Jazz Professional               



The man in front of the Miller music


The man in front
The welcome return
The teaming of the Titans
Clarinet discussion


Talking to Les Tomkins in 1970

This is actually your first time in this country, isn’t it?

The first time playing, yes. We came through England back in ‘55, when I was touring Europe with my own group, but we weren’t permitted to play, due to the Union situation. So I’m looking forward to it.

How long have you been leading this Glenn Miller band?

I took the leadership of the band in January, ‘66; so its four years.

You’ve had big bands of your own in the past, of course.

The last time I had my own big band was in 1950. It lasted almost a year. It was very costly, and wasn’t successful at all. Trouble was, I got a band at a time when big bands were really fading almost completely passé. But it was a good band.

Yes, I have some of the sides you recorded; nice writing, I thought. How would you say this band compares with others you’ve been associated with?

Well, the Glenn Miller band is actually an American fixture; it’s a part of the culture. And even though the overwhelming rock craze in the United States would lead you to believe that there’s nothing else going on, we see marvellous crowds. People who are very, very loyal.

Is it a varied crowd, or are they all older people?

Most of them are older, but the past year has been amazing, because we’ve seen many, many more young people beginning to understand and like the idea of a big band. Particularly the Glenn Miller band. That’s encouraging.

Do you personally feel a certain affinity for this music?

I should. I started way back in 1939, playing with Johnny ‘Scat’ Davis, Gene Krupa, Charlie Barnet, Count Basie, Ted Fiorito, Boyd Raeburn and Tommy Dorsey. In the ‘forties, I was with Tommy for five years.

So this is really your era.

Oh yeah. I was on the stage when it was all going on. I’m very happy about that, too. I like to see the youngsters getting with this music again, because it’s well worth it. It’s something of value, I think. Some of the rock stuff is fine, but that shouldn’t be looked on as the whole musical picture. Their ears need to be opened wider.

You started playing clarinet when you were twelve, didn’t you?

I was nine when my father first got me a clarinet. I had decided I would like to play saxophone, but my teacher in Philadelphia said that I should play clarinet first; then the saxophone would be easier to play. If you play sax first, the clarinet’s more difficult. So I began playing clarinet immediately, and I liked it so much that it seemed to be almost natural to me. And I continued to specialise on it. Of course, I picked up alto sax and played it in the bands, because you had to double—in those days, anyway. Then, when I left Dorsey in ‘47? I sold the alto and decided I was going to make it as a clarinettist.

That period, of course, was the outset of what is called the bebop era. And you’ve been cited as the man who translated the medium to the clarinet. Do you agree?

Yes, I would say that’s accurate; I’d like to believe it is, anyway. Because that was a great era and still valid musically.

Did you set out to capture in clarinet form the things that Charlie Parker was doing?

Oh, we were all influenced by Charlie Parker. He’s probably the major influence of the past fifty years; he’s made his mark in every corner of the music world. Without a doubt, he was a genius. Every one of us followed in his footsteps; we applied what knowledge we might have had and our own little personalities on the horn, but also adapted much of his to our particular instrument.

Having been working with big bands for years, did you feel you needed to move into a small group context in order to express your jazz ideas?

Sure, there’s a little more freedom. But aside from that, economically it wasn’t feasible to walk around with a big band. Necessity was the mother of invention right there, and it seemed to work out pretty good. However, I’ve always believed that any musician should do everything. I don’t think he should paint himself into a corner musically. I like any kind of music, if it’s valid. Including rock, even though it’s turned into a plague. To me, it’s very narrow to say: “I am a big band enthusiast, and therefore anything else is trash”. Or to like, exclusively, classical) or symphonic music. I just don’t believe in that.

But before you came on the scene, I think you’d agree that the clarinet had become very much identified with big band music, because of there being so many clarinet leaders. Your efforts tended to restore the instrument to jazz favour, in that you broke away from the stereotyped conception of it.

Well, I think it was necessary to do that, and also for my development. Because I did admire Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, from time to time I would copy things that they played. But after a while I began to realise that you can’t possibly stay with that idiom; you have to move forward. Also to say something of your own. Naturally, every musician in the world that I’ve ever met borrows from somebody; but if you can apply that and then add to it, in terms of what you have in yourself, that’s a must.

How did you feel about the criticism made at the time that, although you had one over on Goodman as regards technique, there was a certain coldness in your music? Did that kind of statement disturb you?

No, you become armoured and also much more tolerant. The more you see of critics and people, the more you .realise that there’s absolutely no definitive taste, and no accounting for taste. I’ve known people extol Charlie Parker and then in the same breath praise somebody who’s an absolute musical moron. So you know that they did get some sort of a message from a great performer, but by some strange quirk they also got a message from a musically inferior source. And critics are not exempt from this. Especially because most critics haven’t played anything. Or, if they did, they were failures. But this  doesn’t mean that they’re wrong in their thinking or their feelings; they criticise what they feel they have heard. Also the general public may not understand musically what jazz artists are doing, because they don’t have time.

On the other hand, Norman Granz seemed to hear more in your playing than those critics, because he teamed you on record with people like Lionel Hampton.

He sure did. We played with Lionel Hampton two weeks ago; we alternated bands and then Lionel and I played together on one number. It was really like old times. Just great; a very happy meeting. That’s another way that music has changed. Music was happier from the ‘thirties to the ‘forties. It’s much more sombre and grim now. Even the jazz—hate–jazz, we call it. Anger music. Partly because it reflects the times, I guess. But I do miss those happy sessions of the bebop, Dixieland and Swing eras. The ballads, naturally, were pretty emotional, but I think they were closer to the romantic love theme. You hear love expressed today in a very strange, tense manner—prolonged seizures of anxiety seem to be thrown in the music.

It can be said, I suppose, that the resurgence of the popularity of bands is a kind of a reaction against that.

Yes, that’s right. It really is.

In dealing with the Miller library, have you felt that you had to interpret all of it literally?

Oh, yes—it’s important to come just as close as we can. The newer things, naturally, have a newer feel rhythmically and so on, although they retain somewhat of a Miller flavour. But as far as the original Miller arrangements are concerned we don’t change them.

We give the soloists freedom on Miller music, because that’s exactly what Glenn gave Tex Beneke and Bobby Hackett. The only times there have been exceptions to that is when there was a very big hit record that was generated by a particular solo. For instance, “String Of Pearls” would require the Bobby Hackett cornet solo, because that was an integral part of it. So we keep that. In fact, what we did: we had one of our trumpet players, John La Barbera, who’s a fine arranger, transcribe that solo for four flugelhorns. It’s very effective.

Have you added to the book yourself since you’ve been with the band?

Sure. I’ve also found some marvellous old Bill Finegan arrangements that were in the library in New York. Not very familiar ones. We brought them out again, because I think they’re worth hearing. Many of the Glenn Miller ballads, especially, although they were not forgotten, were kind of put away for some years; we’re getting back to a lot of them. As many as we can, anyway.

In a sense, it’s ideal to have a clarinet player as the leader, since the clarinet lead idea is the Miller sound.

Yes, but I don’t play the lead clarinet. I have an excellent teenage fellow who plays most of the lead alto and all the lead clarinet; he’s about the closest to. the original I’ve ever heard. His name is Al Goodling. I play some of it, at times.

So what is your function, apart from directing the band? You come in with separate solos. do you?

Separate solos, yes—on the new things. The only solo I play in the old library is “Bugle Call Rag” because that’s a clarinet jazz solo. For the first hour I don’t play at all. I’ve tried my best to divide the show into two distinct segments, the first being all the old Glenn Miller favourites—as many as we can get in. The second half is a combination of some of the old things and predominantly new material that we think is very good. And we include a little portion of the jazz quartet, to change the pace, and so that I can stretch out  with my clarinet.

Oh, good—I’m glad that’s in there somewhere. I always enjoyed things like the quartet recordings you did for MGM. Great stuff.

Thank you. Yes, with Kenny Drew and Art Blakey; that was a good group.

How do you feel about the young musicians? Obviously, seeing the men come into the theatre tonight, there’s a lot of young faces.

Oh my gosh—they’re mostly in their twenties.

Yes—but they can identify with this music, can they?

Absolutely. There’s a tremendous big band programme—they’re called stage bands—in the high schools in the United States. There are over eight thousand. And, of course, each college has a dance band or stage band of its own. So—fortunately—we have many fine young players. We have some players in this band who came out of rock groups. They just got tired of the sameness. This is part of growing up, I think. They like it; they’re very dedicated. They have to be dedicated to put in the schedule we do. Because we operate fifty weeks a year—mostly one nighters. We only get about a month off: it’s very hard work. These young fellows are all very serious musicians.

And they feel that they’re getting enough scope here?

Oh sure. Actually, this show’s musical content is from the late ‘thirties to 1970; it runs the gamut. So they get a really broad scope here.

You’d say you’re initiating an audience, would you, by leading them from something familiar to them into other arenas?

What we’re doing, Les, is initiating two audiences. We also initiate the young people—backwards. And once they hear the idea of the band in the Glenn Miller music, they like the old stuff as well. I’m just hoping to get more young listeners. But I don’t believe in forcing them. As an educator or parent, I would never say: “Well. you have to listen.” If that were the case, then I would never have listened to the big bands. Because my parents and grandparents were unhappy about jazz and big bands and Swing. So without telling them they must, I do believe they should listen and give it a fair chance.

Initially, I suppose, they have it set up in their minds that this is dated and stale.

Yes, you know, many times youngsters come in and say: “By gosh, we thought we’d see nineteen old men!” They can’t get over it. They also can’t get over the fact that this band not only plays all the old Miller things, but also plays today’s music, that they can relate to. I think it’s important. I’m sure Glenn would do just that.

It’s good to hear you say that, because over the years there’ve been bands that have tended to recreate the sound, without deviating from it or trying to progress from it in any way. But obviously, had Glenn Miller lived, he wouldn’t have stood still with a set formula, would he?

No—he did not. In fact, his Air Force band was quite different from the original civilian band. It was more progressive, more developed, more in keeping with the mid–‘forties, you see.

So, you try to think in terms of what he would be doing now as well as what he did then?

Yes. And fortunately for me, the formula has worked; so I guess he was right. When you look into it, you can see his development.

You haven’t ever felt this feeling—you know, this kind of operation has been called a ‘ghost band’—of standing in somebody else’s shoes.

No, I think it’s a very healthy thing. It’s not really a ghost band as such. Because then you can say that General Motors or Ford or the telephone companies that continue to exist are ghost organisations. Or any art form—simply because you use old techniques that have proven themselves. If it stands the test of time—right—you use it. I’m like an executive for this music. Which is all right with me.

Yes, but you can appreciate that there are people who saw you originally as a sort of a trail–blazer for modern jazz and might not be able to reconcile that with your being identified now with something out of the past. There’s presumably no problem in your mind of relating the two.

No, not at all. Besides, I grew up with it; it’s a part of me. I was around when bands were very big. I can relate to that as well as to new jazz.

Can you see this as a possible stepping–stone to maybe eventually having your own band again—to do a library of its own?

No—if I left the Miller organisation and went into something else, it would be something else. Probably a small group again. I doubt very much if I would jump into the idea of a big band. Unless I had that secret formula—a new formula that might work; that’s fine—then you can take it from there. But to try and manufacture something—I would never do that.

You seemed to be trying, to some extent, with that MGM big band you had, to use the clarinet in a different way, as a voice in front of the band.

I did try—right. And the five clarinets together was unique. Of course, it didn’t work; I had to abandon it. I lost a lot of money. The problem is, nobody knows whether a thing will click or not.

Anyway, I hope this will be the forerunner of your making other visits—maybe to do more than just concerts. I suppose you play as many dances as concerts in the States.

We play more dances. Oh, we have an excellent dance band—probably the best in the country.

Copyright © 1970, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.