There is no substitute for live music
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1971
The enthusiasm of some young people for my playing recently, and their telling me that they enjoyed it much more by hearing me in person than on records, reminded me that there is no substitute for live music. When you hear a large symphony orchestra. for instance, in a concert hall, there’s a big, sweeping sound that just doesn’t get on to a record. To be actually in the hall with it is very thrilling.
It’s good to see fine musicians like Red Norvo and Joe Venuti still getting tremendous applause for their live performances. These men were stars with the Paul Whiteman band long before Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson were heard of.
Now, Paul Whiteman wasn’t a jazz player, but he had a knack of finding talent, and he would fit these men into his big symphonic band, even though they might have had a different style. He had a keen appreciation of people like Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden; he would always recognise such men and hire them.
I remember Whiteman’s arrangement of “Sweet Sue” that he recorded. It has the typical Whiteman style, and at one point the whole band stops and Bix Beiderbecke plays about sixteen bars on his cornet with the rhythm section—just out of this world—and then they go back to that orchestral sound again. He made room for the great players.
So many of the later giants and bandleaders worked for Paul Whiteman. But, although he was billed as the “King Of Jazz”, it wasn’t really a jazz band. The real jazz bands of that time were Fletcher Henderson, McKinney’s Cotton-Pickers, and Benny Moten, out in Kansas City.
Jean Goldkette was another one who hired these same jazzmen, but he never made pretensions of being in the symphonic area. Whiteman, of course, introduced George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”. He had an ideal pianist in Roy Bargy, who could play in the classical as well as the popular idiom.
It was only on rare occasions that I would sit in on the Goodman big band—maybe if Jess Stacy was ill or something. I have recorded with the big band, but that would be after I had left Goodman. I did a record date when Helen Forrest was singing; at the time that I left the band, Martha Tilton had been the vocalist. Big Sid Catlett was on drums, I remember, and Eddie Sauter did the arrangements. But that was just a one-day thing. In the main, Jess Stacy played with the big band and I played with the trio and quartet.
After Gene Krupa and I left, Goodman enlarged the small group to a sextet, with Charlie Christian, Cootie Williams and Georgie Auld. I did make some of his sextet recordings, but not until just after the war; Red Norvo was on vibes, Slam Stewart on bass, Morey Feld on drums.
Although I’m regarded, I guess, as a small group player, I did have a big band myself in 1939, that I was very proud of. I did a great number of the arrangements for it myself. I would write the ballad standards, like “Sweet Lorraine”, “The Man I Love.” Buster Harding would contribute original up-tempo jazz numbers; likewise Edgar Sampson, and another guy, Danny Melson scored the current pop ballads that we played.
Different members of the band would do arrangements, too. Ben Webster—he was my tenor saxophone player before he went with Duke Ellington—wrote a wonderful, swinging original for us; you’d be surprised if you heard it now. It was called “Seventy-One”, because that was its number in our book. I’d say Ben has never played better than he did then, in the sense that my band’s arrangements were more comfortable for him than Ellington’s, I think. Because Ellington’s style is so unique and individual, and Ben is a foot-patting, Kansas City man, rooted in the Basie and Jay McShann type of jazz. Although Ben sounded mighty good with Ellington, especially on things like “Cotton Tail”, he seemed more at home in my band. I had a drummer who worked very well with Ben—a fellow from Detroit, J. C. Heard, who I brought to New York when he was sixteen years old. I believe he fitted Ben’s kind of beat rather better than Sonny Greer did with Duke’s band.
My working scene today is just taking whatever bookings come up; I don’t turn anything down. I’m for sale; I’ll play with a hundred pieces or do a solo job. Bobby Hackett and I work with a quartet sometimes. Within reasonable limits, a professional player should keep busy at music, even if it’s a commercial job that you don’t like. Fortunately, I am able to do a majority of pleasurable jobs, but I have done commercial jingles and stuff for radio and TV.
They pay well and, since I have lots of responsibilities, children to support, I need to make money. If it’s enough money, I’ll play the North Pole.Copyright © 1971 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.