|Interview date||12th December 2018|
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Interviewer: Okay, so, if we could just start very basically. If you could just tell me your name and spell your name, please.
Tomkins: My name is Les Tomkins, as I’m known in the jazz world. And it’s L-E-S. And it’s T-O-M-K-I-N-S.
Interviewer [00:20]: And could you just tell me your date of birth and where you were born as well?
Tomkins: Well, I’m afraid it’s 31-10-30, and I was born in Brixton, would you believe? David Bowie was born there as well, strangely enough?
Interviewer [00:34]: So did you live in London for a lot of your…
Tomkins: No, when I was three my parents moved to Surrey, and so my life continued in a place called Carshalton, Surrey, and that’s where I went to school. Some of the sort of essence of what has been, or some of what has been, my world was started there. I was into writing plays and performing them on stage. The first thing I was into was writing rather than music, and performing of course. The music interest really developed simply because my parents had the radio on pretty well most of the time, and so I was hearing the dance bands of the day and I was getting to know songs. At the age of 10, I wrote a list of my favourite songs and the top of the list was All the Things You Are, which is quite a sophisticated song for a lad of 10, but that’s the fact of the matter. The music thing really developed later, other than the fact that I was aware of music on the radio and, as I say, getting to learn songs. I hadn’t particularly latched onto jazz until I was I suppose about 11 and my parents bought me a wind-up gramophone and I started to buy records. And because I’d heard it and liked it, some of the first music I bought on record was boogie, boogie-woogie, you know that style? With pianos playing.
Interviewer [03:01]: And was there a particular sort that you liked, like particular…
Tomkins: Well, that was the first jazz, I guess, that attracted my attention apart from dance band music. Later on when I earned a special place to a school in Sutton, where I now live. It was called Sutton County School at the moment, but a friend of mine in school was into jazz, and he started having get-togethers in lunchtimes usually, I think, in a spare classroom and playing things. Through listening to what he played, I began to get the idea of what jazz was all about. I think one of the first things I heard was a Duke Ellington recording called Across the Track Blues. So I was realising what jazz was, and of course collecting, yeah, at that time there were catalogues published of what was out, the new issues. So I would get the, whatever it was, the HMV catalogue and be buying things that looked interesting. So I was starting to listen to recordings by the various big bands. I was listening to all of the people I met later on and interviewed, and it was… I was definitely well into the appreciation of jazz by simply listening to a lot of things. Small groups, big bands, whatever. There was a band called Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five, and he was a groovy sort of singer. I’ll just mention at this point that I have in latter life – well, all through, really – been inclined to sing myself. Never for other than as something on the side, you know, and when I had opportunities to be accompanied by somebody worthwhile. So I was buying as many vocal recordings as instrumental, really. I bought the first Sinatra’s that came out, all the bands, and then when the bebop thing started with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I never met Charlie Parker because he was before my time doing interviews, but I did eventually talk to Dizzy Gillespie. That’s just by the way. And… what have I written down here? Oh, I’ve mentioned that list, yeah. I was collecting things, but during the war I was evacuated to the north of England, to a little town called Middleton near Manchester and I did some writing there for the local paper. Also, when I was still in my teens, I decided to go a well-known man called Morris Berman who was a drummer, but he was also a singing teacher, and had a couple of lessons. And he told me an interesting thing which I have found to be the case: that I have perfect pitch. So it means that I don’t have to know the keys of a thing. The pianist plays an intro and I’m in. So that’s an advantage, has been, but as I say the singing is just something I do now at certain times each month. I’ll get onto that later, but anyway that’s all by the way at the moment. As I say, I was living in that area of Surrey, and as it so happened there were some good musicians in that area, and somehow or other I was getting to meet them. For instance, some of them would come to my house and listen to jazz, and one of the first people I got to know was a pianist called Harry South, who’s not with us now, but he had a big band at one time which I actually recorded during my live recording period, which was later on. This awareness of local musicians and who was good, like there was a drummer… no I can’t think of his name… who was also in the area. No, I can’t think of that at the moment. Anyway, general friends who were interested in music and jazz, and we used to meet up quite often at the Wimbledon Palais de Danse, where we used to go and dance to usually good bands. Between us, probably my essential idea, we decided we would want to organise a venue in the area where we could initially play the records. In those days, people danced to jazz. That was the thing, which… it goes back to the ballrooms in the States and whatever. People danced to the bands. As I say, I formed this club, which was called the T&H Modern Rhythm Club, and there’s a book recently been written by a musician-writer called Simon Spillett, which is all about a musician who plays – who played, when he was alive – tenor saxophone, mainly tenor saxophone but also flute and vibes. Tubby Hayes. I was running this club that I think was probably every Monday or something like that, and we’d started to have some music on record and some live, so we had a live group. We had some good players. Nearly remember that drummer’s name, but names escape me at the moment. It might come back. And this is all, as I say, all the events of that period of time, it was 1950 in particular that in things happened, we moved… as I say, Tubby Hayes had come along and asked if he could sit in with the band. Nobody knew him or had heard him before, and he didn’t even have his tenor with him. He borrowed somebody’s baritone, and we were just blown away by his playing. And so we had him come back. He had a small group of his own, so he brought them. Then after that he was playing with rather better musicians than the group he was around with. This is all to be found in this book called The Long Shadow of the Little Giant. Tubby Hayes was quite short in stature and a bit tubby, so that’s how he came to be called Tubby. His actual name was Edward, Edward Brian Hayes. As I say, in this book, Simon recounts a particular event that happened when we moved to a larger hall, at Rosehill in Sutton, near Carshalton where I lived. Called the Rosehill Community Centre. The first band to play was John Dankworth Seven and then Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists, and I think it was the third night that the guest band was led by Ronnie Scott. You know Ronnie Scott who had the club. And Tubby was playing with the resident group, and we sort of egged him on. “Go and sit in! See if you can sit in with Ronnie!” And he did, and Ronnie was absolutely knocked out by his playing, but it took seven years, so Tubby was beginning to be known about, due to me I must say in all honesty. And in fact that was a big event that has been related by Ronnie sometimes, although Ronnie never seemed to remember what the venue was when he’s told anybody. Anyway eventually they had their own group, but it took seven years for them to have a group, called the Jazz Couriers. That was just two years before Ronnie Scott started his club, which is still there, but at that time it was in Gerrard Street in Soho, which is now a sort of Chinese area. Simon Spillett recounts things that happened then. For example, in I think January or February of 1951, I had been going to a studio just for my own amusement to record with sometimes just a trio, but a particular recording I made, which produced a 12-inch LP at the time, and the pianist was a well-known player who was latterly [Vera Lynn’s MD – 15:19], Jack Honeyborne. He was on piano. There was a trombone player who was very good. I can’t think of his name now. Tubby on one side on a tune called Good Bait, which were my words to a bebop instrumental. Tubby played a solo, and it turns out that was the first time he was heard on any recording, so they recently put out a total discography of him, and that recording is the beginning of the discography of Tubby Hayes. So that was another thing that happened. So during the 50s I was often going up to town and listening to jazz, and quite often when Tubby was playing, but also at the beginning of that year I was helpful in him getting his first professional job when he turned professional. I’d read in the Melody Maker that Kenny Baker, trumpet player, was looking for an extra… he had one saxophone player, but he wanted another one, so a group of us took him to a club in Acton and introduced him to Kenny Baker and he sat in and played, and that resulted in his first professional job with Kenny Baker’s sextet. So that was the start of his career. Also, I can say I was helpful in that. So I would see Tubby occasionally and other musicians of course during the 50s, but the next thing that happened where I was getting an outlet for my record collection was, I was at a party, at the time I was working in a [block-making firm, I later went into advertising, but a friend at work invited me to his party, which was at a turning right alongside I think it’s called the Meliá White House off Euston Road. But I always remember that being there because I often go through there when I’m going to a venue where I sing nowadays, so that reminds me… Being at that party caused me to meet a man named John Harrison – I’ve got his name – and he lived at Chalk Farm, and he wanted to start some listening evenings, so I started going along to his house and taking… by then they were LP albums. Through him… he purchased for the purpose of these get-togethers, a Ferrograph mark 2 tape recorder, and that caused me to get one, which I used initially to record programmes to play back to the members of this group that was called the Contemporary Jazz Society. CJS. And we then moved to another venue in Hampstead, and we would have live music there as well sometimes, and… no, this would be… while we were still at the Chalk Farm house, I decided to see if I could put something extra into the programmes, instead of them just being all recordings, I would interview a couple of British musicians and have them… well, what I’ve have them do… a baritone player named Ronnie Ross and a drummer named Allan Ganley, those were the two who I had come along and bring their recordings, and we would do a programme of them playing their recordings and talking about it. So that was my first shot at interviewing for the purpose of these club programmes, but then it was sort of suggested to me that I should go further and do more interviewing. So it would have been 1959 when I got into the start of my collection of interviews. I’ve actually got the list here. Oh, that’s a piece about me that was in… Let’s see. Ronnie Ross… oh, I did the Allan Ganley programme after! I went to what was then called the Grenada Tooting and Woody Herman was there with his Anglo-American Herd, which contains some British musicians. A mixture of British and American musicians. So that was my first out-and-out interviewing.
Interviewer [22:37]: And you started that in 1959, then.
Tomkins: Yeah. That’s right. April 1959. But Nat Adderley I also interviewed separately at more length than I’d done backstage at this cinema, so he was really my first full-length interview with an American musician. Then came Sonny Stitt, Gene Krupa… oh, I went to a concert at the… a big cinema, anyway, in north London where they had the performance of what was called Jazz at the Philharmonic run by an American promoter called Norman Granz. And so I went to one of those with my machine, the Ferrograph, and while I was there I interviewed the great drummer Gene Krupa, the pianist Lou Levy, Norman Granz himself, Oscar Peterson, and Herb Ellis, a guitarist who was part of the Oscar Peterson trio. Then in June 1959 I apparently interviewed a prominent American jazz writer called Leonard Feather who… I’ve read many sleeve notes by him and knew him very well as a writer, but that’s maybe the only time I’ve interviewed a fellow writer.
Interviewer [24:15]: So was it mainly musicians, then, you interviewed?
Tomkins: Oh yes, it was all musicians pretty well. In some cases they would have been people who wrote music for films, like say Henry Mancini, who’s well known. So I was getting into recording interviews, and so the archive was starting to take place, and in May 1962 I interviewed a musician called Guy Warren who was from Ghana and who I’d had in 1950 in a club as a member of this group, Kenny Graham’ Afro-Cubists. And Guy Warren, when I was interviewing him, he said to me, “Did you know there’s a new jazz magazine starting up called Crescendo? Why don’t you go along and speak to the man who’s editing it” – called Tony Brown, who I’d previously known from the Melody Maker. So in… this would have been in May 1962, I went along to the magazine, and from then on and for virtually a total of 18 years altogether, right up to 1988, I was writing for Crescendo magazine. It was a small operation, and I was almost the only… well, contributors who did columns, but essentially it fell to me to fill the pages, and that meant I needed to do a batch of interviews every month, so I was going around. When I think back it was incredibly – I’m sure it isn’t the same now – but it was incredibly easy to arrange interviews with the jazz greats. I would just find out where they were staying, phone them at their hotel, and arrange either to see them backstage or preferably in their hotel room, which was best because I could do some pretty long interviews when they were relaxing in their hotel rooms. So the interviews were building up.
Interviewer [27:12]: And Crescendo magazine itself, then, you said it was a bit of a small operation. Were there a lot of people doing interviews, or was it mainly you?
Tomkins: It was mainly me doing the interviews.
Interviewer [27:25]: And how many people roughly worked there at that time? Do you remember?
Tomkins: Well there was… for a while until… what would it be… until about 1970… hmm… Tony Brown was editing it, but I was sort of helping with editing, I was sort of assistant editor, but then he buzzed off to Canada to live. And from 1970 to 1988 I was editing the magazine, and part of the time for a few years I was aided by a musician friend of mine called Jack Carter who wrote a humorous piece in every issue. And I would go to his house in East Sheen and we would work on it together, and then we would go down to the printers’ at Richmond at that time, but then he was not well and I just… most of that period of time, 18 years, I was editing it on my own. Also art-directing it – I was virtually putting the whole thing together, doing the art direction, the makeup. And doing plenty of interviews all the time. And as I say, some of them are quite long, and that just links me with the National Jazz Archive, where we are sitting, inasmuch as they have a site called Jazz Histories, which contains a selection of my interviews culled from a website called Jazz Professional, which I was approached to by the bloke who ran it… I’m jumping forward here to 2002, that’s just by the way. He wanted to put interviews on his website, so I agreed to that, and he put a lot of very good interviews of mine on the website, but unfortunately he died and didn’t continue it. But while he was putting them there, it was quite a good selection of some of my best interviews. Things like Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, everybody under the sun. Bandleaders like Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and so on. And they are now on this website called Jazz Histories, but by the length of many of the interviews I did as editor, I would spread them over several issues. To be continued. A given interview might run to three or four instalments, but they put them on this site as if they’re separate interviews, so I’ve had to try… at one time, I was dealing with a young lady who was putting this site together, and another thing I had to do was get the dates correct and get my credit on, because as I say due to the nature of them running on and the actual volume of interviews I was doing, I didn’t necessarily put my name on every one. Otherwise it would just have looked a bit too much.
Interviewer [31:48]: Do you know how many interviews you ended up doing in the end?
Tomkins: Well, it’s well over a thousand. This is a list, and this list goes up to October 2002, but I’ve done some since. It’s, oh, well over a thousand interviews that I did all through the years. So that continued to take up a certain amount of time. From 1988, I’d stopped writing for the magazine. It continued a few years, but not with me, except I did a particular piece on John Dankworth in 2000, I think. I was only doing interviews just occasionally, and actually I haven’t… there have been some interviews, a dozen or so interviews, with the magazine that I write for now called the Jazz Rag. The last one I did was with a very good pianist called Joe Stilgoe, who’s the son of Richard Stilgoe, with whom I’ve sung many times. And I think that was probably the last interview I did a few years ago, so my interviewing career lasted virtually from 59 to 2006 or something. As I say, I had this tape recorder for the purpose of interviews. Did I mention that prior to writing and editing Crescendo, I also wrote for the Melody Maker magazine called Jazz News? That’s earlier, at the beginning of the 60s. So having that machine resulted in my making recordings for three years in Ronnie Scott’s club in the 60s. That came about because I was backstage at the Odeon Hammersmith, and my machine was there, I’d been interviewing somebody. Ronnie Scott was there with his group and he came into the room where I was with the machine. I just said to him, “You know, Ronnie, you’ve had one or two good musicians” – they’d had Lucky Thompson and Dexter Gordon by then. And Zoot Sims, I think. I said, “It’s a pity that this music isn’t recorded.” You’ve got all these great people playing with British rhythm sections, and so he said, “Well, you’ve got that machine there. Bring it along! Bring it along to the club!” So I didn’t need any second asking. I took it along and Pete King, his co-owner, was there and they virtually invited me to go to the club whenever I could and record the people. This is the archive of those, which was from October 63 to November 66… no, September 66 in the club. So I found myself visiting Ronnie Scott’s club as often as I could and recording all these great musicians and, as I say, playing with British rhythm sections mainly involving Stan Tracey on piano at that time. That created an archive of music that I recorded, but nothing happened… I guess something like 30 years passed before anything… as far as I was concerned, I was just getting them down for posterity. There was no… I wasn’t looking to do anything with them necessarily, but somebody suggested to me in 1963 that I went along and had a word with Ronnie and Pete in the club, because they had their own record label called Ronnie Scott’s Jazz House, so after me going in and talking to them, the first of my archive CDs came out on that label. I think there are about 13 came out there, and then some came out on another label, and a few came out on a label after that. There’s a proportion of my archive recordings, not only in Ronnie’s – I was invited by the musicians to go to other venues. There was a place called the Hot One, North Wembley, that [Tommy Whittle, a saxophone player, invited me along to record, which I did. And also a place off St Martin’s Lane called the Little Theatre Club, and I was invited there by Jeff Klein, a bass player, and… a drummer, can’t remember what his name is. So this archive was created. So these two archives are in my possession, and they constitute a kind of a history of jazz in themselves. Over the years all the musicians, and through this particular three-year period in the 60s, of the alliance between visiting American musicians and British players. So that was…
Interviewer [40:03]: So you’ve done quite a few different things over the years. You’ve kind of dabbled in a lot of different areas, always coming back to jazz. What’s motivated you to come back to the jazz element, because I guess that’s the one constant part of everything you’ve done through the years, really?
Tomkins: Yeah. The only other constant thing has been purely my spare time for my own amusement, or amazement maybe, at times, has been singing. That started for me, other than going along and sitting in when I was invited by good musicians to sit in and sing with them, as I say, strictly for the fun of it.
Interviewer [40:54]: And is that jazz as well?
Tomkins: Oh yeah, this is jazz singing that I do. Since 98 by going to various venues. At the moment I go to two venues each month, and this is a thing called open mic. It involves singing at one of the venues with just a pianist, but at the other place I go to, place called the Ram Jam in Kingston, that is always with a rhythm section and they’re always really good players, so it’s great fun to do that. And I record myself every time with this little machine just to hear it back, but as I say, this is strictly for… it’s really not part of my… shall we say more commercial type of jazz activity, because it’s done strictly for my own fun. The thing is… a lot of… oh yes, in 1990 I started writing for the Jazz Rag and I’m still writing for them. In 1993 I had a radio series called Jazz Greats, which was a half hour at a time of musicians, named musicians like Stan Getz, Duke Ellington, George Benson, Chick Corea, and a few others, which consisted of me telling their story and interspersing it with segments of interviews and examples of their music, their recordings. That sadly… it was one series, and I’d hoped for more, but an individual who shall be nameless sabotaged me continuing that, which is a pity because I had good reviews for that series. You know, a writer, Gillian Reynolds – she writes in the Radio Times now but she was writing in the Daily Telegraph – she was very complimentary about my jazz programmes. It was said to me by a lot of people that I had the right kind of voice for radio, which I believe I have, but sadly I haven’t had another series. The only use of my recordings have been the people who’ve had extracts from various interviews that they’ve requested from me in their programmes.
Interviewer [44:18]: And what was that on, the Jazz Legends thing you were saying about, what radio was that…
Tomkins: Radio 2 at 9:30 in the evening, I think. Once a week. So I would loved to have been able to continue that, but that sadly didn’t happen. This piece here was written by Ron Simpson of the Jazz Rag and it was talking all about me supposedly having a new career, but it wasn’t. Anyway, there’s me with Peggy Lee and there’s me with Chuck Mangione and Stéphane Grappelli. That’s me as I looked then. So this tells a lot, this piece, tells a lot about me. There’s me singing, or not singing but holding the mic. That’s me at the Pizza on the Park, which is now a hotel I think, but I was there and there’s all the different pianists I sang with. It’s just a sideline, but I suppose my important contribution, or contributions, to jazz has been, A, the interviews, which is a massive archive and, B, the recorded music in Ronnie Scott’s and other places, which is quite substantial. When I think back to the various jazz greats that I’ve interviewed, they bring to mind potential anecdotes concerning my relationship with them, and it’s mentioned in this piece… ah, here we go. Turning over. [fiddling with a cassette tape]
Interviewer [47:10]: See, that’s the way that I remember it back in the days when...
Tomkins: I’ve had this since 1998 and it’s still going strong. [more fiddling] Alright. Recording. As I say, one musician who I’ve probably interviewed more times than anybody else, it’s the drummer Buddy Rich, because I just got on particularly well with him. The first time, the first potential opportunity to interview him, was I think at the Dorchester and there were some other writers around the table. He seemed to think I was asking the best questions, and it virtually led to me interviewing him every time he came over with his band, and sometimes that was more than once a year, but it was at least once a year. He came right up until 1988, he was coming over with his band, playing concerts and also at Ronnie Scott’s. In connection with the performing thing, one time when I was interviewing him in his hotel room somewhere, I just played him a tape of me singing. He said, “You didn’t tell me this. You’re a hot jazz singer!” Of course he sings – or sang, rather – himself, so that was nice. On another occasion, I recorded – some of the recordings, anyway – were done in Annie Ross’s club called Annie’s Room. On one, I was there sort of one late night session when people were singing. Helen Merrill, female singer, was there in the club after it had closed, and Zoot Sims came along, and so I was able to record a couple of songs with Zoot Sims playing behind me, so that was another kick at the time. As for whether my singing was at that time ideal, maybe not, but it was still a good thing to be able to do.
Interviewer [50:05]: Did you find then that you formed friendships with some of the people you interviewed?
Tomkins: Oh yeah, particularly as you say Buddy Rich who… even a couple of times, if I didn’t turn up to his first concert, he would phone up and say, “Where were you?” So yeah, well, you know, I interviewed him for all those years. Various other musicians I’ve interviewed several times, I’ve become quite friendly with. A lot of them, I suppose, saxophone players who I admire very much like West Coast player Bud Shank and also Art Pepper, but I didn’t get to Art Pepper until the very end of his life in the end of the 70s, beginning of the 80s. But I nevertheless managed to get three tremendous interviews with Art Pepper who is one of my favourite jazz players, absolutely. As regards background, back to when I was starting interviews and interviewing someone for the first time, like Stan Getz, great tenor player, who I interviewed half a dozen times. The first time I interviewed him, he was not happy with various interviews he’d had in the States, so he wanted to see what I’d written. It was a Sunday afternoon – they had Sunday afternoon sessions at Ronnie’s, brilliant sunny day whenever it was. Must have been in summer time. During a break, he was sitting outside the club in the sun, and he said to me, “Let’s see this piece.” I gave him the piece written, it was the first interview I’d done with him, and he just read a few words and said, “Yeah, that’s fine.” Likewise Dave Brubeck. The first time I interviewed him, he had me take my copy to his hotel and check it over, and he said, “No problem”, and so I interviewed him a few times, the great Dave Brubeck. And another great player who I’ve enjoyed interviewing several times, the alto player with Dave Brubeck, sadly not with us anymore, he died… that’s Paul Desmond. Smoking killed him at the age of 52, sadly. One time I was interviewing him, it would have been in the 70s. There was a 70s period when I started to expose myself to classical jazz. I was stocking myself up on classical music so I could be more aware of that side of music, and one interview I was at with him, he told me he’d been getting chamber music by mail order. He’d got some Bartok and so forth, and that inspired me to start listening to chamber music as well as the orchestral kind, so he had that effect on me there. I feel that I had, apart from my launching Tubby Hayes way back which I lay claim to, I did in a sense contribute to performances by suggestions I made in two particular cases. In the case of Bud Shank, he was well known as a saxophone player, mainly the alto, but I remembered him in early recordings playing the clarinet, which is an instrument I like very much. I sort of said to him, “Why don’t you use a clarinet?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know, I just gave it up.” But after that I started finding he was including clarinet on various recordings, and the same thing virtually happened with Art Pepper, who was as I say at the end of his life. I said, “You should use the clarinet again”, and so clarinet appears on some of his latter recordings, and one thing I said to him also was, “You ought to record with strings some time.” And he said, “Yeah, well, I could ask Bill Holman to write me some things.” Which he did, and the album was one of his last albums, called Winter Moon, with strings, a whole big orchestra, and he included clarinet on that. Played Blues in the Night. So I felt sort of responsible for him having gone back to clarinet. And on his very last recordings, which were just duo things with a very good pianist whose name has escaped me at the moment. On his last two recordings with just a pianist before he died, he played clarinet on some tracks. I like to feel that I have had some effect on some jazz players, even in a small way, you know.
Interviewer [56:37]: I mean, over the years, like, the different jazz activities you’ve named so far, which are obviously very varied, were there any particular barriers that prevented you from doing things or that made things difficult as well?
Tomkins: Well, I’ve mentioned the barrier that prevented me from continuing a radio series. That was an unfortunate situation involving, as I say, an individual who shall be nameless. There was never any barrier to interviews. As I say, it was remarkably straightforward inasmuch as I would either phone them up beforehand or I would go to where they were playing and arrange an interview with them. I did two interviews with Duke Ellington, and the first one came about because I’d interviewed most of the Ellington band, and it seemed to me… I’d spoken to him a few times, and I just said, “Hey, Duke, we haven’t done an interview.” He said, “Okay, come along to the Dorchester”, so that led to me doing my first interview with him. The second interview I did with him was at the end of 1972, I think, and it turned out to be the last interview he did. That was at the Congress Theatre Eastbourne, when he was recording there with his band, I have the album. That interview was largely concerned with his choral work with choirs, with the band combined with a choir and also a solo singer, a Swedish girl called Alice Babs, but that conversation was largely about that. And those two interviews as I say can be found on the national jazz archive’s Jazz History website along with many others, and all the Art Pepper interviews are there, and it’s quite a good selection but it’s only, I would stress… there are some particularly good interviews there, but if you look at this list, there’s a lot of names on it.
Interviewer [59:38]: I mean, when obviously again your career spanned quite a period of time, but would you say things like rock and roll, the Beatles, had any impact on jazz or your own activities at any point as well?
Tomkins: Well, the impact that the Beatles have had on me is that I do jazz versions of some of their songs. I Feel Fine is one that I enjoy doing. Always give it a good groove. But I was listening to the Beatles at the time at the time when their albums came out, and subsequently I collected them all on CD. I’ve got all the Beatles albums on CD. On the performing side, people in the so-called pop field have interested me to do my own treatments of their songs. Someone like Steve Wonder, who’s really very much connected with jazz. And in fact a bass player who’s on a lot of these first recordings here in Ronnie Scott’s, Malcolm Cecil, went over to live in the States and he virtually engineered Stevie Wonder’s first albums that he made in the early 70s. He had some great songs that he recorded that I’ve done my versions of, but as I say it’s strictly an entertaining pastime of mine. It’s not these two things. But there are other songs from the pop field that I’ve picked up on. There’s a song called Stuck in the Middle with You which I do, by a particular group. If I just happen to hear something and think I can turn it around some way, in a hopefully jazz manner, then it doesn’t matter where it came from. Really, in latter years, I’ve tended to do more… when I first was singing I was doing what they call the old standards. All the old songs from the 20s to the 40s and 50s I suppose, which are regarded as standards, called standards. I started off generally into standards, but my problem was that I didn’t necessarily agree with the lyrics. Some of them were ungrammatical or some of them I thought could be improved upon, so in latter years – this is just as I say what I do at these open mic events – I change the lyrics and always have a second chorus that is my own lyrics of these songs, whether it be I Feel Fine or Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, any of those things. It’s just a matter of satisfying myself. I’m doing something on my account.
Interviewer [1:03:53]: Do you think you ever would have done singing as a career at any point, maybe if you look back on it or…?
Tomkins: Possibly, if things had moved that way. All I was doing in early years was just sitting in with people. In the late 50s, around that whole period when Tubby was on that particular recording, I was just going into this local studio and recording things either on 10-inch LPs or in some cases like that one on a 12-inch LP, but that was strictly for my own purpose. There was no commerciality in it. The great thing is, for me, the thing that any performers certainly in jazz have said is really what matters to them when they perform is the feedback from the audience, the applause, the enthusiasm that they receive from the people. The clapping afterwards, or in some cases as in some of mine, clapping along. On the off-beat, I might mention. Not the on-beat like Strictly Come Dancing. I don’t watch that anymore because I was so disconcerted by the ridiculous audience clapping on the beat like an army on the march. The thing with jazz is you clap on the off-beat all the time. [demonstrates]
Interviewer [1:06:00]: So when you’re… did you have support and things that particularly motivated you with your writing and your club and your other activities as well, because obviously you’re saying the audience is a big draw to the singing side, so what motivated you in the other areas and did you have support networks there as well?
Tomkins: Well, what I was doing was filling the pages of the magazine essentially, particularly for a period of 18 years. Oh, more than that because from 62 to 70 I was writing for the magazine, but it was not as heavy responsibility. There was an editor there who did things himself until 1970, but then I was… this archive was building because of the magazine. Like for instance, we had a piece called [Disc Discussion which involved several musicians playing the recordings without them knowing what it is and having them guess what it is. Originally, it’s actually from an American magazine called Downbeat – the blindfold test – but I extended it, that’s just one person, but I usually had at least two people. On one, I had the whole of MJQ, the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Lewis, Milt Jackson, and the other two on a Disc Discussion. So that was a series I did. And another series I did, some of which are to be found on the Jazz Archive’s Jazz Histories was a thing called Anglo-American Exchange, with a prominent British musician on a particular instrument in conversation with a prominent American musician on that same instrument.
Interviewer [1:08:17]: And what brought about that idea in particular?
Tomkins: I don’t know, it just seemed an idea . It just provided a different feature in the magazine, but all of those that were in the magazine can be found on this archive which is still online called Jazz Professional. If you go to Jazz Professional… there is a link to it on the Jazz Archive site. If you can’t get it, I’ve got a link on my laptop to take me straight to it.
Interviewer [1:09:07]: Because that seems like quite a particularly interesting idea because you’ve got that exchange element, so would you say that jazz generally or your activities had any impact on attitudes towards people from different walks of life, different races, things like that? Would you say that jazz had an impact on that over the years?
Tomkins: Well, I mean as far as whether a musician was black or white, they were telling their story and I’ve interviewed… There are people who seem to think that the best jazz is played by black musicians. A lot of good jazz is played by black musicians, and in a sense it was created by them, inasmuch as Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker in the origin of what was then called bebop, which has just become what’s called modern jazz. It’s just part of the language of jazz nowadays, that kind of playing, and it’s developed from there. I’ve interviewed as many great black musicians as I have great white musicians, and as far as I’m concerned there are just as many in each case. Brilliant players. Probably my all-time favourite jazz player is Stan Getz, who’s a tenor player. It was nice to get to know him. The very last interview I did with Stan Getz was in Nice, in France, at the Nice Jazz Festival. That was in 1979. The first interview with him was in the early 60s, so I was quite a few years on and off talking to him, but that was the last one. They had an area at the festival of creole food, and I hadn’t really sampled it before but he had me go along there, and I enjoyed the food and that was where, in this area, where we sat down for my final chat with him in 1979. If you mention just about any name on here, it will probably bring back recollections of some kind or other of meeting them and hearing them perform. In certain cases, recording them.
Interviewer [1:12:22]: Did you find that when you were doing this, and even the stuff before because you were involved in a club and stuff before, that your friends like outside of that, were they quite engaged with your activities and jazz as well, or was it something you did more yourself and with those people you were interviewing and working with?
Tomkins: People I was friendly with were people who were in many cases involved with the… certainly that early club, they were all friends gathered together to listen to music, first on records and then live, and likewise the Contemporary Jazz Society. They were get-togethers of jazz enthusiasts. And of course the open mic things, they’re all would-be jazz singers, shall we say. I believe I can claim to be an out-and-out jazz singer, but not for publication. Well, I’m publishing it here, but it’s just something I get a kick out of. But just as much I’ve got a kick out of talking to the great people, meeting all the people I’ve previously only heard on records, actually sitting face-to-face like I am with you. Here I am… and there’s Miles Davis! There’s Dave Brubeck and whoever it might be. I sort of had to… I couldn’t necessarily believe that I was getting to meet and getting to know in some cases these great players. What I found in general was that the so-called jazz greats are also great people. Very nice people to know. In some cases I’ve been told I shouldn’t do an interview. I think I was told, “Don’t bother trying to interview Stan Getz. He’s not easy to get on with.” But I always found him very easy to get on with. They said to me, I was going to interview Thelonious Monk, and they said to me, “No good trying to interview Thelonious – he doesn’t say anything!” I talked to him in the Hilton Hotel for one hour, right on the very top of the hotel, so I was never put off by that. It’s how I interacted with the individual, and I seemed to manage to get on well with everybody.
Interviewer [1:15:35]: Was there, like… did you do any training to learn the skill or did you pick that up on the job? Like interviewing skills. Did you just learn as you went?
Tomkins: Well, I was developing as I went, you know, improving what I did. In the main, I suppose, I developed a style of interviewing inasmuch as if it was the first time with anybody, I would start off by asking what they were doing at the present time. If they were over from the States and performing in London, you know, how the things were going or how they were getting on with the British rhythm section in the club. And then move on from that to their whole life story, asking them how they started, the first jazz they heard, whether they were into jazz as a child or whether it came later. Progressing through everything they did, which I would always know about because I’d listen to the records. I would discuss with them the recordings they’d made. One of my favourite ever vocal recordings is by Peggy Lee called Black Coffee, and the pianist on there is not with us anymore either, Jimmy Rowles. And the first interview I did with him was while I was in Nice, and also the drummer on there, we had a very good interview, named Ed Shaughnessy. So I’ve been talking to people about things I’d previously heard them do on recordings and finding out the background to the whole thing, you know.
Interviewer [1:17:46]: And do you think your time at the rhythm club and at the Contemporary Jazz Society helped you with that as well? Was that a foundation to it, or were they separate?
Tomkins: Well, yes, the CJS, the Contemporary Jazz Society was the start of my doing interviews, as I say, because I had the machine through doing programmes for that and recording the programmes in advance on the machine, recording at home and playing them in the venue, and then progressing to using the machine for interviews. And then joining a magazine where I was required to contribute many interviews and therefore collecting interviews with every jazz great under the sun, really. Certainly in that case, one thing led to another. Running that led to me interviewing. Interviewing led to me recording in Ronnie Scott’s, I suppose, by the fact that I had the machine and Ronnie said, “Bring it down.” Certainly different areas of my jazz activity can be linked from one thing to another.
Interviewer [1:19:22]: And would you say, because you mentioned right at the start about listening, your parents played the radio and you heard that. Did they have any influence on your sense of direction with jazz, or did they have any particular feelings about your interest in jazz as well?
Tomkins: Well, they just… they weren’t into jazz, they just had the 78s of the time. What as I suppose the pop music of that time that they had on 78s, but I started my own collection of 78s, which of course became LPs and then CDs as time moved on. No, it was the influence of hearing music all the time that ignited musical sparks in me, but as I say it didn’t lead me directly to jazz. I found that I was starting to hear jazz that appealed to me. Boogie, boogie-woogie. Buying things and finding out what particular artists I particularly enjoyed, and luckily later meeting them and interviewing them. It’s just been in a sense a labour of love. It mostly had to be a labour of love, actually
Interviewer [1:21:16]: Well that actually leads me on to… if we talk a little bit about long-term contributions, really, so I know you’ve had a very long career. Lots of things you’ve managed to do, lots of people you’ve met. Are there are particular achievements of any of your activities that you would pinpoint as your big achievements?
Tomkins: As per this book that’s out by Simon Spillett, there’s a lot of… if you look in the index, my name is… there’s a lot of pages referring to me. I certainly feel that in a sense getting Tubby starting to play with good people, in particular linking him up with Ronnie Scott and launching him off, I think that was an achievement. This whole thing has been an achievement for me. Being able to meet and talk to all of these great players. And also, some of them, record their music. It’s just produced this volume of material.
Interviewer [1:23:11]: And do you see a particular value in the things you’ve done over the years, so from the club to the Contemporary Jazz Society to the Ronnie Scott’s work to your interviews to Crescendo magazine, would you say it’s of particular value to society that you can think of, or to music, or to jazz?
Tomkins: Well, I think it’s of value to people who are interested in jazz to read the words spoken to me by the great jazz people, of which they can do to some extent in the Jazz Histories online area. And to a greater extent, in the actual Jazz Professional site. There are many interviews that I did that are on my tapes but haven’t been reproduced anywhere else except where they were published in the magazines. If there were a means of people hearing these jazz voices, it would be a good idea and the National Jazz Archive, it’s been suggested, but it would be a very laborious procedure to go with the recordings of all these voices and have them put down anywhere. In any case, it couldn’t happen now because my mobility is impaired compared to what it was. I used to go up to town on the train and taxis and eat in town, but to this venue I go to once a month I get a car all the way. I have a car here and will go back that way, because it’s just simpler for me at my present stage. It’s been a lot of fun doing this, and the archives exist certainly, and all in a big cupboard in my house.
Interviewer [1:26:07]: Well, I mean, obviously jazz had a big impact on you, but would you say that jazz has had a big impact on British culture, or in the areas where you used to go to jazz clubs, do you think it added anything that had an impact?
Tomkins: I think in the past jazz has enjoyed probably more popularity than it does nowadays. Certainly in the days of dance bands, they were played dance band jazz and people were dancing to it. And certainly… I mean there was a thing called the trad jazz boom where people were hearing old-time jazz, so that was getting to the public, but the problem nowadays is that there’s… it is rarely represented on television, which it should be, and only represented to a limited extent on radio. So it’s just down to the people who are jazz devotees to go out and attend concerts and clubs and enjoy the jazz that they want to hear, by themselves. It isn’t really propagated to a wider public, perhaps because some of it is… and certainly some of the modern jazz, I don’t even want to hear myself because it’s too chaotic. I like to hear jazz that as they say swings, that has a groove to it, that has good ensembles and good solos and things are happening. That’s the kind of thing I refer to in my reviews for the Jazz Rag.
Interviewer [1:28:15]: So the Jazz Rag actually, you mentioned that before, so you’re still writing for the Jazz Rag now? So you were saying obviously just then about how jazz isn’t as popular as it once was, so how do you communicate that, how do you reach audiences nowadays with the Jazz Rag?
Tomkins: I don’t know. The people who subscribe to jazz magazines get it. There are three jazz magazines that people can get. Jazzwise, Jazz Journal and the one that I write for, the Jazz Rag. So for them to be still going, there must be sufficient people buying them, or probably more nowadays subscribing to them, to keep them going. There are jazz followers, but the general public tends to hear jazz sort of accidentally, if you take something like Waterloo by ABBA. Well, that’s jazzy, the sound of the big band behind ABBA on there is out-and-out jazz, but it was a pop hit. I wouldn’t want to do something with pop songs if I didn’t think there was a jazz ingredient in there somewhere to be pulled out of it. I think some people just hear jazz by accident and then find out that they want to pursue it, but the whole thing nowadays is when they use the term “music”, it tends to mean pop music. They talk about listening to music and what they’re saying is they’re listening to pop music, some of which is worthwhile, but some of which is to me rather repetitive and tedious. But I acknowledge that it is dished out to the public and they believe that this is what they’re supposed to be listening to. There may be a jazz ingredient somewhere that they hear without knowing they’re listening to jazz. Like some of the Beatles things. There’s Lady Madonna that has Ronnie Scott in the middle playing a solo. People heard that and they didn’t know that they were hearing a little bit of jazz. The Beatles were in fact pretty jazzy in their way.
Interviewer [1:31:20]: So when… because you sort of mentioned as well about how jazz halls used to be places for dance. Do you think the way people listen to jazz has changed as well over the years? Or would you say it’s the same?
Tomkins: Well, I don’t think there’s much dancing to jazz. When I was running this club in 1950, the thing was to dance to jazz and the general jazz clubs at the time in town or wherever, like the 100 Club in Oxford Street, you went down there and people were dancing to it. And then it got so that the dancing was faded away and rows of chairs were put in front of the band and it became… you went along as if you were going to a concert, sitting in a jazz club. I’ve never seen anybody dancing in Ronnie Scott’s club, except one time… part of the premises they’re in now, Ronnie did make a space at the front of the crowd to see if people would dance, and some people did a little bit but it didn’t really work, but as I say, at the time he was playing in my club and meeting Tubby for the first time, people were dancing to their bands. People were dancing to the Dankworth Seven and whatever groups were playing in clubs. It just became regarded as a listening music. Okay, concerts – you can’t dance in a concert hall.
Interviewer [1:33:13]: Just leading on, then, just to the final question, so in your opinion what is the future of jazz, and more importantly, what is the future of your own activities regarding jazz?
Tomkins: Well, I mean, I’m going to continue to… as long as I’m still around, I’m going to continue doing the vocalising twice a month for the sheer fun of it. And I shall continue listening to jazz on CD. Unfortunately now, they closed HMV, the Oxford Circus end of Oxford Street, but when I used to go up to town, I would browse in HMV and buy CDs. Now that doesn’t happen. Now the only way I get any CDs I want to hear is by ordering them online, whereas at HMVs and places… there was an HMV in Sutton where I live. There were two HMVs. They’re both gone. So people have to read reviews, my reviews or whoever’s, and then probably order them online if they want to hear them. That’s the way things are, I guess, nowadays for jazz listening. There’s a thing they could, what is it, streaming? They can stream music. I’ve never done it. They can download music. I’ve never done that, but people do it, but I think it’s mainly for pop music that they do that, but it is possible to stream or download jazz, if you want to I guess. It’s there on the various sites, on YouTube or whatever.
Interviewer [1:35:22]: And you said you’ll continue singing. Writing as well, or?
Tomkins: I was continuing reviewing. I’d have made more notes about… what I’ve written down here is what I’ve said. Anyway, but, I was going to sort of type it out before meeting you, but I’ve just had a spate of reviewing to do in the last week or so. That’s always a… I do that for the sheer love of it, in order to actually be writing something, I write CD re views for Jazz Rag, so I am doing some kind of writing. Everybody’s said to me, “You should write your life story.” There we are, that one’s finished. Well, I think we’ve probably finished, have we?
Interviewer [1:36:24]: Yep, well, maybe a life story in the future, then.