The wide musical world
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
The February engagement at Ronnie’s was the first time we’d had the band together this year. We did quite a big nation–wide tour last November and December, with Norma Winstone singing with the band. This having been quite successful, it gave me the bug to do a bit more in the same vein.
But, due to being in the cast of Show Boat , Cleo couldn’t come on the tour with us; so Norma very kindly came, and sang very well. But Norma was unable to make some of the dates on the club stint; which was a shame, because we had a lot of new charts for her. At this stage it was an inspiration of mine to take Pat Smythe’s advice and listen to a very good young male singer named Malcolm McNeil. He’s a fine musician, who has been doing a lot of work with the Mike Sammes Singers and groups like that—anonymously, so to speak. He could be termed a Mel Torme–style singer. I was pleased to hear him come out of it so well.
I like working with singers. I’ve always enjoyed helping them sort out what tunes to sing, how to arrange them and present them on the stage. In. the past, I’ve aided Cleo a lot in working out her sequence of events in her act. Now that Cleo and I can almost read each other’s minds about that sort of thing, it’s nice to work occasionally on the repertoires of other singers, like Norma or Malcolm.
Because I think there are so many singers, especially in this country, who could make it if someone took a bit of interest in them, and made sure they sang the right things at the right time. So many are marvellous singers, but haven’t got the knack of choosing the right songs for themselves. Someone else coming in, who can see them from afar, can find their strong points and play on them.
And it’s good for a band like mine to have another singer with it, anyway.
Take Norma, for instance: make no mistake about it, she has a tremendous range; what I’ve always felt is that she sings beautifully with jazz groups like Mike Westbrook’s, but there’s another side to her singing that people just don’t hear enough of. And when she came on tour with us, I suggested that she sang a couple of standards, a Michel Legrand tune, and a poem setting that Neil Ardley did for her—to vary things a little bit from the way she had previously been heard. Also to get her to a different audience, because most of the time she sings to jazz audiences. We put her into concert halls where people with a slightly different musical outlook listened to her. She enjoyed it, and it was a great success; she was very disappointed that it didn’t work out for her to be with us at Ronnie’s.
As for the overall tour: let’s be quite honest about it—the people who were locked out because we had such full houses didn’t bash down the doors to get in. The business wasn’t that marvellous, but it was good enough for the promoter to want to do it again. And we’ll probably do a much more extended tour in November of this year.
That seems a long way ahead to me at the moment; between now and then Cleo and I have got a lot of things on. Directly she comes out of Show Boat , we do a Festival Hall concert with just a quartet. Then three days later we do Carnegie Hall with the same group, except that in New York we’re using George Duvivier on bass and Bobby Rosengarden on drums. This stems from last year’s concerts, when Cleo had the kind of write–ups, in the New York Times, Variety, Down Beat, that most artists would give their right arms to get.
One way and another, we’ll be out of the country most of 1973. Either out of the country or out of our home; which is a shame when you’ve got a nice home like we have—and things going on in it musically. Still, we can’t have it all ways, and it’s very nice to see that we’re getting some international gigs, rather than just staying in this country. It must mean that people abroad like us—and that’s always very flattering.
Right after Carnegie Hall, we come back and do four concerts in Holland, at the Music Festival there. About five weeks in Australia and New Zealand come next; that’ll take us through to the middle of August.
Then, after a six–week holiday, we go back to the States in October, for a long tour. So November’ll be just right for me to have the big band again; I’ll be tired of playing with small groups by then.
What about Wavendon? Well, when we return from the States we do a concert tour for Robert Patterson, which is Cleo’s tour, really; once again, that’s a small group tour. Now, during that time we have the Wavendon Festival Season; so Cleo and I are going to be darting backwards and forwards across England to get back there in time for concerts.
You see, somehow or other, the Wavendon thing can run itself much more now than it could two or three years ago. Once we set the programme for the Season, and see that things are going right, a lot of events can take place when we’re not there.
The Easter Course is already fully subscribed. We have forty young musicians coming to learn about any music that they don’t specialise in. We get people from the youth jazz orchestras studying straight music approaches, and people from the music academies looking into jazz techniques. I’ll be there for most of that; other instructors on the course are people like John Williams, Mike Gibbs, Richard Rodney Bennett, Ken Gibson. This is the fourth year we’ve run it, and.. we’re looking forward to it again.
As you’ll remember, last Autumn we had a Jazz Weekend. The normal place where we hold concerts is a converted stable that only holds two hundred people, but we got over the limitations of that by hiring a very big tent, with a capacity of about a thousand. In fact, we had three concerts, including almost every conceivable branch of jazz, covering a range from George Chisholm to the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and most shades in between. It wus a successful festival; so we’re doing it again this year, and hoping it’ll be an annual event. It’s a good gig for the musicians.
But, to speak of the big band: we’ve just had a record issued, but none of it was recorded less than a year ago; a lot of it was done two years ago. Every time we went into Ronnie’s, I tried to get the band in the studio for just one session, to put down a couple of titles, and then forgot all about it, because we seemed to be too busy to get the thing issued. So eventually, I wanted to make another LP—which I want to do now, as soon as possible—but I couldn’t very well do that when there was one already in the can and not released. That’s why, at my suggestion, Philips released the LP. It seems to have gone pretty well, in fact. Most of the critics gave it very favourable reviews.
The next thing will be to record again. I’ve just about got the material I want in the books now to do it It’s sort of fresh and new and sufficiently well–played for us to be able to sit back and do it in the studio.
It’s probably been apparent to you over the last ten or fifteen years that I don’t like to just hark back to the past without looking to the present as well. Even my detractors couldn’t accuse me of that. I try to keep my music as of today, as well as preserving the best of its older facets.
Also, I very much like to encourage young players.
In the current line–up are three young musicians, who had never played in Ronnie Scott’s before: Ray Harris in the trumpet section, Mike Page playing baritone and Tony Hymas, piano and keyboards. All three of them, in fact, are ex–Royal Academy of Music students, Mike Page still comes along and plays in our jazz study group at the Academy, because we’re usually short of a baritone player. We had one day’s rehearsal before that job, and no time to go through all the pad. On the first night, Tony Hymas was reading nearly everything at sight, and it didn’t seem to bother him at all; he’s a marvellous musician.
Mixing players of differing ages works wonderfully.
Like, when you hear a tenor duet between this generation’s Stan Sultzmann and Don Rendell, from the last generation, they sound beautiful together. They admire each other tremendously. There’s a very nice feeling about the band. The atmosphere is good, because everybody digs each other’s playing, irrespective of age or of their shade of musical opinion. Someone like Stan is a pretty far–out sort of player, but he appreciates something simple, when it’s good. Likewise, Henry Shaw is enthusiastic about the way the younger musicians play. So the interchange does everybody good, and makes them play better, I think.
In the rhythm section we have the best doubler in this country on upright bass and bass guitar—Daryll Runswick. I don’t think there are any other players who tackle both instruments quite as well; there may be very good players on one or the other. And when you’ve got someone like him, you can easily switch from one to the other. Although on a lot of the things we play he stays on string bass.
It’s not a question of trying to climb on the bandwagon, and doing a modern sort of style, but I do honestly feel that jazz has got to adopt other sorts of music to live.
It always has in the past. Original New Orleans jazz was a combination of a number of other different sorts of music, and all through its history jazz has been influenced by any other music that its players or its composers have listened to. It all rubs off on jazz. Jazz isn’t a pure music, nor will it ever be; it’s a hybrid music, and will only continue to thrive if it uses things from other people’s books. Therefore it’s essential that jazz shouldn’t ignore pop or rock music, because there’s a lot of good things in it that jazz can steal.
The new album, “Prelude To A Kiss”, is something of a departure. Funnily enough, even though I must have made thirty or forty albums in my time, it’s the first solo album I’ve ever done—and I didn’t realise that until after I’d done it. It wasn’t particularly meant to be a showcase for me, though; that’s probably why I didn’t realise the fact until afterwards. It was meant to be something that would help our new label, Sepia, in establishing itself. I suppose, in a way, you could call it an easy listening jazz record—with just a rhythm section, strings and myself. I restrict myself to saxophones on it; I don’t play the clarinet at all—although I’m being drawn quite a lot to the clarinet these days. It’s all on soprano and alto. You see, the idea was that I’m saving up my clarinet to do an album on that alone; so maybe that’ll be the next one. I didn’t want to sort of mix the two things up too much.
But the soprano is a fairly new instrument for me, that I’ve been playing for five or six years—as opposed to much longer than that on the alto. I did start taking up the soprano just about the time that Cleo and I got married—but I didn’t make very good noises on it, and Cleo persuaded me to get rid of it! Otherwise I might have beaten Coltrane to it by a few months. It’s an instrument I enjoy playing when it’s in good shape; but a soprano is a very strange proposition—it doesn’t always play very well in tune. They’re very hard to build in a way that satisfies a saxophone. I always say that if you get fed up with a soprano, the great advantage it has over all the other saxophones is that you can make it into a reading lamp quite easily—and make it much more useful than it sometimes is as a musical instrument. I do like playing it quite a bit now, though.
The trouble is, it can be played in a quacky sort of way, with a nasal sound that I don’t like very much. I’ve always thought that the soprano player I really used to enjoy listening to—although he played very little soprano, in fact—was Johnny Hodges. I was talking to Frank Wess, who was accompanying Cleo in a band not long ago, and he said that the soprano he was playing that night used to belong to Johnny Hodges. I then said that I wondered why Hodges didn’t play the soprano more with Duke Ellington; he made those three or four tracks with it in 1940, and then it disappeared from the scene altogether.
Frank said: “I know why—it’s because Ellington refused to play him doubling money!” He swore this was true—Ellington wouldn’t pay him any more for playing two instruments; so he said: “In that case, I’ll just play one instrument.” I’ve always tried to get a sound rather like the Hodges soprano sound at its best–sometimes I get it, sometimes I don’t.
As to what I play most—you must appreciate I do most of my playing now in conjunction with Cleo; the concerts usually take the pattern that we do an instrumental half and then a vocal half. Quite honestly, on the concerts I think it’s split about a third each way—a third of alto, a third of soprano and a third of clarinet. But if there is any slight bias, probably I play a little bit more soprano than I do alto. I think it’s partly because in some modern pop contexts, as opposed to strictly jazz ones, the soprano fits in slightly better than the alto, partly because it’s a novelty that I still haven’t got over after a few years, and partly because I like to change the colour as much as possible in between tunes, so that having played one on the alto, I’ll use something else on the next one, if it works out.
Yes, the string section on the album is a limited one.
I didn’t really intend it to be a big, lush velvet carpet sort of thing; if you’re going to do that, you need to have fifty or sixty strings, and, frankly, we couldn’t afford that many. So I went the other way; I decided to get really handpicked players, and make a much smaller sound–a chamber music sound, if you like. I hope we got it, that’s all.
The rhythm section is the one we tour with; as you notice, Bill Le Sage is on vibes there—we play with a four–piece group: keyboards, bass, drums and vibes. And myself—so that makes us a quintet. In actual fact, Bill often plays keyboards, particularly electric piano, when our pianist, Paul Hart plays the violin. I counted the other day—between the five of us, we play twelve or thirteen instruments. I play the three reeds, Paul Hart plays two electric keyboards, ordinary steam piano and violin, Bill Le Sage plays keyboards and vibraphone, Daryll Runswick plays bass and bass guitar–and does a bit of singing as well. Kenny Clare just plays the drums—plus a bit of glockenspiel or triangle, occasionally, when we can persuade him to do so. And acts as a comedian, too. On the record, in fact, Daryll couldn’t make the date, and Roy Babbington played bass instead. Apart from that, it’s our regular quintet.
We use a synthesiser on occasions, for certain poppy sorts of sounds that we want to get. We once did experiment with a synthesiser that made blanket sounds that could be compared with strings–but we don’t now. The only keyboards we tour are a Rhodes electric piano, and very occasionally a little mono synthesiser. That’s quite enough to carry around, in fact. When we’re touring in this country, we take a lot of equipment with us; a truck goes round with us, and we have a sound crew, a lighting man and so forth. But I think one of the reasons why we’ve been able to tour America so successfully—especially in the early days—is that our touring expenses have been kept fairly low. Unlike the rock groups that used to go around with seventeen truck–loads of equipment, everything we went with could be got on one aeroplane and carried by just one roadie, in addition to the musicians.
And all the rest of the things, we still do specify them on the contract, rather than take our own.
In other words, we specify certain speakers, monitors and sound equipment that the promoter has to supply.
The same with extra instruments, like a Rhodes electric piano—we specify that that is there when we get there.
Which means that you don’t always get quite the instrument you hope you would get; on the other hand, sometimes they’re very good. That’s the way we tour anywhere in the world other than this country—but as we’ve just finished a tour here, I’m used to the other way now, where we actually do take our own big equipment.
For some concerts, we do have a full orchestra. The way we work—throughout the world, really—is that we use the resident band in places where there is one. Such as Las Vegas, for instance, or a lot of the big places, like the Greek Theatre, Los Angeles; frequently, in a huge auditorium, it’s with a symphony orchestra—but our quintet is always the nucleus. In ‘Vegas, they would be big band charts that we would use, with string additions; but we have another library as well, which is strictly a symphonic one—we would then cart round music for full woodwind, percussion, harp, everything. Round about a hundred musicians would be involved; we often do those sort of things in the Summer.
As a matter of fact, the first date on the tour we’re doing this Summer is with the Boston Pops Orchestra, in Boston, Massachusetts; that will mean taking music for sixty or seventy musicians, and John Williams–not our John Williams, their John Williams–is the conductor.
The writing is very largely mine. Paul Hart does some on occasions; in fact, he’s been very useful on some occasions, when we’ve had to do things on tour at short notice—he’s a very talented orchestrator for big orchestras. But in general, I’m the one who gets lumbered with it–if you like to put it that way. Although I really do enjoy arranging for Cleo. In many places I also conduct the symphony orchestra—so that’s a thrill too. It is something you have to get down to a fine art, because we would usually do a two and a half hour concert, and the rehearsal time you get is two and a half hours.
So there’s no time to correct wrong notes or go over things twice; you really have to find out by experience which parts of your programme you really need to rehearse hard, spend the time on that, and almost don’t rehearse the rest of the things, or just flip through them very quickly. Because symphony orchestras are obviously very reliable to work with, if they know what they are doing—and if you know what you’re doing, leading them. You really have to make sure that you don’t waste one second in those rehearsals.
One thing I’ve found out about American orchestras is that they are very strict to their times, from the Union point of view; if it’s two–and–a–half hours’ rehearsal, they give you two–and–a–half hours. But, my goodness, they do give it; they’re right there on the dot at two–thirty, ready to play, and if there’s a five–minute break in the middle, for coffee, tea or whatever, they’re back right on those five minutes to start playing again. It’s a pretty good deal: if you stick to your time schedule, they’ll stick to theirs. That makes it very enjoyable, from my point of view.
I suppose it must be between three and four months a year that we spend working in the States. This year, I think, is going to be slightly more.
We do have a house over there, where we spend a few more weeks in addition to the touring time, in order to relax and get away from the telephone at this end–a very nice place in Northern California, about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. It’s right up in the mountains, and we have everything we want up there; so we can escape from the world when we want to–sometimes I go up there to do writing as well.
Of course, the possibility of settling in America is there, and one always thinks about it—but when you already have a house there, the question is an academic one, really. Without altering anything of the way we lead our lives now, we could just automatically spend a bit more time over there than we do here. So you could almost say from year to year we change our attitude to that. There’s no doubt about it: if we wanted to, we could very easily transfer our main base over there, because there seems to be enough to keep us occupied there for the whole year, if we wanted to.
It’s just that we like the way of life in this country, we always have, and I suppose always will. You have attachments to where you were born–and we’re not so easily uprooted as some people are. We enjoy life here. and we’ll continue to, unless anything changes so radically that we feel we ought to make a difference in the emphasis.
The Wavendon operation is pretty extensive, and that, of course, is another reason why it would be very difficult to go completely. There’s so much going on, and so many other people involved in it—and it’s something that’s quite challenging all the time. Like most other things in this country in the world of entertainment at the moment, we’re having to watch the pennies and be very careful how the whole thing is conducted, because recession has hit the purses of our patrons. But we’ve survived so far, and I’ve no reason to believe that we won’t continue to survive.
We’re about to start yet another one of our courses–for the eleventh successive year. Just under a hundred students will be here on a residential course. It’s very rewarding; every year you say to yourself: “Well, why on earth do I take all this extra work on?”, but at the end of the course, when you’ve been with the students for all that time, shared music with them, enjoyed it, helped them a little bit, and learned a heck of a lot yourself, You realise it’s one of the most enjoyable things you do every year, and that you wouldn’t give it up without a big struggle.
Quite a lot of our students have since gone into the profession, on all sides of the business, have made a success of it, and say how much they learned from the courses. We were playing at the Lakeside Club in Camberley last week, and the young bass player in the resident band came up to me; I said: “I recognise you, don’t I?” He said: “Yes, I was on your course a few years ago. I was very glad I came, and it’s stood me in good stead.” And he was playing very good bass guitar. There are a lot of examples of people like that. Even complete groups have come on the courses, then. gone out and applied what they’ve learned—and vocal groups, and things of that sort.
We try to cover the complete musical spectrum. The Easter Course is what we call an Allmusic course, in which we throw musicians from every musical background into a melting–pot, to make music together for that week. In other words, it’s a course specifically for people to learn something about the sort of music that they don’t already know about.
The young academic musicians find out about jazz, and the young jazz musicians find out about Mozart, and so forth. There’s also a children’s Summer Camp, which my sister Avril runs for three or four weeks a year; it has the same sort of philosophy as the Allmusic Course, but is for younger students—they start at about eight with her camp. They also have the added attraction, which is nice for youngsters, of living under canvas and leading a sort of boy scout/ girl guide life while they’re learning about music in the Summer, Then we have a Jazz Course in late August and a Classical Course at Christmas.
The Jazz Course is becoming very, very popular now, and I think it’s already pretty well fully subscribed, even though it doesn’t take place for several months. It’s one thing we could double or treble up on, really, and run several weeks of it, instead of just the one week that we do manage to get in. That’s also very nice–to see such enthusiasm amongst students. All in all, the whole of Wavendon is something that makes you feel good when you see it going well; it can be a bit of a worry as well, when you realise that you’ve got to work hard to keep it going. In general, it’s one of the plusses in Cleo’s and my life, and we enjoy it very much.
Regarding the teaching staff—we try to vary it from year to year, although there are regulars who come here all the time, both on the classical and the jazz sides. Michael Garrick is a particular stalwart, and people like Don Rendell, Ken Gibson. . . oh, I’m very bad at lists—I’m going to miss out some important people, I’m sure; so I’ll leave the list there. But there are a number of jazz musicians and classical musicians who regularly support us by making themselves available. Of course, on them depends the quality of it, and we’re very glad they do find the time, because although it may be rewarding from the point of view of your soul, it’s not the most rewarding financial thing that they could possibly come across. It’s very nice of them to tolerate us.
I suppose I was interested in the mixing of musical idioms before most people in this country, and took steps to help it along its way, perhaps, more than some. Because some musicians just don’t approve of the idea of mixing things up very much. There are certainly less of those than there used to be, ten or twenty years ago, when you think of the struggles we had about even mixing traditional, modern and mainstream jazz—there were terrible rows about that at the time, weren’t there? Now, of course, people aren’t nearly so pure in their thoughts about the way music should be sub–divided. If Cleo and I can take just a little credit for the fact that that has come to pass—then we’ll take it.
It’s always been something that annoyed me, when audiences used to be so stuck up about the sort of music they liked, and wouldn’t even listen to any other sort of music. But right from the start we found that musicians themselves aren’t really like that; they were well in advance of the audiences, in that they were interested in other music, and did admire and appreciate other types of virtuoso. In fact, some of our first supporters at Waven-don with the Allmusic principle were some of the classically–orientated musicians, like John Ogdon, John Williams, Richard Rodney Bennett, Ashkenazy and so on. So it’s nice to know that that has caught on in a way that’s helped music in the last decade or so.
Copyright © 1969, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.