When swing began
to play great jazz
When swing began
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1983
Good to see you back in Britain, Lionel. You must have lost count of how many times you’ve been over here.
Well, I’ll tell you—it’s always a great pleasure to play here. And it’s always a pleasure seeing you and all my good friends, that means all the musicians in this great country. It’s good to see all the jazz fans, too the people around the country and in London. I’m glad to be back, yeah.
We’re very glad to have you. What is the situation with the band now? You had an all star band for a while a few years back, that was got together for special occasions. Are you now back to having a regular band with a set personnel? Yeah, my band is a set personnel. I keep these guys with me all the time. They’re a bunch of good, young musicians; I got ’em out of Eastman, Berklee; Juilliard and what have you, where they were trained to play arrangements. You know, they have the stage bands in the schools now; they can write the arrangement, have the band play it, and they can say: “Well; I didn’t like this, and I’m going to change it around”. And this is part of their studies—this is how they get their degrees, you understand.
So these are musicians of that type. The musicians today are fast readers—and they’re disciplined; they can follow your instructions, and you can put them across ideas now. It’s very healthy now—to the band business.
I believe you wanted to say something about Paul Jeffries.
He’s a great example. Paul Jeffries is the Chairman of the Jazz Department in Duke University—a big major university. He’s putting on seminars, and teaching jazz there. This is the school where they had Mary Lou Williams teaching, you remember, before she died. Paul is carrying m it on. And I’ve been giving seminars in the colleges—Harvard University; also USC—the University of Southern California. In January I’m going to do a tour with them; we’re going to be guests of the Philippines—they have a big programme of events going there. And we’ll be with the King of Thailand, who’s a great musician—he’s a good saxophone player, you know.
We’ve also been invited to Japan and China; we’re going to play about six dates.
I’m going to do this with the University of Southern California band—they have a twenty–piece big band and they got a symphony orchestra. They’re going to play my “King David Suite” with the symphony orchestra and the jazz band; I will take over a part of it and direct it. Because I got my Doctor’s degree now, you know! I’m very interested in all the activities going on with jazz m the United States now. Every major university now has a department for jazz in their school; so it looks very healthy.
You went to the University of Southern California yourself as a teenager, didn’t you? I certainly did—I went to the School of Music. They just honoured me about two months ago; they gave me the Alumni Of The Year award—it was very impressive. And in 1984, which will be the Centennial Year for USC, I get my Doctorate from there. It’s something I cherish very much, you understand.
Has the school! changed very much since you were a student there? Oh, yes—it’s changed in the way that they’re now putting jazz on a par with classical music. Jazz is classical anyway; it hasn’t been treated as such, but it’s getting nearer and nearer to where it’s getting that cognition as being classical. Yes, it’s on a concert platform—that’s so beautiful see.
I’d like to discuss your early days, Lionel—something we haven’t done in depth before. You came from Kentucky? Louisville Kentucky is where I was born. My father went to school there, and that was where he and my mother lived after they got married; so I started my life here. When my father went to war, my other moved to her people’s home in Birmingham, Alabama; I was raised there until I became of age, and then my family moved to Chicago. That was the time that the Southern families were moving North, so they could get better living conditions and better schooling for their children. I had training in the public school, but the public schools got a little rough in Chicago; so my grandmother, who was the head of the family, suggested they put me in a private school about ninety miles from Chicago, in a town called Carlos, Wisconsin. I studied there under Dominican sisters; they taught me the foundation of music. And I took rudimental drumming; that’s like the scale in drumming—there’s twenty–six of em. This sister really taught me, boy, I’ll tell you. She had a whole lot of love for me—with her big shoes, if I didn’t do my lesson right! But I did ‘em right, because I knew down the road that I would need this type of training to be professional—which I knew I wanted to be. So I stayed up there to school for about a year; then I came back to Chicago again, and this time I went to a Catholic school called St Monica’s Grammar School.
While I was finishing my grammar school training down there, I got into a teenage band—a newspaper boy’s band. This was a black newspaper, by the name of The Chicago Defender; if you would sell papers, the Editor, Mr Abbott, would let you join the band—and you’d get a uniform, an instrument of your choice, that you wanted to learn how to play, and he had someone there to teach you this instrument. There were about ninety of us kids, you understand—and a lot of notable musicians came out of that band. Well, I got good training; Major Smith, who was the bandleader of this organisation, had an able staff–boy, they were great. They taught us theory, harmony, counterpoint. I was taught by the solfeggio system; so I had that when I was just a youngster. I learned the chords that they use in numbers—flatted fifths and all the types. I played the drums in the military band, and in the concert band I played the xylophones. . . .
So that’s where your vibes playing originated? Yes, I played xylophones, orchestra bells and timpani. And I used to play “William Tell”, “Poet And Peasant”, “Zampa”, all those type of overtures, on the xylophones. Yeah, I was playing the flute part! So the solfeggio harmony gave me good ear training, and I used to listen to records by Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong—and I’d play their solos note–for–note on a set of orchestra bells that I had in the band. You know, orchestra bells and marimbas—that was my deal.
After that I went to St Elizabeth’s High School for a couple of years; then my family moved to California. I finished my schooling out there, and ended up at the University of Southern California School of Music. That was my foundation.
And in California you began to develop your jazz technique on xylophone, didn’t you? Oh, yeah. I got in the band of a teenage boy by the name of Les Hite—he was the best young musician in the community in Los Angeles, California. Les played alto saxophone very well. And Lawrence Brown, the famous trombone player—he came out of that band. Quite a few guys did. Like, the bass player was later with Nat “King” Cole—Wesley Prince. Well, Oscar Moore who was the guitar player in that same trio with him—he used to play with his brothers, I think, or his father at that time, and they were from Arizona; they came in later to join us. So we had a band, and we did auditions for the Cotton Club—which was the place where they had all the black entertainment at; all the stars and the white jet set used to go out there, see. It was located right outside Los Angeles—between Los Angeles and Culver City. Culver City was where MGM had the Mack Sennett studio; it was very popular.
Anyhow, the Cotton Club had this show, and they wanted to change their band—they had a band that had been out there for eight years, and the owner, Frank Sebastian thought it’d be good to change. He heard us play, and he was so engrossed with our band that he gave us the job. In the meantime, he was making a deal to bring Louis Armstrong to California to play in his club. So what he did: he left Louis’ band in New York City, and just brought Louis and his music out there. Louis fronted the band, we backed him up, and he was so impressed that he took us to a recording session—and we did recordings with Louis.
It was on one of the sessions with Louis that I played vibes for the first time: on “Memories Of You”—Eubie Blake had sent the music out there to Louis, to record, Louis saw a set of vibes in the corner of the studio, and he asked me: did I know anything about the instrument? The drummer on the date was just playing a straight NBC kind of thing—but I had been practising up with these orchestra bells and marimbas I had, and I could play jazz. So Louis asked me to play some, and I started playing jazz, and he was carried away with it: I did the introduction on “Memories Of You”—and I found out, listening to it today (for the BBC’s Desert Island Discs) that I played more than an introduction. I played the ending of the song too. It really was great, getting into this new field playing this new instrument. After “Memories Of You” came off so good, Louis had me play vibes on “You’re Driving Me Crazy”, “Just A Gigolo” and a lot of his top records. Also, when he’d sing I used to play the fill–ins behind him on the orchestra bells; Louis liked that pattern, with the bass drum, the hi–hat cymbal and me playing these things—and I liked it, because I was getting just a world of experience with the great one.
I played with Louis for nine months; then I continued with Les Hite’s band at the Cotton Club. When Les left, I stayed out there a little while; first Buck Clayton and I had the band together—then finally I took the band over by myself. But I didn’t want to play for the show any more; so I got me a job with my band at a beer garden, down on 6th and Main Street in Los Angeles. One night I was playing vibes there and, lo and behold, I heard this terrific clarinet behind me. Then I heard this drummer, and I said: “Gee, that’s a sensational drummer”—and I heard a piano player who was just as great. And it was Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson. Benny had brought his band out there to play an engagement; his brother and John Hammond had heard me and told him about me. Benny came, he was carried away, and so he asked me: would I go and join him and make a recording session with him that same morning? So later that morning I went out and recorded with Benny at RCA Victor—and the first record I made was “Moonglow” and “Dinah”.
I’m sure the kind of showmanship you’re known for was building up by then. You were exposed to Louis, and he was known as an entertainer as well as a musician.
You bet he was. And I was with Louis when he was absolutely the tops—you couldn’t picture anything as great as Louis then. Yeah, he was giving his all. And I want to say that not only did Louis influence me—he was influencing the world. They either tried to play trumpet like him, or tried to sing like him. you know, I heard some of Louis’ records today—and Louis did something on trumpet that the trumpet players ain’t got yet. He could hit a certain note, and you’d hear all the chord changes from that note.
He knew where to hit the right note, you understand. He was absolutely fabulous. It was a great experience for me. As I said, I got this job down at the Paradise night–club, and I made this record with Benny Goodman.
Yes, in the film The Benny Goodman Story they did a twist on the Paradise Cafe, and had Benny discovering you playing between your other duties in a little eating place.
I was the waiter, yeah! Well, that was I true, you know—I loved this job; so I would go down and clean the floor in the daytime. I would do anything, because I loved it so much.. There was a guy named Frank Irvine—he was the Captain of Detectives of Los Angeles Police Force; he and his brother and his wife owned the place. They loved me, and they let me just play like I wanted to play in there. And all I wanted to do is play—because I love to play. You know, after Benny Goodman came down and had the jam session with us . . it was just a place that had sawdust on the floor; well, after that they took the sawdust off the floor. He didn’t serve nothing but beer before, but he had a liquor licence on a little place he had about two blocks from there—so he took the liquor licence out of that place, and put it in the Paradise club. And he started to put tablecloths on the tables—it held about four hundred people. It was the first time I’d ever seen mini–skirts; he put mini–skirts on the waitresses—before then they wore anything they wanted to wear. Also he charged admission of a dollar on weekdays, and a dollar–and–a–half to come in on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Oh, man—u couldn’t get near the place every night. It had a reputation, see. So I would say that this was the hard core of me getting my real experience in show business too, because I used to produce the show, and we used to have jam sessions. . . people would come from all over town to hear our jam sessions.
You really got a name for organising jam sessions at that time, didn’t you? That’s right—the organiser! So that all kept up until November 11, 1936. Benny kept calling me and calling me, asking me to come and join him. And everybody said: “Well, you got to do that”—because Benny was on the Camel Caravan radio show at that time, and was getting national publicity. They were asking me to come and play with the Benny Goodman Quartet on this. When I joined the Quartet, it was an instant success—because I put that little showmanship in it to go along with the playing! Well, I think I would have to say: you took it off the ground a little bit.
Oh—that’s great! Would you say that Benny as a musician had an influence on you? You spoke of Louis’ influence—but you were with Benny for about four years, weren’t you? Right. Welt, you know—I understood what Benny was doing. Benny was integrating the musicians at that time. Black and white had never played together; this was integration, and it was a total success. And Benny protected it that way, you understand. I would say that this was the front door to Jackie Robinson getting in major league baseball—because at that time no blacks were playing no place. They weren’t playing in basketball, football, on the stage; they weren’t making any appearance together in public with whites. But we were doing North, South, East and West—and we were the rage; we were a sensation. And we could play so good together—and people didn’t worry about who was little black boys, or nothing like that. They listened to that music, and they just ate it up. The music made it.
That must have been an exciting time for you. Certainly, you were really productive in the recording studio. Not only were you playing and recording with Benny—you were doing various record dates under your own name, with a contract of your own.
Well, Benny got me a recording contract with RCA Victor, where I used to record with Duke Ellington’s men and all the big stars. But I was only doing that while I was with Benny Goodman’s band, you understand. It was so much publicity around us at that time, and we were so big, that we didn’t need nothing else to help us. That Quartet, and black and white playing together, was something unheard of. This was really servicing a cause.
And of course, it was something you felt very strongly about.
Yeah. It was making the social change in the United States, in the Government—and in the whole music structure. Until then, they’d been trying to put black musicians on record dates, and the companies would say: “No—you can’t do that”.
What they had to realise is that it’s all one music: everybody has their own thing. and they can do it together, separately or whatever.
That’s what Benny thought too. And Benny would go and record with black cats under the name of Sugar Joe Jackson. The thing about it: with Benny, we had the total emancipation. We travelled together, ate together, everything. It was great.
Since then, with your own band and elsewhere, you’ve clearly pursued these principles.
When I came in, I had the first black band to put white musicians in. I had players like Herbie Fields; I had a white girl singer in my band. I mean, I started turning the thing around, and started going in the South, where blacks were not allowed to mix socially with whites. Like, in theatres, the black people had to go up on what they called “the buzzards’ roof”. Way up on the top—and the fifth back in the balcony. I took my band to the South and played dances, played entertainment for them, because I figured that they didn’t have no place else to go. Which they didn’t have—they didn’t allow the blacks in none of the places then. See, I had a name that was made from playing with Benny Goodman, and the white people down there wanted to see me and hear me play—so I made sure the black people heard me at the same time. That’s the service that I think I gave.Copyright © 1983, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.