Jazz Professional               



A beautiful session

Musical all my life
A beautiful session
Our philosophy

Talking to Les Tomkins in 1972
Staf de Prince Jazz

How did you feel about the Mainstream album you made with Michel Legrand?

Well, you know, it was a beautiful session, and everybody on it was the best musicians that you could get—Shelly Manne and, I mean, just everybody. It was a touching session; there were tears shed—the guys were so moved. I looked over at Shelly, and tears were running down his face; same with a lot of guys. But now that I hear the album—in some parts, too much music was written. Good—but for vocal, too much, at times, However I still love it.

The songs that Michel writes are absolutely gorgeous—and he’s still writing. I’ve done a couple of concerts with him; I did one at Carnegie Hall. In fact, he just called me; he has some dates in Paris, and we might be doing the Montreal Symphony with him. As soon as somebody played me one of his albums—the one with “Summer Of ‘42” on it I said: “This is the guy who’s gonna write my next album.”

You don’t have any special favourite writers?

I just like good writers. If you can write good, come over here to me—I need you. But there’s Marty Paich, who did the unreleased Atlantic Beatles album, and his son David writes in the rock ‘n’ roll style; with the two of them together, it made for an excellent album—we thought. When we were picking out the tunes, there was one particular tune they kept shoving at me—but I turned it down. Maybe that has something to do with ‘em not putting it out.

Do you feel that in the pop music field the tendency in the main is to play down to the public, rather than trying to raise their level of appreciation?

There are some good hits out, but mostly, as you say, you don’t need too much talent nowadays to have a hit, And the trouble is, that’s about all you hear. I can drive across country, and on my radio I don’t think I’ll hear jazz after I leave New York. or before I get to California. Maybe through Chicago, or something like that.

Well, it’s somewhat like that over here. The radio waves are largely cluttered up with the most blatantly commercially-geared pop scene.

But you have more of a respect for music over here in Europe than they do at home, I think. Yes, indeed —especially jazz. It’s cultural, I guess, to you people. Over there, it’s taken for granted—and the only thing is money. If it don’t sell, it’s no good.

I like something that sells year in and year out—every year, from 1930 up to 1960. I think that’s what saves me —my records continuously sell. The same ones.

By now, you’ve pretty well sung all round the world. Are there certain places where you’ve been particularly well-received?

Just about everywhere I go—isn’t that marvellous? You can always depend on New York audiences; like-wise, the Roxy in L.A. And over here in Europe I have no problems. There’s an old theatre in Cleveland—they took all the seats out, and put in little tables; it holds two thousand people. I just worked there for a week, very successfully—it was just about full every night. In Cleveland, I think they’re just starving for something; I know a lady walked up to me and said : “I haven’t worn my fur coat in years, because there’s no place to go here.” Things like that. So, people are usually good to me, wherever I go. Oh, I have been places I would never go back to again—but I can count ‘em on one hand.

Would you like to say a few words about a man your name has been linked with to some extent, ever since you sang with his big band in the early ‘forties —Billy Eckstine.

That’s my father! He saved my life, in those days. Of course, I was so young, and I thought that everything everybody else did I was supposed to do. But all the fellows really looked after me—they would beat me if I didn’t listen to them! One time, I was late going to Indianapolis, where the band was playing a dance; I was having so much fun in Chicago, I decided to stay: “I’ll see you guys later.” When I got there, the dance was just over; I walked in and said: “Hi, guys. Sorry I’m late.” So they all formed a circle round me, and beat me to death! After getting hit on the arm by fifteen guys, when I left there both my arms were down by my sides—I couldn’t move. And I was never late any more. Yes, I could do no wrong in that band—if I did, I would do it no more. I was very fortunate, compared with other girls I’ve seen in orchestras. I still see Billy. I wish you could be around sometimes when we get to talking—the things that pop up. You’d have your greatest piece ever, if you took down some of our conversations. Because I can only think of ‘em when we all get together; it seems like it all flashes back.

He told me he wants to do some more duets with you.

Yeah, he says how nice and easy it’s gonna be, now that I’m with Atlantic. Poor thing—that’s another setback! Then Billy plays a lot of the Northern clubs over here; we were trying to get a tour of those going, but it’s not easy. You know—and we’re back to the record companies again—I never knew about “Passing Strangers” by me and Billy being a hit over here. And twice it was a hit, ,wasn’t it? Now, that’s a shame—I get a hit, and nobody tells me about it. It’s just utterly ridiculous. Yet, I must be grateful, because I’m here on account of records, there’s no denying.

I mean, a long time ago, when I was with Musicraft—one of my first labels, after Columbia, or whatever it was—1 used to go in there to see the guy about the records, and he would sit in his big office, and show me the big pictures on the walls of all the yachts he owned. And soon after that it went bankrupt! Just when I was passing Doris Day’s big hit on “It’s Magic”.

So you have some vivid recollections of the days on the road with the Eckstine band?

I sure do. We used to have so much fun. Like, when we went down South—if we were supposed to say “Yessuh” and all that, we would, to keep the peace, but we always had a plan in mind. And before we left, all those guys were saying: “Boy, that girl sure can sing”; after we got with ‘em, we’d speak in our natural voices, and they’d say: “Well, there’s some good niggers from up North.” I remember one time, we’d just played a dance in Wilmington, Delaware, and we had to wait for a train. At that time in Wilmington, Delaware, they still had the whipping post downtown in the middle of the street. This is between one and two in the morning; Billy walked back to get a shoe-shine—and this teenager says : “I don’t shine no nigger’s shoes.” On the station, all the cats were laying out there, sleeping, waiting for the train to come in. So B. walks up, and says: “Hey, fellows—there’s a guy back there who says he don’t shine no nigger’s shoes!” So the guys said: “Oh, my goodness—here we go again.” And they all strolled slowly back, formed a line by this young guy, waiting for a shoe-shine.

Now, how this guy could look at fifteen guys and say he didn’t shine niggers’ shoes, I don’t know—but I don’t think he ever shined niggers’ shoes again! We left Wilmington on foot! Yeah, we had fun doing things like that—it made life’s problems bearable. B. was always the little instigator; he liked to start things—and he’s still the same way.

What I like about the South—they’re honest. They don’t like coloured people and Jews, and that’s it. But I don’t think anybody ever really knew about the North—it was just the worst place in the world. Where I was born, in Newark, New Jersey, we had to sit in the balcony; but we used to love it, because we’d throw all kinds of things down below!

The best way that you’ve really been able to make your point has been by what you’ve done artistically, isn’t it?

Right. If I didn’t have my talent, it wouldn’t have been done. Talent will out. Because jazz is still here, and there’s been other types of music that’ve been in and gone, and in and out. Now even rock ‘n’ roll and jazz are combining together. I know a lot of little rock ‘n’ roll groups: the way you see ‘em on stage is one thing, but when they go to record, they have good musicians because they can read. Well, I’m for anybody who can make some money, whatever way they can make it—it’s all right with me. But don’t put the other, good stuff down because there’s more money being made on the bad side.

You were part of a new wave of jazz, as it was getting underway. What are your thoughts about the so—called new wave of more recent years?

The freedom music? I don’t understand it. One day I went to a club in New York downtown; I walked in, and we were kinda tore—up when we went in—when I came out, I was sober! I couldn’t understand how they made their breaks together, how they ended together—that was the two things that had me confused.

Because in between that it was just bedlam to me. But I don’t put it down—as long as you understand what you’re doing. There’s not too much of that now, though; that’s kind of phased out, don’t you think? They went on up to freedom, and on up to the high lights! They’re up above there playing somewhere—free as a breeze! Let ‘em figure out what Charlie Parker and Art Tatum were doing—when they get that, there’s no place to go! Art Tatum, now—he was more appreciated here in Europe than he was in the States. Sure, you realise that he was a genius. But over there, he didn’t sell records; so that was pooh-pooh. Yet you also know that if a record company want a hit, they’ll get one, whatever it is. They could make a hit out of Charlie Parker’s records, if they really wanted to; but they’d have to spend a little money—so I guess that’s not too good.

When you’re relaxing at home, what is your general area of music listening?

All kinds of things; I have no particular one of this or that, that I listen to. I love Leontyne Price. I just love good music; I don’t put labels on it—it’s either good music or bad music, as far as I’m concerned, whether it’s rock ‘n’ roll, country music, opera or whatever.

The only standpoint being: is it done with sincerity?

Absolutely. I mean, I can only say about this stuff nowadays, with the make-up of the one eye, the electric bulbs flashing, the smoke going up in the air, that I think that’s a put-on. If I went to see them people, they’d be putting me on; I’m not going to be put on. And they are making loads of money. I really feel kids are being put on with all this.

 My daughter liked one of those guys, but now she’s getting a little older, and leaving that behind. Right—you can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of ‘em all the time. But—life is beautiful, regardless.

And I’m sure that one of the beautiful things has been the great people you’ve known and worked with. Bill Basie, for instance.

Oh, Count Basie—another fantastic man. I just heard a story last night that after his heart attack his wife wanted him to give up his band. And I had heard that rumour myself; I almost went into tears. But apparently he said that he could never do that—and I think that’s the happiest thing I’ve heard this year. He would die if he did that. Those guys have to keep working. I don’t think Duke died because of the hard work that he was doing; he died because he was sick. If he’d been twenty-two, he’d have died if it was illness. Boy, this is a hell of an interview, isn’t it? The longest I’ve ever done. And enjoying it. Normally, I hate interviews.

Well, the enjoyment is mutual, believe me. Anyway—you’d say you’re really optimistic about your musical future?

I think I’m more sure now than ever. This Atlantic thing might be a hassle, but. . . . Recently, I heard that Roulette Records sued the Beatles; the Beatles counter-sued, and they won. Bless ‘em. Oh, its a terrible business—but I still love it; I wouldn’t give it up for nothing. Could shoot a few people!

You don’t visualise another five year recording lay-off at all?   

If that’s what it’s gonna be, that’s it, because I’ve proven myself. I don’t give a damn about record companies any more. They got it. I just pray for others that get involved—like young people, who don’t know. Some are fortunate; they have hits right away. I hope they take their money and run—home to mother!   Well—I sure let off a lot of steam today, didn’t I?  

One thing I must say: I hope that now you have finally played Ronnie Scott’s, this will be the first of many.

 I loved it. You know, I worked with Ronnie Scott in the ‘fifties; we did some tours together. I’ve been knowing him that long—and he is quite a funny guy ! And so nice. Everybody in that club was just darling. I have a big, strapping guy who sits on my door—and I’m sure if somebody walks in my room uninvited, they’ll never walk another place again ! They really look after you. See, those kind of clubs are rare. Usually, they’re having fits if you’re two minutes late for the show, and it’s: “What the hell is this?” But Ronnie’s been around a long time; I’ve always wanted to work at his club, and now I finally have.

I can’t think of why anyone would go to a concert, if not to hear the music; they’ve certainly not come in there to sit down and drink and talk. The second show at Ronnie’s was a little noisy—but it was a happy noise.

Copyright © 1972 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.