Jazz Professional               


Let musicians be heard as individuals

Let musicians be heard
Let's honour the living greats
One-armed drummer
Preserve me from purists
Reasons for raising hell
Rich responses
My secret weapon
At the Drum clinic
Being intense
Nobody to listen to
  Talking to Les Tomkins in 1980

 You say you never spent eight hours a day practising, but nevertheless you developed an incredible technique which has been the envy of other drummers throughout your career. How did you do it?

 By playing. A lot of people who are interested in what I have done, or what I'm doing, forget that I play three hundred nights out of the year; my band has approximately nine to ten months' constant work every year. Even when I was a kid, I worked every night. When I was with Shaw's band, we worked every year straight through; when I was with Dorsey's band, on and off for seven years, we worked every night.

And every night that you play is another practice session. For somebody to sit in a room for eight hours, it's got to be the most tedious, the most boring thing—and don't think you develop. It's one thing to sit by yourself and bang; it's another thing to get on that bandstand with sixteen musicians—now you have to assert who you are, what you are, and be able to play. Playing every night—that's your learning, right there.

So all the technical tricks are growing. . .

From your own inventiveness, from your playing. you play a fill one night, and you feel: "Well, this four bars really fits." If the next night you're truly inspired because the band is really playing well, you may decide that the four you played last night may need a little turn—around in here—at least, you'll try it. At least, I'll try it. Instead of playing the same four bars every night in a particular piece of music, which becomes boring to me, I will try to not bore myself by trying to create another four. Or two bars, or one bar, or a solo. The main object of playing, I think, is not to be bored. And when you're restricted to the simplicity of what's being played today—that's boring. It's too simple, too unimaginative, too uninspired. You know that this is what’s going to be played.

I resent the fact—I'm speaking of drummers now—that they go into a studio, lay down a track, then come back and lay down another track on top of that, and another track on top of that, and so on and so on. Well, that to me is cheating—it’s not playing. That's not real.

And how are they going to do it in live performance?

Well, I'm not even concerned with that. I'm concerned with the things that are forced on me, by turning a radio on and listening to it. When I say forced—it's because, no matter what station you turn to in the States, you're going to get a rock station. The repetition of it is boring. When do you elevate your own talent, and say: "I've had enough of this. Let me get into the next thing." The next thing has to come from your brain.

Another thing that I find to be kind of strange: in the days past, when an arranger would write a chart, it would be a skeleton sheet for the drummer, unless it was something so intricate that it had to fit, it had to be played exact; the music just had: "Here's a two-bar break, here's a two-bar stop, here s a rest, here's a quarter note", whatever it is—the rest of the time, it was up to the individual to listen to what the band was doing and to try to accent that. In other words, to be another lead trumpet player—okay? Today, the thing is written out: "Give me two bass drum shots here give me a rim-shot, and give me a closed cymbal—and play that, and don't deviate." The disco thing, of course, is total insanity. The pounding of the bass drum. . . we talk about pulse—that kind of pulse is almost a heart-attack pulse. It just pounds and pounds; there's nothing gentle, nothing inspired to it. It's just: here's what the studio wants, here's what the leader wants, and don't be anything but what I tell you to be. When do you step out and become the individual? When do you say: "Well, this chart needs this kind of feeling"? If you're just going to play what somebody else tells you to play, who are you? And what are you?

There have been some fine bands in the past—Ellington's, notably—which have operated successfully without a sheet of music in sight.

When I first heard Count Basie . . . I was at the Hickory House in New York City, and the thrill of knowing that the Basie band was coming up from Kansas City to play the Famous Door had every musician in absolute turmoil. I mean, here was the Master coming in. And, of course, I became great friends with Basie; he's the dearest, most-loved person that I know. When I first met him, I was eighteen years old. I met Jo Jones, and we talked about the fact that all they had in the band was maybe four or five charts. Everything else was: "You got a B flat, you got an A, and you got an F sharp" or whatever—and that's the way they had "arrangements". Sweets Edison was up there creating constantly; Buck Clayton would listen to what he was playing, and augment that sound. It was fifteen guys feeling, seeing, inventing, and making that band what it was—and still is today. It was not that you had a great book; you had great players, who were inventive and who were totally involved in what they were doing.

It wasn't something where somebody said: "Let's get a group, and we'll play things in seven, in nine, and we'll really confuse everybody." Well, Bartok, Stravinsky and everybody else have been doing that kind of time-signature thing for a hundred years. Unless you like to be fooled, so much of what is being played today. . . it's just something that I have no answer for. I'm not ridiculing, as much as trying to figure outwhy not play music? You don't have to put skeleton make-up on, wrap a snake around your neck, and call it music—because it isn't.

Well, there are musicians nowadays, as you're the first person to say, who are of a very high calibre. You hear them in the schools; you employ them in your band.

Exactly, but why not give them opportunity of being heard as really good young musicians, instead of playing the stuff that you are forced to hear because record companies will not put the same promotion behind a jazz album that they'll put behind a rock album. If the media would spend the same amount of time promoting and publicising various jazz bands and groups, you'd have a much larger audience. While you're constantly pushing one new rock band after another, you're alienating the other form of music, which is truly an American art form. Why not give it its full due, and then let the people out there be the sole judge—not you, not the magazines and papers. Certainly not the so-called poll.

You don't care a lot for popularity polls, do you? I don't think there's anything more I ridiculous than a jazz poll. How can you be voted number one a certain year, and wind up at twenty the following year? Has your talent really deteriorated to a point where you're not as good as you were only twelve months previously? What you're doing is making guys compete with each other, instead of having a warmer relationship. I don't want to compete with anybody; I'm not looking to win a poll—that’s the last thing I'm looking for. I don't even want to be in a jazz poll.

Isn't competition a healthy thing? Yes, competition in playing—not competition by having somebody else write a vote in, to say: "This guy is better". Who is the guy that's voting to say it's better—how dare he say it's better. That’s his own personal taste, but does he know?

What counts is the opinions of the people who are playing.

Right. To talk about trumpet players, because that's one of my favourite instruments—how can you say that Chuck Mangione, by winning a poll, is a better trumpet player than Dizzy Gillespie? It's a total insult when you realise that Chuck Mangione obviously listened to Miles Davis all his life. Now, is Chuck better than Miles? I don't think so. And I don't say this to hurt the man.

And I don't think Chuck himself would say he wants to be compared with Miles or Dizzy.

That's what I'm saying. While Doc Severinsen has great chops, is he as great a jazz player as Dizzy Gillespie? If he wins the jazz poll, as the number one trumpet player, then it's laughable. How can Doc Severinsen be considered a jazz player when he's got two of the greatest jazz players in the NBC studio band? He's got Snooky Young, an all-time great—but you never hear about him. So, again, it’s that total insanity of competition by the press: "Let's make this guy number one." But if you genuinely attain that status, then you are number one.

It's the same thing as the Oscars. Laurence Olivier, to me, is the greatest actor in the world today, from the past; I don't think he ever concerns himself with winning an Oscar. I don't think he's involved in that kind of competition. He's a living legend; so I doubt very much if he would take any poll seriously. I even forgot who won last year's Oscar—that’s how unimportant it is to win. What is important is to have the staying power to generate that kind of audience enthusiasm and understanding of what he artist is. But it doesn't make any sense to spend hundred of thousands of dollars to put on a show like the Oscars. You have a lesser-known actor who becomes number one, and if he doesn't have the proper script, the following year he's nowhere.

When you see an old movie like Boom Town, with Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, you sit and look at these two men, and you marvel. Here's a movie that was produced and directed forty years ago, which is just as fresh and entertaining, and the acting just as brilliant—without all of the ballyhoo that goes on with today's marketing of movies.

There's a kind of a parallel to be drawn between someone like Spencer Tracy and yourself. He never went to an acting school; what he did was completely natural. By the same token, you never went to a drum school. . .

True, but I don't like to be put in that category, because I don't consider myself that kind of a talent.

My talent is what it is. But when we talk about people like Brando, for instance. . . when he did Streetcar Named Desire and The Wild One, that was artistic and it was acting; you see him in a thing like Apocalypse Now—it's disgusting, it makes no sense, to take that kind of brilliance and relate it to that kind of a movie.

Or Superman—why would Brando want to do that? Okay—he got so many millions. But these people are great; no matter how bad the movie or the script, or both, may be, there's that individual up there who becomes outstanding because of the mediocrity that surrounds him. That kind of a personality is what I'm talking about.

You don't need the media to tell the world it's great or it's bad; you can look at it, judge it for yourself, and know there's something that's going to last. And I'm really proud to have been a part of that scene in the States; I can look back and say that I've know those people, I've seen their movies, I've heard their music.

Gone With The Wind today brings in as much money in the theatres as it brought in in 1938 when it was first released. When you do something right, it stays. That's the only thing I'm concerned with—not polls, not who the greatest is. Are you the best drummer or the best trumpet player in the world?—that doesn't mean anything. Did you enjoy me enough this year to want to come and see me again next year? If the answer's "yes", then I must be doing something right for you. If the answer's "No", I immediately had to take stock of myself, and want to find out what I did wrong, that alienated a certain segment of my audience.

I'm totally concerned with that, because without those people coming into the club or the hall, no matter how great you are, what does it mean? you've got to be able to produce greatness within yourself and make it understandable to the people. What you're doing is for them—not necessarily for you. When I play, I play for me and for you; if I think I m playing well, perhaps the audience will understand that I'm playing well. If I'm playing bad, I'll be the first to know it, and I'll probably apologise—because my ego dictates to me how to behave. I want to be good all the time. It's not a chore, though; it's not having to live up to it; it’s wanting to live up to it. It has to do with pride in what you do. I try to get as close to perfection as I can possibly get—I'm speaking of what I try to produce both as a bandleader and as a player.

Copyright © 1980, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.