The latest line-up
Maintaining the standard
Swing right out of the building
Putting on a show for Woody
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1974
Once again, Woody — welcome back.
Thank you, Les. It’s lovely to be back.
It’s been a little longer break this time. Three years, isn’t it?
Just about three years, yeah. But it’s like coming back home, at this point, you know. It’s been over a long span of years now—about twenty, since my first visit.
This is almost a completely different personnel from last time isn’t it?
Mm, some of the boys were with me three years ago—maybe about six of ‘em, I guess.
But I suppose you’re really used to this kind of turn–over in musicians?
Well, the truth of the matter is: you never really become used to it. It’s a drag that it has to be, but ir does, because we keep a very tight and heavy schedule, and most young players get tired, or they decide that they just want to try something else for a while. Very often, as you know, Les, a lot of these guys keep coming back; so we have a kind of a ‘round robin’ system. But it’s always upsetting, when you know a couple of people are leaving. It’s difficult, at beast. Fortunately, in our case—at least, in recent years—we’ve had such a wonderful group of young men as replacements at different times that it’s made life a little easier for me, and for everyone concerned.
You just keep on finding them, and producing a band up to your standard?
Yes—well, there is a certain element of young people that want to be involved in our band, and it’s a joy to me to know that.
I’ve been listening to all your recent recordings— “Light My Fire”, “The Raven Speaks”, “Heavy Exposure”. Also, the other day I picked up one that isn’t issued here, called “Brand New”, on which Mike Bloomfield played.
Oh yeah. And, of course, the most recent one is a thing called “Giant Steps”. It would have been out here in January, except for this energy crisis, and so on; I understand it’s now pushed ahead till February or March. It’ll be distributed by EMI.
There’ve been some import copies in the shops; so at least some people, including myself, have been able to hear it.
Right—there’ve been some around. And we just finished another album; as soon as we get back we’ll be starting the mixing, balancing and so forth. We have an over–abundance of material that we’ve recorded—so we’ll have to decide what to use and what not to use, at this point. But I think it’s quite good.
The thing which you’ve pursued through these recent albums is of concentrating on music by good young writers like Alan Broadbent. Plus arrangements of present–day songs.
Some of them, yes. More and more, the jazz field in the States has made big inroads in the last couple of years. In other words, the sale of jazz records is fantastic compared to what it was a few years ago. It’s become probably as big or bigger than it ever was in our country. Consequently, we, like everyone else, are in a healthy position as far as recording. We’re doing three albums this year for Fantasy—which is more than most big bands have been doing in recent years, I think. .
But I think you can take some credit for having been able to find a formula to bring a big band to today’s audience.
Well, I’ve worked at it, and I’ve constantly been working at that sort of thing, because, in the first place, I’m interested in everything that’s fresh and new, as long as it has value. And I find that there’s been a lot of value in a lot of good music written in the last few years. If you apply the big band treatment to these things, I think it can be very helpful to the young listener, because he is hearing something he is associated with. Also, it shouldn’t offend anyone who is mature in their musical thinking—because once again I have to keep borrowing that old phrase: “There’s only two kinds of music—good and bad.” And you can’t categorise it, or say this is this, you know. If we’d never heard of the word bebop, jazz would have been better off without the name—right?
Yes—labels can be hard things to live with.
They’re very difficult. So I think—I’m positive, as a matter of fact—that jazz is in a very healthy state at this point, and the big bands involved in jazz are also in a healthy state.
I would say the efforts of yourself, certainly, and of Buddy Rich with his music have made people think much more in terms of the big band sound now.
I think that we’ve been able to reach undoubtedly a goodly amount of young people. And, after all, if you don’t have the young people listening, you’re really not doing much except satisfying your old fans—and that audience, unfortunately, gets smaller each year. You know, there’s the calendar and the clock going against us at all times!
There’s a lot of variety in your library, though. It was interesting, for instance, to hear the Broadbent arrangement of “Come Saturday Morning”, with its clear allusions to Ravel’s “Daphnis And Chloe”. This, I suppose, mirrors one of your ideas, going back to the time of “Ebony Concerto”.
Well, up to a certain degree, I think it mirrors the fact that we have been trying to present things that would catch the fancy of a broadening audience. Fortunately, I’ve had the good fortune of having arrangers and writers like Alan Broadbent, Tonv Klatka and Bill Stapleton.
These young men are just a great source of happiness to me, because they’re constantly thinking and working and trying and doing things. So it reflects in our band, naturally. Because the players, no matter how wonderful they are, are still dependent on the writers, to a great extent.
As you say, you’ve always kept an open mind about music. So you really don’t find any trouble identifying with the more outrageous things that some of these writers come up with?
No, I very rarely do. Except, of course, in the final analysis—in this band, at least—I have the final statement, because someone has to be responsible. I’m the coach— they’re a great team, and great players. But I do have to take the responsibility. .
I know you’re very much on the go, but do you get a chance to listen to music in general?
Yeah—I listen probably even more now than I used to. I’m able to, because every young man in the band, and even those who are not in the band, where they used to walk around with a transistor radio and a portable record player, now walk around with a tape machine and cassettes. Anything that’s fresh and new, they have, and that’s what I hear. So, even though I don’t carry equipment, the music is available to me every day of my life, if I want it; the guys carry miles and miles of tape.
But when you sit down at home, when you’ve got a break between tours. . . .
I don’t do much at home about music. When I go home, I really want to get into being home. And music, unfortunately for me, is not a relaxation period of the day. If I listen to music, I’m actually working—trying to figure out what I’m listening to. Consequently. I don’t use that. Oh, I might have some mood music on; it might be anything that has nothing to do with my real desires musically.
As a matter of fact, I don’t have a collection of our music at home. I have some old air–checks, and a few odds and ends. Every time we record anything, I get a rough tape before it’s edited, or before it’s even mixed, so that I know what we did. But even then, I’m working—it’s not relaxation. Really, I don’t listen to a great deal of music during the sparse amount of time that I spend at home, other than, as I say, what happens to be on an FM radio station. Of if I have heard something interesting on the road, I may play it for my wife, for her to hear.
What do you do to relax? Do you play golf?
No, I spend a lot of time around the house, because it’s almost like visiting a new place, every time I get there for any length of time. I have my favourite plants; I’ve even been trying to raise vegetables, certain months of the year. And I walk a great deal; I have a dog that used to belong to our grandchildren, that we inherited. He keeps me very active, up and down that mountain in Southern California—and it is a mountain; every time you walk a few hundred yards, you’ve done a chore.
Also, one of my hobbies is driving small cars, and I still do that on the road every day. During the Summer months, my grandson now travels with me. He’s just turned thirteen recently. He sang a few tunes with the band, and he’s got some charts in the book. So I want him to . . . well, I don’t want him to do anything, other than have a ball, you know, at this stage of his life.
We probably read the worst things in the papers, but we get the feeling that the climate of the States is a little tense these hays, that there are a lot of neuroses going on. Are you aware of that kind of thing?
If we have a problem, it’s with the lethargy that the public is in, what with our politics, and so on. Of course, many of our problems are the same as your problems here—like the energy thing. Some of us believe there is a real crisis, and some of us don’t.
We have had a scandalous time in Washington for the last year, and I guess we all hope that eventually we’ll get straightened around, one way or another. But I don’t think that there’s any terrible problem, other than what has been going on. People are still living exactly as they always did; they’re not being affected in any way, really, other than maybe not using quite as much central heating or something.
Are people turning more to music and entertainment, do you think, as a kind of escapism?
I’m not sure that this is happening yet, or if it will this time around. I saw that during a couple of wars, or at least one giant war, and I hope, as everyone else does, that that will never happen again. But I don’t see this sort of thing. I think that music, particularly the live kind, will probably benefit a great deal if our television operation is limited the way yours is, to an earlier schedule. Because the average American still sits in front of that tube most of his life, and there’s so much to choose from; so he becomes jaded about all forms of entertainment, including music. Except he doesn’t realise he’s not really hearing music, because the speakers on a television set are so limited—you know, you can’t really hear the sound that you hope you’re listening to. That, I think, is one of the things that’s hindered the progress of music in television.
I don’t believe you even have the kind of TV series, for which your band is recording a programme at the Dorchester, featuring big bands selling their wares, without any extra trimmings.
No, I think that generally British television has been handled with much better taste, all the way, over a long period of years. You see, we’re so concerned with the competitive angle and the advertising field that there isn’t a great deal of room for artistic triumph.
Your band manager, Bill Byrne, was telling me of a show you did with Aram Avakian, in the late ‘sixties. . . .
Right. We thought it was quite good because it was a documentary thing. It was actually done by the news department of ABC network, and I find that they do a much better job than the supposed entertainment grouping.
So that helped to give an insight into your world. That can’t be bad, but it needs more of that kind of thing, really.
Oh yeah, definitely. Well, my biggest source of enjoyment in the last couple of years is the fact that we’ve gotten into the educational field. In the last year, almost a third of our dates were in high schools and colleges. And, you know, the big band thing in schools has become tremendous in the States. We have in the neighbourhood of thirty–five to forty thousand stage bands in high schools alone. So that’s the basis of what could be a great future for the bands.
I feel that young, new bands playing new music will certainly have their chance in the limelight. It’s bound to happen, particularly once the record industry, television and every other facet realise the potential that exists.
These school bands are also picking up the older charts—things like “Four Brothers”—and getting the feel of those, aren’t they?
Sure, they have some of our music, the music of Ellington, Basie, Kenton, and on and on. Consequently, these kids’ll have the most rounded concept—the ones that are truly serious, anyway. They’re getting their roots, right on the scene.
Well, this is a great improvement from some of the musicians who wanted to just come on and start from a new point, and forget anything else.
That’s right—jazz began in 1959 or something. No, I think the future looks rather bright. I’m very pleased with the attitude of the young kids—and the campus radio stations today are playing mores jazz than ever before. So what seemed, a couple or three years ago, a very deathly scene, with only the acid rock situation, is not that way today. The youngsters are getting to hear a very broad spectrum, that they weren’t able to before. And FM radio’s been able to do this for us—not the truly commercial radio.
But really, your optimism, which is part of your makeup, has carried you through all kinds of crises in the past, hasn’t it?
True—and I think that you’ll find any of us survivors will give you the same reasoning that I’ve done, and that is: you have to think positively.
I must say, it’s wonderful to hear that highly individual clarinet sound of yours soaring over this band. Twenty years ago we heard it against the things going on then; now we hear it against the present backgrounds. . . .
Well, Les, for one thing, I have no fear, you see! Which is very important. No, I feel that there’s a place for me to play my instruments in almost any kind of music. I’ll find my niche. And, as I say, I also feel that any music that comes into the realm of good taste, that is musically correct, is music that I want to be playing.
Whatever band you’ve had over the years, you’ve sounded as if you belong there. Well, of course, you do belong.
Yes—that’s what I really believe.
How marvellous it is that you, Buddy, Stan Kenton, Duke and Basie can still be going strong.
I think it’s because we all have this positive kind of thinking.
Copyright © 1974, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.