Jazz Professional               


Back to that applause

Back to that applause
The broadening world of a player/writer
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1982

The engagement at the Pizza Express went very nicely except for the abominable weather one weekend. It was pretty slow there, as a result; every place in town was that way, but it was no consolation, of course. After that cleared up, we did fine, and it was a lot of fun. This was my third engagement there; I like the place very much. It’s small, but there are advantages in that; sometimes when you play in a big place and you don’t have a full audience, it really looks empty, and it’s kind of depressing. We have a very nice crowd there very knowledgeable, very attentive and I always enjoy playing there. Since I’ve been there three Januarys in a row now I guess they like me.

I’m doing mostly playing now, and enjoying it a lot. I did more writing than I had expected to do in 1981, because I had a show in New York, Sophisticated Ladies, and that took up quite a bit of time. But ever since last Spring I’ve been playing practically continuous.

Sophisticated Ladies is a big smash success. It’s all Ellington music. There’s a lot of music in it, and there’s no dialogue whatsoever in between musical numbers. Some of the music was taken directly off of recordings, which was very difficult.

The earlier the recordings were, the more difficult it was, because of the poor fidelity. It was sort of a problem to keep the Ellington flavour in the music and also to fit the routines that the choreographers and vocal directors had worked out. You had to please a lot of people; some want it to be more of a showbiz kind of thing, while some want it to be more pure Ellington well, you can’t please everybody. But when a thing is a success it doesn’t matter what went on beforehand.

It was a great education for me, working on his music, and getting to listen to it. There was not much chance to inspect his scores, because they don’t exist, for the most part they’re all in warehouses, and rat–eaten, on little scraps of paper.

It’s really incredible, what he did. He wrote in no conventional way; he put the saxes on one line, the trumpets on one line, the trombones on another line, and just chord symbols, with little cues and notations as to who would play what but very sketchy. Well, he knew his musicians, and he wrote for them specifically.

Fortunately, the producers were aware of the fact that the choice of musicians would be very important that they had to get musicians who understood Ellington’s music, and could play with the kind of passion that was always associated with it. And they assembled a very fine group of musicians some from Mercer’s band and some from the New York scene. Very soon now a Los Angeles company is going to be opening, and it’s very possible that they’ll be sending one here I certainly hope so; I think you’ll enjoy it. As I say, there are no lulls in it everything is a direct segue, and it’s a very entertaining show. It’s been running in New York for just about a year now.

I’ve had some experience of writing for the stage before this, but not much I haven’t specialised in that particularly. Latterly, as I’ve been playing more, I’ve been cutting down on it, but I’ve done quite a bit of work for television through the years. I’m getting some calls, but I’m being very selective about it these days. I never really stopped playing, but I wasn’t playing continuously like I’m doing now.

There’s a lot of pressure and a grind in writing; you’re always working on a deadline. Frankly, my eyes aren’t so hot, and I don’t care to strain them further. And I’m enjoying playing very much and I like travelling. Writing is a very solitary and sedentary kind of life, whereas when you play you’re with people, and it’s instant gratification. I like applause I have a little bit of ham in me, and I enjoy it. You don’t get that with writing; the rewards come later on, in hearing it.

As for working with Zoot we don’t do it as much as we used to, but occasionally. In December we played two-and-a-half weeks together in Chicago; then we had a week in New York at a new club called the Blue Note it was the week that New Year’s Eve fell in. And we’re going to do a return engagement there around Easter time for two weeks. We have a week’s series of concerts in Stockholm in June, I believe it is. So, from time to time we get together. Well, people still remember us. But I enjoy playing without Zoot, as he enjoys playing without me then we enjoy playing with each other also. Since we’ve kind of been working on our own, he’s got his repertoire and I’ve got mine; so when we work together, going back to our old repertoire is refreshing, really. Getting any new things to do is easier said than done, because he comes in from one place, I come in from another place, and we get together we don’t have time. However, we have enough stuff that’s arranged, and we have a rapport between the two of us we can always do things that maybe are a little different.

No, Zoot and I haven’t made a record together in recent years he has an exclusive contract with Pablo, I have one with Concord; so for the present there’ll be no recording together. That’s the way it is but nothing lasts forever. If it were possible for some deal to be made, that would be very nice I think it’s a very slim chance, though.

On Concord I’ve been a part of a few albums. One is with four tenor saxophones who played with Woody Herman at different times Flip Phillips, myself, Bill Perkins and Sal Nistico and that’s due to be released some time in the Spring. Last Summer in Tokyo we were on tour with the Concord group, which consisted on Buddy Tate, Scott Hamilton and myself on tenors, Cal Collins on guitar, Dave McKenna on piano, Jake Hanna on drums and Bob Maize on bass, and we recorded a concert there live that should be out some time in the near future. I did an album on my own called “Non Pareil”, which I was just told has been nominated for a Grammy. Now my next one for them is overdue; I recorded “Non Pareil” in April of ‘81, and I’m supposed to do two a year. I’ve been so busy travelling on the road that I haven’t had a chance to; but I expect to do that in early Spring, and I’m going to use my son, Joe Cohn, on guitar as to the rest of the personnel, I have several thoughts on that.

Joe and I were here, at the Pizza Express and also on tour, last January. And we’ve worked other times together at the Newport Festival, several other jobs in New York, and elsewhere. He’s twenty-five now, and really an up-and-coming player, I think. As a youngster, he never seemed to show much interest in the saxophone; he got very interested in the guitar all at once, and from then on he was obsessed with it. I’m afraid I didn’t give him much musical aid myself except to tell him that he had to learn all the tunes.

Well, I don’t believe in making things too easy; not that you can, really but everything he learned, he learned on his own, and it sticks with them better, I think. I don’t mean to imply that he didn’t have training; he had good teachers, and he went to Berklee, in Boston. He and his wife live in Boston; she’s a musician also she plays piano and sings. They’re both working very hard, and doing fairly well, I think. He’s very interested in all kinds of jazz he listens to everything. He’s a little frustrated, because he has to play other things too. Although he really enjoys doing the other things as well but he’d like to be out there on the circuits doing jazz.

He does a lot of weddings and private parties, and he plays bass fiddle also. Which he plays pretty well; he says guitar is his instrument and bass is his hobby. I think that you’ll be hearing a lot about him.

Of course, there are several second-generation players making their marks now.

My Woody Herman connection continues, to some extent. Yes, people still remember those days that band in particular. This record that I talked about, with the four tenors Woody produced that album for Concord Records; he was there, and he played an alto solo on one of the sides “Tenderly”. I see Woody from time to time, and I did an appearance with Woody’s band at the Concord Music Festival this past Summer. And we had that Fortieth Anniversary concert that was really a thrill. Those charts we used to play in the ‘forties still sound good. It was a very nice thing.

Woody has a wonderful band right now, and they finally got that hotel thing together in New Orleans, where they’ll be going somewhere around thirty-five weeks a year. Which will be very nice for Woody, and for the band to just be in one place, to be able to sit back, and maybe get new music. Anyway, it’s really a fine group of musicians he has he always does.

I can’t say I’ve used that type of voicing since I was on Woody’s band, because that was a special thing it’s not often that you find three or four tenors on a band. We did use that type of thing on the four-tenor album. The other one, with Buddy Tate, Scott and me, was different; it wasn’t so tightly arranged it was pretty loose. 1 enjoyed both of them very much. Scott Hamilton is really a wonderful player, as well as a wonderful guy, and I think he’s got a great future.

Ninety per cent of the time I play as a quartet just myself with a rhythm section. That’s really what I like to do the best, because then I don’t have to worry about the material I just pick out what I like to do . Sure. I’m from the big bands but nothing stays the same. That was then; now is now. I still like the bands, but at my age I would find the road pretty difficult, to travel with a band. I don’t know how Woody does it well, some people thrive on it. But I’m certain that he’s happy to be sitting down for thirty-five weeks a year in one place. I never had a big band of my own-l wouldn’t want to be responsible for that large a group of people. You know, it’s a great responsibility. It’s nice to organise a big band for a specific record date or something, but that’s ah.

I do think the jazz scene is a healthy one nowadays. Jazz seems to come and go in cycles, and right now it’s an up time. For the last two or three years, it’s been definitely up.

This ‘cross-over’ thing has been going on, and there’s some very fine musicians playing that stuff. It doesn’t interest me particularly, in the way that straight-ahead jazz does. It’s hard to say whether it’s done anything to advance the jazz cause. I think the answer from the real hard-core jazz fans would be “No”. But maybe for the fringe people those that are maturing out of their adolescence it’s not a bad development. However, you must remember that jazz has never been the real popular music of the masses even at its hottest periods, it’s never that.

The thing is: you’ve got to go out and be yourself; if you’re going out with the idea of bringing the people round to your way of thinking, it may not work out. If it comes in the context of what you do, and it works out that way fine; if you don’t believe in it yourself, and you’re taking that cynical attitude, how are you going toget other people to believe in it? It’s got to be real. I have different feelings about different people. For instance, a guy like George Benson now there’s a guy who’s made a lot of money doing what he does, and as far as I’m concerned, everything he does is great. For me, he can’t make a mistake; he can play great jazz, or whatever you want to call it, he can also reach the people, and do it in a way that is himself it’s his. It’s always creative and it’s always fun. 1 don’t know George Benson, but I have a feeling that he just enjoys what he’s doing. If he makes money also, that’s nice.

 Copyright © 1982, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved