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A Les Tomkins Interview
Les Tomkins talks to jazz trumperter Al Porcino in 1969.
Source: Jazz Professional
Going out on tour with a band is unusual for me these days. I’ve been at this business for about 25 years now, and I’ve certainly had my share of bands and road work. And actually, the last time I was really actively on the road with a band was in 1955 with Stan Kenton. After that I spent about eight or nine months in Florida—I guess you could say sort of recuperating. From there I went out to the West Coast, and I’ve been in Los Angeles ever since, about eleven years now.
I’ve been a freelance first trumpet player out there in the true essence of the word, inasmuch as I haven’t been on any staff orchestras, or done anything that has tied me up for any length of time. In a way, I prefer it. I’ve had my share of the good work there, in movies, TV, records.
I’m particularly proud of some of the albums we’ve made. There’s two that come to mind. When I first got to Los Angeles, I collaborated with a very good friend of mine, a saxophone player named Med Flory. He’s quite talented; he worked with Claude Thornhill, Ray Anthony. He composes, arranges, plays alto, tenor and he sings.
At the moment, he’s leading almost a dual life. Aside from being a fine musician, he’s an actor now. He’s been doing quite well in small parts in movies, and taking a lot of supporting roles on TV. As I was saying, he and I collaborated. I have a library ,of music that I’ve been carrying around for some time now; basically a dance library. Most of the arrangements are written by Al Cohn, who’s one of my favourite arrangers. And it just so happened that Med got a contract to make a big–band album for a fellow named Albert Marks—he’s been producing all of Gerald Wilson’s albums for the past few years.
When we got together with him to decide the choice of material and so forth, we didn’t quite see eye to eye. He wanted it to be more or less on the commercial side; he had a few ideas. But Med and I were determined to do something artistic. We insisted that we have a free rein regarding material and the actual theme of the album.
It came out on the Jubilee label; the name of the album is “Jazz Wave.” I’m quite proud of that. We had a good bunch of players; probably the best available at the time. Mel Lewis was playing drums, Buddy Clark on bass, Russ Freeman on piano. Not too much happened with it, though, as is the case with so many good albums. They just don’t sell, unfortunately.
My whole life has been pretty much dedicated to bands, and I’ve been trying to hang on, not to give up. But it is kind of frustrating at times. The thing that irks me is, everybody talks about “Let’s bring back the bands”, but not too many people are doing anything really constructive about it. I think Buddy right now should be given a lot of credit. He’s pioneering, but we really need a lot more bands.
Personally, I’m enjoying working with Buddy. It’s a good band: we have a good library. And Buddy, of course, with his style of drumming—it’s very percussive, and quite inspiring for us. I’m enjoying it, but frankly, I have my own theories about what steps should be taken if there is going to be a resurgence of the big band. They have to be good bands, naturally, but I still contend that we’d have a better chance at it if we were to concentrate on having good dance bands, rather than concert–type bands.
What Buddy’s doing, and what some of the other bands have been trying to do—it’s great, and definitely worthwhile artistically. However, we should be realistic about it. Let’s face it, even if you pack a club like Ronnie Scott’s place, you’re still, as far as I’m concerned, just reaching a handful of people. To make the thing really successful on a larger scale, you have to try and reach the masses. It’s pretty hard to reach the average layman nowadays. Particularly the fact that—I don’t know what the statistics are in England—but in the States the last report was that out of about 300 million population, one third of it is in the age–group of 25 years and under.
We have what we call now “the generation gap.” Consequently, you have the middle–aged people who, naturally, remember the band days. Like myself: I’m 43 years old, and when I was in high school, in the late ’30s and early ’40s the bands were at their peak. I can remember many times standing on line at eight in the morning in freezing weather at the Paramount Theatre, just to get in and hear some of the bands. Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and so on. And later on I did get to play with all those bands.
Actually, New York is my original home. I was born, raised and went to school there. But then, of course, I went on the road as soon as I got out of school. When, in the early ‘50s, I spent about three years freelancing in New York and worked at the Paramount quite a bit, it was kind of disconcerting. It was an entirely different situation. In my high school days we just went out of our minds to hear big bands: that was the thing; And every band had a vocalist. Bob Eberle and Helen O’Connell were with Jimmy Dorsey and, of course, Sinatra and quite a few other good singers came out of the Tommy Dorsey Band.
But now the situation had completely reversed. On the marquee of the theatre it had in big letters the name of a singer. It could be Vic Damone, Billy Eckstine, people like that. And in very small letters down at the bottom it would say “Extra–so–and–so and Orchestra.” A supporting attraction. It’s kinda disheartening when you spend your whole life trying to create something worthwhile to find you’ve been pretty much discarded.
Even at the moment, although we have bands like Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Woody Herman and a few more that are hanging on, trying to keep it alive, the band era as such has largely disintegrated. The old bands were basically very good bands. That is to say they were of a high calibre, composed of all really good, professional musicians that really had the experience and know–how to play in a band. Just about all the bands around were exceptional ones—Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, the Dorseys and so forth. There were nothing but high–calibre bands.
Nowadays, it’s really a shame, but a young musician, even if he has the desire to work with bands and try to get experience, there’s no place for him to go. I was very fortunate in 1942 to go right on the road, after high school. There were any number of bands I could have joined. As it turned out, the first band I worked with was Louis Prima. As a matter of fact, I didn’t play lead with the Prima band. There was a really fine musician from New England playing lead. Later he was with Woody Herman’s Band; he passed away around 1947. His name was Sonny Berman. He was about my age, but he was just sensational. So far ahead of me, it was ridiculous.
When I joined Louis’ Band, I was only 17, and I’d been playing not more than two or three years. About all I had to offer was that somehow from the time I started I was blessed with a good embouchure. From the beginning also I developed quite a good range. You could say I was more or less the Maynard Ferguson of the day. This was before Maynard came to the States, in the late ’40s. So Sonny was playing lead and jazz, sweet and hot, high and low. I’m very thankful that I was able to work with him, because he was really a big influence on my playing. He played with an awful lot of feeling, and I learned quite a bit. Probably he and Al Kilian, who had been with the early Count Basie Band, were the two players that influenced me more than any others at the time.
Fitness is important to a first trumpet player, but Sonny Berman was kind of a free liver, you might say. He enjoyed life to its fullest. It’s unfortunate that we lost him, but I’m sure that he made the most of every minute of his life, and those that worked with him certainly enjoyed his company.
Al Kilian was an established lead man, and he was definitely in good physical shape. A very consistent player. I emulated him, particularly later that year, when I left Louis Prima and joined Georgie Auld’s Band, which was in a Count Basie–type vein at that time. In fact, half of the library was arrangements that Bill Basie had given to Georgie.
I used to copy a lot of music—I still do, occasionally—but we would get the actual scores, too. Whenever we had occasion to hear the Basie Band, we would go down. I remember one instance—around 1944, I guess it was. Count Basie was at the Hotel Lincoln, as it was called then. We were uptown with Georgie Auld at the Apollo Theatre, and Georgie used to take me down almost every evening. And one evening I sat in with the orchestra: that was quite a thrill, sitting next to Al and all those fine players. About the biggest thrills I’ve ever had in big–band playing came when I had the opportunity to work with one of my all–time favourite drummers–Tiny Kahn, who we also lost back in 1953. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the greatest drummer I’ve ever worked with. He probably didn’t have a tenth of the technique of Buddy, Krupa or any of the great technicians. But you have to realise that playing drums in a big band is actually an art and a science in itself.
There are many good drummers around today that sound fine in a small band. Fellows like Philly Joe. To play in a band is an entirely different thing. Fortunately, Mel Lewis knew Tiny Kahn and we all recognise Mel as one of the top big–band drummers today. But I’m sure there are many people that don’t realise that all Mel does are things that he learned from Tiny Kahn.
In earlier years on the road with bands, I was using a fairly small mouthpiece. I was able to enjoy a good upper register. Actually, I built quite a reputation as a high–note player. The one teacher in New York that did help me tremendously with the breathing was a fellow named Charles Colin. Up until I studied with him I didn’t know anything about diaphragm breathing—which, of course, is necessary for all wind—instrument players. That helped me a great deal, although I wasn’t having too much of a problem playing up high; it just made it easier.
My small mouthpiece with a medium–bore trumpet was fine all those years with Louis Prima, Georgie Auld, Tommy Dorsey. Then I joined Gene Krupa in 1946, where I was a mild sensation playing a lot of altissimo things with the band.
It was in the Fall of ‘47 in Los Angeles that I joined Stan Kenton for the first time,, when he started the so–called Progressive Jazz band. Pete Rugolo started writing all that wild music. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, because I’m more or less partial to swing bands. You have to respect Stan. He stuck to his guns with the music he believed in. And the band in ‘47 and ‘48 enjoyed one of its most successful periods; more so probably than all the bands he’s had.
I remember many concerts we did that winter. We performed at Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall in Boston, the Opera House, Chicago, and every concert was sold out. In fact, they even had to put people on stage to accommodate the crowd. Not to go into the material we did—I could dissertate on that for a few hours. I love Stan. He’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever worked for; it’s just unfortunate that Stan and I never saw eye–to–eye on what type of music we should be presenting to the public.
There were three different times that I worked for Stan. After the ‘47 band, I went back in the Fall of ‘50, when Maynard was on the band. We had quite a good band then. Shelly Manne was playing drums, in the saxes we had Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper. And the trombones included Milt Bernhart, Harry Betts.
The trumpets were myself, Maynard, John Howells, Shorty Rogers and Chico Alvarez. At that time we were still playing some of the old material, but Shorty Rogers had contributed quite a few new ones, which were a lot of fun to play because they were basically swing stuff. Things like “Jolly Rogers,” “Round Robin” and “Viva Prado.”
Just about every time I worked with Stan it was the same kind of situation. Everything would be fine for the first two or three months; the band would be swinging, as they say, and most of us would be enjoying playing some good swing material. But invariably Stan would get to the point where he’d suddenly realise that it was turning into a swing band, and he didn’t particularly care to have that type of band.
He’s built his whole reputation on his kind of music, and he’s stuck with it and continues to pioneer it, even to this day. My last time with the band was very enjoyable—in 1955, when Bill Holman wrote practically a whole new book. We recorded an album that spring in Chicago, called “Contemporary Concepts.” It had some good things in it. Particularly an arrangement of “Stompin’ At The Savoy” Bill did that we really loved to play. I just raved.
We had a good orchestra that year, too. Mel Lewis was on drums, Max Bennett on bass. Charlie Mariano, Lennie Niehaus and Bill Perkins were in the saxes. As well as Sam Noto and myself, a chap named Ed Leddy was in the trumpet section. He was the first trumpet player with a kicks band they had in Washington, D.C., in the early ’50s; they recorded an album that Willis Conover was instrumental in getting produced. When I heard this album in 1954 I just raved about it; I was touting it all over the States.
I’d never worked with Ed Leddy, but just hearing him on the album, I was so impressed with his playing I recommended him to Stan to split the lead book with me. During the period of the late ’40s and early ’50s I was sort of going in cycles. Within ten years I worked with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Gene Krupa three times each; I just seemed to be circulating around the three bands.
I didn’t stay too long with Krupa the first time; I had always wanted to work with Woody Herman’s First Herd, as they called it. That great band with Sonny Berman, and with Conrad Gozzo playing the lead. Even though I’d only been with Krupa a few months in the Fall of ‘46, when I did get a call to join Woody, I didn’t want to pass it up. It’s a good thing I did go with him then, because, as it turned out, Woody disbanded in December of that year, and that was the end of that first band of his. He didn’t reorganise until the September of ‘47, when he formed the Four Brothers band.
When I think back on it, it’s really something, the way Fate works. When I joined Kenton in September ‘47, little did I know that Woody was going to come up with such a sensational band. I probably could have gone with Woody at the time, but the last band I had worked with was Kenton, just before he disbanded in the Spring of ‘47. That was the end of his first real good band—the one with Ray Wetzel, Buddy Childers, Vido Musso, Boots Mussulli, Kai Winding and Shelly Manne.
It was kind of a coincidence that both orchestras reorganised and started rehearsing in Hollywood within the same month. As it turned out, I did get to work with the Four Brothers band, but it was a later vintage. I didn’t rejoin Woody until 1949, when the Brothers were Gene Ammons, Jimmy Giuffre, Buddy Savitt—with Serge Chaloff the only remaining one of the original four.
But that was quite a band we had, too. We recorded “More Moon” by Shorty Rogers as a single on Capitol. And we did a wonderful arrangement that Johnny Mandel wrote, called “Not Really The Blues,” on which I play lead. I was quite proud.
After I left Kenton for the second time, around January ‘51, deciding to stay in New York freelancing for a while, that’s when I had a happy reunion with Tiny Kahn. This time on the Elliott Lawrence Band, that later made a series of fine albums for the Fantasy label. The first of them had all the Mulligan arrangements—things like “Elevation,” “Apple Core” and “The Red Door.” Or was it “The Swinging Door”? He was forever changing titles.
Another was sort of a tribute to Tiny Kahn; one side was all Tiny’s arrangements, the other was all Johnny Mandel’s. The last album was supposedly live from the Steel Pier in Atlantic City; that was probably the best of the batch.
I’ve always been a little upset at the fact that there were numerous tapes of broadcasts and one–nighters that we did when Tiny Kahn was still alive. Really sensational; I have copies of them at home, and they’re some of my prized possessions. Yet no commercial recordings were made while Tiny was playing on the Lawrence band. The thrills that I had working with Tiny Kahn have never been repeated since. As I said, Mel Lewis comes about the closest.
There are a lot of good drummers around, but as I specialise in big band playing, I’m naturally concerned with big–band drummers. There’s a fellow in L.A. now I consider to be about the best drummer we have out there. It’s his good fortune, in a way, that he’s been with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass for the last few years. His name is Nick Ceroli. He really does a fine job in a band. Now that Mel Lewis has left the West Coast, Nick is one of the few drummers that I thoroughly enjoy working with in a big band. He does everything right. He’s got a good feeling, he plays strong, he reads very well. It really takes a lot of pressure off me—and the whole band, for that matter.
In ‘54, my last year with Woody Herman, he had a young drummer named Chuck Flores, who I tried to take under my wing and sort of brainwash, you might say, with these tapes I have of Tiny Kahn. He’s been in Los Angeles all these years since about 1955, and he’s pretty much dropped out of sight now. Well, he got married and started raising a family; it was just another one of those situations where the family did, to a certain degree, interfere with his career. It happens to a lot of musicians. He’s doing quite well, but he should have been doing a lot more, because I really like Chuck’s drumming.
I have some wonderful tapes of Chubby Jackson’s 12–piece band of 1949. You may remember the Columbia recordings of “Godchild”, “Tiny’s Blues”, “Father Knickerbopper”, things like that. Not only was Tiny Kahn a great drummer, but he was also a great composer/ arranger, and he wrote the entire library for Chubby.
One engagement was really a highlight. We did two sensational weeks at the Royal Roost in New York—the forerunner of Birdland. We played till four in the morning, and the band just never quit. Every night it was like a jet taking off.
To speak again of Mel Lewis, when he was still in Los Angeles—I mentioned earlier about our doing the album with Med Flory. What happened was in the Fall of ‘58 Jimmy Lyons got the Monterey Jazz Festival series off the ground, and we had the pleasure ,of being one of the first bands to perform there. But Med, with all his talent, just couldn’t seem to get the thing going, as far as getting bookings and so forth.
In 1959 Terry Gibbs came out to Los Angeles: he thought he might settle there. He was under contract to Mercury, I believe: he had made a big–band album in New York about a year prior. They wanted him to do another and ordinarily I’m sure Terry would have gone back East to make it. Terry had heard the Med Flory “Jazz Wave” album, and also another album that we did about two weeks after. This was one of the first big band albums with Bill Holman. It’s called “The Fabulous Bill Holman”, on the Coral label. One side has “Airegin”, “You And I”, “Evil Eyes” and “Bright Eyes”; then on the B–side is a suite in three parts, “The Big Street”, which I think is really a great jazz composition.
I still am very partial to that album, out of all the good big band recordings we’ve done in Los Angeles. I love Bill Holman; he’s one of the best writers we have. It seems that Terry was so impressed with these albums that he decided he’d make his new one on the West Coast. And it was almost the same personnel— Mel Lewis, myself and all the guys. The idea of the album, “Launching A New Sound”, was to salute the old bands with sort of up–dated arrangements of their material, but to subtly retain a little flavour of the originals.
In some cases, I’d been on the original records, too. He commissioned three writers from the West Coast: Bill Holman, Med Flory and Marty Paich, and three from the East, Al Cohn, Bobby Brookmeyer and Manny Albam—all to do two arrangements apiece. Bill Holman was assigned two tunes that were famous from Artie Shaw’s library: so he did “Begin The Beguine” and “Stardust”. Marty Paich arranged the Tommy Dorsey hits, “Opus One” and “Gettin’ Sentimental Over You”. Med Flory did Lionel Hampton —“Flying Home” and “Midnight Sun”.
Al Cohn made quite a fabulous chart of “Cotton Tail”, which includes a marvellous alto saxophone solo by the late Joe Maini. I thought the whole thing was quite cleverly done.
Like I say, the more artistic assignments have come my way. I had a pretty good run at the Monterey Jazz Festival: I did it for about six years in a row, and that was very gratifying. In ‘59 we got a band together for Woody Herman: at that particular time he didn’t have a regular band. Some of the fellows were from LA, some from New York. We did an album for Atlantic that turned out pretty well.
That same year we did the “Symphony For Brass” that Gunther Schuller wrote. And if I’m not mistaken, we did Lalo Schifrin’s ‘Gillespiana Suite” with Diz. It was quite a show that year. Lalo and I sort of have a little mutual admiration society going.
Which brings to mind another year, somewhere around ‘64, when Lalo wrote a new suite “The New Continent”, which we premiered at Monterey and recorded in Hollywood for Jack Tracey’s Limelight label. It was a very interesting piece of music, and I was kinda proud of the whole situation, inasmuch as I was elected to book the 25–piece band. We really had a great band; we performed for Quincy Jones as well as for Dizzy.
Also very interesting was Lalo’s “Jazz Mass” that he wrote for Paul Horn. I enjoyed not only recording it but afterwards we performed it two or three times in churches as an integral part of the Sunday service. I think the first time was at the chapel of the University of Southern California. And I’ve done some movies with Lalo, such as the The Cincinnati Kid.
About two years ago, when Gil Evans came to California, I had the pleasure of working with his group for a few weeks. We did ten days or so at Shelly Manne’s Club, and some concerts. That was very enjoyable—unlike any orchestra I’ve ever known. Gil is very talented and, of course, has his own thing going.
Trumpet is a very difficult instrument and that opportunity I had to work with a lot of different bands in my earlier years was all very good experience. If you’re exposed to various contrasting kinds of music, you actually become more flexible in your approach. I know for a fact that many of my contemporaries at the time didn’t have the chance to move around quite as much as I did. And it hurt them later on, as far as being a little more versatile musically, when they had to work with different types of orchestras.
Playing first trumpet on a band is a lot of pressure. The average listener doesn’t even begin to conceive what’s involved. Naturally, they hear it out front, it sounds nice and they enjoy it. But YOU have to realise that the first trumpet is the one that everybody actually hears, more or less. The melody line; you’re up on top of the orchestra. that is demanding. Any mistakes you everybody’s going to hear it. Whereas, if you’re playing a second or third part, you can get away with hitting a clinker here and there.
I’ve done it all my life, and I enjoy doing it. I’m thankful that I’ve a good lip, which is still holding up. I can’t quite hit the notes I could when I was younger, but I still enjoy a pretty good upper register.
Interview of 1969
Copyright © 1969, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved