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A Les Tomkins Interview
Les Tomkins talks to jazz trumperter Bernie Privin in 1974 about his career and his time in Britain.
I haven’t mastered my instrument by far—but if I had a million dollars, I’d still play the trumpet. And I wish I had the million, incidentally! Or as I told someone—I’ll never marry poor again! But really, I’m very grateful for what I do. It’s been rewarding spiritually, monetarily, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve visited, all the beautiful things it has afforded me. And the friends I’ve made, and continue to make every day. Bernie Privin
Touring Britain recently with the Dorsey–style band was a beautiful experience. I was aware of the presence of professionals. It was a closely–knit group musically; we were all compatible, which is equally important. We’d get in the bus, and one would assume there’d be quite a bit of griping—but there we were, all laughing our heads off. And I’m so grateful. It was as if the years rolled away, and we were back to 1940—which was lovely.
Of course, I’ve been through this many times. I had nine years on the road, so to speak, travelling with Goodman, Shaw, Dorsey, Barnet. Certainly, Miller for two years, over here. But this reunion was just great. I’m starting to forget my age. I’ll remember it soon enough!
I’m from New York, and I still live there. I live on the outskirts—a suburb called Westchester. It’s very nice; many trees, and very little noise, such as in New York City proper. I have a nice home there, a comfortable life; I’ve been very fortunate.
From the age of seven till I was eleven, I played the mellophone. Then there was a two–year hiatus from music completely. On my thirteenth birthday, I found myself in Harlem with two other boys my age, and there was the sign on the marquee: Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra. I’d never heard of Louis before that—but when we emerged from the theatre, my life had changed, literally, because the next day I had my first trumpet. I walked out, I had a chill down my back. And thank God; it set up my life–style, you might say. It’s been marvellous, ever since.
I haven’t been out of work since I turned. professional, which was five years later, at the age of eighteen. It may sound contrived, but there were many of us in Brooklyn, New York, who did this sort of thing: I walked down the street, and I heard a band playing on the first level of a house. Not hearing a trumpet within the group, I knocked on the door and asked if I could sit in with them. “Oh, sure–come on in.” We were all teenage—fourteen and so forth. And I learned how to play before I learned how to read. One thing led to another; by the time I’d turned nineteen, I’d joined Tommy Dorsey.
Actually, the first band I ever worked with professionally was a banjo–playing leader, Harry Reser, who was big at the time—1937. Fifty dollars a week––which to me was a million. My rent was two dollars a week, and there weren’t any taxes realised in those days.
That started the ball rolling. Before I knew it, there was Tommy Dorsey, followed by Artie Shaw, followed by Benny Goodman, followed by Charlie Barnet, followed by the war, with Miller. Then I rejoined Benny, after which I went to the studios, played for two years with the Perry Como Show. Then I did a Broadway musical, and from there I went to CBS, where I’ve just finished twenty–two years—which in turn allowed me to come over here.
The Dorsey job came when I was working with Benny Goodman’s eldest brother, Freddy, also a trumpet player. We were in a town called North Tonawanda, which is near Buffalo, in upstate New York, when the phone rang for me: “Bernie? This is Tommy Dorsey.” I said: “Let’s cut the baloney. What’s the gag?” Finally he convinced me, and I started to freeze.
My opening day with him was a ten–thirty a.m. start at the Paramount Theatre, then a rehearsal during the day, between shows, for his commercial radio programme. Plus the evening’s performance after the theatre, at the New Yorker Hotel. So I really fell into the fire. I was scared stiff; when I think of it now, I don’t see how I got through it. But I’m sure as hell glad I did.
My first reaction was: “This is the way to live. This is what I want to do.” The money was fabulous; wherever I looked, there were hundreds of dollars coming in. By this time, I was up to five dollars a week rent.
I was still a baby; it was all unbelievable. In the trumpets with me were Yank Lawson, Lee Castle; on saxophones were Babe Russin, Bud Freeman, Skeets Herfurt; Gene Traxler on bass, Davey Tough on drums; and, of course, Tommy himself. This was the pre–Sy Oliver band; the arrangers were Axel Stordahl and Paul Weston, who later on became big stars in California.
The band had a Dixieland, twobeat style then—which wasn’t to my liking, actually, but how do you argue with success? Although one of the first recordings I was on was “The Hawaiian War Chant”; that was Swing, yes. Also I honestly preferred to play jazz—and I was in the lead chair. However, it was a marvellous experience; the sort of thing you can’t buy, let alone ask for.
As for the kind of discipline that people like Dorsey and Goodman were noted for: I always got the impression that they wanted their employees to be as good as they were. And believe me, they were good. In the case of Benny, he still is. As a matter of fact, I did a couple of Sextet dates with him just prior to coming over. He’s as great as ever. Then he’s been using Zoot Sims, who is a superstar in his own right; he’s really something. It was wonderful working next to him.
But who could challenge Tommy? I used to marvel the way he would take a solo in a slow four, and almost forget to breathe, yet complete the passage—he must have breathed through his ears or something! All the bandleaders have their respective personalities. Artie Shaw? Let’s say he was the most literate and articulate of all the leaders I’ve worked with—and he still is. It was a lovely engagement, any way you look at it. And I was fortunate enough to join him just as “Begin The Beguine” hit the airwaves. It seemed that every time I joined a band, something like that happened; not through my doing—I was just lucky.
As someone once remarked about Artie Shaw: “He’s the type of fellow who could fall into an open manhole and come up in a tuxedo, sparkling new.” And he could. Nevertheless, Artie was very exacting; I enjoyed two eventful years with him.
But, of course, Artie quit the business completely and ran off to Mexico in a fit of anger one day. When we were appearing at the Cafe Rouge of the Pennsylvanian Hotel. I remember a woman asking him:. “Mr. Shaw, would you honour us with a rumba ” And he says: “Lady, you’re in the wrong room!” Which is not the thing to say. But it was a fact—we never played rumbas, sambas; it was a Swing band. Artie was bugged with the whole thing—what he was relegated to do and to say. He wanted to do it his way, which was his prerogative, after all. In the end, he became sick and tired of everything, packed up and quit.
There we were, left high and dry—and I was just getting ready to get married. We went from the hotel to the Roseland Ballroom, which was a difference of about a hundred dollars a week, and that was a lot in those days. But that didn’t last too long, thank goodness.
I must say, when I hear some of the recordings I’ve made of yesteryear, I cringe, I really do. I liked them then, but now—it’s another ball game. There were some good ones with Barnet. I guess: “Charleston Alley”, “Redskin Rumba”, “Cherokee”, “Pompton Turnpike”. That was an exciting band, yes. The style tried to be similar to Duke Ellington’s type of music, because he was very taken with it. Let’s say it was a white Ellington band.
Charlie was completely different from Tommy. Artie and Benny. He was more of a hell–going guy––you know, fast cars, all the girls in the world. Just a wild guy. I used to travel in his car with him, and we would pass automobiles at a hundred–and–twenty miles an hour. I didn’t know what I was doing, either. I mean, what was I doing with him, when I could have been in the bus, relaxing? But it was all exciting. He’s comfortably ensconced today, living in Las Vegas. He works possibly fifteen or twenty weeks a year, and doesn’t have to do any more than that. Dollars and cents–wise, he’s well fixed up.
No, I never worked with the civilian Miller band. As a matter of fact, I went through my basic training in Greensborough, North Carolina—a place I refer to as the hell–hole of the earth. I was one of thirty thousand soldiers down there, mostly privates.
Oh, it was hell, having been with the bands prior to that, enjoying a good life, to be reduced to sleeping in a bunk, and: “Yes, sir, yes, sir” all day long. And “Shine your shoes, soldier”; “Comb your hair, soldier”; “Stand alert, soldier”. Then going through the rigours of lying on my stomach while the bullets whistled overhead. This was not what I had in mind! Along with all this–no trumpet playing, either. Finally, the requisition from Glenn Miller came through, and I was whisked off to Newhaven, Connecticut, where the band was stationed.
Yes—my life started again. As I often said, of the Army: “I couldn’t ask for a raise, and I couldn’t quit, either!” We were the official Army Air Force Band, and when we came to London we were acknowledged as the band attached to General Eisenhower’s SHAEF headquarters. The proof is: during the Battle of the Bulge—which, although we won, we lost more soldiers than the enemy did—they were taking men out of the infantry bands and so forth; we were approached, too, but it was a “hands off” policy, thank God. They couldn’t break up our orchestra. And many musicians died in that battle; in fact, one of the boys I grew up with went the first day.
The musicianship of the band was par excellence; it really was. Speaking for myself, this was not my cup of tea, in the sense that I didn’t really care for the Miller style. But each member was hand–picked—including the fellow who repaired our instruments. We had one hell of a band; I don’t think anyone could have duplicated what we did. As a matter of fact, he asked us to stay together after the war. I doubt if I would have done—only because I would rather play in a Swing band. I didn’t care for that sliding, wailing clarinet lead.
As for Glenn––well, I can’t say that I was crazy about him. He went his way and I went mine. I yes–sirred him to death, I saluted, I played as well as I could. And he was appreciative, in as much as he wanted me to stay with him––which I declined. I’m really sorry he’s gone, but his music was not for me.
And no leader was ever that strict. It’s not that I preferred to be late for rehearsals—but I wanted more of a flexible friend, you know. He insisted upon the saluting, and yet, during civilian days it had been: “Hey Bernie, what do you say—let’s go and have a drink.” While he was deserving of the respect accorded to an officer, there’s still a way, within the confines of a room, to sort of let your hair down, take your shoes off and put your feet up on the table. We’re still human beings. But––I got through it.
In ‘46 I went back to the States, and back to Benny Goodman. The music was changing, but Benny was still Benny. I was fortunate enough not only to rejoin him, but we immediately went to California. It was marvellous to get to the sunshine and orange juice, right after the uniform and dog tags. Speaking of dog tags—on this present trip to England, I’ve had some remarkable experiences. To avoid the buzz bombs, the Miller band went to Bedford, where we stayed on Ashburnham Road—a name I shall always remember and cherish. During one of our stops on this tour, a fellow showed me a card—it was an autograph I’d given to him thirty years ago. Which I duplicated for him.
Then he said: “Would you remember your serial number?” I said: “Yes, it was 32967251.” He said: “That’s correct”. I said “You’re damn right, it’s correct”, because this is another thing I’ll never forget. And he had it written on the back of the card; where he got it from, I’ll never know.
That has happened three times–three people have stopped me and said: “We met thirty years ago in Bedford.” It’s just been incredible.
When, in 1950, I went into the studios, I was able to adapt to it, as all the bands had stood me in good stead. I was a bit more knowledgeable by this time, but I took a few lessons, literally, because we would run into anything and everything. You had to be very flexible. For instance, the Ed Sullivan Show would be done all in one day. We would come in on a Sunday at nine a.m., and we’d be off the air at nine p.m. You’d run it over once; the second time around they expected you to know it, because they not only had to rehearse the music, but the lighting, props—all of it. It was a wonderful time; it also gave my family and I the opportunity to stay in one place.
Now, I seem to have more time than I know what to do with. I’m relegated to an occasional recording, and so–called club dates. I’ve kept my jazz chops up and, right now, I’m in the middle of an album. I’ve made four sides, and I want to do eight more. George Duvivier is on bass; the other boys are Cy Mann on the Radio City Music Hall organ. as well as piano, Robert Shankin. on drums, Don Arnone on guitar. Nice little group; the four sides turned out rather well. I even vocalised on one tune—well, no one could stop me; I paid for the date. I was pleasantly surprised; I don’t intend to make a career of it, but I wanted to try it once, anyway.
I intend to return here before another thirty years elapses. In point of fact, I was here last year. I went to Sweden to play some concerts, then backtracked to London. I had my wife and two daughters with me; they had never been before, and they loved it. Oh yes, I’ll be coming back again. I seem to know my way around now.
Copyright © 1974 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.