Nobody to listen to
musicians be heard
Let's honour the living greats
Preserve me from purists
Reasons for raising hell
My secret weapon
At the Drum clinic
Nobody to listen to
|Talking to Les Tomkins in 1974|
Although the present matters most to me, I certainly don’t write off the past. As far as recordings are concerned—I’ve recorded with Bird, Miles, Lester Young, Hampton, Tatum, Teddy Wilson. You can go down the line; everybody who ever made any kind of contribution to jazz—I’ve been associated with them. I’ve made records opposite and with Max Roach, the late Gene Krupa, Sid Catlett, Shadow Wilson. I’ve played drums with other drummers who have been as great as any other drummer that I’ve ever heard. And I’ve grown up with them, listened to them, been friends with them, been enemies with them.
But it was a marvellous thing that I could listen to all of that kind of music. See, today—there’s nobody to listen to. You know, a young drummer listens to another young drummer, and the two of them can’t share a twenty-minute experience about what’s going on. They won’t listen to anybody who played before them, because they think: “If I listen to that, I’m stepping back”. But what they’d really be doing, if they listened to that, would be taking a giant step forward. Because it’ll get ‘em away from the simple-ass triplets that they play, and maybe give them some kind of musical education as to what drums really mean, and the function of a drummer.
They have to learn that it’s really not old-fashioned to listen to other things, and realise the contributions of everybody who played drums before the drummers today—or horns, saxophones, guitar. You hear about how great Jimi Hendrix was, but talk to the same kids that listen to him, and ask them what they thought about Charlie Christian—they say: “Who?” But without Charlie Christian, there would have been nobody playing electric jazz guitar.
When are these people going to understand that music didn’t start an hour-and-a-half ago? Emerson, Lake and Palmer are playing nothing new today; the Raymond Scott Quintet had the same idea back on CBS, when they made “Dance Of The Wild Dolls”, “In An Eighteenth Century Drawing Room” and things like that. The kids have found out all of a sudden that you can fuse jazz and classics, but when Raymond Scott did it in 1940, it was looked on as something nuts, only it was done by professional musicians. I listen to the stuff today—it’s like going for an ambulance. It doesn’t make any sense. So they’re not really inventing anything; they may be reviving it, but they’re certainly not creating it. It’s another kind of sickness, man. Nuts.
However, my concept of life ,and how music should be played has nothing to do with yesterday. Everything that I give the public today is something I did today. If I had to worry about my past, I’d have no future. I have to worry: how am I going to play tonight?—it’s got to be better than last night. If you were not here last night, I have to impress you with how I’ll play tonight. I can’t get off the bandstand and say: “Well, I didn’t play too good tonight, but last night I was a bitch.” No good.
I have to relate my playing to tomorrow. I always felt like that. When I was with Dorsey, I was looking to get out of that band to go with another band that was hipper. And when I did that, I was looking for some place else to go—because I was never satisfied.
In 1947, when I organised my first band—that band was so outside, it was ridiculous. People used to run out of the ballroom. I lost 280,000 dollars with that band. The reason being that I wanted a jazz band, at a time when nobody could dance to jazz. They were dancing to a polite kind of Swing—but I’ve never had a polite band.
And if I went down the list of musicians who worked for me, you’d really snap. I had Johnny Mandel playing trombone in my band—he’s one of the most prolific writers in music today, right? I had Al Cohn and Zoot Sims playing tenor saxophone, and Al Cohn writing for the band.
I had Tiny Kahn writing and playing drums—when I didnt feel like playing, he played, as a sideman. It’s a little-known fact also that I had Philly Joe Jones as a sideman, playing drums in my band.
Then there was Charlie Walp, a really great jazz trumpet player, who passed away a couple of years ago—I discovered him in Washington, I had both Swope brothers, Earl and Bob. Two of the most advanced jazz trombone players ever—I had ‘em in 1947. So it wasn’t a question of trying to get a band together in 1947 that sounded like Dorsey’s band. If I had the library of that band now, it would be very acceptable to play today. Because people like Tadd Dameron and Diz were contributing charts, you know. It’s an outrageous thing—my band was a failure only because it was so good. Yes, of course—it was before its time.
So that’s what I’m saying—I never thought of going back. When I come back here next time, I want to have a fresh approach—whatever different kind of ideas for the music that my writers come up with. If I see that some kind of relationship to my taste and their taste has been put on paper, we’ll play it. Because I don’t have a closed ear, as one critic has accused me of having. But I do have an ear, and that’s more than I can say for the person who wrote the article, because he doesn’t have a brain.
At the same time as they were calling me a reactionary for not liking the Osmonds; in the same paragraph they “This music is not for you, Buddy Rich.” First they’re telling me I should listen to it; then they’re telling me it’s not my kind of music. Now, I’d like them to take that apart for me—am I allowed to listen to it, or am I not allowed to listen to it?
The most ridiculous things that they have in some magazines are the polls. Someone wins a poll, maybe he gets two thousand votes. I play to two thousand people in one night. How can that be an actual tally of my powers, or my fame or my ability? It doesn’t include what I do over here, or in Japan, or in India. If you’re going to have a poll, you’d have to take it on a world-wide basis to find out how many people really like how whoever it is that they’re voting for plays. I don’t want to win only in New York, or only in America. I don’t want to lose, either. But win or lose, it doesn’t make my playing any better or any worse. I’ve won dozens of polls, but it hasn’t one single effect on my playing, my life or my money.
Winning a poll, for that minute, is nice: “Congratulations—I hear you won this year’s poll.” Tomorrow—who cares? Whatever we win, I’m sure Harold Davison wants us back again, and I assume Ronnie Scott will have us back in the club. Nothing depends on winning a poll. And what it does—it tries to pit player against player. I never thought that music should ever be competitive.
If you want to talk about the old days, I think back to when musicians from all the bands on some given night would always wind up on the bandstand for a jam session until five or six o’clock in the morning. Not to compete against each other, but to share ideas. You can’t find guys playing together like that today. If a rock guy gets up with a jazz guy, there’s a beef; if a jazz guy gets up with another jazz guy, he wants to show him that he’s so much better. It became a competitive thing, instead of it being a lovely thing. It should be: “How do you do this?” “Oh, I do this with my left hand. How do you do it?” “I do it with my toe”—sharing ideas.
Today, there’s a place for everybody, and it’s no good. The place is one big place for all the musicians. You listen, you learn. If you don’t like it, say: “That’s not what I wanted to hear.” But give it a shot.
In spite of the lack of proper exposure for outstanding jazz players today, they will come through eventually, because they have the talent. The first time you heard Charlie Parker, you thought he was playing out of tune; you said: “Hey—the man don’t know the melody.” But the people who really knew Charlie Parker knew just how well he did know the melody; and it took a long time for people to understand that he was a total genius.
Everybody used to rave about Coleman Hawkins being the world’s greatest tenor saxophone player—until they heard Lester Young; then all of a sudden they started to say : “Mmm—where did he come from?” Louis Armstrong the greatest trumpet player? No way. Diz, Miles, Clifford Brown—every way. It was a matter of Louis Armstrong getting there first, and being a personality, as opposed to being a perfect player. That’s the difference.
Copyright © 1974, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.