The Jazz Artistry of Ron Thomas: Interfacing Jazz and Classical Music
“ Unbeknownst to me, I was destined to have this amazing jazz encounter... So it was Miles Davis? 'My Funny Valentine' album, Bill Evans? 'Sunday at the Village Vanguard,' and, of all things, Gil Evans? 'Quiet Nights.' Those three albums totally turned my world upside down. ”
Ron Thomas' persona reminds me a bit of the Archangel Gabriel, who appears on all those great Renaissance paintings playing the trumpet, except that Ron is a pianist. Ron, like Gabriel, stays in the background, but has a big influence on what goes on, and you know he's always up to something musical while affecting the destinies of those around him. A jazz pianist who resides in Coatesville, PA, he came up in the 'sixties', formed a close personal and musical bond with guitarist Pat Martino, and has remained heavily involved in both modern jazz and classical contemporary music throughout the last four decades. His website reveals an erudite musician and scholar, someone who is not afraid to 'dare disturb the universe' (a line from T.S. Eliot's poem, 'The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.') At his website, there is a wealth of information about music as well as challenging ideas and fascinating vignettes about the musical figures he's known, from fellow-travelers like Martino to radical composers Eliot Carter, Karlhaus Stockhausen, and John Cage. Ultimately, Ron is a free spirit who thrives on going his own way without concern for what others think. At the same time, he plays haunting and beautiful 'mainstream jazz' on his piano gigs, for example, at the Rosetree Inn, a restaurant in Media, Delaware County, where the management graciously gave us a spacious room for the interview, with piped-in jazz in the background, and enough refills of coffee to give Ron and me an adrenalin rush!
I first learned about Ron coincidentally from pianist Tom Lawton and legendary guitarist Pat Martino, both of whom tremendously respect his work and feel indebted to his influence. Since I, in turn, have great respect and admiration for both Tom and Pat, I thought I should catch up with Ron. So I studied his richly endowed website and found that, as its mastermind, Ron is not only a jazz pianist, but a gifted scholar and essayist, and- perhaps his first and last passion- a composer with a rich lode of productivity in that ethereal and elevated sphere. I interviewed Ron with an open mind, looking for something to evolve in our conversation. What came out was mostly about the rich connection between classical music and jazz. Ron has some interesting slants on this conjunction of two forms of music. While many listeners think of jazz as self-generating, we know that classical music impacted profoundly on Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Keith Jarrett, David Liebman, and a host of other jazz innovators. So following this linking thread with Ron brought some new insights, which I trust that you, the reader, will find enlightening and enjoyable as well. There are also some reminiscences about Ron's creative beginnings, the Philly jazz scene, and Ron's own personal life. So, tune in, and learn a good deal 'more than you know.' I certainly did!
All About Jazz: Let's start out with your background. Your website indicates that you became interested in music at a very early age. At 3, you were stirring the piano keys. What led that spark to catch fire? What were the (no pun intended) key experiences?
Ron Thomas: It was there from the beginning. I don't recall ever NOT being fascinated by music. But there was a critical turning point. As a teenager, I realized that I wanted to do music full time- I didn't want to do anything else.
AAJ:Did you have a music teacher?
RT: I did, yes. Her name was Martha Motchane. She was a French pianist who settled in Montclair, New Jersey where we lived. I studied piano with her all through high school. The story is on my website.
But what led to my career decision, believe it or not, was one Saturday afternoon at the movies in 1957 seeing Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe in, 'The Seven Year Itch.' For one thing, I was just beginning to experience sexuality, replete with all the usual puzzling yearnings, etc. Of course Marilyn Monroe was such an icon in that respect. Now, I think the plot was silly, but do you remember the fantasizing scenes where he entertains Marilyn's character in his apartment while playing Rachmaninoff? Well, in my home, I was called 'Rach-y,' little Rachmaninoff. He was a God in our home- his music was always being played on the 'record player'. So there was the eerie Rachmaninoff factor. There's Ewell, 'playing' Rachmaninoff on the piano in his NY apartment, and Monroe coming down the stairs from the upstairs apartment. Later I realized that what struck me was that the multiple-layers of significance I found watching the movie represented a principle of musical composition: the plurality of worlds- like Charles Ives, you know, with multiple consciousness- the bands going by, and the strings doing something else. Parallel worlds! That was the driving engine in all my searches in all my music up until the early nineties when I began to realize what my music was fundamentally all about.
AAJ: How does that relate to 'The Seven Year Itch?'
RT: There were several layers- the sexual attractiveness of Monroe, the fantasy of her, and this guy playing Rachmaninoff, and then here I am in the movie theater. The combination of those associations somehow created the realization in me that I wanted to be an artist. Seeing that movie that day was kind of like a 'happening'!