Jazz Professional               



At Ronnie's

Evolution of an individual
At Ronnie's
A rich past
New fields still to conquer
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1980

It's very good to play at Ronnie's—it's going very well. I was surprised that we've had the response that we have. Last night was Wednesday, and the club was packed; the same on Tuesday and Monday—and the weekend, naturally.

Even the first week, we had very good crowds Monday through Thursday, but now this week it's been like a weekend every night—so that's marvellous. See, I didn't know how well I would be received by the people; I had to find out, so that people booking me would also know that I'm drawing—then they can make a more realistic tour programme.

This programme, the way it is now—we were on a tour in the States , before we came here, and we lost a lot of money, because of what we had to pay the guys. But I wanted to have my own band, as I have here, so that I can be heard with my music—I play mostly the music that I've written. On this trip, we'll hardly make any money at all, but in November we're going to Japan, and we'll make some there—that's the one place where we make money. Now, the next time we tour the United States, or come to Great Britain and to Europe, we can get money where the guys can stay in nice hotels.

It's really flattering that the people are there. The only crowd we had that wasn't really great, as far as listening, was last night. It was strange, but there were maybe three or four tables where the people were talking all the time; they didn't come to hear the music—they came just to hang out, I guess. You know, I didn't notice 'em on the faster tunes; just on the ballads, I really could tell, because they were talking and everything. And rather than say anything, I just tried to ignore it and play—otherwise you get, like that thing of back and forth, which is very bad. People get crazy when they drink. The other people in the club were very attentive, but there were maybe three tables—and that's all it takes. Or one, actually.

Anyway, it was okay musically. The night before, I think, was really exceptional—a marvellous night. We'd had some problems the thing of playing as a band, rather than as four individuals going for themselves. We had a little argument, on the first rehearsal we had, about where one was on something we were doing. Well, musicians can be very temperamental, you know. I used to be terrible—I'd really get out of line. I'd say: "I don't care about friendship, or any of that bull . . . we're playing music. If you can't do it, go—I'll get someone who can." I was real rank, in those days. Fortunately, I was stopped doing that. I didn't do it on purpose; I would get angry—and you lose your composure. But now, I feel a lot better; I think age makes you a little more mellow.

So we've really got it together now. On Friday and Saturday night, we're going to record in the club. I've been a little worried if we should make the tunes shorter for the record; then I figured, the people like what we're doing now—it would spoil the record and the performance at the club. Of course, sometimes people play longer than they should play, it's true. But that'll help financially, too—it'll enable us to pay some of our debts off, which is nice. I certainly hope it'll be a good album.

Yes, I've worked with these guys before. I did a Japanese tour with the pianist, Milcho Leviev and the drummer, Carl Burnette, when the bass player was Bob Magnusson—he's a very strong player; he was on the "Among Friends" album. Then the last time I went to Japan, I had the present bass player, Tony Dumas, with George Cables on piano and Billy Higgins on drums. Then for this recent tour, it was Milcho, Carl and Bob again. Now, with Milcho, Carl and Tony, it's taken time, because Tony just plays different. We were rehearsing, and we had a little part on this tune, "Miss Who", that I wrote; I wanted him to play real loud on the bottom, but instead of leaving it for the bass I had to have Milcho play it on octaves also with him, to make it sound louder. Then, just jokingly, Tony really pulled, and it was just perfect; Carl said: "Wow, that's what we've been going through all this thing wanting." And I said: "Man, that's exactly what I want." Tony just laughed, like he was just goofing off—he was just playing corny. You cant do anything about that—because he has his own style, and I have to honour his integrity; I mean, to him, that isn't playing right. So Carl was very unhappy that we didn't sound like a band, like we did before. But things are starting to get together now.

But I've been very flattered—the different things people have said. I do feel, though, that I'm playing better than I ever have I mean, I know that I am. I have more facility, more control; I can do a lot more different things, such as spreading the tone. I try not to worry about the crowd's acceptance, but it's almost impossible. I don't think anybody can just negate that; you can't overlook. . . if the people don't clap when you play a solo, then something's wrong. However, the people have been just wonderful.

On our way, before we came here, we played a night in San Francisco, at the Great American Music Hall. It was a gigantic place, with a balcony and all that, and I thought: "Boy, what a drag. I wish it was a smaller place; it's really going to be embarrassing—there won't be enough people." So they announced us, we went out, the people started clapping—every seat was taken, and they were standing in the back. They kept on clapping, some people stood up, then everyone was on their feet—even before we played a note. That's what they did in Japan, too, the first time I went—and every time since. And it's just so wonderful—like, to be accepted even before you play.

Then you have to live up to that, too—and I have. Also being on time, being presentable; my horns are working, and I'm able to do what I'm supposed to do. And I'm sure that that's one of the things they were most interested in—you know, the clubowners, bookers and people like that. A lot of them probably didn't want to be the first ones to experiment : "Let soandso do it, and then, if he works out, we'll know—but we don't want to take a chance on our money." Now, I'll be able to go back and make maybe twice as much money. So with me it's just proving a point, and, fortunately, my wife Laurie, who coauthored our book, realises that—and she doesn't get angry that we have to live in a secondclass hotel.

In Japan, it's another story. We stay at the new Otane Hotel, which is just incredible. You don't have to leave the hotel—everything that you could ever want, practically, is in there some place, with all the different shops and so on.

Even medical care—everything. Well, they don't sell automobiles, but that's one of the few things they don't deal with.

The first time was for six days in '77, when I had Cal Tjader with me; I went again in '78 and '79o this year will be the fourth time. We're signed by this company—they're almost like the old American Mafia type of thing, but it's, like, business. It's a big business combine. But they don't stand for people who aren't able to live up to their obligations; if you can't do it—don't sign. The first two times, I'd walk out of my hotel room, and there would be a young guy with a suit on standing down by the elevator—a real gangster type of thing. He'd nod at me, ask me where I was going, and I'd tell him I was just going down to a shop to get something : "Oh, I'll walk along with you." It was protecting me as well as them; they didn't want anybody to try to make a name for themselves by arresting me or something. If anything happens to me, then they lose money, of course And they lose face—especially that. When the Japanese make a contract, that's it.

As for the band they want me to take to Japan—this is the only time that I've ever made a concession; they want Tony, Carl, and George Cables instead of Milcho. It's still a great band; you've heard George Cables—he's a fine piano player. Of course, Milcho has improved so much since the time he went to Japan with me; from '78 till now, he's developed incredibly. And they don't play with me to make money; Milcho most of all—he can make a fortune in the studios.

He can do anything: he can write for a symphony; he can play any style, whether it be fusion or a real oldtime Teddy Wilson kind of thing—anything anybody wants. We were playing a slow blues last night. and towards the end he had a tremolo effect, on the way the chords move. It was just beautiful—you know, constant sound, and constantly changing positions—just gorgeous. And I actually heard him play two lines simultaneously before—like, one with the right hand and one with the left. He's a great player. Naturally, he feels disappointed not to be going to Japan with me, and I can't blame him; but I think he understands, that people put these pressures on you. But once I get to a point where I feel that I can ask for what I want, then I can get who I want. It'll be enough to carry it with just myself, without them worrying about the rhythm.

Yeah, in the past I've had some great people playing with me. I guess the first album I ever made was a quartet thing with Hampton Hawes, Joe Mondragon and Larry Banker; then I did one with Russ Freeman, Bob Whitlock and Bobby White. Also on the same label as those, Discovery, one of the very earliest was with Jack Montrose on tenor, plus Claude Williamson, Monte Budwig and Larry Bunker; I wrote a lot of tunes for that—like "Straight Life", which was a real fast line. The way Jack played the lines, when we played together . . . the parts that were written and the parts we played free almost sounded the same. I mean, we were so in tune with each other's musical thinking; I'd let him lead sometimes—there was no idea of self in it. The empathy was just beautiful. I used to do that with Warne Marsh also. But the last time I played with Warne, I found him trying to raja me, you know—trying to lead most of the time, rather than it being give and take all the way down the line. Of course, it might just have been that night, though; you never know—he might have not felt good or something. Anyway, he's a great player—I just love the way he plays.

And I'm looking forward to the Charlie Parker Tribute concert here on July 14; I'm a late tradition to that. Dizzy's on it, and Lee Konitz is going to be there; I was thinking, it'll be really fun playing with Lee. We only played together once; I went over to his place, when he, Warne and Jimmy Knepper, the trombone player, were all studying with Lennie Tristano.

They lived in the Bronx, or toward Harlem somewhere, in one of these basement apartments, and we went and jammed there. It was just a great sessionboy, if that would have been taped, it would have been marvellous; it was really excellent. But that's the only time that I played with Lee; it was so enjoyable—we really fit together, as far as our approach, and tonewise. We both have very pretty sounds. It would be interesting some time for us to join forces.

I always wanted to do something with Paul Desmond, but unfortunately he isn't around—because he was marvellous; I really liked the way he played. As for Phil Woods—we were supposed to do that; we got the approval from my record company, Fantasy, and I thought it was all arranged. But I think what's happening with the record business hitting a slump, as of now. . . it was great for a while, and all of a sudden, when I finally get to where I'm making my move, then there's a recession. So I think that might have had something to do with it—us both wanting the same amount of money. I would think, though, that if I were a jazz collector and a record came out with me and Phil Woods on it, I would have to have that record. Everyone that follows jazz would want it—don't you think so? Also I wanted to record with Zoot Sims—that would be really a pleasure—but Norman Granz wouldn't have it. Zoot was okay; he would have done it, and we would have had a ball. We're very similar in a lot of ways—people don't even realise it, but we are, the way we think musically.. We're the closest of anyone that I can think of, as far as our styles; like, I'm a little more venturesome, but as far as the basic thing of swinging, the beauty, etc., we're very close, I think. I love the way he plays. Going to prison, you lose everything you had, unfortunately, but I had every record Zoot had ever made; which shows how I feel—if he told me that he had every record I'd ever made, it would just really make me feel great. But I did, and they're all gone now; Coltrane, I had all his things, all Miles' things, and almost all the Pres things. And a few Bird things.

I tried to stay away from too many Parker things, because I didn't want to get consumed by him—like so many players did. There were all kinds of players, who were playing great . . they were playing tenor, and really had a thing going; then he came out, and they switched from tenor to alto. They started copying his solos, and passing them around, and it just spoiled them. I'm not saying that hearing Bird would spoil 'em; it's just the idea that he was so strong, and such a great player, that he just consumed them—they lost their identity. So that's why I tried to stay as much as possible away from his influence. And I succeeded, thank God. I always tried to keep my own identity, but it's been hard at times; people have said little things, you know. When I first heard Coltrane on the "Kind Of Blue" album with Miles, it was just so marvellous—and I almost got lost in him. Fortunately, I was able to drag myself through it.

Copyright © 1980 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.