by Les Tomkins - Part 1
What I like about playing in London is that people have the right attitude to listening to jazz. In some countries, you go up there, and they look at you from the beginning to the end and you feel as if you have to break up the wall. But when you play in a club, especially, it should be a loose feeling and everybody has a good time; that’s the way it’s supposed to bethe musicians and the audience having some fun.
I enjoyed taking part in the Woody Herman Tribute concert with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and with Don Menza, Buddy De France, Ronnie Ross, Bobby Lamb and Kenny Baker. The young boys in the band there tried their best, and it seems like they’ve been together for a while. Bill Ashton said he’d got a lot of the original arrangements from Woody; so that was nice.
When the rehearsal started, and he opened up with the theme song, “Blue Flame”, Buddy De Franco came down with the clarinet, and it really reminded me of my old days with Woody, when we played it every nightit gave me a strange feeling to hear that. Also, ten days before we came here I sent Bill several arrangements I wrote for Woody, to add to the programme.
It took my mind back to years ago, when we played Cambridge and the Royal Albert Hall with Woody’s band, on our way from the States to Africa. I think that was a State Department tour.We stayed in Africa three-and-a-half months, and went all over the place. That was a strange trip. Yes, in my career I must have been to over half of the world.
Growing up in Yugoslavia, I was in a high school where they used to have student bands, and played on weekends. Kids played different instruments; so I started with the guitar first, and did a little bit with that. Then I heard Roy Eldridge, and said; “I have to play this instrument”; so I got a trumpet. Later on I added flugelhorn; which one I play depends on the tune I play and the sound I want. Usually for ballads, wherever I need the soft sound, I use the flugelhorn.
Radio Belgrade had a good big band in those days, the ‘fifties. I came out of gymnasium, as they call the high school, and I was playing for about a year-and-a-half, Suddenly one of the trumpet players had to leave, and they asked me to come in and play the fourth trumpet. I was very happy to get in a big band and have a chance to learnit was a big school for me, actually.
They used to have two radio stations, Belgrade 1 and 2; both of them had big bands, playing jazz all the timereal straight-ahead big band jazz. We used to get arrangements from the American library, and arrangers would copy the records; so we had those charts to playStan Kenton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billy May of those days. I stayed about five years, before I left.
There was a definite jazz thing going on in Yugoslavia at that time. I don’t know whyit’s incredible, but for several years, while I was there, it really was happening a lot. Then slowly, I guess, the radio bands settled down to a routine of playing the programmes that a radio producer thinks it should be playing for the people, you know. Although the band they have right now is really trying to play jazz. And the title is the Jazz Orchestra of Radio Belgradethey don’t call it by other names they have for commercial bands or dance bands. They always kept that Jazz title.
I live in Munich now, and it’s a one-hour flight to Belgrade. Once in awhile, when I have a few days off, I go down there to visit friends or family and I go to the Radio and I visit my friends from the band, to see what they’re doing and what they’re playing. So every few months I do that; I check it out, and sometimes I give them some arrangements. When they have concerts, festivals or television/radio productions featuring a soloist, I usually bring my own music, and they rehearse it, record it for the radio and then we play the concert on the weekend and it’s filmed for TV. Not too much, but off and on they have these.
Of course, I travel in different countries, and now, after all these years of jazz all over the world, the people are reacting to it as something normal it belongs to the music scene, you know. Even in small places in Belgium and Holland, there’s a pub on the corner, and they have jazz sessions in the afternoon and evening; then once a week they get bigger names, like Jean “Toots”, coming from Brussels. Years ago, when rock and pop and all that were taking over, they used to say: “Jazz is dead—no more jazz”, but it was not true. It survived.
When I originally left Yugoslavia, my destination was Germany. Nowadays, everybody can get in and out with no problem, but in ‘55 you had to have somebody who would invite you, or send you a contract. The piano player Jutta Hipp brought a group up there and stayed a few days; one of the members of the band, a trumpet player, said: “Why don’t you come to Frankfurt? I’m opening a jazz club.” So he wrote me letters, I went, and I didn’t go back for eleven years. I thought I would never go back. In the meantime, everything changed, as far as passports, visas and all that was concerned. The first time I went back was with Woody Herman in ‘66,after that State Department tour.
I was surprised how much it had changed. I think we flew from Cairo to Paris, and from there to Belgrade; after that we were to play Budapest, Bucharest, London and back to New York. I was a little nervous on the flight, coming close to Belgrade; I said to Bill Chase and Nat Pierce: “If you see two guys in blue uniforms, with a star here, come and pick me up, just take another trumpet player. I’ll end up in Siberia or somewhere!” But it was not like that at all.
We landed, and a whole lot of people were there to meet us; the whole big band from Radio Belgrade had come down to the airport. They had flowers, journalists, photographers and all that.
Woody was just in front of me, going down the stairs; they were taking photos, Woody is waving and smiling. Then a lady photographer said: “Mr Herman, would you please move to one side.. .”
Woody said: “Oh, you want this side?” She said: “No, no, we have enough of youwe would like to get a picture of Mr Goykovic.”
Woody turned round, pretending to be angry: “Him? I thought I was the star of this band.”
After that I was living in New York, still playing with Woody’s band. One day Sal Nistico and I decided that after the next tour we wanted to stay in Europe, and have a quintet. So we went to Cologne, Germany. From then on, I went to the States a few times a year, but I was not living there any more. I came back to Europe every time.
That international Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland band was really a great thing—a dream band. Each player separately was a really top musician; as an orchestra, it was marvellous. We played very often together, did a lot of records, tours, concerts; we played in Ronnie Scott’s for weeks. It was a really exciting band, and musically very good. It’s too bad it disbanded. No, I didn’t write for the band. Francy wrote all the arrangements and a lot of the compositions, so it was his musical stamp. And we were happy to play that music, because it was interesting— really well written.
Usually, in one arrangement he would put not too many soloists— three at the most giving you a chance to play. The next tune, somebody else would stretch out. It was under good control, and never boring.
Another great band I played with was Maynard Ferguson. I was in Berklee School; I had a scholarship there in ’61. I went to study arranging, composing and all that. This involved eight semesters, over an eighteen-month period, and I didn’t want to leave before I finished it. But I had several calls to join different bands.
Stan Kenton’s man called from California three times; Count Basie was looking for a trumpet player. I had the chance to join the bands that I really admired; I’d wanted to play in those bands all my life. I said: “No, I’m not leaving. I have to finish this first, what I came for. After that, the first one who calls me, I’ll go.”
So I finished, and on the Monday I was through with my studies, I said: “What am I going to do now? Go to New York? It’s very difficult for a European to be in the middle of that scene. Maybe I’ll go back to Europe, then.”
The next day Maynard Ferguson called and told me that Rolf Ericson, the Swedish trumpet player, was leaving and going to Duke’s band to replace Clark Terry. “He recommended you; so we called Berklee, and they said you’d finished. Would you like to join the band?” I said: “Yes!” and I was there the same afternoon.
I stayed with Maynard a year and a half—he came to England after disbanding his American band and started one here, as you’ll remember.
That was a great experience He’s one of the most beautiful people I’ve met in my life; he was great to work with and play with, and personally he was always positive—always having fun and laughing, being nice and courteous to everybody. A very nice guy.
It was a hard time to travel five hundred miles from one gig to another, and play maybe only two or three times a week but we loved the band and we loved Maynard, and really the band was popping. Right from the first note, BANG! the jazz power was there. And I learned a lot in his band, then in Woody’s band with all those good musicians, I had a chance to really develop, to see what it’s all about.
Maynard is a fantastic trumpet player. Maybe some people think there are some better jazz players than him; he never claimed to be a genius as a jazz trumpet soloist but he was a genius playing that kind of trumpet.
He really scared me first time when I came in, and heard the way he played—it blows your mind. Then, when I joined Woody’s band—the section playing in American bands—I guess you have it in England. Also the precise work, and very exciting—the sound and everything—from the first to the fifth trumpet everybody’s really playing. I really enjoy that, you know. It was a great learning process for me.
Then in between I played with different small groups: Clark Terry used to have a band, and Duke Jordan. Sometimes I played with Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Band at Birdland, which was still open. Really, I guess I was lucky in that I was in the right place at the right time, to have a chance to hear all these people and play with most of them. It just happened that way.
As for lead playing with Woody’s band, we all did it. We took turns; from five trumpets, you never knew who was playing the lead actually. It could be that in one part I’m playing, then Bill Chase is taking over, then Bobby Shew comes on the end and plays two octaves higher! So it was really teamwork that is what is important in a big band.
Is upper register playing abused? Sometimes it is. My opinion is that high register is not something that should be done just for the sake of playing high notes. If there is a reason for it, if the arrangement is written that way, and you need that note, then you play it. But not just for the purpose of screeching up there in every tune. It can sound very good, very exciting when you use that register, but, as an arranger or as a musician, I believe there must be a musical reason for that.
Showing off and playing tricks is one thing; playing music is another.
It took me a long time. Actually, I was not a high blower, as they call it, for years; I was playing just middle register my thing was small combo, improvising and playing jazz, and 1 didn’t have high register. As the years went by, I was extending a little bit, more and more and more. When you play with these guys in the States, and they all play up and down, somehow it opens up your ears and your mind; so you start hearing these notes, and eventually it comes out.
You have to be in the company and environment that gives you that push; they give you the confidence, and tell you: “You can do it if you want to try. If I can do it, you can do it also.” It gives you a little moral support, to open up the possibilities that you maybe didn’t think of before it’s exciting.
Of course, you have to practise, and you prepare yourself. During practising, that’s where you have to strain yourself. It’s like a sportsman who is training. You have to go to the limits of your abilitiesnot ruin your chops, or break your lips, but to try to get that. But then, when you’re really performing on a stage, it shouldn’t be so difficult then—because of your preparation.
A marathon runner, a boxer or a football player have to be in condition in order to perform. That takes hard work. It’s really hard, but the thing is: you don’t consider it as work. For me, it’s a pleasure when I achieve that; when I play one half-note higher than three months ago, then I’m happy. It makes me realise that I did something I’m going ahead. And it gives me the inclination to go ahead and develop more.
It goes on all the time and it’s not only the technical playing. Of course, as a jazz trumpet player you have to think about ten different things at the same time about harmony and improvisation and timing and feeling, besides technique. And that’s jazz.
Do I prefer small groups? Well, I’ll tell you, Les I consider myself always as a jazz player that comes from the small group. A quartet or quintet is for me the basic thing; I like to play with another horntenor sax, trumpet and rhythm section and I’ve had those groups all my life. Now, to get away from that, not to be just one-sided, I like to play with other people, with other bands. I like to play with a big band; I don’t like to nail myself down on one thing.
So I’m very happy when somebody calls me and says: “Would you play with us, with our band and our music?” I love to do that. It’s a challenge, it opens your ear; you are not stale, you don’t stay on one pathyou have new experiences, meet new people, hear some other musicians, and play something that you normally wouldn’t do in your own group.
Last summer the guy from Norway called me: Per Husby, the piano player. He had a record date. I didn’t know him before, but he said he wanted me to come up to Oslo and record with him. I said: “What kind of music do you play? What is it that I’m supposed to do?” He said: “Oh, it’s actually a little strange and avant garde something between Mingus and Duke and...” he threw everything in, to explain it.
“Who’s playing?” He said John Surman, Guy Barker, Ray Warleigh, Ron Mathewson would be there, plus some Norwegian musicians, including the drummer Jon Christiansen, who played with Garbarek—all kinds of so-called avant garde musicians.
So I don’t like labels, you know you can call it whatever you want; it depends if it’s good music, if it means something. I said: “Why me? Why do you call me? I mean, there are probably some other people who can fit better, who are stamped to be from that camp.” He said: “No, no, no, I heard you playing and I heard your records, and actually, what I had in mind: I want that sound and the way you play.” I said: “That’s beautifulokay.”
So I went there; I was a little nervous before I heard the music, and before we started rehearsing and playing. But then it was so interesting, so challenging that I enjoyed it. We did the record, went to play in a festival, and spent a week together it was real fun. It was something completely different than what I usually do with my quintet. You enter into it and it really opens you upyou have to try something that you didn’t try yesterday. Which is fine. The judgment is: if it’s jazz, if it swings in its own way; it doesn’t have to be a regular rhythm all the time, as long as it has something, if it's groove is there that’s already enough for me. You can create something.
He had a regular piano and keyboard; then a French horn, a few saxophones, two trumpets, trombone, tuba and things like that. If you remember the bands with Gil Evans years ago, when they started experimenting with this different instrumentation it was something like this. It was not big band, it was not small group—something between. But actually there was no section-work. It was written so that this horn is playing with that, and then this with that; it was not like strictly regular big band—it was really thought-through music. He used the instrument for a certain purpose.
My feelings about using electronics in music are mixed. I used to have an attachment for my trumpet, but I couldn’t use it. I didn’t like the sound of it. I don’t like electric bass, for example, when I play in a jazz group I prefer upright bass. As far as keyboards or synthesisers, that’s fine everything’s okay; it depends which kind of sound you want. I prefer a natural sound of instruments than going and using electric everything, from A to Z. My experience is that you cannot get the dynamics with these kind of instruments; once you have fixed a bass or a piano on a certain level, then it says like it from beginning to end most of the time.
When the bass plays a solo, he cannot go softer and then louder; it usually stays in one line, and has no possibility of moving any place and it’s usually too loud. Actually, I prefer to have all natural instruments. I have nothing against anything new, if it’s electric, electronic, digital or whatever, as long as the music doesn’t suffer, and it’s not just for the sake of technical tricks. If you want to play jazz, then it has to have feeling and all kinds of things besides loudness.
Copyright © 2001, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved