Jazz Professional               



Enjoying a more interesting life

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 1984

Working with Shorty is always a pleasure—it was a pleasure thirty years ago; it's a pleasure now. Actually, we had not worked with small groups too much in the 'fifties when we recorded a lot, and we've maintained contact all those years—all through the dark ages, which happened from 1962 to 1975. For a while we were both in the studios, and then Shorty even quit that; he stopped playing in the mid'sixties, but kept on writing—then he even stopped writing in the early or middle 'seventies. But I was one of the few people who still maintained contact with him during all that time. I saw him almost once a week—we both had boats that were very close to each other in the Marina area near Los Angeles, and through that we were able to avoid losing touch.

When I first broke away from that studio thing, in '75'76, when we first put L. A. Four together, Shorty was out there watching. And I was telling him how much fun I was having. Then, about two years ago, when I made a clean break, moved away from Los Angeles and whatever, I was talking about the fun again; I asked him: "Why don't you start playing again?" "No—I won't do it"—next thing I know, he's in the closet, practising. I guess he already told you this, but when he came over here and did that first NYJO tour in October '82, it was with the stipulation that if he didn't like the way he played, or didn't feel like playing, he didn't have to. Well, it turned out he enjoyed playing. He came back and told me: "Hey, I just did a tour in England and I had a whole lot of fun. Are those suggestions still open, about us working together?" I said "Sure." In the meantime, L. A. Four had stopped; I'd been working all over the United States as a single, playing with groups everywhere, and I had an agent. So I called up the West Coast office of that agency and I said: "Why don't you try to book some stuff with Shorty and I together?" This was April of last year; they booked a couple of one–night club things for us in the West Coast, and that worked fine. We kept on, and next thing we know we've got an album out, we're in Japan with the Orax Festival—this had been a continuing thing. It keeps becoming much, much more of a pleasure all the time; as his playing improves, it enables us to do more and more things.

I still have been working by myself in between times—I enjoy that also. When I work with my own quartet, I do still different material—I have my own library. The L. A. Four library is still there, even though that group is broken up for the moment. Incidentally, we are going to work with L. A. Four in August, for a few concerts. That all keeps my life very much more interesting, though, as opposed to playing the same music and the same type of stuff all the time.

Another thing that Shorty and I have enjoyed is that we've always worked with local rhythm sections or house rhythm sections, wherever we've been—and we have met some fantastic people. That keeps us on our toes; it makes almost every job we play different—because each rhythm section is different. Let me quickly say: the winner of all of' ‘em is the one we had here at Ronnie Scott's; these three guys—John, Ron and Kenny were just phenomenal. It was really a lot of fun. Everything came together easy; they really adapted themselves very well. Some people who were there the first set we played on the Monday night said: "It sounded like you guys have been together for five years—not five minutes." Our material is set up for that—we keep it fairly simple, because we know we're always with different guys. If we had our own complete group, we'd probably be playing a lot more complex arrangements. However—we're going with a new agency; the Abby Hoffer Agency in New York will be booking us from September. And the first thing he said is: "I want you guys to start travelling with your own rhythm section." I said: "Well, you got to come up with the money." He said: "I will." So we have that to look forward to; starting in September or October, we may start working with our own group, provided the funds are there. That'll open up a lot of different things that we can do. We're hoping to come back here in October, and possibly that new rhythm section will be with us.

We're not playing too much material from that old era. We still play the original "Martians Go Home"; we play "Lotus Bud", a ballad that Shorty wrote for an album at that time, and a couple more. We've also tried to play other people's material: we've got three Bud Powell things that we like to play a lot; we play some Al Cohn songs, and Tiny Kahn's "T. N. T." Guys like that—friends of ours that we grew up with, musically if not physically. It's music from that era, but it's not stuff especially connected with West Coast Jazz—whatever that was! I think I bounce off Shorty's excitement and enthusiasm, being able to play again. Because he's still going through that—I've been out doing it for quite a while; this is still new to him and he's just having a marvellous time. I reflect off of his feelings. Our music really represents the way we are now. We keep bringing in new arrangements of old standards, such as "Broadway"—things we like to play. Playing any heads is a little difficult, because Shorty was inactive for all those years, and he'd rather not play songs that he's not familiar with. Again, having been at it a long time, I've built up an extensive library in my head of standards and things. That I can do; it's not as easy for him, because he hasn't been doing it. But the little signoff blues thing we do at the end of a set—that takes a different shape every time we play it. That's what's fun—seeing those things evolve.

I feel more free about music than I ever have in my life. I went from the highest point in my advancement as a musician ... which was, I feel, in 1961, '62, '63—that era ... I went from there to nothing. Everything stopped. When I came back out again—out of the studios—I went into L. A. Four's group, which was still very confining. L. A. Four was almost as confining musically as the studios were; I didn't have the freedom to do what I really wanted to do. It was marvellous, a great group and I enjoyed working with it, but as far as having freedom as an improvising jazz player, it was not there. It couldn't be; that wasn't the concept of that group. I have that freedom now; I have had for the past two years, working by myself and working with Shorty—and it's helped me really open up. And now I feel I'm picking up where I left off in 1962 or '63, and starting to advance myself. Yes, stretching out—there's a good term—most certainly. I'm getting the facility on my horn; when I encounter a good rhythm section, like at Ronnie's, all of a sudden things can really start flowing. That's what this kind of music is all about. That's why I came back to it, and that's why I have never felt happier or stronger in my life. I'm starting off like a kid again.

I feel like this is a time of renewal. Looking back at my career—I feel that myself, Shorty, a whole lot of musicians got up to 1962, reached a peak, and then the bottom fell out of everything. Everything just went downhill or sat there for fifteen years. Now it's all opening up again; it's going back to that point, picking up the pieces and going straight ahead.

My development on the flute? That's another thing that's really kept my interest and brought new openings. As I told you when we did our interview a few years ago, when I returned to creative playing I decided that if I was going to play the flute I'd better go learn how to play it. And I spent a lot of time on practising and research. That was probably in '77; I got it to the stage where, by studying classical music and by being a classical player, I was finally making sense to myself playing jazz on it.

For the first time, it made sense, other than being a little toy. Now I've extended that by continuing to expand on it more into the classical world; I've found myself doing recitals and concerts as a classical flautist. And I did that one album with Laurindo Almeida of all classical flute and guitar works; also "Explorations" with Bill Mays, which was sort of a combination of both elements, and an album for another composer, named Martin Scott–Cousins, of his contemporary music. In August I'm appearing in a chamber music festival, doing the Poulenc Sonata—I'm really looking forward to this.

I've got a lot of work to do; I've played that piece of music, but I haven't memorised it—I'm going to be doing a lot of practising between now and then. But I do feel that I can make it—as do the people who hired me to do the job. Which is marvellous.

And I'm finding that, as much as I enjoy the moments I play jazz on flute—it's still better as a classical instrument! I can get more satisfaction out of playing legit music on the flute. Not so with saxophone—I've never touched the legitimate saxophone; I have no intention of even trying that. A jazz voice? It most certainly is, and I have never heard anybody play legit saxophone that in any way appealed to me. The flute is a different thing—there are thousands of classical flautists who just thrill me when I hear them. So we may be coming back around the bend—finding out that flute really is an alternative jazz instrument. I'm saying some things now that I really have never said before, because I never really thought like that ... I'm not putting it down as a jazz instrument ... There are some kids coming up—the first generation of guys who started out in jazz music as flautists; they're making some sense out of the instrument, and in another generation or so maybe there will be more even than that coming along, who are going to prove that flute is a legit jazz instrument.

It's still in an evolution stage. The flute has been around as a jazz instrument for thirty years; saxophone's been around since the beginning of jazz as a jazz instrument. So have clarinet, trumpet, trombone—our basic instruments. It's still new, and up until now flute has always been played by people who played something else—better! As a double or as a second instrument. That's why I said: after being a so–called jazz flautist for thirty years, it was only when I'd learned to play it properly that it made sense to me. In the process I found out that I like playing classical music. And for whatever it's worth, I don't think it hurts my jazz playing at all! Certainly, I set out to perfect a full flute sound—that's what all that practising was about. I don't know where it's going to go, but we'll find out. I'm still a bebop saxophone player, no matter what—but I am very thrilled and musically satisfied when I do classical things. To sum it up, I guess—even when I started playing, I always wanted to be a complete musician. I did not want to do just this or this or whatever. Most jazz musicians specialise only in jazz music; most classical musicians specialise only in classical music—sometimes they can't even talk with each other. But I've always been interested in both—and my desire for completeness involves all concepts. It even involves a lot of the stuff I did in the Hollywood studios; most of it was nonsense, but a lot of it was good and valid, and I'm glad that I experienced that—I'm also glad that I left it.

When people pretend that a strictly limited sound and the minimum ability is good enough to play jazz on flute, that's just a copout and a crutch. If somebody who doesn't know how to play the instrument says: "Well, I can just play a few jazz phrases on it—this is the way it's supposed to be", that's not true. You would not do that on the saxophone. The people who do that on the saxophone or whatever are some of our avant garde friends, who are selling their emotions, and they forgot to learn to play before they got there. I can't put up with that on any instrument.

As for the acceptance of somebody playing both jazz and classical music equally well—I'm sure it will take a while, even though things are pointing in that direction. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of true, serious jazz fans who think that if any jazz musician plays classical music there's something wrong with him. And the same with classical fans: their attitude seems to be that the only way a classical musician can experiment or get involved with jazz music is as some kind of joke; it has to be treated as very light, tongue–in–cheek and strictly non–serious. I won't name names, but some great musicians—you know who they are—have treated it that way, and I think that's ridiculous. We as jazz musicians are as serious about what we do as they are about what they do; both forms of music are very serious. I'm serious when I play classical music—they should be serious when they play jazz music, and treat it in a serious manner. But we still have that element. I guess we're gradually getting away from that—it's going to take some more time.

Copyright © 1984, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.