Jazz Professional               


Maintaining the standard


New Blood
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Back again
Maintaining the standard
Swing right out of the building
Putting on a show for Woody
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976

It was very nice to be back in Britain; we always look forward to visiting, and I'm very proud of this particular grouping of young men. Of course, they're not all brand new; some of 'em were with me the last time I was around—Jim Pugh, the lead trombone player, Frank Tiberi, and a few others. Bill Byrne, who's been with me eleven years. Certainly, we do have a lot of new faces.

Maintaining and improving the standard, that's pretty much the purpose and the idea of it. As a matter of fact, if someone asks me which of the Herds I thought was the best, and so on—in the first place, I don't like to make comparisons, because I think each band had something to say and to offer, but what keeps me going is the fact that I honestly believe that the band I have next year will be the best band. So, if you have an endless goal, you'll keep trying.

We certainly have a lot of great, talented young people in the States, and we can thank our lucky stars for the musical education system that's so tremendous there.

Our present rhythm section? Well, I had heard about these three young men for the past two years; people like Nat Pierce and many educators around the country filled me in on them. Finally, we got together; we appeared at a jazz festival in Wichita, Kansas, where they were also playing. During the .Summer they went out and did festivals and things.

So we made arrangements for them to join us, this past July, and they've been with us ever since. I'm very proud of them.

The pianist is Lyle Mays, the bass player is Kirby Stewart and the drummer is Steve Houghton. Strangely enough, Steve Houghton and Lyle Mays are both from my home state of Wisconsin, and I very rarely have had many players from that area of the United States.

Yes, a strong rhythm section is an absolute essential. Of course, we all go through difficult spells, but also I've had some tremendous rhythm sections in the past, at different periods—down through the last forty years, you know. That is actually the first time I've ever hired a complete rhythm section, in my entire musical life. Fortunately for us, it worked out.

You never know for sure that anything will work out. You can have some great players, that for some reason or other don't acclimate themselves to the band, or vice versa. So you really don't know until you actually get into it. That's why we don't audition people—we go straight on in, hire them, and then hope that it'll work out. After they've been here for a while, then we decide whether it's a good wedding or not.

Of course, the idea of big bands making a comeback is a little amusing to me. No, we've never been away. We've gone straight through all the bad years as well as the good ones. But I'm glad to see that there's evidently some renewed interest. When a Glenn Miller chart of thirty years ago can make the top twenty, I guess it's a sign of something or other.

Also, I understand that the oldest tune that I know is now on the discotheque charts—and that's "Woodchoppers' Ball"—so, you see, this thing is pretty far out! All because Syd Lawrence played it! But it's our record, the original one from back in '39 that's getting some reaction—the Decca recording, which is now on MCA. Yeah, it's interesting—for once I would like to be involved in something I had nothing to do with! This is kinda pleasant.

We also have three double-packaged albums coming out—I think, by Fall—on RCA Victor, that are clean and beautiful tapes of the '45 and '46 band, of things that were never released on record. These are the "Wild Root" broadcasts, live concerts, and so on. I'm very pleased they're coming out. I think this is good for the people that were involved; it's certainly good for me. Particularly in view of the fact that we keep producing new things every week and every month and every year. We'll be cutting an album as soon as we get back to the States.

Yes, indeed—what's important is making it with new music, and this is what I'm doing. But I think that any time you exclude your roots, and where you came from, and don't take care of that part of the audience that wants to be carried away into the Never-Never Land, then you're not being a good performer, or whatever you want to call it. In other words, I still am, I feel, a professional who is here to entertain, as well as play the music I love. I do try to be aware of what the people are wanting, because I'm concerned with that, and I always have been. It's important to me that most of the people, when they leave, have had a pretty good evening. Well, we don't have any set programme, ever; it may turn out that there's certain key tunes done, but they may not be in the same order, and so on. The pacing is usually the case in point.

It was just recently, just before we came over, that we severed the connection with Fantasy. We'll be doing two albums for Groove Merchant, and then I have no further plans beyond that. We'll see how that label takes care of us, you know. Unfortunately, here in Britain you don't have the last two Fantasy albums at all, I guess, other than imported copies.

I feel that the six albums, or whatever we've done for them in the last three years, stand up reasonably well for what we're shooting for. After all, we won two Grammies in a row, and that’s not the easiest thing to do, in this day and age; the awards were for "Giant Steps" and "Thundering Herd", both good albums. They're out here, but the Montreux or "Children Of Lima" albums aren't yet.

Since then, we have a brand new one that came out, called "King Cobra"—the title tune of the album was written by Tom Scott. There used to be a sports car built by an American, which was called the Cobra—so I liked the sound of it.

Oh, you have the "Children Of Lima" album? No, the idea of combining a big band with a symphony orchestra hasn't been put into practise very often. It's a very expensive kind of thing to do, aside from all the trickiness of doing it, and trying to find a reasonable wedding, a way where neither side of the fence will be shunned or brushed. I think it came off pretty well, and that Alan Broadbent's music is very worthwhile. We actually had the music and the score several years ago; we first did a live performance with the Dallas Symphony about four years back. Then we decided that eventually we would record it, but that took some doing, to get the proper financing, and so forth.

As for the "Ebony Concerto" all those years ago, that was pure Stravinsky and was written just for our band. This time we tried something which has always been in the back of my mind. There's been literature written for the past forty or fifty years for jazz groups and orchestra, but most of 'em are pretty infamous in sound, you know. It turns out to be ragtime; it isn't really jazz. So I think it was time that somebody did it. The strange thing is, we were encouraged by Russello, who was then conducting the Dallas orchestra, to complete the piece. In other words, "The Children Of Lima" and "Variations On A Scene" were written just for our band; he heard it, was terribly impressed, and asked Alan to score it for orchestra and our band.

Alan was with the band for about four years, and he still continues to write for us on occasions; he's been one of the very important writers in the band. Right now, the most productive guy in the band is Gary Anderson; practically all of the "King Cobra" album is his charts—he's been really coming up with some great things. Then, of course, we still receive arrangements from Tony Klatka, Bill Stapleton and other people who have been writing. All our writing really always comes out of guys who were in the band at one time or another. Even though I know a lot of great arrangers, I feel much more safe with a guy who's been in my band. I feel he knows where we're going, what our direction is.

No, there hasn't been a great deal in the nature of extended works. I would like there to be—when the occasion arises, when we have the correct material. Just to say we'll do an elongated thing in four movements is pretty non-specific.

I think that the score Alan did several years back on "Blues In The Night", which was a kind of a travesty, a very lengthy piece, was very good for what it was, you know. It depends on the writer, and how his thoughts run along those lines.

Then it's a question of whether it's suitable, or whether it's just something that's workshop music. We discard sometimes lots of music, and it really has value, but isn't for subjecting an audience to—unless you are a musician, and are following what we're attempting. You have to use some judgement, I think.

Part of my gig as a bandleader really—and I think it's been reasonably successful at times—is my judgement about editing the music. We may take a thing and cut it down, or we may lengthen it, or we may move one section to another part of the piece, whatever it is. I feel that I'm fairly good at that sort of thing. I really haven't had any resentment from writers about it, down through the years. I guess it started because Ralph Burns was so easy to work with, and really wanted to be encouraged as to which direction to take. We never really went into the actual discussing of what he would or wouldn't write, but he would say : "Change anything you want, because I know that it'll come out fine." He had confidence in me, and it was from that time on that I took over in that department. Oh, I'm sure some writers have been somewhat upset by it on occasion, but I can't help that. I'm here to get a gig done.

For many years, I've been making what may be a gross kind of comparison—but I still think that a big band is something like an athletic team. Your sections can be comparable to a backfield or a forward line in football, and so on.

So I really think that I'm the coach in this venture. We're supposed to win, musically and every other way. We try, and, as I say, I think maybe the band next year'll be better. I hope so. That's my philosophy for still being around.

What's really opened up the big band scene in our country is the interest of the young people. And that interest has been helped tremendously by the great music programmes we have happening. We have in the neighbourhood of thirty-five thousand stage bands in high schools alone—and the stage band is nothing more than a big band, playing our music, Kenton, Basie and many others. The only other kinds of bands in educational places are marching bands; so this is aptly called the stage band—because they don't play for dancing! There's such an audience out there, of young people; the only people who don't seem to be aware of it are the media—the recording industry, radio and television.

Unfortunately, it's a fact that they won't all get work as musicians. But what I feel is: the amount of enthusiasm that I see, and the end result, which is fabulous—in many cases, with some of these kids' bands, where the oldest member is sixteen, the quality of their musicianship is better than some of the pro's of thirty years ago, as far as the actual performance is concerned—this is very heartening to me. With all these kids, plus their friends, who are the listeners, who aren't going to be players, such a huge audience will be made up, that they're going to force the emergence of new bands and new sounds. Like Kenton or anyone else, probably, if they are seriously interested in music, and going to school, I tell 'em that it's always wise to get your music degree—about half of our guys have them, from one great music department or another. Because you always have the facility then of going and getting a good teaching job. It's insurance.

The thing is, `Vegas has more musicians each year and less jobs; it's the same everywhere. It's usually that way—and now there are more and more good musicians. Well, you can always take a ninetofive day job. Actually, the majority of all musicians do something else to earn a living, and play music because they love it. This has always prevailed, really.

Regarding my playing a lot of soprano now—I like the instrument, to begin with, and it's refreshing after scuffling with those other two horns for a hundred years! I'm still trying to invent things with the soprano. But it depends on the chart, and what we're doing. If it suits a given arrangement, I'd like to play it; if I felt the alto or the clarinet was better—to express my little part of it, anyway—that's what I'd play. It's whatever fits the scene.

The singing? I never was terribly serious about it, but, by the same token, if I run into the right material . . . I don't like to dig up things I generally have done a lot in the past. Like everyone else, I would like to find things. But I'm not really too happy with my sound. That's usually what turns me off; I hear a playback, and I feel it's not really what I'm hoping for or seeking. Then, of course, if I worked at it, it would probably make some difference—because I really never worked at it in my entire life. It was just something to get us off the hook—if we weren't selling enough records, I'd do a couple of vocals, and we would immediately sell more. That album I made with Erroll Garner was a fun thing, that we both enjoyed immensely—it was kind of a drinking-after-hours-saloon type of album. If I hear something I really dig, I'll sing it, tomorrow, but I can't just go out and hustle; I get side-tracked, and find something I'd rather play or do.

Yes, the band works all the time. Our date book has never been anything but full, really. We still do forty-six to fortnight weeks a year—you can hardly work any more than that, and still keep your health at all. It's a tough schedule, because most of those weeks are one-nighters We cover a lot of territory. It's really not a lack of work; but many times you have to play things that are somewhat distasteful. There's certain gigs that you don't need, that you shouldn't have to play—but you still do 'em, in order to keep a big band together. If I had my way, I would pick and choose, and be very careful about what we played, where we played, and how. A lot of times, though, we can't be; we have to accept, because we need the bread to operate. There's been no shortage of work happening since the early 'fifties, really, when it was tough to stick it out.

The last three or four years, I would say, have been building and building. By that I mean our grosses are better. Of course, you blow it the same way as you always did, because now transportation costs twice as much. Many times, in order to keep the schedules we do, we have to use jets, plus a bus, and pretty soon, no matter how much you gross, when you get down to the net result, you still are doing what you did twenty years ago. Well, the cost of living problem is with everybody; it's not only our business.

So that's the biggest hassle—but we scuttle around and make it. Fortunately, I have a personal manager and an accountant who really work at it, you know, and it's a fulltime job. I couldn't be doing it—no way in the world—I'm just out here doing the gig. You do have to depend on people; when you don't, then you become ill. I manage to hang in there, and I think I'll stick to my system!

Copyright © 1976, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.