Swing right out of the building
The latest line-up
Maintaining the standard
Swing right out of the building
Putting on a show for Woody
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1977
Well, Woody, it's really great to have you back in Britain.
Thank you. Here we go again, and it's a pleasure to be back, as always.
I suppose by now you've lost count of how many times it is—I know I have.
Yeah, I really have—I'11 have to check that out one of these days. I guess the easiest way would be with the Harold Davison people, because they've booked us every time we've been in England.
Have there been rather fewer personnel changes than there have been between some previous visits?
Well, probably not as many—but there's still a lot of new people in the group. But I can truthfully say, and very happily, that I think we've got. . . for instance, one of the best rhythm sections I've had in years. And with a: big band, you know how important a rhythm section is; if it is right, you can swing right out of the building, and if it's not right, it's very difficult to even begin to get off the ground, So we're very comfortable, and very happy.
Yes, I was quite impressed with Pat Coil's work on the Anniversary album.
Yes—he's a good pianist. He came from North Texas State University, worked around Dallas and so on. And there's a big business there, aside from the school—in the same area, within just a matter of a very few miles. In Dallas, jingles are the business, a lot of commercials are made there; there's a lot of that kind of work. Young musicians who are studying, as well as those who have left school, have a place to earn a living—and then still continue playing the kind of music they really want to play. It’s a good area.
Are you still doing the same limited number of location jobs?
The only ones we do are so sparse and so few between, Maybe a week or two at Disneyland, maybe a festival some place or another—Hawaii or somewhere. But the majority of our dates now—I would say at least forty per cent during the Winter months are spent in high schools and colleges, sometimes working with the music students, where we hold a seminar, have clinic sessions after that, and then do an evening concert as a piece de resistance.
In this area, you and Stan have been pioneers.
Well, Stan really is the early one, but we've entered into it with all force ahead in about the last four years now. And as you say, it’s probably the most gratifying part of our year, as far as the work is concerned. Yes, it's creating a new audience, and it's the biggest and the strongest one, as far as I can tell. So I'm very pleased to be involved in it. For instance, it's a great kick to go to a school, and have two or three high school bands from the area come up and show their wares—playing some of our charts. This, to me, is a big pay-off. As a matter of fact, I have been told that this past year, at several of the high school festivals, college festivals, more of our music was played than from any other particular source—this made me very happy.
That's very understandable, because your kind of music, with the excitement it creates, is ideal for young players. As it has been over the years.
We would hope so, and we constantly try to open new areas and new forces. And it seems to be paying off, at this late stage of my life.
I was certainly very sorry to hear about your personal setback earlier this year.
It was a serious accident, but it I could have been much more serious. I was very fortunate—I think the Lord was looking upon me. I had a head-on collision, and wound up being hospitalised for a few weeks, with a double fracture of my right leg and some facial cuts. I had cuts on my embouchure muscles, and so on—but my embouchure was long gone before the accident! So I don't think it was terribly important. I've gotten over it okay; the leg is coming along very well, and the rest of me seems to be intact.
Well, thank goodness it hasn't impaired your playing.
I guess not—the impaired version of my playing was already there, believe me. That's called old age!
It doesn't sound like it. Although, of course, you celebrated forty years of bandleading last November.
Last November 20th it was; we celebrated my fortieth anniversary, and it was a gala night for us. We did a concert at Carnegie Hall, which now is available in album form on RCA Victor. A great night, because it was a lot of players getting together for a reunion—and an absolute no pressure session. I took what I felt were some very important precautions—such as not allowing any guests to read music. Our guys, the young ,men of the current band, did all the reading and all the part playing; the guests were there as soloists, rhythm players, or whatever their department is, but they were not pressured with reading notes and getting out the bifocals and so on—that's against my principles!
But it must have been quite a moving occasion for you, to see the old linked with the new in that way.
It certainly was, yeah. As far as I am concerned, it was most successful, and I will probably try it again before I blow it. Actually, the person who originally broached it was someone you and I have known for many years—Leonard Feather.
It was his basic idea, and it was with his encouragement that we decided to head into it. Because it's really quite a heavy project to pull at off and make it come out reasonably well—but now I'm very pleased that we did.
You felt that the recording captured the feeling of it?
The spirit—yes, definitely. You know, there were a lot of things that could have been improved upon, had it not been a live recording, with one take and that's it. All in all, I'm happy with it. The spirit is there, the feeling is there—and, after all, those are the two most important factors.
Did you think that someone like, say, Stan Getz rose to the occasion and pulled out something extra?
Oh, definitely. He played new music, for one thing, which he likes to do—and so we did it. But I don't feel anyone was under extreme pressure of any kind. It was a beautiful night—one I will long remember.
You specified, though, did you, that you wanted to have a proportion of your current output on the album, and not just the older things? I did, because otherwise I would be defeating my purpose—which is not to become overly nostalgic. No matter how well you do it, it's still stuff that you've heard before; we would hope that the people would still be listening, and wanting to hear new music, played by the guys who are carrying on the tradition of what we started trying to do forty years ago. So this was the whole intent and idea; I think it shows its worthiness.
Away from the nostalgia motivation, is there not a growing awareness at the present time of the big band era as the source of a lot of good music?
That is true. The greatest response coming from the young—the music students particularly—and this, I think, is the best thing we have going for big bands. The fact is, in the United States, in high schools alone, there are thirty-five to fortify thousand bands—maybe even more at this point. What they call a stage band is nothing more than a big band—anywhere from fourteen or fifteen to twenty or twenty-five, depending on the amount of players that are available. And they're playing the music of Ellington, Basie, Kenton, certainly, and some of ours. Thad and Mel; some of Buddy's things.
They're into the more musical bands, and I couldn't be prouder and happier.
Of that era, when yours was one of very many bands touring the States, the impression remains that it was a magic kind of time.
Would you say it was?
Oh, I think the pop music of the world was quite good for the time.
There were a lot of good songwriters that were active, and given a chance to have their music recorded. It's not as easy today; you'll notice that most artists in the pop field of this generation write and record their own songs—this may or may not be a good thing. That `golden era', as it’s sometimes called, had a lot of strong points in its favour, and certainly a lot of points that were not in its favour. There were a lot of times where there was a great deal of fodder recorded and played, because there was a market for it—just as there is today. And there were more bad bands than there were good bands—I think that should always be remembered.
Yes—over here, of course, we tended to hear only the best of them, because those were the ones that usually got on to disc.
And we had a great proportion of good bands, great bands—but also that heavy proportion of unfortunate ones.
Some of 'em were hugely successful, but that didn't mean they were doing anything, musically. In spite of music, they were a hit; they just managed to find a way to entertain people. They were entertainers. We could list hundreds of 'em, that were very good, for what they did—but it wasn't necessarily music.
As you well know, music and entertainment can go hand in hand. Now, there's this film at the moment—New York, New York. Have you seen it?
I haven't seen the entire film; I saw some clips from it when we were doing a guest shot with members of the cast, including the two stars, Minnelli and De Niro. I had talked to Georgie Auld earlier in the year, when he was in the throes of working on the picture, and so on. And then, of course, I saw Ralph Burns last November, before the picture was released, and he told me about the music he wrote, He said: "A lot of it'll sound like your band—but don't worry about it! " Anyway, one of these days I hope to see the picture in its entirety.
From what you've seen, do you get the feeling that it has the authentic atmosphere of that time?
Those few clips I saw look like the way it was, exactly. It's done very honestly, from what I could gather the musicianly part of it.
By the way, we have a public television show which I would sure love to have shown in this country. Because I think it was one of the best things done on a band in years—not because I was involved in it, but because a young crew of people out in Iowa who are in public television did it. It's one of the more honest. straightahead documentaries on anything about the band business. The crew followed us around the country, and we had reunions everywhere; it was like an anniversary special—an hour-and-a-half show. 'They moved right into the bus and did at all; but honestly—it's not showbiz at all. I hope eventually that BBC or someone will consider it for showing.
Well, this is a whole big void—the coverage of good music on television. Certain areas are overcovered; in the case of jazz—when something happens, it's an event.
And, of course, there are limitations with all television, as regards quality of sound and so on. But nevertheless, I think we should all keep plugging, and trying to get enough exposure for the thing that we believe in—music.
To speak of the saxophone it is being said that this new film is contributing to a revival of young players' interest in the instrument.
I suppose that this could have some effect on the completely uninitiated—whose young eyes have only seen guitars.
It would be fine.
But has the saxophone undergone any period of neglect?
Oh—we've had more hot jazz tenor players in the last thirty years than we've had people! So I don't think there's ever been any worry about the loss of the saxophone's popularity, you know, There are more tenor players every year.
,And now, in recent years, soprano has become an least the American boy's jazz instrument—the new sound—and so they've gained a great deal in popularity. The saxophone really has never gone out of favour. The clarinet has, but not the saxophone. We don't have any new, astounding clarinettists, to the best of my knowledge; we have same very good guys, but there aren't any Charlie Parkers of the clarinet around—someone who's leading a whole new wave of inspiration.
Any thoughts about why that is? Is the clarinet such a difficult instrument to be inventive on?
Well, it's not one of the easier ones. But I don't think that it's been considered a glamorous instrument, as same of the others have. We have many millions of trumpet players today, a lot of good brass players, woodwind players. We have some fine legitimate clarinet players, but not those that are really interested in doing their own thing.
When you try to think of a contemporary clarinet soloist, Buddy De Franco comes to mind—and then you can't go from there.
Right, it's very difficult—it really is. It's not the sort of instrument you can just fend for yourself and decide to blow.
Your own style has been consistent; 1 suppose it can be termed a Swing style of clarinet.
I guess so. The truth of the matter is: about the only thing I really enjoy playing on a clarinet is a blues. Because it's basic, you know, and if you have a limited technique, as I have always had, that's the best thing you can do—stick to what you can play. I've never been too inventive in that direction, you know. But I think that a clarinet has a very beautiful instrumental sound, that can be utilised in jazz, and I hope it will continue to be by some young people.
In latter years, you seem to have tended to spend more time overall on the alto and soprano than on the clarinet.
That's the truth. In what I'm trying to play—whatever little it is—I'm guided completely by the music we're into, the new charts, the ideas of the young men and of my contemporaries. Yes, it's the music we're doing that will guide what the hell I play.
Have you got any particular new charts in the book right now, that you'd like to talk about?
Yeah—the newest thing in the book, and we're still in the throes of cleaning it up, because it's not that easy—however, we played it at our opening night at Ronnie's—is a three-part suite written for the band by Chick Corea. It's a very exciting and different kind of piece—and different for Chick, too, I think. We're all excited in playing at, and attempting to get it to a point where we really have it under our fingers; it'll take some more doing, and when we get it completely together we plan to record it, naturally. It is yet untitled, and the only way he could describe what he was into: he said: "The first movement is sort of like Stravinsky meeting Sousa!" I think this gives you an idea of the sound, to some degree. Then we get into a funk period in the centrepiece, and it goes into a more Latin feeling for the last movement. But it's just a very complete kind of suite, and I'm very proud to be part of the doing of it. That's my newest project this year.
You could perhaps call it "The Corea War"! But that seems to be a logical thing, because you've been playing same of Chick's compositions, arranged by other people; this time he's actually done it himself.
It was at his suggestion, and nothing nicer could have happened to me and the band.
Do you sometimes have somebody like Chick Corea sit in with the band on various dates?
Yeah, we did the suite with him in rehearsal, and also when we introduced it—actually at a dance date in Boston, because that's where we were rehearsing, at Berklee. It was a party and a beauty contest run by the Sons Of Italy—who were certainly not prepared to hear a suite of brand new music, which is not exactly "My Wild Irish Rose" or "The Italian Love Song" or something! So it was kind of a Mexican standoff from that standpoint, but we got in a very good rehearsal, and Chick played the piano for that occasion. And I hope some time we'll be able to do it again in concert with Chick—that would be great, We have thoughts and plans of that kind, but nothing definite at this moment.
Who are the major soloists with the present band?
Almost everybody! No, I shouldn't say that; that's not true. Actually, I think we have four outstanding saxophonists—everyone plays a solo, and plays extremely well. And one of the new voices in our band is a baritone saxophonist from New Zealand, whom I'm very proud of—I think he's one of the best players I've ever had in any of my bands. His name is Bruce Johnstone; he's a self-taught player, and he has some kind of native great ability. I'll be interested in your reaction to him. I lost Jimmy Pugh some months ago, a marvellous lead trombone player and great soloist, and now I have Burch Johnson, another graduate of Eastman School, who is just beginning to scratch the surface of his ability—he's going to be something else; he really is, already In the trumpets I've got a wonderful jazz player who was with me here on the last tour—Dennis Dotson, who plays beautiful flugelhorn and trumpet. And I have a new lead trumpet player who is one of the finest musicians I've ever had in any band—I say that with no reservation—Alan Vizzutti. He's also a graduate of Eastman; in his last two years in college he also played with the Rochester Symphony in New York state. Alan is a very rounded, qualified brass player and all-round musician, a good writer and arranger—a very young man with great ability. Now, with a rhythm section that won't quit, I think we're in very good shape.
Copyright © 1977, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.