The symphonic side


This whole past year's been very interesting. I've still got the big band going, and the good news is that the last album we did over here, the "London Gig" album on Pablo, was nominated for a Grammy. Rightly so, I feel, because of the great work not only of the guys in the band but of Ray Prickett and Alan Freeman. Also I've done some dates with a small group, I've been working with Pearl, and I've been doing some clinics and some symphony dates. And I had a chance last November 5th at the PAS-that' s the Percussive Arts Society; it was in Knoxville, Tennessee this time-to perform with Peter Erskine and the Knoxville Symphony a piece in four movements that I wrote. It was very successful. Plus I finished my eighth major work for orchestra this year.

I've got to come over some time and do something with the London Philharmonic-boy, that would be a joy, really.

Maybe I can work that out some time-I hope.

When you perform these things... like, I've got something coming up with the Oklahoma City Symphony-the sad thing is: the union doesn't allow anybody to come in to tape some thing like that, because they're afraid somebody will take it, then try to sell it. So, as a result, you can't even get an educational tape hardly any more. Which makes it tough, because a lot of the other Symphonies will ask me not only for a copy of the score-they'll say: "Do you have a tape of this?" I'd like to get a recording made one day, but there's a lot of money involved, if you've got a full symphony orchestra.

Having been an orchestral composer for as long as you have, it's a facet of your talent that ought to be represented. You've got abundant examples of your jazz drumming on disc, and of your writing for jazz ensembles. Record buyers have not been made aware of your ability in this other direction.

Hopefully, I'll be able to do that. There's a lot of interest, now that I've done a few; the write-ups have been good, the feeling is good, people are starting to call. After the Oklahoma, I'm going to have the Tampa Symphony coming in, and hope fully the Chicago, the Cleveland-and back again to L. A. We got to do it here, Les-London Philharmonic-that's a great orchestra here. Oh, boy! Would you say these works bring about a kind of a union between jazz and classical forms? Wow, that's a great question, because two of the things that I wrote-I take my big jazz band and put it right in the middle of the symphony. There are three things that I wrote that are purely symphonic, with me as a soloist in front-those have no connotation to jazz at all. It's me playing on the set, but I'm playing with the orchestra, and the orchestra's not playing any jazz. They're strictly symphony pieces, written for me as a soloist. So on a piece like that we don't employ any saxophones, but I use the entire symphony. And that's interesting, because there are some orchestras that don't like to get into different types of things, being so locked into the regular classics. But they will listen to something like..." Oh, you did this for the full orchestra, and it's in a symphonic form, and you as soloist.

Okay, that sounds like a good idea." That's why I did those pieces that way, But I've performed the other two or three that are with the band in the middle-and that's really exciting.

Well, something like that probably has the most appeal to a wide audience; people can latch on to one or the other, de pending on where their specific tastes may lie, but their overall musical appreciation is aided. This only helps to break down barriers.

It's a great association between the jazz players and the symphony players-and it works. Especially today, when you have a lot of young players in the symphony orchestras who like music, period. Whether it's jazz or whatever-they like it all, see. And you can see the smiles on their faces; they really enjoy it.

I believe a great many works that combine these elements are played by The Orchestra in Los Angeles-have you ever been involved with this organisation? So far no, but I talked to Jack Elliott recently, and he wants me to do something in the near future. He wants to per form one or two of my things; so I'm looking forward to that.

That orchestra is great; it's made up of all the best players.

That kind of thing appeals very much to me person ally-I'm sure it appeals to many people.

It's great-because I'm the kind of a player, that if I do one thing too much I get bored with it, you know. And all my life I've been able to do a little bit with a small group, then the big band, then work with a symphony orchestra, then work with my wife Pearl, and with different singers, like Tony Bennett, and then do something with a percussion ensemble. It always made an excitement for me. It's interesting to get into these new avenues.

As for the big band-is there a hope that you'll be bringing it over here next year? All they have to do is say: "Let's do it and I'll come. I really missed playing London this year; this is the first year in three years that I didn't come over. I know the reason was the economic situation-the value of the pound against the dollar.

Our agent Peter Brightman told me... I don't think you saw too many big bands anyway, did you? Of course, Buddy's coming over with Frank.

And doing his own tour-but it's later in the year than usual. It's hard to think of Buddy pacing himself, but do you see any signs, after his surgery last year, of him easing up at all? Yeah-I think he is. As a person gets a little older, he gets a little wiser; you know how to time and pace yourself even better than you did the year before, and I think that's what Bud's doing now. He's still playing great as ever, but maybe he's into realising you have to look after yourself a little more.

But it's what we all do normally anyway; I know when I got to be twenty, I found out some mistakes I made when I was eighteen years old-I learned so much in two years. I think he's timing and pacing himself real good. We worked together last August out on Long Island with both bands; then I saw him recently in New York-and he looked great. He was working there with Sinatra at the time. which is great for him-it's a big, new audience. And Frank is one of our giants-always has been-he knows what he's doing. I respect him so much, be cause, all during periods when some bad music was played he always emerged with a lot of class. He's a fabulous man-and he's a good humanitarian too; the things he does for people are just marvellous.

Have you ever played with Frank? I did some things with him a long time ago. I haven't worked with him recently-he's got a good guy by the name of Irv Cottler in that chair. And there's one of my favourite players too-boy, he's just phenomenal. I call him the Rock; what he sets out to do, he does, and I know why Frank's got him behind the drums. When Frank performs, he knows he's got Irv back there, and Irv doesn't falter-he's as steady as can be. He's a great player and a great guy; he'll have that seat forever, you know. He's worked with all those great bands-so he's got all that experience in back of him.

To return to your own band-you've been playing a lot of engagements with it, have you? Oh, yes-we just finished playing Carmello's in Holly wood. Oh, and another new thing-when I saw Buddy in New York, I was just coming down from the floor Willard Alexander's on, and he was on his way up. When I talked to Willard, he said: "Why don't you let me book you the next couple of years, and let's take your big band out at least three or four times a year-each time for about a month-and-a-half." That way, I can get the guys that I want; they'll go out for a short spell, come back and do what they have to do, and then we'll go out again-do this about three times. We'll make one trip here, one to Japan. Then I can expose the band more, because it is an organisation that's intact, and we get a lot of calls-so why not? Have you had many changes of personnel lately? Some, yeah. Don Menza hasn't been able to play with us too much, because Don is busy. He's got his own big band go ing, a small group going. And Bobby Shew now has emerged...

I always felt Bobby was a great jazz player, beside being a great lead player, and boy, is he playing great jazz! He has his own small group, he's travelling a lot. doing clinics, playing clubs.

Those two guys were really important in my band, but when you get players of that calibre, you have to accept that some time they're going to leave. With so much talent, they've got to go out on their own.

I've got an excellent band now. I've got a little monster playing lead alto-Matt Catingub-he's not only a fabulous player, but a great composer. And there's Gordon Goodwin and Mark Roland-a couple of youngsters playing tenor superbly.

Gordon also writes very well. I've still got Frank Strazzeri on piano. With the New York band I have George Duvivier on bass; out there I got a youngster named Dave Stone. The trum pet section out in California is still Walt Johnson Frank Szabo, Ron King; I've got a new kid named Larry Lannetta-a graduate from Cal. State, Northridge. All great soloists-fabulous.

So you're keeping a different personnel at each end, as it were, for the different dates, are you? The reason I have a New York band and a California band is that a lot of times they may call me and say: "Look, Woody can't make this date in New York-would you be able to fill in for him?" Or they might get two or three dates for me, and it's much more feasible for me to use the New York band, because I have music-stands and a full set of music there. see.

However when Willard is going to book me for the next two or three years, and I'm going out for six weeks or so at a time then I'll probably pool with just one band-and that'll do it. But whatever happens it's important for me to keep that big band-or even a small band going, because of that big audience out there. We're very much like Buddy's band and Woody's band, where we've got a commodity, which is simply music, for those people to enjoy. Plus I'm doing something that I love to do.

Well, just keep working on the arrangements for that next trip to Britain.

Absolutely. I've got enough material to record again, and I'd like to do it over here. It's one of my favourite places-always has been-and I'm ready to come back.

Copyright © 1967 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.