Jazz Professional               



You have to change with the times

You have to change with the times
Melody is as important as ever

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1973
Photo: John McKenzie

Coming to London is always a gas. I must say, Ronnie’s has changed quite a bit. It’s become more of a supper club now—an entertaining sort of situation, I would say. But still it is one of the better jazz clubs all over the world, because I believe that Ronnie Scott and Pete King try their best to present the music the way it should be presented—in a supper club atmosphere.

As regards audience appreciationyou get your better crowds during the week, usually. But it’s strange; the audience in London doesn’t respond to an artist the same way they respond in New York. Or, say, California; or even Paris. They’re more conservative and when they clap, it’s a thing where you have to feel their appreciation, rather than a thing where they just stand up and shout. It’s a big difference, but, by me having been here before, I can understand the crowd. Because they know jazz, but British people seem to like traditional music. They like it in the raw sense, rather than a more sophisticated sound.

Which is the sound that Creed Taylor is trying to get now. It’s his label I’m with—CTZ. And I’ve had a lot of people in the record business here tell me that they haven’t been able to appreciate my last recordings because of the strings. They felt as though I was becoming commercial, but I think that it hasn’t really changed my sound. It’s just added another dimension to the music, which makes it more appealing to a larger audience.

These are showcase type of record albums. Where before they were just, more or less, small group sets—three rehearsals and then you record, that type of jazz. But people want to hear big things today—big bands, big productions specially on records.

Now, I can’t afford to take anything like that on the road, or bring it to London; but those are the type of things that are making my public bigger.

My next album’s going to be more into the hard–core jazz again. Lately on record I’ve kinda just played the melodies, and tiptoed through the changes, you know! It hasn’t been a hard–blowing set, but I’m sure that people have heard plenty of that from me in the past: so they know I can do it. I think you have to change with the times.

I haven’t necessarily cared a lot for all the arrangements on these albums. It was a strange thing, doing Bix Beiderbecke’s “In A Mist”: I found it difficult to go back that far—to try to relate to a trumpet player who was dead before I was born. I’ve heard some of his albums, though. To me, he was like a modern Louis. It was not that he had more technique because there’s a different technique applied, when you speak of jazz—but I would say that Bix Beiderbecke utilised more facility on trumpet than Louis, even though Louis had more of that inborn New Orleans feeling.

Bix was very technical. When I saw the lead–sheet to this song, it had a lot of notes. I said: “I didn’t know they played that many notes that many years ago.” Like, a lot of eighth notes, a lot of triplets. It almost became a challenge. He was ahead of his time. And there’s another guy from Milwaukee I just recently became familiar with—a trumpet player named Jabbo Smith. Whoever heard of him? But I heard an album by him—he sounded like Fats Navarro, and this is back in the ‘thirties.

If a guy has talent, it’s just a matter of him getting to the public. And that’s a part of this business. The fact that you play and you’re great, according to some people—that isn’t enough. If you’re never heard, then you’re not great, in terms of acceptance by the masses. I think art should be heard and felt by everybody.

I started playing trumpet when I was eleven, and became serious about it by the age of sixteen, I would say. As a kid, you still want to play baseball and basketball—and hang out with the chicks. And all of a sudden, when I got to about sixteen, I said:’ “Wow, this is going to be my life.” I made my decision then: this would be my means of enjoying myself.

My brother was a jazz pianist, and he played the music every day. All I heard was Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. When I woke up in the morning, he had Parker’s “K.C. Blues” on. I used to ask him: “What kind of music is this?” I was into the more diddybop thing; I went dancing a lot, as most teenagers do. To try to relate suddenly to modern jazz at thirteen or fourteen—well, you’re still very young. But by hearing this music constantly—it amazed me how they were able to create. That’s the reason I got into it—even before I learned how to read music.

The first trumpet player whose work I followed closely was Chet Baker, because he was playing simple. Him and Mulligan had a couple of books that I sent out for; so I—could read the music and play the record, listen and learn. But I think the next guy I got into was Dizzy, I studied him for a while—just on records.

Dizzy was like a freak to me. Who can play like that? I couldn’t latch on to his style that much. I mean, I could hear it and and appreciate it. but the way he plays is unique; you can’t even try to sound like that. Then I heard Miles, and I thought, well, I wanted to play with more fire than that. Miles, too, has a very individualistic way of playing, that is a part of his life–style; so I couldn’t do that.

Then I heard Clifford Brown. At that time I was studying trumpet at Jordan Conservatory, and Clifford’s improvisations included a lot of technical things that I had seen in books. So I felt That would be a good start for me, and I studied Clifford for about three years. That’s how I got into New York—because I sounded like Clifford, to a degree. Because Clifford had just died, and Lee Morgan and Booker Little, at the time, were sounding a lot like Clifford.

So it was like three young cats who came to New York at almost the same time. Well, Lee was there first; then I went there. and then Booker Little came. It’s funny—both of ‘em are dead today. But it was beautiful—three musicians the same age, running around New York, listening to each other, jamming, and learning from each other. But it was always a challenge: “Ah, Lee Morgan’s coming over to play. You better get ready” —and you gotta practise. That kept all of us on our toes. It wasn’t really a competitive thing; it was just a matter of all of us being the same age, and all of us digging Clifford Brown.

Lee was very popular at the time, because he had just done “The Sidewinder.” He almost got more popular than Miles! And Booker Little joined Max Roach. So there I was, coming in from the country to New York; also there were people like Donald Byrd, Bill Hardman, Kenny Dorham. It was: “How am I going to break into this?” Because jazz isn’t that popular—it never has been, in terms of making money and being considered a star if you’re seen on the street. It’s like a hidden treasure, or something.

It took me two years to break through, really. I arrived in New York with a friend, with forty dollars in my pocket and my suitcase. It was frightening at first, coming from the small car–racing town of Indianapolis; this was a complete change of atmosphere. I had to go to Bronx to live for the first six months: I’d never even seen a subway in my life before.

I staved in the house for a month; I would not go to the street, because I saw people stabbing, shooting, killing each other. I couldn’t believe it. I come from a nice little town, where we’ve got a grapevine in the backyard, aid everybody’s in after dark.

When I finally did bring myself to leave the house I went to sit in on a jam session in Harlem, and there were so many musicians waiting to sit in that it took me another month to even be heard. So that was two months.

I’d been used to playing regularly in Indianapolis: Jimmy Spaulding and I’d had a group called the Jazz Contemporaries, working four days a week and making about eighty–five dollars a week, which was decent money at the time. But to be in New York for two months, not having any money, and not getting a chance to play my instrument, was really a bring–down.

So, because I looked something like Donald Byrd, they gave me a break and let me play. And I started meeting the guys who were making it, like Quincy, Art Blakey. It was quite thrilling. I did thirteen years in New York. But during that two–year period before I recorded. I had to do a lot of other things—commercial jobs, dances, shows. I ate fish and chips for a year in Harlem—fifty cents, and that was a meal. And I lived in a tenement you wouldn’t believe. For all that, though, I was so excited about actually being in New York.

Luckily, I was helped to get over the crisis aspect; at one point, I was getting ready to give up and go back home. When I first got to New York, I had some sad disillusionments. It just wasn’t what I expected. I expected all those guys who had made albums to be highly–respected people, who had nice cars, nice homes, bank accounts—who were set. You’d look at an album, you’d say: “Wow, he’s doing great. He’s all over the world and everything . . .” Those guys were asking me for money. Like: “Lend me a dollar.” And I said: “Wait a minute. This is unreal.” I mean, a man that I idolised.

I had to move to Brooklyn. I couldn’t make it in New York City—so I went to the suburb. I got over there, and I formed my own group, stayed there for a year–and–a–half; after that things started moving. I did TV shows, commercials. Then I met Quincy, and he got me into a lot of things. Because he used to play trumpet, see.

At first, I couldn’t read that well. It’s a different style of reading. Reading out of our bands, trumpet method, or reading a big band arrangement by a guy like Quincy Jones—that’s one thing. Especially TV commercial writing—some of the music is kinda difficult, if you don’t do it every day. Most jazz musicians don’t read every day. They don’t have to; they read it, memorise it, and then they improvise on that.

I did that for about a year—studio work. Which was a bore. But I guess it was good experience, and something that I’ll never forget. Some of the music wasn’t bad, but the majority of it was nothing. You never know what a guy wants. The music is so corny; it has to go with the mood or the feeling of the commercial. Maybe it’s improved a little today.

But Quincy isn’t really into writing commercials. That’s the most lucrative field there is. You can make more money writing commercials than you can writing a film. I know guys, that’s all they do—they write about twenty bars; then they go home and watch television!

Copyright © 1973 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.