Jazz Professional               



The Flute’s Voice

The timely emergence
The flute's voice
Sophistication, the Samba and the Search
Playing with big orchestras
Enjoying a more interesting life
Let's get rid of the categories
Food for thought
Improvisation: Can it be learned?
Bud Shank Today
Selected performances

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1979

At the age of sixteen in North Carolina, I spent a lot of time listening to the radio. One thing that I remember was the Chesterfield Hour, that I faithfully listened to every night; originally the Glenn Miller band came on at around seven o’clock, and later Tommy Dorsey's band was on that same thing. Also, at that time, a lot of bands used to broadcast late at night from hotels in New York, or New Orleans, or wherever—there was a circuit. I was forever hiding the radio underneath my pillow and listening when I was supposed to be asleep. That was my contact with the outside world.

During one Summer vacation from school, when I was about seventeen, I went to New York, to study with a saxophone player up there. In fact, I went several times. It was quite a thing for my parents to let me go away from home, to the big city, and quite an adventure for me. That was a big help.

Another big influence, about that same time, before I had graduated from high school: the band at the University of North Carolina, where I later enrolled, needed a saxophone player, and I got the job. This was a very, very wonderful band, composed of a lot of excellent musicians. By now this was 1945; some of  'em were just starting to get out of the Service. So they were all guys that were well into their twenties, who'd had a lot of musical experience outside of North Carolina. Playing with them was great; later, when I went to school there, I kept on playing with that band. About the middle of my third year in college—I was nineteen, I guess—the whole band quit school together, went on the road, lasted six weeks, broke up. And rather than go back to school, I went to California—which is how ended up there.

From then on, I was a professional musician for sure—because I was out on my own. That's when I started playing the flute. I got jobs with some dumb bands to begin with, but the first thing of any importance was the Charlie Barnet job.

Originally, I was hired on the Barnet band as a tenor player. They hired three young kids at the same time—Doc Severinsen, who's now with the Tonight show, Claude Williamson, a very wonderful pianist, and myself. We were the three kids on the band, each making a hundred dollars a week.

After I'd been on the band about six months, the first alto player left the band rather suddenly, and I just walked up to Charlie. I said: "Hey, Charlie, can I play lead alto?" He said: "Sure"; we were in New York at the time, and I went down to 48th Street, where all the music stores were, and bought an alto because, in the meantime, the one that I had started on had disappeared; I don’t know where it went. And I've been an alto player ever since. That was another great break—for somebody like Charlie Barnet to have that much faith in me, rather than move the second alto player to first. I was the bottom tenor player, the lowestpaid kid on the band. I just said: "Can I have that job?", and he said, "You got it, kid." Which was great of him; I felt a lot of respect for him, for doing that. It was very important.

Yes, I found that alto was a much more natural voice far me. I still love tenor, and still play it occasionally, but, as far as what I do, I'm an alto saxophone player. And at that time, I started to realise that it was just a more versatile member of the saxophone family, and that what I did was better on that. I have been told by many people through the years that I sound like I'm still playing tenor when I play alto. But what's the difference? You know—it's what I feel comfortable doing. I felt I started to find myself then, and it's been going on since then.

That's also where I started to get some experience playing the flute. I had started to study the flute before going on Barnet's band, and I had never played it in front of anybody, other than my teacher. But occasionally, doing the theatre jobs with a band like that—which were big in those days; the Strand Theatre, the Apollo Theatre, in uptown New York, and things like that—artists would bring in parts that would call for flute to be used. That flute experience helped, especially later on. I'm jumping ahead a couple of years, but I had a chance to audition for a job with Stan Kenton's band—this was the end of 1949—when he put together the Innovations In Modern Music tour. That was it—the great big Stan Kenton band. It was because of the fact that I played flute that I was able to get that job; I had to audition on flute, not on saxophone. They knew I could make it on saxophone, but could I play flute? Nobody had had a flute player on their band before that. They were kinda hung up too; they had to find somebody like me. I really didn't play the instrument very well, either—I've got to admit that—at that time. But after that, I really started to get interested in the flute, and started to study more.

There wasn't any jazz flute being played, that I was aware of. Later on, people brought some earlier records to my attention, that somebody had done in the 'thirties. Right—Wayman Carver, that’s the one. But I had never heard it; I don't know that I've heard that record to this day. I was made aware that it was in existence.

Bob Cooper and I used to mess around backstage when we were with Stan's band—he was playing oboe at that time.

We used to do silly things like play "Move", that Miles Davis recorded, and other bebop tunes, on flute and oboe while we were sitting back there, warming up. We'd do it together, because we both knew the things, from playing 'em on saxophone. That's where all that came from; I don't think it had really occurred to either one of us that we'd ever get into using them as jazz instruments. It was just another nice instrument to play; another device. I really liked the flute, and was interested in it, but I had not started to learn it with the idea of becoming a jazz soloist on it. That just evolved later.

Moving up again a few years—it really started to take some shape when Bob Cooper and I were working with Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars. Again; we were there as saxophone players, and we used to practise upstairs.

Finally, somebody said: "Well, bring those things down on the stand." That evolved into a record featuring Bob and I, called "Flute 'N' Oboe".

By that time, I guess the flute was on the way to being established. Yes, Frank Wess had also done some stuff—right. It's taken a long time to develop, really—I think only now is it really starting to make some development as a jazz instrument. And it's got a long way to go yet, but it's going to be a strong, important voice. We now have our first instrumentalists who do nothing but play the flute. There's a kid of twenty–five in New York, named Dave Valentine—he's dynamite. He has a great album out, that Dave Grusin produced. Tim Weisberg is another one, though he's off a little bit more into the rock thing. The point is, we're starting to see people come out as flute players only; they have no connection with saxophones and the rest of the woodwind family.

As for the humming with the flute—I think that was fine for Roland Kirk to do it. I don’t think that's really necessary for anybody else. I hate to see instruments distorted. Roland Kirk was a very, very individual musician—he was an individual person. His whole approach to music was him, and only him; it was very basic—almost primitive. What he did on flute was extremely effective. I hate to see other people do it; I really don't like that. With Roland doing it, it was honest, truthful, and very meaningful for him.

Before we were in the Kenton band together Art Pepper and I had been playing around the Los Angeles area. In the late 'forties, the jam session was a big thing with clubs around there. Clubs would hire a rhythm section, then have the horn players come by and sit in. You could almost do it five or six days a week—travelling all over the area. You never got paid for it, but you sure did play a lot; Art and I played together a lot, doing that. In fact, that's where I met the guys that recommended me to work with Stan's band. The band was off during 1949—and I met Buddy Childers, Bob Cooper, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, all those guys, around the clubs. So we all knew each other. before we were hired on the band.

If you want to categorise people's playing: "This person is' a Charlie Parker player; this person is a Lee Konitz player" or whatever—maybe I do lean more to the same roots as Art Pepper. We knew each other very well in those days; we spent a lot of time together, and talked a lot. We found out that we both had heard Charlie Parker first on the Jay McShann records, and that particular Parker sound was the one we liked the best. Before we even met each other, we had both decided this. We both kinda grew up liking Lester Young, and listening to him more than Charlie Parker. Our roots were the same; we came from entirely different parts of the country—from different worlds, for that matter—but we both got to the same places at the same time. I admired his playing; I think he liked mine—so we learned from each other, I haven't seen him in twenty years, but I'm certainly very glad to see that he's been able to get his life in order, take care of some of his problems, whatever, and is back in action again. I'm sure that some day soon our paths will cross again—I hope they do. I'd like to see him again.

We even had a group together—what did I say—twenty years? Maybe eighteen years is more like it; it was 1961—we had a group, with just the two of us and bass and drums. That was fun. Oh, no, it never got on record—no, those things are too good to get on records. But it was interesting, I .had had a group working at a club in Malibu, California; Gary Peacock was the bass player, Dennis Budimir was the guitarist, and the drummer's name I can't remember. I think Dennis got drafted, and Art was in town: at that time; he had himself straightened out pretty well at that particular time. So I said: "Why not?" and he said: "Well, why not?" We put together a library. We both played tenor as well as alto, he played clarinet, I played flute, and we just started mixing up all those combinations. Real fun, especially with a bass player like Gary Peacock—that made it all come out, because Gary was dynamite; he still is. That was quite a group.

Copyright © 1979, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.