Jazz Professional               





Oscar Peterson talking in 1963
The School
Happy with success
Oscar Peterson talking in 1976
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1976

Three times now, London audiences have been able to enjoy your playing in a club setting, rather than a concert. What are your thoughts about clubs?

I haven’t played that many recently—only about two clubs in the last year or two. Ronnie Scott’s of London was one of them, and it’s certainly in the front–line of all of the major clubs that I’ve played.

I have to say one thing, and I can only speak for my own personal experience in the club, and that is: whenever I’ve played Ronnie’s, I have to congratulate not only Ronnie and the staff but also the patrons of the club, in that they give me their complete. undivided attention. Which to me is a great honour, sometimes even more than the applause, because it means that you get a chance to do what you would like to do, in an uninhibited way, without the clatter of dishes, nebulous conversation and so forth. So I’ve really appreciated that one factor alone.

The bad behaviour of some club listeners, or rather non–listeners, in the States is quite baffling, particularly when it happens to an artist of your calibre.

It can happen anywhere, Les. The minute you put booze and food with music, there’s usually a tendency to have some kind of a chaotic experience. However, many clubs have overcome that, and I’ve yet to experience it in Ronnie’s.

You’ve had a Canadian bass player with you recently, Dave Young. Is he a regular associate of yours?

Yes. I’d just finished a concert tour in the British Isles, where I did a solo thing, along with Joe Pass. I sent for Dave, because, when I decided to play the club, I thought it would be a nice change of venue throughout the set to have Dave and Martin Drew with me. I use him in Canada at various times—on some engagements, not all. He’s a very talented young bassist.

As for Martin—of course, he’s been with you on your very successful BBC TV Piano Party series.

He was, and I gained a very great respect for Martin Drew the player. Apart from my feelings for him as a man, I have the deepest respect for his talents; I think he’s one of the finest drummers around. He has an ease of playing that you don’t often find in percussionists. When he decides that he wants to play, he wants to play, and that’s usually twenty–four hours of the day. So you come out on the plus side, no matter how you go with Martin.

It was very nice to see you, on those programmes, working with a British bass player and drummer.

I must say one thing, Les. In the club, unfortunately, I wasn’t using Kenny Baldock on bass, but I must mention how pleased I was to have him on the show, with Martin. It was a great comfort to have him back there, musically speaking. And, hopefully, if we do it again, I’ll do the same thing all over again with both of them. I enjoyed it.

This has been a recent kind of breakthrough for you, to become an ambassador for jazz on television. Do you feel that this has been an important enterprise, to bring jazz to many people the way you’ve done on your Canadian series as well as the BBC series?

I don’t necessarily look on it as ambassadorship. However, I do think that any way that jazz is presented to the listening public, especially the faction of the public that are not as well acquainted with it, the players gain a lot, and certainly I hope the listeners gain a lot more.

Because with jazz having finally made the rounds of all the lower–depths, and now being accepted as a valid music in the world, I think most anyone would want to know more about it. In fact, I find that people all over the world do feel this way. Although I know that jazz does not sell on the recorded market anywhere near as well as pop and various other idioms in music, that doesn’t mean it is something that can be disregarded.

You know, if you pile up the yearly sales of one classical LP against many of the pop LPs, it means nothing either. But I think it’s a debt that every player and almost every listener owes to the players of any medium: to listen to them. As I said, it’s a valid medium now, and any time I have the opportunity to bring it to anyone in the world, that’s basically what I’m here for.

I think this is the best way to do it—to have someone who is as articulate a spokesman for the music as you are.

Well, I don’t know how articulate I am; I know I’m serious about it—I’ll say that!

You certainly came over very well on those shows we’ve been seeing.

Oh, thank you. I must say I enjoyed the shows, mainly because I had a chance to speak honestly to the guests, and to ask questions that, believe it or not, some of which I really wanted the answers to. Apart from the usual . . . maybe you can say rhetoric; I don’t think it was really rhetoric . . . but apart from the usual questions that you ask, there were answers I was very interested to know. The questions were not prepared in advance, as far as: “I’m going to ask you this, and then you’ll say that.” It was a matter of: I was given the list of guests, I was given certain circumstances to work with. and that’s exactly what I did. And many times before a show, I wasn’t even certain more than five minutes in advance exactly how I was going to handle each artist. But, for instance, with Count Basie and Joe Turner—there’s two important guests —I think it was beautiful, the way Joe Turner returned to the early days of his playing. and talked about the environment at that time: that’s something a lot of people, not just youngsters, are not aware of. When Basie gave some of the history of how he met Art Tatum, and about travelling with the band—things like this. There’s a deep interest, throughout the world, in players of this magnitude. If you give them time, I think they’ll talk.

Well, you must have gained a little insight into this thing that I do——of eliciting facts and statements from people.

I know it’s difficult. Although I think I had sort of the inside track on you; being a player myself, and certainly knowing most of these people beforehand, and having worked with some of them, it possibly made it a little easier for them to communicate with me. Nevertheless, you know, I think you always have to be careful how you approach an artist, because he may not be in the right frame of mind. They don’t always want to play, and they don’t always want to talk. This is the chance you have to take, even on a show like that. Now, you can run into people that just really have nothing to say, perhaps that night, and that’s your misfortune.

Yes, these are the swings and roundabouts. But would you say that there is a wide—open area for representing jazz on television, that hasn’t been fully explored?

Oh, I think so. It’s very easily compared. If you compare the amount of other types of music that are played on television, certainly. I don’t know what your exact broadcasting status is here, but I’ll say, speaking of AM radio at home, there’s an awful lot of time for much more jazz, and I think there are an awful lot of listeners that are being passed by in certain areas, that don’t get this.

You can drive through parts of Canada and the United States, and you hit areas where you become starved for something in the jazz vein, because they just don’t play that. But by the same token, how did it get started, wherever you can hear it, insofar as broadcasting? It’s because someone had the nerve and the courage to play a record, say something that was understandable about it, and make it known to the people—and the interest grew. And it could grow just as much throughout the areas that I mentioned, where they don’t play jazz. That goes, no matter where it is in the world.

When you play jazz in front of a mass audience, you don’t make any special concessions. But some players have chosen to do this, haven’t they—to play below their capacity, in order to try to reach the public.

Some people, possibly, go either way. They either play below their capacities, or they play without any care for what they’re playing and who they’re playing to. I will admit this much of a compensation in that if I play for an audience that I know for a fact are not that deeply steeped in jazz—and I’ve played certain functions like this—I don’t sell out by playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb”.

But I will stick a little closer to the Gershwins, the Berlins and the Porters, that I think that they can relate to. And then it gives them a starting point to relate to, and analyse what I’m doing. Whereas if I go the thorough: “This is my latest composition” bag, they don’t know the tune, they have nothing to compare to, and they’re lost. So I have made that type of concession, but I will not compromise when I’m on a concert, in front of a full jazz audience. I’ve come to play the way I play—that’s what I try to do.

Having made, it seems, a exceptional number of recordings recently, even for you—is there any kind of a problem, in that you’ve done so much of it?

No—it’s like having a conversation. First of all, I only record when I feel capable of recording, and with my schedule being what it is, it’s a sporadic thing. Even though Norman Granz happens to be my personal manager, apart from being a very dear friend, because of my travelling there are times when I might owe Pablo, his company, two albums. Consequently, it’s a matter that if I’m in Los Angeles and he happens to be there at the same time, and wants to schedule them then, I do it. What happens, of course, is that we get into the other projects, such as the “Trumpet Kings”; I had obviously played before with Dizzy, Roy, Clark and Sweets, but it was my first actual musical meeting with Jon Faddis.

Although I don’t think it necessarily happened this way, you get into a thing, for instance, where you do one with Dizzy Gillespie and, having done that one, you start wondering: “What would happen if he does it with Roy?” And so this evolves that way, and you take the opportunity again of doing the album when both artists, or whoever is involved is in the area and is ready to record. I never record unless I’m ready. I have a project now that is unfinished for that reason: I wasn’t prepared totally to finish the album. The first half is done; the other half is yet to be recorded.

It’s clear, as you have shown consistently, that you enjoy the role of supporting an artist as much as having your head yourself.

As long as I love what the artist does, and I feel I have some compatibility with them musically, I’ll always be happy to play for and with someone. Although I know my role primarily, when I’m on my own, is as a solo artist or the leader of a group, whatever it may be, I get a great kick out of playing for various artists, because I enjoy their playing.

During the last couple of years, you’ve been doing a great many completely solo performances. Did you plan to do this, or did it just happen unexpectedly?

No, it didn’t really happen unexpectedly, Les. Norman, Duke Ellington and Bill Basie stayed after me time and again about doing this. And there’s one thing I’m really sorry about that I didn’t have a chance to do it before Duke died. Because he at various times used to give me very impassioned pleas: “Why don’t you just go out and do it up as a solo artist. There’s no one else doing that” and so on. Since he was one of the primary instigators about me doing it, I really regret that he didn’t live long enough to hear what I attempted to do, and what I’m continuing attempting to do. However, this is how it came about. Playing solo gives me a lot more leeway, as regards what I want to do and how I want to do it, while I’m doing it, without worrying about whether I’m going to cut across a bass player, or whoever it may be.

Would you say this has opened up areas in playing that you hadn’t really got into before?

Well, I used to get into them with the trio occasionally. At different times, I’d go into the solo thing inadvertently between a set, but never as a continual affair.

You’d term solo playing a very particular, specialised concept, that not all pianists can pull off?

Yes, I would. I think many pianists go the other way; they’re interested in another form, that doesn’t involve solo playing, and they’re quite happy to follow that. To do solo work, you have to be thinking a certain way. Like anything else, it’s something you have to be at continually, in order to make it happen. If you’re not at it, you just can’t walk up and do it.

I was talking to Randy Weston about it, and he said it’s given him the awareness that the piano is an orchestra. Do you go along with that?

That’s right. I go along with it perfectly. Randy and I were talking about this a few months ago in Tunis. Yes, I’ve always regarded the piano as a complete orchestra in itself. It depends on who’s conducting ! That’s all it is.

Something that it was reported you had said recently, that I found a little puzzling, was that, in your opinion, the future of jazz was a limited one. What do you actually feel about this?

Well, until I see a few more Dizzy Gillespies, Duke Ellingtons, Count Basies, Teddy Wilsons, Lester Youngs, Roy Eldridges, etc. come along, with that kind of strength, I have to have my doubts. It’s very nice that we have so many groups around, with everybody playing their own thing, but I still don’t see that communication, where a player of a specific depth can just walk in and play with a group, without having to have his or her own group with them. And once that disappears, it makes me a little apprehensive about where it’s going from there. If you lose the players, there’s no game.

You don’t think there are the outstanding individuals coming up now?

No, I don’t, honestly. I mean, there are a few exceptions, but not more than a very few—certainly in the rash of players that we’ve had over the years.

What do you see as the reason for this?

Could be a multiplicity of reasons. One of the reasons is that night clubs per se—certainly jazz clubs—do not exist in the numbers that they did years ago. Also, the ones that did exist at one point were playing nothing but the winners. If you only play the winners, you never have a farm team; so you can’t recede.

Has the advent of the electric piano done a disservice to pianists?

Not being an electronic player, I wouldn’t know. Perhaps. I say if you’re happy with what you’re doing, perhaps you know better; time will tell. I certainly don’t think for me there’s the satisfaction in playing the electronic piano that there is in playing the acoustical. Those who play only that—let’s just say their vision isn’t as broad as it could be, but it will be. When the tubes go, and the transistors fail, there’s only one place to go.

But there are always going to be jazz musicians who will want to play; so there has to be an area for them, doesn’t there?

Yes, they’ll always want to play. But how do you satisfy the need of the public who want to hear them, if they’re not playing and they’re not recording. That’s where the nakedness stands out. At least, that’s what I think.

Surely the practical example of a player who has achieved the high standard of excellence that you have done should serve as an inspiration to younger musicians, to want to put in the amount of work you did to get there?

I don’t think they do, Les. Many players don’t have the patience today. You know, the world’s moving at that clip; everything has to be done, like, yesterday. Forget what I‘ve done. but it takes a lot of patience and dedicated effort, certainly, to achieve what people like Ellington, Dizzy, Roy, Lester—did. It took many years of honest starvation, denial, frustration, disappointment, disillusionment to make them the complete artists that they are and they were.

Today, with the advent of the ease of making an album for any company—it’s like the story that Barney Kessel once told me, about a kid rushing in the studio to him and saying: “Would you tune up my guitar? And could you do it right now, Mr. Kessel—I have a record date across the street.” If you don’t have the patience—you can synthesise something, prefabricate it, but it’s not really the same thing. It’ll last for X amount of time, but sooner or later the sheen wears out,


Copyright © 1976 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved