Tells of his present band, hopes for the future, of Cleo and the Duke—and meeting Ernie Wilkins in a Japanese restaurant
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
Writing for the band or for films, I try to avoid making a dichotomy between the two. I like to feel that, whatever I write for, it’s in one particular style, just adapted to suit the requirements. I don’t think of them as separate functions.
It’s hard to say which of my film scores have provided the most rewarding assignment. I enjoyed very much doing a Joe Losey film, Modesty Blaise , a couple of years ago. It had almost every sort of music in it, from Swingle Singers–type choirs to great big string sections; bits of beaty music, quite a bit of jazz as well.
And I also enjoyed doing another Losey film called Accident , where I just used two harps, David Snell and John Marsden. That was one of the shortest scores I’ve done, in fact, but one that, in relation to anything else, got more comments from people in the industry. Even though it was such a short and simple score. There was nothing you could whistle in the street, but something about the texture made it work very well with the film.
I remember Harold Pinter, who wrote the screenplay of Accident , kissed me on both cheeks after he’d heard the score! That might look funny in print, but I assure you it was well–meant. I think what it amounted to, he was dead scared about music in that film at all, in case it would sort of treacle it up and miss the very tense atmosphere of it.
But using those instruments prevented it from intruding.
Sometimes scoring for films can be very demanding; it depends entirely on the film. You usually find the worse the film, the more music required in it, somehow.
The producer senses that the film isn’t adequate to hold people’s attention; so he tries to pack it with music in order to make another dimension. Which doesn’t usually work. Places for music in films must be very carefully chosen.
It’s a medium I enjoy working in. As for vocal writing, other than Cleo I don’t really do much else.
Writing for Cleo is another story altogether. All you’ve got to do is be familiar with what she can do and then be as simple as you can—and leave the rest to her, really.
She’s got such a unique voice and such a fantastic range that you’re tempted to write for it. But the best thing to do is write something that, without being complex, has got tremendous possibilities of development. She knows her own singing much better than any composer in the world; so I leave her to do some of the composing.
Recently I had the luck to be asked to do a BBC–2 programme called One Pair Of Eyes , in which they give you practically a free hand to do exactly what you want to; you, in effect, become the producer and scriptwriter of the programme. And I chose to do one on hero worship, and find out what has happened to the early heroes of my career, or even before I started my career, when I was a boy. I spent a lot of time running around England, finding the people from the earlier parts of my life.
They also flew me to New York to interview Ellington. But, unfortunately. shortly after arriving in New York I caught pneumonia. Most of my time was spent in a hotel bed, watching American television, which must be the worst in the world. By the time I was well enough to get up, Ellington had moved on to Cincinnati, and I had to chase him there. I took a camera crew and a director with me, did my interview; then came home—just in time to be ill for another three weeks.
It’s the first time it’s ever happened to me, but I was in New York for a week, and the only live music I heard was on the first night, when I met Clark Terry and interviewed him. He has a rehearsal band in Harlem, mainly of school–age instrumentalists. I went up there and listened for a while, as he and Ernie Wilkins rehearsed the band.
One of the kids in it, playing tenor, was the son of Jackie McLean, the alto player. It was a hell of a big band; 22 players, I think, including five trumpets, five trombones, six saxophones, two basses. For kids, they were very good indeed.
I had a meal in a Japanese restaurant with Ernie and Clark, with my shoes off. You have to take your shoes off and sit on the floor; I’d never done that before. It was rather strange, being introduced to Ernie Wilkins while he was sitting cross–legged on the floor. He tried to get up, and I tried to get down.
Things have changed in New York. Maybe it was partly to do with the fact that I was ill, but in the little time I did spend there, I felt that that wasn’t the place I’d ever want to live in now. And I think a lot of American musicians are feeling that way as well.
Funnily enough, my youthful awe of the American product began to be dispelled for me when I went over to America the first time. It took me a while to believe that it was true, but the first thing I found out from American musicians was that they weren’t concerned whether you were American or not. They had no prejudices against non–American players; all they wanted to know was: were you good or not.
And I still say that practically the only prejudice against British musicians lies in Britain. But this is so often the story in Europe, too; there are a lot of good players who don’t get recognition in their own countries.
It’s a shame that the States is not a particularly good place to live now. To see so many American musicians coming to live in Europe is nice for Europe, but it doesn’t say very good things about the States at the moment. It’s becoming a neurotic sort of place, I think. They’ve got so materialistic that they’re losing a sense of proportion about everything except raising the standard of living.
And now there’s the alarmist situation because of the race question. It’s a very unsettled society, and I don’t think it has got a lot to offer the future.
Certainly, for sensitive musicians who are aware of this neurosis that’s overtaking the States, they feel much more at peace with themselves when they come over here.
Consequently, they are liable to produce better things.
And obviously they find that there is greater appreciation for their work. In America so much is taken for granted jazzwise that they probably feel a little slighted.
Playing at Newport seems more of a milestone for my band in retrospect than it did at the time. Because Newport’s a very remote place to play. Never being less than 25 yards from your audience, you can’t really tell what the reaction is. Although we were told the reaction was very good, and the reviews were excellent one didn’t have the sort of thrill of being in touch with an audience there; it was all over so quickly. Anyway, we might go to Newport again. If I ever have a regular band again, it will be my first ambition to do that. And maybe Cleo will go as well.
You know, audiences in America can be very warm.
We did a whole week working opposite Duke Ellington’s band in New Jersey the same year we were at Newport. If anything could have got over an English musician’s inferiority complex, that was it, because they just treated everything on its face value. If we played well, they applauded us; and that wasn’t a particularly jazz–minded audience. They were just people who came into this music centre for a night out.
Duke Ellington has always been my main idol in jazz. He’s maintained such a fantastically high standard, and he’s been such an individual. At no time has he bowed to fashion; the only fashions for him have been the ones he’s created himself. And yet he’s always incorporated new players in his band when they were necessary, even though the average age of the sidemen is pretty high now. You feel that Ellington never shuts his eyes to anything new in jazz, and is always anxious to increase his horizons in music, even at his age.
He’s probably been somewhat less than successful, I feel, in doing things outside his own idiom, like writing for choirs, for symphony orchestras, sacred music, and perhaps writing for films. The score to Anatomy O( A Murder was marvellous—as a piece of music. But I’m not convinced that it was right for the film, somehow. This is obviously a matter of opinion.
At his greatest moments, with the band, the records he’s made, the suites he’s written and that sort of thing, the consistency and the uniformity of style that he’s achieved over the years, he has no equal. Only a very great man could have done it: to be identifiable, yet to be able to hold a band like that together over all those years and play more or less what he wants to. It’s a great achievement.
Such dedication and single–mindedness are very important, but sometimes very hard to maintain. Because he must have had many temptations in other directions.
He seems to make his attempts to branch out, such as doing musicals, and yet they don’t interfere with the main stream of his music. And he never gives up the band, which is a good levelling influence on him.
I watched him playing in this little club in Cincinnati. He did exactly the same sort of show that he’d do at a Festival Hall concert, to all these old people—probably none of them under 50 I would think —sitting there, cramming the club full and listening enthralled. They don’t know much about jazz, but he knows how to make it into entertainment for them.
It’s very important, I think, not to just try to soften the audience up with your music, but to try to explain it as much as you can. If you talk to them, have a joke with them, get them to feel relaxed, this in turn helps the band to feel relaxed. It gives mutual confidence. Playing in front of an audience is a joint experience. The audience are sometimes as nervous as you are. Every effort must be made to create :i happy atmosphere; Duke has always been marvellous at doing that.
In the general contemporary field, I like William Walton’s music very much indeed. He’s been a composer who’s trod unusual paths. He didn’t have a particularly academic training, not having attended any of the academies of music, and he was very interested in jazz at an early age. In fact, I was talking to him the other day and he was saying that when he was very young he used to dash from the opera to hear Paul Whiteman—at the Hippodrome, I think he said. And he used to try to arrange for the Savoy Orpheans, but he said he was never much good at it.
Then he did things like “Facade”, which was largely based on jazz, and they were immensely skilful bits of writing. If he’d been born a generation or so later, I think he would have been very much influenced by jazz, but would have gone into other worlds as well. Perhaps a composer like Richard Rodney Bennett is now, on the straight side of the fence, or perhaps like I am now on the other side; we’re both anxious to explore each other’s side a bit, bringing them together where possible. Until eventually you get a bloke like Mike Gibbs, who is completely unselfconscious about it He’ll write a piece for a symphony orchestra or a wind quartet or something on one day and he’ll write a bit for my band the next. Divisions don’t mean anything to him; it’s all musicians waiting for music to be delivered to play. He writes it, and he loves it all. Then you get people like Andre Previn, who are obviously moving freely as conductors between the two idioms. It just goes on and on like that.
As for my future aims, one thing I want to do over the next twelve months is to play a bit more alto, and sort of get myself back in harness there. After working with the band for three weeks, I’m beginning to enjoy myself on alto. It’s a very good thing if a writer keeps playing, and doesn’t just write. So if any readers can send in a few elastic bands for my alto, to replace the springs, I’d be very much obliged ! My present instrumentation (brass and reeds intermixed in one section) is just trying to get one step nearer to this goal of dispensing with the idea of sections, of writing for individual instruments instead of for sections.
The previous band’s Seven–section idea did it, but still cheated slightly by having a full brass section that still could blast out in the old tried–and–tested way as the sheet anchor. This is sort of walking the tightrope a little bit further, and just leaving the trumpets together at the back.
Trying to dispense with one more section, in fact.
Generally it’s come off. It depends on the place you play in, how successful it is. But, once again, with good musicians who know the charts, being close to each other doesn’t present any problems. They know what they’re doing, they know each other’s playing. If, for instance, Mike Gibbs and Chris Pyne are playing a trombone unison, whereas normally they would be sitting next to each other, in this band they’re five seats apart; still the unison is perfect, once they know it. If you get people in the band who are unfamiliar with it, it’s a bit disconcerting for them, because they don’t always know what the other trombone player is doing.
Nevertheless, so much of the writing—especially Mike Gibbs’ writing, and Ken Wheeler’s as well—is so individually written for players that it doesn’t really matter whether you can hear the other trombone or not.
You’ve just got to play your part, and know what you’re doing; it doesn’t help much to hear the other player.
It’s the one important distinction between jazz and any other sort of music, that you write with particular people in mind. Which I do, even though they change from time to time. And I think it’s one thing that we should try to keep going in jazz.
Jazz bands, however big they are, are a collection of individual soloists who must obviously play in ensembles a lot of the time. They’re not necessarily always improvising soloists. If the writers can write in such a way that the soloists play written solos, so to speak, in the ensemble that all adds up to one whole, as well as playing ad lib solos, this is something that’s interesting and a departure.
Another thing I’ve tried to do with the existing band book is to break the feeling of eight brass, five saxes. I’ve also had criticism for that—using xylophones, piccolos and so on. But I don’t see any earthly reason why, if you’re writing for jazz, you shouldn’t use these other instruments, as long as it continues to be in the jazz idiom.
So that you do get a lot of unusual instruments in my band, and I don’t make any apologies for it. That’s one of the things I’ve learnt from film music: the interest that other tone colours can create.
Whatever critics say about the band—one takes the rough with the smooth—one thing they never seem to say is that the band is derivative and reminiscent of Kenton, Basie, Ellington or anything else. However they tear it to pieces in other ways, that’s something they can’t seem to fault us for. Which is a great satisfaction to me. Sometimes we fail to do exactly what we want to do with this band, but we’re always trying to break new ground with it, and that’s what we set out to do in the first place.
Quite frankly, if it were a question of money, I can find easier ways of earning money than playing at Scott’s for three weeks. So could Cleo, but we do it because we enjoy it. We love the music we play, even though we don’t always knock ourselves out; the battle to get something new done is worthwhile in the end. We live 50 miles out of town: so we’ve been driving 100 miles every day to do it.
Also, the musicians in the band don’t work at anything like the sort of rates that they’re really entitled to here. I make a completely standard rate for the band: leads don’t get more. Derek Watkins is working his lips off, so to speak, to be here this week. And he’s not earning more in the whole week than he’d probably earn for one day’s work in a television studio. But he’ll do it for the enjoyment of it. We all regard this as a sort of charity. A labour of love, in fact.
I’ve tried very hard to make the music that’s in the pad interesting for each individual musician, even if the notes they’re playing are not terribly exposed to the public. I try to make the inner parts a challenge for them, so that there’s always something. to keep them looking.
There’s no question of sitting back and being bored. Brass players, especially, like to do a job like this because it helps them blow a bit and keep their lip in. Whereas in television studios they play for three minutes and then sit around waiting for three–quarters of an hour before they play another number. And that’s not good for them.
I’m beginning to wonder whether it might be a time now to see whether a big band could exist as an entity, without being subsidised. I don’t think for a moment this band as it is could exist on the road, for 52 weeks a year. But I certainly think that there’s a great need for a big band that will go out on tour and play concerts—maybe even ballroom dates.
Because the people who like big bands, who were brought up on big–band sounds rather than on beat sounds. have been very much neglected in the last five years or so. The trouble is, the mass media are quick to jump on anything new, and are dictated to by the young people. They look at the Top Ten, and don’t realise that there’s an unspoken for public.
The possibility I honestly feel, from the enquiries I’ve had in the last two or three months, that there might be a possibility of keeping something like a permanent band together, at least for perhaps one longish tour a year.
The only way to run a band, really, is to have a regular personnel. I wouldn’t mind if the players were young and relatively inexperienced, but I would he most insistent that they were the same players all the time and that they gave me first call.
And when they became well–known enough and proficient enough to do studio work, and came to me and said that they couldn’t do everything that I had to offer them, then I would feel that it was time to say goodbye and give the chance to some other young musicians who could do with the experience.
Copyright © 1969, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.