In my opinion
Jazz and classical music
The influence of Ellington
|Talking to Les Tomkins in 1962||
Photo by Dennis Matthews
Your recent albums, "School of Rebellion" and "Seven Deadly Sins", show that you enjoy working on a very wide orchestral canvas. Can you name any particular pieces that you felt came off to your complete satisfaction?
One so rarely hears one's own work played properly that it's hard to judge the music itself. I rarely am satisfied, but this is normal. It would be much more fun to write music if I were satisfied more frequently. I hear some people's music and I know they must be satisfied, and I know music for them must be a great delight. But it isn't very good. I'm inclined to think that the more satisfied you are, the more trouble you're in—unless you have that type of genius Mozart had.
Of your contemporaries, whose work do you like to hear?
Duke Ellington to begin with, and secondly, Gil Evans. And many of the Third Stream people, particularly John Lewis and Jimmy Giuffre. I liked very much the way Giuffre was writing five years ago, but I haven't heard much of what he's done recently. John Lewis's composition has great beauty too, and some of George Russell's work has impressed me enormously.
The soloists I prefer are Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Miles Davis, Harold Baker (with Duke Ellington's orchestra), Brookmeyer, Mulligan. I still like Jack Teagarden very much. Ray Brown and Charlie Mingus among bass players. Among guitarists, Jimmy Raney and a special favourite of mine is Jim Hall. You may notice that this excludes a certain group.
What are your views on atonality and `free form' vogue?
I'm not pleased by it, nor am I too interested in the avant garde in any of the arts. I feel that the subject matter, the content, the idea is too small, and that the aim of this art is limited and not directed towards large goals. Music must have beauty and open–ness and must appeal to the world.
Does this entail any widening of the jazz field?
I don't think jazz itself need necessarily be changed. We can do a lot with what we have. The Count Basie idiom, for example, could be enormously extended—extended rather than reproduced.
Do you think the big band will rise from its decline? No, I don't see how it can. I don't see where it can go, or who's going to play in it. The large jazz orchestra is in the position of the symphony orchestra—that is, it has to be maintained by the State in some way. You can't reconnect it again. It's not going to work for dancing, because popular music has been so abused and corrupted—more so in America than here, although it's certainly begun in England, hasn't it? Recording is not enough, and the jazz clubs aren't set up properly. And the jazz public isn't large enough to pay the kind of prices that are necessary.
What the jazz orchestra really needs is the kind of opportunity that the East Berliner Ensemble had under Brecht: that is, a place to work and to develop ideas, not only to perform.
Performance is very dangerous. It's been a real problem in jazz. A young player comes along and he has to grow up in public. He has to learn his trade in front of people, wirh a lot of attention attracted to it and with very little time to think.
The need for some security for the players and for the composers is absolutely indispensable.
As one originally intended for the law, what made you decide to become a professional musician? Perhaps you never really thought about it?
I thought about it a lot. I became a musician partly for the wrong reason—as many do. Music was more interesting, more exciting. The law seemed boring.
But there were other reasons too. I began to feel that the law was essentially a fabric of deceit and sophism. And I felt a sense of vocation, a sense of call, to be a musician. I felt that I had some abilities that I should develop—that I was compelled to develop.
My father was a lawyer and wanted me to be one. I wanted to go to college, but I didn't want to study music, because I thought the music teachers were all fuddy-duddies. Of course, it was arrogance on my part, but they are fuddy-duddies.
It's probably just as well that I didn't go through the academy and have whatever there was in me washed out. But I did want to learn some things, and I went to pre-law school for a while I switched to English Literature and in that field got a diploma, after many years and through hook and crook.
But really you felt a natural direction towards the music world?
Right, and specifically towards the jazz world. You have to keep in mind that during the war, when I was in my teens, was the time of the great jazz orchestras. Jazz was the popular music of the country and there was enormous energy and enthusiasm connected with it. There was an incentive, there was something in the society itself that pushed one along.
It was a very exciting time.
You feel that things have become over–commercialised and unexacting now?
The music has diminished in its excitement, and everybody wants to be a petit bourgeois, to get his little matchbox house and to have a car and so on.
But at the same time the music has become more superficially exciting. There's a new movement of shock and thrill—but this isn't the kind of excitement that a fifteen-piece jazz band has for a boy in his early teens. There's a lot of rebellion and fermentation around, but no real growth, real enthusiasm. The 'forties were wonderful years to be brought up in.
You started arranging at a very early age, I believe.
I was about thirteen years old when I started to write music. I didn't have any idea what I was doing then—or for many years thereafter, I might add.
How important an exercise is it for a young player to try to write?
I think all composers should play and that all players should know something about composition. It makes it a lot easier to play the instrument when you know what the music is.
The player himself is frequently the most conservative and unimaginative of listeners—not only of wild music, but of music that's a little different. He resists. And, of course, if it's not a little different it can't be anything. So I think it helps the player to know something about why music is put together.
Do you think it's desirable for a musician to become a good section man before he tries to make out as a soloist?
Not necessarily, no. I know some people who never could play in a section but who'd be fine soloists. There's a beauty in playing in a section which can exceed the beauty of playing a great improvised solo. Very few people know this.
It's a wonderful feeling to be in a big orchestra and to be caught up by a group which is playing together and precisely in tune and is playing music that means something.
A man doesn't have to know how to do that to be a good soloist, but today everybody wants to be a red-hot soloist and is very little concerned about the other beauty, the other excitement. Too bad, because it's a reward that he misses from life.
This feverish individualism with its overtones of conformity runs throughout all performance nowadays. All the fiddle players are dissatisfied in all the orchestras. They all want to be soloists. And the fiddle section frequently sounds like it.
We labour under the delusion that today's performance is the best ţhe world has known. In a true musical sense, the performance in Mozart's time was a lot better, from what I've read. The musicians played better together and they seemed to be more concerned.
Have you any special plans in mind for the future?
I have some things to do on the Continent. I've written an opera and it may be performed in Germany. In any event, I'll have to go to Germany and France to fulfil some commitments I have. And I'm going to do a talk on the BBC on the Third Stream.
If I don't have any complications, I'd like to stay here and rehearse my orchestra. As for recording, I don't even know whether I would be allowed to If it were possible to develop some new ideas and then to record or perform, I certainly wouldn't object.
You have been using some of the Dankworth sidemen. I take it you enjoy the Dankworth band?
Have you done any writing for Johnny?
No, never. He hasn't asked me. I wrote a piece for Stan Kenton—a setting of "What's New"—which Dankworth's band performed at the Albert Hall the last time I was here. Cleo Laine sang the voice part. I've rehearsed Dankworth bands in the past, but I've never written anything actually for them. (Click the photo to enlarge)
The only British orchestra I've written directly for was Ted Heath's. I wrote a four-piece suite, "The English Suite" for them in 1955.
I think it would be a good thing if you did write for the Dankworth band, as it is virtually the only full-time big jazz band left in this country.
The Dankworth band is one of the few jazz orchestras left in the world—and it's from my standpoint one of the most interesting. That's the idea of my workshop—to keep the orchestra from becoming extinct. It's going to die out, like the dinosaur, if we're not careful. All that the tradition of jazz has done for music is to provide good session players—here and in America—which is a crime.
It's terrible that the forces of commercial music are taking advantage of this training and background for their own mean ends. Of course, they will pay the price for their thievery because they won't have players in fifteen years. You can't get the cream without making the milk.
Copyright © 1962, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.