It gets harder all the time

It gets harder all the time
Of great bands and magic moments
Bill, Bob and Brass
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1973

As a pianist, I’m still trying very hard; it gets harder all the time, but I enjoy it. It’s writing that I do mostly nowadays—I play a lot as well, of course. Playing is equally important, because I love my instrument. I’m never satisfied; I think we’re all the same.

I was born just outside Glasgow. I always say Glasgow, because it’s the nearest town, but actually it’s a little place called Carmyle; it’s still my parents’ home. That’s where I started, with a basically classical grounding. Losing the second finger of my right hand hindered me a wee bit. This happened when my brother and I were playing cowboys and Indians. We were in a telephone kiosk, and suddenly he said the police were coming, ran out and the door slammed on my hand, crushing the top half of the finger. It was gangrene, and it was off in three–and–a–half hours; it killed the finger immediately.

It meant starting to play all over again. Luckily, God was kind. Yes, I had to develop another technique entirely. Basically, it involved three and one subsidiary, rather than three and two subsidiaries. Because Tatum and these people played mainly that three–fingered plus two way so I worked on the three plus one, and, through practice, my thumb became very quick, as did the fingers. That’s it—you practise hard, God’s kind, and out it comes. It really became part of my style. My left hand was always the better one—still is today, I think. Some people say I play too much bass sometimes! But I love it—that’s what it’s there for. I like to use it.

My family weren’t really musical at all. My father used to play a bit of piano, but nothing serious. My mother and the rest of the family were singers, more or less. One of my uncles used to say that my grandfather must have mucked about with a Spaniard somewhere! I was writing some Spanish music at the time.

All the music I heard originally was classical—the usual Chopin, Schubert, Liszt, Bach, Mozart. But I came into this side purely by accident. The pianist didn’t turn up at a local hall, and they were desperate; someone said: “Well, there’s a little boy down the road who plays the piano.” “Does he read?” “Oh yes—he reads.” And I went out, played for this little dance band, read all the time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. They were amazed at the technique, for a youngster, and they said: “You should take up the dance music side seriously.” I went back and told my father, and that’s how it started. He took me to see shows like Jack Hylton’s band, with Billy Munn on piano, and I liked it even more. In those days, I’d never heard this sort of piano style. As time went on, I played with all the local bands in Glasgow. Without completely understanding what jazz was all about, I had the thought always at the back of my mind that what I wanted to do most was to swing.

The boys there helped me a lot, particularly Lester Penman, a drum teacher who had a student band on a Sunday night. The boys used to go and blow all these beautiful arrangements from America and, when the pianist couldn’t do it, I used to go along just to sit in. All the piano solos were taken from Basie and people like that. So I learned a lot about Basie and Ellington, just from playing their written solos.

Then the boys were telling me to buy Tatum records—he was my god from the day I first heard him. I couldn’t believe that a man could play like that, and I’ve never heard a piano player play more than him—and still so much emotion. Oscar knocks me out, but Tatum was something else. Naturally, Teddy Wilson crept in. And Nat Cole, who I loved when he had the trio. I learned from them all.

My own style developed, basically, through trying to play the piano well. I’m still that way today—I try to be a perfectionist. I like to hear all the instrument going. If I’m accused of playing too busy—well, I plead guilty to that. Sometimes it’s a mistake. I agree; you should leave gaps, as they say. Some of the boys used to say: “Don’t play so many notes”, but I’ve never got out of that habit. It’s a bad habit, in a way, but I enjoy it. All I’m concerned about is whether the piano sounds good, and whether it swings. If it swings, then I’m quite happy. If it doesn’t, then I’m miserable.

As regards my jazz, I’m very happy if someone says to me: “That was beautiful.” The whole thing is: if I think I’m playing well, the keyboard feels well. I want to hear what the instrument can do. It’s amazing what can be done on it. Well, some producers say to me, jokingly: “Goodness gracious, Bill, when you’re in here, it sounds like an orchestra.” That also comes from arranging; you play sort of orchestral things on the instrument.

Before I became fully professional in Glasgow, I was working in a stevedore’s office, drawing cargo plans. I got suspended for a week for practising on board the ship, instead of working on my drawings! Eventually, I came down to London, around the same time as a lot of other musicians left Scotland. But before that, there was Tommy McQuater, who was a great help to me and many others. There are still some fine players up there, but if you want to move on in the business, and play with all these great fellows, they’re down here.

As a kid in Glasgow, names like Tommy McQuater, George Chisholm, Andy McDevitt, Archie Craig were revered in every bandroom; “Oh—did you hear Tommy Mac?” So one became a little bit afraid of them. And when I first met Tommy, he was such a wonderful man: I’ve always found him that way–a gentleman, you know.

It seemed that every band you were in down here, there were at least half a dozen Scots. These guys made you feel more at home, and gave you the incentive to really work hard.

How I came to move down was: I was working in a ballroom in Ayr with a guy called Miff Hobson, who used to tour with people like Lew Stone. He’d formed this band with Bobby Jones, just for the Summer season. Somebody said: “Teddy Foster’s looking for a piano player.” I’d been listening to his band on the air, coming from Birmingham in those days. A great sound—with eight brass, a big choir and things. They said: “Go on, Bill, write for the job.” The only time I’d been to London before, I got scared when I saw the bombs dropping––it had been during the blitz—and got the next train home! Anyway, I got the telegram saying: “Come down to London” from Teddy Foster. And I’ll never forget that audition. He put this piano part up, and said: “Right, here we go then.

One, two, three, four . . .” And I didn’t start to play. So he said: “Why aren’t you playing?” I said: “I’ve got eight bars tacet here.” He said: “You’ve got the job.” In the band at that time were people like Jeff Muston, the arranger, Miff King, Fred Evans. Jimmy Watson had been there, but he had just left. Cecil Pressling and Manny Prince were in the sax section; it was a great band.

We used to play right in the centre of the Opera House, Covent Garden, which was a ballroom during the war. We were resident there for more than a year; then, at the end of the war, we moved to the Lyceum. After that, for a little while, he took the band on tour.

I didn’t like touring, and I came back to London, where I struggled like mad for a time. Being a youngster, nobody was interested. I walked every day from Victoria, where my digs were, to Archer Street, but I never got a job. I had friends there, who were a great help to me—people like Jack Drummond, who said: “You’re not going home, son. You’re staying here. You’ll make it.” I said: “No, I must go home. I can’t be out of work like this.” The next thing I knew, Frank Weir was. looking for a pianist—George Shearing was leaving. So I did the audition, got the job, and I was very happy. Then I discovered the band was under notice to end its engagement the following week. That was a very short job. So I joined Joe Loss.

I stayed with Joe for four years. Which, funnily enough, was a marvellous experience for me. Strict tempo and all, I enjoyed it, because Joe gave me an awful lot of liberty.1 used to practise all day, and the boys got angry at me: “Be quiet, for goodness sake”, you know, and all this. But I loved it, and, playing in the band, Joe used to feature me a lot.

He gave me scope to play classics as well, on the Sunday concerts. I even arranged works like the Emperor Concerto for dance band; not the whole thing—just sections of it. Because the pianist before me, Albert Gordon, was and still is a fine concert pianist. To follow Albert was terrifying for a start—just to look at the book he used to play. He’d been doing some classical solos: so Joe said: “Would you keep that sort of thing up?” And, as I say, we did unheard—of things like the Emperor, as well as the favourite pieces by composers like Chopin and Debussy. The audiences loved it.

In other words, I kept in touch with the technical side, classical–wise, and in the dance band side I was learning a lot from people like George Weldon. And I was still listening to records like mad—to Ralph Burns’ writing for the Woody Herman band, wondering how the hell he did this, and how they could think like that. Then all the bebop ideas were coming through. It was a fantastic era for music.

Certainly, people like Dizzy Gillespie influenced me like mad. We always had record players in the bandroom, and these sort of records were never off. I scored a couple of the Herman and the Kenton things, and it was a real laugh in the band—you know, Joe’s band playing things like “Down In Chihuahua”—it knocked me out. And Joe used to call them “Bill McGuffie’s ghost arrangements”. Because Joe stood for strict tempo, and is still the top today in that field. But I learned an awful lot from Joe, because he was such a nice guy; he looked after me like a father. I got married while I was with him, and he was a guest of honour at my wedding.

Following Joe’s band, I was out of work for a long time again—the same as I had been a few years earlier. It was because I’d been on tour all the time—and I wasn’t a busker. I’m still not a good busker today. I like to have chord symbols in front of me. What is it they say? “Safety is having the music in front of you.“—you know what I mean? I’ve always been scared of busking. If I’ve got the chords there, I’m as happy as a lord. As long as I see those chords, then I’ll improvise as much as you like. But trying to improvise without being sure is another thing. I know the tunes, but I make up my own formations of harmonies—which are not always the right ones for the soloists in front. Therefore I have the chords, so that they get the right ones; also it’s a better feel for me, and I can develop from the basic chord line.

It reminds me of the time I was doing a concert with Benny Goodman at the Festival Hall. I had a little stand at the side of the piano, as I always have, with all these busking tunes; so, whenever Benny would shout a number: “Let’s do so–and–so”, I’d get the song copy out. When I came off, a guy said to me: “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a pianist with such a famous man as this playing off sixpenny copies!” But I’d rather make sure I have the chords that the soloist knows.

Another thing: it’s always the middle eights that get me. Everybody knows the first sixteen, but the middle eight can completely throw you. Recently, on the radio, Joe Henderson had a spot in his programme where he featured a lot of the piano players, such as Ronnie Aldrich and myself. All he played was the middle eight—and trying to think of the tune that went with that middle eight was murder! I even caught Joe out, with a simple thing like “Honeysuckle Rose”.

You can be playing along, and everything seems great—then all of a sudden you realise you’re playing another middle eight, from an entirely different tune!

Copyright © 1973, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.