Scroll the mousewheel to zoom
Stretch/Pinch the screen to zoom
Scroll the mousewheel to zoom
Interview One: Looks Back on the Formative Years
Les Tomkins talks to the jazz guitarist between 1968-1988.
Source: Jazz Professional
I had been exposed to music in public school, through singing and music appreciation. However, I was not really a good music student. I didn't sing well, and I didn't concentrate too much on the academic side of music in school. When I started playing the guitar at 12, I played cowboy music for about a year. But by the time I was 14, I was making my living at music—most of it jazz music. I left home and left school at the age of 14 to become a professional musician.
It was quite by accident, really, that I became a guitarist. I was a newsboy, selling papers on a business corner, and there was a store there that had some guitars in the window. The look, the shape of them kinda fascinated me. I saved up enough money to buy a very modest—priced guitar. It had a little book with it, that I believed at the time—" How To Play The Guitar In Five Minutes." I really thought I could.
For the most part, I've been self—taught on the guitar from the beginning. With the exception of when I first started; there was a Federal Music Project, sponsored by the Franklin D. Roosevelt government. They had a music grant which allowed certain teachers to devote time to under—privileged children; that is, those from poor families. Right after I bought the guitar, we entered a summer vacation, and I was able to study for about four hours a day, six days a week, with an instructor through the summer term.
And that gave me such a good foundation, because what he taught me was so valid that I even refer to it and use it today. I find that I cannot improve on that information I received, and I more or less pass this along to other people who start out. So I was fortunate that it was as valid as it turned out to be.
As I was learning those very first chords, I played the country—type music. But a fellow that I went to school with had an extensive jazz record collection. This was about 1935, and he had records by bands like Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Count Basie. They didn't have guitar prominently featured on them; there were hardly any electric guitar players, and very few people aspiring to play guitar solos at the time. Even so, I was interested in the ensembles and the various tenor men and trumpet players. So it was through the bands, and not through any guitar players, that I became absorbed with jazz.
When I began to play with local bands in my home town, Muskogee, Oklahoma, it was for dances and private parties. In the course of the next few years, while I was living on the college campus and going to high school, I played with two different college orchestras.
I knew, even at the age of 14, that if I was going to be really serious about playing, I would have to leave Oklahoma and move to either Los Angeles or New York. And I finally decided upon Los Angeles, where I have spent the greater part of my professional life.
Actually, my first engagement away from the local scene was in a road band headed by Chic0 Marx of the Marx Brothers, whose musical director was Ben Pollack. There were many traditional musicians in there. Marty Marsala played trumpet and Marty Napoleon (who is now with Louis Armstrong) was the pianist. Mel Torme was my roommate; he sang on the band and played relief drums. The drummer was George Wettling. It was a combination of several older musicians and a few younger ones; not many in the middle—age bracket.
This was how I started. Chico Marx was a comedian, of course, and he presented a show; the orchestra was a backdrop for him. He responded to the direction of Ben Pollack, who shaped the band.
Later, having moved to Los Angeles and become a regular member there, I worked on radio shows and did radio commercials, phonograph records, motion picture calls. Occasionally a band would come through and what I would do, for the most part was just play or record with them while they were in Los Angeles; I would not leave. I worked with Hal McIntyre and Les Brown that way. The first time I moved away was when I went with Artie Shaw, committing myself for a year.
On the road with the Artie Show band, it was under very different circumstances from the way it had been with Chico Marx. It paid a lot more money; there was a lot more prestige, personally and for the band itself.
I thought Artie was really exemplary as a leader. Many people rebelled at his strictness; they thought he was a task—master. But actually, he wanted a good band, and he knew, that it took rehearsals. And he probably put forth a little more effort than most people do put, or want to put, or expect to put. He was an excellent musician, also.
I don't think he related to the people very well: he just didn't feel their vibrations. He never really gave of himself in the way that they wanted: I think he wanted to give them something that they didn't want from him. So there wasn't any great communication that way.
There was another mystery. He would hire several arrangers—people like Eddie Sauter—to write beautiful arrangements. But then, although we would rehearse them, we would hardly ever play them. We'd end up playing these old war—horses: "Begin The Beguine", "Summit Ridge Drive" and such. However, we did record the Eddie Sauter arrangements.
But Artie was a wonderful leader, the kind that bands really need. Where you know that the man is in charge, and that he can pick up his horn and out—play anybody in the band. A real leader. That's very inspiring.
And he gave all of us opportunities. I feel that he really gave me a big start. I got to take s olos with the band and record them. With the little band, too—the Gramercy Five. There were several Gramercy Fives; mine was the one that was right after World War Two, with Dodo Marmarosa and Roy Eldridge. We recorded things like "The Sad Sack" and "Grab Town".
Following my year with Artie, I came back to Los Angeles. During the course of time I worked with Benny Goodman. But there again, I worked with him only in Los Angeles, made a few records; then the record ban came on and they never did issue them. More recently I made an album for Parkway with Benny. Leroy Vinnegar was on bass, Andre Previn and Russ Freeman alternated on piano.
As I look back, there's always been a pattern; wanting the security and convenience of staying in one place, having it for a great length of time, then really wanting to play. Which involves going out of town and travelling, really liking that, until I finally get the feeling I want to come home.
I left Los Angeles four times to play with Charlie Barnet. In 1947 I left to be a part of Jazz At The Philharmonic; I played with Charlie Parker's group, and Sarah Vaughan was on it for the first time.
That was very hectic; I had not really evolved enough as a person to be able to cope with it all. I was very disturbed and bothered by the frantic atmosphere off the stand, although I enjoyed it on the stand.
Today I just adopt a philosophical attitude about it. Everyone's going to do what they do, and you just have to keep your eye on the ball. All I want to do is play: I'm not concerned about their personal habits.
No one was really a bad person at the time; it's just that many of them were rather immature in certain ways. as we all are at times. Going through different problems of all sorts, not showing up on time, and so forth.
Then in 1952 I left for a year with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Which was very much of an exposure for me. It was demanding, it involved much fun and growth, and it was financially rewarding. I feel that that particular experience was a real break—away. There've been several—I guess you could call them small or large rungs up a ladder. I'd say that the Peterson Trio was a pretty large rung. It lifted me into another area not only in terms of achieving what needed to be done with the group.
It showed people a different side of my playing. People can only respond to what they see and hear, and they might have thought of me as a good soloist, but in a big band. In a trio you're much more exposed, and able to show your frailties as well as your positive contributions. Of course, Oscar and Ray are both beyond belief as far as technical prowess goes, just dynamic musicians; so it demanded a lot from me.
I was with them ten months in all, and we did a tour for Norman Granz, when we had the pleasure of being the first American musicians in a long time to play in London. That was on the Flood Relief Fund concert.
There was nothing set as to how long I should stay with the trio. I stayed as long as I felt it was the experience I wanted. But I had two young children, and with the normal complexities that come up when a father's been away for a while, it seemed to me that my place was at home. Not from a musical standpoint, but for many other considerations, I felt that I had absorbed about as much out of it as was there for me. In many ways it was a reluctant decision, but nevertheless I had to accept that it was time to move on.
Yes, about then was the beginning of the era of West Coast Jazz. They were starting to have the Lighthouse concerts, Shorty Rogers was doing a lot of writing, and musicians like Bud Shank and Bob Cooper began to evolve. And Bob Enevoldsen, Frank Rosolino, Hampton Hawes, Teddy Edwards—I worked with all of them through the mushrooming period. It was a kind of a quiet, dainty, precise way of swinging, but it was still different; it was not Dixieland, traditional or bebop. I would say it was a diminutive emotion, yet a pleasant one.
My direct benefit from this phase of activity was in the jazz recording field. I had been unable to have anyone sign me to record until I met Les Koenig of Contemporary Records. Not only would he sign me, but he was very enthusiastic about what could be done.
He just gave me so much freedom: we weren't really concerned with whether the records were a hit, but that they were done well. And Les is so meticulous and immaculate in what he wants on the record; he really has very high standards about the production of them. It was a complete pleasure to work with him.
At the time my thought was: since I was not working with a set group around the States, but working in the studios.
it would be more fun for me and more variety for the listener if in each album that I did I presented myself and the guitar in a diversity of contexts.
Now, this proved to be of interest as far as the jazz listening public was concerned. But commercially speaking, it was not a good business move, in that people do tend to become confused when they hear you with various combinations.
Had I picked a set group, like a Shearing sound or a Red Norvo Trio, something where each album brought out the same sound, I probably could have followed up all the records with a tour presenting that kind of a group.
The motive I had in mind was simply to make good records and to use different musicians according to the idea of any given album. There were very definite underlying feelings behind "To Swing Or Not To Swing". This, in my way, was my reaction to having absorbed the Lester Young/ Count Basie small group idiom as originated in Kansas City, in even pre—Basie band days; also Charlie Christian and the Benny Goodman Sextet.
So it was more that kind of loping swing. I tried to play in that manner; that's why I got Harry Edison and Georgie Auld. I wanted it to sound like a kind of latter—day Goodman Sextet, to create something that had evolved from that. Other albums presented other avenues.
On the track called "Salute To Charlie Christian" on the "Easy Like" album, as best my memory serves me, I deliberately introduced many Christian quotes within this framework.
As a very young man I copied Charlie Christian; but through a couple of incidents, I realised that you must find yourself. So I sought to do that. I don't copy him any more, but I do feel that, even today, his influence on me is quite apparent. It's almost like a son that bears a resemblance to his father. Even though he cuts his hair different, he still has the same eyes and nose and bone structure.
We're all influenced by something, unless we're living in a vacuum. I don't deny it; in fact, I'm rather proud of it, because if you're going to be influenced by someone—he's pretty good.
I'm told I have a very recognisable sound. And I think that, while I have not consistently had a group or played just one style of music, the sound that I produce on records has stayed consistent. People hearing me live have remarked that they're amazed that the sound—when my amplifier is working correctly, I might add—is just like it is on the records.
Now I don't know why it shouldn't be, but it must be that some artists record and sound one way, they play and sound another way.
It's a personal sound; it's the way I believe it should be and the way I like to hear it. I think that just every musical experience you have has a profound influence on your playing. I listen to everything I can in music, and I guess what I think is good stays with me.
Having studied orchestration. arranging and various other areas of music—these I have studied with teachers—they work their way into your playing. Many times I will improvise something with a group and people will almost want to argue that these are set arrangements. But they're not, they're improvised off the top of my head. However, I guess that as I do it there is a certain adherence to form, through my study of arranging. Arranging is form—it's the laying out of something, developing it, building it to a climax. This must take over in my mind to a degree, even when I improvise, so that there does seem to be a structure.
I have my own shop in Hollywood. It's called Barney Kessel's Music World and it's predominantly a guitar shop.
We sell them, we have an excellent repair man and several teachers. I don't teach myself; I give what I call 'consultation', which is speaking with people at one or two meetings, to direct them as best I can towards what their goals are. Kind of vocational guidance, in a way, with regard to the guitar.
As to the guitarists in the pop field, I think they've contributed. Out of all they've done, they'll be a few valid things that will weave themselves into the general pattern of music. They deserve a lot of credit for trying to find their own voice, However, I don't think it's by any means one of our greater contributions. I see a great lack of discipline, a lack of really getting into music and learning the terminology and the craft. It's kind of a self—indulgence in a small area. But it can be exciting.
Copyright © 1969, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.