Jazz Professional               



Everything is the answer


One thrill after another
Everything is the answer
Frank conversation
Big band salute

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1978

It's always a pleasure to be in London. In fact, if I had a choice of where I’d like to live and work, this would be it—I love London. If it were possible, I would love to stay here for a month’s concerts—but that all depends on the boss. It’d be nice if he came back three or four times a year, Sure, it’d be nice for the audiences, too—I don’t think there’s a theatre that’s large enough to hold the people for however many concerts we do. And I must say that I feel that, he’s bigger than ever—and he’s singing marvellously. As for the newspapers—I’ve stopped reading ‘em, really. I can’t blame Frank for feeling the way he does about (the press —with the exception of a few, you know. I guess they have to sell papers, and that’s the way they do it. But I don’t (think they’re qualified to criticise his singing—they just don’t know. The more rubbish they write, the more they sell, I guess; that’s the way it appears to me. We know that his voice has lowered a bit, but as far as the phrasing, the feeling . . . at times he’s very strong.

And he was very strong all through the Festival Hall engagement this time—he sounds marvellous. I think he’s caught his second wind, since he came out of retirement. I’ve noticed more of an electrifying thing with the people, that I haven’t seen before—which was great before, too. I see much more now. Which, in turn, picks the orchestra up. There’s no other Frank Sinatra—let’s face it. Nobody does it like he does.

On one of the days, I had to go to Leicester, to the Premier drum factory—I’d never been before; it was quite an experience—and I got back about an hour before the concert, absolutely exhausted. But just getting onstage, seeing him walk out and the reaction of the people, I felt I’d slept twelve hours—I was raring to go. He just picks you up, immediately—it’s amazing. He’s a natural musician, too—he’s got great ears. Many times, we rehearse the first day without him, just to run down the music; then, when he comes in, it’s an entirely different sound. It sounds like a different orchestra—and for the better.

As a job, it’s definitely very enjoyable; I’ve got some good music to play. The studio work in LA. is be—coming a bit on the garbage side. I enjoy playing with Frank—it’s as simple as that.

For a few years now, I’ve been getting into the clinic end of it, which I enjoy. I intend to continue that.

It’s good to talk to the kids. Of course, the majority of the young drummers coming up are into rock; you’ll find very few who are interested in big band drumming or jazz. I’d like to see this change, because for most of ‘em it’s a one—way street.

The lack of outlets is unfortunate, but we do have the youth bands now, in colleges and high schools——which are very, very good. We have some college bands that are excellent, in the jazz field. When I go to the colleges for clinics, I find this very interesting; hopefully, it’ll turn music around a bit, to where it should be.

Certainly, the marriage between rock and jazz is very good—at least it’s musical, and the background rhythms are just fine. In the next few years, I believe things’ll get even better. As long as there are bands around like Basie, Buddy Rich and Woody Herman, I hope all the youngsters go and see them. Yes, Buddy has gone more straight—ahead with his band lately; I’m all for that—I admire Buddy for that. Well, I admire him anyway! I’d like to see Woody do more of that too—because he was so popular, and noted for his great bands. Although, like I said, the rock/jazz is a good marriage. Woody does mix it up quite a bit, sure. Basie, of course, is always straight—ahead, with a marvellous band. I do think the tendency is towards the good music.

Getting back ,to the young drummers—I really have to put down this thing of going the one—way street, just playing the hard rock. It’s not drumming. For me, there’s nothing of value there; it’s monotonous and boring. There’s no phrasing, nothing musical about it—there’s just loud and louder. I’m sick and tired of these sixteen tom—toms with the sixteenth—note phrases. Very boring—I don’t believe that’s drumming.

The disco beat is another gimmick, which I think will die out soon. It’s very popular now, but whatever they can use to sell records, they use—it’s business, that’s all. Basically, it’s just getting back to standards with the rock beat behind it. I heard the first one being made in Philadelphia several years ago; the producer invited me in to listen to a rough take.

The first one was “How High The Moon”, if I’m not mistaken. I was there with Sid Marks, one of the big Philadelphia disc jockeys; he said: “What do you think of the record?” I said: “I don’t know how you’re gonna sell that.” I was looking also at the commercial end of it—as they were, naturally. And it was the first big hit in that vein. I’d agree that it’s lifted the musical level, which is one step forward, but, again, I find it very boring.

Back on the Coast, I play a fair amount of small group jazz; I have my own little group here and there, and I enjoy playing what I hear. We play very little rock; we play bossa novas and straight jazz. The personnel varies, according to who is available, but they’re great, I can tell you. No, this group with Frank does very little on its own, but it’s a wonderful rhythm section—we work as a team.

The new pianist is Vinnie Falcone, from ‘Vegas. Well, Bill Miller is so busy conducting, that it’s difficult to get to the piano; so I guess Frank decided to get a pianist. We were working at ‘Vegas two years ago, when he was hired with the house band; Frank liked him, and started to use him steadily seven months ago.

Excellent piano player and he’s thrilled. It gives Bill more freedom, he still plays sometimes—the “bar room” tunes. But I guess Frank didn’t do any of those here. And we have our lead trumpet player that we’re carrying with us——Charlie Turner: he’s been with us about three years. Which helps with rehearsals, and all around.

Frank’s recordings? The one with Harry Edison is all girls’ names songs, and we haven’t finished it yet —I don’t know why. Oh. Yes, that’s a different album from the one Frank spoke about on the show; that’s all new songs. So there are two part—completed albums. Sure, a new release is way overdue; I can’t tell you what the reason is.

There are a lot of good drummers today. For the type of work they’re doing now, I guess they need their eight tom—toms, or whatever. Personally, I’ve been playing on the same kit ever since I started—just the five pieces, and that’s it. I’ve seen a lot of problems with a lot of good, young drummers, who can’t play just four beats to a bar. That’s the problem.

In respect of heads—going from calf to plastic was a godsend, in a way, because of the weather conditions. I don’t think it’ll ever replace calf, but it’s close enough. I remember tuning with one head and playing with another, because of the temperature change. If it was too dry, it would sound like a piece of board; if it was too wet, it would sound like a wet rag. The plastics are really a big help—and the way they’re making ‘em now, it’s improving all the time. Of course, there are different kinds of heads—rock heads, jazz heads, conventional heads. I don’t believe in heads being off the drum anyway; the drum was made for both heads. Playing without a head is like driving a car with two tyres. It’s a sound gimmick. Like, I’ve seen drummers play with sticks that look like baseball bats—it’s just a sign of the times. Me, I use the same sticks I’ve been using for many, many years; if I need more volume, I know how to get it.

I do a lot of music listening; I like to hear what’s going on. If it’s garbage, I’ll turn it off; on the radio all day long, it all sounds the same—repetitious. Yes, I have a record collection many jazz albums, many singers, and some heavy music. I listen to classical music—Stravinsky, mainly.

It’s important to be aware of everything in music. In the studios, you never know what you’ll come across—so you have to have good training prior (to that. My main studio work is snare drum playing—which is very difficult. There’s some very difficult parts. I’ve been involved in general percussion; I studied mallets for quite a while—I was forced to do that. Not that I didn’t? like it, but to work in studios you have to know it.

There was a time years ago when the drummer had to play everything, and it was a marvellous experience. I played tympani, vibes, all the mallet instruments. I don’t compare myself with the great mallet players, because my instrument is drums, but I played enough to do what I had to do. To study every instrument would take you three lifetimes. I haven’t played ‘em in about ten years, because the studios have now started to hire four percussion—one specialist for each chair.

There’s nothing like experience and knowledge—that’s the answer. You can study all your life, but if you don’t play, what good is it? You’ve got to get out and play—and I’m thankful that I was brought up in an area where I was able to do everything. I was with the big bands: I played variety shows, and vaudeville when I was a youngster—it all came in handy when I had to use it. I started out very young; I wasn’t even fifteen when I played my first vaudeville show—and I hadn’t studied drums. I knew nothing about reading or the instrument—but I went out and played.

Drummers who went through that were fortunate. Today, let’s say a good young rock drummer—now, if he has to play a variety show, I may as well bring in my five–year–old nephew! So that’s the respect I have for a drummer—if he’s capable of doing all that. But there are very few good all–round drummers left. That’s why I’m doing the clinics; if I can pass some of the knowledge on, it’ll make me happy.

I must say this: of all the bands Frank’s had, there’s none better than this British one. Basie was great for the jazz charts, but for the overall thing, this is a marvellous orchestra. How can you get better than Don Lusher? Great players—and very nice people, too. During rehearsal, they play a new chart like they’ve played it forever. Yes, they sure play.

 Copyright © 1978 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.