Photo by Denis J. Wiliams
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1967

Although I owned a clarinet when I was 16, I didn’t play it until much later. I was playing professionally in a little joint with some good musicians who were all older than me—about 20 to 25. That was the time I switched from alto to tenor, because tenor was more appreciated for jazz. As a matter of fact, I played it so badly when I was in the Will Bradley band—we had four–clarinet passages, just sustained notes in the low register to play. And I never even put a reed on—I used to play it real soft. They insisted I played the clarinet, but I didn’t really want to. So he fired me. Then he took me back, and fired me again for the same reason.

When I got into the Service, I was in a band—and I had to march. I realised that I couldn’t march very well with the tenor strapped around my neck. So I got out my clarinet—then I suddenly discovered how much fun the instrument was. I’d wasted a few years, but not too long. I was 21 or 22—still quite young.

About a year later, the Glenn Miller AEF band was being organised. The sidemen were hand–chosen from all over the country. I’d been in touch with some of the guys that were going to be in it. We all knew each other in New York. Zeke Zarchey, the first trumpeter, Trigger Alpert, the bass player and drummer Ray McKinley were close with Glenn. And I was recommended to him by the three of them. And Captain Glenn Miller went to a lot of trouble to get me a transfer out of one branch of the service to another. I was in the infantry—and he got me into the air force. Which is impossible! —once you’re in the infantry, you’re there. But he did it.

Actually, we tried to effect the transfer the way you’re supposed to do it. But they wouldn’t let me go, because I was the leader of the army dance band and they wanted me to stay. They even offered me a double promotion. When the orders finally came in, I had the choice of accepting the promotion or the transfer. I just told the colonel: “I believe I’d be more valuable in the Miller band than I would be here.” As it turned out, the band was dissolved about three months later—so I was right.

I was playing tenor in the Miller band for several months. But when we would do some little gigs on the side for the officers, we’d use a jazz combo. And it seemed like everybody wanted to play the hot saxophone, whether it was an alto or tenor. I didn’t want to be pushy about it, and nobody was interested in playing the clarinet. So I played it. When Ray McKinley, who had been the co-leader of the Will Bradley band, heard me, he fell out of his chair. He said: “I didn’t think you’d ever play clarinet!”

Then McKinley was assigned a large band to play lunch-hour music for the air force cadets, with whom we were stationed at Yale University in Newhaven, Connecticut. In that band I started to play the lead clarinet that was required for the Miller sound. One day Glenn Miller and Jerry Gray walked in and heard the band, although they couldn’t see it, because we were up on a balcony. They came upstairs and they saw that it was me on clarinet.

At the time, Glenn was unhappy with the sound of the lead clarinet player. Immediately he called a rehearsal for the next day. After we had a quick run–through with the reeds, he said to me: “From now on you’re playing lead clarinet.” I stayed with the clarinet, more or less, from that point on.

Some of the guys, including Mel Powell, had been with Benny Goodman’s band. Mel used to bring in some of the arrangements he had done for Benny, which gave me a chance to play that type of clarinet, too. Carmen Mastren was on guitar, and he’d written for the Tommy Dorsey band. He brought in some; also he wrote several things for me, just featuring the clarinet. so I was very fortunate. I had a lot of help, really—and good music to play.

Certainly, Glenn found the perfect formula to get a band over to the public. My guess, though, is that he would have moved on from that sound to something else. He may have retained it to a degree, but we felt that he was already blossoming out in other directions. He would try different sounds—he was always a creative genius in that sense. Gifted with a tremendous musical ear, he was truly a great musician. Far better than most people think. They think the band was great, and so on, but they don’t realise how much he contributed.

When arrangers wrote for him, he oversaw and edited everything. We would have one play–down at rehearsal; then he would take the score and say: “Leave this out, put this in.” At once the arrangement was improved. Often he would sketch out a skeleton, telling an arranger: “I want something like this.”

But he himself was a fine arranger. Before he got his own band, he wrote for all the great bands when they were first starting—Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Ray Noble. You know, there’s a classic chart on “Bugle Call Rag” —almost every band plays it. It was his. As far as leaders go—he was probably the most qualified leader that I’ve ever worked for. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Being in that band changed my whole life. It got me away from the tenor saxophone. I’ve never been really able to return to it—other than using it in sections in the studios. Since then, I’ve always been called to play the clarinet. I studied the instrument a great deal during that time. After we left England, we went to Paris, where I had lessons from an ex–Boston symphony player. In New York I went to a fine teacher by the name of Leon Rushinoff. Also, I studied with Reginald Kell for about a year.

Reginald uses a different embouchure from the average clarinet player. When Benny went to him, he wanted to sound just like him. But I don’t think anybody can do that, because Reginald is a complete individual—a marvellous musician.

Actually, he tried to get me to give up jazz. His idea was that he would teach me the whole repertoire. Which is a seven–year study—but he said he could do it in three. It would have meant that I couldn’t play any jazz for three years—then I’d become a long–hair soloist, which would be very fine. I just said: for three years? “Reg—what do I do You want to sponsor me—great!”

Anyway, I just got as much as I could, and he helped me tremendously. Particularly helpful to me was finding out about the psychological approach to playing that he has. Plus, of course, the callisthenics that are involved—you must learn all those things.

Even today I find that clarinet is a complex instrument to play. I don’t think anybody ever says it’s easy. But I like it—it’s a challenge every day. Not many people concentrate on it. It’s too hard. Like oboe and flute—they’re difficult instruments. Benny Goodman says music is a difficult instrument. Which, I think, sums it all up very well.

 Copyright © 1967, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved