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A Briton in California
Andy Mackintosh talks to Les Tomkins about his experience being a British saxophonist travelling and playing across America in 1979. His father was also a jazz musician who inspired him to play sax, and appreciate all instruments.
Source: Jazz Professional
For about five years now I’ve been resident in California - actually, since before I got off Maynard’s band. I was with Maynard in the States for four and a half years, just travelling, living on a bus. Then, finally I decided to settle in LA; having seen most of the big towns out there, I came to the decision that that was where I’d like to be.
Like everyone else, I’m struggling along, playing a lot of music though. I’m on the fringes of a lot of work: I do the occasional movie, the occasional TV show. Record dates are mostly how I make a living. Then at nights we do a lot of blowing. There’s a lot of very good rehearsal bands playing. Well, they’re not just rehearsal bands; I’m talking about bands like Bill Holman’s. We rehearse with the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin band once weekly, we rehearse with Supersax on and off. We play jazz for free in a lot of clubs, just to keep going. It’s a very healthy, very competitive scene.
There are an awful lot of musicians in Los Angeles; the standard is super high, but I find it’s made me get off my backside and practise more. I’ve had to get my doubles together to devote time to the flute and the clarinet. It’s necessary to survive; with so many good guys around, if you don’t have it all together you just get left by the wayside.
I’m really enjoying it. I just bought a house in February; the work gets slowly better and better, and I get more established as each year goes along. It’s been kind of slow, but I can’t complain at all. And the weather of course is a side-line benefit. I went there because I wanted to be around all those fellows, to play, whether I made it or not. I just decided I wanted to play, rather than just make a living playing in dance bands and whatever - not to put that down.
The thing about Los Angeles, you can be in with all the good players and still be only on the fringes of things. I think its forty thousand musicians in the Union out there in Local 47 alone. When I first went there, I couldn’t believe it: you show up at a gig, and you’re sitting next to Bob Cooper, Bill Perkins, Dick Spencer.
You’ve only ever heard them on records, you kind of idolise them, and all of a sudden there they are. And you find out they’re just regular guys like we are, just doing a job but they’re so good at it, you sit there and they make you get better. It’s as simple as that. No, I’m not naturalised - I’m what they call a resident alien! Which means I still have a British passport and everything; I was born in London, grew up here, and I went to St. Joseph’s College. You may remember that was when we had the school band there, which at that time was quite a revolutionary thing. My dad was involved in running it. We appeared on that TV show, Five O’clock Club, and the whole idea was really something quite new.
Nowadays, of course, it’s commonplace - which is great. I understand it’s becoming more and more in this country like the scene they have in the States. When I was over there with Maynard’s band, we did mostly college and high school concerts. Every place we went to, all over the States, they had great school bands. Some of them were of a phenomenal, professional type standard. So it’s nice and healthy that it’s happening here also now; I hope it continues.
Of course, my home environment was a musical one and I suppose I did grow up kind of fast because of it. Being around musicians all my life helped me to gain my experience as a player, because I never really had any formal training, except for what my dad showed me on the saxophone, in the early stages. Then I used to sit in with his band. As a matter of fact, I had some theory lessons with Jimmy Staples for a while; he was helping me figure out what was going on with the chords, and so on. And from that point on I gained all my experience through practical playing - as I think most English guys did, especially when there was no music in the schools.
Before I left, I was doing a lot of work around here. One time, Ernie Garside, Maynard’s band manager called me for a Monday night gig, it was a BBC Jazz Club. I went down and played the gig, and that night Ernie said: “Oh, by the way, we’re going to America next week. Would you like to go?” It was for three months. I said: “All right -that sounds like a good idea.” I was seventeen then, when I joined the band. We went over for three months and came back for about a month; then we’d go back for another three months come back for two weeks, go back for four months, and then we wouldn’t come back at all.
Most of the English guys had left at that point; some of the married guys didn’t want to spend that much time travelling. Maynard then replaced them with American guys, because all our work was in the States by then. It ended up that a few of us stayed over there: myself, the drummer, Randy Jones - he’s now living in New York, and he’s been with Dave Brubeck. The piano player, Pete Jackson, lives in Philadelphia. Then there was Bruce Johnstone, the baritone player on the band, from New Zealand, he went with Woody for a while.
Now Maynard has a totally American band. So that’s how I got there: it was purely coincidence. If somebody had asked me five or six years ago if I wanted to live in the States, I’d have said: “No - I don’t want to do that. I’m enjoying the trips, but I’m always glad to come home.” But I just kind of slid into it. I quit Maynard; I had this apartment in Los Angeles, and I went back to live there. All of a sudden I found myself staying there permanently.
For a couple of years I was waiting for one of the bands to come over here, Louie, Lew Tabackin, any of them. I used to say: “If anybody’s going to England, and needs a saxophone player, let me know. I’ll go for free, just pay my expenses over.”
How I came to play saxophone is rather a strange situation. I actually started playing when I was four, and in those days I used to suffer very badly from asthma; I spent a lot of time in the hospital, and had real bad problems with it. About twice a week I had to have these special breathing exercises, and my dad came up with the idea that I should play a wind instrument. He figured the blowing would help my breathing. So I started on a little curved soprano, and ever since I did that I never had asthma again. It was amazing - it went, just like that. I kept up playing it for a few years, then I stopped for a couple of years.
Meantime, I was also having piano lessons. My dad always said: “If you’re going to be a musician, you’re going to play the piano -that’s where it’s at.” Finally, I went to St. Joseph’s at about twelve or thirteen, and we got this school band together. They already had some kind of a semblance of a military band but they had no saxophone players. So my dad said: “Hey, why don’t you play saxophone because you’ve already had a start on it.”
That’s when I started on the alto; in the end I just fell in love with it so much that everything else just fell by the wayside. I played drums for a while; I still play piano a little bit, 1 used to do quite a bit of work on the piano. But when I got with the saxophone again I really got serious, and said: “Ah, that’s it.” At that time I was just playing alto, and that is still my main love. But now I play all the saxophones out of necessity as I say, to keep working. And I play all the flutes, and all the clarinets. My instruments are alto and flute, really; I also have a love for the flute.
In Los Angeles you find all the saxophone players doubling on everything. The more instruments you can play the more chances you’ve got of getting the work. If you play the oboe well and still double on all the others well, you’re in with a better chance than somebody who doesn’t play the oboe. I never had the urge to play the oboe so I just have to manage without it; I don’t think I can go through learning that now.
We were already trying to play jazz in the St. Joseph’s band. My dad was supplying most of the charts because we were working with an absolutely zero budget. Dad was going up into his attic and finding music for us to play. We had the big band things, whatever we thought we could handle at the time, because we weren’t really all that good. We played some dance band charts, a few of the old Glenn Osser things and a couple of more simple Buddy Rich and Woody Herman things that my dad had had arranged for his band. I’ve always been a big jazz fanatic anyway - even in those days.
My real Jazz experiences came more on my own I think, trying to find out how to do it myself. With the help I got from Jimmy Staples as a foundation that fell into place. For instance, we didn’t have anybody teaching jazz improvisation at the school. Then I had a stint with Bill Ashton’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra when I was about thirteen. We went to the South of France for a week with that band, and we had a little bit of fun with that. It was some kind of a little festival or a local celebration. We stayed in a school and played every day for a week. After that, it was general playing around town.
My next-door neighbour used to run a pub in the Elephant and Castle called the Charlie Chaplin right on the roundabout there. I finally talked him into giving me a Wednesday night down there, playing jazz with a quartet. He had reggae bands on the weekends; the place was always jam-packed with people. We had some nice Wednesdays there. And I did some things with the Indo-Jazz Fusions, run by John Mayer. This was after Joe Harriott left - it was probably about the time he died. John Williams was playing guitar on a few of the concerts we did; also there was a really fine flute player, Chris Taylor.
I worked with various big bands, including my dad’s sometimes. Also I was running a little gig band of my own, playing functions here and there. Then I joined a band called Smile, which contained a lot of guys from Maynard’s band at that time. There was Geoff Wright, Mike Bailey, Frank Macdonald; Chris Rea was on guitar. We had a really good little group, a jazz-rock type of thing. We made a few recordings, and got one minor hit record. And it was that band I left to join Maynard.
Around the time I joined his band was when things were starting to make sense to me, when I felt reasonably confident about standing up and playing. For me, playing with that band was the biggest growth period for about the first couple of years, just constantly playing, seven nights a week: getting the experience of a good big band like that one of the best. At that time and also getting to blow quite a lot, which was happening every night consistently.
I don’t think Maynard’s charts were that difficult to play it’s just that we used to put a lot into them, and try to play them as well as we could. There were a few technically hard things that we’d have to look at for quite a while. It was more like a Basie type of thing, where it’s the way they play the charts that makes them come out sounding great. Even if we knew the chart backwards which, of course, you do after a time. After a couple of years with the band I never even used to open up the book - we’d always be trying to make ‘em sound better. And Maynard he’s an experience in himself to work for, he’s like nobody else.
Being on the road over in the States is a different thing than it is over here; the distances that you travel are just unbelievable now. We’d have twenty-five hour bus journeys; you crawl off the bus and go in and play a gig. We’d all be feeling terrible but Maynard would leap up on the stage, and he’d be just like he always is. And he would make us play; he wasn’t yelling at us to play or anything but just watching his example, being an older man than the rest of us first of all, and going up there, putting that much energy into what he did - that’s what used to make us play.
Maynard was about forty–five, and I was twenty or something, you’d think: “If he can do it then I can do it too.” I learned a lot from Maynard in that way. We did a lot of clinics in the States also about two or three a week, where we would show up at a school in the afternoon for a couple of hours of teaching. We’d split up into groups; like, the saxophone section would go into one room and take all the woodwind students, and so on. As the lead alto I was always the spokesman, and it was hard sometimes. Basically we used to rely on a question-and-answer type of thing; not being schoolteachers, we weren’t really prepared for a three hour lecture.
Then you’d get to some schools where the kids were a little young and were embarrassed about asking questions. So we’d be standing there trying to think of things to do. That was a great learning experience, and when they’d asked about how and why you do this and that, you always had to re–examine yourself to explain what you’re doing to somebody else.
But after doing hundreds of these clinics we got to a point where we were very good at it. Bruce Johnstone and I were on the band for about the longest period of time: we had things worked out that we could say even if nobody said a word, and we’d demonstrate various points then play music out of the book with the saxophone section, and let them hear what we sounded like, and so forth. That would usually break the ice with the kids.
Then, of course you’d always get some smart-ass who would want to argue with you especially in the colleges where they’re a bit older and we got into some touchy situations once or twice. In fact, having done that has opened up another door for me.
I’m in the process now of setting up some private clinics of my own. I have this quintet that I play with in Los Angeles; we have an album out, and my idea is that we will go out and do a clinic and a concert with the group. I built up a lot of connections around the schools in those years with Maynard, so hopefully once in a while we’ll pop out for a day or two to do some teaching and playing. It helps the income, but the main thing is that it’s an opportunity to do some work with the quintet.
Certainly, playing lead alto is a special thing. I’m generally known to have a pretty boisterous kind of personality, and that tends to show, I think, with a lead player. I’m not bashful about laying down what I think is right; that’s a quality that is necessary somebody who’s not afraid to say: “We’re going to play it this way.” Also the sound quality is as important; to me, a lead alto sound is a certain sound. The alto sax can sound many different ways, as you know; you’ve got your Lee Konitz styles, your Paul Desmond styles, your Eric Dolphy styles, your Phil Woods styles. But I feel that a good lead alto sound can only really go one way. I think Phil Woods probably has that sound. I try and recreate that sound as much as I can, because I like that sound anyway, even for solo playing.
A lead player needs that kind of projection so the other four guys in the section can hear what you’re doing, and find it easy to follow you. If you’re playing with a stuffy sound and not projecting, how can they hear you? I think Art Pepper, for instance, really changed the sound of the Kenton band around. Before that, I think the Marshall Royal sound was the most popular style of lead playing. Then from Art it went to Lee Konitz, and he took it a step in another direction. Ever since then, Kenton lead altos tended to lean to the Konitz style. Because Kenton really liked Lee’s approach for the type of music they played.
Probably my all-time favourite alto player was Cannonball Adderley. I loved his sound and his whole attitude to playing. He always sounded so happy, so bouncy, that it seemed so easy. He was the epitome of alto to me. Of course, I liked Charlie Parker, but not as much as Cannonball. And Phil Woods still sounds absolutely great. Lee Konitz I love.
There are a lot of players in the States now that people might not have heard of. Like Gary Foster, he’s been a mainstay on the Los Angeles scene for some years and he is just a fantastic player. There’s a bunch of records he made with Warne Marsh; they play all those Lennie Tristano heads and tunes, and Gary’s got that real lyrical style. He really understands that Tristano approach round the changes that he has happening. It’s just fantastic, he’s definitely one of my favourites. Dick Spencer is another one.
I would say that Gary is a little different as a player than Bud Shank. Bud gets a slightly harder, more edgy sound than Gary. Gary gets more of a mellow, liquid sound as I say, more like Konitz. For instance, when we play with Lew Tabackin’s band, Gary plays second alto to me purely because he gets a more closed, softer type of sound than I get. Gary plays a lot of the solos. I love his sound too, but I go the other direction, always aiming for more projection more sound, drive, noise, whatever you want to call it.
Really, I think saxophone players are getting louder and louder as years go by, with the advent of electronics, rock and what have you. It’s a defence mechanism, I’d say. I don’t go along with a rock ‘n’ roll type of sound, that’s just loud for loud’s sake. It’s essential to maintain the centre of the saxophone sound. You get as much projection as you can, but still keep the tone. That was the one thing my dad always instilled in me - the sound. He never really tried to push me in any directions at all, and I admire him for staying out of my way in that respect. But he would always say: “You’ve got to get that sound, before you do anything else. You can learn your scales later, as you practice, but get that sound first.” And he was right.
I think that’s what he had going for him as an alto player; he was known for his sound, rather than his jazz playing. He still does have a nice alto sound, as a matter of fact. Yes, I still work on the sound all the time. When I’m practising I probably spend more time with that than anything else. I’m still messing around with mouthpieces—trying to find the right one. I’m playing Myers on my alto and I have a collection of about four or five of them, they’re all 5s and 6s, you know.
That’s the extent that I go, and each one has a little quality about it. I can’t make up my mind which one I like best sometimes. But I don’t go any further than that; I don’t go into constantly putting all kinds of different mouthpieces on. I keep pretty stable with it but you do go through periods when you’re bugged with the way you sound; I just put another mouthpiece on - it’s probably exactly the same, but there’s some psychological thing that makes me think it’s better. I guess it ends up sounding the same.
I only know I’ll be playing along quite happily for a couple of months; maybe I’ll get a few good reeds, which is rare these days. Then, all of a sudden, you might get some bad reeds, and you start thinking: “What’s happened to my saxophone sound?” Once in a while, sticking on a different mouthpiece seems to do the trick.
I don’t think I had too many surprises about the States - I guess because I slipped into it so gradually. Travelling with Maynard, we didn’t really have a lot of time to stand about and absorb a lot of it. We weren’t in New York a great deal of time and when we were there we were all having a good time, because we were glad to be there. When I left Maynard’s band and moved to Los Angeles I think I had some idea what I was getting myself into, that it wasn’t going to be easy. I just decided “Well, I either do this, or go back to London.” Which is not a bad thing either, but I just wanted to see if I could do it. It was some kind of challenge to me.
The Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin band was actually the very first that I played with when I got out there. At that point, Dick Spencer was the regular lead alto player, and he’d been looking for somebody who could dep for him on a regular basis. Dick and I have a lot in common in the way we play and I’d met him before in Germany. He used to play with Max Greger’s band; there was the record called “Maximum”. Dick Spencer, Don Menza, Rick Kiefer were among the American guys on it; a real good band. So in Los Angeles, Dick Spencer and Don Menza were the only two people I knew in the whole town.
I called Dick up and said: “Hey, Dick, I’ve moved to town. If you hear of anything, let me know.” He said: “Can you make a rehearsal for me Wednesday morning?” I went down, and it was Lew Tabackin’s band. This was the first piece of music I saw there, and believe me, it’s the hardest music I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s really a tough book. I thought: “Is this the standard I’m up against? Are all the bands going to be like this? I’d better get on a plane right now.” Luckily, it turned out to be one of a kind.
The quintet I have in Los Angeles is co-led by myself and Bill Reichenbach, who is a very busy trombone player. In my opinion he’s one of the best in the world. He came over here with the Buddy Rich band, around about 1971. I met him then, and we immediately struck up a friendship that we’ve had going ever since.
Right away we both had the idea of having a group together; years later, when both of US had moved to Los Angeles, we formed the a quintet. We started doing a few gigs in some of the local clubs, just blowing tunes for very little money, the door or whatever. Slowly but surely we’ve been adding original material to the book: it’s been a vehicle for our writing.
Finally, last year Lew Tabackin approached us; he said: “I hear you guys have got a quintet. Do you want to make a record?” We said: “Oh yeah, who doesn’t?” So he said: “Right, record date, two weeks from tomorrow.” So we then had to get our thinking caps on, think what we were going to do, rewrite a couple of tunes, write some new ones, and rehearse the band.
We have John Heard on bass, Joey Barron playing drums, and a piano player called Tom Garvin. It’s a good group to play with and it’s just dead straight ahead. Lew produced the record for us, and he didn’t want to know about any kind of rock ’n’ roll on it, any more than he does with his big band. It’s straight blowing. We went in and just played from start to finish - there’s no tracking of any kind. A simple, old-fashioned recording date, which was great. I’ve never done anything like that before, just to go and do a whole record like that. It was a nice experience.
Maybe we’ll do another one soon. The thing is, Bill’s quite busy most of the time around town. He does a lot of movie writing for Universal Studios, playing on record dates, and so forth. And I’m busy on and off, so it’s a bit hard to get anything really happening and to get the same guys all the time, John Heard is often out on the road with Oscar Peterson, Louie Bellson and people. So we’re always working with deps.
But we’re both still keen to keep it going as much as we can, and if we can start working some nice gigs and doing some clinics out of town for a couple of days here and there, we’re definitely going to put that as a priority even if we have to cancel some work to do it.
Small group playing is a necessity for me these days. I really like to play jazz and of course, in most big bands you don’t really get to play that much. It’s a great thrill playing with a sax section, but it’s not usually a great outlet for your jazz playing. You might get sixteen bars here, a chorus or two there. I’m pursuing the jazz blowing as much as I can.
While I was back here I had a ball doing some gigs with Jimmy Hastings and the Tony Lee Trio, at places like the Bull’s Head, Barnes. I’m chasing those venues where good jazz goes on. In L.A., there are three or four clubs that I can go to. I know the managers so well that I can say just about any time: “Hey, can we have a night next week?” and they’ll say: “Yeah, fine—you can take Wednesday night.”
We can actually have about as much work as we want with the quintet around L.A, not, as I said before, for any bread really. We could be playing a lot more than we do, except for the fact that it’s so hard to get it all together under one roof. Usually, if I can’t get John Heard, or a handful of other bass players, if I can’t get the drummers and the piano players I want then I don’t want to do it. It doesn’t have to be specifically those three guys, but I want it to be right. I’ve had enough of trying to play jazz when it’s not happening behind you, that can be more of a drag than fun.
Very often I have to wait around for weeks before I can finally get the right guys, and set up another gig. We’re all doing it for fun, and I don’t think anybody minds doing that. But it’s also very hard to turn down a hundred–and–twenty–five dollar record date to go play for fifteen dollars in a club or something, when we’re all paying rents, mortgages and so on.
Jazz seems to be doing better. In Los Angeles and all over the States they have a thing called the Musicians’ Trust Fund; this is a fund set up by the Musicians’ Union, that we all pay into through our Union dues. What they do is set up concerts during the summertime, all around - free concerts, for everybody to go to. On a Sunday afternoon, there are always three or four different concerts going on around Los Angeles.
We’ve done them with Louie’s band, Lew Tabackin’s band, the Harold Land Sextet, among others. Everybody’s playing. We actually get paid for doing them but the people get a free concert. So it seems to be promoting jazz quite a bit. People will come who wouldn’t normally come out if they had to pay ten dollars to see a band they never heard of before. Once you get ‘em in there, and they’re all sitting there on a Sunday afternoon, the majority are going to say: “Oh, this jazz isn’t so bad after all.”
Then maybe the next week they’ll go into a club and won’t mind paying the ten dollars. Then, of course, with everybody getting taught music in school you’ve got a lot of young kids coming up playing instruments and they have an appreciation for music now. They’re not just going towards rock’n’roll anymore; they will appreciate something like a saxophone.
There was a time when a kid would say: “You play what? A saxophone? What’s that?” At least now they have knowledge of it, and more of an open mind towards music, I think. So all these factors are helping to bring it all back, or whatever. I don’t think it’s ever really been away, it’s just been underground for a while.
There’ve been some serious efforts to get jazz across to young people. Guys like Maynard and Woody are going around religiously doing their work in the colleges. Maynard has done a fantastic job of recruiting youngsters; he’s geared his music, especially recently, towards young people. Judging from his recent recordings, he’s playing a lot of disco/ rock’n’roll style things. It’s not really always my cup of tea, but on the other hand, it’s still good music. The band still sounds good and it does attract young listeners.
I mean, when Maynard goes out he packs the joints; he has ‘em screaming, yelling and stomping in the aisles. He really does well over there, and I think he’s helping a lot to make people more aware of music. As for my own future, I’m optimistic about it. I’m happy that the last four or five years I’ve been in Los Angeles, things have progressively gotten better for me, in all directions. In my commercial work my income has consistently improved so I’m happy about that. And I feel that my personal playing gets better all the time, being around a lot of the great players in town and having a lot of that rub off has helped me a lot. Also the opportunities for me to play as a jazz player are becoming more frequent; I hope that’s a trend that will continue for me.
I believe it’s a trend that’s happening all over the world. The news about all the school bands here is really a surprise to me. When I was last back St. Joseph’s School band was still about the only one we’d ever had. It was a novelty in those days, people thought it was something pretty weird. I saw one of the present crop of school bands on the TV and they sound fine. I’m very happy to see that.
It seems to me that the music scene in England has undergone a setback with the advent of this punk rock thing. A lot of youngsters here, unfortunately, are into that stuff. They have it to a certain extent in the States but the kids aren’t into it the way they are here. It’s kind of a drag really; hopefully, with so many learning some music at school now maybe it’ll knock it on the head. Because it’s not just the music that’s offensive, it’s the whole attitude of the kids around it. They’re fighting, yelling, swearing; you see twelve-year-old kids with fouler mouths than you’ve ever heard.
That acid bit a few years ago was a shame but it didn’t seem to do anybody any harm, inasmuch as I don’t think the acid freaks went around beating up people. Just a fad? Yes, it’ll probably pass, I guess. It’s just appealing to the lowest instincts. That’s how rock’n’roll became so popular in the early fifties: it was so easy for people to understand. You didn’t have to think about music.
The trouble with jazz, classical music, anything you’ve got to think about, a lot of people don’t want to know about that. All they want is something they can sing along with, that they feel they can relate to. In the States, Country and Western is the biggest selling music, to this day. The guy sings, he tells a little story, and it’s dead simple. It doesn’t offend me like some of the punk rock stuff does, it’s just that the people listening to it are not interested in music any further than that.
Copyright © 1979, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved