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First of two interviews by Les Tomkins with American jazz trumpeter Art Farmer. Including tribute's from bandmate Ron Simmonds on his memories of Art Famer and his unique solo at Ronnie Scott's Club in 1974.
I've always felt that I was one hundred per cent dedicated to playing, but each year that I'm in it I find out that I can do a bit more. I find out that I can and I should, or I should have been. Like, when you first start playing you practise maybe an hour a day, and you figure: "Well, gee, I'm really giving my all to it." And you find out later that that's really just a drop in the bucket—and there's no end to it, no limit. You have to expend your energy as long as you have it to expend, and that's still not enough.
It's a thing where there's no goal, so to speak, that you can say: "When I get there, everything is going to be fine." There's always a carrot dangling in front of your nose. Which is a good thing.
I've finally come to the point where I know that I never will reach it. If I make up my mind that I want to play a certain way when I go to work Monday night, and I'm able to do that, that will in a way clear my vision for what I want. to do Tuesday night. And so Tuesday will lead on to Wednesday, and it just goes on and on. I'm kinda glad in a way, because it really keeps you interested. And I think the hardest thing to do is to play music when you've lost interest.
As for enjoying what you're doing—enjoyment is not such a constant thing in music as some people think. Enjoy-ing playing music is more a rarity. I couldn't say that for everybody but, at least, for myself it's not that I actually enjoy what I do every night, or every set, or every song. I enjoy the quest—but the attainment in a very fleeting thing, and it just happens rarely. It might happen, maybe, one night out of five, and sometimes less often than that.
Like I say, you point for it, then you get it, and then it's going to take a little bit more the next time to get that much satisfaction.
But even if I don't completely enjoy what I do a great deal of the time, I do know the difference between complete frustration and a feeling of knowing that by what I did tonight I'll be able to do a little better the next night. But it's really very bad when you go to work and you can't get together with the sound of the room, or the tempos, and so on. Before you know it, the night is over, you've slunk on back home, and you can't wait for the next night! Being choosey who you play with is not a safeguard, either. In the final analysis, it's up to the individual. Because when you're really together with yourself, you can play with anybody. But if you're not, there's not much they can do to help you.
They can enhance your efforts to a limited degree, I would say. But, other than that, the difference between good playing and bad playing comes from the individual. If you're not working well within yourself, you can play with the greatest in the world and they’re going to make you sound bad! When I became a professional musician, I decided that it was the brass sound that I wanted to work with. As a child, I played the piano and the violin for a total of about three or four years. There's no doubt that others are hard, too, but I think the brass instrument is the most challenging of all. You really have to be together mentally and physically. Oh piano, guitar, violin or even a saxophone, you can get the dexterity much easier. In fact, the reason why I stuck with the trumpet was because of the challenge to it.
Things came rather easy to me with the piano and violin. Then I wanted to play in a marching band, and the bass tuba was the only horn available at that time, so I played that.
Then some of the kids in the band started jamming around a little bit prior to the daily rehearsal. And even though they were only kids, this had some excitement and meaning in it to me that wasn't in these marches. Because I'd never heard jazz played before. I was brought up in a family where jazz was not important at all. Everybody played classical music and that was it.
Having discovered jazz, I wanted to glad something that was easier to move around on. So I picked the trumpet, because it was part of the horn family and had the same fingering as the bass tuba. I figured that it would come just as easy as the others had— but right off from the start I found out that it didn't. I resolved to stay with it. I just couldn't be outdone by a horn. It was set in my mind that these horns are to be played, once you pick one up. This was at least 20 years ago, but I still have the same attitude.
The first real band I heard was Jimmy Lunceford's. And I was just completely dumbfounded with the thought that 15 or 16 men could play together so well, and get such a feeling— intricate, precise and swinging. Everything was happening. It was exciting and it was beautiful.
Right then I made up my mind that if I could just be a fourth trumpet player in a band like that I'd be happy. I had no ambitions when I started playing the horn to be a soloist, or to play with a jazz group. I didn't think about that for a minute at that time. I just wanted to be part of that sound. Later I graduated to playing first trumpet.
Then around the end of the second World War, the big band business started to fall apart. In order to stay in music, you just had to develop yourself to the point where you could work with smaller groups as well. There was very little work for trumpet players in bands— at least, on the West Coast at that time. I started getting work with small groups, and I enjoyed that very much.
Finally, I knew that I couldn’t satisfy myself, just sitting up in a big band night after night, playing the same parts. Although it's good— I still enjoy recording with big bands from time to time.
By the time I worked with Lionel Hampton's band, I'd been working out on the Coast for three or four years with people like Wardell Gray, Hampton Hawes, Teddy Edwards, Sonny Criss, Frank Morgan. They were all very helpful to me. So I'd really gotten into the small band jazz thing.
When I first went with Lionel he already had five trumpet players. Quincy Jones was in the band then, and he called me and told me that Lionel was looking for a trumpet player. So I went out, and he gave me an audition— and the tune he auditioned me on was "All God's Children Got Rhythm"! I had decided that I was not a first trumpet player. I wanted to play solos and things. So I told him : "Look, I'm not a first trumpet player." He said : "That's all right, Gates. Okay— don't worry about a thing." We worked around the Los Angeles area for about a week, playing onenighters. Then we left California and went to Arizona— we were on our way back East. And the first job was in Phoenix, which is my home. I got to work just in time. The whole band was sitting up there, ready to play— and the middle chair, which was the first chair, was vacant. One of the trumpet players had decided to stay in Los Angeles. So that's what I wound up doing— at least, for that tour.
But it was a very good band to work with. There were very good musicians in the band. Lionel always gets people that no one else has heard of, because his wage scale is not as high as people like Duke or Basie But he gives a young man a chance. That’s a proving ground there, and a school. By the time you go into Duke Ellington's band or Basie's band, you're pretty wellmoulded, but you can go into Lionel's band as a searcher. Being that his selling point is more a show, if you miss a note, it's not the end of the world. He would rather you don't miss notes, but you certainly can experiment and try things, grow and develop, and get a chance to play.
It was very nice. Benny Bailey was in the band, and Benny's always been one of my most favourite players. I've been hearing him for about 20 years, and he's played wonderful all the time. And Quincy Jones has certainly gone on to glory since that time as an arranger. He and Gigi Gryce were writing some nice things.
We had a very nice, tight thing going with all of us, and it was just beautiful. During the year that I was with the band, we would make records as smaller units outside the band.
And Lionel's an amazing player too. There's always the tendency to put down the bandleader. But this guy would be up there, playing the same old tunes every night— yet he could still really set you on the edge of your chair. He would do some things that completely amazed you, even after hearing him night after night for months.
I guess the most prominent person on the band was Clifford Brown. It was a great experience playing with him, and knowing. him. He was a very warm, compassionate and serene type of person. Nothing ever angered him. I never saw him angry about anything. He had a great peace within himself.
He was not at all like the usual concept of an artist— fighting great battles inside of himself, hard to get along with, cranky, easily irritated— all those type of things. He was the complete opposite of that— sort of like a ray of sunshine. He never made a false move.
Of course, we always feel about people who have died that if they had lived they would have gone on and on. But I don't have any doubts that it is so in Brownie's case. Because he was very talented, intelligent and very involved with music. He could do anything that came into his mind— pick up the bass and play it or play the piano It's hard to think that a person with his brilliant mind, his ability and his curiosity would just stop at one place or the other. I guess everybody finds their groove sooner or later, but I think his would have been a long time in coming. I think he would have gone very far, tried a lot of things.
Yes, it's true, he has had a great influence: That's the way a person should be in music— the way he was. He took what was given to him and in return he gave to those that came after him.
None of us are anything without our influences. I don't care who it is— the most original person— Monk, Ornette, Lester, anybody. But, if we can leave something for someone else to work with, then I think that we're doing a good deal.
Since I was in Britain last as a solo artist, which is four years ago, I've been spending just about half my time in Europe and half in the States. When in the States, I've worked mostly with a quintet, featuring Jimmy Heath on tenor saxophone, Cedar Walton on piano, Walter Booker on bass, Mickey Roker on drums; this group has been getting together as often as possible during the past two years or so. The most recent occasion was last November.
Right after playing in London in 1965. I spent a year with a quartet that had Steve Kuhn on piano, Steve Swallow on bass and Pete La Roca on drums.
In Europe, I've been operating mostly on a freelance basis, going from place to place, working with local rhythm sections or local radio bands for concerts, TV and sometimes in clubs. I've set up my headquarters in Vienna. When I'm not required some place else, I go to Vienna, because I do some work there from time to time on radio and TV shows.
Until these last few years I was based in the States and was there most of the time; I would come to Europe probably twice a year. When I felt that I wanted to come over, I'd write some people and line up some work here. The way it is now, I'm over here and I write some people in the States to line things up before I go back there. So the situation is reversed, really.
It is more comfortable for me this way; the only thing is, in New York you get to hear more people play. But it would be the same if I was in the States and I was travelling; say I went to a town like Pittsburgh— I'd be too busy playing myself to have any time to go and hear anybody. If I'm in New York, I can always go out at night and listen to somebody, if I'm not working myself.
Plus the fact that, as I say, when I'm in the States I work with more or less the same people all the time. Well that's good, in a way; in another way it's not good. Because if you work with a lot of different people, you have new challenges which you have to respond to some kind of way; I've found if you use it in a positive way, it can help you. It can bring out something extra from you. If you're constantly with the same people and they're very good musicians, you get to the place where you rely on them for a special kind of help. If you find yourself in a situation where you cannot rely upon anyone but yourself, you just have to do it. You make the best possible thing of that, and you learn something through it. So it's not a losing game.
As far as the European players are concerned, certainly they're very good. But when you travel as fast as I usually do, by the time you strike a rapport the job is over. Even with the best of players. You have to wait for the next time that you go through the town. For instance, in Paris I play with a trio led by a pianist named George Arvanitas.
I enjoy working with that group very much, but every time it's only for two weeks, and that happens maybe twice a year.
Apart from an album I did in Italy last year with Phil Woods, I've been quite inactive in the jazz recording field lately. I expect to do something in the near future, either in France or Germany, with my own quartet or quintet. I have the sketches for it written down, but I don't have it completely formalised, not knowing what the personnel is going to be. At least I know the songs and how I want to do them.
On the record with Phil, we had Martial Solal on piano, Henri Texier on bass and Daniel Humair on drums. Some new company down in Italy wanted to get some jazz in their catalogue; so we did an album and Lee Konitz did one. Phil and I brought in about three things each, and of them I don't think Phil wrote any. Nor did I; we just brought in some tunes that we wanted to play written by other people. It turned out nice. You know Phil's a hell of a player. He's based in Paris, of course; I just saw him again a few weeks ago.
It was last summer that I started working with the ClarkeBoland band. We played a jazz festival and other dates up in Scandinavia; a TV show in Copenhagen, a concert in Malmo, Sweden. They had some work in September, but I couldn't make that because I had some things to do in Vienna. I came back in October, starting at the festival in Bologna, which we did prior to coming to London. After that, we went back to the Continent for about another week of onenighters.
I find the band very interesting to work with, but I still feel a bit like an outsider, although I've known Kenny Clarke, Benny Bailey and some of the guys for over twenty years. But this band has been going for about ten years.
Sure, you can feel at home with guys like these, true enough, but I hadn't worked with big bands in such a long time. It's a certain adjustment that I have to make myself; it's really not too easy to come from a situation where you play exactly what you want to play, when you want to play it, for as long as you want to play, then to find yourself in a situation where you're there with sixteen other people. Everything is much more structured; you have your little place to do your thing in, and that's it.
But on the plus side, it's good for me, for a change, to be working in a context where I can hear other horn players, who can play. Because most of the time, on my jobs, I don't hear any other horns but me. There's something to be gained from listening to them; especially the trumpet players, but also the rest of the band.
Working in a section is just fun, just kicks; I don't see any benefit from it to me as a musician. It has nothing to do with playing solos at all. Actually, you develop a different set of chops to play parts. It's a different thing in your mouth, you know. But it's still fun to play a phrase with a section and to have it come off. Fun is what music is supposed to be, anyway. On the other hand, some things that you do as a soloist might be more than fun. It's more crucial, more important.
You've set challenges for yourself and you try to make it. Whereas if you're just sitting down playing some parts that are written— well, that paper stays the same way every night, you know. After you've played it two or three nights and learned the music, you should have no problem with it. It's fun to hear it, but it doesn't have anything to do with a person's development as a player.
I wouldn't say Francy's writing was out of the ordinary, although it's very good. I don't think he wants it to be out of the ordinary. He really dig; the contemporary big band sound of orchestration and writing, and he just does a hell of a good job.
It seems to me that he writes very well for people who have been there a while. I haven't been in the band that long; he hasn't written anything for me to play yet. Everything I play in it is something that somebody else played, who's not there any more. The guys who have stayed around longest have things that have been composed with them in mind. He really shines in that context, and I'm looking forward to the time that he'll write something as a showcase for me personally— instead of just having the leftovers. Because in a band like that, you really want to play something. I've played in some big bands where you just abandon all hope of playing anything; you just don't think about that any more. It's a gig, make the bread— take the money and run. This is certainly not the case in the Boland band; nobody is there just for that alone. Everybody wants to make their contribution in the most definite and positive way.
As to the general state of the jazz scene today: it's alive, but it's not going up or going down. It's just sort of standing pat, as we say in the States. Which is not too bad, because within that some people are driving— some go up and some come down— but the whole thing sort of goes along at a level. It could be getting worse; it isn't, but at the same time it's not getting any better.
Jazz music isn't reaching any more popularity. At least, 1 don't think so. You might talk to George Wein, somebody like that, who's got these jazz festivals going. He might have eight or ten thousand people there, and say : "Oh, it's great." But I don't play those things; I usually play in small places, where a few hundred may attend. But I couldn't begin to compare the popularity of jazz music with that of pop music at all.
At the same time, that's no reason for people to stop listening to jazz, or to stop playing jazz. Or to stop playing jazz the way they want to play it. I think we should play exactly what we want to play, and do it the best way we can. That's all that we are obliged to do.
Like, some people say : "Well, we've got to put a little pop in this." Well, that's okay— if they feel that way. I can' understand why they would do this, because the biggest challenge is to survive. I just say it's a pity. The real jazz audience— they want to hear real jazz music. There's a certain fringe public that is a very fickle thing, and you really can't count on that, anyway. It's so unpredictable; it goes one way or the other, from day to day.
The most that a musician can get out of it is just the joy of playing the music, regardless of its popularity. Of course, any musician worth his salt will have as wide a variety as possible within his scope, anyway. Good music is not monotonous; in order to avoid monotony, you have to have variety in it. You can't play everything the same tempo, the same key, the same style. It's essential to vary it— not only for the audience, but for yourself. It becomes boring to the players, first of all, just to play the same thing all the time. You always have to try to find more ways to say something, to express yourself.
If there's any way possible, you have to hold on to some kind of selfrespect. Because that's all you have. Ninetynine times out of a hundred, nobody's gonna get rich playing jazz music. So the object should be to get the maximum enjoyment from doing what you do. I would imagine that if a person were to really be commercially successful and have all the money that they wanted— which is a hard thing; you know— I don't think they would be as happy as they could ù be if they were just able to make a living, doing exactly what they wanted to do. To do that, and know that it is being appreciated, is a fantastic thing. Very satisfying.
You just don't play for yourself. It's a much different thing to play in a room all by yourself than to play to people. You live on the response, and you react to it. That brings out something else, one way or the other.
Everyone has to find their own voice as an instrumentalist;. in jazz more than other kinds of music. You want to sound as much like yourself as you can, and still retain your musical values. If you put one thing in place of another, it should be just as good as the one that came first, if not better. I don't like change just for its own sake, but for improvement. Which is a matter for the artist to decide. You may be wrong, but as long as .you have the conviction, who's to tell you? My decision, seven years or so ago, to concentrate on the flugelhorn was not as strange to me as it was to other people. 1've still been trying to do what I was doing on trumpet; 1'm just able to do it more often with the flugelhorn. My attitude to the horn hasn't changed— it's just a certain sound that I'm looking for. If 1'm playing the trumpet and 1 have to screw my mouth up a certain way to get a certain sound, and along comes a flugelhorn where 1 don't have to screw my mouth up so much, I'm gonna play it, because I can get the sound more naturally.
So I have more facility, inasmuch as the sound is the beginning to me. If I play a sound and it doesn't come out right, I don't fee1 like going on to the next; 1 have to get that right first. Every note I play has got to sound more or less the way 1 want it to, before 1'm free to think of melodic ideas.
1 don't care too much for that shrill, thin sound that you get on the trumpet sometimes. 1 can take a little bit of it, but as a contrast more than anything else. It's not that I only want to play the soft thing; I want a wider range than that. When things are working well; I get it.
In a recording studio, 1've used mutes quite a bit for contrast. I guess most people do that, just to keep from getting the same sound from track to track. Playing in person, I don't like to use mutes, because you run into bad PA systems that lose the quality somehow; so it's not really working out to your advantage.
With the flugelhorn, there’s not that much need for a mute. And even without the mutes, I can get the amount of contrast 1'm aiming to maintain. Plus the fact that there are no mutes made that really work for flugelhorn.
As far as big band section work is concerned, I use trumpet. Some things in the ClarkeBoland book are written for flugelhorn in the section. Other than that, most times you really have to have a trumpet in a big band. It's part of the way it's supposed to be.
Because of having done so much playing with the flugelhorn in recent years, when I take my solos with the band, I feel the necessity to use it. The trumpet feels as if it's out there somewhere, while the flugelhorn feels more intimate to me. It has become my voice. I still like the trumpet, but I just don't feel the same closeness to it.
It's been a while— as I recall, it was the last time the ClarkeBoland band was here— but the band hasn't been in existence for some years now, I'm sorry to say: That was a great band; it was a wonderful experience for me, to work with people like Kenny Clarke and Derek Humble— fantastic. Of the musicians who were in the band, I guess I see Johnny Griffin more than anyone else. When I go to Paris, I always see Kenny Clarke there; if I go to Zurich, I see Jimmy Woode. In Switzerland I saw Francy Boland also— but I haven't been in Geneva for a couple of years now. So it depends on where you are. If I go to Holland, I see Erik Van Leer, the bass trombone player. Benny Bailey— I run into him in the United States or in Germany.
I'm still basically domiciled in Vienna, but since 1977 I've been doing quite a bit of travelling to the United States.
I've travelled there so much now, I don't even count the trips in a year any more. In 1977 I left the permanent employment with the radio band there, because there was so much of an increase of activity in the States in general. I started going over to Japan once or twice a year at that time; so I just couldn't be two places at one time. I've been working in the States with my own quartet, which has been on tour in Europe a couple of times; we played at Ronnie's a couple of years ago.
In Europe, primarily I work with my quintet based in Vienna; we make a tour about three times a year of Austria, Germany, Switzerland— places that are close to Vienna. Other than that, I make single jobs, as soloist with various radio orchestras— like I might go to Holland to do something there. And sometimes I go and work with small groups, on a short tour; I've been here to England to work places booked by Ernie Garside in Manchester, Leeds, Stockport, London, and so on. Starting last year; we had this reunion of the Jazztet, which has been quite successful; we don't work all the time, but that's just another possibility of working to me— and it's different from everything else. So it's a pretty busy calendar.
At this time, my work is completely in the jazz area. I haven't done anything outside of jazz since I left the radio job. Every note has been jazz; it's been exactly what I wanted to play— as much as my technique will allow. The situations that I've played in have been completely to my own wishes— so I feel very grateful about that.
As for the Jazztet— I would say it feels better now than it did before, because we have all matured as players and as people. We're able to bring more to the music now than we were then— this was twenty years ago, and things have happened. The music is still as good as it ever was, if not better; I think that I'm able to appreciate its quality better now than I was at that time. Sometimes it takes a while for you to achieve a full appreciation of what you're doing and what other people are doing. It's a theory that I always had, that you have to judge something in three ways to really get the full value of it. You have to judge what came before it, judge it according to the contemporary scene, and according to what came after it. In the case of the music we're playing, I can judge it three ways now: what went on before, what everyone else was doing at that time, that we were playing, and what's been done after that. And I can really zero in on the merit of the whole scene now.
It's a very nice opportunity, to be a part of a threepiece ensemble where everyone is really a player— an individual soloist. The only thing that would be a restriction— and it might be a good one, as far as that's concerned— is that with three soloists up front, plus you have a piano player, a bass player and a drummer also, then the time that each individual has to solo is limited. That's good inasmuch as you have to edit what you're going to do— speak your piece and get on out of the way. You don't have unlimited time. That's what I like about working with a quartet— that I have unlimited time, every number. But it's nice to hear someone else too, you know.
With a big band, of course, it's really restricted in that way. Everybody has their little turn, but it's not the thing where you feel that you've gotten it all out of you by the time the night's over, and you're ready to go home in peace— as you feel with a small group. I never have worked with a big band where I was the only principal soloist— other than on a couple of recordings. So I really don't know what it would be like to do that— in fact, I'm not too interested to find out either. I like the small group thing much better.
The different recordings I'm on come about primarily through the ideas of various people with various record companies— what they think would be an interesting combination. Sometimes I'm able to put in my opinion, but most of the time it's them, because it wouldn't have been possible for me to get, say, Antonio Carlos Jobim or Art Pepper in the studio with me— that has to come from some higher source. But I'm very happy to be a part of all of these occasions— to be able to play with someone like Art Pepper or Jobim— because I've admired their work ever since I've heard them, and these are usually rare, oneshot things. Art Pepper's dead now, of course, and I haven't seen Jobim since we were in the studio together.
There's some talk of Jim Hall and I doing another album, but he has a contractual restriction right now; so we have to wait until that's over. Jim and I get together from time to time. Yes, we worked together in a group for at least a couple of years; after that we would meet up on various projects. We'd also done some recording before we worked together as a group— that's how I'd got to know him.
What appeals to me about Jim's playing? Well, just from a subjective point of view: apart from his being a great soloist, who is able to create beautiful melodic phrases— he makes me sound good! He's the greatest person out here for that; I don't know anyone who is as quick in his head as Jim, that he can complement whatever direction that the soloist wants to go— it seems like he almost anticipates you. He never overdoes it, and he knowsjust how to put that little seasoning in there— whatever the situation calls for, he knows what to do. I don't hear that from anyone else.
You never have to tell him to do it this way or that way. And you can go to work with him and play a song that you never have played before without any fear of what's going to happen with it. You never think: "Well, maybe we should have rehearsed first". It just happens sort of spontaneously. Not to say that we didn't rehearse when we were going to make a record: someone might have an idea in a club of a song to try; so we'd try it on the gig, and if we liked it and we decided we wanted to put it on a record, then we'd spent some time exploring some possibilities with it. But the first time we play it, it's already good.
Yes, we were quite pleased with the "Big Blues" album on CTI. That was studio music really; we had an arranger in there to coordinate it— I think that was Dave Matthews. Now, we did one prior to that, that was Jim's album, on A& M Horizon, called "Commitment". That was done around '76; Allan Ganley was playing drums, with Ron Carter on bass and Tommy Flanagan on piano. Oh, you have that one? Right, we played the Albinoni Adagio on there— a beautiful tune. That was a very nice album— also coordinated; Don Sebesky made the frame of it. But if we had been working in a club, we would have had some things that had evolved by themselves. I guess if you just have to go into the studio and do it all in a coupte of days, it might save some time to have some kind of framework already. At that time, I was in Europe all the time, and I just went to New York for the session.
I'd worked with Allan Ganley before. In '65, the first time I worked in London— other than some TV shows for the BBC— was when I did four weeks at Ronnie's old club, with Stan Tracey on piano, Rick Laird on bass and Allan Ganley on drums. So I knew Allan quite well— and he fitted right in.
On "Big Blues", Steve Gadd was the drummer. He was hired by the record company because they wanted a little taste of what he did; they didn't want just a straight, outandout jazz beat. Creed Taylor wanted a little more of a contemporary "funky" beat on the drums, to change the environment for Jim and I just a hair. That's why they had Steve— and Steve is able to bring something special to a session. You don't have to tell him, either— he experiments with this little beat and that little beat, says: "What about this?" and "What about that?", and finds out what goes the best. He is, of course, a good straightahead drummer also, but, like I said, wha t he's mainly known for was also required— and I don't think there's anyone any better than him for doing that kind of thing. There's no question about his versatility— I'd be happy to work with him any time.
I think the New York scene is better now. When I gave up my apartment in New York, it was 1968; between '64 and '68 I found myself staying less and less in the United States and more and more in Europe. By '68 things in New York had really gotten to a pretty low state as far as music was concerned. There was only one club that I was able to work in; a couple of other clubs had their pick of everybody— Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Dizzy Gillespie played there, while the rest of us had to wait our turns, which came about once a year.
This was the lowest point, and outside of New York it was even worse than that— it seemed like quite a rut. But now there are quite a few clubs in New York, and it is truly the jazz capital of the world once again. There's more music available there now than there ever has been— and I've been living in New York off and on since 1946. I was there back in the days of 52nd Street— the great thing about 52nd Street was that these clubs were all on one block, and you could just go from one to another. The clubs now are nicer and larger, and there's just more of them. You can hear a tremendous amount of music there. You don't only have to go there when there's a jazz festival going on— it seems like there's a perpetual jazz festival going on. There's always some kind of concert; on various levels of prominence, a lot of things of interest are happening. Whatever you want to hear, regardless of what the style is, there's always some of it available.
There are about three clubs there now that I work in; I've worked in New York about three or four times a year. And people come out to hear the music— it's not like you're playing to tables and chairs; there's a really appreciative audience there. Yes, the audience has improved a great deal. It's one of the places in the States. . . maybe the only city. . . where you can say the audience is on a par with the audience in Europe. Most of the time, anyway— you may run into an occasional loud party, but in general the people are sitting there pretty quiet, listening. I see a lot of people in the clubs in New York from all over the world. If your business takes you to New York and you want to hear jazz— that's another of the attractions of the place. I run into people there that I know from Japan, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Yugoslavia, wherever.
New York is the place where an unknown can go, and find a place to play; you sort of get your toe into the door— get a toehold on the situation, and move on up from there. It's competitive; certainly you have to be good, but it's not only a matter of being good— it's a matter of being lucky. Luck is just as important as being good. If you're good and unlucky, then it's going to take you much longer. And somehow you have to even make your own luck, too. You have to be out— you have to cover a lot of ground.
That's fair enough, I guess. It's what I used to do, when I first started living there after leaving Lionel Hampton's band. There was not a single night that I would be home. The only way I would be home would be that I was sick or something; other than that, I would be out playing some place. If not playing, I would be out to listen to someone else, but I was always on the scene— it seemed to me there wasn't any point in being there otherwise. If you just want to stay home, you can stay home any place. With all these people to hear, all these people to play with, it was just one of those things that you couldn't want any other way— so you took as much advantage of it as you possibly could. One thing always leads to another— that's the way it is. There's always room for one more.
At the same time as saying that the flugelhorn is now completely my musical voice, rather than the trumpet, I would also have to say that I'm still not getting exactly what I want to get out of it. The flugelhorn has one set of possibilities and limitations, and the trumpet has another set of possibilities and limitations. You have to make your peace with one or the other. At least, I think I do— this thing of switching back and forth, the way Clark Terry does, is something that I've found to be awkward.
I think the flugelhorn had more to offer, for what I wanted to play, than the trumpet did. I still miss a certain bite that's in the trumpet, but I've been finding out how to get part of that back now— almost as much as I want. It's still not like a trumpet, though; so that's a matter of compromise. On the bottom side of it, it's exactly what I want; on the top I would like a little bit more of the trumpet colour. I wouldn't want to move back to the trumpet just for a small area— so I stay with the flugelhorn. In the main, it's fine— and I really like the horn.
Yes, it's good on ballads, but I think it's the player who's responsible for that. To me, the thing where the flugelhorn is better is not just a matter of the ballads— it's a matter of the sound. And if you hear a certain sound in your head and you're unable to get it, then it sort of blocks your ideas. That's the reason I chose to play the instrument— I can hear that sound in my head and I can hear it coming out of the horn. It doesn't matter whether it's a ballad or a fast tempo, as far as the solo line notes are concerned; but then, if you want to get a certain penetrating effect, you have to work a little harder with the flugelhorn, that's all.
I never talked to Miles about the fact that he used the flugelhorn on a couple of recordings; then I saw him play it one night in a festival that I was playing on with the Jazztet— but I never saw him play it any more, and I don't know why he did it that time or why he stopped doing it later. Because he sounded very good on it to me.
But the horn Miles played was quite different from the one that I play. It's a horn that there seems to be many more designs and types of than there are trumpets. Trumpet is basically the same, but one flugelhorn looks so much different from another— you think it must be a different instrument. It still goes under the name flugelhorn, for some reason.
The first person I heard actually playing a flugelhorn was Chet Baker— and that was years and years ago. It was around 1950 or'51 out in Los Angeles, and he was just playing it on a jam session. That's the first time I'd ever seen one. No, I never saw Shorty Rogers play any place, and I didn't pay too much attention to what he was playing on his records. If I hadn't been there that particular night, I wouldn't have heard Chet then. The next time I heard anyone playing it was not Miles— it was Clark Terry. Then, after that, I heard Miles on the record and in this festival; he played beautifully— but Clark did also.
I was working with the Jazztet, and I decided that I would like to try not only the trumpet but the cornet and the flugelhorn as well. And our manager was a personal friend of Geoffrey Hawkes; so she said: "Well, I can make arrangements for you to have access to a flugelhorn and a cornet". I went down to the Boosey and Hawkes distributor in New York City and picked them up, and I toyed around with the both of them on the job for a while. Next thing I knew, I was playing the flugelhorn on some songs and the trumpet on some songs. It went like that for the last year or so of the Jazztet's existence.
Then I decided I wanted to make a big band record playing the flugelhorn, with Oliver Nelson arrangements. By that time the Jazztet wasn't working as a group any more, and, in order to do this record, I thought that I had to really concentrate on flugelhorn. So I put the trumpet in the case, and just left it there for a month or so, and worked on the flugelhorn. Incidentally, Jim Hall was in the band that was assembled for the recordings. Well, by the time we'd finished it, I'd made up my mind that I'd like to work with a smaller group— and I asked Jim if he was interested. He said he was, because he'd been playing with Sonny Rollins, but Sonny had made a transition from the type of music that Jim likes to play to a more free music. Jim was interested in the idea of our two instruments combining, and the flugelhorn seemed to be more compatible to the guitar than the trumpet was, for what we were trying to do. So that's when the switch became almost one hundred per cent. The association with Jim and playing the flugelhorn exclusively, in fact, came about at the same time.
After that I did return to the trumpet from time to time, but not through my own initiative. It was because of some job somewhere— not my job, but if someone hired me to play in a band or something, I had to play the part. Like the ClarkBoland band, or Peter Herbolzheimer or the radio band. Or I played in a pit orchestra in New York for six months one time; so you have to play the trumpet then. And I still take it out of the case every now and then, play it for a few minutes, and then I automatically go back to the flugelhorn. I haven't used it professionally in a couple of years now.
Sure, it has become a recognised double. And there are a couple of guys, other than myself, who only play the flugelhorn— Chuck Mangione is one of them. But I still think that there's more in the horn than what we're getting out of it, somehow. There are more possibilities in the sound. You know, that's what I like about it— you can vary the sound more. It just doesn't have to be this dark, mellow thing; you can scream with it somewhat too. But you have to develop yourself physically in order to get certain things out of the horn. Then some people say: well, if you have to do that— why not play the trumpet? Well, the reason why you don't play the trumpet is because certain things that you want to get on the flugelhorn you just can't get on the trumpet.
I do put in more practice on the flugelhorn than I did on the trumpet— but the reason for that is not just because it's a flugelhorn. It's just that the way I live now, I'm able to practise more. When I was in New York, it was hard to practise in the same place you lived in— the neighbours wanted to kill you! But now I live in my own house in Vienna, and I have a studio down in the cellar; so I don't have to worry about any neighbours. Every year I'm down there more and more hours; now I've gotten up to the point where I'm usually down there for around five to seven hours a day, just practising. I couldn't do that any place else. And my wife knows that that comes first; so she doesn't make any suggestions on the weekend about: "Let's go out and do this". She knows that the practice has to be done before we can talk about what we're going to go out and do. Yes, it's a way of life, and that's what I look forward to when I'm getting ready to go home again— getting to the woodshed.
It really seems like my best playing is done in that studio of mine. Because when you're out here travelling around, you don't really get a chance to practise. It's ironic: you're making personal appearances and doing one thing or the other, but you're not as into the horn as you are when you're at home, because it requires a certain amount of time.
Like, if we're playing at Ronnie's, then we play a couple of hours a night; it might turn out that inside two hours I'll be playing, all in all, twenty or thirty minutes at the most. If I'm at home, I'm playing five to seven hours. So the level of concentration is much higher there; I'm much more into the horn. I've run into other people who've complained: "Wow, out here travelling, you don't have time to really practise." Therefore I try lo do it all there, so I can be in some kind of shape when I get out here.
It's a matter of maintaining the level and adding on to it. I don't know why— you just can't hardly stand still; it seems like you either go one way or the other. And there's always something you can learn. I'm fiftyfour years old now, and I won't live long enough to do what I see is possible to do; but any little thing that I can do from one day to the next is not an opportunity that I'm going to throw away. The way I feel now: if I lived a hundred more years, I still wouldn't be able to say: "Well, that’s it". With each step you take in one direction, you see another step possible in front of you; it seems like it never ends. It's very interesting too— it's not boring at all. The deeper that you get into a thing, the more you can see of the possibilities of it.
Then it's not just to do with the flugelhorn. The players that I love the most are the ones who transcend the instrument. The instrument is just an instrument; it's what the person is playing that counts the most. Of course, that calls for a very deep commitment, to get to that point— a very personal thing. To be thought of as a horn player, but primarily as a musician —that's the greatest thing, to me. A personal voice is what it's all about— it takes some people more time than others to find this voice. But once you find it, you still have to work at it.
As for Wynton Marsalis— in a way, I've never heard anyone that's so developed. But I can't help thinking that what makes Wynton so amazing is that he is so great with jazz and he's a wonderful classical player also. As far as the age thing is concerned, there were at least two other people that I can think of right now who were just as developed at that age. One was Clifford Brown; the other was Lee Morgan. They are all exceptional people, to my idea.
Some people say that jazz is a young man's art— but that’s not true in every case. For certain people, it takes longer— but these people were really fantastic at an early age. Anyway, that's the tradition of the music; these people who put it all together at a very early time have been dynamic. I don't know what Wynton's going to wind up doing, but his potential seems unlimited. He is truly a virtuoso; he has some imagination too— and these two don't usually come together. Certainly not to the degree of virtuosity that he has; he's such a master of the horn— I haven't seen anyone like that before at that age.
When you see what the potential is, it's a source of discipline. If you're living some place isolated, and no one else is trying to do what you're trying to do, then you only have your self as a reference, to judge the quality of what you're doing. But in the case of being in the environment with someone like Clifford Brown, you judge it according to what he's doing. You go out and play tonight, and the the next night you go out and listen to Wynton Marsalis.
He's different, and you see that there are a lot of possibilities going on. So you have a tendency not to become lazy and complacent. It's easy to think: "Well, this is too hard" or "It's just not possible to do these things". But it's possible— and these guys prove it. That's what is the beautiful thing— it's never all been done. You hear somebody playing and you think: "This is the living end. Can't be anything any greater than this. Never". But, sure enough, somebody else always comes along, when you least expect it. There's a lot of good players out there.
Yes, sure— but a recording is only a recording, though. You know, it's like a different instrument. The question of whether I'm truly represented is not so important to me, somehow. That's not the most wonderful thing about recording— and my recording is not important in the bigger context at all. What is important is that people can hear things on record they never would have had a chance to hear in life, because they were not in the right town. Like, I have a record of Freddie Webster playing "Yesterdays" with the Jimmy Lunceford orchestra, and this was not recorded in the studio, because there was a ban on recording at that time; there was some sort of Union strike going on. So when he was with this orchestra it was not possible to make a studio recording. It just happened that it was during the second World War, and it was some sort of an Armed Forces broadcast, that was recorded. It's a wonderful thing; Freddie was a legendary trumpet player, who lived only thirty years. People who knew him talk about how fantastic his sound was— but if it wasn't for this recording, you never would know. You hear it and you know that it's not done under the most favourable circumstances— but it's still a document. It's like if you see a photograph of some place, it's still just a photograph, but it's better than just a blank space. If you can't go there yourself, you can see this photograph; now it might be in black and white instead of colour, but it's still a photograph. That's the way a recording is to me— because it doesn't get everything. They're becoming better and better; I think this digital thing is about the highest that there ever has been, as far as the fidelity. But I still haven't heard anything that sounds like a live horn to me. However, I would rather hear the recording than not hear anything.
As far as my own recordings are concerned, well I'm too subjective about them to really listen to them the way someone else would— and I guess that would go for any player. It's the job to me— but playing is playing, anyway.
But, of course, whether it's recorded or live, there are those occasions when you hit a certain peak, and you're aware that everything was happening in a particularly worthwhile manner. Certain times it happens— and it just seems like you can't turn it on or turn it off either. It's either there or it isn't.
Some soloists have spoken of a kind of a mystical force— something that seems to operate outside themselves.
Sometimes it seems so easy— it seems like the music is just flowing through you. It's coming not from you but right through you; you're just an instrument— it's just there. And you can't make these times happen; so you have to enjoy them when they do happen— but you can't wait for them to happen, either, you know. You have to go ahead and play your horn. You have to be in a position for these miracles to happen— and when they don't, there's no need to cry about it, because you never know anyway .It might happen the next day.
The main thing is just to live with the horn, I think. Anyone who is able to not touch the horn for a certain period of time, then pick it up and sound good— I can only imagine how much better they would sound if they had been staying really close on it.
For the great majority of players, that relationship needs to be maintained— unless you're some kind of a phenomenon! There are some guys who do good and they should be grateful for that. I imagine they would do even better if they had maintained an intimacy with the horn. Those horns are very stiff and unyielding things. As Dizzy told me one day: "You have to let it know who's the boss!" You have to let it know right away.
I’m based in Europe now— and enjoying life. People leave you alone; nobody bothers me there at all. My contact is with my family and my musical friends, and that's just the way I want it to be. We get together and play, work our jobs, and have other rehearsals— it's just wonderful. After the strain and the harassment of travelling around, you like to go some place where it's just quiet— and that's what I like about Vienna. Of course, there are many places in the world that are quiet— which I don't want to go to! But Vienna's nice, because I can play there sometimes, and other people come to play and you get to hear some concerts. I'm content with my life now. I do a lot of travelling; it's tiring, but I've developed an ability to sort of switch that off from my consciousness. And I don't even think about sitting up in the airport because the flight has been delayed for five hours. A part of me is numb to these kind of things now— they don't bother me that much. Well, you run into some temporary little displeasure’s— like, somebody didn't make the proper reservation at the hotel, or something like that. But these things blow over inside of a few hours, and life goes on; so you have to take that. But at the end of the line you know you're going to be in that place, in front of the people, and able to give your all.
I know that I'm going to be in a situation where I can make the best of it, one way or the other— that's the main thing. You never know what's going to happen, but you know the possibilities are there, of playing some music that's enjoyable— and I don't want to stay in one place for the rest of my life not playing.
The thought came to me last year: after being out here so many years, I can sort of see the point where I would start thinking about limiting my playing quite a bit, by cutting down my travelling and personal appearances. The first thought that came to me after that was: well, if that happened, first of all I wouldn't have to practise so much— I would be more free; I could do what I want to do. Then the next thought comes: but this is what I really want to do anyway. What am I going to do— just lay around and watch TV, or read books? That's not at all interesting.
The only thing I could see of any interest to me, other than doing what I'm doing now would be teaching. I've been asked to do that, but I haven't accepted any offers so far, because I'm not ready to just sit in one place. That's the whole thing— I want to play, and the type of music that I play, I can't stay in one place. I have to travel around. But just to hear you play must in itself be a lesson to people. By hearing what you do on it, a jazz musician can learn how to get the best out of a flugelhorn.
That's a constant thing, every time you hear someone. I guess that's the way it's supposed to be— you learn what to do and what not to do. I know it goes on with me. Whatever you do that's good, it's good for that moment— as far as the next moment's concerned, who knows? I don't think that I could ever say: hey, this is it; this is me. There's always a search going on. To me, playing is not an absolute thing: there's always a state of getting to a state of being.
Copyright © 1965 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved