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Article One: The Ultimate Instrument
American composer, arranger and trumpeter Billy May discusses writing jazz for cinema, working with orchestras, and the changing band scene with Les Tomkins in 1982.
Source: Jazz Professional
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Two or three times before I was on the verge of coming over here. Once was when I had a record that was very popular, called "The Man With The Golden Arm", when the picture was out. We were all set to go - Lew and Leslie Grade were still booking bands in those days, and they wanted us to come and tour - but there was some difficulty between the American and the British Musicians’ Unions; so the trip never materialised.
But Brian Willey of the BBC called me, we had a nice chat, and he invited me over. I’ve certainly enjoyed working with the BBC Radio Big Band; I was told beforehand that the pool of musicians is the best in the country, I was not disappointed. I sent a lot of my charts over in advance, and they were copied for me; they were the ones going back to the old Billy May sliding saxophone days, which was 1951. So most of the material was from the ‘fifties. There’s a little Dixieland arrangement that I made for a picture, The Front Page, in 1975, with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau; I did the main title for Billy Wilder as a kind of a period thing, because the story was set in 1931, that was the most up-to-date writing of mine we played on those concerts. I’m very grateful to Brian, and to Jack Dabbs - they’ve been very kind.
These days I work as much as I want to. Just before I left to come here, I finished up a couple of charts for the Boston Pops; when Arthur Fiedler died, John Williams took over, and John asked me to do some things. So for the past three seasons I’ve been doing some work for them. They take a bit of doing, well, it’s a full symphony orchestra. And I’ve tried to contribute some jazz–type things. One of them worked out very well: I took the arrangement I made of “South Rampart Street Parade” for an album called “Sorta Dixie” and enlarged it for the Boston orchestra. The orchestra recorded in on Philips; it’s in “Boston Pops Play Marches” or some kind of album like that. It’s very interesting; I think a full-size symphony is the ultimate instrument that arrangers hope to work for. Plus the fact that the Boston Pops men are all virtuosi. And they can get away with doing things like that - I doubt if the London Philharmonic would ever play “South Rampart Street Parade.”
Actually, the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops is the same band. I think the principal players in the Boston Symphony lay off, and the other members move over a chair for the Boston Pops. They have a full concert season as the Boston Symphony, starting usually in October; then in the spring they become the Boston Pops and play this light music. About the middle of July they have a short vacation, after which they all repair to Western Massachusetts where they become the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra. What it amounts to is an almost fifty-two-weeks-a-year job for symphony musicians. That’s hard to come by, you know.
I’m sure you’ve got the similar situation here. Coming over on a British Airways plane, two of the channels on the earphones were programmes of the London Philharmonic, complete with commentaries by the clarinet player and by Colin Davis, and I really enjoyed that, it made the trip move a little bit.
I do studio work pretty much of the time. When the television show Pennies From Heaven, which was very popular here, was adapted for a movie in the States, I got the task from MGM to assist with the musical adaptation, and that took most of 1981 for me, we finished it up in October. It wasn’t the most successful movie over there; I don’t believe it’s been shown here yet. The original television version was very good, but they changed it quite a bit for the movie - whether it’s for the best I don’t know. We used some of the same British dance band music, like “Orlando” and one of the Ambrose tracks, but we also used some Rudy Vallee and American stuff like that. In some cases, they couldn’t get a clearance because of people being dead or something; so, to make sure there’d be no problems of that kind, we just copied the old arrangements off and recreated them, which is what I did for the whole TimeLife series about ten years ago. And one of those that I had to do was “Orlando”, but then they ended up using the original record; that got involved with publishing and paying for the rights to re-use it; apparently they had worked that out after we had recorded it. Anyway, it was an interesting assignment. In all cases, we played the old record for the musicians, so they could hear how it sounded and get the feel of it. Some of the records, now, I don’t know whether it was in the transferring or what, were off a quarter-tone; so we had to have the piano re-tuned, and the musicians tuned up or tuned down to match it.
I still do a lot of work for Sinatra, he calls me fairly regularly. I did a third of that “Trilogy” album with him, and we got a Gold Record for that - it worked out very well. Since then, I’ve been doing quite a few things for his act. He formerly travelled with a big string section and a big orchestra, but he decided to change the sound of the band and he dropped the strings. I don’t think it was an economical move, I think it was just that he wanted a new colour or something. So there was quite a bit of rewriting that had to be done, taking the old library and changing it around; Don Costa and I did most of that for him, in collaboration with Vinnie Falcone, his music director. Now they call me, oh, it’s about once a month, or every two months. I’ve been writing some charts to feature Charlie Turner; that’s his solo trumpet player that he carries with him. Charlie’s a good singing lead trumpet player, he’s not a jazz player at all, kinda like the old Harry James things. And lately Frank has been using his daughter Nancy in the act; so I did a couple of charts for her. The instrumentation he’s using now is a little bit different from a straight big band sound; he’s got French horns, a harp, extra percussion, things like that - what it is. It’s like a big, full Sauter–Finegan band because he uses all the woodwinds and so forth.
Frank, supposedly, is a controversial guy, and a lot of people have had difficulty working with him, but I’m not one of them. I started working for him… well, during the period that Axel Stordahl was his music director, I ghosted some of the arrangements for Axel. Then we did those records together, in 1951 and ‘52, when Frank came back on Capitol, shortly after he won that Academy Award -things like “South Of The Border”. Ever since then, we’ve had a very pleasant relationship, both on records and as friends too. I’ve never had any trouble with him at all; I’ve always gotten along well with him, I enjoy working for him. I’m flattered that he calls me back - yes, I have to say that.
Don Costa’s doing most of his work now and, of course. Don is a fine musician, we’re very good friends. Nelson Riddle is a good friend of mine too. I don’t know what happened with Nelson and Frank - after many years there was some sort of a fall-out there, but it’s none of my business. I like them both, they’re good friends.
And Gordon Jenkins of course, did a lot of work for Frank. Gordon was involved in a very serious automobile accident just before Christmas, and he’s not working at all now. Part of the accident affected his throat, and he can’t talk; he communicates by carrying a little notepad with him. I spoke to his wife about a month ago, and she says he’s coming along okay.
Another very sad happening concerned a trumpet player you may remember - John Best. He and I sat next to each other in the Glenn Miller band many years ago. John has an avocado grove down near San Diego, California; he was high up in a tree, picking fruit, when something broke and he fell to the ground with a forty-pound sack of fruit on his back. He broke his back, and now he’s in a wheelchair; he’s able to move his toes, he was paralysed from the waist down, apparently. He’s going home from the hospital this week, I think. The doctors there knew that he was a trumpet player, so they arranged for him to have a room where he could practise, once he could start playing. So he’s keeping his chops up, and that made us feel good; we have great hopes for him, that he’ll overcome it.
There’s a trumpet player named Uan Rasey, who’s done a lot of recording with me: Uan is a man of about sixty now, and he’s been on two crutches since he was fourteen years old. And he’s an inspiration to anybody who has any of those difficulties. I’ve never met a more positive–minded man in my life; he’s completely overcome this handicap, you know. Uan is a very close friend of John; he’s been down there giving John pep talks - that’s helped a lot.
My start in music? Yes, I had some piano lessons as a boy, but I really got interested when I was about fourteen and I started playing tuba in the high school band. But the tuba parts were pretty dull, and I was beginning to wonder why, eventually I did change to trombone, and then later trumpet. That’s what first made me interested in why the instruments do what they do, why they play their particular roles. I feel very fortunate; I’m sixty–five now, I look back, and I was about fifteen years old when I became intrigued with what has become my life’s work. And I didn’t even know you could make a living with this knowledge, I taught myself. Very few people are lucky enough to hit on to something that early in their life and build a career out of it.
By the time I was out of high school, I was working full-time as a professional musician, playing trombone and writing arrangements. Of course, it was 1935, and instead of having little rock groups like the kids nowadays do, we had little dance bands, so you needed those kinds of abilities. I taught myself how to transpose and how to write everything out. I think I was with Charlie Barnet before I ever made a score; I used to just write the parts out, lay them on the floor, write the first trumpet part then the second, and so on. While it was crude, it was sure good training! Right, you could call it “do-it-yourself arranging”.
Then, of course, I listened to a lot of bands, and got a lot of records. I remember the first record I copied off was one of Benny Goodman’s - something called “Nitwit Serenade”. That was about 1934. It came out pretty well; we had a little band there in Pittsburgh, with four saxes and a couple of brass, and we were able to get away with it. At least, we enjoyed it.
I’ve always wanted to make a living; I’ve made a good living, and I’ve enjoyed the fruits of having it. Very early in my life I realised that the type of knowledge that I was acquiring, and the things that interested me, could have led me into becoming a serious composer. And I have some arranging friends who are so artistic they can’t make a living. It’s something that we all have to face up to. A good example was Jerry Gray and Bill Finegan, both of whom arranged for the Glenn Miller band when I was a member of its trumpet section. Jerry was a good musician; he played fiddle and accordion, but he knew the orchestra very well, he had good classical training too. They would get an assignment, and Jerry would go home, write the arrangements immediately, send them in early, and go spend the weekend visiting his mother up in Providence, Rhode Island. Whereas Bill would go home and worry and fuss and fume about it all weekend. Now, when we played them down the next week, Jerry’s were always adequate, and they fit what the band was. Bill’s were just beautiful little gems of music, but he really suffered over every one of them. So, if you were going to be an arranger, you had to figure out some happy medium between those two extremes. That’s what I tried to do.
I had to work in polka bands, Lombardo–type bands, and I wrote for all of them. I felt it was good training. But I don’t think I did anything that I was really interested in until I went with Charlie Barnet, which was 1939. Then I made the arrangement of “Cherokee” for him, and that’s still one of the big bands’ all-time favourites. After that I arranged a song called “Pompton Turnpike”. So I guess those two would be my first charts that I was completely happy about.
Charlie was a good influence for me; he’s a good friend of mine to this day. Woody has the quality, in a sense, that Charlie had. Charlie and I are very close in age; he’s now maybe in his late sixties. When I started working for him, he was in his twenties, and he’s been married many times. He would have a great band, and then he would meet a pretty lady and it would be the end of the band for a short period of time, because he’d go off to Bermuda or some place. But he had this great talent that he would come back after the romance was over, get a group of guys - seventeen or eighteen men - have a couple of rehearsals and the band would start swinging right away. Charlie had something inspirational about him - that worked for me too, as an arranger.
We played the Apollo Theatre in 1939, and I think we were the first white band that ever played there. It was really fun, the band was exceptionally loose. We would get a new arrangement in, or I would write one… Skippy Martin wrote a lot of good ones, and there was a black guy, who’s dead now, named Andy Gibson - a wonderful arranger. He wrote for Lucky Millinder and bands like that, but he did some great things for Charlie. And Charlie never cared about doing it the same way twice; if you wanted to add something, you’d add it, and a lot of times, a month after we got the chart in, it would be completely different. It was really a kind of a free form of developing; we’d go down to a record date with maybe three charts and record five numbers, because we’d have so much original stuff that we’d added. So I was working for Charlie when I got this offer to go with Glenn Miller - and the money was so good with Miller, I had to take it. But it was like going back to work in a factory, because you went in and did the same thing every night. It was quite a comedown for me, but once again the facts of life reared their ugly head.
Of course, a whole folk hero mystique has built up around Glenn Miller and his music. They love to find martyrs, to make big things about people who die unexpectedly, or something like that. I felt that Miller band played awfully good ballads, but I don’t think it ever swung very well. The rhythm section, to me, was always very stodgy and stilted. Trigger AIpert was a good bass player, and Moe Purtill is a good drummer, he’s a good friend of mine. But part of it, I think, was Miller’s attitude – Miller was a very conservative man. He wanted it done the same way every time; he wanted it done exactly his way, he didn’t leave room for any freedom. And to get a band really playing, you’ve got to let the guys have some air, let them do their own thing to a degree. The great example of that is Duke Ellington: he went the complete other way. To an extent, Charlie Barnet did too. But Duke’s band, they did what they wanted to do so much that sometimes they didn’t even show up!
Miller ran the band so firmly that there wasn’t too much room for that sort of a thing, where it was relaxed. So I would have to say that under different circumstances, in working for a different leader, I think the rhythm section would have been a little more loose, a little more easier to play with. Some of the charts were a little stilted. Jerry Gray’s stuff was very melodic; Bill Finegan did most of the ballads, as well as “Song Of The Volga Boatmen” and “Little Brown Jug” for them. But Jerry did most of the big things, like “String Of Pearls” and “Pennsylvania 6–5000.” When Jerry wrote a lot of things for Artie Shaw’s band, they swung like crazy; that was when he had Buddy Rich - a wonderful band. With Artie, Jerry had much more of a free hand.
I hope I don’t make the Glenn Miller fans unhappy. Yes, essentially it was more of a dance band than anything else. People say: “What do you think would have happened if Miller had survived the war?” It’s hard to answer that, because I think he would be kind of like Lawrence Welk by now, you know, that’s the way he was going, in that direction. I mean, the quality of music may or may not have been better than what Welk has been dispensing lately, but Miller was moving into that, his nice little family, presenting people, and so forth. It’s interesting to speculate about what could have been.
There’s no doubt that the Miller band has given an awful lot of people a great deal of happiness; people have continued listening to those old records. I know we recreated a lot of the Miller stuff for the Time–Life series, and I’ve gotten letters from people who all start off by saying: “I am the number one Glenn Miller fan in the world.” Some of them congratulated us that we did such a good job; another one, referring to the same selection, would say: “You completely spoiled it.” So, you know - different people hear different things in the same record.
I made a few arrangements for Miller, but not very many, because it was too hard a job. We played a lot in that band; when we were in New York we would triple. We would do a record date in the daytime, rehearse the Chesterfield show, go play the dinner session at what was then the Pennsylvania Hotel, and go to do the Chesterfield broadcast after that. Then we worked in the Paramount Theatre sometimes, and did all that in between shows. So I didn’t have too much time to arrange. Also we went out to California and did two films, Orchestra Wives and Sun Valley Serenade.
Certainly, writing was my ultimate objective. Glenn made it quite obvious in 1942 that he was going to enlist into the Service and Alvino Rey and the King Sisters had a pretty big band then. I got to know them, and they asked me to do some writing for them. So I started on their writing while I was still playing with the Miller band; Miller didn’t like that very well, but I was just trying to provide for my own future, since I knew he would soon be in the Service. That was an association that worked out very well for me; they, of course, kept going a little longer than Miller did, into about 1943. By that time things got to the point where bands couldn’t travel any more. But the King Sisters family settled in Los Angeles, and Alvino’s still one of my good friends. Donna King married Jim Conklin, who later became president of Columbia Records. I went to their wedding, and Jim and I were good friends through the years. After a time as president of Warner Brothers Records, Jim kind of retired; then he took a job working for his church, running some things for them. Just recently he’s been in charge of the Voice of America; he was asked by the Reagan administration, but he has just resigned; I guess he had trouble with them. But it’s been a great association with those people that I’ve really enjoyed. I still see them socially once in a while.
Anyhow, I settled in California. Capitol Records had just been founded out there, and I was making phonograph records for them. I started ghosting for Paul Weston, plus doing some sides with Ella Mae Morse. At the same time, I was still on Bing Crosby’s shows and recordings, playing trumpet and arranging for John Scott Trotter. But slowly I kept getting more and more arranging work, so I finally dropped out playing the trumpet. I’d been playing for Ozzie Nelson, while he had the Red Skelton show; when he got his own show, he asked me to write for him. That’s when I first got into writing cues, bridges and original music for situations. Then I started conducting there; he was busy being an actor and a comedian, so he asked me to lead the band. That was somewhere around 1945; now I was doing that kind of work, in addition to writing for Crosby, Sinatra and various other singers.
Capitol then went into the children’s record field, and I did a bunch of those, sixty-three I think. They were really great; we sold a lot of them, until television ran us out of business, that had been before we had TV. It was good training for me; of course, it’s not really serious scoring, because you have to make it very obvious for the kids, but still it was dramatic writing, to a degree. You had to be happy, or sad, or whatever the thing called for.
That had just about petered out, and Capitol had all these different projects going on, one of them was an Arthur Murray dance series. Yes, the guy who taught people dancing in a hurry. They had a deal with him, whereby they were furnishing him with the kind of music that you should have at home to practise with. I think Paul Weston did a waltz album, and so on, and they needed an extra fox-trot album. So they asked me to do it; they gave me the songs. And I had been fooling around with this sliding saxophone thing; I’d been intrigued with it since the days of the Jimmy Lunceford band. The Ellington band did it a little bit too. It was just a lark; I made these four sides for Arthur Murray, but I used that sound. I think they made the series, but Capitol right away put my sides out as singles; that’s when the ‘Billy May sound’ got started. There was such a reaction from the public that I did then organise a band, and we went out on tour for about eighteen months. We went out in the middle of 1952, and came back towards the end of ‘53. But I’d had my fill of travelling with road bands already, after those years with Miller and Barnet; so, having been twice across the country with my own band, I got out of that business again, and went back into arranging.
What I did was, I made a deal with Ray Anthony, who was still in the band business. He felt, and he was right, that the Billy May name would still attract people, and he, in turn, made a deal with Sam Donahue. So Sam fronted my band; they’re doing that a lot nowadays - you know, somebody’s out leading the Miller band, somebody’s leading the Dorsey band, and so forth. Then the band business more or less fell apart in the United States. Now there’s only two places you can work, I think; Disneyland and Disney World, maybe a few others. Let’s see… Les Brown works all the time, and Freddy Martin, I think, and they do mostly private parties up and down the West Coast. They run these cruises, and they book a band as the attraction on the boat, Freddy’s done a lot of those. But rock ‘n’ roll, drive–in theatres, television came around; now the commercial television over there is suffering from the cable services. You can buy a service now, and run movies twenty–four hours a day.
So there’s a lot more competition; that’s what happened to the band business.
They weren’t the studio guys that went on the road with me, because I couldn’t afford it. They wouldn’t go on the road, anyway, because they can do very well just sitting in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has got a great pool of musicians, for whatever flavour or style you want, country and western, rock, symphony, jazz, whatever. It kind of spoils us, too. I’m sure the same thing prevails in London, though. I know it does in Toronto, they’ve got a great bunch there. Gee, that Rob McConnell band’s good; the records they’ve put out are the best big band stuff I’ve heard in a long time.
Willie Smith? He was a good friend of mine. I first met Willie when he came through Pittsburgh with Jimmy Lunceford in 1937, somewhere around there. He worked for Duke and Harry James, and then I found out he was available, so he worked for me for about two years. He went back with Harry for a while, before returning and settling in Los Angeles, where he got into studio work. Then he worked for me again. Certainly, the sounds of Willie on alto and Joe Thomas on tenor with the Lunceford band influenced me in formulating that saxophone section sound.
Of course, it’s an easy sound to do; naturally, all the arrangers latched on to it right away. In fact, I had a little get–together with some of the arrangers here in London, and they were remarking how easily everybody picked up on it. Well, it was just a simple unison, after all.
That “Sorta” series I recorded for Capitol in the fifties like, “SortaMay,” “Sorta–Dixie” - was not so much a tribute to the Sauter–Finegan orchestra as competition with them. Their records were doing very well.
It was the beginning of the hi–fi era, and they wanted something with more sparkling colours; so we added the extra woodwinds, the flute and harp, and extra percussion, bells and things like that. They turned out very well; again, thanks to the pool of musicians there in Los Angeles.
I’ve tried to pride myself on being as versatile as I could be. I mean, if I got an assignment to do something for Lawrence Welk, I tried to make it sound the way I felt he would do it. I think I only did one thing for him. Then I’ve done a lot of television work; I did the old Naked City show, that was about 1960. It was full of music, a lot of work every week, but I enjoyed doing it; that was black-and-white TV long, long ago. Since then I’ve done Mod Squad. I did part of Batman for a year, and I did Green Hornet, I think that was popular over here. Recently, I’ve done a show about the fire department and the paramedics, called Emergency; it’s a good show for kids, because it has a major disaster in every reel, and it sells a lot of peanut butter in the afternoon!
Writing music to match action on film, whether it’s television or motion pictures, is a much more exacting form of writing. You’re always faced with the fact that you’re secondary to the visual image and there is a great deal of mathematics involved, fitting it all together. In the olden days, when they had the luxury of big studio orchestras, and they were more free with their budgets, they spend more money, now, but of course, things were less expensive then. They would take their time, and actually conduct to the picture; they would cue it up with flashes, streamers and things like that. But nowadays you pretty much have to do it to clicks, which means setting a metronomic tempo to a given sequence, and you make your metronome clicks work out to match the action, whatever it is. That way, they just synchronise the clicks with the film, play that through and record it with the orchestra; the guys all have the headphones, playing the clicks. And if the performance is right, which it usually is the first or second time, the match is right there. No one has to fool with it. Once in a while you’ll be off in your arithmetic and the cutter’s able to take the film with the music on, move it over a little bit, and cut a little piece out. It ends up between the music editor and the composer; they’ve got to sit down and work this thing all out mathematically, before you write a note of music. By the same token, you’re not as free; you’re always aware that you’re an accompanying part of the process.
Plus the fact that it’s a post–production thing. When they finish the picture and give it to you completely timed, they’re already screaming that they need the music by tomorrow. So you’re kind of at the end of the production line there, there’s never enough time. Nowadays it’s like that in the movies too, they used to give you more time in the movies. Television was always panic.
Yes, I’ve enjoyed doing it—and I enjoyed getting into new mediums, and trying to do new things. I’m to the point now where I can pretty well choose how much I want to work and it’s a great way to be. I still enjoy working for Sinatra, and I was very flattered when the Boston Pops Orchestra asked me to do those things. But I’m not about to bust a gut writing a bunch of charts for some girl who’s opening in Las Vegas; I feel that there’s no longer any reward in that. The monetary reward isn’t that much, and certainly it doesn’t take any artistic effort to do something like that. I’m pretty much able to do what I want to do now, I enjoy it, and I’m very grateful.
I guess we all get classified, to some degree. One of the clients I have, that I’ve worked for through the years is Lionel Newman, who runs Twentieth Century Fox music department. Now, he’ll call me every once in a while because he’ll have a little sequence that’s from the big band era, for whatever, and he’ll ask me just to do that sequence. It’s not a big paying gig, or anything like that, but because we’ve had a very happy relationship over the years, I’ll do it for him. Things like that happen.
I enjoyed working with Sonny Burke; he put that “Trilogy” thing together for Sinatra, and then shortly after that he died. We had no idea he was sick. In fact, I think we finished the album in November, and he went into hospital the following April; he was gone a month later. It was quite a shock. But I enjoyed doing that with him.
An album that I wrote and Sonny produced was the one with Frank and Duke, somewhere around ‘69—”Francis A, and Edward K.” There again, I was flattered. They’d wanted Billy Strayhorn to do it, but Strayhorn died, and they called me in as a substitute for that. I really felt that was a nice gesture, that they thought enough of me to ask me to try to fill Billy’s shoes. Billy was a great writer.
It was quite something to write for that band. Although by that time the Ellington band kinda wasn’t as good as it had been; I mean, in spots the trumpets weren’t so good, as I recall. But it was still a thrill to work with Duke; I’d known him over the years, but I’d never written anything for him. Duke’s band and Charlie Barnet’s band were very close, back in the early formative days; we got to know them very well. That album’s a classic, though; it’s quite a collectors’ item, not only for Sinatra fans, but for jazz aficionados, there’s some wonderful playing in there by Johnny Hodges, also by Lawrence Brown. I mean, if you’re an Ellington fan - which, of course, I am - it did have a lot of the old Ellington stamp on it. I think the things he did with Basie sounded like Basie. I tried to make this sound like Duke.
As for recent albums of mine, there really haven’t been any. The last Billy May package was in 1966, I think. We had a couple of Beatles songs in there; we used fender bass, and tried to come up with a kind of a contemporary sound. I didn’t really have my heart in it at the time… well, there were some things about the financial arrangement that I didn’t like, and it worked out where I felt that I should do it, because of some other problems. But I really didn’t feel that that was my bag—and I think it kinda shows. About three years ago I did an album for a German publisher; it’s been released in Germany with my name on it. We recorded it in California. It was at a time when he wanted to spend some German money in the United States (for his tax purposes, I guess). So we did all these songs, but they were obscure songs that he had published, or he wrote, or something like that, nothing that anyone ever knew. I don’t know whether the album’s doing any good or not; I understand there is an outlet for it over here. Well, the man had the money, and he wanted to spend it; so we were very happy to take it! Nelson Riddle did one for him too.
Do I hear good big bands today? I think that this Rob McConnell band is awful good. I used to like the band that Thad Jones and Mel Lewis had, they did some very good things. I was very sad to hear that Eddie Sauter had died; the Sauter–Finegan band took the idea of the dance band into colours that had never been realised, and I was hoping that that could have been expanded. One of my pupils gave me a tape of all the Sauter–Finegan things, I play those sometimes, and I’m still discovering things that those two guys pulled. And that wasn’t a big, expensive band either, at the time it was, but with what they’re paying nowadays, I doubt if their payroll would be as big as Woody’s. But I’m really sorry that the direction they started in has not been carried a littl e further.
The basic thing in the world of popular music today is, of course, rock, or rock–oriented things, with its tremendous volume, its repetition and so on. So the trumpet player has to have an amplified solo. The drums are amplified. I think this is a bunch of baloney. Some of the most wonderful swinging things in the world are some of these old Basie, Ellington or Lunceford records; there was a whole bunch of guys playing very softly, and just swinging like hell - and that’s the direction that we’re not going.
Now, the Sauter–Finegan band swung good at times, but they weren’t principally swingers. I was thinking more about the way they used all the colours, especially when they did ballads. There was that beautiful record of “April in Paris,” where they used the vocalist, Sally Sweetland, as another instrument, instead of the words, she sings a very interesting obligate to the band. Things like that. That’s the sort of thing that I wish bands would find a way to do again.
I noticed in the magazine that Buddy Rich has been here. Buddy’s a great performer, and I guess he’s got a good band, but the band bores me, because it’s always bright red. Which was more or less the criticism I had of Kenton: there were about three or four sounds, and that was the extent of it. So we can’t really criticise rock when we have repetitive things like that in big bands too. Right, Kenton did try to break away from the formula with his “Innovations” orchestra, and the work of people like Bob Graettinger and Bill Russo.
Bill Holman is still writing, and once in a while he organises a band and goes into one of the jazz joints. There are a couple of places out there in Los Angeles that run different attractions; you know, they’ll have a big band on Monday night and a trio on Tuesday night and they’re all jazz–oriented. When Bill takes a band in, people come from miles around to hear him, and it’s always very good, they just do it for that night.
There’s a really good big hand on the Johnny Carson Tonight show, yeah, Doc Severinsen’s band. It’s the cream of the crop out there, it’s one of the best jobs in Hollywood. Johnny Audino’s the first trumpet player, and they have an excellent arranger, Tommy Newsom, who’s the sub as leader when Doc isn’t there. Gee, Tommy’s a good writer, you know. And all those guys have little rehearsal bands. I know Tommy works every Tuesday night; they have a quasi–Dixieland–chamber–music–jazz–oriented little band that they’ve been getting together. Another trumpet player, Dick Carey’s got this crazy library, and they’re using all kinds of strange things - flugelhorns, alto horns and things like that - and it’s just a little nine– or ten–or twelve–piece group. Tommy’s been writing for them; it’s a very interesting band. But again, they’re just doing it for their own kicks, not for any commercial value. There’s a lot of that sort of thing going on.
Bill Berry had a good rehearsal band in Los Angeles, but then Sophisticated Ladies, the show that Mercer Ellington put together using his father’s music, came to the West Coast. They broke it wide open; they’re doing great business. But he used all of Bill Berry’s men because they’re all either Ellington alumni or Ellington enthusiasts. I understand that band, when you go to see the show, is superb.
In present day jazz, I think all of those ‘fusion’ things are healthy. What I don’t understand is the newest wave of jazz, where not only chord progressions, melody; everything is discarded, now the time is starting to be discarded too. It’s getting like the Emperor’s New Clothes to me; it’s just a bunch of garbage after a while. There has to be some organisation. We’ve got a couple of jazz stations in Los Angeles, and they play some of that stuff. Boy, you hear a tenor player up there wailing on those high harmonics, and people might think it’s great; I think it’s just dull - utterly boring. The trouble is, too many of those guys are able to get a little cult going; it feeds their ego, the ego feeds the cult, and it gets carried away.
There’s a writer named Whitney Balliett, a jazz critic for the New Yorker. I don’t always agree with him - I don’t always agree with most jazz writers - but he wrote a very, very sensitive little piece about Sonny Greer, and it was really touching. He caught the whole thing about the big band business, the way it was, and how Sonny was with Duke’s band since… 1924, I think. Reading that one little piece really made me feel good. Balliett’s a much younger man than I am; if there are guys around who have that much appreciation, there’s hope.
Sure, Woody keeps going, and he’s always finding new people. Like, Alan Broadbent is a good writer. I don’t know what he’s doing now; he left Woody, I guess he’s working out in California. There’s a whole new crop of guys writing for television. Of course, the electronics guys are coming on very strong. Ninety per cent of the television commercials in the United States now use electronic music.
I don’t try to create electronic music myself, because that’s a whole new bag. I don’t feel like getting into that, at this point in my life. But I have had to use it, and what we do is: there are four or five guys there who are very competent; they know what they are doing, and you just tell ‘em what you want. You say “Spooky,” or give them some adjective like that, and they’ll come up with three or four versions for you. I did some work for Charlie’s Angels, for Jack Elliott, and he’s got one of those guys; you just describe on the part what you want, he finds it, and it works out really good.
When I get back, I’ve got some stuff to do for Sinatra, and I’ll probably have another chart to do for the Boston Pops this summer. I’ve got some work lined up for the fall, but nothing definite yet, I’m sure I’ll have something to do. We just bought a new house in South Laguna; Laguna Beach is South of Los Angeles, mid–way to San Diego, and that’s been referred to as the American Riviera. We like it; I’m really enjoying life there.
Copyright © 1982 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.