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Interview Two: Lester and Wardell
Les Tomkins talks to the American jazz tenor saxophonist and an Academy Award-nominated actor Dexter twice in 1962 in these two interviews.
Source: Jazz Professional
Marshal Royal was the lead man in the first Lionel Hampton band and he stayed on me constantly about playing the parts correctly, intonation, phrasing, breathing—all those things that are very, very essential. A lot of young musicians don’t get any knowledge of these things today because there are so few big bands that they can learn them from. Section–work is very important and very different from playing with just four or five pieces. It’s altogether different because you have to learn a lot of discipline.
It’s a funny thing but Marshall used to stay on me so much that I used to dislike him heartily. In later years I realised that I owed him a lot. Fortunately—just recently I met him at Birdland and I was able to thank him.
I said: “Man, you used to drag the hell out of me with ‘Tune up,’ ‘Hold that note,’ ‘Play it like this’ and I’d be bugged. Well, I was young and I didn’t want to hear all that. But now I really appreciate it. Thanks.” It knocked him out because he knew what he was doing for me, but I didn’t know, and the fact that I had now come to realise it and was thanking him—he liked that.
My other debt is to Lester Young. He was my ideal. Ever since I first heard him he appealed to me greatly. So I tried to emulate him in all ways—holding the horn up, the metal mouthpiece.
Anything Lester did was beautiful. That was it. I felt everything he played. Whatever he had to say really got through to me. I tried to learn some of his solos. I never really tried to learn too much from copying the record note by note. I did that a little, but mostly what I tried to get from him was the conception that he had of playing the tenor. That’s what I wanted to grasp.
Although in listening to some of the older saxophone players—like Frankie Trumbauer or Bud Freeman—I can hear where Lester got some of his things from. Which goes to show that you can learn something from almost everybody. Everybody has something to offer—some more than others, of course.
As I grew older I started listening to people like Hawk, Ben Webster, Don Byas and Dick Wilson. Herschel Evans, who was in the Basie band with Lester, was a great favourite of mine. He died so soon after the band came into prominence—in ‘39, and the band had only been recording maybe a couple of years. But during that time he made quite a few records and he was a wonderful tenor player—the big sound and the big soul.
My first encounter with Wardell Gray came about around the middle–‘forties. He was working with Earl Hines’ band and I was with Eckstine. During this period he was playing Lester’s solos note for note—and playing them very well, as far as that went. I couldn’t understand it. I said: “Why is this cat playing all these note–for–note solos? It doesn’t make sense.” So I guess I ran into him occasionally from time to time, but in ‘47 I was in Los Angeles and he’d come out there, too. We started running into each other all the time at the sessions. At that time all the sessions were very heavily populated with musicians. You’d go to a session and there’d always be seven or eight guys up on the stand with their horns, but somehow or other it would always wind up with just Wardell and me playing. This happened all the time.
Ross Russell was on the scene—he’s the one that had the Dial label—and he said he wanted to record us. Actually it was my date and then he decided he’d like to do something with Wardell and me together. I wrote “The Chase” for our vehicle and that was the start of our team–up.
Too bad we didn’t commercialise fully on the thing. We did a couple of other records and worked together off and on, but we should have got a regular group together and really worked at it. We were very compatible, musically speaking. I admired his playing quite a bit. It was very clean with good ideas, harmonics and so on. We had the same basic background, being both Lester–influenced, so we thought along similar lines. I had a little different approach from his, so that gave a contrast and made it interesting.
Anyway, we played together as much as possible, usually with rhythm men like Hampton Hawes, Lawrence Marable and Chuck Thompson, until about ‘53. Then he went with Basie, so actually I didn’t even see him any more after that because in ‘55, of course, he died.
About 10 o’clock one night Lawrence Marable called me up and said: “Man, you heard the news?” It had been on the radio. “They just found Wardell in the desert at Las Vegas dead.” I said: “Oh, man.” I thought it was just another one of those rumours. In fact, I said: “Wait a minute. I’m going to call up the paper.” So I did, and they said: “Yes, it’s true—it just came over the wire.” Yes, that was a great loss.
I certainly enjoyed those tenor battles with Wardell. They were very stimulating. I’d had the same thing going with Gene Ammons in Eckstine’s band. An unknown fact about that is that it all started in Hamp’s band with Illinois and myself. We had a number called “Pork Chops” or, as they say. in the vernacular, “Po’k Chops,” and that was designed as a duel for our tenors.
Do I have more technique and facility now than in those earlier years? Yes, I think so. I’ve made very few changes in mouthpieces and reeds. During the time of “The Chase,” I had an Otto Link mouthpiece which had been made for me and I used that until it got stolen around ‘52 or so. That’s when I got the mouthpiece I have now. However, they’re both metal mouthpieces. So in the last 17 or 18 years or so I guess I’ve had just the two mouthpieces.I use a medium strength reed. I’ve been using a La Voz for several years. It’s made in California and I think it’s the best reed on the market myself. It’s pretty consistent.
I kinda feel sorry for guys that constantly go through the mouthpiece and reed scene. I wonder how they do it. It must be a real panic scene. Naturally the mouthpiece, the reed and the horn you use are all very essential, but basically your tone, your sound is inside of you. You hear it before you produce it. The real ingredient of the sound is within the individualthe way he hears things.
Actually this present mouthpiece of mine is relatively small. It’s just medium–size—a five–star. It’s been straightened out a little bit, but it’s not a big mouthpiece. It blows very free and gets a nice substantial sound. Most people are surprised because they think it’s a much larger mouthpiece than it is. They think it’s maybe an eight or nine or something like that, but it’s not. So that’s why I say it’s the projection that counts.
You have to remember that jazz musicians—the way they’re presented today—are entertainers, in show business. You’re not sitting in a pit, playing for acts—you’re the act, and you’ve got to try and establish some kind of rapport with the public.
The cats got on a kick–starting, I guess, in the bebop era—the public be damned. No requests. If somebody asked for a tune they’d turn their back on them. But they’re paying the bills.
If I get a request, as long as it’s within reason—something I can do, it’s in my repertoire and so forth—I’m glad to play it. That’s one of the things that’s going to help bring jazz to its rightful height in the entertainment field—if the jazz musicians will get more communication going between themselves and their audiences.
Yes, I do have definite feelings about the kind of rhythm section I like to work with. But I’ve been running into so many strange ones. This last year or so I’ve been doing quite a bit of travelling, and practically all the time as a single. Every place I go I work with the house rhythm section, and this gets pretty trying. You have to kinda build up a philosophy for yourself where you have to tune them out. Rhythm sections, unless they’re hand–picked by the individual, very seldom make it.
I’ve run into several that have bugged me. A lot of times they get in the way, or I’m expecting this to happen and it doesn’t happen. Something else will happen that I’m not expecting, and so on. And if you listen to them too much it’ll throw you completely out. Well, it still happens sometimes but for the most part I try to shut them out, just go on and play my thing—and hope. If I lay back waiting on them to get together the whole thing’ll go by and nothing’s happened. So it’s really a pretty difficult thing.
As soon as I get back to the States I’m going to get my own group—and never no more! I’m going to keep it together and book myself as a quartet rather than coming out as a single. But since I’m in the throes of re–establishing myself, I think it’s best to stay active and to get back in the public’s eye. So I haven’t beenable to be too choosey or demanding.
Actually, though, as far as Ronnie Scott’s club is concerned, I’ve been agreeably surprised. I didn’t quite expect it to be up to the par that it is. Of course, I’m not saying that they’re the world’s greatest rhythm section—but they do work for you. We got along very well and they tried to do everything I asked.
Stan Tracey is a very good pianist and musician. He’s got a lot on the ball. It’d be nice if he could go to the States for a while and get that kind of different environment. It would do a lot for himbring him out more.
The audiences at Ronnie’s are very wonderful, but I found it pretty weird in the sense that they’re so attentive—and so quiet—as if they’re at a concert. Sometimes I got the feeling during my playing that they were not there. It’s so quiet. Then when you got through—they’re very appreciative. And naturally if he’s got an attentive, appreciative audience, this really makes the artist feel good and feel like putting out. In the States they’re much more blasé about everything. They dig—but they’re not that attentive, except on rare occasions.
Rollins and Coltrane? I listen to them–not religiously or anything, but I hear them on the radio and on sides and so forth. I feel kinda honoured and say: “Well, the seeds are spreading.” Both John and Sonny are constantly experimenting. They’re trying to come up with something new and to progress everything—which I think is great. I personally don’t go for the abstract type of jazz that some of the cats are playing today. To me it doesn’t make it. It’s not rounded enough. It seems like they’re taking one essence or one emotion and building and playing on that.
After about ten choruses of that the listener is about nuts. You come out from listening to something like that and you’re on edge. They’re only giving you a part of the story, and consequently they’re losing something.Music as we know it today is a conglomeration of several different types of jazz. For it to grow there have to be the experimenters. But as for what Ornette and the people on that Freedom kick do–1 don’t think that’s it. But there are some good and essential things in it, new colour and so forth.
I do plan to utilise the different time signatures. I’ve done one jazz waltz. One tune of mine that we do is “Soul Sister.” The melodic part of it is in 3/4 time, the blowing part goes into a slow 4/4, then it goes back to 3/4 for the melody on the way out. I dig that. That adds a lot of colour. Waltzes are beautiful. You get that lilt going. I love that. You have to get a different sense of timing, but when you do get it—it just flows.
My advice to aspiring jazzmen ? Practise, practise. Blow every time you get a chance.
And you gotta have heart.
Copyright © 1962, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.