Jazz Professional               

Photo by Denis J. Williams


A Les Tomkins Interview

Parts 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - Gary Giddins in The Village Voice
 In a way, I started out to be a baritone player. My problem, as a youth, was I couldn’t afford a baritone. I started on clarinet, actually, and the next instrument I wanted was a baritone. But the first one I could afford was an alto. So I played alto for quite a while until I saved up the money for the baritone.

Then, of course, I played alto and tenor, wherever there were jobs. I was working mainly single engagements, club dates and all that sort of thing, on alto and tenor. Baritone was still regarded as a kind of a misfit.

 I would think, of all the saxophones, the baritone would be the most logical instrument if anybody was adding a voice to the symphony orchestra. But, you know, the symphony orchestra is locked into its instrumentation. Nobody’s thinking in terms of adding single colours. Like, you add it for one symphony or something. The other saxophones, except as solo instruments, really don’t have much point in the orchestra. The baritone can serve functions that the alto and tenor cannot, in orchestral voicing. There are so many things you can do. You can cross-voice the baritone with ‘cellos, French horns, all the low instruments; also you can relate it with higher voices, if you want to. It’s also a solo voice. You don’t really have that facility with the alto and tenor; certainly not in the classical tradition of playing saxophones. Only the French, I guess, really use tenor and alto to any great extent in the orchestra.

Now, the instrumentation in the jazz band and the jazz dance band has gone through many evolutions. For instance, in the ‘twenties the tradition was two or three saxophones. And in those days they would have baritone trios, just for an effect. Three baritones playing a melody in three-part harmony had kind of the effect you can get with a Hammond organ now; you can adjust the stops to get that kind of low sound. You would see the three saxophone players sitting there with their baritones; then they’d play three sopranos.

It started to get locked into something else in the ‘thirties, when it broke down into a four-saxophone front-line, with the two altos and two tenors, So then it got to a thing, like, adding a fifth voice. That is when the baritone really became the ensemble instrument, where before it had been treated as a solo instrument.

When I was a kid, I must have heard records that Adrian Rollini played bass saxophone on. My family bought Red Nichols, Paul Whiteman and stuff like that. I hadn’t really been aware of him, though; I realised way after the fact.

What Rollini did with that horn melodically was beautiful. He approached it in such a linear way. Twenty years later when I heard those records, I was stunned. I said: “Gee whiz, I thought we had dreamed up something new here.” I took a lesson from Adrian Rollini!

I had a record I’m trying to get another copy of it of Red Nichols’ “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic.” Joe Sullivan was on piano; he had a beautiful ensemble style going, in his solos. You think of the block-hand players of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties; he was doing that in the ‘thirties. And swung. Let’s see, who else was on it? Jimmy Dorsey was on clarinet - a wonderful clarinet player. I think it was Miff Mole on trombone. Red on cornet, of course. And Adrian Rollini on bass saxophone. It’s a fantastic record; Rollini’s chorus on that, his conception, just puts me away.

Of course, Rollini was a generation before Pres. and I know Pres was influenced a great deal by Bud Freeman. It never occurred to me to ask Pres about Adrian Rollini, but I have a hunch that he loved his playing. Because Rollini had a real horizontal kind of approach to melodic playing. Even in those days, he was running up and down the chords, and making melodies out of them. Man, he was straight through, all right. It’s amazing that, with somebody like that, there’s so little awareness of what he did and what he meant. But he must have been a tremendous influence on the guys that he played with.

Bird-song clarified

 Actually, when I was very young, first starting to play, I think I probably listened more to clarinet players than to saxophones. When I began listening to saxophones, I was first attracted to Coleman Hawkins. And loving the way Hawk played made me listen to a bunch of marvellous tenor players of that period. It was really quite a bit later, after I’d already been playing with bands, that I heard Lester Young. In fact, I heard Bird first, and had got well into listening to him. You know, it’s the kind of accidental thing that awareness of a player is: what’s available, what somebody happens to play for you.

Pres made things clear to me. It was like opening up new, simple vistas that were always there; but it took Pres to make those simple things obvious. Pres was such a lovely songwriter. Everything he played was a song, you know. And his sense of rhythm, the way he laid his songs over the surrounding music; he did it with such a flowing kind of ease. I’d come to understand ‘soaring’ from Bird, but Press kind of soaring I didn’t know about. And then I listened back to Bird, and I realised he knew all about that.

Ultimately, that’s the thing that knocks me out about all of the players that I’ve ever loved that they’re basically songwriters. They love melody. This is hard to fit in with what people are thinking now; what we think of as conventional melody is kind of a dirty word. I can’t have any kind of feeling towards that attitude. I like what I hear other guys doing, but the thing that really attracts me is melodic playing.

Miles Davis is one who writes songs when he plays. And the irony is that Miles is in the vanguard of now putting melodies down. Although I can never tell with Miles; he’s really one of the great camp characters of all time. You know, I keep seeing things in print, and I realise that what he’s saying is read by people and taken as gospel. And I always have a terribly strong feeling : “Miles, wait a minute – I must not get sucked into this particular thing, because I think you’re putting somebody on, and it may be me! ”

 If you’re lyrically and melodically orientated, as Miles is, you can do anything. Because if you’ve got the wit, you can make anything into a melody, ultimately.

In recent years, I haven’t heard Miles much in person. But if he’s dropped that muted sound, I have to admit to being delighted. To me that was the same kind of thing-putting someone on. I thought that business of putting that harmon-mute right into a microphone didn’t ring true. I don’t like the sound. You’re dealing with a mechanical device; when you put that mute into it, the air vibrates against the diaphragm in the microphone and distorts. Now, there’s a whole era of music going on today where people are dealing with electronic distortion. But if I could, I would rather work without microphones.

Part 2 >>>

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