Jazz Professional               



One-armed drummer


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 1968

There was a lot of comment about that period in 1948 when I played with one hand, because one arm was in a sling. I understand Jo Jones said: "If that heals, he ought to break it again." That was a thing born out of necessity. I was playing handball one morning when I fell, and broke my arm in three places. So they rushed me to the doctor; he straightened my arm out and put it in a cast. Well, the band had been booked for months in advance. And with 19 people on the payroll, I couldn't very well just say: "We'll be off for three months." There was too much involved to cancel our bookings, We were in Dayton, Ohio; we played a one-nighter that night. The following week we played the Apollo Theatre in New York, and immediately after closing there we opened at the Paramount Theatre.

It was just a matter of having to do it. What the hell's the difference anyway? If you can play with two hands, you can play with one. If you don't have any, you play with your feet. Which I did, too, using bass drums, in the Paramount show.

Never mind who thought of it first. I didn't play them like Louie does—he utilises the two bass drums with his hands. I did a thing where I played a two-bass-drum solo—like dancing. I didn't use the snare drum at all. But that was only one segment of it; I played the first part of the solo on my big set. Then they rolled the two bass drums out on a platform. I came down from the big set, sat down and just played them.

Other than something like that, though, what can you do on two bass drums that you can't do on one? If you're a proficient drummer, that is. Really, you can't do any more because you have to give up one thing for the other. If you're playing two bass drums, you can't play the hi-hat. If you're not playing the hi-hat, you're leaving off one of the most important sounds in drumming.

It's a gimmick, that's all. And I don't use gimmicks, I don't use lights or painted sticks or a turn-around platform. I'm not supposed to be a clown or a showman. I concentrate on what I play—because I want to play good. And if you do anything that takes your mind off, if you have to think about how you're going to impress the people, then you have to sacrifice your playing. I won't do that; I never have.

I play with my heart. That's the reason some nights you hear me and I sound good, other nights 1 sound terrible. Because I play exactly the way I feel. I think that's the way any musician likes to be; whatever he feels, it has to come out. If he's had a beef, he plays with that kind of aggressive thing. Beautiful—that's the way he feels. And if you feel sad—play sad.

That's what's so great about Diz, and what was so great about Bird, Pres, Tatum and all the great geniuses. They played themselves—they didn't play the horn. And that's what we don't have today; we have everybody playing like everybody else. We don't have individuals playing what they are.

You can tell what a man is by what he plays. His whole process of thinking, At least, I can. If you know honesty from a put-on, you know what a man is. You can't separate the man from his music—it's one and the same. What is an instrument but a projection of your personality? If you could sing it, or make a speech about it, you'd be talking about what you feel. Musicians—they tell it through the horn.

Guys say to me at a drum clinic: "Why do you do this? How do you hold the stick?" As I tell them, the stick doesn't mean a damn thing. It's only an extension of your hand. What counts is what's inside of you.

The stick cannot work itself. Whatever you put into a drum or a mouthpiece—that's what comes out.

That's why we don't have too many great ones. We have a lot of people that play good. But the word great is the most over-used word in the English-speaking vocabulary. Everything's great, fabulous, fantastic—and if you boil it right down, it's mediocre. How many greats are there? I named most of them—you know, Miles, Diz, Bird, Pres, Getz, Tatum, Peterson. If you can name 25 great people, that's a lot to be thankful for—in a world that's saturated with mediocrity.

The Tijuana Brass had a gimmick. It was almost good music—but it missed. They had a thought, an idea. But it over-commercialised itself—to the point now where everything they play is exactly the same.

You can't tell one tune from another because they have a fixed sound. It could have been really great, but it just lacked that incentive to be honest, you see. If the guy had just thought a little bit farther ahead and said: "We can do it better," he could have had a much wider range of audience. But at least he did get people listening to something other than the kids: so he deserves a lot of credit. It's not good music by any standards but it's instrumental. People were ready for it; they bought it. Just say "Herb Alpert" and it's a million seller.

So people are ready—in doses, maybe. He's got nine men; I've got 17. Maybe the next guy'll have 20.

There are a lot of experimental bands in the States. Like Don Ellis's experimenting with different time signatures, Indian music and things like that. He's got a thought. And he's got all the best musicians in Los Angeles. So he's not playing junk, not the beat or rock things. It's new, and maybe it's a little too advanced for the ear, but at least he's on something. It's what he believes in—straight ahead. That's all that counts.

You've got to give credit to anybody that's trying to go out and say: “Everything that we have is not rotten." There are some people left with integrity, who have something decent to say, who are trying to elevate music, rather than: "Well, let's leave it where it is it's successful." Music is a marvellous thing; it's a thing of beauty. The minute it gets to be a job, where I feel: "Oh gee, I have to go and do it tonight," I'm going to get out of it. But as long as I feel that I have something to present, as long as I can surround myself with musicians that I dig personally, as long as they play what I want to hear, I'll do it. If it's another ten years, another fifteen years, or another month—however long people will be interested enough to spend their money to see me, I owe it to them to do the best I can.

I also do it for myself. It's not just the audience: I don't want to emphasise "without the audience there's nothing in life." Because then you're giving too much credit to the audience and not enough credit to yourself and the people that you're surrounded with. The audience is one area, but you also have to take care of yourself. If you can't be happy, all the packed houses in the world won't do it.

If you can't do the things you want to do, then there's no point in going on. I'll never wait until I hear somebody say: "He's not playing the way he used to play—like he should play." I'll be the first one. If I feel that I'm not playing, I'll put the sticks down one night after the last show, come back to my home and say: "That's it." I'll never let happen to me what happened to Joe Louis. I'll never let somebody knock me out of the ring. I have too much pride and too much ego. It's not even a question of winning. Somebody might say: "Yeah, he's playing great," but if I don't think it's up to my standard, I'll put the sticks right down and walk away. I am the only judge of what I can do. Nobody else—my wife, my daughter, my friends—nobody can say to me: "Gee, it sounds great." If 1 don't think it sounds great—lots of luck—I'll quit.

Self-awareness is essential. If you don't have that, you're fooling everybody—most of a1l yourself.

After all, who do you live with—when you get deep down inside? When you look in that mirror, do you have to say: "Who did I put on today?" When the night's over, I get in that bed and sleep awful good, because I know I did an honest day's work. I didn't do anything to prostitute my own thoughts, my playing or anything. I did what I felt was right. The applause is there, the acceptance, the good feeling from the people I work for—and that's the answer.

Copyright © 1968, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.