Jazz Professional               




A great time for British jazz

A great time for British jazz
His present band
The wide musical world
The welcome change of billing
Good music and popularity
Thoughts on some instruments
The Wavendon Allmusic Plan
Picking the right music
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1969

It’s very encouraging to see that fans are taking British musicians seriously at last. For a long, long while Americans were the only ones; now you see our musicians beginning to get recognition.

It's a great time for British jazz, after all, isn't it? It's really beginning to make its mark. I'm thinking of all the young players who are coming up–the John Surmans, Alan Skidmores and Mike Westbrooks.

For many years European jazz has been very much underrated. It’s partly because American jazz has always been very well–promoted. All the visiting American jazz musicians don't come over by accident; they're sent over by agents and promotion campaigns are put over for them.

And the poor old British musician has just had to exist on his reputation alone; sometimes that hasn't been enough to get his name before the public. But thank goodness, all that's changing now.

Nobody could be more glad than I am. I've had a very good time out of jazz so far. That doesn't mean I'm retiring. I intend to have many more years enjoying myself with my music. I hope the best might be to come; I think you learn new things as you go on, and if you try hard enough and honestly enough, you find out a few tricks that can improve your playing and writing.

The inspiration for this current band, really—I call it the "Million Dollar Collection" band, because it was got together to do that LP—was young players.

The band that I had on the road gradually petered out. I didn't really ever plan it that way, except that long before I stopped touring I was doing film music. And it was a bit of a strain to return, say, from Carlisle at four in the morning and have to be at Shepperton Studios at seven a.m. So that played its part.

Even though we had a full date–book with the big band, the trouble was that by that time London had started to come up as the biggest session centre in the world. Which I should think it is now; London is busier in studio activity than anywhere else—except Los Angeles, maybe. Musicians weren't going to tour with me, however good the money, if they could stay at home in London and do work which was varied, didn't require travel, and from which they could probably earn as much, if not more. This meant I couldn't get the players I wanted. Then it became very difficult to keep a band together at all; so I gave it up.

Of course, every musician thinks of his career in terms of money for a period. Rightly so, because musicians aren't terribly well–paid in film–star terms. or in vocalist terms, or beat–group terms. It's a matter of getting it while you can.

Anyway, I found that there were a lot of young players about, many of whom I'd never heard of before, let alone heard, who came and played with the "Million Dollar Collection" band, and they could do anything.

They could read, they could play as well in ensembles as in solos. In fact, they had all the attributes that we older players thought we used to get from Palais work and from playing on the road; we thought it: was a disappearing art because they didn't get this sort of training. But the rehearsal bands produced an outstanding crop of musicians who are now holding the fort marvellously.

It's the same library on this third season, but there have been quite a lot of enforced changes in the line–up. It just so happened that two of the guys were on holiday, two more were with Ronnie Scott in France, and Laurie Holloway is so busy writing now that he couldn't possibly make it.

There were deficiencies at the beginning of the season because the book, let's face it, is a very hard one to play. There are a lot of notes in it, it's a different style book from other big bands, and it involves a lot more rehearsal to get it right. Well, we didn’t have time to do enough rehearsal; so at first the band probably sounded rougher than before.

But this doesn't say anything against the musicians, because it would take a miracle man to be able to do a day's rehearsal and play this book. The first band took two years to learn the book.

Nevertheless, it's been a very exciting season, because there've been a lot of new players come in to take the places of people like Tony Coe and Chris Pyne, and I've discovered more fine talent. Some I'd heard occasionally, but you don’t get to know their playing until you actually play with them.

I mean; a player like Alan Skidmore is every bit in his father's footsteps as one of the finest tenormen in the country already. And yet he's a very good musician, all–round; not just a jazz player, but an excellent instrumentalist, reader, everything. Malcolm Griffiths is another; he plays marvellous trombone and is an ideal man to have in the band. I'd have him again any time, at the drop of a hat.

I think that the standard of young players, including those who play in my band and in other bands around now, such as the Stan Tracey, Tubby Hayes, Mike Westbrook bands–they're the equal to anybody in the world, as players in this sort of big band. You wouldn't get better performances anywhere.

As for my bringing in the bass guitar . . . there was a lot of prejudice against it in jazz, and I was one of those prejudiced people. For me, the change came mainly when I had to use the bass guitar a great deal on film sessions.

I've been required to write any sort of music that is necessary for the film. Quite often I was writing pop music and pop–orientated music, and I'd use bass guitars. First of all, I would try to use bass players who doubled bass guitar. After a while I realised that, in fact, the bass guitar is an individual instrument that needs a specialist player. Really, if you're going to use bass guitar, you've got to have someone who thinks of it as a serious instrument.

Of course, this is what the young bass players like Brian Odgers, Ron Mathewson and Dave Holland are doing now. They are taking it seriously and playing it very well.

This is a sign to the future. Whatever happens in a small group the bass guitar is a much more suitable instrument for big band work. You can hear it. Nobody could ever say in the old days that the bass line was strong enough with a stringed instrument. And for many years bass players used to hate amplifiers. Well, now there's a good case for the bass amplifier, I think, because amplifiers have improved out of all recognition in the last ten years; and now you could get a good string bass sound with amplification. But still I think the bass guitar has a different feel with it, and for a lot of things that I've written in the last six months or so, I prefer to hear it. This is a trend that is being echoed throughout a lot of big–band jazz all over the world today.

But it's very hard to iron out prejudices, and there are still a lot of prejudices among jazz musicians about pop–influenced things. I think that's wrong, too. I can remember when I would talk to straight musicians who had prejudices against jazz, and they weren't justified. It was through ignorance, mainly. The same thing applies now; and I thought jazz musicians would be broad–minded when it came to considering another sort of music. Quite often, though, they're not. Or the older players haven't been; they've laughed at pop and anything it can offer jazz.

Whereas the younger generation of musicians think differently. Like Henry Lowther, who's playing with our band —he's as much at home with Alan Price's band as he is with ours. And he loves it all; this is the important part. The thing to realise is: there's a lot of bad jazz going around and there's a lot of bad pop going around, but if you can be good enough to select the best of the two, then you're really swinging.

The advent of beat music in the 1960s was comparable rather to the arrival of jazz in the 1920s. When jazz came along, it pushed out Palm Court–type music, tea–shop music, and corn music; it was a revitalisation of popular music at that time. The jazz of the 1920s was very crude indeed. It went through a process of refinement until it got to where it is today. But it became a more specialist sort of music, and got out of touch with what ordinary people wanted to relate to in their lives. So there was a revolution, and the new sort of popular music started in a very basic way; but you can already see signs of it being put through a fine mesh until the best is beginning to come out. I think that will continue.

In my music I've never wanted or intended to turn my back on the public. I feel very strongly that any musician (or entertainer, if you like) who appears in front of the public should try to communicate with them. And once he plays for his own pleasure and not for the pleasure of the people who are listening, he might as well tell them to go home. He might as well play in his own back room. If he plays music that they just don't understand, if he makes no effort either to perform or write the music or to talk to the audience about the music in a way that they can understand, he's wasting his time.

I get rather shocked, and annoyed a bit, when people say that I try to be the sort of intellectual of jazz. This criticism annoys me because if our band doesn't swing, which it sometimes doesn't, like any band, it's nearly always because we're not familiar enough with the music that we're playing. Once any band that I've ever been with gets to know the music that I write, with the right amount of fluency on the notes themselves, it can and does swing. And that's the first thing I want it to do—it's always been my main consideration. I don't want to play intellectual music that doesn't swing.

What I've never wanted to do is to play louder and louder until people think it swings. The hardest thing to do is to swing quietly, with control and restraint. Lots of bands swing loudly. I refuse to let my band play loudly in order to try to swing when it isn't swinging softly. For this reason, if it doesn't swing when it's played softly I have to admit that it does sound lacking somehow and a little bit anaemic. But this is a chance I have to take. I can't bring myself to tell a band to play loud without any dynamics, or to bash away, and I can't write the sort of music which will allow them to do that. Because I think that the best jazz in the long run is the jazz that is controlled and will swing on its own terms.

Important dynamics You can't be conscious of tone colours and let the band rock away all the time. You've got to have control, and you've got to be able to interest the. guys in the tone colours. For instance, you can never get a woodwind section to play pianissimo if the drummer is playing forte. They'll do it for two nights, and then they'll say: "Oh, what the hell—we can't be heard anyway. Let's play louder." So it's important to get the whole band to obey dynamics.

But the thing that is the hardest of all to remember is that a band playing pianissimo can swing just as well and as much as a band playing fortissimo. The Basie band, certainly, has done that. They've done it in a way that they've been doing for so long, and to such a very simple formula that people think that it can't be done with slightly more complex formulas. It has yet to be proved, perhaps, that it can be done.

When I first started learning from gramophone records, like we all did when we were young, and when they were a lot scarcer than they are now, all the musicians used to listen at that time to the men in the Glenn Miller band—the Mel Powell Sextet and that sort of thing. And everybody used to try to play like them. Then eventually they arrived in Europe, and they came down to the Feldman Club and played. The British musicians had got the Mel Powell tricks, the whole business all sewn up, everything exactly as they'd heard on the records—except the volume. Because when that Mel Powell Sextet played in Feldman's, if the normal club noise had been going on you wouldn't have heard them at all. They were so soft.

Yet when everybody realised they were playing soft and quietened down, you could have heard a pin drop amongst the crowd. And what was going on on the stand was the most swinging thing you'd ever heard. This is talking in terms of 25 years ago, but I'm sure the same things apply now. It's hard to get this over, though. That's probably one bad thing that beat music has done: made the whole thing louder and louder until it's difficult for people to attune themselves to be able to listen to quieter things.

However, it’s only relative, because whenever we play opposite a symphony orchestra, we have to tone our own dynamics right down. A pianissimo for us is a mezzo–forte for them; we just have to go lower and lower.

Copyright © 1969, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.