Jazz Professional               





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

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1980

How does your general work routine work out over the year? I suppose you always know well in advance when Frank is going on tour, and you can plan your other work around that.

I would say about the end of December we will get an itinerary for the New Year for about three or four months, probably. Then, after that, another itinerary. But they’re changeable, you know—maybe a cancellation here, and an added week here or there. You have a pretty good idea what you’re going to do for the next three or four months. We knew we were coming here almost a year ago and we know we’re coming back next year; it’s being worked on now.

What do you actually do when you’re not working with him?

There is still some studio work that I do—I don’t do it quite as often, because of the travelling. And every once in a while I’ll take a little jazz group and have some playing fun; there’s a couple of clubs in Palm Springs, which isn’t too far from L.A., and we’ll go there for a few nights. I get all golfers; so we have a foursome for golf as well as for jazz. Apart from that, I try to get as much rest as I can. These last three months have been hectic—Monte Carlo, back to L.A., Atlantic City, back to L.A., Atlantic City again, and then here. You get through with one jet–lag, and then you start another one. When I arrived here, we were getting up, like, four in the morning for three days in a row.

We’re going to New York Sunday; we have two charity affairs, and after that we go home for a five–week holiday. So I’ll do a few little jazz gigs probably, and take some rest. I’m trying to get to write a book; I’m finally going to start it in New York, when we get there. It’s going to be part autobiography and part drum book.

How about practising? Do you have any kind of schedule for practise?

Well, I’m very bad on practising. As a youngster, I did my share of it—I did plenty. If I’m off a week or two . . . I’ll piddle around at the marimba for a while, and so forth. It’s difficult to practise drums by yourself—it’s the worst instrument in the world for that. That’s boring. But I manage to just warm up maybe a few times a week.

It’s more of a practise to actually get in and play the job.

Definitely. I get to the gig, and within two days I feel strong; so with the three days rehearsal first, that’s fine. But to practise by myself is a bore.

You don’t operate in the percussion field now, do you?

I used to. Before Frank came out of retirement, I was very busy doing that—playing vibes, tympani, all of it. But I haven’t really touched those instruments in years. I’m concentrating exclusively on just playing drums for Frank. The years of playing drums and percussion in the studios—it was an awful lot of pressure. In those days, we used to go from one date to the other, with a sandwich in one hand and driving with the other. I don’t want that any more; I want to enjoy myself—and I am. I’m playing with the greatest man in the entire industry; the book is great—it’s a drummer’s book. I feel like a young kid, and I’m learning all the time.

Do you teach at all?

Yes, I do have a few students; when I get home, we get together. I’ve got one who drives in from San Diego, which is about a hundred–and–twenty–five miles from L.A. He comes in twice a week when I’m home—a good student. I feel real good when I turn out a student as good as he is. This kid’s going to be great; his name is Bruce Norton—he’s about twenty–two now. One day you’re going to hear about him. He needs some experience; unfortunately, there’s no bands to play with—but he’s got a lot of talent. I’ve had a few, though, that I just gave up on after a while. You either have it or you don’t—there’s no sense in wasting time. I won’t take a beginner, because I don’t have the patience—I used to, years ago. If you’re just doing teaching alone, okay, you’ve made that your field, but for me to take a beginner now . . . it’s a hard, hard job. So I take students who have been in it quite a while.

And as for clinics, I know you do them occasionally.

Two years ago I did one here. That’s another thing I’m going to get into; I love doing that for kids—I really enjoy it. You see some of these kids—they know what’s going on; they know about the big bands, all the albums that you’ve done. I’m amazed. They can go back twenty or twenty–five years.

Do you feel that the general drumming field is healthy nowadays?

Oh, yes—getting towards the good part of playing, you know. I’m not putting down the rockers; that’s not my cup of tea, but there are some very fine rock drummers. Yes, this disco thing has been very monotonous. I see the thing shifting over now. Everybody wants to know how to play with a big band; they do—it’s shifting, and I’m glad to see that happen. Hopefully, in the next year or two we’ll see it in full swing. I must say that at least part of the rock scene has changed quite a bit for the better. They’re fine musicians—that’s what I like to see. They can play that, they can play the other thing—whatever is put in front of them, they can handle. That’s the true musicianship.

I received a letter from Miami, from a sixteen–year–old youngster, who’s been collecting Sinatra albums through his father—they have about thirty years of Sinatra albums. He asked me, could I please send him the drum charts of all the albums, because he has the earphones and he wants to play with them. So I’m trying to collect as much as I can; I’ll have them copied and sent to him.

And that’s beautiful to see—a kid of sixteen who wants to play with the big band. He doesn’t know anything about rock—he doesn’t want to know about it. It’s not that: “Give me the set with the six tom—toms”, taking three lessons and thinking that’s it. This kid is interested, he’s studying, and he’s on the right track, as far as I’m concerned.

So you say the trend will be for drum sets to get smaller as time goes by?

I’m predicting it. Of course, that’s bad for the drum companies ! But I want to see somebody playing a four–piece set of drums. If he can drum on that, fine—then he’s a drummer. That’s the test. Mel Lewis, Don Lamond—these are great drummers, on a four–piece set. I’ve only added drums a few times in the studios, where it was absolutely necessary—and, believe me, I loathed it.

I do have this one rock set, that only has four tom–toms, but I haven’t had to use it that often. When I’m called, it’s the four–piece set of drums, and that’s it. Just those few times there was a call for just that ‘dig–a–dig–a–dig–a–dig–a’. But I’m going to have that drum set cleaned and burned! Well, look, I was brought up that way and it was a great way to be brought up. A lot of the youngsters are missing something out of their lives; I hope it happens for them, because it was a great music era.

There are certainly some encouraging signs, of things developing into a more straight–ahead vein.

There are indeed. It can’t happen overnight; it’s been going that way for the last four or five years, but I see now that it’s happening faster. I predict that we’re going to see some swinging bands—without the electronics and all that bull—. That’s run its course; you pull the plug on them now, they’ll become truck drivers! Music comes from here—not with an electric plug. You play with your heart and your emotions—that’s what it’s all about. And I’m going to play till I’m a hundred, if I live that long—or a hundred–and–ten, or ninety, whatever. If I’m able to, I’m going to keep on playing.

Yeah, I hope Frank keeps singing that long, too. I can just see Frank about a hundred–and–three, and I’m a hundred! We’ll just have to slow it down a bit! I’m just happy, that’s all.

Copyright © 1980 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.