A Fireside Chat With Lew Tabackin
LT: We used to play at the Ice House in Pasadena and we used to play for the door. We would go out there once a week and play and it was really bad. We didn't get hardly any money. We divided it up and it would come to two, three dollars a piece, so I would always chip in a few more dollars. We used to do that and it was pretty interesting. We decided that we should put on a concert because everybody's been donating their time and we should do something. So we rented the Wilshire Ebell Theatre and we gave our first concert in '73. In fact, Shelly Manne did the gig with us because our regular drummer was playing with some singer, Olivia Newton-John or one of these people, somebody silly like that. So I asked Shelly and Shelly was rehearsing and he did the concert and we produced it ourselves and that was the first thing. A Japanese record producer who was mostly a classical music person, he recorded the band and we made our first album called Kogun. We recorded it to eight track in a rather small studio and the budget was really low, but the music was really interesting and it came out quite well. It was a big hit in Japan. It sold 30,000 copies almost immediately. It was the biggest serious jazz music hit, if you want to call it a hit. It sounds kind of stupid, but it was successful. That was very important. It was a fusion of Japanese sounds and American jazz. It was early world music in a sense. It was the first type of Asian/jazz fusion was recorded with our big band.
FJ: As a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, I am curious as to what prompted you to leave for New York?
LT: (Laughing) Well, you have to know the reason why I left New York. I really loved New York, but in the early Seventies, I was playing some gigs with Doc Severinsen and he offered me work in Los Angeles when the show moved. The show had moved to L.A., the Tonight Show. New York was very strange because there was almost like a Black revolution happening. Martin Luther King was assassinated earlier and Malcolm X and it was very difficult for white jazz musicians. It was really tough and I respected it and I understood it and I didn't have any bitterness, but I remember Duke Pearson was trying to get me a contract with Blue Note and they weren't interested in white musicians. It was rough.
I felt that a move to Los Angeles might bring more opportunities in a sense. So that is why we moved. The reason we left was basically my fault. I felt disconnected with the jazz community. Los Angeles is more of a commercial industry. Music is more industrial, TV and movies, a lot of studio work. The jazz scene was relatively small and I felt like I wanted to get back to New York and get closer to my roots in a sense. Its proximity to Europe is better and I left that for my next level of development, I had to return to New York. I gained a lot in Los Angeles. When we moved to Los Angeles, Toshiko, she was pretty much out of the music scene. She was pretty much resigned to the fact that she wasn't going to be that active. The band started and one thing led to another as you know and she got more and more involved and that was really great for her and it was great for me in a sense because when I was in New York, I was involved in everyone else's projects. I played in so many bands at the same time, but I never focused on my own thing. In Los Angeles, I felt that I had to make an attempt to create my own little world, which I did. I had groups with Billy Higgins and various bass players. I was part of Shelly Manne's quartet. There were some wonderful things that happened and it forced me to find out who I was because I had to create my own identity, so the ten years we spent in L.A. were quite important. But I felt like I had to get back to a certain energy that I missed in New York.
FJ: Does Los Angeles lack that vibe?
LT: Well, it is not a real city. It is not an urban reality, at least most of it. The weather is nice and people are generally more relaxed. In New York, it is survival of the fittest. It creates a certain kind of urban intensity that doesn't exist in Los Angeles. There are extremes on both sides. There was a period where the music in New York was over-intense. In Los Angeles, there is a tendency to be more relaxed. I remember when I first moved to L.A., I brought in a trio to Dante's and it was crowded and we started playing and by the end of the first set, the place was almost empty. There were only a few musicians left and I thought I was playing what I thought was normal, straight-ahead.