Jazz Professional               


Let’s honour the living greats


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 1971

Anybody who fronts a band has to be primarily an extrovert. Not just me. Stan Kenton is a very impressive leader—tall, very articulate. Woody Herman, Harry James—they project their personalities. To be a bandleader—you have to be nuts ! But I'm not the biggest nut. We're all nuts—in our different ways.

Now, Basie is something else. When you talk about Basie, you're talking about the most loveable, warmest, nicest man in all of my years in the music business. There's nothing I wouldn't do for him. If he called me today and said : "I need you, for this important date," I'd be there. Because I've done it before for him. It's not a big deal; it’s just what this man has represented to me in music all his life. He's a guy with impeccable taste.

However, I don't want my band to sound like his. I wouldn't insult him. I love him for what he's done.

Now, you may love me or hate me for what 1'm doing, but I'll never be a carbon copy. There's only one Count Basie, and no matter how much like Basie I might get a band to sound, people would only say : "It's another Basie band." As for Duke Ellington, I couldn't possibly say anything negative about him—as a man. A marvellous man. I don't consider myself in the same category, and you know me—I'm not humble. But now, if you're going to talk about his music—it's not my bag. I'm from another school—a school of intensity, emotion; swing, if you will.

And I was never really able to relate to his approach.

I have some things that he's written in my book—we play " `A' Train"," Mellow Tone." It's all marvellous music, but I prefer to hear people like Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, Sinatra singing it. Because I don't understand his sound; I don't know whether it's a big band sound, a small band or what. Again—this is not a negative statement. He's Duke Ellington, and it's said with great reverence.

Some bandleaders today are praising rock. A reporter from a pop paper took great offence because I said rock was junk. "All of it?" "No, not all of it. Most of it." "Well, what do you like?" "Blood, Sweat And Tears." Apparently, Harry James discovered them all of a sudden—but I found Blood, Sweat And Tears, long before Harry James. What am I supposed to do? Say: "Hey, I discovered them first"? Sure, they're great. Chicago, too, an excellent group. So this guy says : "So do you consider that junk?" I said: "I just got through telling you. The good things are great; the other stuff is junk." When any group sounds like all the others; when the drummer plays the same stupid fills, because his ability is limited to what he heard when Ringo Starr fell downstairs one day; when you've got a guitar player who sounds like he's strangling a cat; when all the lyrics are about sex, drugs and war—where's the music? "I don't want to go to war." Who the hell wants to go to war? But if I want to hear some music, I want to hear beautiful songs about unrequited love, something lovely or something happy. I hear all the bad things on the news; so in music I 1ook for something else.

Don't tell that what these kids are doing is protesting with music. Protest all you like—I agree with that. I'll walk in the line, too, and say out loud that I'm against Vietnam. But in music—give me something to laugh about.

Seventy-five per cent of the drummers today go out and they'll spend a thousand dollars for a set of drums, and what's the first thing they do? They take the heads off the drums. I ask 'em why they do that.

"To get a sound." "What kind of sound is that? The reason you pay that money is because the drum has a good sound; now you're doing everything you possibly can to destroy that sound." "Well, man, it's like—“ "What is it like? Tell me, because if it's right, you're showing me something new, and I want to do it too." "Well, it's different." "What's different about it?" "It's a dead sound." "Is that what you want—a dead sound? Then why don't you take a cardboard 'box and a pair of brushes, have the deadest sound, and you've saved yourself a thousand dollars?" "Oh man, you don't know where it's at." "Okay, but I'll tell you this, about being where it's at—how would it be if I should ask Ginger Baker or Stu Martin, or any of your very hip drummers, to come out and play with my band some night—or Count Basie or Woody Herman? Do you think they're qualified to come up and sit in for about six minutes?" "Well, of course, they—"Of course, they what? They're drummers, aren't they? And music is music. If they're so great, they ought to be able to do it." So he says to me: "Could you play in a rock band?" I said: "Man, call me. I'll do a session, and it won't cost you anything." Because I like to consider myself a good drummer; qualified to play anything. I'll play with a military band, a society band, a Dixieland band. And when I say me, I'm talking about Ronnie Verrall, Elvin Jones, Max Roach—and I'll go down the list. When you say drummer, you don't mean a small band drummer, a big band drummer, a rock drummer. If the job calls for any specific type of music, you damn well better play it, or you're not a musician.

Then there are these guys who tell you they're creating a new jazz scene. I can remember the beginning of bebop, as it was called. Max and Art Blakey played with great intensity, feeling and command of the instrument; when they had to play something, they knew what they were playing. These drummers now, they'll hit anything that happens to get in the way; then they'll say: "You got it." "Well, where's one? Give me a clue." But if one comes on three, I'm lost.

I know what five-four is, or seven-nine, or thirteen-six. I also know where to start. But don't start in the middle of a bar and tell me that's one. No—I'm not going for that.

The terrible tragedy of it is that for the fear of being called square, everybody says : "Wow !" I go up to them and say: "When you said `Wow', what did you mean by that?" "I don't know, man." "You don't know why you said `Wow' and `Terrific'? You're afraid of saying that you didn't like it or you didn't understand it?" &_-___________ I'm a musician, and I'll be the first one to tell you : "I didn't understand it," and I'll come back and listen again. There's nothing wrong with being square, but don't be a false hipster; that's worse. "Oh man, that was really together." What was? Four guys up there playing like they never met? That's together? Nevertheless, great jazzmen are coming up today. But unfortunately, they're subjected to an unaware audience, and to the indifference of writers who won't take time to publicise the fact that they have talent, because it's easier to make a fast dollar with a no-talent than it is to exploit a guy with talent. It takes a little more time, because maybe his hair isn't as long as it should be and his clothes are not what they should be.

They have trouble selling talent, but they don't have much trouble selling a guy that looks strange.

One great talent who has had the recognition he deserved is Frank Sinatra. There's nobody in the world like Frank, and I have great admiration for a whole bunch of singers. He was as great when he retired as he was twenty years earlier. When you've got it, you've got it—that's it.

The perfect proof of that is a man like Clay. He was subjected to every indignity that you could possibly impose on a man, called every kind of filthy name, but he came through all that terrible ordeal, and when he was able to show what he could do, he did it in the grandest style of all. Just like Joe Louis—the greatest champion in the world. He fought anybody that they could put in the ring with him; it didn't matter.

When you're a champion, that's all there is to it. Sinatra, too, is an undefeated champion. There's enough greatness in him to overcome all the other things that are going on in the world.

Of course, you may think that all these new kids have got it, and granted, there are some of them that are great. But when a master walks out there, he doesn't have to sing two bars before you know it—you're looking at a great man. Tony Bennett, Jack Jones, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee——who's going to take their place? This is the thing that worries me.

In the past fifteen years or so, we've lost some of the great, great art and it hasn't so far been replaced.

In my view we're never going to have another Lester Young, or another Art Tatum, or another Charlie Parker. So why don't we treasure the creative people who are still with us—like Diz and Miles? They're giving the world pleasure.

People like Lester Young—for years and years they study, and they go hungry. I'm not romanticising—it's factual. They're mistreated, segregated—and I don't mean just colour line now. I'm talking about understanding from people.

These are the people that are giving the world as much art as Picasso or Michelangelo. What's going to be remembered about them? Instead of waiting till they're dead and saying: "He was the greatest", why don't we take the time to tell them while they're living? If we really think they're great, how about telling them so? It won't do anything to their heads; it'll do a lot to their hearts. And it might make them play a little better, knowing that they're appreciated.

Let's have a bronze bust of them in the Hall Of Fame. Music is an art; it's your heart and your soul that you're putting into it. We should let the great ones know that they're going to be remembered, not only when they're gone, but maybe when their time for playing is over. Let's tell them today : "You're a legend." In this way, we can also help the working musicians who are coming up, by giving them something to aim for.

Copyright © 1971, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.