|Interview date||1st January 1972|
|Interview source||Jazz Professional|
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A lot has happened musically in the last ten years. I must say that I’m not terribly moved by a lot of things that I hear, that have developed during that time. But there have been, nevertheless, some fantastic happenings, I think. The decade has thrown up a lot of very fine young musicians, who have broken out of what were previously considered iron–clad rules about playing instruments, and music. As a consequence, they’ve opened up all sorts of avenues—which is great.
What I find missing in a great deal of today’s music is a variety of emotions. Some of it can tend to be very boring and samey after a while. I’m speaking of the general contemporary music that’s being played all over the world. It lacks a kind of emotional thing, to a certain extent.
As far as the club is concerned, over the last ten years we’ve presented some very good new music as well as more established things. And I think the understanding and appreciation of the more advanced ideas is growing, although it’s a slow business. But I’ve a funny feeling that it will develop into something that reverts back somehow, in an emotional sense, while still retaining this free outlook. Maybe. I don’t know; it’s very difficult to say.
Being in a position to hear a lot of great things night after night in the club, you’d have to be a bit thick if you didn’t learn something. Influence of some kind, from certain guys, must seep in. I mean, there’s a lot of guys whose music I can take or leave. But some are fantastic musicians, who must have a kind of effect on you.
The basic effect is the one that I’ve always maintained exists: not so much the lessons to be learned, if there are any (and I suppose there must be); not so much in the content of what the guys play, but more in the attitude towards playing. I don’t mean just American musicians, either. In the first instance, yes, American musicians were the ones to listen to, but now I’ve heard musicians from everywhere that are really incredible. Japanese musicians—we haven’t had them at the club, but I’ve heard them. Also German, and, of course, British players.
Very few of the jazz greats who have worked at the club have disappointed me on hearing them in person. One or two, but maybe because they were ill, just didn’t feel right or something. In general, the players I’ve admired and we’ve managed to have appear here have lived up to expectations completely.
For me, the greatest thing I’ve ever heard has been Sonny Rollins. He’s the kind of guy, if he works here for a month I’ll be out there every set, listening. And after a while it’s difficult to do that, you know. But with Rollins, I’d hate to miss a set—because you never know what’s going to happen.
Another thing, while we’re on that subject: I can’t understand, when a guy like Sonny Rollins is appearing at the club, why at least every saxophone player within a fifty–mile radius of the club doesn’t come at least once. Just taking saxophone players as an example, I’m amazed that they don’t flock to hear people of the Sonny Rollins calibre. I’ve seen musicians that I thought still had an interest in what was happening, and I’ve said: “Did you come and hear Rollins?” “Oh no, I couldn’t make it. I was working early”, or some kind of excuse. I really don’t understand it; I think it’s a shame. It’s a blasé attitude, a lack of interest or something; I don’t know what it is. I know that if I was anywhere and somebody like Rollins was playing, I’d go and see This applies to a lot of great things that we present at the club. I’m often amazed by this funny attitude. A lot of musicians do come in, the younger ones in particular, but there seem to be a lot of guys who should come in and don’t.
Regarding big bands: I think it’s much the same as it’s been for some years now. There’s no great boom, or return to the big bands—that they’ve all been talking about. But just the same, when there is a big band at the club, like Buddy Rich, Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland, Harry James, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, we’ve always done very good business and the atmosphere has always been fantastic, There’s something about a big band; you can’t reproduce it any other way.
Certainly, the Clarke/Boland band has been great for me. It’s the best big band I’ve ever played in, or probably will ever play in, I should think. There’s been times, sitting in that band, where it’s been a really terrific kick. Because I like playing in a saxophone section, and that one was one of the best ever, I think. At one period it was a remarkable thing to play in, and, of course, it still has its moments now. But, you see, the late Derek Humble was really responsible primarily for that kick; so it probably won’t be the same again. It’s still very enjoyable to play with a good saxophone section, and the band as a whole is very good. I like being a member of a big band, if it’s like that.
I like that record the band made with Stan Getz very much. That’s a great piece of writing. It’s the kind of album you should listen to from the beginning to the end; it’s a kind of a suite, and themes are reiterated in various settings and so on.
Quite frankly, there are a lot of young writers today who are over–praised, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe it’s because there are not too many guys writing at all, with any degree of originality or ideas. But I think Francy Boland is very, very underrated, because he writes rings round most of the guys who receive a lot more acclaim than he does. He’s a fantastic talent. Even the best of the young writers can’t compare with a guy of Boland’s stature—although I’m sure they will, as they develop.
The genera1 outlook of musicians has changed a great deal; yes, it probably is broader. The repertoire has extended to include all sorts of things. It’s a completely different way of looking at music, really; a much more open and all–embracing way. Which I suppose is a good thing, on the whole.
In the club, we’re forced to present things that I think people would like to come and see, providing they’re good of their kind. Of course, ideally I would like to have a purist jazz club, but unfortunately, it’s very difficult to make such a venture work. Consequently, we have to compromise to a certain extent. Which I’m quite prepared to do, as long as the backbone of the thing is still jazz. At least, ninety per cent of the time. It doesn’t even have to be a musical thing. You know, we’ve had comedy acts opposite a jazz attraction; that’s okay with me.
To a degree, I’ve been able to fulfil my original concept of having an environment, rather than a club. We’ve got the three floors. The upstairs is a kind of a discotheque thing, where some good music happens. Various underground–type and Afro–rock groups are heard, that I think are very good. For instance, Osibisa worked here for a week or two before they were as big as they are. Also we had a group called ‘Igginbotham, which featured a fine young guitarist, Alan Holdsworth, who’s down in London now. A lot of young guys have worked upstairs—and been noticed as a result. With the main room and the downstairs room, it’s somewhere you can come in and wander about if you want to, and hear various things. So the environment idea has worked, really.
What I’m a little disappointed in is the fact that it becomes increasingly difficult to find attractions that do good business. There are very few British ones that do well enough. The Dankworth band with Cleo Laine is okay on its own, but in the main, British acts have to be subsidised by sharing the bill with an established American name.
I’ve had rows with British musicians, who say to me: “Why don’t you employ all British musicians all the time?” Well, anyone who’s tried to run any kind of place in London that presents nothing else but British groups will tell you that it’s very tough. This has nothing to do with the standard of British musicians which, of course, is very high and getting higher all the time. It’s just to do with the fact that the local guys are just taken for granted, and don’t pull people in. At least, they don’t pull people in here, and I’m sure that if you ask anyone else who runs a joint they’ll tell you it’s difficult anywhere. And so you have to compromise that way as well; if you book a certain number of big foreign attractions, usually American, against them you can put British musicians as much as possible. In my view, it’s better to have the place as somewhere for British musicians to work to a degree, rather than not have it at all, or turn it into a disco bar, strip club, gambling joint or whatever.
I feel that we don’t really get as much credit as we think is due to us, for keeping any kind of jazz club going six nights a week, and featuring as many British musicians as we do feature. That’s an achievement in itself, which should be encouraged and helped as much as possible. You know, I’ve had one or two set–to’s recently with people who write in various musical papers, because I don’t think the club itself gets the acknowledgement it deserves, somehow. I mean, the people who appear here usually get reviewed very well, and the club gets publicity in that way. That helps, of course.
But you do get guys who, for some kind of strange reason, because you have existed for so many years and because you try and present things in reasonably decent surroundings, seem to think that you’ve become part of the establishment—something like that. And as you’re part of the establishment, then you must be knocked, whether you’re right or wrong. I really find it very difficult to comprehend. It’s something to do with a generation gap, perhaps—I don’t know. Or it’s: as soon as jazz attracts any kind of following, or any kind of commercialism enters into the idea of anyone making a living out of it, it becomes abhorrent. Maybe that’s it.
It’s fine that certain types of British musician can do well financially, here and in the States, but I don’t know whether it’s got much to do with jazz, however. It depends what you mean by jazz. Sure, there’s improvisation—but that’s been going for a long time now. It’s only recently that some kids have discovered that it’s possible to improvise, and then you read critics who write about it as if it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. How fantastic that some of these groups are actually improvising! Big deal. Whereas, of course, it’s what jazz is all about. Again, jazz has not been given credit for the influence it’s had. Without jazz music I don’t know what kids today would be playing. Either consciously or unconsciously, it motivates them.
There is a kind of music that’s being played today, that I like very much. and which I would honestly rather listen to than a great deal of what’s popularly known as avant garde jazz music. Which is a kind of nice fusion of things. Really, it’s accomplished jazz musicians playing good pop tunes that have been wel larranged, or improvising on good pop tunes. The Quincy Jones album “Smackwater Jack” is a perfect example of what I mean. I like it basically, I think, because it’s so rhythmic, and I’m a sucker for a good rhythm feel.
Sure, it’s taking jazz to a wider public. A lot of people will buy Quincy’s album, and if you told them it contained a very liberal sprinkling of jazz music they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. But they still buy the record and like the music. If it was advertised as a jazz LP, they probably wouldn’t look twice at it.
It’s possible to dispense with the word jazz. We just call our place Ronnie Scott’s now, but we used to advertise it as a jazz club. Now, not being a purist jazz club, it’s not true to term it that. A lot of things that are there aren’t really jazz—not to my way of thinking, anyway.
It seems to be a bit of a passé word these days, for some reason.
But I can only use it to describe the kind of attitude and feeling that a certain kind of music has for me. And I find that in recent Quincy Jones records and stuff like this there is an enormous jazz content, although they don’t feature any lengthy jazz solos. They’re better for not doing so.
The thing is, there’s very few guys I know who can really play an extended improvisation for any length of time without becoming a bit boring and repeating what they’ve said before. And I love to hear a guy present two or three minutes of music which in itself is a kind of concentrated essence of something or other to do with him, rather than a guy play for maybe twenty minutes. Unless he’s a Sonny Rollins or a John Coltrane. There are not many of those.
As regards my own playing . . .yes. I’ve worked with many of the younger musicians, and I don’t feel in any way alien to the guys themselves or—the kind of music that’s being played. As I said before. I’m all in favour of their breaking away from the restrictions as to what you could or couldn’t do. You can do anything you like if you feel like doing it. If it’s valid—great. And I hope that this attitude is reflected in what I play, in that it has accepted various kinds of influence like that. I’d hate to feel that I’d stopped.
I believe I have my own identity as a player. When. you’re a young musician, and you’re learning to play an instrument, you hear a guy play that you admire very much and, almost unconsciously, you ape him. Then you get to a stage, I think, where all the influences seem to have been assimilated, and out of that conglomeration of approaches you kind of gravitate towards a style that becomes a natural thing. But, as I say, I hope it doesn’t mean that you stop, because I feel that my playing changes almost night to night.
I’ve been working for a while now with the Trio. This is something that I enjoy very much—mainly because Tony Crombie is, for me, a great drummer. I’d rather play with Tony than most other drummers I know. It’s just incidental that he’s a contemporary of mine; the fact is, I just like the way he plays. The same goes for Mike Carr on the organ. It’s very enjoyable, because we play virtually what we want to play, and we seem to get a good reaction from the audience. Which is very important, with the kind of outlook on music that the three of us have. The idea is to communicate to people how we feel about things; to see that we’re doing that is a tremendous kick.
That eight–piece band I had was nice, too. It was very difficult to keep it together, simply because all the guys—Kenny Wheeler, Ray Warleigh, John Surman, Chris Pyne, Gordon Beck. Ron Mathewson—were involved in doing other things as well. You can’t really maintain a band like that unless you‘re going to do it on a full–time basis, which was just about impossible, But it was great while it lasted; it gave me a chance to play with these guys, and we got some nice writing done. Also I think the record we made live at the club captured the spirit we had. I’ve heard it again recently; it stands up pretty well.
Even if I wanted to, there would be no way I could have a regular big band of my own. Really, I’ve got it very nicely. I play with the Trio a lot, also with the Clarke/Boland band; so I get the best of both worlds, you can say. But to get a big band together under my name, simply to work at the club, would be a bit of an undertaking. You’ve got to get a book written for it, ensure that the right guys are available, get them to spend a week or so rehearsing, then work for a couple of weeks. At the end of it all, apart from the occasional broadcast or concert that might happen out of it. that’s it—it’s over.
The other things that we’ve done, though—backing singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Jack Jones—have been a great pleasure, I’ve tried to pick guys that work well together and, luckily, all the bands have sounded good.
Yes, occasionally I accompany singers in the club, with a small group. It’s nice; I don’t mind doing that. I don’t know if I’m funny, but I’m not averse to playing any job. For instance, if I’m called upon to do some kind of session or other that involves very commercial music, it’s okay. Sure, I took a solo on “Lady Madonna” by the Beatles—that’s my claim to fame. They broke up shortly after that, I might tell you.
As long as I’m playing my instrument, that’s enough, really. You try and play it the best you can under any given circumstances. It can only help; it can’t do any harm. But then again, you get guys who flatly refuse to play anything other than the kind of music they’re involved in. Which is very admirable; it just happens to be an attitude that I don’t have. And it’s got nothing to do with the economics of it, either. I mean, maybe some fixer or other has phoned me to do a session early in the morning; it’s not really worth a lot of money, and it means I get to bed about five, then get up again about half past eight to do the thing. So I don’t do it for the money; I do it because I’d like to feel that I was competent.
Running a club and being a working musician at the same time have not really conflicted, I’m glad to say. I’m lucky, in that my partner Pete King handles most of the business matters; so I am left fairly free. It’s a bit of a problem sometimes. if he’s away and I have to combine playing in some group or other in the club with chasing around dealing with other things. That’s certainly not ideal where playing is concerned, but I can manage.
Copyright © 1972 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.