Talking to Les Tomkins in
Tony: How about that Buddy Rich? It couldn’t be better. I love the fact that Buddy came up with the idea of taking the rock’n’roll beat and putting music to it. It sounds very contemporary, and it makes the band business sound brand new again. He’s a great artist. He reminds me of someone like Van Gogh; he gives so much of himself that it’s unbelievable. I watch him every show—and each one is genuinely his last show.
I’ve known Buddy for years, ever since we played in ‘Vegas together one time. I’ve never sung with his band before this. but we’ve been good friends for years now. I think Buddy is a very different kind of person, because he’s very bright and he has a kind of God–given taste. He really knows how to dress. To make a comparison, he has the same kind of style as the way Fred Astaire dresses. It’s just the innate good taste that he has. And he does that with his music; it’s kind of very expedient—that’s the only way I can explain it.
When I first started in the business, everybody said : “If you ever play with Buddy—look out. He’s pretty rough on a lot of people.” But he’s never been that way with me, and I think it’s just a legend that’s been built through the years. He’s a complete professional,. that’s all. And then, of course, him being the first one to play behind Frank Sinatra in Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra—that’s quite a thing, also.
Working with these great orchestras has been a very good musical education for me. I was a little after the band business, and I kind of regretted it. Because I used to stay away from school and go and watch the bands in the theatres. Then when I came out of the Service, the band business had kind of dissolved itself, because of many factors. Yet I still feel that it hasn’t gone away. There’s still Woody and Count and Duke, and a lot of new good bands like Thad Jones/Mel Lewis now. Also you have some great orchestras over here.
Before coming here, I just finished with Ellington at Lincoln Centre, and when I go back to the States I’ll continue the tour with him. Duke was the inventor of the travelling orchestra. And, of course, he has a very eccentric band, in the sense that he’s kept all the same men through the years. The majority of the men that started with him years ago—they’ve all become very polished individual artists.
It’s quite an experience for me—to become flexible enough to change over to the different styles of each orchestra. A very groovy musical experience. Although they’re playing the same arrangements, they definitely feel different. It’s another concept. You play the same show with Ellington, it has an Ellingtonian flavour; then with Buddy Rich it’s kind of a very modern, up–to–date feeling. There’s a very different spirit with Woody, Stan Kenton or any of them. And it comes from the quality of the leader of the orchestra—what he wants from his men.
It’s interesting how each one arrives at that. For instance, Basie has arrived at simplicity, whereas Ellington has gone into a tapestry of sound. Buddy is just insisting on matching youth with being very contemporary. Woody Herman has a good spirit, because he allows young men to come into his orchestra, and when they leave they’re very definite, mature musicians; he really builds talent. So each man has his own role. The reason that I’m instinctively going towards this is that I think there’s nothing quite like a big band. And the audience reaction is much brighter than playing anywhere else or any other way.
I really enjoy it here. I’m looking forward to the possibility of filming in this country; I’ve had several offers from English producers, and I’m going over the scripts. You’d be surprised how much of an education it is—the difference between playing here and in the States. It’s not the quality of the audiences so much as the way shows are produced.
What happens in the States is that they’ve gotten into gigantic enterprises, with various companies, and as a result, it has a kind of a dehumanised feeling. Over here there’s a great respect for an artist; things like dressing–rooms are well thought out. They’re flexible to the artist. When you get back to the States, you become quite aware of the difference.
Buddy: Most bandleaders are lax about who’s in the band. A leader will get up and take his bow and thank the audience. But where’s the leader if the band don’t show up? Well, acknowledge them. If you respect them enough to pay them the kind of money you do, then introduce ‘em. “This is so–and–so—he did a hell of a job.” Then they have identification; they know that I respect them.
There isn’t one guy in the band I don’t have the greatest respect for. Obviously, if I didn’t, he wouldn’t be there. So I treat ‘em like human beings, I introduce them, have fun with them, talk to them on the stage—and off the stage. We don’t have that other kind of relationship that was so prevalent in the ‘forties —the leader and the sideman. That whole caste system went out.
You know, I’m twice the age of the oldest guys in my band; yet I like to feel that they receive their energy from me. Age is a chronological thing to begin with. You can be old at 20. You’re as old as you feel and obviously, I feel very young. I live every day the best I can, and I try to groove with every day. I really look forward to getting in there at night and doing the job. And I get the juices ready. I don’t sit down and say: “Oh gee, tonight I got to travel 100 miles again”. It never bothers me.
People say to me: “Don’t you get tired of travelling?” No, I don’t. Every day it’s a new challenge—I meet new people, I’m in a new country, a new city. It’s the greatest business in the world; the only one where you get paid a lot of money to do something that you want to do. You also get a chance to see the world. If I wanted to come over here by myself, as a tourist, it would cost a fortune.
You listen to different people’s attitudes and their philosophies about things, and you sort out your likes and dislikes. You sort out the way they live and the way you live. You find out what actually happens, as opposed to what you think is going to happen.
Everything keeps me young my daughter, my wife. I think young, I dress young, I drive young. And it’s not a fetish. It’s not a thing: “Jeez, I’m afraid of getting old”; I couldn’t care less. I’ve driven sports cars since 1948 —I still do. I’ve lived a certain way all my life—I still live that way.
I don’t believe that because you dressed one way when you were 30, now that you’re 50 you have to start being a little more reserved in your attitude. I’m just as wild, just as outspoken today as I was when I was 20. Why not? If you have to repress those feelings because it doesn’t go with a certain attitude that people think you should have—then you’re being false.
I’m anything but false. I may be blunt, and I may hurt a lot of people because of the things I say, but I’m very honest about everything. I never lie, and I say exactly what I think. Sometimes people resent it. and tell me: “You shouldn’t say things like that.” Well, who said I shouldn’t say it? Maybe you shouldn’t say it, because you’re afraid of repercussions. I’m not, because everything rotten that’s ever been written about anybody has been written about me. And people still come out and see the band—in spite of me.
So if you’ve got something that people want, then you don’t insult them personally—or they don’t come out to see you. Cassius Clay is a perfect example. I can’t stand him. He’s arrogant—and he has no reason to be. Arrogance is great—if you can back it up. But he hasn’t fought anybody yet. And he says he’s “the greatest”. Would he have said that in Joe Louis’s time? They would have torn his head off in the first 30 seconds. So you see. to be arrogant just for the sake of being arrogant is stupid. Back up what you say—then it’s acceptable.
There was a guy one time, he walked into my hotel room. He stood there and he did a whole ten–minute psycho–analytical bit on my temperament, my arrogance and everything. “We heard that you were a terrible man—insult people, don’t talk to anybody, won’t have ‘em in your room—“. And I finally said: “I’m only that way with people that I don’t like. If people come up here and bore me, and say a lot of things that are unnecessary—“—he understood what I was saying. Because any minute I was about to say to him: “All right, I’ve had it. I’ll see you later.” You don’t know whether I’m temperamental because people write about it.
I might be very shy. I’m not—but, until you get to know me, don’t have an opinion about me. Wait until you see me and talk to me. I’ve heard that about me all my life: “Before you got in town, I heard you were this and that”. So I am—if somebody rubs me the wrong way. I’m not charming to somebody that I dislike; because that’s another false step, like being false in music. Sure, I’m difficult to get along with, because I’m a temperamental man. I know what I can do—and I want certain things my way. You don’t have to be a genius to want things your own way. A guy who drives a cab, I’m sure he’s the same. He wants to be treated with respect, and he doesn’t want anybody bugging him.
You can be anybody—but you have to be honest. You want people to treat you with respect; they in turn will be treated with the same kind of respect. If they come up and are arrogant with me—well, they got a fight on their hands. I can be a lot more arrogant than a lot of other people try to be. I’ve had years of practice.
Every day is my day. I’m not a social nut either. I don’t believe in: “Let’s go here and there and be seen”. I’d rather be home with my family, rolling on the floor with my kid and having a good time than be some place that I don’t want to be but have to be, because it’s the chic thing to do. I’m not that formal.
I tell that to the audience. I stand down there and I talk. I’m not a comedian: the things I say are to do with actual happenings. And there’s no humour in the world like true life humour. If you can project it to the audience. they’ll laugh at it. I tell ‘em I’m tired my—back hurts, I’m wet—whatever. They say: “Hey, he sweats like anybody else”. Why not? It’s nice to know that a guy can admit that he’s tired after playing, rather than being the Superman and come down and say: “Okay—everything is great”. The guy that came home after working on the road all day, he’s tired, too. So we have a rapport. We’re two tired old men.
Copyright © 1972 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.