Jazz Professional               


Good music and popularity
can go together


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

It’s nice to feel that my writing has an identifiable quality—I think it’s important that people’s work should sound like them, and not like second–hand anything else.

That’s something I’ve always tried to achieve in the past.

I suppose there’s a little bit of other people that rubs off on everybody, and there’s nothing completely original under the sun, but I do have a sort of philosophy of treating my music arranging as well as composing—and I suppose it must show through somewhere or other. I must say, it’s good to see, occasionally, really talented young people like Paul Hart learning little lessons from that, and applying it to their own artistry.

Just about everything I write is for a utilitarian reason. In the nearly forty years I’ve been writing now, I think I’ve written about three pieces that were entirely for kicks; the rest of them were to some sort of deadline or commission. That’s true of most composers; when you investigate it, you find that people like Beethoven and Mozart wrote very nearly all of their music for a commission of some sort. That’s true of most music–writers today, and I don’t think it’s anything to hide. A commission can be a great challenge; sometimes you’re asked to do something which you probably wouldn’t choose to do, but then you have to find a way round it.

At the moment I’m involved in doing an oratorio, no less, for the City of Birmingham Choir and Symphony Orchestra, to celebrate their Diamond Jubilee. Now, that’s got to be performed at the end of November. I’ve written for choirs and choral groups in many forms before, but not in this form ever before—so it’s a new adventure for me, and something which is a challenge. How did it come about? Goodness knows. They decided they wanted to commission a work, and that they would approach a composer who might adapt a different sort of attitude to it. So they’ve chosen me, which is very flattering—I hope I can live up to their confidence in me. All my life I’ve taken on things that are different, and perhaps I’ve built a reputation for doing this—that’s why people come and ask me to do things of that sort. I just did a set of variations on “Amazing Grace” for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to perform at the Milton Keynes Festival; since then, that’s been played a few times by other symphony orchestras. I can make a reasonably good job of these outlandish commissions—perhaps nothing world–shattering, but something that works quite well. I think a composer’s job is to make things work. If you can do that and be a genius at the same time, then that’s an extra plus; if you can’t be a genius as well, what a symphony orchestra, or a choir, or a group of musicians want of you when they ask you to write for them is something that will work—that will give them a link with the audience they’re playing to, and will demonstrate their skills. If all music can’t be great music, it should work in its own particular way.

The recent stage musical for Cleo, Colette , was something I enjoyed doing immensely. Unfortunately, it wasn’t well–received by the critics, even though we felt that it had done what we set out to do. There are varying theories about as to why the critics didn’t like it. Naturally, we were disappointed that their reception prevented it from running more than a couple of months—we were hoping for six months for it. We were also hoping that it would go to the States eventually.

There’s still a possibility of its crossing the Atlantic, but obviously its lack of conspicuous success in London didn’t help its chances of doing that. But we did make an album of it, and the music there stands to be judged on its merits for posterity: we’ll soon see, in a few years, whether it was really good or bad as the critics said it was.

The one saving grace, and one thing we were all pleased about, was that the audiences who did come didn’t share the critics’ views on it.

We gave the audiences questionnaires, to say what they liked or didn’t like about it; on a rating of one to ten, they gave it eight–and–a–half marks—whereas the critics must have given it about one out of ten, I suppose. So it seemed to show quite a discrepancy between the opinions of the audiences and the critics. There again, we’re not saying that it was a great musical, but that it was considerably better than the reputation it got as a result of the people who came to see it from the Press.

No, the experience certainly hasn’t dampened any of my enthusiasm for this medium. I think a suitable amount of time should elapse before one has another go at a thing like that—so that you can think back, learn by whatever mistakes you did make, and perhaps adopt a slightly different approach. So I’m not really bursting to do one at this very moment, but I’m sure we will tackle it again, because I think Cleo will persuade me to. She really enjoyed doing it, and she was very sad when it had to come off as she’d had immense confidence in it. It made us both reflect that we pit our own standards of taste against other people who might criticise it—and I don’t think that Cleo and I have got a record of such bad taste as all that, that we would let something awful go in front of the public. In fact, we thought that the show, if not a world–beater, was quite a respectably good one. We hope that we’ll try again in the future and maybe have more success.

Cleo is a law unto herself nowadays. She is very keen on acting, and she’s always been interested in the musical theatre as such. She is constantly being offered theatrical parts, both on Broadway and here—which means she’s always stretching herself to some extent, without any sort of pushing from me. Maybe in the first instance I was responsible for her looking beyond the boundaries of her own immediate talents, but that really doesn’t apply over the last decade or so, because she, by her own instigation, has looked further afield for special things to do. And she has gained that kind of reputation so that opportunities come her way that she otherwise wouldn’t get. She isn’t pigeon–holed into one area any more.

As to the music scene in general, I think it’s a pretty healthy one. There are obviously aspects of music, particularly popular music, which do grate on the ears of a musician—especially a musician with ears attuned first to the music of the ‘forties and the ‘fifties, and before that.

In general, though, I think that, on the other side of the coin, the musicianship and the resources shown by young musicians in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties have really indicated that there’s a lot of reserves there to be tapped, and a lot of greatness to come out. Some, in fact, has come out, in all sorts of music of today—not only in the jazz field. At one time, one used to think that music was going downhill, and would crash at the bottom with catastrophic results. But I don’t feel that way any more. There is still the feeling that you have to look for really good music—but that’s always been there. Good music doesn’t grow on trees; you have to really be a music student to find the juiciest, the nicest, the most worthwhile corners of it. As far as I’m concerned, with the younger generation of musicians, both in the jazz world and other worlds of music, the future is pretty good. Older musicians can be sure that the cause of music is in good hands.

I’m certainly not worried about the avant garde thing—you have to realise what a small corner of music it really is. It’s probably easier to be a charlatan in avant garde than it is in other forms, but there is a small number of musicians who genuinely devote themselves to it, and I think there should be a corner that they can exist in, and do their own thing to their own audiences.

The punk thing, or the very basic pop music that really has very little artistic merit—I don’t regard that as part of music at all. It’s sociology to me; it’s very interesting to see young people’s reactions to those things. To me, the audiences for it consist very largely of people who aren’t interested in music at all, but only go along with the crowd and do what socially they think is the right thing to do. That doesn’t always detract from the musicians who, in a way, are the victims of that. You can be good and popular; I hate the sort of people who immediately start rejecting somebody or something just because it is popular, because there are good things that are popular. Some people tend to fall into that trap. For instance, in the classical world directly James Galway had recorded “Annie’s Song” people started denigrating him for having sold his soul to the devil. I don’t like to see that sort of attitude to someone who’s obviously got very high musical standards.

In the world of pop, the sort of multimillion adulation that goes with it sometimes is merited and sometimes isn’t. I don’t think it’s ever merited to that extent. One of my great theories about the world in general is that everybody’s either over–rated or under–rated. Nobody’s every really recognised for their true value. If you find a good but obscure player, you bemoan the fact that not as many people know about him as should do; then sometimes everybody can find out about him, and all of a sudden he becomes a demi–god.

Perhaps this happens to people like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, even though neither of them are with us to appreciate it. At one point, one would have wished that more people knew about Charlie Parker, and now there are millions of people who know his name, but have no idea of his actual musical value. So to that extent he became a social phenomenon as well as a musical one.

Even though it’s great for people to know about Charlie Parker, just think of all his contemporaries who also played great music that they still don’t know anything about. It underlines my theory: the see–saw goes one way or another; either people are unknown and broke, or else they’re are over–known and millionaires—and it always goes too far one way or the other. But that’s life, I suppose.

Copyright © 1981, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.