It's a struggle
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1973
This was my third experience at Ronnie Scott’s, and I’m very proud to say that it’s been very wonderful, playing for English audiences. The first time we used an English drummer, Tony Crombie, then we brought Jo Jones, and this trip we brought a drummer that I’m very familiar with, who has made a lot of records with me–Al Bartee.
So I’ve had two Christmases and two New Years in London, and I feel just like a European now. I would say it’s maybe a little quieter here at this time than Times Square. Because I live in New York, and I don’t think there’s no place like it at the changing of a year, with millions and millions of people’s heads on New Year’s Eve. I had a chance to be appearing at the Paramount Theatre in Times Square about fifteen years ago, with my eighteen–piece band. We used to come out on the roof and look down; all you could see was heads. Here it’s quieter, but you sure holiday it to death! You have a long rest here.
Well, I guess you can say that not too many of the original big–name jazz creators are still around now; nobody lives forever. But there’s still a few of us left, and we’re trying to make the best of it.
Music started for me when I was in high school. The school would furnish the instruments, and the youngsters would just pick up anything and start. As nothing else was available, I started playing drums. That became a packing problem; I wasn’t too satisfied with that. Then I started playing a little trumpet, which gave me a slight headache.
It was in 1938, when I was going ‘into my senior high school year, that the Count Basie band came through. And when I heard Lester Young and Herschel Evans with Basie, and Coleman Hawkins with Fletcher Henderson’s band, I knew that I was going to be a saxophone player, because I enjoyed what I heard so much.
Those two great giants with Basie were what really turned me on—for the tenor saxophone. Although I started on the little B flat soprano and went from there to the alto saxophone; I used to be crazy about Johnny Hodges and a lot of the great ones on the instrument. When I joined the Hampton band in 1940 was when I really switched to the tenor. He switched me. It was Lionel Hampton himself who came up with the idea that I should switch from the alto to the tenor; so that was the beginning.
That high–register playing? I had to stop playing that way when I went with Cab Calloway, who had a different type of band than I was familiar with; it was more of a society type of band. When I left the Calloway band, I was sort of let loose again.
This was 1944; I played with Jazz At The Philharmonic and that particular style really came out. The things that had been cooped up in me sort of caused an explosion, and the crowd would be all for excitement. So we just create anything like that as we go; no one plans it.
Today is altogether different. Now the young kids are playing like that, and I don’t even play like that no more. Isn’t that funny? It just shows you—when you’re young, you’re young. There’s no one to criticise but the younger ones now.
Oh, they chewed me up and called me everything, but it was selling at the time, and it was sort of new to me. I didn’t bother to read write–ups then, anyway; these things were never important to me. It was always the reaction of the people that I cared about. I’ve been playing among people all my life; I was a dancer once, and we’ve always been in show business. I always thought of the people before anybody.
But most of the things they accused me of doing, like laying on my back, I’ve never done. It was just that I created the excitement for the saxophone, and other players went from there, and they did everything else. I was labelled for the moving and walking and hitting the high notes at the time. And being in your twenties, man, you’re going to do things–that’s how it is.
See, I’d been eighteen when I joined Lionel Hampton; as well as being a great musician, he’s one of the greatest showmen you’ll ever run across in the music business. It rubbed off on me, although it was already there; he just ensured that it was expressed, that’s all. Also, by me having been a dancer first, when I started playing the saxophone I had to move around; I couldn’t stay still in one place like most of the guys. But all that laying on the floor and rolling on their stomachs, I was never involved in all that–1 just got the blame for it!
As for the ‘cool’ way of playing that was in vogue before I even started. There was never nothing new in that. Lester Young was the coolest saxophone player when the word cool had never been used. We were in Jazz At The Philharmonic together, with Coleman Hawkins and Flip Phillips, standing side by side, and he was so cool, he was cold! It was just a way some people started playing; they couldn’t play no other way.
People have to express their individual way. Me, I always figure that what we do is creative. I don’t copy after no one; I’m inspired by other people, but it’s my own ideas, it’s my own music most of the time, and it’s original. It will always be that way, as long as I can play. That’s why I’m still out here, I guess. People know you must be doing something, if you’re here after twenty or thirty years. They see it in a different way now–they hear the horn really being played. about There was never no doubt playing the full instrument, because we were taught properly. My oldest brother, Julius Jacquet, was quite a saxophonist himself; so he was able to give us the fundamentals of music. And all my brothers played music: Linton plays drums, Russell plays trumpet; also my father had a big band. As long as I can remember, there was always music in the house.
After being with the Hampton, Calloway and Count Basie bands, I formed my small sextet, which I augmented to a big band for theatres, special occasions. Really, I can say I was developed within the big band. We had great arrangers in school and during the time we were coming up, but the emphasis was on being a soloist in the big band context.
You had to be able to read, to keep up with the other guys that couldn’t be as versatile as you were, maybe.
So there was like half and half: they were good in their field of reading and we were good as soloists. It was a matter of learning the whole thing–how to read, write and soloand put it all together. Because you can’t just sit up in the band and solo while the other guys are reading; you have to read with them, too. And I was very fortunate that I had good training in the early days.
Of course, people will always be trying to find new ways of being an individual in music. Jazz music has never had the blessings of the networks, of television or motion pictures; it’s always been a suffocation of art. The trouble now is that when young people go and hear jazz, they might get the wrong conception of it, because they might hear some of the freedom things that the kids are doing today, and calling jazz. This can push them away from it, because they’re not hearing the giants—the ones who are the real pilots of the plane.
It’s hard to find musicians today who think the way they did twenty years ago. You get a drummer today, he’s either too modern or he’s too old. A piano player’s chords are different, he has a different outlet of playing: not that he’s not playing right. But there used to be a time that the average ‘musician could sit in and play, and they could jell together. Nowadays, you almost have to pick the men that you can perform with comfortably.
This different concept is because today you don’t have the bands; ten to fifteen years ago you still had twenty–odd great bands kicking around the United States. Today you can count ‘em on one hand; so the ones that are left are all full. So young musicians are not going to get the training that I had.
In Cab Calloway’s band, you kept your head in the music from the time he picked up his baton until it was intermission time. You just read music all night; so that was a school right there. You got in Count Basie’s band, it was a soloists’ band, with ad lib arrangements and whatnot, and you had to have that type of experience. So when I joined those bands, I was ready for ‘em. The average youngster joining a band today, he’s not ready for just any band; you’ve got to pick these guys.
And the conditions are different salaries, money. Hotel bills are higher than they were fifteen years ago; so you can’t get a man to go out like he used to. So, without the outlet we had, you have to have a rock experience, things like that, that are plentiful today. They want to travel, and they get good offers with these rock groups; they don’t particularly like the job–they’re taking it for the money, so that they can better their conditions.
However, some of the rock groups are now beginning to learn how to play music. You hear little overtones now that you never heard five or ten years ago. I guess they’re realising that they’re running out, and there’s other things available out there, besides what they were doing. All of a sudden, you stop and you see this red light; then you have to look at your head, and you find there’s something else in there.
It’s just experience, and loving your profession the way you love it, and devoting time to study. That’s the only thing I could say to a jazz musician; nothing has changed in jazz, except that its gets tougher. But no individuals have a monopoly on anything. God gives you talent–you just have to be discovered in some kind of way. It’s a struggle, but if it’s there, it’ll come out.
Copyright © 1973 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.