Some dates to remember
addiction to music
Some dates to remember
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1987
Photo by Denis J. Williams
My first official record date was under the name of Earl Coleman in 1949. However, while I was in college I had gone into a Chicago studio with Jimmy Raney, who was just a young guitarist around town at the time. We recorded “These Foolish Things”, “Body And Soul”, some other ballads and, I think, “Flying Home” at that time. Jimmy became quite an influence on me in those days. Another man who was important to me in my Chicago stay was Lennie Tristano—I had a few lessons with him. Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh were just other students, and there hadn’t been anything really created musically with them even on records. I still have Lennie’s method of practising scales and arpeggios, and recommend it to others; so that man really passed a lot along.
The Chicago days were important to me, because that’s the first place I ever heard Lester Young, Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker. In having those introduced to me, my whole style was affected. Till then it had been built primarily on Coleman Hawkins, from what I’d heard by means of my Dad’s record collection.
At the age of seventeen I transcribed “Body And Soul” off of the Coleman Hawkins record, and I learned how to play it, phrase it and everything. When I was home for Summer vacation from College, the Jimmy Lunceford band was playing a one–night concert in Wenatchee, Washington, and somebody said: “We’ve got a boy here that plays saxophone—could he come up and do a number with the band?” So they were being very gratuitous, and said: “Bring him on up”. I went up; they asked me what I wanted to play I told them “Body And Soul”. After I’d played that transcription, everybody came around and wanted to talk—Willie Smith, Joe Thomas, Trummy Young—that old Lunceford band. And they wrote very nice things in my autograph book: “One day you’ll be .“, you know. That was one of my very first actual close contacts with a jazz band that I had watched and admired.
That first record date was for Prestige; Earl Coleman was a singer who had recorded “Dark Shadows” and “This Is Always” with Bird so it was mainly a vocal date. Except for “Move”; the way that came about there weren’t to be any instrumentals they were just to be backgrounds for the singer. When Max Roach, Fats Navarro and the rest of them saw Ross Russell bringing in this twenty–year–old white kid, they wanted to drum me out of the studio as rapidly as possible, and get on with what they were doing. So Max said: “Why don’t we do an instrumental first, and just kind of get warmed up a little here.” He came over to me, and he said: “There’s a new tune out, that we’re starting to play now it’s called ‘Move’. We don’t have it written down; so we don’t have a line for you to play. We’ll let Fats play the line, and then we’ll turn to you, and it’s all yours okay?“. And they kicked it off at a real breakneck tempo it was designed to move me out. After the first take of it, they all smiled, came over, and we became friends.
Even though there wasn’t a great deal of work together as such, that did bring about the “Stop”, “Go” records. They said: “We want you to record some tunes. Who would you like to have with you?” I said: “Well, I did a thing not too long ago with Fats Navarro . . . ” And if there’s anything a kid with a chance to make a record would desire more than anything in the world, it’s probably Charlie Parker’s rhythm section. So I requested that, and they called them; that’s what we had Al Haig, Tommy Potter, Max Roach, with Fats and myself.
There were only a couple that we actually played lines on, and I brought those in. “Stop” was a line on “Pennies From Heaven”; “Go” had no line on it.
They named all of these things; I had no names on anything when I came in. The one that they called “Infatuation” I had just written down some chord changes for Fats to play me an eight–measure introduction and an eight–measure ending, and I played on the chord changes to “Gone With The Wind”. The other one on the record date was called “Wailing Wall”, and that was a line that I wrote, consisting of a blues in one key, then a blues in another key, and then an eight–measure bridge, and the chorus just ended on the bridge; then it started another cycle of twelve—twelve–eight, twelve—twelve–eight, each blues being in the different keys.
The funny thing that’s starting to happen in connection with this is that Don Sickler in New York has a publishing company called Second Floor Music, and he puts out lines of Kenny Dorham, Coltrane, and others written over the years, making sure that they are correct in putting them out. He has said that he would like to put out a book of the new lines that I have written for trumpet man Jon Pugh and I, to be able to go to the kids in the colleges and high schools that have these same records to which the lines were written. So they can practice them and learn them along with the Jamey Aebersold albums the same way Jon and I did when we first got together.
Later he said: “Oh, I would like to include the line for ‘Stop’ and the line for ‘Wailing Wall’ . ..” Now, probably the only time I ever played those lines was after writing them and taking them into the recording studio; I taught them to Fats, we recorded them, I discarded them and forget all about them. And now I’m having to sit down with copies of the record and copy off my own tunes.
As you see, Fats never wrote any of the things we recorded, but after his death he got credited for them. Well, it was probably smart on the record company’s part to change the name of the group to the Fats Navarro Quintet. I had left the scene and gone home; Fats was dead, and people were buying his records. I don’t know that crediting the songs to him was all that necessary. I’m finally getting back the rights to them; I used to get small royalty cheques, and then they ceased—now it looks like they’re starting up again.
I didn’t record with all the bands I played with; bands like Jerry Wald, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman just happened to be recording at times I was with them. In fact, the first time I was with Woody they weren’t recording—the recording ban was on, and so nothing during that period got recorded. During the second period I spent with Woody, from ‘59 through ‘61, off and on, it seemed like they were recordings made on small labels for supermarket sales—Crown, I think, was one of the labels. Then there were some dates for other labels, that were tributes to Woody, with kind of old alumni put together, but without Woody being in the forefront of the recording situation.
A somewhat strange story concerns a record I made with Woody’s band in July of 1959. When Jon Pugh and I went to New York together for the first time in 1983—twenty–four years later as I left Wenatchee, for no explicable reason I stuck an envelope in my pocket. I was picked up at the airport in New York by Phil Schapp, who does a broadcast from the Columbia University radio station, and I was taken direct to the studio from the airport. I arrived in New York after being away from ‘61 to ‘83, and he’s got this track on, “The Devil And The Stoker”, which has me playing a solo on.
And he said: “The copy of the album I’ve got here doesn’t have personnel on the back of it. Can you fill me in on that?” I reached in my inner pocket, and in the envelope was a discography that was done on me. I handed this to him, and he said: “That’s really amazing—how do you do that?” This was a Monday afternoon, and, as I told him, on the Friday I’d been asked to play a memorial service at the Roosevelt Hotel for Bernie Glow, who was in the trumpet section on that record. Quite a section: Marky Markowitz, Reunald Jones, Bernie Glow, Red Rodney and Ernie Royal. So I am asked to play at three o’clock in midtown Manhattan more than twenty years later. On the Wednesday of that week, Ernie Royal died, and I was asked to play at his funeral, which was at one o’clock the same Friday afternoon, two blocks away from the Roosevelt Hotel, at what they call the Jazz Church there.
So at one o’clock I found myself in the church. Now, over the course of about thirteen years I have either worn a cap or a toupee, covering up a bald head; I had grown up looking at my Dad’s baldness and saying: “I hope that never happens to me”—when it did, I couldn’t take it. I stepped down and started to play for Ernie Royal, and the Lord said to me: “This is not the place for the cap”. So I removed the cap and laid it on the altar there, and I went up to the microphone and I said: “This is a most unusual thing to happen at a funeral, but this is kind of a tribute to Ernie from me. For twelve years not even my own mother has seen my bald head, and now, in front of some five hundred friends, I find the removal necessary”. I also told them how I had wanted very much to ask Roland Hanna to accompany me, because I was sitting right next to him in the playing of the Lord’s Prayer, and, once again, it would have become an ego kind of thing, where I could leave and say: “I played with Roland Hanna” and it wasn’t to be that; it was just to be between Ernie and I. I stepped down to the coffin and played for him there.
On leaving there I saw all of the people about whom I had wondered: were they still in New York? Were they still alive? Would I ever see them again? And I had wanted to be able to contact them, and let them know that I was a different person now than I had been when they last saw me. Now here was the opportunity for me to do so.
As I left to go to the Bernie Glow service, I went outside and there was a very heavy rain coming down. You couldn’t get a cab for anything, and I started running through the rain for the Roosevelt Hotel. As I got there, I looked like I’d been standing in the shower; I turned around, and here was a lady who had run all the way behind me. I was standing looking in a mirror at this bald head, and I was feeling down anyway, thinking: “What have I done?” She came up, and she kissed me on the cheek and said: “I just had to follow you to tell you that you’re handsome.” I said: “What?” And she said: “Well, I know you’re concerned about what you did up there, with the cap, and I just wanted to let you know that it doesn’t matter in the least.” She said: “You don’t remember me, do you?” I said: “Well, I can’t say that I do.” “ Well, back in the days that you did a trip with Claude Thornhill, I was the singer. In those days—my name was Diana Wasserman, and I was the wife of Eddie Wasserman, the saxophone player.” I said: “Oh, of course Diana, it’s so good to see you!“, and I threw my arms around her and I thanked her. Then she said: “But I’m not Diana Wasserman any more. I’m now Diana Flanagan and I wouldn’t have Tommy any other way!” Consequently, since that time—having had that stamp of approval, whether or not I have my cap on doesn’t bother me.
Copyright © 1987 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.