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
The key word being bandied about these days seems to be fusion—such as in reference to some of Chick Corea's work, and as typified by the CTI multimedia productions. What are your thoughts about it?
Well, the term really doesn't mean too much to me at all. And I'm still not sold to any degree at all on the multidubbing, the mixing and so on. I still feel to get the best result with my kind of music, and with a band that plays all together, is: we're all in the studio at the same time, and that s it, baby. I don t like extremes in either direction, evidently; I'm not sold very much on the new fad that's come up in the States—and I'm sure it'll be here any second, if it isn't already—and that’s the direct-to-disc kind of recording. Which is supposed to be the ultimate in sound and so forth.
Anything that could limit the performance, to me, is not important; the performance comes first, and it's the most important factor.
Well, the performance should be in the hands of the performers. Exactly—and not in the hands of producers. That's the first thing that's out, in my department. I can truthfully say that all the mistakes I've made have been my own, that I can answer for—and I plan to continue it that way.
In a sense, though, you have always been involved in certain musical fusions yourself, over the years, haven't you?
I suppose so, but they've been different kinds, and I've usually been part of a fusion with something that I respect very, very much. Having Stravinsky write a piece for us way back in 1946 was a different kind of fusion. And the fact that we've done some experimental things—it's a kind of a fusion whenever we do it. But that's not my whole intent, in any sense; in other words, I think the performance itself is what matters. What the players are able to accomplish at that session—not whoever's spinning the dials or calling the shots. Even I am there merely as a coach; I've always considered the essence of a good band to be the same as that of a good team. Whatever the sport may be, a coach is a necessary evil, but he doesn't necessarily offer any great mentoring. So it’s putting our heads together and coming up with the best we can, utilising everyone's abilities and efforts.
The one thing that you clearly believe in is the spirit of youth. People pass comment about you bringing over young bands nowadays, but the fact is that your earlier bands—the First, Second or whatever Herd it was—were also made up of young musicians.
They were basically, for practical reasons, of the same age grouping. I haven't changed; I've been consistent. In other words, I don't feel that the coach is important enough to worry whether he's young or old. He's there as a sort of guiding something-or-other; you can't really put your finger on it. I hope I never get in the way of a good play—that's about it.
1'm sure it would be very difficult to make a tally of just how many musicians have been through your hands. Do you find them any easier to handle in the present era?
Off the top of my head, the first answer I'd have to give you is: much easier, in this respect—they're all in their right minds; they don't need crutches, as so many of my contemporaries and friends did a hundred years ago. It isn't necessarily fashionable at all to be an alcoholic, or a heavy user of narcotics or drugs of any kind. And you'll find more and more that the highest calibre of player is the cleanest cat on the block. For this, I'm extremely pleased and happy; I'm as proud as punch of the way the young people are today.
So you think there's more chance of today's musicians living longer?
Oh, definitely. They will accomplish what they've set out to do; they won't go off into left field nearly as easy. All in all, the general future for music, and particularly in music, is brighter now than it's probably ever been. And unless some unforeseen thing happens, I can't see anything but progress and great ultimate results happening. I'm glad that I could be around to hang in here, and be part of it.
Well, you can be termed one of the survivors. Sadly, there's only a handful of the original giant bandleaders left now.
Yes. I'm certainly most grateful to God for giving me a chance to be part of this scene, and to be still here when so many of my contemporaries are not here. I know I'm an extremely fortunate man. That's the summation of the way I feel today—I feel good.
That's communicated, whenever you go on stage with the band—the fact that you enjoy yourself. After so many years of so much music, you could be excused for being a little jaundiced about it.
If I were, then I would hope that I wouldn't show up. Because why would I want to go through all the throes of the whole kind of life we have, all the difficulties of travel and everything, if I wasn't really having a marvellous time.
You'd say it's as much a labour of love as it was forty years ago?
Oh, it has to be. It might be more so, because now I treasure it, and I'm much more aware of what good it is doing for me. We all are exposed to our own self-desires and so on; I'm gassed with the idea that I can still go out and make the band sound reasonably good. We have a lot of true enjoyment. And when an audience becomes part of it, it's pretty overwhelming—it really is.
Are there any special areas you'd like to see the band get into?
I have no grandiose plans for the I future, other than the fact that we will continue to try to come up with things—some fresh and new things, I hope. And we'll revive some things that still have something left in them, that should be revived; that doesn't necessarily mean nostalgia it just means something that maybe had its surface scratched at some point, and it should be delved into a little more deeply. As I say, if we come up with thoughts and ideas, and can keep progressing, then I feel that I'm doing my work well and so is the band.
Of course, at times it's been subsidised by your doing tours with singers, hasn’t it?
Well, yes—this is sometimes necessary from a financial situation, and if the singers are good performers and professional people, I certainly am not uninterested in working with them. To do a tour with Sinatra, even at this late date, is still an important factor, and an enjoyable one. Likewise Sarah, whom we work with quite often, and Ella. Or Tony Bennett, who is a pop singer but a good one—a guy that has good taste, and likes good music. All these things are good packaging.
It was certainly thrilling, on that Madison Square Garden album with Sinatra, to hear your band shouting there behind him.
Yeah—I think it had more energy than would happen with studio players; I really do. I think it's a different world.
Sure, they got it off the ground. Anything like that is a great thrill.
Are there certain nights when the band excels itself to an extent that even surprises you?
Oh, of course; we sometimes fall into things, and you're not going to be having a thousand per cent every night. But by the same token, I think we generally have been a very consistent band. We come to play; we don't come to rest, or to see how we feel, or any of that. Everybody's ready. Whether I've been part of instilling this in the guys or not, I don't know, and I'm not really concerned; all I know is my bands have usually been that kind: let's get it on the road, whatever it is.
To some degree, your bands are handpicked to this end, though, aren't they?
I suppose. But I think you either get the message after you're there for about twenty minutes or you don't. And if you don't, the best thing to do is: look for a different gig—let's face it. Because there are no rules made no big speeches from anyone. You like to play? We got a group you know. This is it.
The thing which some people tend to say is that there aren't the great solo voices today that there were in earlier periods. Would you dispute that?
Yes, I would dispute it very often. You see, it's too early to make these kind of statements, concerning the players that I have been bringing along in recent years. A lot of them that I did bring along are now the big voices of this period—like Getz, Zoot and so many guys. People with that kind of critique don't distract me one iota. If they're listening carefully and are paying attention, they'll find that certain people have certain abilities—and God knows where they're gonna wind up. They may be winding up to be one of the great voices of all time, but you can't tell in the first formative years—that's for me to find out.
Well, with all material that is available now, all the music there is to listen to, one could expect the potential to be much greater.
Absolutely. That alone—you can be exposed to all the sounds these days, instead of just a few. And some people have a native way of latching on to. . call it an influence. Some will be influenced more by certain players—of the past, and of the next generation—from that, a lot of it rubs off. For instance, out of this current group of mine, I think there are three people—at least three—who will go on to become terribly important soloists. The same applies to some of my recent graduates; such as a person like Jimmy Pugh. He was out with Corea on his last tour, and he's now working the commercial scene around New York City; more and more he will become a significant factor, because he has great talent—and he's only beginning to find his own identity. It's much too early; you know, we didn't say this about so many of the great voices when they were comparable in age—we became aware of their greatness many years later. They have to go through the whole mill. So I would ask those people who are making quick decisions about there being no great young players, or great soloists, to either have patience or not make big comments—because I don't think they're capable of it, unfortunately.
And then think of all the great players around this world today, that a lot of people haven't even heard yet. There's always more happening, and more coming through. So—patience is the watchword.
The only shame is that there isn't always the scope for the good players. However much they want to, for instance, they can't necessarily play with a big band.
Or they can't necessarily get record dates, to show their wares, and have the exposure they deserve. Because we now have producers and A& R people who control the recording medium; if they like a particular player, they will record him, and maybe ignore five others that are probably even better. They see some commercial possibility in this player and that's why certain people are born. Naturally, I would prefer to see the music back in the hands of the creators.
Well, a certain amount of commercialism is unavoidable—but there should be limits to it.
It was there even a hundred years I ago—so I guess we have to accept some of it. But you still have to make some decisions. Well, you can have a cheap philosophy, as I've had all these years. Money's only important when you don't have and—then it becomes terribly important!
Copyright © 1977, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.