Les Tomkins

Interviews Supreme

Les Tomkins

All of the interviews in the Jazz Professional website were taped over a period of some thirty years and transcribed by Les Tomkins, the English journalist, singer and jazz aficionado. Born on 31st October 1930 he quickly moved into the jazz world, running a jazz club near London in 1950 in which many British jazz stars performed. In 1957 he became the secretary of the Contemporary Jazz Society, and remained so until 1960. There he began interviewing jazz musicians, especially famous Americans visiting England. Some of these interviews were submitted to, and published by the contemporary jazz newspaper Melody Maker. In 1961-2 he freelanced as a contributor to Jazz News, then, in 1962 he began an association with Crescendo magazine that kept him occupied well into the 1980s. By 1966 he was the magazine's editor and art editor. From 1970 he continued as a freelance editor, contributor, and art director to the magazine.


(Taken from a Les Tomkins profile published during 1993 in Jazz Rag.)

CURRENTLY running on Radio 2 (on Monday night, just after Humph) is Jazz Greats, a series featuring eight of the best of the post-war jazz scene, from Duke Ellington to Chick Corea, from Woody Herman to George Benson. The greats of the distant past are ruled out, as an integral part of every programme is provided by the interviews conducted by presenter Les Tomkins over the years. Working from an astonishing personal archive of over 800 interviews, Les attempts to introduce the music and personalities of a variety of major jazz figures to the general listener.

This new career with the BBC is partly the result of redundancy. Les's career in the accounts department of an advertising agency was apparently much more interesting than it sounds: at least the social side was sufficiently developed for him to entertain the gathered admen with his own parodies of such jazz numbers as 'Basin Street Blues'. However, this many a year Les has been conducting high quality interviews with every jazzman within range and building a reputation within jazz journalism. Les's experience of coming across extracts from his own interviews in books, in articles and on record sleeves is shared by the writer of this profile who recently encountered a telling paragraph or two in a new biography of Pee Wee Russell.

Les Tomkins was led into his interest in jazz by his liking for singing popular songs, an interest in singing that still continues. A school friend played him jazz versions of some of these songs, and he found instant identification with the idiom. It became his active motivation during his teenage years. He ran a local jazz club (Sutton in Surrey) at which upcoming groups were premiered, and founded the Contemporary Jazz Society in North-West London, pre-recording programmes to play at the meetings.

After forming a members' band, with himself on vibes and vocals, to play live jazz for the CJS, Les decided to enliven the programmes further by inviting famous players to take part. Hence his first tape-recorded interviews, interspersed with examples of their work, were with the British jazz greats Ronnie Ross and Allan Ganley. Then, in quick succession in 1959, tours by Woody Herman's Anglo-American Herd and Jazz At The Philharmonic provided much more material. He found himself talking at length to people whose recordings had absorbed him, such as Nat Adderley. Woody Herman, Bill Harris, Sonny Stitt, Gene Krupa, Herb Ellis and Oscar Peterson. This was the beginning of the remarkable archive of interviews which Les is now sharing with Radio 2 listeners.

Although Les had always enjoyed writing and had articles of a non-musical nature published, the jazz journalism started through a society member who, hearing the interview extracts in the programmes, suggested that he should write them up for the musical press. This he did, and his byline began appearing in such publications as Melody Maker and Jazz News. In 1962 Crescendo International, a magazine intended primarily for musicians, came into being, and its first issue contained a piece culled from the original Peterson chat. From then on every issue carried three or four pieces based on Tomkins interviews, as well as other material by him. The initial interview specifically for Crescendo was with Sinatra's MD/pianist Bill Miller, followed by one with composer/arranger Bill Russo.

As to which ones came off best, or who his favourite subjects have been, Les will only say, “I've appreciated doing them all. In every case you're trying to obtain the most thorough, most fair, most accurate and most interesting representation of the artist. Of course, sometimes you're more successful in achieving that than others.” It is true, however, that a conversation with Les soon reveals both his admiration for Buddy Rich and the vast quantity of excellent material relating to him in the Tomkins archive. It is equally certain that the list of jazz greats interviewed would take up several pages of Jazz Rag and that a remarkable number of them have told Les that his was the best interview they have had.

Between 1970 and 1988 Les edited Crescendo, part of that time in conjunction with Jack Carter. This involved his usual contributions, plus the make-up and art direction of each issue. His other jazz writing activities have included sleeve notes and programme notes, plus of course his reviews of CDs and “live” performances for Jazz Rag. The insistence of family and friends that he should write a book may pay off “when time and finances permit”.

For the moment Les is working with the Flying Dutchman Company to cook up a second series of Jazz Greats. At a conservative estimate he has enough interview material to put together about 200 programmes, but just now he is concentrating on the second eight, which will probably include two British musicians, John Dankworth and George Shearing. Planned for the future is a series of British Jazz Greats, which title speaks for itself, eight major jazz figures born in these islands. Les's knowledge and enthusiasm make him a perfect missionary for jazz. The letters responding to the first programme of Jazz Greats prove this, and he's even tried to ensure that his six children “listen to the right stuff”. (Published in Jazz Rag in 1993)

Alongside his jazz journalism preoccupation, Les continued to seek opportunities to exercise his wish to vocalise in a jazz manner, although generally the two activities were kept separate. However, via the interviews, he has contrived to sing with Bill McGuffie, Stan Tracey, Brian Lemon, among others. He recalls fondly an after-hours session at Annie's Room when no less a luminary than Zoot Sims "noodled" behind him. A proud moment was when he played one of his vocal tapes to fellow-singer (also a drummer) Buddy Rich, and Buddy's genuine response was "Les - why didn't you tell me? You're a hot jazz singer!"

But the vocal chances tended to be few and far between. In the 'eighties there were regular spells of sitting-in with the groups of such fine pianists as Matt Ross and Keith Nichols. During 1994, he enjoyed visits to a short-lived nightspot in Chiswick, called the Station Club, where he performed with the George Dourado Trio. For a while, virtually his only singing was at the Jazz Academy Course organised every August by the legendary Michael Garrick, of whom he says: "Mike's distinctive accompaniments inspired me immensely".

It all changed in September 1998, when Jack Jaffe opened The Singers' Club in theLes Tomkins upstairs room at Ronnie's. Since then he has been able to sing at least once a week, plus otherspots at such venues as The Tatty Bogle Club, the Battersea Barge and the Pizza On The Park. He also runs the club whenever Mr J is away on business. Piano accompanists he cites as particularly pleasurable include James Pearson, Jonathan Gee, Gunther Kuermayr, SimonWallace, Barry Booth, Pete Churchill, Nick Weldon, Steve Lodder, Martin Blackwell, Denny Termer, Leon Cohen, Bruce Boardman, Barry Green, Roland Perrin, Nigel Fox, Brian Kellock, Bob Stuckey and Gareth Williams, plus such bassists as Chris Rodel, Jeremy Brown, Jerome Davies, Simon Thorpe, Geoff Gascoyne, Jeff Clyne and Alec Dankworth. The Singers' Club now meets every Monday from 8 p.m. at The Royal George, off Charing Cross Road.

In 1963, a conversation with Ronnie Scott led to Les taking his original tape recorder, a Ferrograph Mark 2, into Ronnie's club for three years and making recordings of the American jazz greats who were performing live in London for the first time, as well as many outstanding British players of that period, a project which he extended to other clubs, notably Annie Ross's club, Annie's Room. Some of the Ronnie's tapes were issued on CD to the public for the first time between 1995 and 1997 by the Ronnie Scott's Jazz House label, calling it The Archive Series. In order of release the artists represented by Les's selected compilations were Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt, Tubby Hayes, Wes Montgomery, Victor Feldman, Roland Kirk, Dick Morrissey, Ronnie Scott, Stan Tracey, Benny Golson, Ernest Ranglin, Don Byas and the productive meeting of Ronnie Scott and Sonny Stitt. In recent times another record company has begun releasing some of this historic material.

Interviews published in Jazz Rag include those made with Annie Ross, Phil Woods, Gene Krupa, Ray Bryant, Sheila Jordan and Dave Newton. One of the latest was with the Candoli brothers, Pete and Conte, made when both were well into their seventies. Out of his many hundreds of interviews the only failures were with Charlie Mingus, who said, “Read my book” and Tony Williams, who demanded a substantial fee.

Over the years Les has made, and published, over one thousand interviews with jazz musicians - a staggering achievement. His collection of interviews, published and on tape, together with his archive of live jazz performances, now represent a major archive of source material for the study of jazz. He has also written liner notes, programme notes and reviews for many issued jazz recordings.

Les Tomkins with Peggy Lee.
Chuck Mangione, Stephane Grappelli and Les Tomkins in 1972

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