For about five years now, I’ve been resident
in California—actually, since before I got off Maynard’s band. I was
with Maynard in the States for four–and–a–half years, just travelling,
living on a bus. Then, finally, I decided to settle in LA; having seen
most of the big towns out there, I came to the decision that that was
where I’d like to be.
Like everyone else, I’m struggling along—playing
a lot of music, though. I’m on the fringes of a lot of work: I do the
occasional movie, the occasional TV show. Record dates are mostly how
I make a living. Then at nights we do a lot of blowing; there’s a lot
of very good rehearsal bands playing. Well, they’re not just rehearsal
bands; I’m talking about bands like Bill Holman’s. We rehearse with
the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin band once weekly; we rehearse with
Supersax on and off. We play jazz for free in a lot of clubs—just to
keep going. It’s a very healthy, very competitive scene.
There are an awful lot of musicians in
Los Angeles; the standard is super—high, but I find it’s made me get
off my backside and practise more. I’ve had to get my doubles together,
to devote time to the flute and the clarinet. It’s necessary, to survive;
with so many good guys around, if you don’t have it all together, you
just get left by the wayside.
I’m really enjoying it. I just bought a
house, in February; the work gets slowly better and better, and I get
more established as each year goes along. It’s been kind of slow, but
I can’t complain at all. And the weather, of course, is a sideline benefit.
I went there because I wanted to be around all those fellows, to play,
whether I made it or not. I just decided I wanted to play, rather than
just make a living playing in dance bands and whatever—not to put that
The thing about Los Angeles, you can be
in with all the good players and still be only on the fringes of things;
I think it’s forty thousand musicians in the Union out there in Local
47 alone. When I first went there, I couldn’t believe it: you show up
at a gig, and you’re sitting next to Bob Cooper, Bill Perkins, Dick
You’ve only ever heard them on records,
you kind of idolise them, and all of a sudden there they are. And you
find out they’re just regular guys like we are, just doing a job but
they’re so good at it, you sit there and they make you get better. It’s
as simple as that. No, I’m not naturalised—I’m what they call a resident
alien! Which means I still have a British passport and everything. I
was born in London, grew up here, and I went to St. Joseph’s College.
You may remember, that was when we had the school band there, which
at that time was quite a revolutionary thing; my dad was involved in
running it. We appeared on that TV show, Five O’clock Club, and the
whole idea was really something quite new.
Nowadays, of course, it’s commonplace—which
is great. I understand it’s becoming more and more in this country like
the scene they have in the States. When I was over there with Maynard’s
band, we did mostly college and high school concerts. Every place we
went to, all over the States, they had great school bands—some of them
were of a phenomenal, professional–type standard. So it’s nice and healthy
that it’s happening here also now; I hope it continues.
Of course, my home environment was a musical
one and I suppose I did grow up kind of fast because of it. Being around
musicians all my life helped me to gain my experience as a player—because
I never really had any formal training, except for what my dad showed
me on the saxophone, in the early stages. Then I used to sit in with
his band. As a matter of fact, I had some theory lessons with Jimmy
Staples for a while; he was helping me figure out what was going on
with the chords. and so on. And from that point on I gained all my experience
through practical playing—as I think most English guys did, especially
when there was no music in the schools.
Before I left, I was doing a lot of work
around here. One time, Ernie Garside, Maynard’s band manager, called
me for a Monday night gig—it was a BBC Jazz Club. I went down and played
the gig, and that night Ernie said: “Oh, by the way—we’re going to America
next week. Would you like to go?” It was for three months. I said: “All
right—that sounds like a good idea.” I was seventeen then, when I joined
the band. We went over for three months, came back for about a month;
then we’d go back for another three months come back for two weeks,
go back for four months, and then we wouldn’t come back at all.
Most of the English guys had left, at that
point; some of the married guys didn’t want to spend that much time
travelling. Maynard then replaced them with American guys, because all
our work was in the States by then. It ended up that a few of us stayed
over there: myself, the drummer, Randy Jones—he’s now living in New
York, and he’s been with Dave Brubeck. The piano player, Pete Jackson,
lives in Philadelphia. Then there was Bruce Johnstone, the baritone
player on the band, from New Zealand—he went with Woody for a while.
Now Maynard has a totally American band.
So that’s how I got there—it was purely coincidence. If somebody had
asked me, five or six years ago, if I wanted to live in the States,
I’d have said: “No—I don’t want to do that. I’m enjoying the trips,
but I’m always glad to come home.” But I just kind of slid into it.
I quit Maynard; I had this apartment in Los Angeles, and I went back
to live there. All of a sudden I found myself staying there permanently.
For a couple of years I was waiting for
one of the bands to come over here—Louie, Lew Tabackin, any of them.
I used to say: “If anybody’s going to England, and needs a saxophone
player, let me know. I’ll go for free—just pay my expenses over.”
How I came to play saxophone is rather
a strange situation. I actually started playing when I was four, and
in those days I used to suffer very badly from asthma; I spent a lot
of time in the hospital, and had real bad problems with it. About twice
a week I had to have these special breathing exercises, and my dad came
up with the idea that I should play a wind instrument; he figured the
blowing would help my breathing. So I started on a little curved soprano—and
ever since I did that I never had asthma again. It was amazing—it went,
just like that. I kept up playing it for a few years; then I stopped
for a couple of years.
Meantime, I was also having piano lessons;
my dad always said: “If you’re going to be a musician, you’re going
to play the piano—that’s where it’s at.” Finally, I went to St. Joseph’s,
at about twelve or thirteen, and we got this school band together, They
already had some kind of a semblance of a military band, but they had
no saxophone players. So my dad said: “Hey, why don’t you play saxophone,
because you’ve already had a start on it.”
That’s when I started on the alto; in the
end I just fell in love with it so much that everything else just fell
by the wayside. I played drums for a while; I still play piano a little
bit—1 used to do quite a bit of work on the piano. But when I got with
the saxophone again I really got serious, and said: “Ah, that’s it.”
At that time I was just playing alto, and that is still my main love.
But now I play all the saxophones—out of necessity, as I say, to keep
working. And I play all the flutes, and all the clarinets. My instruments
are alto and flute, really; I also have a love for the flute.
In Los Angeles you find all the saxophone
players doubling on everything. The more instruments you can play, the
more chances you’ve got of getting the work. If you play the oboe well,
and still double on all the others well, you’re in with a better chance
than somebody who doesn’t play the oboe. I never had the urge to play
the oboe so I just have to manage without it: I don’t think I can go
through learning that now.
We were already trying to play jazz in
the St. Joseph’s band. My dad was supplying most of the
charts because we were working with an absolutely zero budget. Dad was
going up into his attic and finding music for us to play. We had the
big band things, whatever we thought we could handle at the time—because
we weren’t really all that good. We played some dance band charts, a
few of the old Glenn Osser things and a couple of more simple Buddy
Rich and Woody Herman things that my dad had had arranged for his band.
I’ve always been a big jazz fanatic anyway—even in those days.
My real Jazz experiences came more on my
own, I think—trying to find out how to do it myself. With the help I
got from Jimmy Staples as a foundation, that fell into place. For instance,
we didn’t have anybody teaching jazz improvisation at the school. Then
I had a stint with Bill Ashton’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra when
I was about thirteen. We went to the South of France for a week with
that band, and we had a little bit of fun with that. It was some kind
of a little festival or a local celebration. We stayed in a school,
and played every day for a week. After that, it was general playing
My next—door neighbour used to run a pub
in the Elephant and Castle, called the Charlie Chaplin right on the
roundabout there. I finally talked him into giving me a Wednesday night
down there, playing jazz with a quartet. He had reggae bands on the
weekends; the place was always jam–packed with people. We had some nice
Wednesdays there. And I did some things with the Indo–Jazz Fusions,
run by John Mayer; this was after Joe Harriott left—it was probably
about the time he died. John Williams was playing guitar on a few of
the concerts we did; also there was a really fine flute player, Chris
I worked with various big bands, including
my dad’s sometimes. Also I was running a little gig band of my own,
playing functions here and there. Then I joined a band called Smile,
which contained a lot of guys from Maynard’s band at that time. There
was Geoff Wright, Mike Bailey, Frank Macdonald; Chris Rea was on guitar.
We had a really good little group—a jazz—rock type of thing. We made
a few recordings, and got one minor hit record. And it was that band
I left to join Maynard.
Around the time I joined his band was
when things were starting to make sense to me, when I felt reasonably
confident about standing up and playing. For me, playing with that
band was the biggest growth period for about the first couple of years,
just constantly playing, seven nights a week: getting the experience
of a good big band like that one of the best. at that time and also
getting to blow quite a lot, which was happening every night consistently.
I don’t think Maynard’s charts were that
difficult to play it’s just that we used to put a lot into them, and
try to play them as well as we could. There were a few technically
hard things that we’d have to look at for quite a while. It was more
like a Basie type of thing, where it’s the way they play the charts
that makes them come out sounding great. Even if we knew the chart
backwards which, of course, you do after a time: after a couple of
years with the band I never even used to open up the book—we’d always
be trying to make ‘em sound better. And Maynard he’s an experience
in himself, to work for; he’s like nobody else.
Being on the road over in the States
is a different thing than it is over here; the distances that you
travel are just unbelievable now. We’d have twenty–five–hour bus journeys;
you crawl off the bus and go in and play a gig. We’d all be feeling
terrible but Maynard would leap up on the stage, and he’d be just
like he always is. And he would make us play; he wasn’t yelling at
us to play or anything, but just watching his example, being an older
man than the rest of us, first of all, and going up there, putting
that much energy into what he did—that’s what used to make us play.
Maynard was about forty–five, and I was
twenty or something; you’d think: “If he can do it. then I can do
it too.” I learned a lot from Maynard in that way. We did a lot of
clinics in the States also about two or three a week, where we would
show up at a school in the afternoon for a couple of hours of teaching.
We’d split up into groups; like, the saxophone section would go into
one room and take all the woodwind students, and so on. As the lead
alto, I was always the spokesman, and it was hard sometimes. Basically,
we used to rely on a question—and—answer type of thing; not being
schoolteachers, we weren’t really prepared for a three—hour lecture.
Then you’d get to some schools where
the kids were a little young, and were embarrassed about asking questions;
so we’d be standing there trying to think of things to do. That was
a great learning experience, and when they’d asked about how and why
you do this and that, you always had to re–examine yourself to explain
what you’re doing to somebody else.
But after doing hundreds of these clinics,
we got to a point where we were very good at it. Bruce Johnstone and
I were on the band for about the longest period of time: we had things
worked out that we could say, even if nobody said a word, and we’d
demonstrate various points, then play music out of the book with the
saxophone section, and let them hear what we sounded like, and so
forth. That would usually break the ice with the kids.
Then, of course, you’d always get some
smart–ass who would want to argue with you especially in the colleges,
where they’re a bit older and we got into some touchy situations once
or twice. In fact, having done that has opened up another door for
I’m in the process now of setting up
some private clinics of my own. I have this quintet that I play with
in Los Angeles; we have an album out, and my idea is that we will
go out and do a clinic and a concert with the group. I built up a
lot of connections around the schools in those years with Maynard;
so hopefully, once in a while we’ll pop out for a day or two, to do
some teaching and playing. It helps the income, but the main thing
is that it’s an opportunity to do some work with the quintet.
Certainly, playing lead alto is a special
thing. I’m generally known to have a pretty boisterous kind of personality,
and that tends to show, I think, with a lead player. I’m not bashful
about laying down what I think is right; that’s a quality that is
necessary somebody who’s not afraid to say: “We’re going to play it
this way.” Also the sound quality is as important; to me, a lead alto
sound is a certain sound. The alto sax can sound many different ways,
as you know; you’ve got your Lee Konitz styles, your Paul Desmond
styles, your Eric Dolphy styles, your Phil Woods styles. But I feel
that a good lead alto sound can only really go one way; I think Phil
Woods probably has that sound. I try and recreate that sound as much
as I can—because I like that sound, anyway, even for solo playing.
A lead player needs that kind of projection,
so the other four guys in the section can hear what you’re doing,
and find it easy to follow you. If you’re playing with a stuffy sound,
and not projecting, how can they bear you? I think Art Pepper, for
instance, really changed the sound of the Kenton band around. Before
that, I think the Marshall Royal sound was the most popular style
of lead playing. Then from Art it went to Lee Konitz, and he took
it a step in another direction. Ever since then. Kenton lead altos
tended to lean to the Konitz style. Because Kenton really liked Lee’s
approach for the type of music they played.
Probably my all—time favourite alto player
was Cannonball Adderley. I loved his sound. and his whole attitude
to playing; he always sounded so happy, so bouncy, that it seemed
so easy. He was the epitome of alto, to me. Of course, I liked Charlie
Parker, but not as much as Cannonball. And Phil Woods still sounds
absolutely great. Lee Konitz I love.
There’s a lot of players in the States
now that people might not have heard of. Like. Gary Foster—he’s been
a mainstay on the Los Angeles scene for some years, and he is just
a fantastic player. There’s a bunch of records he “made with Warne
Marsh—they play all those Lennie Tristano heads and tunes, and Gary’s
got that real lyrical style; he really understands that Tristano approach
round the changes that he has happening. It’s just fantastic: he’s
definitelv one of my favourites: Dick Spencer is another one.
I would say that Gary is a little different
as a player than Bud Shank. Bud gets a slightly harder, more edgy
sound than Gary. Gary gets more of a mellow, liquid sound as I say,
more like Konitz. For instance, when we play with Lew Tabackin’s band,
Gary plays second alto to me, purely because he gets a more closed,
softer type of sound than I get. Gary plays a lot of the solos. I
love his sound too, but I go the other direction, always aiming for
more projection more sound, drive, noise, whatever you want to call
Really, I think saxophone players are
getting louder and louder as years go by, with the advent of electronics,
rock and what–have–you. It’s a defence mechanism, I’d say. I don’t
go along with a rock ‘n’ roll type of sound, that’s just loud for
loud’s sake; it’s essential to maintain the centre of the saxophone
sound. You get as much projection as you can, but still keep the tone.
That was the one thing my dad always instilled in me—the sound. He
never really tried to push me in any directions at all, and I admire
him for staying out of my way in that respect. But he would always
say: “You’ve got to get that sound, before you do anything else. You
can learn your scales later, as you practice, but get that sound first.”
And he was right.
I think that’s what he had going for
him as an alto player; he was known for his sound, rather than his
jazz playing. He still does have a nice alto sound, as a matter of
fact. Yes, I still work on the sound all the time. When I’m practising,
I probably spend more time with that than anything else. I’m still
messing around with mouthpieces—trying to find the right one. I’m
playing Myers on my alto, and I have a collection of about four or
five of ‘em—they’re all 5s and 6s, you know.
That’s the extent that I go, and each
one has a little quality about it; I can’t make up my mind which one
I like best sometimes. But I don’t go any further than that; I don’t
go into constantly putting all kinds of different mouthpieces on.
I keep pretty stable with it, but you do go through periods when you’re
bugged with the way you sound; I just put another mouthpiece on—it’s
probably exactly the same, but there’s some psychological thing that
makes me think it’s better. I guess it ends up sounding the same.
I only know I’ll be playing along quite
happily for a couple of months; maybe I’ll get a few good reeds, which
is rare these days. Then, all of a sudden, you might get some bad
reeds, and you start thinking: “What’s happened to my saxophone sound?”
Once in a while, sticking on a different mouthpiece seems to do the
I don’t think I had too many surprises
about the States—I guess because I slipped into it so gradually. Travelling
with Maynard, we didn’t really have a lot of time to stand about and
absorb a lot of it. We weren’t in New York a great deal of time, and
when we were there we were all having a good time, because we were
glad to be there. When I left Maynard ‘s band and moved to Los Angeles,
I think I had some idea what I was getting myself into, that it wasn’t
going to be easy. I just decided “Well, I either do this, or go back
to London.” Which is not a bad thing either—but I just wanted to see
if I could do it: it was some kind of challenge to me.
The Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin band
was actually the very first that I played with when I got out there.
At that point, Dick Spencer was the regular lead alto player, and
he’d been looking for somebody who could dep for him on a regular
basis. Dick and I have a lot in common in the way we play, and I’d
met him before in Germany. He used to play with Max Greger’s band;
there was the record called “Maximum”. Dick Spencer, Don Menza, Rick
Kiefer were among the American guys on it—a real good band. So in
Los Angeles, Dick Spencer and Don Menza were the only two people I
knew in the whole town.
I called Dick up, and said: “Hey, Dick,
I’ve moved to town. If you hear of anything, let me know.” He said:
“Can you make a rehearsal for me Wednesday morning?” I went down,
and it was Lew Tabackin’s band. This was the first piece of music
I saw there, and believe me, it’s the hardest music I’ve ever seen
in my life; it’s really a tough book. I thought: “Is this the standard
I’m up against? Are all the bands going to be like this? I’d better
get on a plane right now.” Luckily, it turned out to be one of a kind.
The quintet I have in Los Angeles is
co–led by myself and Bill Reichenbach — who is a very busy trombone
player. Also, in my opinion, he’s one of the best in the world.
He came over here with the Buddy Rich band, around about 1971; I
met him then, and we immediately struck up a friendship, that we’ve
had going ever since.
Right away, we both had the idea of
having a group together; years later, when both of US had moved
to Los Angeles, we formed the a quintet. We started doing a few
gigs in some of the local clubs, just blowing tunes, for very little
money—the door or whatever. Slowly but surely, we’ve been adding
original material to the book: it’s been a vehicle for our writing.
Finally, last year, Lew Tabackin approached
us; he said: “I hear you guys have got a quintet. Do you want to
make a record?” We said: “Oh— yeah, who doesn’t?” So he said: “Right—record
date, two weeks from tomorrow.” So we then had to get our thinking
caps on, think what we were going to do, rewrite a couple of tunes,
write some new ones, and rehearse the band.
We have John Heard on bass, Joey Barron
playing drums, and a piano player called Tom Garvin; it’s a good
group to play with, and it’s just dead straight ahead. Lew produced
the record for us, and he didn’t want to know about any kind of
rock ’n’ roll on it—any more than he does with his big band. It’s
straight blowing; we went in and just played from start to finish—there’s
no tracking of any kind. A simple, old—fashioned recording date—which
was great. I’ve never done anything like that before—just to go
and do a whole record like that. It was a nice experience.
Maybe we’ll do another one soon. The
thing is, Bill’s quite busy most of the time around town—he does
a lot of movie writing for Universal Studios, playing on record
dates, and so forth. And I’m busy on and off— so it’s a bit hard
to get anything really happening, and to get the same guys all the
time, John Heard is often out on the road, with Oscar Peterson,
Louie Bellson and people. So we’re always working with deps.
But we’re both still keen to keep it
going as much as we can, and if we can start working some nice gigs
and doing some clinics out of town for a couple of days here and
there, we’re definitely going to put that as a priority, even if
we have to cancel some work to do it.
Small group playing is a necessity
for me these days. I really like to play jazz and, of course, in
most big bands you don’t really get to play that much. It’s a great
thrill playing with a sax section, but it’s not usually a great
outlet for your jazz playing. You might get sixteen bars here, a
chorus or two there. I’m pursuing the jazz blowing as much as I
While I was back here, I had a ball
doing some gigs with Jimmy Hastings and the Tony Lee Trio, at places
like the Bull’s Head, Barnes. I’m chasing those venues where good
jazz goes on. In L.A., there are three or four clubs that I can
go to; I know the managers so well that I can say, just about any
time: “Hey, can we have a night next week?” and they’ll say: “Yeah,
fine—you can take Wednesday night.”
We can actually have about as much
work as we want with the quintet around L.A.—not, as I said before,
for any bread, really. We could be playing a lot more than we do,
except for the fact that it’s so hard to get it all together under
one roof. Usually, if I can’t get John Heard, or an handful of other
bass players, if I can’t get the drummers and the piano players
I want, then I don’t want to do it. It doesn’t have to be specifically
those three guys, but I want it to be right. I’ve had enough of
trying to play jazz when it’s not happening behind you; that can
be more of a drag than fun.
Very often, I have to wait around for
weeks before I can finally get the right guys, and set up another
gig. We’re all doing it for fun, and I don’t think anybody minds
doing that—but it’s also very hard to turn down a hundred–and–twenty–five
dollar record date to go play for fifteen dollars in a club or something—when
we’re all paying rents, mortgages and so on.
Jazz seems to be doing better. In Los
Angeles and all over the States they have a thing called the Musicians’
Trust Fund—this is a fund set up by the Musicians’ Union, that we
all pay into, through our Union dues. What they do is set up concerts
during the Summertime, all around—free concerts, for everybody to
go to. On a Sunday afternoon, there’s always three or four different
concerts going on around Los Angeles.
We’ve done them with Louie’s band,
Lew Tabackin’s band, the Harold Land Sextet, among others. Everybody’s
playing; we actually get paid for doing them, but the people get
a free concert. So it seems to be promoting jazz quite a bit. People
will come who wouldn’t normally come out if they had to pay ten
dollars to see a band they never heard of before. Once you get ‘em
in there, and they’re all sitting there on a Sunday afternoon, the
majority are going to say: “Oh, this jazz isn’t so bad after all.”
Then maybe the next week they’ll go
into a club, and won’t mind paying the ten dollars. Then, of course,
with everybody getting taught music in school, you’ve got a lot
of young kids coming up playing instruments—they have an appreciation
for music now. They’re not just going towards rock’n’roll any more;
they will appreciate something like a saxophone.
There was a time when a kid would say:
“You play what? A saxophone—what’s that?” At least now they have
a knowledge of it, and more of an open mind towards music, I think.
So all these factors are helping to bring it all back, or whatever.
I don’t think it’s ever really been away—it’s just been underground
for a while.
There’ve been some serious efforts
to get jazz across to young people. Guys like Maynard and Woody
are going around religiously doing their work in the colleges. Maynard
has done a fantastic job of recruiting youngsters; he’s geared his
music, especially recently, towards young people. Judging from his
recent recordings, he’s playing a lot of disco/ rock’n’roll—style
things. It’s not really always my cup of tea, but, on the other
hand. it’s still good music—the band still sounds good—and it does
attract young listeners.
I mean, when Maynard goes out, he packs
the joints; he has ‘em screaming, yelling and stomping in the aisles.
He really does well over there, and I think he’s helping a lot to
make people more aware of music. As for my own future, I’m optimistic
about it. I’m happy that the last four or five years I’ve been in
Los Angeles, things have progressively gotten better for me, in
all directions. In my commercial work, my income has consistently
improved—so I’m happy about that. And I feel that my personal playing
gets better all the time—being around a lot of the great players
in town and having a lot of that rub off has helped me a lot. Also
the opportunities for me to play as a jazz player are becoming more
frequent; I hope that’s a trend that will continue for me.
I believe it’s a trend that’s happening
all over the world. The news about all the school bands here is
really a surprise to me. When I was last back, St. Joseph’s School
band was still about the only one we’d ever had. It was a novelty
in those days; people thought it was something pretty weird. I saw
one of the present crop of school bands on the TV— they sound fine.
I’m very happy to see that.
It seems to me that the music scene
in England has undergone a setback with the advent of this punk
rock thing. A lot of youngsters here, unfortunately, are into that
stuff; they have it to a certain extent in the States, but the kids
aren’t into it the way they are here. It’s kind of a drag, really;
hopefully, with so many learning some music at school now, maybe
it’ll knock it on the head. Because it’s not just the music that’s
offensive—it’s the whole attitude of the kids around it. They’re
fighting, yelling, swearing; you see twelve–year–old kids with fouler
mouths than you’ve ever heard.
That acid bit a few years ago was a
shame, but it didn’t seem to do anybody any harm, inasmuch as I
don’t think the acid freaks went around beating up people. Just
a fad? Yes, it’ll probably pass, I guess. It’s just appealing to
the lowest instincts. That’s how rock’n’roll became so popular in
the early ‘fifties: it was so easy for people to understand; you
didn’t have to think about music.
The trouble with jazz, classical music,
anything you’ve got to think about—a lot of people don’t want to
know about that; all they want is something they can sing along
with, that they feel they can relate to. In the States, Country
and Western is the biggest– selling music, to this day. The guy
sings, he tells a little story, and it’s dead simple. It doesn’t
offend me like some of the punk rock stuff does; it’s just that
the people listening to it are not interested in music any further
Copyright © 1979, Les
Tomkins. All Rights Reserved