Jazz Professional               


The welcome change of billing

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 1981

We haven’t done very much with colleges in the States. Kenny Clare is the great college man; wherever we go over there, he makes a bee–line for one of the educational establishments, or a place where he knows he has friends and contacts who will show him into the right areas. I think it’s because in general our tours are quite rushed, and for Cleo to pay those visits as well endangers her voice. If singers get tired, their voice goes; if musicians get tired, they can still struggle through and nothing shows. When I’m on tour, I look after Cleo, obviously; so I think, for that reason, I don’t get to see those places so much, or even to hear as much music as I’d like to. It’s very rarely that we get a chance to hear other musicians who are playing in the same towns, although Kenny and the guys will quite often make a point of going and hearing them. Occasionally our paths do cross with other players, but not often.

Yes, there certainly is a growing musical eclecticism, over here as well as in the States. Perhaps the reason that I was one of the first jazz musicians to try to cross the boundaries, so to speak, was because I was one of the first jazz musicians who was lucky enough to have a classical music education, in the first place. And whereas that was the exception when I was a young musician, there are so many young jazz players and rock players now who have a classical background. You see it all the time. In our group, for example, of the four other players, there’s Daryll Runswick and Paul Hart who both had very thorough classical grounding, and it shows in their playing and their outlook. In groups like Sky, obviously, you have people like Tristan Fry, John Williams and Francis Monkman, who are from the classical side of things. It now seems to be a natural and logical sequence that rock groups and jazz groups often are made up of people from all musical backgrounds. It’s very nice to see, because it widens the music tremendously, and makes new ideas come much more easily than they do if you struggle on in the same old rut.

Things like Cleo’s collaborations with John Williams and James Galway came more naturally than us all sitting down and thinking we’ve got to do something different. To some degree, it sprang from friendship. John Williams we’d met and known socially for many years; to me, John is someone I look to hear the latest good joke from as much as to hear him play the guitar. He’s just a friend, and it was a very natural thing, when we wanted to make a record with a slight difference with Cleo, that we asked John to do it. It was something that they’d each said they wanted to do whenever they had sufficient time.

And the sufficient time came up magically one year; so we said: “Let’s make an album together.” It was done in a very short space of time—the great majority of it in the old–fashioned way, without overdubbing. It actually was Cleo Laine and John Williams in the studio at the same time, recording an album much the same way as they would have done it in 1930. We did add the strings artificially afterwards, and did a little titivating with it in a couple of places, but in general it was done `live’. And I think it shows in the music that comes out.

The Galway one was much more difficult, because of Jim Galway being so very busy at that particular moment –as, indeed, Cleo was. It was very difficult to get them in the studio together; so that had to be cheated slightly on occasions—where Jim and Cleo are doing duets, but actually Cleo was there on Thursday and Jim was there on Wednesday.

But there again, they had rehearsed together, and they were very familiar with the material. So that even though, technically, it wasn’t possible always to get them together, they sounded just as if they were, and it seemed to work okay. The Galway album’s been very successful—as has the John Williams, of course—both of them achieved Gold Record status very quickly after their release.

Of the two, I think I slightly prefer the one with John—although I must admit that writing for Jim Galway was something that’s been unequalled in my experience.

You can write for flute players, for very good flute players, and for excellent flute players; but when you write for Jim Galway, it’s just another plane above that—you just can’t believe that those little black notes you write on the page could be transformed into such heavenly sounds as they are when Galway plays them. He really enjoyed playing this rather different type of music on the album, and I think he proved that in the way he played it—and grasped it very, very quickly indeed. We’re now on the eve of doing an American tour with Galway; we’re doing about fifteen concerts across from coast to coast in early June and July. The album has sold most of its copies so far in this country—because of the live plugging that both artists were able to do on it, obviously, on television and concerts. It hasn’t been directly exposed by Cleo and Jim over there, but it still has sold in quite considerable quantities. We—and RCA—are expecting a big increase in sales once this concert tour gets underway.

Certainly, Cleo’s success changed our life pattern completely. Cleo and I both take life as it comes, and what happened in the late ‘sixties was, I think, that I felt that Cleo hadn’t had a fair crack of the whip as an artist in this country—that perhaps she’d been appreciated very much by a very few people, but not enough in a wider sense. And I didn’t consciously try to do anything about it, except that when we were asked to do a tour of Australia, we did it, and our eyes were opened as to the sort of reception Cleo got at concerts there. That really led us to wonder what the reception would be like in the United States; so that, very soon after that, we organised—with great difficulty—a few concerts there. Nobody was really very interested, but we sort of bulldozed it through. As we all know now, the results were electric, the reviews were ecstatic, and it paved the way for quite a big career. Cleo is not a hyper–superstar in the U. S. A., but she has a tremendous cult following, of people who will go through hell and high water to see a Cleo Laine concert—from Boston to Seattle, if you like.

That makes it a very nice situation to be in. She hasn’t got a Hollywood–type career to hold up, where one is always frightened that she’ll fall off her high pinnacle; it’s a nice, steady stream of acclaim, that is always there, to spring higher if she wanted to, or if the opportunity came along. In the meantime, it’s something that has made me very glad to be able to assist her to do that. It’s put me on the second rung of the ladder there, of course –the billing has changed to “Cleo Laine with John Dankworth”. Most people who know of Cleo Laine think of me as the husband bloke who accompanies her, and they’re not quite sure what my name is. Although occasionally my ego is inflated; we’ll go into the deepest little backwater of the U. S. A. to do a radio interview, or something like that, and the disc jockey will say : “Oh, I remember your `Three Blind Mice’ in 1952, long before I’d ever heard of Cleo Laine”—and so you do realise that there’s some sort of background there, of people who know who I am too. But I enjoy very much what we do, the sort of work we do out there, and the life–style we lead, and I’m the last one to complain that I get second billing, because it’s something I like to think I do quite well. And if Cleo ever wanted to retire, I’d then take up my own career where it left off, and we’d still be happy.

We’ve never taken a big band over for an American tour, but when we do assemble a large orchestra for Cleo’s purposes, we do an instrumental segment of the programme with it—which I enjoy very much. We’ve had some very good players all over the country, and the studio players there, as you can imagine, tackle our charts with great expertise. It’s a bit nerve–racking when you have Bud Shank and Tom Scott sitting there in the saxophone section playing long notes while you’re soloing and so forth out front.

They all take it in good part, but it’s something of a challenge, and it certainly keeps you on your toes. The same thing applies to all of our quintet, who obviously in that set–up are the ones who get the solos, and respond accordingly.

As a jazz saxophone player, I do try to keep my hand in; perhaps the new album shows I haven’t let it completely go to the dogs. I enjoy playing, and I hope that I never have to give it up, because I really regard it as part of my life. I’m fully aware that I’m not a virtuoso player; I have too many strings to my bow for that—but I do prefer things that way. I enjoy playing with the musicians in the quintet; they range from the old hands like Kenny Clare and Bill Le Sage, who are both, in my opinion, complete masters of their own corner of jazz, to young players like Daryll Runswick and Paul Hart, who are extremely gifted in a different way. Between us, we always take our music seriously, whether we’re playing solo things or accompanying Cleo.

When some fan from the ‘fifties comes up to me at the end of a concert, and says : “Oh, I used to enjoy you in the old days. Those were the days, Johnny.” I say: “Yes, they were the days—but these are the days too.” I’m enjoying my music immensely; I think that a lot of what we do is worth–while, and I hope it’ll stand up to whatever posterity examines it with. I live for the present a great deal, as much as for the past and for the future—and I’m very happy musically, thank you.


Copyright © 1981, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.