Picking the right music
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 1990
As always, you provided a big band treat with your two–week engagement at Ronnie’s. It must have been a problem deciding what music to put in.
Yes, it really is difficult, because you can only rehearse a certain amount of music for a short season like this. So the problem is: what to take out of the old library, and what to have done new. You don’t want to bc seen to be just harking back—I certainly wouldn’t anyway; I’ve never done that in my career so far. I don’t want to play just the old charts; so I’ve written several new ones myself, and people like Paul Hart, Ed Harvey and Django Bates have contributed some scores.
You also had a Big Band Reunion Night during your series of Barbican concerts last year. How did that compare to this?
Well, of course, it’s much easier to get people together for one night than it is for two weeks—that’s the fact of the matter. If you’re having a band for two weeks, there are all sorts of people who could have done every night except the Tuesday and Saturday of the first week, and the Wednesday and Thursday of the second week, or whatever. I would have loved to have had people like Kenny Wheeler, Pete King, and lots of the other great players who were with the bands over the years. But it became a very complicated exercise, trying to work it that way. so that you could have certain players on one night and not on another—and what you’d get wouldn’t he a very good musical result. So I decided to go for the most available people—all of whom have played with me at some time.
We had, certainly, nine very senior other members of the Seven who were with us—Don Rendell, Ed Harvey and Tony Kinsey. And Leon Calvert, who dates back to the Club Eleven, long before the Seven, as well as having done a long spell with my big band. Also Bill Geldard, who was practically one of the original trombone section in the early Fifties. On the second week, sharing the job with Tony was Allan Ganley, who was, of course, the original drummer with the big band in l953. Let me see—who else? Ronnie Ross played on lots of my records in the Fifties and Sixties, and with later bands. So it was a good smattering of people.
On top of that, I had a bonus of some nice young players as well. I’ve always felt it necessary for any band to have an injection of youth in it, as well as experience.
We had, as you know, some of–the most brilliant young players—Jamie Talbot on saxophone, Mark Nightingale on trombone; Guy Barker and Noel Langley—both very good trumpet players. Then Dave O’Higgins, who’s certainly one of my favourites of the younger tenor saxophone players in this country—I’m tempted to say the favourite, but one must never say that—he traded it with Jimmy Hastings, who couldn’t do the second week.
Yes—a nice cross–section.
Well, you’ve always tended to look out for up–and–coming talent in your bands over the years, haven’t you?
Yes—it’s important for jazz that the young players do emerge. It’s also important for me. That’s one thing I seem to have in common with Miles Davis, in that he also always sees fit to encourage young players, and has always done so in the past—and some very great young British players as well. So, if he can do it, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do it here.
What is the extent of your big band activity these days?
You were seeing it! Just two weeks at Ronnie’s, whenever it could be done. And this was the first time I’d even tried this for—I can’t be sure of the date. It must be all of ten years—maybe more.
What I do now a lot, in the States particularly, is to work with symphony orchestras that often have very good brass sections, and sometimes augment them with very good saxophone sections, in whatever area we happen to be in—and work out my arranging ambitions in that direction. Over the last couple of years, I’ve played in that sort of formula with people like Eddie Daniels, George Shearing, Gerry Mulligan. I’ve just made an album with Dizzy Gillespie, which they tell me is in the jazz charts at the moment in the States—with Dizzy and a symphony orchestra. And that’s about as near as I get to a big band in my everyday work these days.
Then, of course, there’s another angle—working with Cleo on those tours. Once again, with symphony orchestras sometimes—quite often with our own American quintet, part of which was heard in England a couple of years ago at the Capitol Jazz Festival. We tried to amalgamate the British and American groups; so I got three players over. They are basically a West Coast band; most of them come from San Francisco, but one comes from Los Angeles. They go around the States with us, and we work concerts by ourselves as well as with symphony orchestras.
You certainly continue your efforts to propagate jazz in the context of other good music, such as the Daily Mail concerts. This is all extending the frontiers of music.
That’s right. It’s always a challenge to try to get as much jazz as possible into that format—the London Symphony Pops season, which happens every August. I keep trying to involve jazz people and jazz styles, but that in itself is difficult, because during that time of the year there’s such a lot going on in London that the London Symphony Orchestra want it to be seen to be a very broad aspect of their styles. But I hope to keep up the tradition of having some good jazz players on that season.
I’d say you’ve played a very important part in the general broadening of interest in jazz. With the Wavendon operation, and all your musical activities, you’ve helped to bring this music to a wider audience—and this is something that really needs doing.
Yes—if I’ve been able to achieve that. then I’m very happy Some people may think that on occasions it becomes a sort of watered–down policy, rather than a definite policy to promote jazz as much as possible, but I think that what you just said is true—that a lot of people have been attracted to jazz at Wavendon through coming for other reasons. For instance, at a Christmas Gala Concert, where we mix all sorts of music, from classical to jazz, we’ll play a couple of jazz numbers in the context of the whole thing—which will include a pantomime, if you please—and people will hear a little bit of jazz the easy way, being a captive audience there, and then they’ll come along to a jazz night after that.
We’re very proud of our jazz nights at Wavendon, because even though we only run one night a week—unlike the Bull at Barnes, which must hold the record of all tine—we keep up a very good standard on that Friday night. We don’t just have bands that we know are going to fill the auditorium; we book a lot of young groups, people that aren’t very well–known yet, and we also book American visitors when they come our way. So it’s a very good representation of jazz as it is today for a listener to go to every Friday.
We don’t neglect the slightly less commercial things which we think need encouragement. A couple of weeks ago I happened to have a Friday off, and I dropped into the Stables, and Iain Ballamy was playing there with his quartet, with Django Bates on piano—that sort of very up–to–the–minute group of young players who are really very, very talented are the sort of people we try to encourage there.
Well, what they do is still very musical.
Absolutely. I think that’s one thing I’m really gratified to see amongst young musicians now. To be a young player ten or twenty years ago meant playing a hundred and sixty–five choruses with five thousand notes in each chorus—all very loud, and all quite a strain on the listener—but these days the young players have got a much more healthy attitude to dynamics, to light and shade in their music, and to unusual musical content. I don’t like to be nationalistic about this, but I think there is something of a style which could be identified as a British style of jazz emerging from all these very talented young players. If they bear that in mind—I don’t mean self–consciously, to say: “Were going to be British if it kills us”—but if they only realise that what they have not got to be is better than Charlie Parker or John Coltrane in the same style—they’ve got to be themselves first of all, and not be tempted to just be perfect imitations of the great American jazz players... then they will find it. It’s easier said than done, but if everybody searches for it, at least some do get it; then maybe the others will follow those people who do find a different voice—so we would have a British school of playing then.
Something I’ve discussed in interviews and written about many times is my belief that jazz, although some of it can’t help being esoteric, can be made acceptable to a much wider public than it’s had. do you agree?
Yes, I think it can. It’s an age–old word, and one that some jazz musicians frown at, but it’s really marketing the music in a way that you can sneak up very outlandish ideas on people if you prepare them for it with something which they do understand. As a bandleader, I’ve always had the music in my band library to please almost any crowd in the world. The trick is to be able to pick the right pieces of music in the right order to win them over. If you know that secret, of how to win their confidence and bring them on your side, you can play them really involved music, which they will accept and enjoy. So my bit of advice to young musicians who want to get their message over to more people is to take heed of that. If there are many contrasting aspects to their jazz, they’re much more liable to widen their scope.
Which leads me to talk of the imminent event, the opening of London Jazz Radio, in which you have some involvement.
Well, yes, I’m actually one of the people who supported the idea when the wavelengths were up for disposal. But, of course, ninety per cent of the credit must go to Dave Lee—he was the one who really believed in London Jazz Radio. It’s just one of those occasions when someone’s belief was so strong that it actually made the vibrations, made the waves that got through. You wouldn’t have found one person in a million who would have given London Jazz Radio a chance in a million of getting the concession, would you, six months ago? I wouldn’t have thought so —it just didn’t seem to me that it would be feasible. It’s a jazzman’s dream, isn’t it, to have a twenty–four–hour jazz station? And yet it happened, and it was his burning ambition that did it—but he did have the support of people who really backed him as much as they could, like myself, and I’m delighted and proud to have been part of it.
I think that getting the wavelength was one problem—actually doing the right thing with it is another one.
There’ll be all sorts of pressures, in a commercial world, to influence what sort of jazz goes on the air. And if I didn’t know that Dave Lee was such a very strong–willed person, and a person who has a real vision of what that station should be doing, I would be very worried at this stage.
On the other hand, I spend a lot of time, when I’m in the States, in San Francisco, where we have a home—and there they have a twenty four hour jazz radio station.
One of the few—there aren’t many in the States, you know, surprisingly, but San Francisco’s had one which has been going for, I think, thirty–one years now. Which shows it’s there to stay, really. I don’t know its story right from the word go, whether it’s had struggles at times or what, but it has been able to survive, making no real concessions to commerciality, playing its own type of music.
Sometimes in the evening they will play what they call “dinner jazz”, which is basically piano trio music—not anything too hard bop or hard rock—a little bit more innocuous, but it’s still very good jazz. On Sunday they’ll have a salsa morning, or at lunchtime they’ll have a big band hour; or whatever. On Duke Ellington’s birthday, they’ll play Ellington music all day; on lesser mortals’ birthdays, they’ll play a few pieces of theirs during the day. But in general, it’s all good jazz. In the case of San Francisco, most of it is actually post–war jazz; there’s not much Dixieland, New Orleans, old Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong’s early bands, or anything like that.
They play mainly anything from the Fifties onwards, and that seems to be more successful.
Well, a good case for that could be said to be the quality of recording. Those old boxy recordings, even though some of them have been given enhanced sound, can’t be the same as good hi–fi, which really started in the Fifties.
You’re absolutely right—I hadn’t really thought of that.
There was good recording from the late Fifties onwards, but it wasn’t stereo, was it? I mean, one of their aims is to provide good sound quality—so that’s a very good reason why they do that. And possibly that will be the same with LJR, but I have no idea of the actual policy there. But like any radio station, I think the policy will be shown to be right or wrong, or partially right or partially wrong, in the first, say, six months. Then they’ll know exactly who their audience is, and what they’ve got to do.
Would you say that a lot of listeners tend to confine themselves too much to specialised areas?
John: Yes, I think so. There’s a great deal of ignorance about the sort of music that people don’t specialise in.
Jazz fans in general know very little about other music; folk fans are the same. The trouble is, they’ve got a fear of treading outside that area. Either they feel they won’t understand it, or else they don’t want to understand it.
After all, music is a hobby for most people; they aren’t professional musicians. And with a hobby, whether it’s woodwork or fly–fishing or music, you like to feel you’re an expert. Music is far too big a subject to know all about it all, but people find that if they can select one little area which they like, they can become knowledgeable about that. Which they would rather do than broaden out and not know very much.
We find this now—having to arrange concert programmes of all sorts of music—that our knowledge sometimes runs out. For instance, I can’t profess I know who’s the best Indian musician to get currently in this country at a price we can afford. So we have to take a certain chance with other people’s advice on that. The same happens, to some extent, with pop groups, because once again we can’t always afford the most well–known ones, due to the small capacity of our Wavendon premises. We then need some guidance as to who are the best of the up–and–comers.
It’s the same with listeners. They don’t know enough about certain spheres of music to know whether something is good or not. And so they have to trust in other people’s judgement.
Certainly, though, both of you have been practical examples of not sticking in one particular area You, Cleo have done quite a wide range of things. Has it been a deliberate effort on your part, to broaden your general scope?
Cleo: Well, it didn’t start off deliberately. I was offered a part in an opera in Edinburgh, and that was sort of the catalyst to my whole career. I enjoyed it very much and I’m the sort of person, I suppose, who likes to listen to all kinds of music. I have an ear that picks up music quite easily; so I’m able to go into other musical areas––vocal and otherwise–without too much disturbance of my brainbox! I suppose I’ve just glided into all the things that I’ve done quite happily.
And I like it. I don’t think I would be satisfied just singing jazz all the time. I like acting, and musicals, and the more classical avant garde music that I have to sing. It makes my life much more interesting; so I’ll continually involve myself in this way. If people did take this one step, they would have a much broader and more fulfilled life.
But, of course, you do have to stick to one thing, in many respects. Like, if somebody came up to me and said: “Talk about music”, I would probably know more about jazz, to discuss it, than any other kind of music.
That’s my speciality—and I think people, on the whole, do specialise.
However, in any given performance, you are able to show that you are also at home in other fields.
Cleo: Yes, I suppose so. I mean, I’m not on the outside looking in; I can’t really tell. Whether what I do comes off or not—I never really know until later.
Would you say that the range of your voice has extended? You sounded fine years ago with the Dankworth Seven and John’s early bands, but you do seem to have developed since those days.
Has the acting helped? Cleo: It has got bigger, yet. But I think it’s my singing that has helped the acting. If you’re going to do all these different things, you have to have a certain amount of range; I couldn’t have done them unless I had improved. I went to a singing teacher and got a little more range, more control of my breath.
Also, John used to push me up every time he wrote a new arrangement for me with the Seven. I didn’t know it, but he was gradually raising the key a bit more. At the time, I didn’t like it so much; I much preferred to sing down in my boots. But he didn’t push me up to where I am now—I did that by myself.
Nevertheless, it can’t have been anything but an asset to have been able to work with John all along the line, fusing your talents.
Cleo: Oh, yes. I’ve got to say that—I’m married to him, and he’d thump me, otherwise! No—I think it’s been a very successful and, I suppose, a remarkable partnership, in that we’re two diverse personalities. Together, on paper we just don’t work—but somehow we do, in practice.
John: If we’re working out a routine, we have a lot of rows about exactly how things should go, and it’s a hard fight to get anything that suits us both. But sometimes that’s a good thing, to produce something that you argue a lot over, because when it does come out, you’re sure you both really mean what you’re doing.
How about this present band of yours—the Tenfold? Is it possibly a kind of a bridge between the big band and the old Seven? John: Well, yes, I think so. It really arose because in the past every time Cleo came to Ronnie Scott’s Club she had voice trouble. I put a lot of that down to the fact that she was so close to a big band in a small room that she was overstraining. She said she would never come into Ronnie’s again with a big band—and that’s what dictated the principle.
So I decided we’d have six frontline instead of the full band, making it a smaller band, but still slightly bigger than the Seven. And quite frankly, I’m enjoying it more than I’ve ever done, because it means that there’s more responsibility on me as a soloist and as a blower in the frontline. And it’s more intimate; you get to know everybody that much better.
It’s that much less of a strain to write for, too; you feel you can increase your output. If you’re writing for six front–line, it’s quicker than writing for thirteen front–line.
From the writing point of view, in fact, it’s been a good opportunity for me to let my hair down. Most of the numbers we’re playing are my own. Which is unusual for me; I’m usually so hard put to it working on commissions—films and things–that I have to leave all the writing for the band to others. That’s fine, but it doesn’t get me writing in a jazz sense. But this band has, and I’ve enjoyed it so far.
With the same band, we’re doing the Aldeburgh, St.
Albans and Nottingham Festivals. So that’s a few more gigs; we’ll probably make an album with it as well.
Cleo: I like this band very much. I’m looking forward to the other jobs.
There’s some nice material there for you. It’s interesting to hear you doing things like the James Taylor songs.
Cleo: Well, I had “Night Owl” in last year, and I’ve recorded that; I’ve certainly admired him for a long time now. I’d made up my mind that I would do quite a lot of his songs as soon as I had the opportunity. He caught my ear with his very first LP. There are others—like Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Carole King—all interesting writers.
And you can’t go on and on forever singing the oldies—the young ‘uns have got to have a chance, too.
Some singers, though, seem to want to switch over completely to contemporary sounds and forget the past
Cleo: I couldn’t do that. If I was a young singer, just starting, obviously I would think of all the young artists and only sing that way. But I have all these other songs in my head, and they’re very beautiful—why should I discard them? Yes, it adds variety. If I sang all James Taylor, it would get very samey, I suppose, unless I destroyed them by doing completely different work–outs. For that sort of song, it wouldn’t work; it has its own special quality that should be retained in some way.
Do you do mainly singing jobs nowadays?
Cleo: Well, I’m acting every now and again, when an interesting part comes along. Singing is my first love—apart from the fact that I get more work singing than anything else! However, if I was offered the good parts, I could quite easily give up singing to act; it wouldn’t worry me too much.
Plays are a little bit more satisfying than musicals, generally. Musicals are usually so light and flippant in the story line that they don’t hold your interest for too long; but a play can, if it’s well–written and a deep enough subject. Like recently, I played the lead part in Hedda Gabler , and I could have gone on playing it for a whole year, without getting fed up with it. It has so much in it, that needs to be delved into deeper and deeper; so many subtle things that Ibsen wrote, that are there for you to learn. Unfortunately, these sort of plays don’t grow on trees.
Any interesting projects, such as TV, coming up?
Cleo: I just recently recorded a TV show with Vincent Price, which will come out in August or September, I think. No series, as yet. One has to get several records in the hit parade before they offer you a series these days.
There’s a musical that might be on the books for Autumn. And a world tour next year, starting in Australia.
In September I’m doing a thing at the Roundhouse, at the Proms. Which is a very avant garde piece written by a gentleman called George Newsome; Boulez is conducting it. I’m currently learning that. If I do the musical, I’ll have a day off to go in and do this Proms date. So I’ve sort of got a lot to learn at the moment.
Copyright © 1990, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.