Jazz Professional               


Rich responses


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 1982

 I try to let everybody know that you're either my friend or you're my enemy. That way, you don't have to tolerate an enemy as a friend. They know; you know. It's the same thing with my band; I come in, and I tell 'em when the band sounds rotten. See, there isn't anybody in this band that I can't live without. Just so they know: they get paid, and I expect my money's worth—just like I expect my money's worth when I go to a restaurant or a theatre. When you're paying a musician the salary that he's asking, he thinks he deserves it, you think he's worth the price, and you pay it, and you find out that you're not getting the total talent of the person, then it's not good enough just to say: "What's wrong?" It becomes important enough to tell 'em: "Either you do it right now, or get on a boat or a plane and go home." Because there are enough players around the world who want jobs, and who are willing to work extremely hard. And that kind of perfection is needed to keep what I'm doing alive.

When an audience goes in to see you, they're so inundated now with the rock thing and the showbiz presentation of it—you know, the make-up, the trick lights, the smoke going up, bombs bursting—that music-takes a back seat to all that. So when you do any straight music, unless it's perfect I think the audience might be disappointed. In fear of that, I make sure that, before we go on, my band knows exactly what I expect every performance, every tune, every bar. Unless they meet those standards and requirements, I look for somebody else. But I'm very fortunate, because the people that I have with me do just that. They try; if it's not always perfect, at least I know that they're trying—and that's all I can ask.

I did a tour in Australia one time; it I was a whole show, with the band, plus some local acts, including a rock band. I was in Australia for about three weeks, playing Melbourne, Sydney and some of the outlying cities, and for the first two-and-a-half weeks the drummer with the rock band never even said "Hello" to me.

I would stand in the wings and listen to him, and, of course, he was a very ordinary rock drummer. Finally, he said: "Can I talk to you?" I said: "Well, I've been wondering—do I have B.O. or something?" He started talking about drums; he said he was impressed the way I played, and he asked me: "What drummers did you listen to?" So I started running the drummers down, and I mentioned Jo Jones, who was one of my all-time favourites. This cat never heard of Jo Jones. Now, if you never heard of Jo Jones, you shouldn't be playing drums. To me, he was the greatest timekeeper, with what was then called the All-American Rhythm Section—Basie on piano, Walter Page on bass, Freddie Green and Jo Jones. As far as I'm concerned, he was a limited soloist, but his solos were so devastating because they were so right. If he had four bars to play, it wasn't a matter of showing speed or technique; it was a matter of playing exactly what the four bars called for in the chart. That takes brains, it takes ears, it takes concept. I don't know how you feel about it, but nobody, in my mind, has ever played a set of hi-hats the way Jo Jones plays today.

The whole idea of `nostalgia' is repulsive to me. Everybody talks about "the good old days," but think about those days for a moment. They're talking about the 'forties—we were in the worst war in history: sneak attacks, bombing of civilian areas: Is that what you want to be nostalgic about? No—the "good old days" are now; tomorrow, we'll look back at it. But I don't look back at the year 19d0 as being a great year—it was a terrible year. So were the 'fifties, the 'sixties, the 'seventies. Nostalgia is this minute you know, it's past now, and I feel bad about it, because this conversation will be over, and it'll become nostalgic, but right now it's very pleasant.

But when I look back at those days, I say: "What the hell is so great about it?" That music was certainly terrible. If it hadn't been for bands like Basie, Duke, Goodman, it would have been a saccharine kind of music; we would have been deluged with makeshift bands of commercialism. Luckily, there were some great leaders—and I don't mean leaders of bands, I mean leaders of musical taste. Aside from people like Miller.

I often say, in a little bit of humour, something to the effect that Miller's music was so bad that I wouldn't be surprised if one of our planes shot him down! I feel that there were enough people who wanted to hear good music, as opposed to what Miller was laying down, that it wouldn't be too unreal to visualise that. A lot of people are very shocked: "Oh, how can you say that?" Well, that's what I think; so that's how I say it. But if you think about it for a while, without being offended, it's very possible.

You had one of the best bands I ever heard right in this country—the Ted Heath band. Great players, like Ronnie Verrall on drums; the whole band had a great sound. They could have very easily gone the other way, and said: "Listen, the Glenn Miller style is acceptable and it's commercially successful—we'll try that." I don't think Heath ever thought that way. And I say the same thing for the people at home. Of course, there was a tremendous audience for Miller. But there's an equally tremendous audience for Basie—or maybe even a little bit more. And that keeps everything at its proper perspective.

DIRECT-TO-DISC produces reality, I think. When you're sitting up there with thirty-four tracks, and you've got engineers in there that think they wrote music and the whole idea of what it's about, and you have people telling you that you need sixteen microphones around the drums, eighteen around the trumpets—it's all of the mechanics that takes away from the creativity of the musician. It certainly doesn't enhance the value of music, I don't think. I don't believe in six months of recording—if you can't get it all together in two or three days, you ought to quit. Look, I can remember, when I was with Dorsey's band and Shaw's band we used to use three microphones. They had one for the leader, one for the rhythm section, and one stand in the middle to pick up the saxes and brass. And those records weren't exactly bad. The sound was great, of course, because it was a natural sound, and you didn't have some fool in there playing with dials and trying to make you sound like eighty men instead of sixteen, like you're supposed to sound. I'm very tired of that; I'm very tired of sixteen-year-old kids who think they know all about electronics and tell you how to play.

They don't tell me how to play, because I tell 'em what they can do! And I'm tired of doing that, too! I just want to go in the studio, record what I think is good, and let it go at that. I'm not looking for smash-hit records; I'm looking for something I can listen to. I don't know what the word commercial means; it's successful because it's good, or it's a failure because it's bad, you know, as far as I'm concerned. But then you go to the other extreme and you look at some of the this that are being released today by various groups, and they're so outrageously amateurish and so outrageously overdone with electronics that you can't really tell if there's anybody playing or not. So that's the other end of the spectrum—it's useless and unnecessary.

If you can't play yourself and you need all that other help, I don't want you in my band. If you can't produce, get out—I've always felt that way, and I feel that way more than ever.

Listen, I had a surprise the time Kathy, my daughter got me out to sec Led Zeppelin, when they played Madison Square Garden. I wasn't too anxious to go, but I went, to please Kathy. We sat fairly much in the front, and for what seemed to be the first year that they were on there, I endured it—not a change of tune, not a change of a melodic line, but the heavy organ, the heavy guitar and the drum. The finale was a drum solo—and he had maybe two million dollars' worth of drums up there; I think Carl Palmer's the only other guy I've ever seen with so many drums. He started playing and during the course of his solo a cat came out in a loincloth, with a torch; he started dancing, and the drummer was playing the tom-toms, or whatever he was doing. Obviously he had asbestos in position, because this cat set fire around the set of drums. Now, I don't know what that does for a drum solo, but it scared the hell out of me—I thought the joint was on fire! I'd no idea what was going on. But when you have to resort to that, you're saying in essence to the audience: "I don't really play that well, but look how brave I am."

With a big band, you've accomplished something. You've been a part of an overall sound with a lot of people, rather than one of the guys in a trio or a quartet or a sextet. In a big band, you've got charts to play, cues to catch, fills to make, things to catch with the brass—there's a reason for you to be up there. You're an important segment of a big band. I'll play with my own groups—sextets, quintets, whatever—and I feel that after about a half-an-hour up there playing the cymbal behind the saxophone player, who plays four hundred choruses, and the trumpet player, who plays a thousand. . . then all you're doing is hitting the cymbal; you're not really getting a chance to express everything that comes out in a big band. And I don't ever want to play in a small band—I will, of course, on a record date with some people, but my function in my life is to play and be a part of a big band. That's all I want to do. It's been my only real kick as a player. I started, don't forget, with a seven-piece Dixieland band—with Joe Marsala, at the Hickory House in New York. So I've had my experiences with small bands; I've had my own quartets and quintets. But I worked so long. . . when I left the Marsala band, I went with Bunny Berigan's band—that was my first big band—it was a whole different world opened up to me "Oh, this is what music is all about." And I left that band to join Artie Shaw, and I said: "Oh—this what it's all about"—because it was totally different. Then I went with Dorsey, and I found out that that was a total different experience. Here you were playing with a band that was not a hot band; it never professed to be—it was a dance band, with good music. Boring, most of the time, but good music. Then, when I first joined the band, he hired Sy Oliver, because he wanted to get away from the strict dance band concept, and he started getting some jazz arrangements in—that band could kick as well as any jazz band, for that time period. "Well, Git It", "Swing High"—there were so many up-tempo things. Which showed that Dorsey's ears had even opened up; I think, in the very beginning, Dorsey was strictly a melodic player, and wasn't too concerned about the jazz idiom—but his ears grew.

And I remember having a conversation with him at the Palmer House in 1939, when I joined the band, about what direction the band was taking, because I didn't want to stay; I was unhappy. He told me that Sy Oliver was coming in, and he'd heard a young guy sing with Harry James' band at the Sherman Hotel, the College Inn. He said: "I think I'm going to get him with the band"—and it turned out be Sinatra. So you had Sinatra coming with the band, you had Sy Oliver writing, you had the Pied Pipers joining the band, and he started to get young players—jazz players. For that one particular thing in his make-up, I respected him: he had ears enough to say: "Okay, that was good enough for then. Now we'll get half-a-dozen jazz charts for the first couple of months, and we'll go on from there."

Your technique grows 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.

Copyright © 1982, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.