|Speaking to Les Tomkins in 1965|
I wouldnít say I came from a musical family. Iím about the only one that I know of. Carolina is where I was born. My mother carried me and my brother and sister to New York when we were very small. I was about four.
I had a piano all the time, and always tried to play it, until I was able to take a few lessons. I learned to read and all that before I ever took a lessonóby watching my sister take lessons. Because it used to be, when I was young, that they would give all the girls piano lessons.
My first musical impressions, I guess, were from listening to piano rolls. Everybody had a piano, and they used to play rolls all the time. So I had one, too. Thatís all people listened to, mostly piano music.
They used to have what they called rent parties and they used to hire me to play when I was very young. Theyíd pay you about three dollars, and youíd play all night for Ďem. And theyíd charge admission to people who would come in and drink. Thatís the way some people used to get their rent together, like that.
My original influences, as a musician, were piano players that I donít even remember. Because if anybody sat down and played the piano, I would just stand there and watch Ďem all the time.
I was about 19 or 20, I guess, when I started to hear my music in my mind. So I had to compose music in order to express the type of ideas that I had.
Because the music wasnít on the scene. It had to be composed. I canít really say how many tunes Iíve written since then. I hear thereís over sixty, near seventy, on recordings.
All the musicians that were thinking liked my musicó and wanted to learn how to play the different songs that we were playing. And the most talented ones used to be on the scene. Like Charlie Parker and Dizzy. They were about the fastestĖ thinking musicians. And so they would come and play all the time, and I would teach Ďem the songs, you know, and the chords. They didnít just hear it. I had to tell Ďem what it was.
I wasnít trying to create something that would be hard to play. I just composed music that fit with how I was thinking. I knew musicians would dig it, because it sounded good. I didnít want to play the way Iíd heard music played all my life. I got tired of hearing that. I wanted to hear something else, something better. In fact, I wanted to play differently. I had a different conception of rhythm section, and all that.
I never did like the rhythm section. Like, the drummersó they used to play on the bass drum too hard, which made bands sound very stiff.
So, when we started, Kenny Clarke was working with me. Then finally Pettiford came in there. And we got a different way to play rhythm. Pretty soon everybody followed our example and thatís the kind of rhythm section they play today.
Of course, Charlie Parker; hadó his way of thinking and I had mine, as you can hear when you listen to the music. But when I first heard Parker and Dizzy they still had to develop. It took time before they could play like you hear on recordings. When they first came on the scene they werenít recording. They got themselves together by playing a lot with me.
Diz had to get a different style. He used to play more like Roy Eldridge, and he couldnít play high. He played mostly down in the low register. So he had to go in the woodshed and learn how to hit those high notes. Heís still about the only trumpet player that can do it, it seemsó play up in the high register. But it made his tone get thinner, and all that. Gradually his tone got better and betteró but itís never come back like it used to be before he started to play up high.
The reason Mintonís has become known as the place where it beganó we just happened to be working there and we drew other musicians. A lot of people used to be there all the time. It was always crowded.
Monday used to be a night that nothing was happening, but they used to have ďMonday Night At MintonísĒ, as they called it. And generally, the show that was at the Apollo, they used to come in and eat and drink, and theyíd have a party for them. That helped some, too. And all the different bands, and everybody, would always come in, and hear us play. And so it got around, about the way we were playing.
As for keeping other musicians off the stand, I wasnít thinking like that, but it did keep a lot of Ďem off.
Because they couldnít play with us unless I told them how and showed it to Ďem. Then they had to be very good in order to play that way.
I thought that having the different horns hitting the same notes in unison would give a good sound, instead of playing in harmony. You know, thatís a modern sound.
And Iíve noticed itís harder to do that. You have to play right together. You very seldom hear horns do it. Well, Dizzy and Charlie Parkeró they played pretty much unison on the records they made, if you notice. They sounded like one horn.
Of my playing, and the statements made to the effect of me having a restricted technique, I would say: thatís true. I canít do everything I want to do all the time. I mean, I could take time and learn how to do it and practise.
But other musicians that are supposed to have good technique canít do it the way that Iím doing it. They canít do it as good as me, because I know the right fingering. I have to figure out certain kinds of fingering to get certain effects. You canít use that fingering they taught you in the European school of music. Sometimes that donít workó playing what I play. I know the right fingering, but I have to use my own some of the time.
Technique is a very technical word. I figure technique means playing the piano all kinds of waysó everything. As far as a perfect technique, I never heard it. Because I never heard anybody play everything that could be played on the piano yet. So nobody has any technique that I know of. Everybody needs to learn their technique. Then maybe some day I could hear somebody play the piano right! Like, Iíve heard people make statements that I couldnít play the piano. You know how Tadd Dameron used to play. He really couldnít play the piano. He could arrange, but he couldnít finger nothing, hardly. But, I donít knowó they were trying to put me in that class. I guess those people are surprised when they hear certain things that Iíve done on records. They must feel awful silly about saying I donít have no technique. Because I know youíve heard me make some fast runs. You can dig how stupid the statement is.
Iím one of the cats that used to start them playing like lightning. We used to play like lightning all night long up at Mintonís sometimes. I got tired playing fast all the time. You get so you automatically play fast. You canít play no other way.
If you notice, thereís a lot of musicians like that.
They start playing a certain tempo, and thatís the only tempo they ever play in. Sometimes, maybe, theyíll have about three different tempos that they use. Then, if they vary from one of those, they bring the tempo up to it, or down to it. The tempo changes, because they canít stay in a tempo theyíre not used to playing in.
People donít notice it too much, but I find all different kinds of tempos to play in. That makes the music sound different, too. Yes, I started jazz waltzes with ďCarolina MoonĒ. A lot of people donít know that, either.
As for the hard times Iíve hadó Iíve never been jealous of any musician, or anything. Musicians and other people have told lies on me, sure, and it has kept me from jobs for a while. A lot of the mistakes made by critics have only been caused by lies musicians have told Ďem.
But it didnít bother me. I kept on making itó recording and doing what Iím doing, and thinking. While they were talking I was thinking music and still trying to play. And I never starved. I always could make it.
I always felt that the public, if they listen themselvesó they can tell whatís good and whatís bad. Because, ever since Iíve been playing piano from a kid, people always liked my piano playing and would watch me play, wherever Iíd go.
What turned the tide in my favour? The sons took over. A lot of the fathers kicked off, went out of business, or retired. And their sons are in power now, that like different music and take better chances. In other words, itís younger people running things.
Like all those old writers that would be championing Louis Armstrong and anybody before his time, and criticising soĖ called modern music. But you canít stop the younger musicians thatís coming up and learning how to play from playing like that. You canít beat that, and theyíre the ones that youíre going to have to listen to.
Thatís what changes itó the musicians change it. So the music has to get better.
Plus the fact that the bosses like the music and they generally hire things that they like. And they found out that thereís money in it. A lot of money had been made off it before they let me work.
The instrumentation of the quartet has been the same for quite a while, but it hardly makes any difference.
Practically any instrument you use would be all right. You just have to voice it different when you play things together. If I could find somebody else that could play good enough on some other instrument, I might add it on.
When I say ďgood enoughĒ, I mean I want to hear somebody thatís exceptional, that doesnít sound like everybody else Iíve been hearing play.
Charlie Rouse and I dig working together and we know each other. I knew him before he even worked with me, and Iíd known that he could play since I first met him. Youíve heard some records made by him years ago, so you know that.
The big band things? Well, the fellows wanted to give concerts and they suggested me getting a big band together. So thatís what I did. And the concerts were very successful. That last one was done at Lincoln Centre, but that wasnít mentioned, because they wanted to charge CBS 1,000 dollars, I think, in order to use the name. But that was where the concert went down and that was recorded during the concert. I enjoyed that. It sounded like I expected it to sound.
Iíve always been lucky. It seems like, whatever I try to do, the music always sounds like I want it to sound. All I do is put some notes together and figure out the sounds of the horns on the piano.
I guess my music has caused a lot of young musicians to rack their brains to try to think of something else to do. But nobodyís come up with nothing yetó donít seem like it. Have you heard anybody come up with anything yet? Everybodyís trying to sound weird all kinds of ways on purpose. And it hasnít jelledó or it hasnít meant anything.
Things like that just happen automatically, anyway.
I donít think you can force it. A lot of people would like to start something, to be some kind of an innovator. But it can only happen without you even being aware of it.
Sure; jazz is healthy today, because thereís a lot of intelligent jazz can be played. Just like you can hear a lot of ignorantĖ sounding jazz, too.
New York is still the centre of jazz. It seems like musicians develop when they go to New York. They get betteró or worse! I like everything about living in New Yorkó everything but the police. Theyíre the only drag.
I was raised in New York and itís home to me I went to school there, came up in the streets and all that.
My compositions were all written in New York.
Jazz appreciation seems to be going up. I notice younger kids are beginning to take an interest. I couldnít say whatís happening with the other musicians, but everywhere I work thereís always a crowd, enjoying the music. If itís a club date, it gets better all the time you stay there. And, where I work at, all ages show up.
Thereís always been pop music, but years ago practically all the music sounded like that. Music has developed to a higher stage than that now. And so the kids, as they get older, hear things. If they think more intelligently, they like more intelligent music.
My earlier recordings helped me to get with CBS.
All the records Iíve made since I joined them sound pretty good. They came off well and it seems like everybody likes Ďem.
I always record some of my songs over again, but, as I tell em, itís not going to be the same. Because I donít think of playing it the same way as I thought of playing it before. And then it might be with a different instrumentation. Like, some things I might play with the tenor now had alto before. I have to think differently of voicing the tenor, so that automatically eliminates the alto sound.
Thatís why I think thereís no harm in doing things overó because these songs are supposed to live.
A lot of the old songs are not as pretty as they claim they are and they keep playing Ďem for ever, and people will be recording Ďem for ever and ever.
In fact, ďStardustĒó thatís one of the saddest songs I ever heard. And how many times they recorded that? That is a sad song, though, if you know anything about music and harmony. I donít know what sells it. The words, I guess. But the music is lousy. Thatís not a pretty melody.
If you dig it, the harmony is amateurish. You have to do a lot of figuring how to play that in order to make it sound good.
I never guessed ďRound MidnightĒ would become such a standard. I knew it was pretty when I started playing it, because I knew what music was around, and what was not around. You never know if somethingís going to become a standard or not, but if it appeals to musicians enough, it has to become one. Because theyíll put it on recordings until you have to hear it.
When I go to a record date, I prefer to have the music and songs prepared. It makes things go down easier and smoother. Most times itís like that. But sometimes I donít have anything set up in my mind. I didnít when I made my latest one. All the same, it turned out good.
Actually, I donít plan anything in my life. I never think that I d like to be doing a certain thing in so many yearsí time. I donít think Iíd like that kind of disappointment. So many people have been disappointed like that.
I take it as it comesóas long as I can make a living, take care of my family and everybody can be comfortable.
And if I can do what I want when I feel like doing itó which generally means financiallyóthen everything is all right. If you want to eat, you can buy some food. If you want a suit, you can buy one. If you donít want to walk, you can ride in a cab, or buy a car. Thatís all you need to do. Sleep when you want, get up when you wantóbe your own boss.
Then the musicians like to work with me, because I donít act like a boss, anyway. I let Ďem do anything they want to do. I donít even say nothing when they come late.
All the drag things that cats did to me when I worked with themóI donít do that to anybody else. Some people, when they get in that position say: ďWell, it happened to meĒ, so they do it to anybody under them.
I act like one of the fellows. I donít want to be different.
Some cats stay away from the musicians and all that. I figure you canít play good like that, with that kind of relationship. A person knows when theyíre wrong and when theyíre right, without being heckled.
No, I donít compose much now. I donít have that much time. I had so much time on my handsóso I had to find something to do with it. So a lot of the time Iíd compose and I used to get musicians to rehearse. One time, when I was rehearsing some fellows; so it wouldnít be monotonous Iíd make up some new music every day. And a lot of those things Iíd put on recordings. It came out good because I used the same fellows to record.
But I donít regret not being able to write much now.
I never was a person that thought because some person was doing one thing, and seemed to be making out better, that I should be doing the same thing. Because I donít figure about doing what another personís doing, anyway.
Iíve never wished for anybody elseís job. I enjoy what I do and Iím myself all the time. And Iíll continue to be me.
Copyright ©1965, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.