Jazz Professional               



Speaking to Les Tomkins in 1965

I wouldn’t say I came from a musical family. I’m 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 lesson—by 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. That’s 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. They’d pay you about three dollars, and you’d play all night for ‘em. And they’d charge admission to people who would come in and drink. That’s the way some people used to get their rent together, like that.

My original influences, as a musician, were piano players that I don’t even remember. Because if anybody sat down and played the piano, I would just stand there and watch ‘em 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 wasn’t on the scene. It had to be composed. I can’t really say how many tunes I’ve written since then. I hear there’s over sixty, near seventy, on recordings.

All the musicians that were thinking liked my music— 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 fastest– thinking musicians. And so they would come and play all the time, and I would teach ‘em the songs, you know, and the chords. They didn’t just hear it. I had to tell ‘em what it was.

I wasn’t 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 didn’t want to play the way I’d 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 drummers— 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 that’s the kind of rhythm section they play today.

Of course, Charlie Parker; had— 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 weren’t 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 couldn’t 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. He’s still about the only trumpet player that can do it, it seems— play up in the high register. But it made his tone get thinner, and all that. Gradually his tone got better and better— but it’s never come back like it used to be before he started to play up high.

The reason Minton’s has become known as the place where it began— 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 “Monday Night At Minton’s”, as they called it. And generally, the show that was at the Apollo, they used to come in and eat and drink, and they’d 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 wasn’t thinking like that, but it did keep a lot of ‘em off.

Because they couldn’t play with us unless I told them how and showed it to ‘em. 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, that’s a modern sound.

And I’ve noticed it’s harder to do that. You have to play right together. You very seldom hear horns do it. Well, Dizzy and Charlie Parker— 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: that’s true. I can’t 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 can’t do it the way that I’m doing it. They can’t 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 can’t use that fingering they taught you in the European school of music. Sometimes that don’t work— 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 ways— 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, I’ve heard people make statements that I couldn’t play the piano. You know how Tadd Dameron used to play. He really couldn’t play the piano. He could arrange, but he couldn’t finger nothing, hardly. But, I don’t know— they were trying to put me in that class. I guess those people are surprised when they hear certain things that I’ve done on records. They must feel awful silly about saying I don’t have no technique. Because I know you’ve heard me make some fast runs. You can dig how stupid the statement is.

I’m one of the cats that used to start them playing like lightning. We used to play like lightning all night long up at Minton’s sometimes. I got tired playing fast all the time. You get so you automatically play fast. You can’t play no other way.

If you notice, there’s a lot of musicians like that.

They start playing a certain tempo, and that’s the only tempo they ever play in. Sometimes, maybe, they’ll 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 can’t stay in a tempo they’re not used to playing in.

People don’t 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 “Carolina Moon”. A lot of people don’t know that, either.

As for the hard times I’ve had— I’ve 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 ‘em.

But it didn’t bother me. I kept on making it— recording and doing what I’m 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 themselves— they can tell what’s good and what’s bad. Because, ever since I’ve been playing piano from a kid, people always liked my piano playing and would watch me play, wherever I’d 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, it’s younger people running things.

Like all those old writers that would be championing Louis Armstrong and anybody before his time, and criticising so– called modern music. But you can’t stop the younger musicians that’s coming up and learning how to play from playing like that. You can’t beat that, and they’re the ones that you’re going to have to listen to.

That’s what changes it— 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 there’s 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 “good enough”, I mean I want to hear somebody that’s exceptional, that doesn’t sound like everybody else I’ve 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 I’d known that he could play since I first met him. You’ve 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 that’s what I did. And the concerts were very successful. That last one was done at Lincoln Centre, but that wasn’t 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.

I’ve 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 nobody’s come up with nothing yet— don’t seem like it. Have you heard anybody come up with anything yet? Everybody’s trying to sound weird all kinds of ways on purpose. And it hasn’t jelled— or it hasn’t meant anything.

Things like that just happen automatically, anyway.

I don’t 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 there’s a lot of intelligent jazz can be played. Just like you can hear a lot of ignorant– sounding jazz, too.

New York is still the centre of jazz. It seems like musicians develop when they go to New York. They get better— or worse! I like everything about living in New York— everything but the police. They’re the only drag.

I was raised in New York and it’s 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 couldn’t say what’s happening with the other musicians, but everywhere I work there’s always a crowd, enjoying the music. If it’s a club date, it gets better all the time you stay there. And, where I work at, all ages show up.

There’s 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 I’ve made since I joined them sound pretty good. They came off well and it seems like everybody likes ‘em.

I always record some of my songs over again, but, as I tell em, it’s not going to be the same. Because I don’t 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.

That’s why I think there’s no harm in doing things over— 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 ‘em for ever, and people will be recording ‘em for ever and ever.

In fact, “Stardust”— that’s 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 don’t know what sells it. The words, I guess. But the music is lousy. That’s 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 “Round Midnight” 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 something’s going to become a standard or not, but if it appeals to musicians enough, it has to become one. Because they’ll 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 it’s like that. But sometimes I don’t have anything set up in my mind. I didn’t when I made my latest one. All the same, it turned out good.

Actually, I don’t plan anything in my life. I never think that I d like to be doing a certain thing in so many years’ time. I don’t think I’d like that kind of disappointment. So many people have been disappointed like that.

I take it as it comes—as 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 it— which generally means financially—then 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 don’t want to walk, you can ride in a cab, or buy a car. That’s all you need to do. Sleep when you want, get up when you want—be your own boss.

Then the musicians like to work with me, because I don’t act like a boss, anyway. I let ‘em do anything they want to do. I don’t even say nothing when they come late.

All the drag things that cats did to me when I worked with them—I don’t do that to anybody else. Some people, when they get in that position say: “Well, it happened to me”, so they do it to anybody under them.

I act like one of the fellows. I don’t want to be different.

Some cats stay away from the musicians and all that. I figure you can’t play good like that, with that kind of relationship. A person knows when they’re wrong and when they’re right, without being heckled.

No, I don’t compose much now. I don’t have that much time. I had so much time on my hands—so I had to find something to do with it. So a lot of the time I’d compose and I used to get musicians to rehearse. One time, when I was rehearsing some fellows; so it wouldn’t be monotonous I’d make up some new music every day. And a lot of those things I’d put on recordings. It came out good because I used the same fellows to record.

But I don’t 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 don’t figure about doing what another person’s doing, anyway.

I’ve never wished for anybody else’s job. I enjoy what I do and I’m myself all the time. And I’ll continue to be me.

Copyright ©1965, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.