Drum solos are not important


That concert we did at the Barbican with Peggy Lee came off just great. First of all, Peggy is a marvellous artist. I go way back with her, you know-1943 with Benny Goodman's band; this was in the days when she was going with Dave Barbour.

We've always been very close, Peggy and I, but I hadn't seen her for a long time-it's been about five years-so when we met up again that day we just hugged and kissed. She calls me "Apples", because I'd always be back there munching on fruit-I still do. .

Now, I must explain-when you do those kind of shows, you're booked as a separate act. It was our band, then Peggy Lee, and then Carmen McRae, and then Joe Williams-these were the artists on the bill. Carmen had her own group there; so she was okay-but I know that Joe wanted so much to use our band, because he's got some great Thad Jones and Ernie Wilkins arrangements. And what a joy it is to work with that guy-he's a great singer. Yet you can't do that-because they feel that I'm an act, and so forth. That didn't bother me, but there just wasn't enough rehearsal time, because Peggy deserved three hours, just like Joe would. So Joe had to use a small group, which was fine, and we rehearsed throe hours with Peggy.

They had Art Morgan, who's a very fine British drummer-he came specifically to play for Peggy; which he's done before. They rehearsed about four or five tunes; I sat out in the audience area-and he sounded great, with George Duvivier's bass and with Peggy. I could tell she was very satisfied with the band. When the break came, I just happened to walk right by Peggy; we kissed again, and she said: "You know, this man is a great player-but I haven't seen you for so long. Why aren't you playing for me" I said: "Well-I don't know." She said: "He's a beautiful drummer, but it would be so nice to have you play a few things." That's how that happened. I finally wound up playing the whole thing. I know Art understood-it was purely a thing where we hadn't seen one another, and wanted to do it.

She had Pete Moore there, a great writer and conductor, and she used our whole band. Of course, she flipped over George Duvivier; and our pianist, Frank Strazzieri, too. She's so great-and it was good to see her again. She's getting ready to do a Broadway play on her life, you know; I hope it's a big success-she's certainly paid her dues: Well, Peggy; Ells, Sarah, Carmen-and Pearl-just keep going. Like Bing Crosby used to say: these people have longevity that's unbelievable. Where others have short professional lives-maybe two or three years; and that's it-they go on, and they get better and better. On this concert, they wouldn't let Peggy off the stage-she came back for two or three encores. After the performance, she said to m: "Please-let's do some things together." I said: "You know where to get hold of me-it'd be my pleasure." So I'm looking forward to that.

At the end of the tour I told Peter Brightman: "Listen, I don't care what it is-just bring me back here. If it can't be once a year, don't make it any more than two years in the interim." I think we'll be doing one with Tony Bennett; of course, Tony is a dear friend-another great artist. With him, the magic is there; we've done it a couple of times in the States before-and we just reach a height.

In fact, we just finished an hour-and-a-half PBS show (that means Public Broadcasting Service). It's Pearl's show, and she had Sarah Vaughan and Tony Bennett on it. We did it in Danville, Kentucky; now; this is horse country, s beautiful location, and right in the middle of this small city you've got one of the most fabulous theatres in the whole world: It was, built by Frank Lloyd Wright's son-in-law, who used to live in Danville, but lives in New York now; he became very wealthy and he wanted to do something for Danville-so he built this tremendous theatre. If you can visualise: it has close to three thousand seats; the downstairs only seats four to five hundred, the balcony comes almost directly on stage, and the sound is magnificent. Pearl told Ella about it; she worked there-but Tony and Sarah had not worked there, and they flipped out.

And I think that PBS show is going to be a real good one.

Public Broadcasting is real big in the States now, Because there you can see some great programmes. I hope you have a chance to see this show over here some time, because I know you'll enjoy it. Sarah and Tony each had a chance to do four or five tunes, without any interruption; Pearl had a chance to do her thing; Honi Coles, the great tap dancer, did a spot with Pearl. It was all music; our band played for the whole show, plus Milt Hinton on bass, Remo Palmier on guitar, Rozelle Claxton on piano-Pearl's regular quartet, you know. It really came off great; we walked away from that knowing that we did something-that good feeling, when you know the creative genes were going! On the subject of big band drumming: yes, I always refer to Mel Lewis as the ideal player in this field-he's marvellous.

In fact, on my clinics I'll always start off by playing a long drum solo; of course, the kids say: "Oh, yeah, man-that's great!" I say: "Now, wait a minute-I did that purposely. When I play that long drum solo that's fine-but that's secondary." They say: "What do you mean by that?" I say: "Well, first of all, it s very important for us to learn how to play this instrument. We are timekeepers; we are part of a rhythm section. I don't care if you're playing outside music, straight mainstream or whatever-you belong to that section.

If we're talking about big band drumming, one of the greatest examples is Mel Lewis." I always mention him; he's a small band drummer too, but people know him as a big band drummer. And what he does in that big band: without having to play any big solos or anything, he takes care of business with that rhythm section and with that band-he did it with Thad Jones and he does it in his band right now.

Mel always listens to the soloists, to become an accompa niment to them, and he's always sound-conscious. A great big band drummer. I just put the headset on and listen to the things he did with Thad and Mel, and what he's doing with the tre mendous band he's got in New York now-and it's there, that feel. So I tell the kids to go out and get those records, and listen to what he does. He's a big band barometer in himself-with that beautiful sound.

How many solos can you play? On top of that, suppose you just play the one solo-what happens the rest of the night? But I can see the anxiety of the young people in the audience; I can almost feel it. They'll listen to me play a ballad; they'll sit there and say: "Yeah-okay." Then they'll listen to a little up-tempo thing-but they're waiting for that last tune, with the solo climax. Fine-but it's so beautiful to watch the players like Mel or Buddy or Peter Erskine or Jo Jones or Philly Joe Jones or Max Roach, and see what they do during that set. How they accompany a singer, how they play in back of a beautiful ballad, what they do on a bossa nova, things like this-that's the magic.

When the guys in my band come to me and say: "Boy, Lou, you really swung the. band tonight!", that's what I want to hear. If they just say: "Boy, that solo was out of sight!"-that's maybe just once a night; what happened to that other two hours? That's where the magic is supposed to happen. So we're getting the young people to realise: look what he did right there; listen to that overall sound. Understand what Mel did when Thad was out front doing something-whether it be a delicate waltz or a real bombastic type of chart. The listening is always the key thing. Mel and all those great players are not back there playing by themselves-they're aware of who's playing a solo, and they hear him, so that they can give him the proper backing. These things are very important.

Years ago, before they really considered us as an integral part of the band, they used to say: "We've got sixteen guys and a drummer." And Buddy and I used to say: "What do you mean? We're just as important as anybody." Then, of course, came that marvellous time, when he was with Tommy and I was with Bonny-that was the instrumental age. The singers weren't the big thing then-it was the instrumentalists. You could name all the heavies-like, in Tommy's band there was Buddy, Ziggy Elman, Don Lodice, Johnny Mincc. Of course, it was the marvellous Gene Krupa who was the first guy to bring the drums to the foreground. Buddy and I have always passed the same in formation to youngsters; when they'd say: "How do you do that thing with the left hand?", we'd say: "Never mind that-let me see what you can do swing-wise." We still make that an empha sis, because that's where the musicality is.

Like, a cymbal itself is a beautiful instrument. I've been to the Zildjian factory in Boston, talking to Armand or maybe Lennie Di Musio, and they'd turn around and say: "Excuse me, Lou. . . Hey!" There'd be somebody over in a corner hitting a cymbal, and they'd tell him: "Don't ever hit the cymbal that way-let me show you how to hit it." There's a certain way you hit that cymbal to get what you want; you can hit it loud or you can hit it soft, but there's a way to get the ultimate sound out of it-a beautiful, musical sound. Same thing with a drum. You know, it's a feather in my cap when I've had two eighty-year-old ladies sit right in front of my drum set, listen to a whale set, and not hold their hands over their ears. Yet you can sit twenty feet away from another guy, who doesn't know how to play, and you'll say: "My ,God, what is he doing? It sounds like World War Three!"' It's a matter of dynamics-the touch: You have to develop a touch on that instrument-just like you do on a piano, a violin or anything.

As for the misuse of volume in some groups-it just be comes total distortion. It's too bad that some of those youngsters have to resort to something like that, because when you think of a distorted level, it isn't music any more-it's a great shame they don't realise that. They're only hurting their own health too, because I know my ear physician in California told me: "Lou, you're losing a little bit of your hearing in your right ear; that's natural-you've been playing over fifty years, with big bands, and in a lot of conditions. But I have some youngsters, nineteen and twenty years old-they're in the heavy rock groups and they're deaf." I hate to see that kind of thing happen.

Copyright © 1967 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.