Anglo–American Conversation

Kenny Clare and Jake Hanna talking to Les Tomkins in 1975

Part 1

Session King
Kenny & Jake Hanna Parts 1 2 3
Drum School
Every night a first night
Atmosphere and adaptability

Well, first I’d like to ask you, Jake, what you’ve been doing in latter years.

Hanna: I’ll tell you. We’ve got a band over there in the United States called Supersax. Eighteen months we’d been rehearsing in a garage, and Capitol took a chance on us. We made some collectors’ items . . . I have trouble finding the records in the stores, anyway. We’re just finishing up the third one now—“Charlie Parker With Strings”.

I’ve got one of them. You’re still playing strictly Parker music, are you?

Hanna: Oh yeah—we’ve got our hands full with that. He’s the hardest guy to play, and the best one. Most other guys do Lester’s stuff, Woody Herman already. There’s still a huge repertoire of Charlie’s left.

Also I’m just completing my fourth album with Herbie Ellis’s little band. The first had Joe Pass and Herbie, plus Ray Brown and myself; that was followed by a live album, then one called “Soft Shoe”, with “Sweets” Edison, George Duke, Ray and myself with Herbie. Then we did an ‘In Person’ album of that, too. That’s what we usually do—record in a certain format, then go and do one live.

And I think this last live one is gonna be the best of ‘em all. We added Plas Johnson on tenor, and the stuff we heard is real good.

So is your home in Los Angeles full—time now? How long have you been there?

Hanna: Five years. I stay with A. J. Kahn—the infamous Doctor Deep—he was Tiny’s second cousin. We met in New York in the ‘forties, during the war, when he was stationed up there. Nice little place; all the people come over—Jimmy Rowles, Bill Holman, all the guys.

At one time it seemed as if the jazz scene in Hollywood was almost non—existent. But is it coming to life again now?

Hanna: Well, seems to be a little more action now than there used to be. Shelly’s place folded, unfortunately; he had to get out of his original premises, when Wally Heider took that over for recording, but the other one wasn’t the right set–up, and he wasn’t too happy with it. He always got the good acts, though, and he was a very good owner—treated all the customers great, you know.

Thad and Mel are rarely out on the Coast, but he brought their band in there for a week. The acoustics in the place were about the worst I’ve ever heard anywhere, but a restaurant ran it during the day, and they wouldn’t let him do anything with it—he wanted to fix it up.

Where do you earn your livelihood, mainly?

Hanna: I work in Hollywood, on a TV show I’ve been doing for ten years now—Merv Griffin. Good guys —Ray Brown’s on there, and Jack Sheldon, Bill Berry, Richie Kamica, Kai Winding, Jimmy Cleveland, Herb Ellis, Benny Powell—remember Benny with Count Basie’s band? It’s a great band—without much music to play.

You’d go nuts if you didn’t get out and let off some steam. It’s no use professional musicians of the calibre of Ray and those guys sitting there doing that only. You gotta get out there and play, man.

So Med Flory and Buddy Clark had thought it up some time ago: “It’d be wonderful if we had a whole book of Charlie Parker stuff. But who the hell’s gonna write something like that?” Anyway, Buddy gave it a shot; he’d never written in his life, but he wrote all those charts for the five saxes, trumpet and rhythm. And it’s a hell of an experience—you really don’t realise . . . well, a lot of people realise how great Charlie played, just from listening to the records over and over. But to see that piece of music, and hear it all the time—man, that’s a heavy brain the guy had!

Did you get to hear Supersax while you were over there, Kenny?

Clare: Yes, I did, a few times. I thought it was great; it knocked me out. I saw it with Jake, and with Frankie Capp playing drums.

Hanna: Oh, that’s right—when I had my busted shoulder.

What have been your general impressions in the States, Kenny, during your time there with Tony Bennett?

Clare: Well, from a jazz point of view, there’s a lot happening in some towns. In Pittsburgh, for example, there are two jazz clubs—which is pretty strange. There’s a bar, where I saw Monty Alexander, as well as an upstairs club—Dizzy was working there.

Toronto is good—about three or four clubs. Then L.A. and New York, and that’s about it.

Hanna: New York’s really got some joints.

Is there any kind of a resurgence in jazz clubs?

Hanna: I don’t see too many guys taking too much of a chance opening ‘em. Buddy Rich did, but he’s like a salmon going upstream; when everything seems to be collapsing, he’s doing great, this guy. You know, he starts a big band when there’s not a chance of ever making it—and he does better than anybody. Of course, he’s an exceptional person. A lousy drummer, but . . . !

Clare: If he could just get some chops, you mean!

Hanna:. Right—I hate those limp–wristed drummers ! But he gets good guys for that big band—he pays good, I understand. Johnny Bunch is back with him. In fact, him and Marty Flax went out when he started the first band. To tell you the truth, I enjoyed that band as much as any I’ve heard. Woody Herman’s got a good new one, though.

Would you say Woody’s present band is as good as the one you were in? I suppose it’s difficult to make comparisons.

Hanna: It’s totally different—it’s a very musical band now, not what you would call a Swing band. I think the band we had was a Swing band; it wasn’t a bebop band, or a modern band. It had to be, with those guys—Nat Pierce and myself, Billy Chase, Sal Nistico, Phil Wilson. We kept a nucleus of about four or five guys in there, and the rest would come and go regularly.

Clare: In the band now, he’s got a very good first trumpet player, Dave Stahl . . .

Hanna: Yeah, that kid’s great—that little blond–haired guy?

Clare: Beautiful. There’s a fantastic trombone player, too. And have you ever played with Greg Herbert?

Hanna’: He’s excellent, and so is Frankie Tiberi—they’re in very good shape.

Do you think Woody has the right idea——always recruiting new blood, and reflecting contemporary trends to some degree?

Clare: I don’t think he has a choice!

Hanna: For that kind of money—you have a lot of people passing through.

Clare: It’s just fantastic that he always seems to pick winners, somehow or other.

You’d agree, presumably, that he’s to be praised for his consistent efforts to keep that thing going?

Clare: Oh, sure—you can’t say enough about Woody. Woody’s fantastic.

Hanna: Woody Herman is my favourite of all the bandleaders. I worked with a lot of guys—he’s the best, as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, he’s had to try and make money, but the music comes first with him.

Hanna: Absolutely. He’s never sold out at all. Woody loves that excitement—it’s probably why he’s still sane. He’s got a great sense of humour, Woody—you have to. Oh boy, he’s really paid some dues; I couldn’t begin to tell you the headaches that guy’s had. I couldn’t do it—even if I had to. I wouldn’t, either. He’s a strong guy—still out there on that road. So is Basie, and so was Duke.

So when these young guys say they can’t take the road—forget it; they’re cissies. Woody’s over sixty now, Basie’s seventy, Duke was seventy-five.

Clare: Well, look at Buddy.

Hanna: He’s fifty–seven years old playing harder and stronger than he ever played in his whole life. And with a big band yet—out playing all the guys in the band. Harry James is still out there; Harry’s blowing, man—he never takes it easy. And he still plays great—he’s a bitch. Maynard Ferguson—of course, he’s a younger guy, but he works harder than anybody; it’s a throwback to the old bands like Artie Shaw’s, where the leader played better than the rest of ‘em.

It’s often said that the best players are in the session field. Do you think that’s the way it is?

Hanna: No. Zoot Sims is still my favourite player, and he’s no man for sessions. And Maynard Ferguson ain’t in there. Nor is Jimmy Hall. Ray Brown happens to be in there.

The greatest players are still out there playing. The paper men—that’s what I call a lot of those session guys. They’re great readers—that’s it. You can’t beat a band with road chops, man. You can take guys that aren’t as great as those cats in the studio and make better bands out of ‘em. Just can’t beat that fire and that excitement—nothing like it.

Clare: And that playing together all the time, too.

Hanna: To do four hundred miles with no supper, and sound good—that’s the hard part. You sit down to do a thing in the studio, take a break for a cup of coffee—you don’t get to do that on the bandstand. I don’t know how they work it over here, but in America, if it’s a four hour gig, the first three are on the bandstand. You take a twenty–minute break, play the last set and go home.

Clare: Yes, it’s roughly the same here. There’s some great guys in the studios, obviously, but you usually find most of the ones that are great playing in some dingy jazz club for no money some time during the course of the week—just to stay sane. It’s very difficult in the studios, inasmuch as most of the time you can never get extended. When you do, then you’re in trouble.

So, basically, the good players are those who go out and play as well. The biggest problem is : you never see any people, you never get any reactions. Maybe you don’t even play the tune all the way through; if it goes wrong, you stop and start again. If you’re on a bandstand, with an audience, you’ve got to play it, right from the start good otherwise there’s trouble. That’s the big difference: the pressure you work with on a bandstand is more than in the studio.

But isn’t it less of a problem for a drummer, as far as blowing is concerned, in the studio? Don’t you get a chance, on some of the charts you play, to blow like mad, as it were, on the drums?

Clare: Not really, no. It’s much harder in the studio. Like, with Tony, it was always a thirty-three piece band, and you sat with the trumpets one side, the bass the other side, the trombones and saxophones just in front. Now, I’m back again to sitting in a booth, with earphones on, surrounded by screens, where I can see and hear nobody. It’s pretty hard to make music that way. The enjoyment of sitting on a bandstand with musicians is much greater than the studio situation, with no contact with the guys you’re working with, at the same time as you’re trying to make something worthwhile out of it.

Everything’s against you. I think the studio players do a great job, in these circumstances, particularly the rhythm section players, who never get to see or hear each other. At least four trumpet players sit next to each other, but the rhythm section don’t even sit close, do they?

Hanna: Oh, I’ve got that ridiculous set-up on the TV show—can’t hear or see anybody. It’s terrible.

Clare: When you see the show from the front, you can see just the cymbals and your head. And Herb’s right down the front—you must never hear him, ever.

Hanna: Never—no. When he plays solos, I can hear him. I really wish he was up there with us, because he plays great rhythm guitar.

Clare: Right—he’s one of the greats.

Hanna: He sure is—that’s right. Well, I got Sugar Ray (Ray Brown) right there with me; so I’m safe with him.

And I got Bill Berry in my left ear—that’s it.

Is Ray Brown stifled as a player by the studios?

Hanna: Not the way he is. His personality transcends all of that: he never lets anything get him down. I never saw him create. He’s just so exuberant; he goes leaping straight ahead, and refuses to be brought down by it. He can make anything sound good, too, which is hard to do. In fact, it’s a drag—who wants to shine up a piece of that garbage? But he will—he’ll fix it up somehow or other, and make it palatable. And when he plays, man . . . He’s played with Supersax once or twice—wow, what a heavy stomp! A real pleasure. That’s real muscle.

He’s been doing some writing as well, hasn’t he?

Hanna: He’s got a tune or two in the book there. I don’t know all of the things Ray’s into now, to tell you the truth. He produces; he’s got his office over there at A & M—Herb Alpert’s place.

So you think he made the right move, when he got out of the Oscar Peterson situation?

Hanna: Whatever move he makes is gonna be okay for him. But he still goes out on the road, anyway. He’s going out this Winter, with Shelly Manne, Laurindo Almeida and Bud Shank. Oh, he’s still playing. Herbie Ellis goes out, too.

Clare: Yeah, I saw him in San Francisco with Joe Pass.

Hanna: I remember. He goes out with Barney now, and Charlie Byrd—they do a triple thing. Three guitars. Look like they’re in Manny’s window! But they did very good at, I think, Carnegie Hall—sold out.

Speaking of Oscar Peterson—how do you find working with Oscar?

Hanna: Oh—like a breath of fresh air, believe me, after being smothered in that nonsense you have to play from day to day. It’s my first time with him. I was over in Vancouver when he gave me a call. He’d been there earlier, but our paths hadn’t crossed; I saw his wife up in Toronto, and he’d just left there, too. He said: “Feel like coming over?” I said: “You kiddin’? Try and stop me.” He’s got a sensational bass player, Niels Pedersen; they’re great guys, too. Oscar is something else. He likes to have bass and drums, I guess, but actually, he really doesn’t need anybody to play with him. When it comes to solo piano, there’s Tatum and him. He’s about the only one around today, that I’ve heard. Maybe there’s somebody else, but I haven’t heard ‘em. He’s just phenomenal.

It’s great, you know, to be up on the bandstand with him, because sitting right there I can hear him better than anybody can—I got the best seat in the house now! I just tag along: I’m only along for the ride with him.

You don’t really have to do anything—he does it all himself, and you just join in, that’s all. Of course, he doesn’t need no hundred-and-fifty pound knapsack on him. If it’s not swinging—forget it. 

Copyright © 1975, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.