|Interviewed by Les Tomkins in 1970|
The bands on Frank's (Sinatra’s) records deserve just as much applause as the singer.
And he is one singer who has always recognised the musician. Music is more than ninety per cent of it. It's just like a nice, soft bed; a singer can relax when he's got all that good music behind him. He can weave in and out; he knows that the musicians are going to be right with him. With wonderful arrangements such as Nelson Riddle created for him, too, he had all he needed.
Those days from '52 until '58 when I just worked with Sinatra all the time—that's one of the phases of my life that I'll never forget. The first album I made with him was "Wee Small Hours". Oh, that's the classic—you can't buy it hardly any more. That was one of the finest albums I've ever listened to. Then "Songs For Swinging Lovers", "A Swinging Affair", "This Is Sinatra"—just so many good albums.
All those little fills I used to do—it was purely an impromptu thing. When we got to the record date; it was the first time that I'd ever seen the music. Anyway, Nelson just put in a few bars on my part, and he used to write on there: "Just come in whenever you feel like it" or "Play whatever you feel like".
Just one bar here, two bars there. It's quite difficult to find something interesting to play in one bar, you know, because you don't even get started before it's gone. Better not to play enough than too much, behind a singer, because he's the featured artist. The less you play, the better it sounds; it may just be one note that you put in when he breathes.
So I had to create something that was going to ring a bell to people in that one bar or so. Or play a four-bar intro that would set the right atmosphere flowing. And it did seem to become a thing: when they would hear Frank, they would expect that little trumpet in the background. He became a part of the trumpet and I became a part of the singer.
And he's such a hell of a guy to play for. All the older musicians and singers are the same. Like, he was a big band singer with Tommy Dorsey; consequently, he knows how to sing with a lot of musicians.
The young singers don't give the musicians credit the way the older ones do. They think that you're supposed to do that.
But Frank— he knows that the better the music, the better the voice. Same with Ella Fitzgerald— she knows: It's all a happy marriage; without either, neither one is successful. Peggy Lee, Lena Horne— most of the older singers are well aware of this. Billy Eckstine believes that the music is ninety- nine per cent and he's just one per cent.
Frank is one of the first to say where it's at. Because he's always surrounded himself with the best. All the great arrangers write for him. They know how to; he knows what to sing in the arrangement too With both things working together that makes it doubly great.
For three weeks before coming here, we (the Basie band) toured through the Continent with Ella Fitzgerald. And she's such a great singer— there's nobody else like her. She's straight ahead. I've been listening to her sing for years, and I've never enjoyed her more than on this trip. She just gets better and better.
She's. got some very good music, too— arrangements by Marty Paich, Gerald Wilson; Nelson's things, of course. Oh, she has quite an array there.
Then we've been working in Britain with Tony Bennett. He's another big band era man, too. Always superb. He's one of the finest lush singers there's ever been— and there's not a finer guy.
And he has a drummer with him that is one of the most beautiful people I've ever met in my life— Louie Bellson. As well as being such a great guy personally, his drumming is equally to be applauded. I have nothing but accolades for this guy's personality and ability. In fact, he was my best man at my wedding. His wife, Pearl Bailey, is one of my dearest friends; they're both just wonderful.
Now I'm looking forward to coming back over here to work in a club some day I haven't been approached, but I wish somebody would. I'd like to come into Ronnie Scott's for a couple of weeks. I like the rhythm sections here; they have some good piano players and bassists here in London.
If anybody thinks my studio work is any problem, let me say that I would never be too busy to come to London; it's one of my favourite cities. You can always take a leave of absence from the studios in California: It does you good, actually, because the bandleader knows that he has somebody in the band that is capable of going off by himself, too. And you feel good to know that you can go off on your own; you're not completely dependent on the studios. You have something other to offer than just sitting playing behind direction. Which is a very reassuring thought.
It seems like every time the Basie band comes to Europe, they are missing a trumpet player. So they usually call me. And this time of year there's a lull in the studio work in California; the regular shows are usually over around March and they don't start again until around July. It was very fortunate that Basie called me to make this trip.
I've been playing with Basie off and on now since 1939. As for comparing then and now—naturally, Freddie Green is still there, and he's one of the great stalwarts of the rhythm. section. But about the only soloist that he has in the band, really, is Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. He wasn’t prominent in the days of Lester, although he was one of the finest tenor saxophonists of that era, who deserved to be as well known then as he has become in later years.
In the old days we had Pres, Herschel Evans Dickie Wells, Jack Washington, Buck Clayton, myself—the band was full of soloists. As well as playing collectively, we played individually, too. Which, I think, made the band a little more interesting to listen to.
When we'd get to a town everybody was looking forward to hearing Lester Young play, because he was one of the most creative musicians that jazz has ever known. Herschel Evans also had his own particular style, Buck Clayton and I—we had our fans that waited to hear us. It makes it a more pleasant evening when you have fellows that can go out and take a wonderful jazz solo, then get back into the band and do equally well with the section and with the whole ensemble.
Basie has always had a very good band. I think it's just as interesting now collectively as it was individually in those days.
It's definitely more polished today, because we didn't rehearse as much then as they do now. A lot of rehearsing is incurred when you have so much music to play.
In that original Basie band we had a lot of head arrangements; consequently we didn't need too much rehearsal. That's why it was so interesting. Like, there was no music to "Sent For You Yesterday", "Every Tub", "Jive At Five" that I wrote, "Rock-A-Bye Basie"—and so many more. I couldn't begin to name all the recordings we made without any music at all.
Well, what it was—we were closer in those days than musicians are today. That's my own feeling, anyway. Naturally, the younger musicians think they're just as close today. I imagine they are—but in a different sort of way.
It seems to me that I play better with Count Basie than anywhere else—because of the way we can feel each other. When I'm taking a solo, I know just about what he's going to play, and he knows just about what I'm going to play. You know, there has to be a sort of a happy marriage between a rhythm section and a soloist. You have to make them play, and vice versa. And together you finally develop a nice little swing thing, and keep it going for however many minutes you're out on the stage.
The Basie band of the old days contained some pretty unusual characters—none more so than Lester Young. A flamboyant type of person but a very loveable guy. He had a particular knack for naming people. He gave me my name, "Sweets", and it stuck. Well, I always wanted to play pretty, to be a sweet-playing type o£ trumpeter; so he nicknamed me "Sweetie Pie". But the tail-end of that diminished and the "Sweets" has continued on ever since then.
His name "Lady Day" for Billie Holiday became widely used, of course. Then he named Basie "Holy"—meaning the Holy Man. Very few of the new musicians in his band know him by that name; so when he hears anyone say "Holy", he always knows it's somebody who was in the old band. Because the newer members call him "Chief" all the time.
Those were fascinating years that I spent with Basie. We weren't making any money. but we were having a hell of a good time. Our youth was it, because you don't care much about anything but playing when you're young. And we just looked forward to getting on the bandstand.
There weren't any locations to play. Everything was one-nighters; like ballrooms. We'd get in the bus and travel up to five hundred miles a day. Without any sleep, we'd change uniforms, get out of the bus, go to the men's room, wash up, then get on the stand—and play like we had just gotten out of bed. The band was great, that it was a pleasure instead of a task.
Another thing about those days was that a better atmosphere was created with the dancers than there is with the audiences nowadays. Because they seemed to be a part of the whole evening. You know, it was like a big party. Now, when you're playing a club, they all just sit there.
Of course musicians are musicians, whether they're in the symphony or the jazz field But to me, the symphony music should be sat and listened to and watched, because everything is so intricately played and you can't do anything else but listen, to really enjoy it. Jazz music, however, gives you a feeling that you want to move. I think so, anyway—who's to say if I'm right or wrong? When a band starts swinging, the average person would like to pop their finger, pat their foot—or dance. It's like the old religion feeling—when the spirit hits you, you have to move. When the music hit them in the old days, the first thing they did was grab their chick and start dancing.
They were listening while they were dancing— you bet your life. When you saw the people dancing, that meant that you were really getting to them. Until somebody would get up and dance, you would be searching for the right tune to play.
That was the interesting part of being a bandleader. If we'd played something and the people were still sitting, we would look at Basie, like: "What are you gonna play now?" It was a challenge between him and the audience. Finally we would play something to make one couple get on the floor, then they would all join in, and he had the whole crowd for the evening. You could say it was like a hunter trying to trap a little animal. But it was just beautiful.
All that is lost now— since jazz became accepted as an art form. Certainly, the jazz musician should be respected for what he does. It's not easy to think different lines to play when you have a solo. In fact, it's just as hard as it is to a person playing a classical piece; he has studied his instrument, and he knows what he's going to play because it's written on the paper. When you get up for a solo, you don't know what you're going to play; something has to come to you on the spur of the moment. Both sides should be treated the same; each type of musician is an artist in his own right.
Mozart and Beethoven created symphonies; the musicians sit there and play them. We create our own music as we play.
And the hardest thing is to be original. As the old adage says, there's nothing new under the sun; consequently, you spend all your career trying to find something hat you can be identified by. You can't sit and think of something new; you've just got to sneak into it. If it sounds good— beautiful; if it sounds bad. play it— as long as you're the only one who can do it.
You've created something, and you should be given the credit for it.
I've really tried to create an identifiable style, and I'm not going to deviate from it, either. Well, that's the only way I can play— so I couldn't take any other direction.
After I left the Basie band, I did a couple of years with Jazz At The Philharmonic. I just freelanced; I played with Buddy Rich and with Louie Bellson for quite some time. Then I had my own quintet for about six years. In fact, when Joe Williams left Basie, he got his start with my small band; we were together for two years or so.
Since returning to California, I've got married; my wife and I have a five- year- old daughter. So I've had every reason to stay there, and I've been blessed; I usually work all the time. I don't travel as much as I used to, but I've gotten acquainted with the people who can keep you working, and I always try to give of my best.
I've just finished doing a thirteen- week TV show— a new series that people who remember the big band days are really going to enjoy. It's called Happy Days, and it takes place in a ballroom; the various episodes are about the marathon dancers and such- like. During the series we had Harry James, playing the numbers he was noted for with Benny Goodman. Others who did the show were Buddy Rich, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, as well as singers like Ray and Bob Eberle, Helen Forrest and Helen O'Connell. I hope it gets to Europe, because it's going to bring back a lot of memories.
We had a good band; Jack Elliott had quite an array of talent to play the big band music for the show. Some of the guys like Willie Schwartz— he was on sax with ·Glenn Miller; Joe Howard, who played trombone with Tommy Dorsey; Jack Sperling, one- time drummer with the Miller and Dorsey bands; and, of course, I was with Basie during that era. Also on trumpet were Bobby Bryant and Johnny Ordino— he's one of the finest trumpeters we have. Ray Brown was on bass; we had Herb Ellis playing guitar.
And every time one of the artists, like Ray Eberle would get up, they would know somebody in the band they had worked with in those days. That made it like one big get- together. Louis Nye narrated the whole thing. He's a comedian who was appearing at all the old theatres, such as the Roxy, Paramount, Strand.
Everybody had a ball doing that. All these musicians are, like me, living out in California now, doing studio work. And it's always quite a thrill to work with those guys, because other than having many musical associations in common, we're very close friends.
I still get my chances to do jazz jobs. I play with Louie Bellson's big band at Dante's on Wednesday nights; also with the Terry Gibbs band. Then I have a quartet in a night club called Memory Lane. Although I'm working in the daytime, I just have to get there at night and give vent to my feelings. Let it all hang out— that is the thing. I can work in the studios from 9 in the morning until 6 in the afternoon, but I'm looking forward to getting up there from 9.30 p. m. through till 2 a. m., to do my own thing.
Whatever you hear to the contrary, there is quite a jazz scene in Hollywood. In fact, it's getting better, because most of the musicians are moving from New York to California. J. J. Johnson, Jimmy Jones, Bobby Brookmeyer, Jimmy Cleveland and the former, Basieite Al Aarons are among those who have now settled out there. Ray Brown's been there for a while, also Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson. Well, there is a lot of work in California. About 85 per cent of the record business is done there. And just about all the TV shows— they're coming out more frequently than before, too. Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin come quite often. Regular shows include those of Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Carol Burnette, Bill Cosby. I did the Hollywood Palace show for three years.
Recently we had a great band on The Della Reese Show, which she did for nine months. And what a show she had! Without a doubt, it was the best band on TV, with Buddy Childers, Bobby Bryant and myself in the trumpet section, Bobby Brookmeyer and Billy Byers in the trombones, Bill Perkins, Bob Hardaway, Jack Nimitz and Don Menza on saxophones, Marv Jenkins playing piano Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown and Chuck De Manico alternating on bass, and Earl Palmer on drums.
Her musical director is from England— Pete Myers. He's a wonderful guy, and I just enjoyed his direction immensely. A very good writer, too. He really deserves to do as well as he is now. Other than what he contributed himself, he had a fine staff of arrangers with him— Bill Holman, Bob Florence, Billy May and Jay Hill. Benny Carter also wrote some things.
All the good singers were on the show; consequently we played all the good music. We had Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine— people like that. It was the best show that I've ever played in, and that band was just out of sight. It it's shown on your TV, I promise you you're going to be thrilled listening to the band.
And Della did something quite unusual. She picked out different guys in the band at intervals and gave you a featured spot on the TV. Which I think is an absolutely wonderful gesture. It's the first time I've ever heard of anyone with their own show doing that for the musicians. Herb Ellis, Don Menza, Bob Brookmeyer, myself— we all had a special spot. It's something that most artists never do— you're in the band, and that's it. They don't realise that you are the unsung heroes back there.
What makes your strictly jazz work so enjoyable in Hollywood is the high calibre of rhythm players available. For a couple of years in Memory Lane I had the same rhythm section that Ella Fitzgerald has now— Tommy Flanagan on piano, Frank De La Rosa on bass, Ed Thigpen on drums. But Ella just swooped down one day and stole my whole group. I told her she might as well take me, too, and make it unanimous! They're fine musicians; I don't think she's ever had a more exciting trio with her. Tommy is one of my favourite piano players, and I've always admired Ed since he was part of the Oscar Peterson Trio.
I usually have an outstanding piano player with me these days— Jimmy Rowles. On drums I have Earl Palmer, who makes so much money in the studios— he's in very great demand. He plays this new rock ‘n’ roll form of music.
I've heard some good and some bad rock ‘n’ roll. Any form of music can sound good if it's played right. Yes, and some of it can get to you, you know— it can make you move. Well we all play it around California, and they're writing it very well.
It's a different thing going in the percussion section; you still play your own way on top of it. That's where it's at. It's kinda like the way the bossa nova was the thing for a long time. Now it's the rock ‘n’ roll thing.
There's a pretty fair bass player who I have in the group occasionally— Ray Brown. Well, he's beginning to learn how to play! I hope he reads this. Anybody who's been playing an instrument for seventy years— they either know how to play it, or they've forgotten all they know about it! As you may gather, he and I are on the friendliest of terms.
Actually, he's anxious to play, too, a lot of times. When I call him up, he'll say: "What time do we hit!" You've got to let it all out every now and then. Apart from Ray, Red Callender and Chuck De Manico play bass with me sometimes. All you have to do is call them and if they're not busy and not too tired— well, even if they're tired, they usually make it.
Studio work is very tiring, certainly. Sometimes we start playing at 9 in the morning, sometimes 8.30. On busy days I have two or three record dates— maybe from 9 to 12, then 1 to 3; and another one from 6 till 9. And TV shows can take up the whole day. Like, we started on Della Reese's show at 9.45 a. m., and often we didn't get through until 8 that night. On the Happy Days show, we were at CBS from 9 in the morning until 9 at night, and we did thirteen weeks' shows in ten days. That was a lot of blowin’.
So it can be quite confining. But I don't complain, really. I suppose it's human nature to complain, but if you do, don't take it to the point where people would feel like you don't need it Or that they don't need you. Anyone that's fortunate enough to keep working like that, with all the hundreds of musicians that don't have anything to do— I don't think they should complain too much.
It's always good to visit people that you've known and had a good rapport with for many years. And it's quite an honour to be invited to do these Festivals, like Middlesborough; a connoisseur of music like Mr. Wein is only gonna have the best, and I'm lucky enough to be among all the others, that are my friends. Fantastic artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry— both very dear friends of mine, both absolutely magnificent talents. I'm glad its successful; I'm quite sure most of us are looking forward to coming back next year. The people here are so receptive. I know I speak for most American jazz musicians when I say we would much rather play for European audiences than American audiences, because we're appreciated more over here. Jazz is the only American art there is, and we're trying to keep it going, through our gift of playing. Through all the ardent fans here in Europe, I'm sure that we'll be coming over to entertain you for many more years to come.
Playing with just a rhythm section was unusual for me nowadays, but, as you know, I played with just a quartet for about eight or ten years. Then I went to California; I've been in the studios there for about twelve years, playing with Frank Sinatra for six or seven years, and with Nelson Riddle, Hank Mancini, Quincy Jones, J. J. Johnson, Dave Grusin and, of course, the master of them all to me—Benny Carter. I've done shows with Della Reese, Pearl Bailey; I've played with just about everyone. My most pleasant moments, as I hope everybody knows, were with Count Basie—that was the beginning of my career, and to me he's the Daddy of all the jazz bands. And the First Lady—Billie Holiday—I made many, many records with her; I also did all the music for the film of her life, Lady Sings The Blues. I stayed pretty busy in California, raising a family. Now I like to get out and enjoy the people that I love to be with—the jazz fans.
Jaws (Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis) and I, we've been travelling together for almost two years—and it's a real joy to play with him. He's a straight-ahead, mainstream musician, like myself, and we have a good rapport together. He's a very diligent businessman, as he is on his tenor saxophone; he's one of the great innovators of jazz on that instrument. Travel connections, especially on the aeroplanes, are very difficult here in Europe; if I had not left Paris a day early, I wouldn't have made it to this festival either. I know he tried his best, because we are together, and I wouldn't have been here had he not accepted to come. That's the way we are—neither of us accepts unless it's together. We've been very successful like that; between the two of us, with the fans we both have, we have a good crowd in places that we play, and we're certainly grateful to the people who come to the different night-clubs and concerts all over the world to hear us play. We work as a team, and we get rhythm sections wherever we go; here in Europe we are very fortunate to have played with some very, very fine rhythm sections.
Another organisation I travelled with for a long time was Jazz At The Philharmonic, with great people like Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson, Bill Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Buddy Rich. The experiences I've had in this business I wouldn't change for anything. It was just a thrill every night—as it was here today. Without a doubt, this audience was one of nhe most receptive, most responsive I've ever had the pleasure of playing to.
As for Frank Sinatra— we still have a happy marriage. I just finished making an album with him, just before I left California. And I was supposed to be back there now, to play on engagement with him and Sarah Vaughan at 2he Amphitheatre in Los Angeles — there's no team greater than that. I was looking forward to playing with both of them starting next week, but I'll be in Copenhagen for two weeks. But he knows that when I'm in town I'm always the first call on anything he does— ever since 1952. He's fantastic.
I don't know what the album will be called, but they were standard tunes. I don't think any tunes are written greater than the standard tunes; you can't beat the Ellingtons, the Hammersteins, the Gershwins— they were incomparable. There were just so many great writers years ago— those songs will go on and on and on. The new ones seem to fade out. When you're lost for a song to play— if you play one of the standards, everybody knows it. The old tunes are like the older musicians— they just keep going. As we say, they're like wine— the older it gets, the tastier it gets.
There are a lot of great young jazz musicians; the only thing, they just don't have the proving grounds that the older musicians had. We had Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Teddy Hill, Teddy Wilson— so many great big bands to play with, and that taught you how to play with different musicians. Also, we had places to play in New York, like Dickie Wells' and Monroe's Uptown House— places where we could go and sit down and jam. And learn. But now there's nowhere for them to do that; they only play on records, which isn't a good format for a jazz musician. You have to get out, be active in it, and prove yourself. Today, they make so much money, and they are really not accomplished musicians. I think the electronics have done more harm to music than anything else, because that covers up the sound. If you've got quality, you don't need electronics. That's been a great hindrance to a lot of the young musicians. When you turn one of the electronic systems up loud, all you can hear is just a blur; you don't hear the beauty of the instrument, as in its natural way of being played.
Then a lot of the rock ‘n’ roll music that has been successful has been played by jazz musicians. Like, I made many records at Motown, with the Supremes and so on. The difference is: a jazz musician can play rock ‘n’ roll, but a rock ‘n’ roll musician can't play jazz. It's another trip to the bank, to me, though it's not what I love to play. What's written on the paper, that's what I play— but you don't put the feeling into one of the rock/ pop tunes that you put in a Gershwin song, a Duke Ellington song, or some from the Broadway shows.
But I think the younger musicians are getting more aware of jazz now—because you have a lot of great jazz bands now in colleges and schools. Clark Terry has devoted a lot of his time to giving clinics at a lot of the schools; so have Louie Bellson, Mary Lou Williams. I have a Duke Ellington Fellowship at Yale University, that twenty of us got before he passed; we should go back and teach once a year. And the jazz enrolment has risen to about 4,000 students there now.
That is one of the reasons why you hear a lot of young jazz musicians nowadays—they're becoming more aware of the American art form that jazz is. Yes, they're becoming aware of the roots. The rock ‘n’ roll seems to be diminishing— slowly. If the electronics eases up too, things will be much better—I really don't agree with all that. I mean, Oscar Peterson doesn't use any of it, and I think he's a fantastic piano player; he is just the epitome of his profession. He's one of my great friends, and I'm a great admirer of his.
I really got a great pleasure out of the duo album we did together. It was a challenge. I played many an album with Art Tatum years ago, and they're both similar. You know, when they get through playing, there's nothing else for an instrument to play; so you'd have to play in between. It goes back to what Benny Carter always says: "It's not how much you play in a solo that's important—it's what you leave out." Working with only a piano would've been difficult had it not been him—but he's one of the pros, and it's great. I got a real joy out of making it; it's always a joy to play with people who are diligent about their instruments. And, as you know, he's very diligent about the piano—that comes through his playing. Sales-wise, too, I think tbe album was pretty successful.
Recently, I made an album for Pablo, who I'm signed with, called "Simply Sweets". I like it very much, because there were some very nice tunes .that I played on there, and I had a good rhythm section. I had my regular pianist that I have in California, Dolo Coker; I had the drummer who's appearing here with Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Smith; and a good young Los Angeles bass player, Harvey Newmar. And, naturally, Eddie Davis was on it with me.
Copyright © 1970, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved