The latest line-up
Maintaining the standard
Swing right out of the building
Putting on a show for Woody
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1964
I did study with individual teachers and, in my travelling, I got to meet the important legitimate saxophonists of our country, and each one helped me. They were very kind to me. And, as I say, in the band business a lot of people tried to help me, because they felt, maybe, that I had something to say. I think it's pretty much the same today.
As for influences on alto—Johnny Hodges was one later on. But the guy that impressed me most in the early days was Frank Trumbauer. He was the first person I ever heard play that kind of warm, full-sounding saxophone. And I think he was a big influence on Johnny Hodges. So it's all handed down from one to another.
On clarinet, I listened to almost everybody in the beginning—guys like Jimmy Noone, who were around Chicago.
Milwaukee is very close to Chicago, so when I was home I could get to hear a lot of the older guys. Of course, as I grew up, and started trying to add clarinet to my so-called abilities, Benny Goodman was a big influence on me. He was older, and he had proven himself as being one of the truly great jazz musicians of all time. Then I dug what Barney Bigard was doing. There were things that Jimmy Dorsey did on record dates way back, when they were just scuffling around New York, that I thought were very good. I could go on and on.
The singing was something I got from my father. He had been a singer, and he had worked in theatres. It was his idea that I sing—and eventually try other things.
I listened to a lot of blues singers. I still do. When I was a kid I used to make a point of hearing work songs, shouts and things sung by people that I thought sang good. Being in the entertainment business, even as a boy, meant I could get in to hear a lot of performers, where others couldn't.
My desire to have my own band started very early. As a matter of fact, by the time I was 12 or 13 years old, I had this driving ambition to have a band some day, that I felt would have a sound and a feeling that someone else might not think about. So, playing in those bands, it was very important to me that I dig and learn as much as I could in each one.
Because I was in a terrible hurry, you know—as most youth is.
The retirement of Isham Jones left the door sort of open for me, at the age of 23, to do the kind of thing that I knew I would have to do. And that was to become involved, in one way or another, with a co-operative-type band. You see, in that era—particularly in the mid-'thirties—most of the better bands in the jazz idiom were fronted by an outstanding instrumentalist—a great player like Benny, Artie Shaw, and so on. And I never did feel that I had this kind of thing going.
Consequently, it would have to be more of a group eflort than anything else. And that's what it's been—right up to the present day. The guys are the ones that are the players.
The Herd tag was originally put on us by George Simon, who used to be the editor of Metronome magazine. Along about '43 or '44, he wrote a piece about the band and called it "The Thundering Herd". From that time on we called it the Herman Herd. It wasn't really deliberate, except that I said: "It sounds like it should, so let's use it in the billing." So it started as a billing matter. Of course, it was a new development for the times.
We didn't plan these things. As a matter of fact, there's been very little planning in my lifetime. The second Herd was probably planned more than anything I've ever done, and it came off pretty well. But I'd rather do it the way I do most times, and that's just sit down and try to play the best music we can. And get the best guys to write for us.
Then, too, you're guided to a great extent by the individual players you have. Should be. In other words, if they have limitations, you don't play music that proves it. You play music that shows off their best efforts, not their worst.
That's why the first band we ever had was called "The Band That Plays The Blues". It was as simple as that. We had seven guys, including myself, who were members of this co-operative group. Some had been with Isham and some not.
The reason we hung that tag was that, with our limitations, the best thing we could do was play some blues. We didn't have facets for other things that would be as good as if we just sat there and played our kind of thing. And our kind of thing was the blues.
Naturally, Ralph Burns was a big factor in the evolution of the next band. He came along with people like Chubby Jackson, Dave Tough, then Bill Harris later, and Flip Phillips. In Ralph's case, it was Chubby who had worked with him with Charlie Barnet. Chubby said: "I'd like to have this guy write an arrangement', and I said: "Fine".
The first thing he brought in for the band was an arrangement of "I've Got The World On A String", which had a vocal in it. It’s still in the book somewhere. Later we recorded it, but in the interim he came in and started playing piano with us. He became the big force behind that band—doing 90 per cent. of the writing.
So the two biggest sources we had were Ralph and our head things. Then people like Neal Hefti and some of the other guys would write on occasion. It was a very happy thing—musically and every other way.
When somebody outside the band writes for us, if it's a guy I don't know very well, I just say: "If you dig the band, write whatever you think will make the band sound good." With someone like Nat Pierce, who does a great deal of the writing, we discuss possibilities for tunes. But that's all it is—a discussion. I might have an idea, and give it to him—or vice versa. And this is what I did to a great extent with Ralph Burns, back in his formative years.
My only claim to fame, if I have one, is that I'm an editor. After we get the arrangement and rehearse it there might be a few thousand cuts. Or we might add some junk—if it fits. But then a lot of times a guy has painted a complete picture and there's nothing for me to do. So I'm not apt to mess with it.
Mostly I'm in attendance at rehearsals. Nat runs a thing down, and then I might leap in and make a couple of suggestions or changes, or something. But I'd say that I've attended most of my rehearsals my whole life. We don't rehearse much nowadays. As a matter of fact, the only time is when we have new material. It’s pretty silly to rehearse a band that knows what it's supposed to do. That's why it's important to get fresh things in all the time.
Once in a while we're forced to play a thing for the first time on a record date, but we'd rather have it in the book beforehand. Sometimes a chart'll be in the book for months—or even years—and then we'll finally get around to recording it, because we didn't think, previously, that it had a certain quality. By that time, there might have been 18 more changes in that chart.
As for personnel changes, they can be a problem. But, unless you have a big changeover, it's not too much of a difficulty, as long as you get the right people to replace them. You know, no one likes to lose someone who's there for any length of time. By the same token, if people are completely unhappy, or feel that they're not doing what they should do, then they're better off going somewhere else. Because just to do it because you're getting paid, or someone talked you into it, is not the answer.
In other words, getting back to what I said earlier, the desire has to be there to play in this band. You have to have the conviction that it's okay—or there's no use showing up. You'll never earn enough money that you have to be in it. You've got to really believe in it, and love it.
When it comes to replacing men, in most instances the guys make their own replacements, or suggest certain players. We don't audition people or anything like that. I never did. If we hire a guy, it's with the attitude that we think he has a very good chance of playing in our band and staying there.
Of course I go out listening to musicians all the time. But they're not auditioning for me, either. If I happen to hear somebody that I think would fit the band, I might enquire of the guys in that particular section: "How do you feel he would work in the band?" Then, if it doesn't work out, I have something to hit them over the head with, you see! "This was your judgement." But, in most cases, it has worked out quite well.
Copyright © 1964, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.