The big band plays in Britain


Well, Louie-you've been coming over here now for at least twelve years; I've talked to you many times, of course, but this is the first time that I haven't had to say to you: "When are we going to hear that big band of yours?" That's right. I really feel good about this; with the great help of Crescendo, of the promoter of this tour, Peter Brightman, and of people that have believed in my big band, we've made it an actual truth-we're over here, and we're really enjoying it. The engagement at Wembley was nice; the only problem there was it was a Saturday afternoon, and a lot of people didn't get a chance to hear the band. But all this week at Ronnie's, it's just been terrific; Ronnie has been great, the club's been packed every night, the band is playing well-it's just sensational, man.

No doubt you've brought some new charts with you? Oh, yes-we're always creating new things, with people like Don Menza in the band; he's a great contributor, as far as arrangements are concerned, besides his playing ability. Don is always bringing a new chart in-like, once every week. Then Bill Holman writes for us; I'm doing quite a bit of writing.

Within the band, we have quite a few guys who write; there's Nat Pierce, and now Bobby Shew has turned out to be an ex cellent composer and arranger-he just wrote a beautiful thing for his late colleague Blue Mitchell, which he titles just plain "Blue". It's a gorgeous piece of music.

Also little Matt Catingub, who's only eighteen years old-his mother is the marvellous singer Mavis Rivers-he's contributed a couple of charts already that are just dynamite. He plays alto saxophone; he wrote a composition called "Explosion", which features him on alto, but it's mainly a drum vehicle for me. We play it in the second set, and it's demanding; you have to have a good band to play it, but it comes off great-everybody asks me who wrote it.

And Gordon Goodwin-he's playing baritone now, but can play lead alto or any of the chairs-there's another youngster, who's about twenty-one. years old, who can compose very well. So the band's loaded with talent. We claim to be a good ensemble band, but yet we have all these individuals, that I think are very important in making up a really great band. We just did a new album for the Concord label; it'll be released in January, and it's got all brand new material. Most of the things are by Don Menza, and this "Explosion" piece by Matt is on there. We're very happy with it; I've already done the mixing on it. The band sounds wonderful-it's on-the-spot, live recording, which I like the best; you don't have to worry about that closed-in feeling you get in a studio, when you know you're going to try to fight to hear one another. When you're playing to the people, you don't have that stigma; it's a more natural sound-you feel better that way.

You've started to record at Ronnie's, haven't you? Right. It always takes a day, even for the engineers to get their mikes set up; so the first day is sort of a throw-away. I think when we go in tonight we should be able to get something out of the two sets; we play a good hour-and-a-half set-so that's at least three hours every night. Out of that, we'll pick enough for an album. Last night, the other mikes were in the way of the house mikes; you try to make that adjustment, and give them a chance to do the sound. We'll be in good form tonight, I think.

I'm sure audience reactions have been consistently favour able. Well, it's because we appreciate the audiences here that we wanted to come over with an excellent band; all my guys have looked forward to this for many years. We appreciate audiences all over, but we know that here. . . you know, we don't want to try to fool anybody; we want to come with some thing that's valid, because you've already had a chance to hear great bands like Duke and Basie and Buddy and Woody-so it's got to be right.

I must, say, all the write-ups so far have been just beautiful; they've respected the soloists that I've brought over, like Nat Pierce, Joe Romano, Don Menza, Bobby Shew. Bill Berry, by the way, is with us also, and so is John Heard on bass. They made it a point to say nice things about these players, as well as the full band ensemble.

Well, it's a bit of an all-star band, after all.

Yeah, it really is. And I was very lucky too; all those players can stay in California, where they've got big fat salaries, but money is not the biggest problem for these kind of guys-they still like to play. In order to do that, you have to go out and travel all over the world, like the bands do-in order to get that inner feeling. These guys have a deep respect for music; staying in one spot and doing studio work is not enough for them. And I'm glad, because I can get 'em out, and let people hear 'em play-which is vitally important.

They need that musical release.

They do-and it's better for everybody concerned. In life, like we used to say, how many steaks can you eat a day, or how many Rolls-Royces can you have? They're not even interested in that; all they want to do is be able to get on the bandstand, and know that they've come up with something really constructive and beautiful, that the people like. That's worth more than anything you can imagine.

I know you do a lot of dates around the L. A. area, but is this the first time you've actually travelled around with the band? We've also travelled to New York and back many times with this band. Now, we haven't done that for about three years, and the people there-all the colleges and night-clubs are saying: "Come on back to New York. We haven't heard you for a long time." So we're going to co-ordinate a couple of tours back to New York with the band. But, of course, this is the first time here for me with any kind of a group of my own. I was always with small bands, such as Oscar, Dizzy, Jazz At The Philharmonic-which is not a bad deal.

Previously, the only big bands we'd heard you with were British ones. For instance, I was in the studio when you made the "Louie In London" LP.

Then there was the Concert Tribute we did for the late Frank King-Buddy Rich, Kenny Clare and myself-when we used the Bobby Lamb/ Ray Premru Band. By the way, I saw Bobby-he came in the club the other day. But I agree with Buddy when he says that he had been over here a few times before, but it isn't until you can really do your own thing, with your own band, that you can properly showcase yourself to the public.

You've worked yourself up to that position, and when it comes off, you say: "Well, great-there it is." Like, Oscar came in, and he's really very fond of our band; he said : "Boy, you guys are really hot!" When you get such comments, it makes you feel good inside, like your mission is successful. Because I really plan on coming over once a year at least; I'd love to do it. And I don't mean to come over the first time with a great band like this, and next time to come over with a mediocre band. I don't believe in that; I believe that wherever you play and whatever you do, you should always lay a hundred per cent, and come up with the finest that you can.

Buddy always feels that each band is better than the one he brought before.

That's right. And even though some of them aren't name quality; in the States, you've got young players who don't have the name yet, but boy, they just play. They're from eighteen, nineteen on, and they're great; I know that, because I deal with them all year round.

With varying personnel, you've operated a big band for a good many years now, haven't you? Yes, actually we started with the band itself in the early 'fifties.

Somebody said to me in the club last night: "The band has such precision-how do you get 'em so together?" They felt that I probably just got these guys together and rehearsed for a couple of weeks. I said: "Well, you must remember this band has been together for twelve years." Don Menza's been with me for at least twelve years; Bobby Shew, Larry Covelli, Nat Pierce have been quite a few years with the band-so have some of my other trumpet players and a couple of the trombone players.

When you've got a band like this, it just doesn't happen in three or four weeks. You vary a little bit in your personnel, but I can honestly say that most of the guys in our band have been with us from seven to twelve years. That's why it's a good band-we feel one another; it's an organisation. That's why it has that precision.

The last time we met, you were enthusing about the prospect of bringing the band over, and one of the musicians you said you expected to have with you was the late Frank Rosolino.

Frank was all set; in fact, when I was here last year with Oscar and John Heard, I spoke with Frank over the telephone, and he gave me a "Yes". He said: "Absolutely-we got it." And this band, as good as it is-with Frank added, it would just be unbelievable. We all know what a dear friend and a great player Frank Rosolino was; he had to be classed as one of the two or three top trombone players of all time-there's no question about it. I certainly felt a tremendous sense of loss-and the way it happened was such a shame. Don Menza was a very close friend of Frank, and it just staggered him-as it did all of us. With the loss of Frank, and then Blue Mitchell. And then I just lost my band manager, Nick DiMaio, who had been with me for thirty-five years; he was looking forward to this trip, and we lost him October 10th.

But, you know, you just can't get a big band like this, and fly 'em in from L. A., which is probably the farthest point in the States. Usually, bands work from L. A. to New York, and then fly over from New York, which is less costly. But Slingerland Drum Company, Zildjian Cymbal Company, and Remo Inc. all contributed to help pay some of the fares for these guys, and Peter Brightman and myself were able to get all their individual salaries. Because some of these guys don't come cheap, and they shouldn't-but they all agreed that they wanted to come over and play. I wanted to mention that, because without the help of all these people, we wouldn't have been able to do it.

And I thought that was very nice of them, just voluntarily to say: "Well, we've never done it before, but here it is." A little appreciation like that really helps.

Copyright © 1967 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.