Part 5

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1984

Parts 1 2 3 4 5

How did you enjoy your week at the Festival Hall in September, Mel?

Enormously for several reasons. First of all, Festival Hall has been a kind of a dream of mine; it represents to me what Carnegie Hall represents in New York City. It’s obviously the most classic, and perhaps the most classy venue in London and to play it, not for a single night’s concert but for five nights.. . And, particularly, with Shearing, with whom I work a great deal and who’s one of my dearest friends and, of course, the wonderful Carmen McRae as well—boy, it was great fun. I just enjoyed every minute of it.

This partnership with George is comparatively recent but it’s been very productive, hasn’t it?

Yes, it has, Les. It’s not really a partnership, in this respect and George would say the same thing: we each have our individual careers. George has work coming out of his ears; I have work coming out of my nose—I mean, we’re working so much. But we look to jobs that we can work together we work on it. And since we’ve done these two Concord albums.. . and a third one will be coming out, by the way; we did it in Washington, at Charlie’s, during October.. . that combined with all the dates we’ve been doing together the Hollywood Bowl; Carnegie Hall this year; the Paul Masson Wineries, which is a beautiful job to play—it amounts to a general trend.

We did the Atlanta Symphony together, and that was a new dimension—I conducted Percy Grainger and George played it; you know, it was another dimension of what we feel we can do together. So, by and large, yes, when we can work together. However, we have not made this a singular partnership from a standpoint that we don’t work on our own or with other people, for that matter.

It’s something that you enjoy as often as possible. It’s clear that you and George have a great musical affinity; would you say that there is a complete rapport in every way between you?

Oh, yes it goes way beyond the musical affinity. We’ve been great friends for years, and we’ve sought to work together but only in the last six or seven years have we been given those opportunities. We spend a great deal of time socially together; we like each other a lot and our ladies like each other. Consequently that transmits itself, I believe, to the stage. One of the things that we constantly hear from people who come backstage afterwards, be they in the business or indeed civilians who are just there to hear us work: “My God, the rapport between you two, the obvious joy of working together the true fun, that I don’t think” says this or that individual, “can be manufactured or faked. It’s obvious you’re having a great time on the stage.” And we really are. When people come back and say: “Boy that’s just one of the best.. .” , I will turn to ‘em and honestly say: “No kidding—we had more fun than you did.” That’s true. Patently, the two of you share an enthusiasm for English music Granger, Delius, Hoist and so on. This is marvellous music, but where does it link up with jazz?

George Shearing likes to say—and I totally and irrevocably agree with him, quote: “I am not a jazz pianist. I am a pianist who incidentally also plays jazz.” George is a man who goes and does concerts playing Mozart and Bach concerti with the great symphony orchestras all over the country and, I guess, worldwide. I know how many symphony dates he plays in the States they are many and varied. The same thing applies with me: I go on the road and do an enormous amount of symphony dates. I conduct Grainger, I conduct Delius; I sing a few things that are not in the popular or the jazz idiom—and the truth of the matter is that I detest being labelled. I don’t like to be labelled a pop singer and/or a jazz singer I’m a singer. And if I have any kind of musical instrument at all.. . I don’t say that I have great credibility; I’m not John Shirley Quirk, and I don’t pretend to be. He’s a great, great... I guess high baritone, or maybe even tenor; I think of him as a baritone a great singer of the kind of music that I love to hear when I’m listening to light classical music, and I’m sure he goes right into the opera end of it.

I’m not that man but I am capable of singing certain things that go beyond the pale of jazz, and I really regret that some people are very quick to label me a jazz singer. Incidentally now I’m really hoist by my own petard, because I won the Grammy as Best Male Jazz Singer this year. So more than ever now people are going to tend to say: “Oh, yeah —Tormé, the jazz singer”. I’m not offended by it it’s just that that’s not all of me; that’s a piece of me. I am a popular song singer okay.

Well. you’re an interpreter of various kinds of music, really.

Who happens to be—perhaps; I leave that to you; I leave that to the public more jazz–oriented, –concepted, –influenced than perhaps others of my ilk.

Does your interest in other music go back some way? In the days when you were a band singer were you also listening to classical music?

Absolutely. I discovered classical music, really, when I was about eleven, twelve years old. Then my awareness of it grew as I was able to lay my hands on more and more classical records. I showed a great affinity for Rachmaninov and the concerti that he wrote; also his few symphonies and Ravel these are my early loves. Bach probably over and above anyone, because Bach to me is the master. For the romantics—absolutely Number One—Delius. And I’ve become even more acquainted now with the varied works of Percy Grainger than I was five years ago and I’m absolutely enmeshed in Grainger music. I just think that some of the things that he wrote, and some of the things that he gathered such as Norwegian folk songs, incidentally: not just British folk songs—and then tailored to the orchestra are spellbinding. I just love them.

Well, he did so many things. He did a beautiful piano arrangement of “Love Walked In”.

Yes—I happen to love that, and I’ve got Daniel Adni’s record of that. It’s absolutely sensational. The introduction to “Love Walked In”, where he goes (sings): “Bob–doe–doo–doo–dee–doh–doh. Boo–dee–do–doh. Boo–dee–do–doh...” is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard on record. Now, he was an extraordinary man. I regret that I became a devotee of his too late to meet him; because I could have met him—I think he passed away in ‘58 or ‘59, something like that, and I could have made it my business to meet him, had I been more acquainted with his music.

But what about American composers? I mean, I would have thought you’d have a strong liking for, say, the music of Aaron Copland.. .

I do absolutely—Copland and Ives and Samuel Barber.. .

To me, Samuel Barber is one of the supreme melodists—his “Adagio” is very moving.

0h, it’s lovely. He’s great there’s no question about it. But I do lean, I guess.. . my mother and father came over to America from Russia.. . I lean heavily toward the drama of the Russians. I love Prokofiev, and I mean, over and above anyone Stravinsky. And, almost as much as Stravinsky, Gliere—Gliere’s Third Symphony is among my favourite pieces of music in the world, and it’s heavily Russian; it’s wonderful. Of course, Rachmaninov—that to me is the epitome of the Russian soul. And somebody that we all tend to overlook, because, like the song “Stardust”, it’s played so much that we tend to neglect it.. . we tend to neglect Tchaikovsky, because we hear so much of “Swan Lake” and so much of “The Nutcracker”. That should not take away from the greatness of that music—it’s superb music, I think.

What are your thoughts about something we hear from time to time—the making of classical themes into songs, like “The Story Of A Starry Night”, “Moon Love” and “The Lamp Is Low”?

I think it really depends on the song itself—some of them have been very successful. “My Reverie”, for example—“Reverie” is Debussy, is it not?’ Or Ravel? It’s one of the two I’m almost certain it’s Debussy. Some of the songs that have been adapted seem to work reasonably well; other ones are obvious rip–offs, purely done for commercial purposes, and they have no value for me.

How about your own song–writing? We look back to the much–played “Christmas Song” and others. Is anything happening with you in this area these days?

These days I write songs when there is a subject matter. Or, indeed, if somebody’s lyric turns me on, I’ll write a melody—if a melody turns me on, I’ll write a lyric. Gerry Mulligan and I were doing an awful lot of concerts together in the last three or four years, and he kept playing a melody for me. And I fell in love with the melody to the point where I, without even asking him, wrote a lyric. We call the song “The Real Thing”; it’s on a double album of mine called “Mel Tormé And Friends Live at Marty’s” which is a nightclub in New York. As a matter of consequence, I’m very, very fond of that song; I really do think I wrote a good lyric, and the reason it is good is that the melody is spellbinding—absolutely miraculous. It’s one of the most beautiful melodies you’ll every hear—but then Mulligan is a giant.

I’ve been hearing about some very happy–sounding concert occasions, where you and Mulligan both sang.

That’s exactly right. He’s a very infectious singer, you know—as is Shearing. Shearing and Mulligan both are the kind of guys who wind up being my favourite kind of singers, because they sing off the elbow. I don’t think either of them would claim that in addition to playing a great instrument they have a great vocal instrument; neither of them have great vocal instruments, but that has never been what singing is all about, to me. Singing is interpretation; singing is the understanding of the lyric, and the wedding of the lyric and the melody and both of those guys are absolutely nonpareil in that department.

There’ve been certain musicians whose singing has a definite appeal. Like, I enjoy Chet Baker’s things.. .

Absolutely. Buddy Rich, Bobby Sherwood—there’s a long list of guys like that, who sang rather charmingly. Listen I like Benny Goodman’s singing! Benny sang on a couple of records. Yeah, “Happy Blues” in duet with Stan Kenton. And he sang “Paducah” when he did “The Gang’s All Here” and “Gotta Be This or That”, you know. I find it very charming; I like it a lot.

Les, I’ve never, ever been so happy musically with my career. The last six years have been the most astonishing years for me in my complete career. I think there are a lot of reasons for it: the renaissance of interest in jazz and I am looked upon as a kind of jazz singer; George Wein presenting me in many, many different venues, including Carnegie Hall, including Nice, including the Olympia in Paris. Including, almost, our concert on Clapham Common, which was cancelled because of the Brixton riots too bad, but it happens.

Plus I would like to believe a factor is the evolvement that I have enjoyed as a performer and as a singer. I think I’ve evolved into a better singer than I was and I’d like to be able to say in ten years: “I think I’m a better singer that I was in 1983.” I hope I’ll say that; I don’t know if my health will hold out, or my throat. But at this point I can honestly say that I’m a better singer than I was in 1973—I can promise you that.

I must say I’ve found these two albums with George very enjoyable. I’m just about to play the second side of the new one, and I’m interested to hear what you do with “Away In A Manger”.

Well, I don’t do anything with it—that’s one of George’s two solos. He does a brilliant pianistic version of the English “Away In A Manger”—not the American melody. By far the prettiest tune of the two—really lovely.

Yes, I certainly agree. Well we’ll look forward to a lot more sterling work from you, Mel.

That’s for you to say not me. There are some TV specials in the offing here. There is a project that I don’t want to talk too much about, but that involves myself, Shearing and Robert Farnon which is something we’ve wanted to do for years now. It’s really a cause celèbre for all of us; if that comes off it’ll make me very happy. There is a very strong probability not definite, but it’s probable, as opposed to possible of a UK tour in ‘84. Probably George and myself—a ten to twelve–city tour. So there are a lot of marvellous things that are happening around Britain; George and I are excited about it—we really are.

 Copyright © 1984, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved