Jazz Professional               

Photo by Denis J. Williams


A Les Tomkins Interview

Parts 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - Gary Giddins in The Village Voice
Although I have interviewed Gerry Mulligan recently concerning more current events, my original meeting with him, backstage at the Royal Festival Hall, remains vivid in my mind, as it was of the ‘story’ nature. What I became thoroughly aware of on that occasion was what a highly articulate talker Gerry is. Had it been possible, I would have wished to chat with him frequently, but his visits to Britain have been sadly few and far between. In latter years we have seen Gerry’s baritone, soprano and writing gifts showcased in large settings with his big band and with the LSO. It is a pity we never saw the original Mulligan-Baker Quartet live, but we have enjoyed him in various other small group contexts, including a Dave Brubeck quintet in the Spring of 1989. Which was when this conversation took place. Les Tomkins in 1989 

The ten-piece Miles Davis band that recorded for Capitol was basically a rehearsal band. And it was a labour of love with everybody concerned. We worked on the music for that band, putting in the time writing, copying, rehearsing and all that for about a year. I don’t really remember how long it was. It may have been one whole Summer; it seemed like a year, whatever it was.

We never really thought about working with it, or what we were going to do with it. We did it because we wanted to do it. The ideas that went into it were marvellous; we were all contributing ideas, including the instrumentation itself. Which was the basic thing about it, that everybody was so taken with. So after a year of having a rehearsal band, we finally went in to record. And Capitol sent Pete Rugolo in to be the A and R man, to supervise the date. They felt that Pete, as a composer and arranger, would be able to record the band well.

I’ll never forget the first break that we took, after we’d been recording an hour or two; they were trying to get the sound together. I couldn’t understand why they were having such a problem recording this thing. It was so simple; we got a balance between ourselves. I’d known Pete a long time, with Stan Kenton’s band, and on the break he took me aside and said: “Listen, I don’t know what kind of sound you guys are going for. What is it you’re trying to get?” I told him: “What’s the difficulty? You’re trying to record the guys individually; you should be recording the ensemble as a whole, and saving yourself a lot of trouble.”

It was a shock to me that the guys in the control room had no idea what we were doing. And it seemed so simple and totally logical to us. People talk about innovations and evolutions and that kind of thing; I don’t understand about that nonsense. It’s like, all instruments are there to use all the time. We’d figured out an instrumentation that worked for our purposes. The thing we were looking for was the smallest possible ensemble to get the most possibilities of material for the writers to work with. Which we had, without falling into the traps of the dance-band type of section writing; these were the things we were trying to avoid.

Like, all instruments must blend with each other. It’s like the symphony orchestra technique, which you can do simply with strings. But horns are not so easy. You start way down on a low B flat on the tuba and you have a chromatic scale; you can match the colours all the way up, till you get to the top of the trumpet. Since then we’ve realised different ways we could have worked it out. We wanted a clarinet then, and I suppose if there’d been guys playing flute like there are now we’d have thought seriously about flute. I’ve always wanted a C trumpet on top, to have that same kind of facility without shouting. Because if you’re playing high Cs on a B flat trumpet man, it’s loud.

Of course, the things that guys do up there nowadays, we accept all that part of the vocabulary; but writing it, it comes out with such intensity. I always figured if you had a C or a D trumpet, that puts you down a third of a fourth and you’re playing that high melodically without the strain of blowing at the top of the register. Anyway, that was our ideal: to have the broadest orchestral spectrum with the fewest horns. I think we really made it; it’s a marvellous instrumentation. Without knowing what they were hearing, they recorded it.

The first date, I think, actually came out the best of any of them. We did, I suppose, three or four dates, and there were a lot of different guys on some of them. When we did the later ones, we weren’t rehearsing any more. Miles was really the guiding spirit, as far as putting the band to work. That’s why it was his recording band; he was the one who wanted to record it. It’s hard for people to imagine Miles in that role the aggressive young bandleader. But boy, he was out there cracking the whip over us!

I suppose Miles selected the musicians. I don’t really remember it so clearly, because my involvement was more on a theoretical level with Gil Evans. I’ve always thought of it more as Gil’s baby than mine, because what we had ultimately was a reduced version of the idea1 Claude Thornhill band. Gil had talked Claude Thornhill into an instrumentation that was marvellous to write for. Using the dance band as an orchestra. Claude’s band wasn’t like any other at all; it was really a symphonic approach.

The wild thing is, you can make it swing. Not to say the symphony can’t swing; you can hear the hardest swinging things in the world. The Russian composers, especially, tricked the symphony orchestra into the kind of dynamic, rhythmic thing. So it can swing, but that’s really something else. The point being that, with the kind of sound that Thornhill’s band made, it wasn’t only the french horns governing it. They always used two clarinets on top. Whatever else was going on. I think at various times Claude had seven reeds. And the clarinet players were Irving Fazola and Danny Polo, who was from Indiana, but first went over to the States with Geraldo. What a beautiful player!

This gets into the personal aspect; it was the beautiful, big sound these guys made combined with the way they orchestratedit. That long, long conception of slow, floating movement. So we were trying to get that same kind of possibility with the smaller Miles Davis band. We really only scratched the surface, but between us all we wrote some lovely music and it was a great band. The kind of thing you could wish we had now. We’re all twenty years older, and we wouldn’t have all of the same musical problems. I was struggling with my horn then; I didn’t really play the baritone at all well, I don’t think. Now, I have control of the instrument, I only wish I could play those things over again.

As for my original quartet - that meant something else. It was using the baritone as a voice in a way that I was trying to do. All the time with the early quartets I was constantly striving to perfect a particular technique. I didn’t have a piano because the thing I wanted to do was relate totally to the bass and serve the accompanying function with the baritone, you see. Which is logical linear thinking. Eliminating the piano means that I’ve always worked closer with the bass than most players. A lot of players do listen to the bass, but most guys listen more, say, to the drums. And it’s quite possible a lot listen to the piano whatever the basic set-up of your rhythm section is. But I’ve always been bass-orientated with everything I do, and it’s the nature of the instrument. Because to me the interest in what I play is the intervals that I hit with the bass. Constantly shifting intervals, you know, and we get lovely little things between ourselves. And in that initial group, I had the most perfect possible foil to work with in Chet Baker.

I’ve never yet to this day played with a musician who’s quicker or less afraid to make a mistake than Chet. Man, we would sail into some songs as a group . . . we’d never played it before, never discussed it it’d sound like an arrangement. People would think it was an arrangement: “You must lock it in like that and play it that way always.” Modulations; endings this is the wild thing. On one hand it’s so simple, making endings; and yet it can be so hard. Because everybody’s trying to avoid the clichC. Chet and I would roar into the cliché with open arms, take it, turn it around, twist it inside out, tie bows on it, and it would come out as just an ideal ending. And his facility . . . I’ve never been around anybody who had a quicker relationship between his ears and his fingers. He was just uncanny the kind of real control; it’s as simple as breathing with him.

The intellectualising that people have done on jazz, I think, hung up guys like Chet Baker. You know: “What stylistic approach do you espouse, Mr. Baker? Do you go for the hard-blowing sort of thing or . ..” Probably he read somewhere, after we first recorded, that he reminded somebody of a cross between Bix Beiderbecke and Miles Davis. Well, I think it upset him, and he was never the same. That sort of comment shouldn’t throw a player, I suppose; but I believe Chet was kind of a freak talent. He came along; there’s no figuring out where his influences were, where he learned what he knew. It’s something that seldom happens, a talent that comes out in full bloom.

So the social and intellectual/critical scene that goes with jazz was what destroyed him. Then he became very self-conscious of what he was doing. And that had been the biggest attribute that attracted me to Chet’s playing his complete lack of self-consciousness. It’s the same quality you can recognise in anactor. You can appreciate an actor who is unself-conscious and spontaneous; the whole thing is together. Boy, they get self-conscious, and then you can’t believe anything they do. It’s a shame. Well, I guess there’s no point in rambling over our long-lost youth. No, nothing lasts forever.

Nonetheless, it’s a pity that Chet and I weren’t together longer. For me, anyway, because I would have liked it. That was really a case of the vicissitudes of business. We were making 78 r.p.m. lo-inch records in those days. Even with what you think of as The Birth Of The Cool band, they didn’t make albums yet; that didn’t come out on an album for about six or seven years after we made those dates. When we did the first things with Chet, they were making 10-inch 33 albums, but they put them out as singles. They had such a response with sides like “Bernie’s Tune”, “Lullaby Of The Leaves”, “Nights At The Turntable”. Then the Fantasy album, which had “Line For Lyons”, “Frenesi”, and stuff like that.

We were getting tremendous air-plays on all kinds of stations. Like, here’s poor old isolated jazz getting plays on pop programmes. But it’s the kiss of death. If it were only as simple as overexposure! But the thing was, they said: “Oho well, let’s see Chet should have his own band.” And they immediately recorded Chet and took him right away from me, you know. Chet had never been on the road with a band; he was totally inexperienced. He had no idea what it felt like to be travelling with a band. That takes some learning. You’ve got to work somewhere, even if it’s only doing club dates. To understand what working means, the responsibilities involved with moving a group of people and equipment from place to place. Making sure that everybody has their money, so they can pay their bills, their dues and whatever.

We were together, actually, for nearly a year-and-a-half. Probably a year of that time we worked steadily, full-time, six days a week at the Haig. I wanted very much for it to go on for a while, and it didn’t; so, as I say, it’s no good crying over spilt milk. Yes, Bob Brookmeyer took Chet’s place, when he came to Los Angeles. I’d known Bobby even years before that, because I’d worked with a group with Kai Winding, George Wallington, Red Rodney in Kansas City, and he was then a 17-year-old trombone player who used to come out and sit in with us. A beautiful player and a really lovely person. At the point when we had the quartet going, with Chet, Chico Hamilton and Bob Whitlock at the Haig, for a month or so at a club only a couple of blocks away, Stan Getz came in with the group that he had with Brookmeyer.

Stan loved the sound of our quartet, and they had adapted that kind of approach to what they were doing. Bobby wrote a bunch of beautiful arrangements for Stan, songs like “Rustic Hop”, that were really in our style. So when I realised that Chet was going to be a bandleader on his own and I was going to have to replace him, I called Bobby and asked him to do it. We discussed the problems, you know, of a trombone replacing a trumpet which was never intended to be the situation. Actually, ideally, if we had had our preferences, what we would have had was Chet and Bobby and me, because thethree of us could have done a three-horn front-line with the same kind of contrapuntal ease.

Bobby and I never had it that easy, because he was always stuck into that role of being a substitute trumpet player and like, trying to play lines against himself. These are the kinds of things that there’s no reason for people to be aware of, I suppose. But that strain always hampered Bobby with the group, and it was something we were always conscious of as well. We tried to do everything we could to alleviate it, but the only real solution would have been to have the trumpet with us. Ultimately we got into that with the sextet. When the sextet worked in clubs, we had the kind of freedom with it that we had with the first quartet.

That band used to roar in clubs. The second album that we made, some of the things were an indication of what it felt like, but never really to the full extent. Somehow we couldn’t capture it in the studio. In our live performances, we used to do kind of remarkable things; it would sound like such a big band. We’d have that presence, that big, wide spread-out sound of many instruments, when it was just the four horns, really. It’s such an emotional thing; if you can record it when it’s like that . . . And a couple of times we did, you know; it really sounded quite big.

We used to do a thing with the sextet that we never planned out, or thought about, or said: “We’re going to do this.” But by the end of the night, we would wind up with the four horns spread out across the stage. Jon Eardley would be over here, Zoot would be here, Bob would be here and I’d be here like, ninety feet apart. And it’s a presence of sound, you see. It happened so naturally, because we’d start out: here we are, the four horns in front of the microphone. As we went along, the whole thing just opened up.

Sure, Bobby and I have parallel thinking, especially playing together. The kinds of things that we can do with improvised counterpoint, or improvised accompaniments, we can serve the function that a piano player does with his left hand. It’s easy for the piano player, because he knows where his thumb and his little finger are; it’s not so easy with a pair of horns, but Bobby and I can do that, and it’s second nature. You know, it’s not all that remarkable; it’s a facility and a function that’s always been there. It’s the kind of thing that the Dixieland ensemble has always been based on. That’s the reason for my kidding around at times about being a Dixieland player; the whole ensemble idea is based solidly on exactly the things those guys understood so well. Boy, you hear a really first-rate Dixieland ensemble and it’s such a pleasurable instrumental sound. It makes you say “Yes-I love jazz.” Or “I love life”, if that’s where it is.

Take Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster they’re not Dixieland players at all; but what they are, what they have a sense of, is the ensemble player. Both of those albums that I made, with Johnny and with Ben, there’s that feeling of ensemble playing in everything we do. To me, it’s the thing that carries it over and gives it point and meaning. I don’t know to me, solos make sense in relation to the whole ensemble. If you’ve only got one horn playing, I still want the sense of ensemble. It’s the difference between line writing and solo playing which, if you have an ensemble sense, you can do.


Copyright © 1989, Les Tomkins - All rights reserved