An addiction to music

An addiction to music
Some dates to remember

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1987
Photo by Denis J. Williams

If it’s gratifying to you that I’m back in jazz, you can’t imagine what it is to me. I’m having more fun playing now that I ever had, and I don’t feel like I’m in great competition with all the other saxophone players. There are so many excellent saxophone players around the world right now, and rather than pitting myself and my abilities against them, I want to listen to them and when the chance comes to play with them, fine. I’m just more open to the music and the quality of it than I ever have been.

As we get older, the thing in connection with pushing yourself along musically is to continually surround ourselves with the young, for their fire and enthusiasm. What better example than Woody Herman? He even calls his group the Young Thundering Herd just letting you know that that’s where the fire is.

Right—we were all very young when we were with him; it’s true that he’s always had a young band. With the exception of all–star things, where he’ll put together people like Flip Phillips, Stan Getz, he still keeps it young. Some say: “Well, it’s because he can get the young, inexperienced players for less money” but I feel like there’s a whole lot more that he gets out of ‘em.

And the young musician you’ve heard with me on my two recent Hep albums, “Out Of Nowhere” and “Into Somewhere” —my trumpet player, Jon Pugh is truly remarkable. On the strength of the difference between the first one and the second.. . there was only a one–year period, but during that one year he has constructed about five years of growth, to my ears. In fact, on the second album I said: “Jon, I’ll just stand over at the side why don’t you do a song on your own?”—little expecting him to pick a nineteen–twenties song, “Avalon”, that he wasn’t even around for, and then very nearly steal the album away from me with it. On another, newer album he does “My Foolish Heart” just him and Marc Seales, our piano player. A beautiful song, beautifully played.

Yes, I went to school with Jon’s dad; then I watched Jon grow up as a high school trumpet player. After college he went on the road with a cocktail lounge–type entertainment group; he was out with them for a year or so, until he decided that wasn’t what he wanted to do, and he came back to Wenatchee, our home town. And I figured: as long as he’s here.. . at this point I have no one to play with only recorded rhythm section backgrounds; if nothing else, I’ll have a trumpet player. So I started writing these lines for he and I to play along with the Jamey Aebersold records.

That’s how it started. Well, first of all, we decided that we’d better get our vocabulary together; so I took him through all the major scales, the minor scales, the chords, the arpeggios and so forth. These were things that I got through college without learning, and I found he had gotten through college without learning them either. We just went back and studied basics together, and it was as good for me as it was for him. Actually, we got our timing with the scales as much as with the lines that we play. In fact, we go out into the schools and demonstrate, and tell the kids that you’ve got to learn your alphabet before you can write a letter to somebody. And Jon is a junior high school band director himself that’s his occupation. It’s really rather amazing that he has created kind of a world trumpet voice here from our little town of Wenatchee, Washington.

His jazz approach was developed and built right in the basement of our music store there, and it was not heard by many for years. We just practised down there that was the whole point of it. And when he asked me: “What trumpet voices have been the most important in your listening over the years?“, I gave him the Tony Fruscella Atlantic album that has “I’ll Be Seeing You” on it, and the Clifford Brown—Max Roach that had “Valse Hot” and “Pent–Up House” with the original Sonny Rollins. I said to him: “If you can extract all of the trumpet that you hear on these two albums, that’s all you have to listen to. You don’t need anything else.” Consequently, much of his personal style was built through Clifford Brown and Tony Fruscella on those albums. Plus he had been raised in a house where his dad played Harry James records and so forth; you know, things that were the pop music of our times were what he grew up listening to also—most kids don’t have that.

I was born in Wenatchee in 1928, and I grew up there, leading, at my father’s instigation, a high school band that usually had three saxophones, two or three trumpets, maybe a trombone, and a rhythm section. We played the old printed stock manuscript books; at that time you paid seventy–five cents apiece for ‘em now you pay twenty–five dollars. Our band was called the Melodeers; we travelled around to different high schools, little towns, playing their school dances and so forth. And whenever a name band, like Bob Crosby, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington or later, Stan Kenton would come to Seattle or Spokane we’re halfway between these two cities he would bundle up our whole band in the back of a station—wagon and take us to hear ‘em.

So I grew up hearing the big bands. Plus during the war, about 1941 or ‘42 through ‘45, there was a broadcast that was on every night, sponsored by Coca Cola, called Spotlight Bands, on which they’d have bands from different parts of the country, where they were playing live. You’d hear Jimmy Lunceford one night, maybe Freddy Martin the next and Count Basie the next every night a different band; there were so many travelling then. My dad had a machine that took the recordings right on to the old acetate discs, and he used to record those broadcasts for me—I still have a lot of those that I listen to. Also, he’d been a saxophone player himself; around the house in his own collection he’d have Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry and other people he liked. That was the start of it all for me. The shoot–down, unfortunately, came when I went to college, which meant leaving a small town of, at that time, about fifteen thousand people and moving to Chicago.

I was sixteen when I graduated from high school, turned seventeen during the Summer; I arrived in Chicago at seventeen in 1945 with returnees coming back from the War and going to school on the GI Bill which paid their schooling free when they got home. So my classmates are twenty–six, twenty–seven, twenty–eight years old and I’m seventeen. They introduced me to ‘life’, and I was just ripe and ready for anything that they presented to me. I started drinking some.

One of my high school teachers had said: “When you get to Chicago, bring me home some of that light green.” I didn’t know what that was, but I found out that it was a very high grade of Chicago marijuana; so, since a teacher had recommended it, I started into that right away.

And it wasn’t more than a year–and–a–half after arriving there that I was talked into: “If you think that’s good, wait till you try this.” It was the needle in the arm with the heroin, and I was off and gone. I became an addict, remaining so from about ‘47 through ‘51.

In ‘51 I returned to Wenatchee a ‘failure’. I had had good jobs; I’d done the records with Fats Navarro and Max Roach; I’d played with Woody’s band. I’d had good opportunity to play, but I was just a personal mess, getting busted and thrown in jail and so forth. An arrest took place in ‘51 when I was travelling with the Bob Hope show—a band put together by Sonny Dunham, the trumpet player. We were in Toledo, Ohio when I ran out of heroin; on a night off, I went to get some in Detroit. They saw me walking down the street with my coat collar up and said: “Come over here we want to talk to you.” They found what they were looking for, and I ended up in the Detroit County Jail and that was the first my parents knew of my addiction. They came and bailed me out; then we went to New York and got my phonograph, my tape recorder and my clarinet out of the pawn–shop—all the things that I had hocked to get money and we went back to Wenatchee.

At that point I was presumably hanging it up. But in 1952 I met my wife Midge; in 1953 we were married, and up to ‘57 I tried working in my dad’s music store. One day my wife said: “You’re dying aren’t you?” I said: “What do you mean?” She says: “I know you want to play.” I said: “Well I sure do.” So she said: “Well, let’s give it another try.” And we drove back to Boston, spent some time there, and then down to New York.

Once more I was back with Woody Herman, and I did trips with Claude Thornhill, Charlie Barnet, different bands that were going out on two–month, three–month things trying to re–create the old music again. It never really got re–created. In the process, this time around, I became an alcoholic—they were pouring me into bed every night.

Then, once again, I got busted with pockets full of marijuana; this was in Oklahoma, in ‘61 ten years later. I’d had another successful musical stay, but another fall–down personally. Back to Wenatchee, and for the next eight years I was in and out of jails for various things. My wife had overdoses of drugs and was in mental institutions and it was just an ugly eight years. In November of 1969 I met the Lord Jesus.

Back in 1950, before I ever knew her, my wife had gone forward in a Billy Graham Crusade in Minneapolis, before he ever left his home base; so it was easy for her to reverse direction again. That night we flushed everything down the toilet and it’s going on sixteen years since then.

Now I can go places with clear eyes and a smile on my face—a different ball game.

What happened originally was: a whole generation looked at their idols and said: “Well, if it makes them play that way, what will it do for me?” We just thought there was some magic ingredient to be had, but the only ingredient was: getting yourself physically addicted to something that made life harder and harder.

And you can go back and listen to records that were made under the influence and those that weren’t and there was no help musically. Bird used to tell the kids: “Don’t do what I do—do what I say. Try to avoid getting hung up on things I’m hung up in.” With alcohol especially, you can really think that you’re breaking through every musical barrier that ever existed and if you have the opportunity to listen to it later, when you’re sober, it’s usually kind of ugly. In fact, on the new “Don Loves Midge” album I mentioned one particular night that I was drunk while playing with Woody’s band. It was a broadcast from a club outside of Boston, and he called up a tenor feature on “Body And Soul” that the band had. I created what was to me, in my drunken state, probably one of the finest, most beautifully engineered tenor saxophone solos ever put down. After I had finished, Woody came over to me; he leaned over and said: “How can anyone take such a lovely melody and make it so ugly?”

Those words rang in my ears, and I tried to remember them while I was recording this ballad album that we just did. Because in most cases with those beautiful ballads there is no great necessity to create fantastic new melodies, since they had such a beautiful melody to begin with.

Making that album was a revelation to me too. I’d always told my wife: “Anybody can play a ballad” and I’ve found out, over these last few years, that they can’t. It was Midge who initially tried to get me to record a ballad album, after listening to those first two albums. Certainly, there are things on them that show my busyness as a saxophone player; I am—I was raised on “The Flight Of The Bumblebee” and winning contests for this ability. So I thought that was the essence of it all being busy. About two years ago, she was listening to the first of the two albums, and she said: “Doodle, doodle, doodle! Doodle, doodle, doodle! Is that all you can do doodle, doodle, doodle? Why don’t you just play me a pretty song?”

In the course of our romance together, we had always carried Stan Getz ballads with us in our record player. Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan. And Zoot Sims playing “My Silent Love” and “I Understand”, and some of those beautiful things. Yet I never really flirted with them myself; I would listen to others and appreciate it, but I didn’t really get into it. She said: “You know, Stan Getz knows how to stand up and play a pretty song for me.” So I mentioned this to Stan in Seattle a couple of years back, and he said: “Well, there may be some players around that swing more than I do but I’m very big with the ladies!” 

Copyright © 1987 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.