Variety and its virtues
How to succeed
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1983
The recent reunion of the Jazztet was a special gathering, because, as you know, we’re not an ongoing group any longer. We’ve had a period of about twenty years where we weren’t together; we were doing things individually—pursuing our own careers. Actually, it came about through someone who lives here in England—a fellow named Alexander Zivkovic. He called me and asked me: was it possible for J.J. Johnson and I to come over and play some festivals as a quintet? I called J.J., but he’s busy doing film scoring and whatnot, and he just felt that he didn’t want to leave—he might miss a good picture while he was gone. That happened to him once—when he went to Japan. So that killed the quintet, whereupon he asked me if I had any other ideas. I had a couple of ideas, one of which just popped into my mind somehow.
I wasn’t thinking seriously about it—I just said it: “Unless we could put the Jazztet together again for this thing.” And he answered at once: “Sensational idea! Terrific! Let’s pursue it.” As we were in the process of pursuing it. . . Art Farmer and I were in Japan—not as the Jazztet, but just as individual soloists, backing Nancy Wilson. Of course, we had our own spot prior to her coming onstage. And they got wind of it, that the Jazztet would be doing these things over here—and the Japanese are so astute in business that they grabbed hold of the idea, and we actually performed and recorded there as the Jazztet before we got here! As a matter of fact, we’re supposed to go back in February of next year, and play and record again.
Anyhow, this idea has worked out to our advantage—it seems like the people were really glad to see us back again, if only on a temporary kind of basis, or on isolated instances such as festivals. We opened in New York initially, doing three or four days at a club there, and John S. Wilson came down for the New York Times; he gave us really a terrific review. One night we got a standing ovation—you would have thought we’d just got through performing Hamlet or something. Then all our festival appearances were very positive; we didn’t have one bad review. So we feel very good about that, and it gives us some sort of inspiration and impetus to go on and do even greater things.
Of course, in twenty years, as you might expect—since the world changes, people change and obviously music is going to change too—our musical approach is just a little different from the way it was then. Although there’s some nostalgic things, like “Whisper Not” and other tunes, that we do. But I’ve written a lot of new tunes that we’re doing, and we’ve moved away somewhat from the hard, straight–up–and–down, strict harmonic kind of approach. I have lines moving, and harmony when it’s necessary, so that when we do hit something that’s a chord it’s more meaningful rather than having chord following chord following chord. Yes, more flexible—that’s the word. We feel it’s a little more free, even in a composite situation; there’s a certain homogeny, but yet there’s a certain individualistic feeling as players. We’re not so restricted, even when we’re playing ensemble, as we were before. And when you have men surrounding you who do what they do very well—this is the springboard.
When Art and I first got back together, we had a lot of rehearsing to do. After twenty years, there was almost nothing there. But we put it together, and I had some of the music there at my house anyway. And we’d been talking over a period of time; so we were actually able to formalise, at least in our minds, certain directions that we were going to take now. It was just a matter of taking things off the drawing–board and applying them in a human way, so that people could hear them.
But, you know, there was a period there when I didn’t open my saxophone case in almost ten years. In ‘75 I started to come back—and it was like recovering from a stroke. It was like I’d never played the instrument; it felt like a piece of plumbing from the kitchen in my hand. My mind seemed like it wanted to go ahead—my fingers were those of a dead man; my lips were like ripe tomatoes. It was quite a physical struggle. I had no muscles in my lips or in my jaws; it was painful, it was tiring. I sounded so bad, I was even embarrassed for my wife to hear me! It’s coming on now, though, and I found that in the interim, even though I never touched the horn, evidently my mind was active—so that when I picked the horn up again I discovered my style had begun to change. Having noticed a change in ‘75, it’s now changed from that period. I hope it’s changed good, and not bad. . . it seems that people like it.
Even when I started to play again, I wasn’t playing on a regular basis, because I was still writing—doing pictures, TV, commercials for television and things like that. So I found that I was only playing one period of time during the year—that was festival time; maybe two months out of the Summer. And not necessarily two months—maybe only two to three weeks or whatever.
After which I put my horn in the case and waited for the next Summer to roll around again. Whatever progress I was involved in was coming very slowly, because I wasn’t really at it in a Spartan–like way. Now the last couple of years I’ve decided to try to approach it in a very serious and ongoing way, so that I’m playing more and whatever is developing in my style will develop more quickly, without the tiring effort of overcoming the long periods of abstinence in between.
It’s just a matter of what my endeavour in life is, as a musician. I do other things, for which the remuneration is much greater than playing as a performer—yet I feel I don’t want to throw away what I’m doing as a performer, because I enjoy it and I love it. It’s as though I have two wives; you know, you love them both—you don’t want to throw one over for the other. If you see one falling by a little bit, you quickly try to grab her back and assure her that you do love her, in fact. So that’s what it is now—I’m trying to create some kind of balance; I’m trying to keep these things in mind. Because once I get interested in the writing and my whole being is going in that direction, unconsciously the playing slips aside. And vice versa—once I get into playing, I enjoy that so much, the balance begins to shift. Then I have to become aware of what I’m forsaking in terms of the writing, and take care to keep that balance.
I think I’ve played maybe three jobs in Los Angeles since I’ve been there—and I’ve been there fifteen years.
When I went there originally, I was really trying to get established in that end of the movie industry—as a composer—and I felt I had to play down the fact that I had been known before as a jazz musician. Because very quickly they put the jazz label on you there—and then you’re restricted in what assignments you can get. I didn’t want that—so I didn’t take any jobs. As a result, I didn’t play all those years, but it did give me a foothold on what I wanted to do. I’ve written for all kinds of’ dramatic situations on the screen—without restriction. but now that I’ve established that, and that’s not a problem . . . I just felt I was a little tired of doing that one thing, and I wanted to do other things. So obviously I came back to what I knew best—jazz.
Although I’m miles away from it now, I feel that when I was involved in that big tenor sound kind of concept, it benefitted me—I didn’t feel lost in any way. We have to build on things that we learn from our peers; otherwise we have no direction at all. If you never heard anybody play anything at all, you’d just sound like a braying mule, I guess. So you draw on the things that happen to appeal to you; the sound of Don Byas appealed to me in particular—he was my real idol. And, of course, out of that same school came Coleman Hawkins; Lucky Thompson was a student, and Ben Webster played his own variations. As I went along, I became more exposed to other concepts—namely Dexter Gordon; when I heard his “Blue ‘n’ Boogie’’ with Dizzy Gillespie, I just fell off my chair. That concept was so different.
John Coltrane and I were good friends. He was playing alto at the time, and he then began to switch back and forth between tenor and alto, until gradually he let the alto go. He was a tremendous alto player; it’s too bad people didn’t know him as an alto saxophonist—I haven’t heard anybody that matched that yet. But we both became enraptured by Dexter Gordon—and we sounded like Dexter Gordon students. So did many other tenor saxophonists in Philadelphia at the time.
Thankfully, we only used that as a stepping–stone—we didn’t want to let any individual come in and take us over so much that our own personalities got lost. Unfortunately, that happens today—you hear so many saxophones trying to imitate John Coltrane, and whoever they might be, that personality is inundated, it’s submerged, it’s lost. And they become only frail, anaemic imitations of what John Coltrane was. See, there was only one John Coltrane. They can play the notes that he played, but they don’t capture the feeling that he had; so it’s an imitation—and it’s tragic, I think. By far the better thing to do is to use him as a model, but to bring your own personality into play. It’s the one who is the creator, the bulwark, the pioneer that’s given the glory—not the imitators. John Coltrane has come and gone, but Sonny Rollins is still Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson is still Joe Henderson, Al Cohn is still Al Cohn, Zoot is still Zoot. They’re individuals. Yet I’ve been not only in cities in the United States but whole countries where just about all you hear are people trying to be the incarnation of John Coltrane. Running up and down the horn that way is a fine thing, but I’ve not heard one yet, of all of the imitators, who comes up to what he actually did.
Unfortunately, I must say I’m not familiar with the work of Michael Brecker; I’ve only heard by word of mouth from other saxophonists: “Oh, boy—he can really play.” And I know the people who tell me that must be right—they know what’s going on in music. It’s my loss not to have heard him, because evidently the man is professional in what he does. If he has his own style, that’s noteworthy.
As for Scott Hamilton—it’s almost anachronistic, I guess, that he, being young today, is playing a style from yesterday. If that’s what he feels, who’s to put him down for doing that? We all have something to say—we don’t all say it in the same way. And it has value; just because it doesn’t compare with the time, or it does compare with another person’s ability, because a person might appear to sit there and not move ahead—let’s face it, styles from yesterday are not necessarily dead, but they do not move ahead, and the world does move ahead—they shouldn’t be criticised for it. They’re doing what they feel, and, after all, isn’t that what jazz is all about? We strive so hard to play what we feel.
J. J. Johnson said to me one time. . . and he was playing so great in those days—just before he left Miles, I think. . . I heard him say in sort of a disgusted way: “Ah—if I could just play what I think.” Here’s a man who’s just playing the horn to pieces. I heard Charlie Parker say the same thing. Striving is a perpetual thing; without it, a player becomes satisfied, he settles down, he’s no longer adventurous. He stays in one place, and the world passes him by; I call it automatic retrogression.
When you stop, it’s not the nature of the system of things and people’s concepts to stop; so it’s a relative thing—they go ahead, and you wind up behind.
I contend too that you need this restlessness that I saw so much in John. He practised like a man with no talent—and he had tremendous talent. He was never satisfied; he went through distinct periods—and each time he got to the new period he was striving for, he wanted to go somewhere else. You get from here to there, and then you see new vistas. I do think that this is one of the basic ingredients for progress—be it in music, architecture, business, whatever it might be—that restlessness to go ahead.
Never being satisfied. Otherwise, people would still be riding around in 1940 automobiles; everyone would be satisfied. We’d still have propeller planes, biplanes and things like that. But it’s that restlessness that causes the world to move ahead.
Yes, the direction you go to from somewhere else could be a blind alley—sometimes it is, that’s true. However, I was only looking at the positive side. I’m thinking about people like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie—who broke out of the traditional mould, as it were. But we have heard evidence of some of these people who go into a blind alley.
When you talk about Miles—there you have to be careful. See, it’s a matter of what satisfies the man—and he’s entitled to do that. You know, if he wanted to play trumpet and tap–dance at the same time, then that’s what he felt he had to do. Now, whether or not we like it is something else. But I never put a person down for trying to do what they feel they want to do. It’s like what Voltaire said: “I disagree with everything you say, but will fight to the death for your right to say it.” It’s that kind of viewpoint.
Now we have Wynton Marsalis—his playing has been compared to earlier Miles, but it’s even more than that. He’s got tremendous talent; I don’t think he’s really honed his talent to a razor’s edge yet. He hasn’t fine–tuned it; so right now his approach might be a little broad.
Sometimes you might hear a little Miles; sometimes you might hear—and I hate quoting these names—other trumpet players. But as he continues to do what he’s doing now, obviously he’s going to reach a more mature concept. It’s just a matter of time; I’m sure his talent isn’t going to lessen any—it’s not a debilitating thing that he’s going through, but just the opposite. So that what we hear today is an indication of where he might be going tomorrow, as far as talent, ability and concept. I wouldn’t call it raw talent—he’s not that directionless. The fact is, he’s got so much talent, and he can do so many things, that he’s trying to do it all. It’s now a matter of being selective, and bringing it right down to what Wynton Marsalis is all about—I think he’s just on the threshold to that. But it’s a real treat to hear him.
As we talk about him, there’s another fellow from the same hometown that he’s from, and I think he’s twenty years old too. He, like Wynton did, is playing with Art Blakey—his name is Terence Blanchard. Also you’ve got to check the alto player out whenever Art’s group comes to town—this is the newest approach to alto since Charlie Parker. You have to hear him. When you first hear him, you might think: “Well, it’s like a tenor player playing alto”—but listen closely; it’s more than that. He’s got tremendous talent. Now, I asked him,—his name is Donald Harrison—how often he practised; he said: “As much as I can”. Which is a lot. The tenor player, Billy Pierce, is incredible too. They’re coming out of the woodwork now! I’ve got to tell you: Art Blakey gives tremendous encouragement to the aspiring musician. Freddie Hubbard and I talked about what he did to us, in a positive way, to help our musical feelings. I came on playing very saccharine, mellifluous, soft and personal, and he made a press–roll on the turn–backs that he’s famous for—and I just disappeared; I stood there pantomiming in the club. He taught me how to be a little more aggressive, how to play out—how to explode, along with him. He puts out such a driving force—even at seventy–one years old, it’s still there. It’s as though he’s got two hands in the lower part of your back, just pushing you on, inspiring you, making you go beyond what you think you can do. That’s amazing—so much so that when I left him for six months I had a terrible time playing with other drummers; I was so annoyed with what they played—I wanted to turn around and tell them to stop tickling the drums, and to play. And Freddie Hubbard said he had the same problem. We just fell into what he was doing; we became so accustomed to getting this feeling every night that when it was cut off it was a terrible experience. I look at him now: the white hair tells you that he’s got years; his talent and ability tell you that he’s Dorian Gray! He sounds like he’s also twenty years old—it’s incredible. Let’s call him the tenth wonder of the world!
Copyright © 1983, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.