The latest line-up
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
Welcome back to Britain, Woody, with your latest lineup.
It's nice to be visiting here once again. It was a little longer than usual between trips—closer to two years than one.
We were supposed to come over on two different occasions, but dates were changed; that's what made this long absence.
What would you say are the important aspects of the band as it is now?
Well, for one thing, we've got a couple of very good writers in the band, who are contributing a lot. As long as there's fresh, new music coming in, it's a healthy sign. One of the young trumpet players, Tony Klatka, writes very well.
And the guy that's been extremely prolific with this group is a young man who's been with us for a year now. He's a New Zealander by the name of Alan Broadbent. He plays piano with us; he's an excellent arranger and a very good composer.
A few months ago he turned 23; I think he has: a brilliant future in store, because already he has fantastic knowledge of music for one so young.
Then, of course, we've got some very good soloists in the band, that I'm very proud of. We have a young trumpeter from the Bay area—San Francisco, that is—Tom Harrell, a fine jazz player. Playing lead trombone and some of the jazz is Ira Nepus, who has been with us for well over a year.
There's a few old hands in there—like Bill Byrne, who's been on and off with the band for years; he's the road manager, too. Also these past few months the, tenor saxophonist Steve Marcus came back; he's never visited Europe with us before, but he's been in and out of our band several times. In recent years he's developed into a fantastic jazz player.
He's one of the extreme modernists but, by the same token, I feel that he has the necessary equipment to delve into that particular kind of music. There isn't anything that he doesn't have the facility for; whatever comes into his mind, he can play. This I have to respect very much. I think he's one of the most tasty of all the young guys that are moving in the new directions. We're very proud of him.
We have a great rhythm section, with Alan Broadbent on piano, and a drummer who was with me a few years ago, had to spend two years teaching before rejoining the band—Ed Soph. He was with every Lab Band of North Texas for quite a few seasons. He's still very young, but he managed to get an English degree and other things in school, while playing drums constantly. Also he was with one of Stan Kenton's bands. Two years ago, when he was first with us, I predicted that he would be a really great big band drummer; I was more or less echoing what Cannonball had told me—he was the one who recommended him, having heard him at a clinic or something. Our bassist; A1 Reed, came in recently and seems to be fitting in very well—he's from the Boston area.
We've got three trumpet players from up in the Bay area. Our very strong lead man's name is Forrest Buchtel. Prior to joining our band, he was gigging in Northern California; but the gig he was really making a living at was as an engineer for the Atomic Energy Commission. So I think that's a pretty good twist for a lead trumpet player! And alternating on lead is an excellent player, Buddy Powers.
So we've got a good trumpet section and a good trombone section. The saxophones—I've got some very competent guys. Along with Steve Marcus, on lead tenor is a guy who's been around for a long time, though he's been with us only about eight or nine months; his name is Frank Tiberi. Then a guy who's been over here with me before, developing into quite a tenor player these days—Steve Lederer. On baritone is Ed Xiques; he was recommended by Steve Marcus, and he's been here for quite some time.
I think we have a lineup that's comparable to any we've had. And we've got a lot of new music that we enjoy playing—that's always a good spark.
This is something you always do, isn't it: present new material alongside the older standards, and have a young band playing it. You can really be termed an expert on young musicians by now.
If I'm not, I'm getting to be! The I truth of the matter is: I enjoy very much working with young people. Also the fact that I've really come to the conclusion this past year that jazz musicians are the same now at the age of 22 or 25 as they were forty years ago. They wear different hairdos, have a different mode of dress, but basically they're just as nutty as they ever were. And as long as they remain nutty, we'll be producing some good music, I think.
Do you find that today's young players inject something new into the old charts?
Oh, every band I ever had did that. That's why our old charts constantly sound like they've changed somewhat, without losing their original patterns and ideas. But jazz music changes constantly—the approach to it, the way of phrasing. So naturally they have to be given their heads, and if it works out to be done in good taste musically, why, that's the answer.
They're as equal to big band requirements as in the past, you'd say?
I would put 'em way above that, 1 because I know that their training is so much greater today than it was, for instance, when I was a young man. Recently I visited Berklee, the modern music school in Boston, from which we've had more former students in the band than probably any other place. After going through the school, I found that what they're doing today is really utterly fantastic. When a young man has a certain amount of ability, with the training he receives there he's ready to join our band or anybody else's. He's been playing in all sizes of groups, ensembles and sections; so he's had a great amount of experience right there in school.
This is something they couldn't get in our day?
Oh, if you found a good individual teacher you stayed with him, and tried to put the thing together by yourself pretty much.
But the thing they did have in earlier days was a very large amount of touring bands.
Sure—so that acted more or less the same as our schools do today. Not only have the schools taken the place of the travelling bands, though—they've gone beyond that. When we had so many bands, there were still only a certain number of them that were musically quite good. You could have played in fifteen bands, and not have learned too much, you know. Whereas if you're in a good music school you either make it or you get flunked out, and they'll advise you to do something else for a livelihood. In this particular school, Berklee, their main intent is to prepare a man or a girl to make a living from music.
And to make it financially nowadays, a band must maintain a very high standard.
That’s right, because looking around anywhere in the world, you find the only bands that are still in existence are those that are usually musically good. Other than a few of the others that have been able to keep the public's fancy. I don't know if you have anyone comparable here, but we have Lawrence Welk, who puts over a specialised kind of entertainment. Today it's a group of thirty-five or forty people, and it's something to watch and listen to. It's built for folks at home watching television, for people who aren't interested in anything about the present day we're living in. The whole idea is for nostalgic purposes; it's directed to an audience who want to relive their youth by hearing old things played as they remember them.
Of course, there's always a certain element of nostalgia when people come to hear your band, isn't there?
Yes, but this isn't the way I've stayed alive as a bandleader. In my own case, I know that in having a band all these years, if I hadn't been able to progress and try different things musically, I would have quit a long time ago and found a little easier way of life—if that's what a person requires. But as long as I'm interested in music and can play things that I enjoy, then I'll still be involved.
You'd say you're addicted to the big band sound?
I am, but that's about as far as my addiction goes—big bands. In other words, I'm not addicted to the music I did when I was a young man.
A lot is said about big bands regaining some popularity with the general public. Is anything like this happening?
Oh, I don't think you ever regain anything. There'll be some big bands—as I've said often to anyone who would listen to me—but there won't be the bands that were around from twenty-five to forty years ago. The big bands will be made up of people with new ideas, not necessarily sticking to the patterns that were set down by the bands that are still up and around today—the Ellingtons, the Basies, the Hermans, the Kentons, the Buddy Riches, whoever it might be. They'll be going beyond all that.
Does the big band as such have a future, or is it likely to become obsolete eventually?
To me, it's just like traditional music—or Dixieland, as we call it at home. It has a resurgence about every three years. Every time you turn around, somebody's saying: "Oh yeah, the big bands are coming back." The truth is: there aren't enough to come back and secondly, they never left. It's the audiences that left—and they'll never come back, because they're too aged now! And there's only a portion of the young people who are interested and, in most cases, it's not a big grouping.
But, as I say, because of only a small amount of bands existing, there'll always be interest. It's not because there's a renewed interest, other than what happens every couple or three years, when they say: "Oh boy, let's get so-and-so for our country club dance" or "Let's have a. Glenn Miller year." Then that becomes everything you hear—for a moment.
Until new and fresh things are produced with big bands, that can be latched on to by great masses of people, there can’t be any big comeback. I don't think it can come back—it has to start anew.
Don't you have to—as with your band—have some link with the past?
Well, the only band in the last few years that had, more or less, a free, clear path has been the Rich band. Now Buddy's been playing in bands for ever, but he doesn't have to accept the fact that he played in Tommy's or Artie Shaw's bands and say: "Okay, I'm going to play a medley of their tunes." That's not a direct link, to my way of thinking.
But I am responsible for certain music that was played back in the 'thirties, 'forties and so on. I would lose my identity, my honesty, and my roots if I didn't accept this fact. And I do it, and when it's played well and the audience receives it well, I feel very happy about it. However, if this was all I had to do, I would pack up my horns and split, because this would be a thing of: you show up once a year and play a medley of your hits! The closest thing to a revival of big bands that I've seen is where Reader's Digest magazine and Time Life group are putting out a big series of recreated big band music. They're duplicating original charts, played by excellent studio musicians. Which is not a new idea, because there was a Glen Gray series that Capitol did some years ago, doing all the bands. It was highly successful—to a very small segment of Americana. The albums didn't cost much and you didn't have to sell too much; so it paid off.
Now this is what these magazines are doing. And they say: "Oh, there's a great deal of interest." Well, I know the kind of interest, because I've been out here all the time. I've run into people who are genuine music-lovers, paying a lot of attention to what's happening—who have ordered some of these records and sent them back. It's not been what they thought they were getting. The performances are not an extension or anything; just something that's done now with modern recording, stereo and so forth.
In other words, you get the old monaural record and if it's a good, clean copy and you put it on tape, it'll still sound better than any recreation. Because the spirit was right; it was a live performance in that studio.
For instance—usually I don't get uptight about anything, but I had these people from Time-Life calling me; they thought I should be terribly impressed because they were doing a lot of our tunes in this new fashion, and it was going to be a big exploitation. A very officious kind of young lady wanted to interview me over the telephone. I said: "Would you just tell me the names of the tunes" and she listed about ten or twelve tunes: "Now what did you think of so-and-so's performance on that date in 1942?" So I told her: "The best way for you to handle this is to get a copy of a three-album set we did for CBS, called `Thundering Herds'. The programme notes were done by George Simon along with myself, and all those tunes are in this package. Those notes were probably as real and honest as you could get. Because I'm not really interested in what you people are doing. There's no reason for me to be interested." So they were quite upset about it—for the moment. But then they got other people who are all involved with them and who loved the idea. It doesn't matter who they are, but they think it's lovely.
It is a lovely idea, to issue albums of all the bands that were popular in the 'forties and so forth—if it's done honestly and straight-ahead. But usually if they just take the original things, clean them up and make reissues they're much better.
If they did the same exploitation with that, it would be complete honesty. Then again, I guess they'd have to pay royalties to people like myself—right? Well, they wouldn't, but the record company would. Maybe there's a method to their madness.
As much as jazz is developing today, it seems, overall, that there aren't the absolute giants, like yourself or Duke Ellington—the people who blaze trails. Is this because there isn’t the scope for or them?
Well, that's basically it. We had a lot of doors that could be opened by us—but they're not there any more. And the only door that seems to mean very much these days—at least, in our part of the world—is television. If you can't make an impact there, it's pretty hopeless.
The other chance is the record industry—which has been completely unconcerned with bands. You know, you might find a record company that's interested in you, and they'll really try for a while; but they're fighting an uphill battle.
Well, in the past you've got exasperated with various labels, haven't you; and made a change?
Oh, sure, but sometimes the labels become exasperated with me, because I can't make any money for 'em. On some occasions. On other occasions I've made a lot of money for 'em.
But I can really say honestly that I've never had any big hassles with record companies about what I would or wouldn't play. Anything I've done, ninety-nine-and-a-half per cent of the time, has been my own idea; and if it was bad I'm responsible, not the record label. The only thing the label can do is: they can kill you better, if they don't release the record or the album at the right time, or if they don't work on it with their promotional people. That's worse than anything else they could possibly do, as far as picking your material or whatever.
So that's the crux of the thing: between those two media, if you're not moving, I don’t see how you can get doors opened to you. Like, we get token things. The band appears for a guest shot on this or that show. You do your two or three tunes, and everyone says: "Isn't that marvellous? We ought to have more of that." And that’s the end of it, until the next one comes along. I'm not bitter—please believe me. Not at all; I'm just stating the facts concerning why it is difficult.
Probably, of the bands that are around right now, Buddy Rich has received more coverage TV-wise in every way than anyone to come along with a band in many, many years. Because it was the first new band that could do enough business to make it feasible to take it. He is the world's greatest drummer, and the people will come to hear him.
Of course, some of the other people have done really fantastic jobs. Such as a young man on the Coast—Don Ellis. But he has to go and find work—and then that's pretty limited, because of the scope of the band. Like, we play during the course of the year, a hundred or two hundred private parties. There'd be no way for him to play those, because in the first place they wouldn't know who Don Ellis is. Secondly, if he did show up and play his music, they would be insulted! You see, ninety per cent of the time, it's a nostalgic party—unless you're playing a school date, or something like that.
But I feel that there's a bright future because, as I said the last time I was around, the wedding between jazz and pop is here; it's been here for some time, And I think that this is the best way in for anyone: whenever you can, to play things that will appeal to the young, and play them so musically good that they can't turn you down.
You exist as a band, then, by combining your established connections with striking out and trying new venues?
Yes; as a matter of fact, we've played more different places, particularly in the last two years, since we've been doing material appealing to the young. We've opened a lot of doors for ourselves. Otherwise we would have run out of private parties and things; you can only repeat those so often. And they become a drudge, anyway. When I say private parties, I'm using the term loosely; it could be an Elks club, a banquet for General Motors. At half of these things, you play a fanfare at some given point, then a medley that lasts two minutes, then play a little dance music, and that's the end of that. You're just hired because you are a so-called name band, and you can play for dancing if necessary. It might as well be Count Basic, us or anyone.
You prefer to do a job where you can project the identity of the band?
That's right—exactly. But I do believe that more and more things will be happening in the next few years. I don't see anything terrible in the future that would be more destructive that what's already gone on. In other words, I can see nothing but an upward course. With the calibre of young musicianship and the writing, it's got to improve.
Perhaps, after going through a hectic period of experimentation players eventually find a certain practical level.
I think you'll find that a great amount of the young jazz players—and even some that are not so young—are really very turned on now by a lot of the pop things, and really want to get into it. Well, this is very healthy, because they'll add something to it, taking it out of one class, and putting it into another class. And that's mainly why I'm involved as much as I am with it—because the young men around me dig it, If they do, I can. I can't do it by myself, that's a cinch. We've got all sorts of things happening now. I'm very proud of their quality of writing—and the way they play.
As for the `freedom' ideas, that's never been any big problem with me—and I've had some of the furthest-out players in life. I feel that if any guy has really got something on the ball, if he has that kind of ability and talent, I don't care how far-out he is—there'll be a place for me to utilise his abilities, and he'll have a pretty good showcase. But he's not gonna get to stand out there for a week and a half while he's thinking up what he might want to do.
That's all it amounts to. We have a certain amount of discipline, but it's discipline that's made up mostly by the people themselves.
Also they're happy because of your attitude towards them as a bandleader.
Well, they wouldn't be around unless they really believed that this was a pretty good idea; financially and in a lot of other ways, it's much too difficult to accept without that belief. So that's the basis of my opinion.
We all like the same things. They don't have to convince me; nor I them. Once that barrier's down about the second day they're here when they've seen what we're playing and know what the other guys think, everything's straight ahead.
Naturally, there isn't a young musician in the world—and never was, since my beginnings—that didn't feel that there was something better to be doing than what he's doing right at the moment. That's healthy; you use this as a part of your background and training.
You always come up with a fine band, anyway, and 1'm sure we'll be hearing from you for, many years to come.
If I have the strength and my health is all right, I'll be around. You know, it's as simple as that. I feel pretty well most of the time.
Keeping on playing must be a great asset to you. You're participating in the music, and not just standing up there waving your arms about.
Yeah—I sometimes wonder why I do, but I'm still blowing. How much I play depends on the writing; I do more on some things than others. But I only think of my playing as part of the architecture. In other words, if they need 32 bars or 8 bars or whatever, if it will help that section, I'll play. I never have that great urge to say: "This is me." If I did, I would just start to blow and stand there until I got it out of my system; but this doesn't happen too often.
Copyright © 1968, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.