Thoughts on some instruments
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
Having our own record label has a lot to do with my making some strictly instrumental recordings lately. It’s something that was started, in fact, because Paul Hart and I made a record and we couldn’t get it placed with any record company; so eventually I thought: “Well, let’s start our own, and see what happens.” It’s a difficult thing to get established, especially in these days of recession, but it’s fun to do, and if it stimulates you into a bit more musical activity than you would otherwise be involved in, it can’t altogether be a bad thing. And I’m hoping that if it goes well, Sepia will also be another good outlet for young, deserving musicians to put something on record, and maybe get them some wider recognition than they have previously had. Small record labels can’t always have the impact that you’d hoped they would have, but these days a small label can often have a minor success, and then hand it over to a bigger company to do the distribution that you couldn’t do yourself. So you hope that that will happen a few times as well, and that some musician will get the exposure he deserves that way.
At the moment, I’m thinking about making an album on clarinet—I’d better do a bit more practice, though, before I attempt it. The clarinet was my first love and I’ve often felt I neglected it somewhat. But I do play it with Cleo quite a lot. I think one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had paid to my clarinet playing—or perhaps it wasn’t a compliment, I don’t know—was when we did a special with Benny Goodman at his home and at Carnegie Hall. The producer of the programme said that Benny had often been to our concerts, and suggested that I played the alto rather than the clarinet on the TV special.
Apparently, it was because he felt that there shouldn’t be another clarinet player on the Benny Goodman show.
Which was very sensible—but it almost made me laugh that he should actually regard me as any kind of competition! We’ve got to know Benny pretty well over the years, because I did, in fact, play for him in 1949, when he came to the London Palladium, and ever since then he’s often come to our concerts in the States, and we’ve been to his.
I’ve got great respect for him—so that to be bracketed in the same breath with him as a clarinettist was something I didn’t think I ever deserved.
It’s true that the instrument really has fallen by the wayside a bit—that’s why I would like to do an album on it. I feel that I am one of the last perhaps of an era of players who were interested in the clarinet when it was the doubling instrument, and I have also had the benefit of a classical training on it. So maybe I could do something interesting in jazz on the clarinet. I feel I ought to have a try.
Certainly, it is a glorious instrument. Really, I suppose what happened was that the flute just took over the glamour for a while, and it became the in instrument. Because at the beginning of my career as a player. there were very few flute players about. In this country, in the jazz world there was Johnny Scott; there was a player in my own band named Roy East, who was one of the few players who actually used it a lot; Alex Leslie, the baritone player with my band, also played the flute—and there were very few others. Then gradually more players took it up, until it’s a more or less required double now. I used to play it myself with the big band, but when we started doing things with the quintet I realised what a terrible flute player I was; so I put it aside gracefully, before anybody actually heard it! I concentrated on the clarinet, and I enjoy it.
I think a lot of it is luck, as to what someone plays.
You get a player like Toots Thielemans, who is a very good jazz guitarist, but an incredibly good jazz mouth–organ player. Which prompts the thought that if Charlie Parker had played the mouth–organ, either he would have put it completely on the map and everybody would be playing the mouth–organ now, or else we’d have thought of him as a Toots Thielemans. And maybe Toots Thielemans is a Charlie Parker, but he’s on the wrong instrument. You can take it two ways—it’s interesting, that.
Once again, when I was first in jazz the guitar was a great rarity—there were very few jazz guitarists around.
This was before the electric guitar really started taking hold. When you look in a musical instrument shop now, it’s hard to see anything else but guitars. Nobody would believe that at Selmer’s in Charing Cross Road in the ‘forties or the ‘fifties you’d be hard to put to it to find a guitar there. At one time, Count Basie was about the only person who kept the acoustic one alive, while Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian did it for the electric guitar.
And as for the resurgence of the violin–in our quintet, Paul Hart is very brilliant on it. I take a little bit of reflected glory there, because when Paul started with our group as mainly a keyboard player, he played the violin very enthusiastically but with certain shortcomings. It was only really playing every night with the group and on Cleo’s concerts that got him into being a performer on the instrument. He’s improved so much since then—to the point that I think he’s definitely one of the best jazz violinists in the world. We’ve already got quite a few violin tracks of him, on various albums that we’ve done on Sepia, but it would be nice to give him a whole album now, to feature the instrument.
Regarding the future—Cleo likes touring; she enjoys different audiences, and she would be inclined to go on doing it until she drops, as the expression goes. To an extent, I am the same. We’ve still got a few years mileage left in us, from the touring point of view, before we settle down. That’s why the question of where we live is premature; as we’re on the move so much, it doesn’t particularly matter which country we live in—Britain or the States. But I suppose, in a few years’ time, we might find ourselves, if we’re lucky enough to be fit through all that time, with the choice of taking life a bit easier. And I suppose we will, sooner or later. In the meantime, we’re enjoying the way it is, touring and seeing different faces all over the world. We’ve still got new places to go to—we’d love to go to South America; we’ve had the occasional invitation to go there, but haven’t taken it up yet. We’d love to go back to Japan; I’d love to go to China. We have a very strong possibility of doing a TV special in India in the future. So, with all those possibilities, we’ve still got a quite a lot to look forward to on our touring schedule, which we hope will all come up.
It’s lovely to be playing with the musicians that we’re fortunate enough to have with us on the road—Kenny Clare, Daryll Runswick, Paul Hart and Bill Le Sage. We enjoy ourselves immensely, musically; we’re always out to find new frontiers from the musical point of view, at the same time as realising that audiences are there to be pleased, and not experimented on. Making the compromises that we do, we still manage to find our enjoyment and keep them enjoying what we do as well.
We just hope we can carry on doing it like that.
Both Cleo and I have had a marvellously successful time in music; we’ve got a lot to be grateful for. We have a nice place to live, and no worries about future security—as things are at the moment, anyway. We like to feel that we thank our audiences by giving our very best with the music we do. And we also try to extend our thanks a bit by running things at Wavendon, with courses for young people, in order to help the generation of the future. We hope to continue with that for a long, long while.
Copyright © 1981, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.