Instruction—I don’t do that. I don’t have any idea what I’m doing when
I play. I just kinda sort out what should be played and play it. Technically,
I can’t really help. You can ask questions—and I’ll give you all the wrong
answers. Which I’ve been known to do for the past 25 years.
That’s why most of the drummers in the States can’t play! I don’t
believe in the idea that you play one way with the brushes and one way with
the sticks. You just play. There used to be a time, in the old days—around
about 1960—when you were never qualified as a small band drummer or as a
big band drummer. You were hired strictly on your ability to play whatever
the band called for. Today everything’s so specialised; this guy’s great
with a trio, or a quintet or a piano.
I believe that if you play drums, you have to play everything.
You just hold back the power according to the size of the band. You don’t
find too many drummers like that today.
I used to listen to Ted Heath’s great band. As far as I’m concerned,
Ronnie Verrell did everything right in that band. He was just an excellent
big–band drummer. He was probably a fine small band drummer, too, because
he had that kind of technique.
I just changed the head on this snare drum. I like a very tight
drum. That’s another thing—tension of your heads. Make sure that you’ve
got one on when you leave the house! Notice, folks, that, unlike any other
drum, this has a front head and a back head. I’ve seem some young drummers
today who take all the heads off. And they really get a swell sound! I once
knew a drummer who used to pad his bass drum with paper. That’s because
he wanted to know what was going on in the world while he was playing!
About five or six years ago, I did a recording with Gene Krupa—one
of the great old drummers. A thing called “The Burning Beat”: it was probably
one of the worst recordings I’ve ever done. His bass drum was filled with
paper—so that only Gene knew what he was playing. And he was the only one
that should! I only say that because I have great respect for him—as a man.
I’m going to play a couple of things today that’ll probably amaze
you. But don’t feel too upset about that, because I’m amazed every time
I do anything. I’ll start with a roll . . . a pot of tea. Then as soon as
I get myself together, I’ll play something.
I understand Philly Joe Jones did a clinic here with Kenny Clarke
and Kenny Clare, and that Kenny Clare wiped them both out. Good—that’ll
show ‘em. I hope Kenny doesn’t show up today, because I’m in no mood for
Dave Tough was the only guy that was skinnier than me, that played
drums. He weighed about 110 pounds, and drank about 340. He was a great
percussionist. And actually, he was a great literary man. He used to write
books, and draw funny pictures. The kind of books that you can’t get at
most bookshops. His whole big thing was behind the band. He was strictly
for the rhythm section; Dave had no ambition to play solos. And rightly
so, because he was a terrible soloist!
The greatest soloist I ever heard on drums was Chick Webb. In order
to find out where drumming is at today, you must go back to the very beginning.
And I think the greatest drummer that ever lived was Chick Webb. He was
my favourite drummer. Not that I have too many favourite drummers: I’m not
too easily impressed with people. But this man overcame all his difficulties;
he was a dwarf, with a big hump on his back.
He had a special set of drums made for him. Goose–neck cymbal
holders, and everything was arranged so that he could reach it when he was
up there. He had fantastic speed.
I was fortunate to see a concert that was performed by the Chick
Webb band and the Benny Goodman band in 1937 at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.
Gene Krupa was with Goodman at the time—and he never recovered from the
shock. He’d be the first to admit it, because he’s a very honourable man.
The Goodman band played “Sing, Sing, Sing” about an hour before
it was time to close. Up until that time, Chick had just been coasting along,
being merely magnificent. Benny had been pulling out all his flag–wavers.
Finally, on “Sing, Sing, Sing,” Gene did all his bits, and tore the place
apart. People screaming, throwing kids out of the window.
There were two bandstands? like a movie thing. And when they finished,
the first thing that Chick went into was “Liza,” and that was up about double
the tempo of “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Chick Webb played a 20–minute solo—and
Gene was looking for razor blades!
O’Neil Spencer, with the original John Kirby Quintet, never played
with sticks. He really had the brush thing down. He and Jo Jones had the
two best sounds, as far as brushes were concerned. They used the same kind
of power as most guys use with sticks. Perfect control—triplets, everything.
And the great secret about all those people was that they never practised;
they just had an innate talent. They just went up and they played.
This may sound very phoney, but I happen to be a great fan of
Joe Morello. What I feel about him is that he puts no effort into what he
plays. Plus the fact that because of that you can’t hear a damn thing he’s
playing! It’s great to hear that kind of technique, if you’re in a small
room—maybe a phone booth.
As I try to tell a lot of young drummers, solos are good—after
you’ve mastered the technique of playing in bands, or groups, Get that experience;
then go ahead and try to play solos. Too many young people are anxious to
blind people with their book–work. Play in with the band first; play some
time. The whole basic point of drumming is to keep time. I rush—and there’s
a purpose for rushing. I want to get the hell out of the joint I’m working
at! Rushing is part of the excitement of playing. It drives me crazy when
I hear somebody slow down; I can’t tolerate that. But I can understand a
rhythm section rushing. It’s the pulse, and the impatience of the arrangement,
and they should rush.
I say this in all honesty: if the tempo is absolutely perfect,
it’s so mechanical that it can’t possibly swing. And actually, I’m only
concerned with the band swinging. So if it takes a little bit of rushing—why
not? Who’s gonna know the difference? And who dares say anything to me,
to begin with? Who? So I rush.
No, I never had any lessons. I never felt there was anybody qualified
to teach me. What could they show me? Mammy–daddy? I know my mammy and my
daddy. I’ve known ‘em all my life. I imagine it might help a drummer to
play a melody instrument. But he might become so proficient at the other
instrument that he ‘gives up drums. Then where would we be?
I wanted to play vibraphone one time, but I couldn’t play it overnight,
so I gave up. I also bought a guitar about two years ago, when I was in
Japan. And I didn’t make that either; so my daughter started playing it.
She plays good, and I hate her!
Copyright © 1968, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.