A lucky label
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1978
Well, as a starting point — how did you come by the nickname Toots?
It happened way back in Belgium, in 1946. We had a little amateur band, called Le Jazz Hot, and I was the up-and-coming fellow playing the guitar in Belgium. You know, I was playing like Django Rheinhardt, Charlie Christian—a combination of whatever was played then; it was just before the advent of bebop, I would say. But my name, Jean Thielemans—that doesn’t swing at all. Names on the scene at that time were Toots Mondello, who was with Benny Goodman, and the arranger Toots Camarata; so they said: “That’s it—Toots.” I said: “Okay, why not?“— it started like that, and it stuck. It’s been a lucky label, I guess, through the years.
It’s great that you made it to Ronnie Scott’s. This was your first club date over here, wasn’t it?
Yes, and I really felt that this engagement was very important; so I tried to gather a very good group. I did a couple of jobs in San Francisco with the bassist James Leary and the drummer Eddie Marshall; that gave me the idea to get them. And the pianist is Rob Franken, who is my regular player in Europe; I always try to reserve him way in advance— he’s really good. They’re all very warm, co–operative fellows—it’s a pleasure.
Are you planning to do more club engagements now?
I want to get into that, yes. I stayed put a little bit, mostly for private reasons, but now . . . My wife passed away four months ago, and I have no children; I’m just happy sitting on a chair, playing—whether it’s at home or in front of people, I don’t care. I’ll play anyway; so I might as well try to make the best of my time. I’m getting up there—I’m fifty–five years old now. I may still have a few kicking years left.
Oh—I should think so! Where is your actual home base now?
I’m a naturalised American citizen; my official residence is in Long Island, outside of New York. I also have an apartment in Brussels, Belgium, where I was born. So I’m commuting.
I believe you started playing when you were three, but on the accordion. Was yours a musical family?
No, but my parents had a sidewalk cafe: every Sunday there was an accordion player and apparently I went through the motions, squeezing a shoebox. One of the regulars in ‘the cafe said to my father: “I think you should get your son an accordion—that’s what he’s trying to do, with that shoebox.” So they got me a little cardboard diatonic accordion—I still have it. I started to play the National Anthem, and things like that. It seems I was musically gifted—but my parents just never pushed in that direction.
And how did the harmonica come about?
As a hobby, during my studies. I was pretty good in mathematics. In Belgium and France, you have six years at elementary school; then the next six years are where you start to direct yourself, in Latin, Greek or Science and so on. So I was in Science, eighteen years old, and I started to hear these harmonica recordings—Larry Adler, of course, and some groups here and there, like Borrah Minevitch’s Harmonica Rascals, in films that I was seeing. And I bought one.
Of course, you didn’t play jazz on it, to begin with. That came later, I suppose.
A little later, yes. At that time, I played the hits of the day, which were “Beer Barrel Polka”, “St. Louis Blues” or whatever. I started fumbling around, trying to improvise. Then some friends introduced me to the records. Django Rheinhardt was my first idol; I’ve got a guitar like that again now. Yes, this was during the Occupation: it was difficult, but we got by. We tried to listen all the time, of course, to the English radio stations, but they were jammed very often, as you well know.
When you took up the guitar, did you put in a lot of study on it?
That was in 1942. I’d finished studying already; I went to the university a little bit, but I fell sick, and had to stay at home for a while. I started fooling around with the guitar, trying to copy the Django recordings and solos, and to learn it from there. As I was sick, my parents spoiled me a little, as far as letting me keep on practising in the house.
But they had a textile business; they tried to encourage me to go into that, until the music took over, and my father said : “Okay—that’s your life. Go ahead. We’ll try to help you a little bit.” He didn’t really realise what it was, though. For instance, when I got a letter from Benny Goodman’s office—he didn’t appreciate what an event that was, of course.
Then my first professional engagement outside of Belgium was in 1949 here in London, at the Palladium with Benny.
Presumably, Benny had been impressed by hearing you somewhere?
Well, I had made recordings—these old–fashioned acetates. And by then already some of the musicians from America were travelling all over Europe. The Duke Ellington band came through Brussels, and the trumpet player Ray Nance liked these acetates of mine; he took some of them over to an agent, who played them for Benny Goodman. One thing led to another like that. I had a little arrangement, a harmonisation on “Stardust”, that Benny was crazy about—I had done that with a string quartet. He liked that to the point of not caring if I didn’t play anything else.
Although you worked with Benny at the Palladium, you didn’t actually get to the States at that time, did you?
No—the Palladium engagement came about because, in 1948, Benny Goodman had wanted me to join his orchestra; that was when he had his love affair with bebop, you know, and tried to organise a bebop band—he did it, but it was not a lasting thing. Anyway, as I couldn’t get a working permit, I hadn’t been able to go to America; so .when he came to England, he asked me to join him here. And that was it—my first big–time international exposure, so to speak.
I suppose you would say that by then you’d developed into a bebop–style musician.
At that point, my first influences were in that idiom. I kept listening, of course; I like to believe I spread out to some extent from there. Basically, that’s where my jazz roots are, I guess.
The harmonica wouldn’t have been thought of previously as that type of instrument. You really perfected a technique of your own.
I never thought about anything—I just wanted to play the thing, you know, and I looked for what I wanted. There’s no real school on the instrument. I didn’t even practise scales; I just practised chord progressions. What can I do on a C7? Okay—what can I do on an Ab? And play the blues, or play all the songs that came in front of me. Try to, anyway.
The quality that has so often been heard in your playing is a kind of a plaintive wail. Was that there then would you say?
It came a little later, I would imagine—maybe with maturity, or my blues feeling that came out, I guess. The man started to talk through the instrument.
So how did things go when you finally made it to the States?
I got my immigration papers, took a chance and went. I don’t know if I would do it again; it takes a lot of guts. I was fairly lucky; I got a temporary job at the Belgian Airlines, and then I jobbed around. Finally, I met George Shearing; his guitar player had to go into the Army—so I got the job that way.
But before that you did some work with Charlie Parker, briefly.
Yes, yes—that was my first playing job in the States. A very memorable experience; I was the only white fellow in a black theatre. In Charlie Parker’s group at that time were people like Milt Jackson, Miles Davis. Yes, I played both instruments in that band. As for Charlie Parker, he was a monster—he’s still the boss, for me. He took me under his wing for a couple of weeks.
What are your thoughts about your six years with George Shearing?
It was a steady job, and still good exposure—and it was good music at the time, I guess. It’s still good music, but somehow I flew away a little bit from it. George is still a fine musician, of course. I stayed on there, because it was a good job, and I had no other; it was a matter of security, also. My leaving the band was a mutual thing, after that amount of time, George just wanted to change the faces around, and I was ready to jump in the pool. I decided, well, I didn’t come to the States to be a sideman all my life. Then you have to start to wait for the phone to ring, and that’s not easy. In the States, it can be rough—anywhere, for that matter.
Then you had a spell back in Europe, didn’t you?
I went back to Sweden, where I’d had a little popularity before going to the States, and there I made the rent money, I guess, for a few years. And that’s where “Bluesette” started, really—I wrote it in ‘62. Then the breaks came a little bit, making it possible for me to stay at home more.
I had four or five years of very busy studio work in New York. I did everything—commercials, records, films.
Well, it’s been fascinating to hear all the different contexts in which you popped up.
Sure—sessions with the Brothers Johnson, Melanie, John Denver; commercials like Old Spice; films like Midnight Cowboy. The phone rang—I said: “Okay”.
But as far as recordings under your own name are concerned, over the years there don’t seem to have been all that many. I have one beautiful A&M album, “Yesterday And Today”, which I really love; it’s co–led by you and Svend Asmussen, with Red Mitchell and Ed Thigpen also among those taking part. Lamen ably, it’s not issued in Britain.
Yeah, that’s a pretty nice album, but there have been a couple that weren’t all that good, that I don’t even talk about. I did a couple in Holland that were okay. I just hope, some time soon, to make a really good record, that I can live with, face the people and say: “Hey, this is me!” Really, it’s a frightening thing, to make your own record. You completely put yourself naked out there.
I remember a good album of yours. that came out in the mid– ‘fifties—Ray Bryant was on piano It was the first time I found myself sitting up and taking notice of what you were doing. The Shearing things were nice, but that one had you really stretching out—on harmonica, especially at the time, I think that would be worth reissuing.
Oh yes—that was Ray’s first session, too. That was a pretty nice record: it was the first one on my own. It was on Columbia. A couple of the tracks, I guess, I can still live with.
Apart from the harmonica, the other distinctive sound that people know you by is the whistling with the guitar. How did you get on to that?
Well, that came about just like that. I was whistling all the time, when I was working, and the bass player with George Shearing said : “You should do that on record some time.” I always liked the sort of scat that Slam Stewart did with the bass—this hum–what–you–play kind of thing—reproducing some kind of way the same sound that you play on the instrument. So I started it: the whistling and the guitar are basically an octave apart. Then I made a little record like that. Especially in Sweden, it was very popular. Yes, I had to work on some details of it—like not blowing into the mike, and stupid things you do. It got some attention, and it was lucrative, in that they started to use me for whistling for commercials. And I’ve used it on records with people who like it such as Peggy Lee, Quincy Jones.
Had you known Quincy from some time back?
Yes, way back—when he was playing trumpet with Lionel Hampton, in ‘53 or ‘54; he was beginning to gain a reputation as an arranger then. From then on, he always kept me in his music box, so to speak. And he called me when he had his first big assignment in Hollywood as a film writer, back in ‘64.
As regards albums with Quincy—“Smackwater Jack” was the first of a special series for you, wasn’t it?
It was, yes. That was a historic session, I thought.
What is the story behind the way your solo was utilised on “What’s Going On?”
The basic background track was recorded, without soloists, and Quincy was trying to plan, to visualise, I guess, what solos he wanted where—sort of painting the picture of the sounds. And he asked Jim Hall and myself to stay one hour after everybody left; it was very easy— I did that solo just like that, in one take, you know. It was basically a long thing on one chord, and he just pointed me in. I said: “Say, Quincy— just tell me when to start, and make a signal when I have to stop. Because it’s the figure that comes back all the time; we don’t want to start counting bars too much.” So I sat down with the earphones, and played it. Then after he’d listened to it— and I had already played here and there in the album—he figured he needed another sound there, instead of my solo. He said: “Toots, it was a bitch of a solo, but I’m looking for something else.” And he always liked Harry Lookofsky. He’s a violin player, who can read very well, and one of the few who can read jazz and somehow make the violin swing. He doesn’t have any idea of his own—but it comes out swinging. Bob James started to write a chorus for him; it sounded too mechanical—like a piano solo that the violin tries to play.
Finally, Quincy got the idea to use my solo. They got an arranger, Sy Johnson, on it. He hated me; he said he had to write every note down— that’s not easy, to write a chorus down. Then Harry started to play it: he had his own little studio—so he overdubbed it several times. Yes, it came off—that’s a sort of a historic thing, for what it is. You know, it shows that the harmonica is not just a toy, really—because this guy was suffering, to play these runs. He said some of that stuff was real difficult to play on the violin. Well, every instrument has its things that are easy and hard.
I’d say you’ve always played everything on the harmonica that any other fine musician can play on his instrument.
Well, I try. Because I give myself challenges, and actually, sometimes technique is not the challenge— it’s mentally, sometimes, too. Like, there has been one little composition by James Leary, my bass player, that gave me some problems — but I finally got over it.
You’ve also—in latter years, particularly—become very well known for your ballad playing.
I love ballads. Really, I didn’t realise that—but I’m a ballad player, I guess. The fast numbers are spectacular and exciting, but the real feeling comes through the ballad.
It certainly does. I mean, something like that “Brown Ballad” with Quincy . . .
And “Eyes Of Love” I enjoyed playing, too.
And you’ve done some ballad playing with Michel Legrand . . .
Just the one with him—“My Funny Valentine”.
But you played some of Michel’s ballads on a Rita Reys album, arranged by Rogier Van Otterloo, didn’t you?
Oh, yes—that’s right. And in Holland there’s a few records that I released, but maybe only in Holland. With Rob Franken playing the piano, we did a pretty nice version on— “The Summer of ‘42”. I thought Rob played very well on that. With the electric piano and the harmonica, somehow, there’s that carpet—and he plays it so fluidly, you know. It’s a wave of sound that comes.
Copyright © 1978, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.