The latest line-up
Maintaining the standard
Swing right out of the building
Putting on a show for Woody
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1968
Well, Woody, the band sounds even better than ever.
Thank you. They're good guys.
You have quite a bit of new blood there.
Oh yes—every trip.
How do you find them?
It's not easy—but we manage, somehow. But usually we get guys that have something to say musically, you know.
As usual, there's a lot of youngsters in the band.
Yes, and there's some not so young, too.
I notice you're playing soprano this time.
I've added that during the past year, yes. I hadn't played it since I was a boy.
What caused you to start using it?
Oh, about two years ago we did a lot of dates with John Coltrane on the road, festivals and things. Then one night my wife and I went down to Birdland, before it closed, and he did "My Favourite Things" for about 45 minutes on soprano. And, I don’t know, somehow he turned me on. I couldn't possibly even begin to think the way he did musicallythe point was that I remembered that this could be a fun instrument. So I sat down and fooled around with it a little then I put it away for a while. It used to get out of whack all the time—or maybe it was me. In the last six ox eight months I've been playing it quite consistently—every night.
Any special projects in line for the band?
Well, we're very busy doing all our usual things, you know. We're going to Mexico in early Spring for a festival we'll be doing a whole mess of festivals this coming Summer. At Newport they're having one night of all big bands it's to be Duke, Basie, Dizzy with his old big band put together, as many of the same men as he can—and our band. Some tributes will be included each band will do some things for guys who aren't around, and so forth. And I suggested that Nat Pierce write some of them I felt that he would be the right guy to do it. We're going to do a pop album on another label. I'm using a guy by the name of Richard Evans to score it. I think he might know the answer about trying to make some kind of bridge.
What's that going to be—arrangements in your style of popular tunes?
Yes, but also with the feeling of the way the pop thing goes—to try to find a wedding of the two, if it's possible. This guy has proven to me that he has a better awareness of this, plus the understanding of what we do. So it might lead to something. I sincerely hope so.
That’s an impressive "Concerto" by Bill Holman. How did he come to compose it?
He wrote it for the Monterey Festival last year. They asked me who I would suggest for a thing of that nature, and I naturally said Bill, because I thought he was best equipped for it. We have a very good tape of that, and some others from the Festival, which we hope also to get out this Spring.
Has Bill written anything else for you?
A soprano piece, which we also recorded on this tapea thing called—well, it's in French, so I can't say it, but the title means "Horn Of The Fish". It's a very good little piece.
How many years do you intend to continue bandleading?
Oh well—when I get as old as Duke, I'll quit! So I've got quite a few to go. I really don't know I've never given it much thought. I used to think about retiring in my lifetime—but not any more. Now I can become bored and restless if we're out of action for two days. So I'm pretty well tied in here. As long as I feel well, enjoy what I'm doing, and feel that we're doing something productive. I'll continue. I wouldn't do it just to be working—that's not any fun.
You'd say the music keeps you young, presumably?
Yes, I try to stay that way—between my bouts with the gout, you know.
For our part, we hope the band goes on f or ever.
Well, we'll do our best. We try constantly to keep the calibre of the musicianship up to the standard we've tried to set with the band. Sometimes we're lucky in getting the people we want. And fortunately we manage to keep a few old hands who stay in there, or come back every so often to revitalise certain parts of the band. I've gotten to such a point that, with so many different people in the band, I kinda look forward to each new fellow as he comes in, to hear what he has to say musically. So it keeps me interested, too.
As always, we have a lot of new, young faces right now. And we have this new album out (" Light My Fire"), which I'm very proud of. I think it's one of the best things we've done, because not only is it musically up to what I feel we should be doing, but also I feel that it has broadness of appeal—something that we all have to think about on occasion.
Music is wide open now for some sort of wedding between the pop sounds and jazz. Of course, a lot of the jazz groups have been emphasising this for several years—people like Cannonball, Herbie Mann and Wes Montgomery, before he passed away. They have reached a big segment of young people, who really aren't into the jazz scene. They're just not familiar with it because what they’ve heard seven days a week, 24 hours a day, has been straight out-and-out rock, plus some soul, rhythm & blues, and so forth.
I do feel that now the calibre of tunes is such that it's quite feasible to utilise the young writer's talents on them; they lend themselves. So this is something I'm terribly interested in. I hope that a lot of other people will be, too, because I believe we could have a real resurgence in music in general. If we can reach just part of the younger set it'll certainly help jazz.
If it's going to have a strong future, pop/ jazz fusion is where it has to go, I think. As you see, I'm going somewhat in that direction. I have to tread easily, so to speak, only for one reason. I can't have my audience, who have been so true to me for the past 30 odd years left standing out in the cold. I realise that it's my responsibility to them to play some of the nostalgic items in our book. By the same token, it shouldn't stop me as a bandleader and our arrangers and players from expressing ourselves in the modern idiom. If it swings, if it makes it, then we should be playing it.
Even if we're just doing our straight jazz thing, which is the basis of everything, I've always tried to stay in the sphere of what's happening. I'm interested in what I feel is good pop; what we do with it has to be jazz, because we're a jazz band.
But then, we've been playing pop music for these 30 years. So the current album is devoted to jazz arrangements of pop songs and some originals in a pop vein. My big problem was finding the proper writer. Because so many of our great jazz writers, people who are very dear friends of mine, haven't taken enough time to really analyse what goes on with the pop scene. Plus the fact that very often, when they arrange a pop song, it turns out to be kind of satirical. And if you don't take it seriously, it's wasted effort. I have quite a few single sides lying around to prove it, that weren't released and I hope, never will be. Not that there's anything wrong with them; it's just that they don`t really say anything one way or the other. They're not the things we should be playing if we're doing out-and-out jazz, nor the things to play if we're trying to appeal to the younger grouping.
This wasn't something I just did in the last month or two. As long as two, three and four years ago I was involved trying things which we never really got into, because of the limitations of the music I wound up with having to play. I even went so far as to go to one of the pop record labels, and I found a young writer and composer; he was very good in his bag, but he didn't know our bag. Consequently, when he voiced for the brass, he could make five trumpets sound like three easily! His ideas were great, but orchestrating for a big, fat musical sound was not his thing.
Fortunately, we finally had Richard Evans write these scores for us, and I knew I'd found a guy that knows both sides of the scene. We were able to put it together.
The fact is, a lot of the things that are very popular are musically good. After all, when I left a couple of weeks ago the Number One album was the Blood, Sweat And Tears album. This group is basically jazz orientated—and they're good players, which is important. Then there's the Fifth Dimension; Bill Holman's been writing all their backgrounds in the last year.
It all makes me feel that the future's rather bright. In other words, we're not just going into one of those dark bags again for the next few years, when everyone is moaning and crying, and saying: "What's happening to jazz?" or "What’s happening to good music?" I think there's a lot happening. I really can see a new era opening up. I've lived through a few, and depending on good luck, I'll see this one through! There's something going on, and I'm very happy about it, because whenever there's a movement like this, it gives you renewed energy.
Of course, a lot of credit has to go to the Beatles, because of some of the things they've come up with. They're not afraid to try anything. And this is healthy. We do "Hey Jude"—Nat Pierce arranged it for us. That’s the only one of theirs we've done thus far, but eventually we'll do some others.
The scene is very healthy and, if it's taken advantage of, I think there can be a great deal of renewed life for big bands. You can't go from A to Z in one fell swoop, of course, but it can be done; young people can be led in the right direction.
The problem is still an economic one, in building new big bands. It would take a large amount of bread today, and it would have to be financed by those who can afford it and want to do this sort of thing.
I don't think any revision of the standard big band instrumentation is called for. As a matter of fact, I notice that in so many of the backgrounds for the pop groups today, no matter what kind of group it is, they're using big bands, with all the usual horns. That isn't really the problem. Now, the wild kind of guitar voice is personal to the kids; it says something to them. And if and when I find a guy playing guitar like that who I think fits our whole bag, I would certainly have him in our band. Just like in the last year or longer we've been using electric bass. Actually, we use both, because certain things sound better on a legitimate bass. As for using a lot of electronics, I don't consider it a necessity with a big band. If it can enhance what you do, it could be a good idea; I haven't been convinced of that.
Another good sign is that we're expanding in the scope of the jobs the band plays. When we go back, we'll be doing the Fillmore East, which is a place where the kids go to hear all the rock and soul groups. Later, in June, we go into the Fillmore West in San Francisco for a few days. Our whole schedule has improved immeasurably. We're doing a lot of concert dates with Dionne Warwick, then with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, and several other people. We'll be opening in Vegas on June 25 for a month with Tony Bennett.
But the best thing about it is the response from colleges and schools from our new album and our performances. It's really been very, very impressive. Their knowing the tunes is very important; it gives you a foot in the door, at least. They'll turn their heads and say: "What's that?" I find this, too, constantly having young bands : it's a very healthy thing if you can make a communication between young musicians and young audiences. It's something that's been lacking in jazz for a long time. In the little I've seen in the last six or eight months, it's a very good feeling.
For instance, we played the University of Oklahoma on a big weekend. They had two rock groups playing in the same building as our band. And by the last hour we had all the kids in listening to us, because they found that something was happening there that wasn't happening in the other two halls. The great thing is, our players dig playing these charts; that's very important.
The natural volume of the big band sound has come as somewhat of a shock to a lot of kids in the last few months. And they become rabid fans. Through close contacts, I've found some very young kids—by that I mean 14 to 15, who have worn out the grooves on this album already. So I have to take stock on this.
Copyright © 1968, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.