Jazz Professional               


A Les Tomkins interview of 1972

Although our main musical vehicle is the Quartet, we've had quite a hard time establishing our identity—since the first two albums that we had out were with symphony orchestra. Mercury Records heard a concert I did with the Rochester Philharmonic and soloists, including Gerry Niewood, who plays saxophones in the Quartet, Marvin Stamm on trumpet, my brother Gap on piano, and a couple of singers.

The record, which we had put out on my brother's label, had been somewhat of a success in the upstate New York area. Mercury purchased the album, signed me to a four–year contract, and then recorded a similar concert a year later, in the same kind of Philharmonic setting. So people began to identify us with that as being our normal thing, in spite of the fact that the Quartet has been functioning for four years now, and is what we've been doing most of the time.

The third reason
Most recently we've been working in concert situations rather than clubs. because there aren't too many rooms there like Ronnie Scott's, that are pure music rooms, where people come specifically to listen to music. For two–and–a–half years, we played in a place where music was about the third reason why people might have come there. This was a club called the Shakespeare in Rochester, New York. Actually, that's where Gerry and I both came
from; so did Steve Gadd, the drummer. Our bassist, Tony Levin, is from Boston, Massachusetts. And we all went to the Eastman School Of Music in Rochester.

As a matter of fact, Gerry and I grew up in the same neighbourhood; he was in school the same year with my sister. Also, Steve I knew when I was quite young my brother and I—he on accordion, me on trumpet—were doing Amateur Hour things, and Steve was on them, too. So three of us got to know each other at quite an early age, meeting Tony when he came to the Eastman School.Tony and Steve are quite recent additions to the Quartet situation, although they're both on the two concert albums.Working with them has been a very enjoyable musical experience.

The fun of it all is that each of those three people by himself is such an outstanding individual talent. Through the energy and freeness in the music that they generate, they make it very comfortable to play with them. For me, anyhow, there's something kinda special about the Quartet; in one sense the music is very organised and yet in another sense it's very loose. There's not much in the way of written–down arrangements—just things that Gerry and I have worked out, from playing spontaneously together and hanging on to whatever seems to fall in right. And Tony and Steve are just an ideal pair—a team. I think it makes for a very interesting musical combination.In a group of this calibre, it's a joy that all the musicians are capable of handling a lot of different musical forms.

We may play in a contemporary rock vein, use standard bebop themes, and many other things besides. I tend to not want to put labels or categories on the music, only because people come with preconceived ideas about what they're going to hear, or won't come for this reason.You know, if you go to Ronnie Scott's you're going to hear jazz. But during our engagement in the club, it was as much a contrast between the various facets of the Quartet's music at it was between us and Stephane Grappelli, who's amazing. And yet if you want to use the label jazz on all of it, it suits. So I just try to talk about it as music, and hope that ours comes under the category of good music.

I grew up listening to people like Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Chet Baker on the radio, and on the jukeboxes when I was in high school. At that time everybody had a big band; so that musical form wasn't an oddity, and it wasn't unusual for me to get interested in it. My brother had a big band in high school; after that we continued to play together, eventually forming a group called the Jazz Brothers, that recorded for Riverside Records. Some out standing people, like Sal Nistico, Roy McCurdy, Jimmy Garrison, Steve Davis were all a part of that. We came through the so–called bebop period, and heard all that music.

Dizzy Gillespie was a great influence. And I think the way the music is going today—I hope, anyway—is a coming back to look at all of that, and include that as a very important part of what's being played. This "free music', or whatever, that people had been talking about for quite a while there. . . it really didn't present any happy moments to me. Because I don't believe music can be free unless it has something to be free from. As soon as everybody starts to do whatever they want to do by themselves, you get into a chaotic situation.And two elements that I hope to always keep in the music that play are melody—and the more beautiful the better—and very rhythmic things. I think those are two essential ingredients to music, whatever it is.

Not compromising.
For a long time I lived in the shell of the so–called jazz musician, who said: "To hell with the people. I'm the artist, I know what's right, and I'm going to play for myself. If they like it, fine; if they don't, too bad." Well, that's partially true, but you can still maintain your musical conviction and try to communicate with people. For me, lifting the people up, making them enjoy what we're doing is as important as it is for me to play the kind of music I want to play. Both are very possible. The days are rare that I can go home from a job and say: "I really knocked myself off my feet. I finally did it." If somebody's really honest with themselves, they maintain a certain high level and try to go above that. but it happens very rarely. So it’s as important to me to be getting over musically to the people. Not compromising the music, but there is a way, by just showing the people that you're sincere and honest with what you're doing, and by talking to them. Even telling them what you're going to play is a starting point.Music is meant to be a beautiful thing. If it doesn't have beauty some place in it, then it's not enjoyable to me; therefore I don't think it can be enjoyable to anybody we'd be playing it for.

As for the symphonic activities. . . when I was a student at the Eastman School of Music, I became exposed to a lot more musical forms, elements, opportunities, and I fell in love with strings and their uses. One of the records that did it for me was Billie Holiday with strings; I think the arranger's name was Ray Ellis. So I wanted to write some things for strings—and I did. The only way I could hear what I had written was to get musicians together; this led to my deciding to present a concert.

A free hand
The year before the first album I did a concert called "Kaleidoscope", which involved virtually a symphony orchestra and soloists. On that concert we had Louis Soloff, from Blood, Sweat And Tears, playing a piece that I had written for him. It was a musical success, and very rewarding for me from that point of view, but it was a financial disaster. To pay 60 musicians for rehearsal and performance is quite something, and I decided I wouldn't be able to handle that kind of situation financially again, unless somebody else was taking care of that end of it.

Anyway, it stimulated enough interest in Rochester that I received an invitation—from the Rochester Philharmonic to guest–conduct a concert. When I spoke to them, obviously I knew they didn't want me to conduct Brahms or Beethoven, and I had no eyes to do a watered–down background–music Boston Pops sort of thing; so I asked them to give me a free hand in writing the music for the concert, and augmenting the orchestra with certain key players. I even asked them to let me advise them as to where to look for an audience, because in addition to the symphonic audience I wanted to be sure that we brought our audience element into the concert hall.So when we did this concert, "Friends And Love" it was called, it was completely sold out. 3,500 people were there. It was being videotaped for national educational TV in the States, and we had a four–track tape recorder running as back–up audio for this. The concert was a huge success. I’ve never had a musical experience like that, where we had seven–and–a–half rehearsal hours to get all this music together, that was in a double album eventually.

The rehearsals were very scary; we never once played any of those pieces all the way through, because there just wasn't time. And yet that night it was like some magic hand took over; a spiritual thing was happening between the people and the orchestra. It wasn't like there was a folk singer here, a classical guitarist here and a jazz trumpet player there, and all these forms. Everybody kind of took their clothes off and made music together–it was really thrilling.When I heard the tapes afterwards, I knew that I would like to put out a recording of this.

So I got clearance on Bat McGrath and Don Potter, the folk singers, who record for Epic Records. I went out and borrowed money again to pay all the musicians. And I released the record on my brother's label in Rochester. Eventually, the result was the Mercury contract.Actually, we did move that concert around somewhat. Not with the Rochester Philharmonic, but I formed my own orchestra, made up of musicians from the Eastman School, where I'm on the faculty now, direct the Jazz Ensemble and teach improvisation classes. They made up a very young orchestra, that turned out to bc a lot of fun.

We played two concerts in Buffalo and two at Massey Hall, Toronto, also Carnegie Hall and a couple of colleges in New York State, moving all these people around—which is really like moving a Broadway show around.Both “Friends and Love” and the later “Together” are very special concerts to me. Because to put something like that together takes about six months of thought and writing and copying, and everything. With four people you can create one very strong kind of energy, but if you can get 65 people working together, and swinging together, that's a whole other kind of energy. And the visual element, of seeing that many people, from that many musical backgrounds, so to speak, playing together, is a whole lot of fun.I think it's a very essential direction, for the survival of large ensembles like philharmonic orchestras, to begin to explore other musical areas that might bring a new audience into the concert hall.

You know, they come to hear us together, and they see the symphony orchestra up there, which leads them to check out what the orchestra does by itself another night.

Tie and tails.
What's happened—in our country, anyhow—is that the young people have shied away from the formality of the concert hall, that tie–and–tails philharmonic image.When we do our concerts, we dress in our everyday clothes, and so does the orchestra, in order to make it a loose situation.Young people are more ready today than ever before to listen to and accept music. They've come through some very basic, raw musical periods, and we've all kind of cried about 'em somewhat, but what it has done is given the audience a foundation, so that they can now build on top of that. For example, at the Eastman School I see students come in who are very, shall we say, rock–orientated, or in that direction.

They write the arrangements for the big band that I direct; therefore they choose what the musical direction is going to be. Last year they were very much in the rock bag, but all of a sudden this year the direction changed, and now everybody's trying to play music that involves improvisation. They see that the real challenge lies there. You can get great ensembles playing together, but to get the guy who can stand up and play a chorus off the top of his head is still a rare commodity in the States—and everywhere, I think.

Growing with us
So we're getting eighteen–year–old technical geniuses on their instrument, who can play the legitimate works, play lead, and do everything well technically. But they've been living in the state of Minnesota, and the only thing they ever see is the Johnny Carson Tonight show; so the only trumpet player they ever heard was Doc Severinsen. And there they are, at eighteen, unexposed to Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Eldridge, Louis Armstrong–all the people you have to listen to in order to grow, to build a foundation for playing.Music, to young people today, is much more important, in a different kind of way.

I remember, when I grew up, going to dances was just a lot of fun. But when people get together now, music is the first thing that happens. You know, they sit down, put on a record and talk about the music, or get into each other through music. Its more of a way of communicating than ever before.Because of this, I have a lot of faith in them being ready for a musical revolution in a positive direction. I only hope that the musicians aren't so egotistical that they just presume it's all for them; I hope they will attempt to communicate. I can see it happening all over the place; people of all ages, from six to sixty, are listening to us, who never would have listened to us three or four years ago. Yet our music hasn't changed that much; I don't feel that what I'm playing is very different from what I was playing before. So it must be that they've grown with us; they’ve come through the orchestra situation, and that has helped them to get into us from another point of view.

We went up to Toronto and did two concerts at Massey Hall. The first one was half filled, the second sold out, with orchestra. Then we played 1 week at the Colonial with the Quartet—this is a jazz club of great reputation. It was our first time in there, and nobody had ever heard us; yet there were four hundred people in the place every night and people lined up down the street. They were enjoying that as much, if not more than the orchestral concepts.That's what I like about our Quartet. It can move into an orchestra and change that; then it can be a quartet in its own right. It can be a very dynamic thing or a very subtle thing; it's got many colour possibilities within it.

I have no idea how long it'll last, but I'm really proud of what it is musically. It's accomplished what I wanted, and I hope it can stay together long enough for a whole lot of people to hear it and enjoy it.I've written a lot of the original music we play; the other head arrangements are connected with working with Gerry for four years. Because it's been together for a while, our group sounds like it's a group. We know each other. I know when he should be the leader, and he knows when I should; we can be sympathetic to each other, and do very spontaneous things without getting in each other's way. It just takes time to make this particular concept of a group happen.

A little bolder
For various reasons, a lot of groups don't last too long. So I feel very fortunate. If this group had lasted three weeks, I'd have been happy. But it's lasted four years, and now we've had success at the Montreux Festival and Ronnie Scott's. We haven't even begun to explore the places that we might play in the States yet.

Whether it's string writing or whatever, I try to write for what each instrumentalist can do best. In other words, I wouldn't write a legitimate trumpet cadenza, that I would expect an orchestral trumpet player to play, for myself—because that's not where I'm at. With the strings, I don't ask anybody in the orchestra to do anything that they don't normally do, and do well. So I never really ask the strings to get off the ground and improvise or really bounce it out. But an orchestra swings in its own way, and I think that the music on those two albums is swinging.On the first concert with orchestra I did very little playing myself, because I was very busy conducting. With the second one, I got a little holder about throwing the baton down and grabbing the flugelhorn, and I did more playing in that concert.

It's kinda hard to jump to the piano, conduct and do all of that, but I enjoy playing; I don't really see the day when I'll just write. The two go hand–in–hand. I find it very difficult to compose when I'm not playing. Neither can I play at my best unless I'm writing, because I like to establish musical directions for us to play on.I've stayed on flugelhorn for about four years now. I grew up playing the trumpet; then about 1963, some people at Eastman School started writing music in the Miles Davis–Gil Evans context, for which they needed someone to play flugelhorn. I had never even seen one before, but as soon as I picked it up I felt very good with it, and very close to it.

So I played it for a while then, until I worked with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and had to play the trumpet, because the music was that aggressive all the time, and not very compatible with flugelhorn playing.Then, when I got back to Rochester and formed my own quartet, I settled down on flugelhorn. I really enjoy it: I don't feel comfortable switching back and forth between the two instruments.In a way, not having a piano much of the time is an important part of the group’s character. Because the temptation to add the fifth member has been very great—and maybe some day the right player will come along.Tony Levin on bass has filled up that space to quite a degree; in fact, half the time I find him playing like a guitar back there. He's playing chords and things on fender that really take the music in another direction.What it does is: when you don't hear that harmonic instrument there, then it does finally enter, it's like a whole other element. Whereas in most groups you hear it constantly, so that you almost take it for granted; it's not like a new, fresh thing.

You know, sometimes I long to hear somebody punch down a chord over there. But then again, I like the freedom that this particular situation sets up, and I have no immediate intention to change it.

Studio realism
How the group really evolved was that I had this offer to play at this club called the Shakespeare, which had an octagonal bar. I had always worked with a quintet, but there wasn't room for five on the bandstand. So I decided I would have to become the piano player; I had studied piano since I was eight, but never played it publicly before.Then, working with Gerry, developing lines together and writing charts with certain harmonies, I didn't really miss hearing that element all the time. On the quartet record we did in the ;studio, there was a great temptation to run in and overdub piano, but I wanted to make it as realistic as I possibly could.

Copyright (C) 1972 Les Tomkins

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