Frame of mind
The virtues of Victor
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1971
The very sad death of Victor Feldman takes my mind back to a childhood theatre visit. The show was called Piccadilly Hayride, and included a dazzling display by the Boy Wonder Of The Drums—young Vic Feldman. In later years Victor virtually left the drums behind and became a brilliant jazz player on the vibes—with a distinctively percussive approach. After enlivening many British bands, Victor emigrated to the States and built up an enormous reputation on vibes and piano in such groups as those of George Shearing, Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley, and in the Woody Herman Herd. I met him and interviewed him in the early ‘seventies when he made a return visit to appear at Ronnie’s; I found that I liked him very much as a person, and that I enjoyed his piano improvisations as much as those on vibes. On the Hollywood studio scene Victor was in great demand as an all-round percussionist—in fact, he was regarded as the leading expert in this field. However, with such talents, he always maintained contact with the jazz world, and periodically added to the collection of first-rate recordings, in his own name and as a sideman, that now remains to remind us of his greatness.
Since my last playing visit back here in ‘65, I’ve been over for a holiday in ‘69, when I just did one little TV spot with Tony Kinsey. This time I brought my family again, and also played at Ronnie’s with my regular group. My eldest boy is nine now; the other two are six and five. I have my nephew with me, a babysitter, and my wife, of course; there’s seven of us altogether.
Only being here for a few days, I really come back as a tourist. I always have a good time when I come over; it doesn’t seem to change that much. I’ll tell you one thing—Ronnie’s club is really great. You know, the acoustics and everything. We were all very excited about working there; it was a lot of fun.
Our tenor player, Tom Scott, is quite well-known, and is also an excellent writer. John Guerin, our drummer, was born in Hawaii, actually he moved to San Diego when he was very young. I first heard him with Buddy De Franco, and tried to encourage him to come to Los Angeles, because I loved playing with him right away. Finally he did make the move, and now he’s one of the most in-demand drummers in the city. He does all kinds of work, from rock things to jingles.
The most recent showcase for our bass player, Chuck Domanico, was a ‘cello quartet album on Records, with Roger Kellaway—who is a brilliant, very creative musician.
It isn’t four ‘cellos, you understand; it’s with Chuck, and Roger’s playing piano, Emil Richards is on percussion instruments. The ‘cello player is Edgar Lustgarten. Really a beautiful thing. Anyway, Chuck is very busy, because besides being a great musician, he’s very distinctive and very telepathic. Actually, we feel that telepathy element with all of us, playing together.
We all do sessions most of the time; so we’re a bit frustrated, due to not getting enough chances to play. However, we do get to work in clubs like Donte’s. And just before we left we’d started at a little place called the Baked Potato, on Monday nights; we also plaved a weekend there. When we get back, we’re hoping to do some concerts around. But we don’t have to go on the road any more—I’ve had enough of that. If we can just work these kind of jobs in, we’ll have more of a fulfilling life. Although we do get to play a variety of music in the studios—including. a lot that we don’t like. In some of the idioms you can improvise to an extent; for instance, I play conga drums sometimes. I very rarely play piano on recordings over there, because I’m a little bit stubborn; I like to play my way.
I’m known as a general percussionist. The only thing I don’t do is play sit-down drums too much any more; but I’m liable to start again, if I can get time to just get myself together with it for a few days, or weeks. So I play congas, tymps, and the whole family of percussion instruments.
Usually I play one or two tunes a set on vibes with the group. As we grow, I’ll probably play more. But I find the vibes a little bit limiting: I feel I can do more things on the piano, because of the very nature of the instrument. When I play vibes. I miss a piano player, or a chordal background, like a guitar or something. Thank goodness I’ve got Chuck, and it’s fantastic with him and the drums—but that’s it, you see. Eventually, I think, if we keep playing together, Tom might play some piano. That’s the reason I don’t play a lot of vibes, though; there’s only certain things I can do to make it fill out.
I’ve always used the four mallets, but I’m doing more of it now. With this group I have to. Gary Burton’s influenced me a lot. He’s a tremendous innovator on the instrument—a virtuoso. I really admire what he does. I love Milt Jackson, too, you know. I’m not going to start making comparisons; they’re each doing their own thing.
Gary has definitely advanced the vibes. Like, I remember when I was a kid—well, about thirteen—I thought to myself: “I’m going to try and play some two-part inventions on the vibes.” It was very difficult, and for some reason or another I never persevered with it; I started on something else, writing or whatever, with the piano. But Gary’s the type of guy—he lived in the mid-West, I think, and he shut himself away and applied himself to it. Whatever advantage you have in your environment, however, it still takes the person’s initiative and positive thinking to do what he’s done.
As for the rock ingredient, personally I get a little bored with it; but maybe people get bored with what we do. For my taste, other idioms are more interesting; such as Bill Evans, Milt Jackson. And Brazilian music—I love it. I like variety; we try to play a few different things in contrast, from set to set.
Of course, some of the guys are genuinely into the rock thing; they like the rhythms. Although I know some drummers who don’t like rock drumming. I’ve always found the most interesting aspect of rock music to be the drummer and the fender bass player—the bass drum thing, the independent rhythms that get going are good. I’m only sorry that they get hold of one kind of music and jam it down everybody’s throat, and it becomes a conforming, tyrannical type of thing.
All kinds of music can be done well. It’s just that there’s certain types that, tonally, I get bored with very easily. I’ve listened to things that have been happening lately, and I admire the togetherness of it. It can be sort of anarchistic; they don’t know where they’re going, and yet they have a certain unity and a feeling that amazes me sometimes. So I don’t put it down. Then I’m also aware that I don’t get a chance to delve into listening to music as much as I might, because of my work schedule and my general mode of life. But I hope to be always striving to develop and improve myself.
A few years ago I made another multi-dubbed album on Liberty; I once did that over here for Carlo Krahmer’s Esquire label. This one was called “Victor Feldman Plays Everything In Sight.” On most of the tracks I played the drums first. I used a metronome in my ear on the first tune I did; then after that I did without the metronome. I had to act it out in my mind, visualising what the end-product was going to be, and try and make it sound spontaneous, too. if I could. It was quite challenging and I was happy with some of it.
The record company talked me into doing tunes that I wasn’t overjoyed about; but some of them surprised me, in that, in spite of that obstacle, I managed to make something happen with them. I get very annoyed, though, about that kind of thing. I don’t think I’m an egomaniac, but I really like to do my own things the way I want to do them. I don’t mind somebody making suggestions, but not to insist on you doing what they say. I understand, too, that they’ve got to try and sell the record. And if they sell records, then they can make more.
There are companies who do put money back from their record sales, and try to record same more artistic things. In other words, things that they don’t necessarily think are going to sell a whole lot, but they put their creative energy behind it, to try and sell it. To me this element seems to be sadly lacking in the record business. That’s one thing in the last few years that’s been a bit disturbing, that record companies have seemed to be less and less inclined to put their profit to use in this way.
Now, I don’t know every company; so I could be wrong about it. But I am doing sessions every day, and I see what’s going on, the kind of thing they’re recording, their attitude and everything. It’s very pleasant working in the studios most of the time, but there does seem to be this obsession with the dollar, or the pound. I make a good living at it—so I don’t wish to sound hypocritical, you know.
Another development of recent years is the use of electronics. Just lately I’ve been working with a new instrument, the electronic vibes. It doesn’t have any resonator pipes, but there’s pick-ups on each note that go to an amplifier. And this can be very useful in recording situations and in clubs where the acoustics are not good. When you’re playing with four mallets on it, you find that certain notes ring on a bit, but if you stick with it you can develop a way of using it. Electronics can be a good thing, although it’s a drag having to plug in, or if the amp’s not working, or with the feedback business and all that. Actually, I like the natural sound of instruments better, I must say.
Visiting this country does bring back many recollections of earlier days. I remember getting started with my brothers, how they helped me. My father gave me a lot of encouragement, too, and tried to see that everything was taken care of when we got to a job. Max Bacon was a great help in giving me a start and bringing my name before the public.
Later on there were the difficult days on the road. with Ralph Sharon and with Roy Fox. I called Roy up a few days ago—he sounds great. I worked with Ted Heath on and off—not regularly, but I appeared with him.
And Jack Parnell—he was quite a big influence on me, because it was when he and Vic Lewis came to my brother’s house that I was encouraged to play the piano. Because Jack played the piano at that time, and it was unheard of over here to have a drummer who was also a pianist. So I followed Jack’s example.
I must mention Ronnie Scott, too. He was instrumental in my going to America, because he urged me to go and try my luck there. His band was tremendous; it was a great workshop, and we had some marvellous times. I could go on and on naming people here who helped me, and who I enjoyed working with. Such as Tubby Haves. who I worked and recorded with, and Derek Humble, Jimmy Deuchar, Ken Wray, Hank Shaw—all great guys.
When I went to the States, I had no set plans, except that I wanted to play with musicians over there, see them playing, and be in that environment. The most burning thing was to play, and to start afresh. I felt I was getting hedged in here, kind of; there didn’t seem to be many avenues left to me. That doesn’t mean there weren’t necessarily avenues—it just felt that way to me. And I think probably at the time I was right about it.
Now I find that after living in America for fourteen years, I just wish, in lots of ways, that I’d lived there much earlier. The environment is so much more conducive to expressing yourself. I’ve been able to do very well, and get myself a beautiful house in Los Angeles for my family. But besides the material benefits—that’s where jazz grew up, and it’s obviously the place for somebody who wants to be a jazz musician.
It’s not easy. I had times when I was scared—I didn’t know where the next gig was going to come from. I had 150 dollars when I got to Los Angeles. I’d been a member of the New York Union, but I had to wait my time out to get anything steady. I’d been advised against it, but it’s turned out well for me. I think you have to strike out if you want to do something. You can get all kinds of advice: “Don’t do this” or “Don’t do that.” Not that I don’t agree with taking advice; it’s just that if you follow a course you believe in, you accept the consequences. I’m very glad now that I did it.
My first steady job in America was with Woody Herman’s band. At that time I didn’t know whether I was going to stay or come back; I had my return ticket. I was rather apprehensive, because I didn’t want to go on the road any more. I don’t know whether Woody knew that. I’m not meaning to sound blasé, but after being years on the road over here, that’s how I felt. Anyway, Nat Pierce was so great and the guys were so riendly that I realised there would be compensations.
There wasn’t that much for me to do, playing vibes with the big band. Most of the arrangements didn’t have vibes in them, but I played quite a bit, supporting Woody on those fast tunes and everything. It was very good experience for me, and I got to be friends with some American musicians right away.
Bill Harris was fantastic. Some nights he played just unbelievably great. In fact, I don’t know if they ever got him on record like he would play on those gigs. A lot of people will never know how great a musician he was.
It was via Buddy De Franco that I got out to the Coast. Buddy’s pianist at the time, Don Friedman, called me up; he’d heard I was leaving Woody’s band and he said Buddy would like me to join the group on vibes. They were going to do a week in Chicago, a week in St. Louis. Don lived in Los Angeles, and Buddy would lend his station-wagon to us to drive out to the Coast. Since I was going there anyway, I joined. And it was great; I remember Philly Joe Jones came down a couple of times and sat in with us. As for Buddy—he’s a beautiful person, and very sincere about music.
Some years later I took part in a marvellous recording session with Buddy. On one date it was just Buddy and I, with Victor Sproles on bass and Art Blakey on drums; on the other, Curtis Fuller on trombone and Lee Morgan on trumpet were added.
Talking of record dates, another great one I was on was with Cannonball Adderley, Nat Adderley, Ray Brown and Wes Montgomery. Just unbelievable. I was pretty nervous, but when I knew I was going to do it, I wrote a tune for Ray called “The Chant”, and that was one of the things we recorded.
I was already established as a studio musician, but a little while after that album was made, I gave up the studio work and went out with Cannonball’s band. I got married then, too, and about a year later my wife was expecting our first child; so I decided to get off the road again. But during that time, again, there were moments that were fantastic. The extrovert nature of Cannonball’s music was good for me.
After a few months, though, I got a little tired of it, having to keep playing a lot of the same things. For some reason or another, whenever I’ve been on one-night stands, I don’t seem to come up with any new tunes or be very creative. I get too fed up with the travelling.
Miles Davis brought out my creativity. Before working with him, I’d heard a lot of stories about him. But I never believe things people tell me about anybody like that. Over here it was the same; I used to hear stories about certain bandleaders, what a drag they were. I always wait until I meet the person myself.
Everyone has a quality within themselves that’s beautiful; who are we to set up standards about how a person should act? I enjoyed playing with Miles and I enjoyed meeting him. He certainly seems to be very straightforward; he says what he wants to say. People say: “Well, that’s because he can afford to.” I don’t know whether that’s true or not; I think he might be like that, even if he couldn’t afford to be. That’s the way he plays—in a very honest way. Whenever you play with him, you get a feeling of starting afresh, and wiping the cobwebs away. He creates an atmosphere round him that helps you to steer clear of clichés.
In fact, he gets on my nerves sometimes, in a way, because he gets hold of a piece and he wants to change it around so completely that I think he takes it too far. Then, on the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing to do that—to really tread new ground.
It was partly through being with Cannonball that I got to work with Miles. He needed a piano player for a job at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, and his booking agent called me up. I was very excited; I said: “Sure, I’d love to go.” As it happened, it was very awkward for me, because I had a staff job at ABC, doing daytime shows. But I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity. I finally managed to persuade the man who contracts the show to let me off for a couple of days.
I called back and said: “I can’t do the whole week, but I can do the first few days while you’re trying to get somebody else.” It hurt me to have to say that, because I really would have loved to play longer with him.
It was very enjoyable, although I didn’t know any of the things we had to play. And Miles doesn’t tell you anything, which bugged me a bit. It’s inconsiderate but, on the other hand, maybe it was a compliment and he figured I could pick up very quick. Everyone seemed to be happy, anyhow. Then a few weeks later Miles came out to L.A. to do an album, and I was to be on it. Before the date, I used to go up to his hotel room, and we’d come down into the lounge lobby, where there was a piano, and talk about various tunes.
He said: “Write something.” Just like that. So I went home, messed around, and wrote “Joshua”. Actually, I think I finally finished that one the day prior to the recording. In between, I’d go to the hotel and we’d take tunes that we were going to do, he’d suggest certain changes and I’d say: “How can that be?” But sure enough, a lot of the time what he’d suggest would turn out fine. The only thing, he’d sort of put you in a frame of mind where you really didn’t know what you were doing; you were groping. I sensed that he was looking for something, but he didn’t know how to tell me what he wanted. The feeling he gave you of searching, this finally brought out the chord structure for the arrangement. We’d be experimenting with the tune and it was “Not this way—no, that way,” until we moulded it into shape.
Copyright © 1971, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.