explains the operation
adds her opinions
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 1971
How did the Wavendon Allmusic Plan come about, and what connection has it with your other varied activities?
John: Well the whole thing started, I suppose, when Cleo and I were beginning to be asked to do things outside the direct sphere of jazz. We started to make appearances with symphony orchestras, and I was writing symphonic–type works. We gradually became known for the fact that we covered quite a broad musical span, and we managed to widen our image. Then we felt that we would like to practise what we preached in more than just a performing way; we’d like to do something which would help to break down the barriers between various sorts of music.
We didn’t quite know how we would do this, until we worked at a little theatre in Whitehaven which is run by Sir Nicholas Seckers, the silks and fabrics manufacturer.
He’s built this theatre in his back garden, up in Cumberland, and it really is a joy to work there. It’s small, the atmosphere is friendly and intimate. Cleo and I worked there several times and always vowed that if we could ever do something like that ourselves, we would.
About three years ago, the chance came, when we saw a house for sale near where we lived in Buckinghamshire, a hundred–years–old rectory. It also had a stable block, which had been made into a small factory, and therefore had quite a lot of uninterrupted floor space. As soon as we saw it, we felt it would be ideal for a little concert room, a place to promote and present music.
When we decided to do this, we agreed right from the start that it would be a place where all music would be presented. We wouldn’t be tied to one label, as we were at one time in our profession. If we were going to present music, it should be the best music of all sorts.
So we set about decorating and painting it, making it suitable for performances. And one night in November 1969, when it was ready, we invited a lot of friends there and gave them a concert, with the help of classical guitarist John Williams, composer Richard Rodney Bennett, actor John Neville and concert pianist Rhonda Gillespie. Having proved that all sorts of music would mix together in one short concert, we then asked people to help us.
We formed a sort of committee of people around who were enthusiastic about the idea, and launched what we called the Wavendon Allmusic Plan. The idea of this name was to emphasise the fact that there was no snobbery about it in any one direction.
We’ve kept strictly to our intention. So far we’ve presented every conceivable sort of music we could lay our hands on. By the first week of June, we’ll have had about 150 concerts there in the space of two years—pretty good going for such a tiny place. We’ve had folk, pop, avant garde jazz, avant garde serious music early English music, string quartets, violin soloists—oh, one could go on and on.
And always several different things on any given evening?
John: Not always. We do that as much as we possibly can, but it’s impossible to do it every time, because of the financial element. If you’re booking someone to do an evening, it’s a hard enough thing for a 200seater to pay one artist, let alone two artists to share the time. So we have in fact, had to compromise a bit on that. But nevertheless, the place has become known, quite genuinely, as somewhere you go to without any preconception of what sort of music you’re going to find.
The result has been that we’ve broken down prejudices in our audiences, which is as difficult to accomplish s it is in some musicians. Now our audiences trust us to know that whatever we present is going to be good of its kind; so they’ll come for anything.
Which way have their prejudices gone? John: Some against jazz, some against classical music.
Some of them wouldn’t have turned up for a string quartet concert two years ago, but do now, because they know that in the right atmosphere and with the right explanation, sometimes, to the music, they can enjoy it. The same thing applies to jazz, to folk or any of the other kinds of music we’ve presented there.
This is a strong belief you hold, is it—that people’s outlooks on music should be widened as much as possible?
John: I think so. It’s similar to my social beliefs, that racialism or segregation of people is a bad thing; I also apply this to music.
Just how far in that direction can you conceive of going with this Wavendon project? John: Well, the only limitations at the moment are those imposed by the size of the place. If we had a bigger place, and we hope to eventually, we could obviously present more ambitious concerts, bigger orchestras and so forth, than we do now. Also, it’s a membership thing, and the more members we have, the more revenue we can get in to keep it going.
But I haven’t touched on one very important, perhaps the most important aspect of the place so far—that we’re more keen on, really, than even the concerts. And that is the educational side of it. We’ve just finished our second Easter Course, in which we handled students from several different areas of music. We had Royal Academy and Royal Schools of Music students, people from the National Youth Jazz Orchestra or from the NYJO course, students from the Leeds Music Centre, plus generally musically talented young people who hadn’t been able to find a niche in any of these areas—sort of musical in–betweens.
During an eight–day course, we tried to give everybody a feeling that they belonged in all sorts of music. Our object was to fill in the gaps in their knowledge—about the sort of music that they wouldn’t hear of at the academies, for instance.
One of the teachers was Alan Hacker, who is a clarinet professor at the Royal Academy of Music. Mike Gibbs and Ken Moule came down. Ken Gibson, who does such a lot for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, was on the course this year. Plus Peter Stephens and David Stevenson, who are involved in education in North Bucks—they came in and helped. So we had a staff of about six, and thirty students all staying there for the whole week. In general, we had a successful week.
Also, in the Summer we have a thing called a Children’s Music Camp. That’s for younger children—between the ages of eight and twelve. And we try to do exactly the same here—to give them a musical week, with avoidance of any sort of prejudice concerning the sort of music they learn.
The difference is that, of course, they’re not of such an advanced standard, technically. In fact, for that course we don’t ask for any musical ability at all, only for a keenness for and an interest in music. They have six days to absorb all the music that we can possibly get in.
Some of those who come to this Music Camp are quite accomplished young clarinettists, trumpeters, guitarists, etc., bringing their instruments. Some can’t play at all; so we get them to bang percussion instruments or join in the singing part. something of that sort, in order to get them interested.
That does a great deal for kids. My own kids joined in last Summer and will be going this year. My son, who is now eleven, met a girl a couple of years older than him, who played the clarinet very well, and that inspired him to want to learn the instrument. So he now plays quite reasonably well, and he’s looking forward to this year, when he’s going to show the girl how good he is on the clarinet.
And this happens with a lot of the kids.
So you see to it that they get into things that they wouldn’t do otherwise?
John: That’s right. The trouble with a lot of kids is that they’ve got musical talent, but they can’t be bothered, or their parents can’t be bothered to push them into it further.
Or else they don’t find anything in music, as they’re taught it, that captures their imagination.
I was taught the violin and piano as a kid, but it just didn’t really catch on until I happened to get interested in jazz.
Then I was away, and it was nothing to do with my parents, really. It was just when the moment came that I was so interested in music that I couldn’t keep away from it, that I got the incentive.
Well, I think if you can attempt to provide that incentive with children at a younger age, or if at a more advanced age you can enable the penny to drop for people who haven’t been able to fit into any musical plan, then there’s a good chance that some really big talent, that hasn’t been used so far, can be unearthed.
Possibly somebody might discover that they had an ability to improvise, but had been unaware of it.
John: Exactly. We had an improvisation evening at the Easter Course, and we found some string players who had to almost literally be dragged on to attempt to improvise.
Then, when they came on, they found they could do it—in a very elementary way, of course, at first—and, once they’d lost their nervousness about it, they enjoyed it very much. That’s an essential part of any musician’s knowledge, I think—to be able to improvise.
So, when we extend the theatre, we want at the same time to extend the educational facilities, in order to have more practice rooms, lecture rooms and so forth.
And it’s my ambition that one day we can have a fulltime educational centre there—something in the nature of the Berklee school in the States, where you can have a traditional music course running concurrently with a jazz course. Which produced a Mike Gibbs, for instance. We hope we can produce some Mike Gibbses in England, with a thing like that.
At the moment, we’re doing all we can with the space we have. We turned over the whole house to the course at Easter. We had about seven different groups practising upstairs, and in front of the television downstairs, and in the music room. It was a fine week for weather; so some of them were practising outside in the open air.
Oh, and John Williams came down—he was another instructor. It was just as well, because we had eight guitarists there.
How about the vocal side, Cleo? Do you take part in the courses and coach anybody in singing?
Cleo: Yes, I coached a couple of singers through Richard Rodney Bennett’s “Soliloquy” a little. They were good readers, and they just wanted some tips on how to overcome a couple of difficulties—in breathing, mainly, and opening their mouths. And they did it in concert, at the end of the course. I wasn’t able to see it or hear it, but a lot of people said it was quite delightful. So something came out of the few tips I gave them.
As one of the Artistic Directors, how do you feel about the overall Wavendon project?
Cleo: Well, I was in on the ground floor with John, of course. It was our baby, and it’s as much a part of me as it is John, I suppose. although John delves into it much more than I do, I have also contributed.
Has it given you a certain amount of scope as a performer?
Cleo: Not so much. When we first started, we thought how nice it would be to be able to do concerts, to rehearse there and experiment there. But we haven’t really done much experimenting there, ourselves.
John: Yes, but it’s a thing we could do, quite easily.
Whenever we go there, we know that whatever we do, Cleo and I, we’ve got an automatic audience there to fill the place for us. They’re very loyal to us. But in fact, we didn’t think it was good policy, in any case, to hog too much of it ourselves. We didn’t want it to become too closely associated with us; we wanted other artists to come and solidify it.
There are four directors of the WAP, aren’t there?
John: Yes; John Williams and Richard Rodney Bennett are the other two. They play a big part in things. Richard hasn’t been able to do much this year, because he’s been in America at a university for five months. But while he’s here, he’s always helpful with suggestions.
We have a Festival just coming up—the second Wavendon Season—and before every Festival the Artistic Directors get together, have a talk and see what can be organised, from their own ideas.
We’re having twentynine concerts within ten days—that’s our big annual effort. It’s very gratifying, really, to see that we can employ so many people in the music world and also get such support. There’ll be six thousand coming to our house in ten days—which is quite a guest list.
Financially speaking, is this a non–profit–making concert?
John: Yes. Well, we realised right from the beginning that to run a theatre of your own on commercial lines is something that only a millionaire could really entertain, and probably he wouldn’t even chance it. And unless we could get some very definite backing, from industry’ or from the Arts Council or something like that, we wouldn’t be able to make it alone. So we decided to set up some trustees, and make it into a non–profit–making organisation from the start; if there was any money to be made, it would be ploughed back.
The Musicians’ Union has been very kind to us and given us quite a lot of money. The Gulbenkian Foundation has shown interest; so we might get some money from them.
And we’re hoping that the Arts Council will come up with something sooner or later.
So far, though, apart from the Musicians’ Union and we had a grant last year from the Milton Keynes Development Corporation; that’s the new city near us we’ve been self–supporting. Considering the amount of stuff we put on, we’re pretty happy that we haven’t shown a bigger loss than we have. In fact, we have got money in the bank now; so we’re quite pleased with ourselves. But the Festival, even if we sell every seat, will show a loss of £4,000.
We’re hoping some kind sugar–daddy will come along and help us out of that one.
By the time our next issue comes out, you’ll be underway with this particular Festival. What will be the musical highlights?
John: I can only tell you some of the artists that we’ve got on. John Williams is doing the opening concert, with Dorita y Pepe—that’s a good Allmusic mixture, if you like, to share a bill. Then we’ve got concerts by a very fine folk group, Magna Carta; Fou Ts’ong, the concert pianist; the St. Martin’s–in–the–Fields Choral Society.
Dame Sybil Thorndike is doing some poetry–and–music readings; the Scaffold are doing an evening. We’ve got Mike Westbrook’s band and Norma Winstone; the John Taylor Sextet; the Tony Oxley Trio; the Kenny Wheeler Quintet, and Ken Moule’s “Adam’s Rib”, which is written for a straight string quartet and a jazz quintet. That gives you an idea of the sort of bill we’ve got.
It’s running from May 28th until June 6th, isn’t it?
John: Yes. Oh, we’ve also got an intimate opera group on; some marionettes for the kids; the early English music with David Munro, who composed all the music for Henry The Eighth on television; a saxophone quartet playing straight music; some Indian music; and we’ve also got some pop. So that’s a fairly comprehensive list, we think.
And your group will be in it?
John: No, I’m not doing anything this year—I’m just watching. Oh, I’m conducting a kids’ symphony orchestra, that’s all.
In general, how do you visualise your Plan developing? John: I would like to see it established as a good musical centre, within striking distance of London, but far enough away to make another gig for all the musicians concerned; a successful place where people will come, knowing they’re going to hear good music. There aren’t enough places like that—certainly for jazz—in this country.
Cleo: I think it should be a sort of a general artistic centre.
When we get the bigger place built, if we can get the staff, I believe the restaurant should be available for people to come in during the daytime, have a meal and a coffee, and be able to sit and talk about things that have happened in the evening.
We’re hoping that the arts side of it will develop, the exhibiting of pictures and sculpture. So that it will be a surrounding for people to relax and chat in. Very much, I should imagine, like the Roundhouse is in London now; where people can go into the concert or not, however they feel, but know that they won’t be turfed out, and can walk around if they want to.
The important thing is to know that it’s your music centre, for young and old—and not feel unwanted if you’re old, and not feel unwanted if you’re young.
Do you think this could possibly lead to others of the same kind, around the country?
John: Well, I hope it could happen like that—yes. That would be a natural development of it.
And the keynote should be the breaking down of barriers.
John: Yes, as much on the educational side as on the performing side. We’re terribly interested in not only making it a centre for people to listen, but for people to learn as well.
Copyright © 1971, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.