do “really good things”. It was a sincere, honest thing. On one hand you had Count Basie’s band cooking and swinging; on the other hand you had Tommy Dorsey’s band doing beautiful, clean things with a vocal group and good singers—then they would leave that part of their repertoire and go into some good Sy Oliver–Lunceford–style arrangements. If you talked to someone on Tommy Dorsey’s band at that time, you’d never hear them say: “Hey, we’re too commercial nothing’s happening here”—it was not like that at all; they felt it was an honour to be part of this band, and to play that music. And the whole public acceptance of big bands at that time was a very different situation in the States, at least.

Guys in bands were considered as important and interesting as baseball players. It was kind of on a parallel with the pop scene today—the way the younger kids know about the different guitar players. In New York City. if different trumpet players, saxophone players left one band and went to another, it was something everyone would be talking about. It was the pop music of the time. in fact, and all attention was focussed on it. The bandleaders were superstars—yes, some of them knew that too well. Others—someone like Stan Kenton, say—were sincere, dedicated musicians and wonderful people.

As for the great Count Basie his contribution to jazz is an alive thing. Basie’s body is no longer with us, but time will only prove the fact that his music is not only alive but growing bigger. People will be increasingly aware of the high creative level he attained. I’m just thankful I was one of the guys who could hear him, and hear his band. Of Basie’s death, Bud Shank had something to say: “Basie died in the saddle, doing what he wanted to do—still playing.” I remember how very fortunate I was in the ‘thirties, when I lived in the Bronx in New York. Basie would play at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and then he’d stay around New York for a few more weeks, playing various ballrooms and theatres.

One time I went to hear him at a little theatre in the Bronx; Lester Young was there and they did “Bugle Call Rag”. There were breaks at the beginning of each chorus, and I know Basie was stretching the arrangement out because Lester was sounding so great he kept holding his finger up, to say: “One more.” I look back at times like that, that I was very privileged to be present at; it’s a joy, the swinging feeling that I remember. And being at the Famous Door on 52nd Street; it was just a little teeny club, and here’s the whole band all squashed together, rubbing shoulders. They would play a note and you felt your chair go back with the power and the momentum of it. I’m saying power and momentum, but those are just words—there are no words to properly describe the wonderful thing that came out of this band. It was a tremendous spiritual experience. I just thank the Lord that he created a guy with Basie’s talent and gave me ears to hear that.

We made that “Shorty Rogers Courts The Count” album in California in the ‘fifties. Later on, at a period of time when the whole jazz scene had kind of quietened down, Basie didn’t have a big band—he had a small group with Wardell Gray, Buddy De Franco and Clark Terry.

Jazz had been going through such a struggle that even Basie, for once in his career, had had to give up his big band. Anyway, at that particular time, a friend of mine, Jack Lewis, who was working for RCA when I made that tribute album, saw Basie in New York; he introduced himself, told him that he’d had something to do with producing the album, and gave him a copy. He said that Basie went back to where he was living. played the album, and stayed up listening to it over and over—he really enjoyed it. When I heard about that, I was very pleased—especially thinking of him hearing it at a time in his life when he could have been feeling a little down. Even though the small band was marvellous, he loved the big band so much and I’m sure he had a longing to be on the road with it again. Maybe, for a few moments, it gave him some enjoyment that a bunch of eighteen guys miles away loved him so much that they wanted to do a tribute to him.

We’re part of where we came from musically, and I think one of the most important things we can do—if not the most important—is to carry on that heritage. I grew up in that era, and I went to the High School of Music and Art in New York City, which is right above Harlem, 135th Street and the Apollo Theatre is 125th Street. I must admit, I was a bit of a rebel; I was kind of the jazz nut in a school that was predominantly symphonically–orientated. So every Friday I would play hookey and go to the Apollo to hear all the bands. For fifteen cents you could go in the second balcony, and that was where I heard Chick Webb, Ellington with Jimmy Blanton, Basie’s band many times, Earl Hines, the Savoy Sultans, Teddy Wilson with his big band of that time all the great talent. Those are my roots.

And I loved Bobby Hackett and Louis Armstrong; I adored Roy Eldridge. That’s where I came up from, and if I can do something to take that torch. so to speak. and just go half a yard further, I feel it’s a valid endeavour. Nothing would be accomplished by me grabbing the torch and running in the wrong direction. I have to pass on the heritage to the younger guys. If I can say something to the guys in that college band contest that will encourage more interest to come out of them towards Basie. I think I’m doing something important. When they become more mature. they’ll want to experiment. We all have to experiment at some point: it’s a hunger that’s built into us. and it helps the whole art form to progress.

Sure, I’ve had my musical adventures. On record, there was “Collaboration” with Andre Previn. and on an album “The Three”, with Shelly Manne and Jimmy Giuffre. I wrote “Three On A Row”, which was my version of a twelve–tone jazz piece. And we experimented a lot with kinds of mixtures of symphonic music and jazz—I feel we did a lot of wonderful things. I’m not just speaking of myself—I’m not on an ego trip.

Marty Paich, Jimmy Giuffre and several of us were writing, and some really nice results came from our efforts. Maybe it can be said of me that I’ve been around in a similar circle to the one Jimmy spoke about in the magazine. I may become more experimental in the future, but right now I really feel like getting back to the basics. I’m still in the stage of re–entry into being a jazz player, and I’m so thankful I’ve found it that I just want to have fun with it.

Copyright © 1984, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.