Jazz Professional               


Being intense


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 1973

Here we are again. The only difference this time is that we’re going to Australia from here, for two-and-a-half weeks, instead of going right back to the States; then back to London for a couple of days, and then back home.

I’ve been to Australia before, but not with the band; so it’s another first. I think it’ll be good. I know from the last couple of times over there, they’re very jazz-conscious and very aware people, musically. So I hope the band’ll do very well there. If not, I can always dress up as a kangaroo and get out of the country. Perhaps I ought to get a chart written on “Waltzing Matilda”.

Yes, the personnel has changed more than usual, I think. With the exception of Pat La Barbera, Al Caplan, John Lees, Greg Hopkins, Bob Martin, they’re different guys from last year; about a seventy-five per cent change. But I think it’s for the better. Having Joe Romano back in the band as lead saxophone is a big help. There’s a better feeling in the band, too; it’s more exciting, more musical. I think the brass section is better this time. Charlie Davis, playing lead trumpet, is an extremely melodic player—with great chops. He has the range, but isn’t quite as piercing as some players, and it tends to make the whole ensemble thing a lot fuller. It’s a much more rounded band.

As for the people who criticise the band for being hard, it’s just that they’re accustomed to hearing things that are very light. I could never understand that kind of critique to begin with. I don’t know what is meant by expressions like “hard tension”. When a thing is swinging hard, and you’re playing hard, it’s got to come out that way. It has attack and strength to it; it’s not that it’s hard. There’s nothing harder to me, on my ears, than a four-piece group with the volume turned up the way your brain melts. That to me is hard to listen to.

Being intense doesn’t make the band stiff. The charts are the same: we’ve got a whole lot of new charts, but they’re all built on the same kind of attitude as the previous ones. I know there are a lot of people who think of the band as having too much force. Well, I don’t think a big band can ever have too much force. What have you got a big band for? You don’t want it to sound like a sextet. That’s the whole idea. It has to drive; it has to get to where it’s going. It’s the difference between a Ford and a Ferrari—you get there with power. The other bands get there, but I’m there first.

And I like it. I like to play the way I play, and my band to sound the way it does, because I like to live on that kind of intense level; so it’s projected in my musical taste. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. No band, as far back as I can remember, ever pleased everybody.

And if you pleased everybody, then you would never have a personality of your own, because you’d be bending to everybody else’s opinions.

Every time you’d be saying: “I want to please you; so I’ll play what you like.” When do you ever get around to playing what you really like? I play what I like, and I hope that the people that come in to hear us understand that what I’m playing is an extension of myself, that’s all.

We play ballads and medium tempo things with the same kind of intensity that we play the up-tempo things. Just because the tempo changes it doesn’t mean that the personality of the music has to change. We have some beautiful charts in the book: things like “Rainy Day”, old Duke Ellington tunes like “Prelude To A Kiss” and “Chelsea Bridge”, Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child”—a whole lot of really lovely ballads. Maybe the volume changes if it’s a ballad, but the intensity, the projection of the band remains the same. You play one way.

Sure, people think of the Dorsey band as playing sentimental music; but when you remember “Well, Git It” and “I’ll Take Tallulah” and all the things that were popular in the ‘forties, that was a hard-driving band for that particular era. But I would no more play things like that today than I would play the avant garde things that a lot of young people think are hip to do. I’m not ready for that yet; I haven’t been thrilled or knocked out by anything that I’ve heard these cats play, that would make me say: “Let’s try another direction a little bit, and just see what it’s like.” So far I haven’t been made to feel that there’s an important movement going on in music.

No, we don’t go overboard on the rock idea. We have some in there, in case we play places where I look at the audience and I see a lot of kids out there who are not really understanding what we’re presenting, I’ll drop a rock chart on ‘em, just to show ‘em that the band can play it.

Not that that’s what I want to play, but it’s something we can do as a facelift, a change of personality for that three or four minutes. Also for the young people who are familiar with the band, but would like to hear various things, rather than one thing, we can play it. And I think we’re the only band that can actually play the jazz-rock or the straight-ahead things, and play ‘em both equally well. Because the youth of the band makes it possible for them to accept the very new music, and due to the fact that they all have an innate sense of what swing is all about, and what a big band is all about, they play the straight-ahead jazz as good as I’ve ever heard it played by anybody. So I’m really happy with the band—good soloists, excellent ensembles, fine writing. I don’t know what there would be to make a change in the attitude of the band.

I would like to think that everybody saw this band as representing the healthy state of jazz playing today. That way there would be a much bigger call for big bands, and—I’ve said this many times—big bands and musicians who play good music would finally be getting the recognition that they deserve. You know, it’s incredible to me that back home football players, baseball players, swimmers and everything are given all kinds of contractual assignments to sell razor blades, socks, sneakers or whatever, while creative people like musicians are still thought of as third-class citizens.

We’re back again to thinking about my feelings about Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Art Tatum—all the great creative people. And the living people—Diz, Miles—who, while they get their share of recognition, in no way get anything compatible with the pleasure they’re giving audiences throughout their lifetimes. And they’re certainly not getting monetary benefits, like some of these groups that get outrageous prices to break your eardrums. It’s total insanity.

In the States right now, there’s internal turmoil. I don’t even remember the people being this confused in the ‘forties; then, they knew that something had to be done, and they all did it willingly. But musically. it’s different. I’m able to get the kind of musicianship I’m accustomed to; in fact, the musicians are getting better. Because every time I come over here, I think I come with better bands. So it must mean that the kids coming out of school are taking their music lessons seriously enough to want to be perfect later on.

We find no apathy in our audiences; they’ve always been enthusiastic. We just finished a concert tour before we came over, and we were in an area that I’m not particularly thrilled to play—down in the Arizona, New Mexico areas, where the band has only played once or twice in the past eight years. But we were sold out at all the universities. It’s because when you play one particular school, the word goes out through the various professors and music teachers that the band does what it’s supposed to do, and it spreads to other schools in other parts of the country; then you find that the office is being called for the performance of the band.

If we had to live without music. it would be total suicide. The only thing that saves us at home is the fact that we can go out and hear something pleasant, even if it’s only for two hours. That’s why musicians deserve more praise and more money: when everything else fails, people want to run out to hear music—it’s the saviour. It’s better than a movie or a show. There are people sitting up there expressing all kinds of emotions for you, and they can take you away from all of the horrors in real life.

What’s unfortunate today is that there has to be idolatry for untalented people, as opposed to idolising people with talent, who can really give you something beneficial in your life, rather than gimmicks. Putting glitter on your eyes is not my idea of talent. It doesn’t make you sing any better; it’s not good for your tonsils. And in my day lipstick on a grown man would have got you in a lot of trouble. I’ve never known anything so sick in earlier eras.

Any gimmicks in Dixieland don’t offend me. There’s always been Dixieland; that’s a traditional kind of music in the States. It was big in the early 19OOs, and it still is big.

Obviously, it’s not being played by the originators, but it’s been carrying on through people who like that particular kind of music. But it’s never been anything but music. It’s, always been good.

Something else that’s sick is that anybody has to look for nostalgia in order to say things are good. If I started to talk about the time I played with Eddie Condon in 1945, well, if you were around in 1945 and you remember that, it would be an interesting anecdote. I could say: “Yeah, 1 did a television show with Eddie Condon and Peanuts Hucko.” But a lot of people who read it would say: “What the hell’s he talking about? Who cares? What did he do last month?”

Sure, I’ve done so many great things with so many great people, and my memories of it are pleasant and musical and bright—some are a drag —but that’s a separate place, and it belongs there. You know, I can go to that memory safe, when the need comes, and think about how marvellous it was to sit behind Billie Holiday and play, or to be on tour with Lester Young, or to listen to Miles as a young man. Those things are my personal memories that belong to me, and to try to share that with somebody twenty years old would be like trying to tell a fifteen-year-old baseball player how great Babe Ruth was. “Yeah, I heard about Babe Ruth, but what does he do?” It’s a whole different lifetime; it’s a thousand million years ago. So I don’t ever talk about it. It just doesn’t mean anything.

What means something is now. Can you play now, and can you relate now? And can you have the benefits of the past to help you get across to the people that are listening to music now? This is the important thing.

Copyright © 1973, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.