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. ”
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'!
AAJ: What were your first experiences on the jazz scene as a listener and performer?
RT: It was at the University of Illinois in 1965. My peers out there turned me onto jazz. They knew that I was innocent regarding modern jazz. Jon English [1943-1996] was my best friend and most important influence: he later had a Quartet with Kenny Wheeler and had a good career in Europe. The musicians I met there were astonishing: John Garvey, Will Parsons, Pat Pursewell, composers Sal Matirano, Jerry Hiller, Herbert Brun and many others. Most of the young players were in the contemporary music ensemble out there as well as being jazz players. I went there because I wanted to meet contemporary musicians, and there was a big modern music Festival going on. I met John Cage, Eliot Carter, and Luciano Berio at that Festival.
I went out there trying to strike out on my own, and unbeknownst to me, I was destined to have this amazing jazz encounter. These guys played me records, and I just sat there speechless- and they knew how much they were affecting me. They knocked me off the Stockhausen horse I had ridden into town on, so to speak. [Ron had studied with Stockhausen the previous year- Eds.] I was never the same. I went for it hook, line, and sinker and began my jazz apprecticeship immediately. 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.
AAJ: Which brings me to my next question. Could you reflect briefly on the three or four key moments or epiphanies in your musical development? You just gave us one. Are there others? What were the moments when things really came together and transformed you musically?
RT: The Illinois event was certainly one, and the 'The Seven Year Itch' but before that, what set everything up, was my encounter with the music of Debussy when I was 14. My teacher gave me tickets to a recital at the local college. All I knew before that was Debussy's potboiler, 'Claire de Lune.' This recital rocked me! It led me directly into modern music. I went to the library and began to listen pretty systematically to all the modern music records, Schoenberg, Webern, Shostakovitch, Berg, everyone. Thus, my interest in modern music started with Debussy. Debussy's music revealed to me that, for me, the captivating thing about music is that it is really a 'theatre of the mind' not just tunes, symphonies, composer skills, player chops, and such...
Another 'key moment' came while I was working with Pat. Some time after I recorded with him I told him, 'I don't have any idea what my identity as a composer is any more.' It was jazz that did that to me. Pat said, 'I think you should study with Dennis Sandole, but I'll go with you and introduce you. Don't let him give you his theory- you don't need that. You tell him what your problem is, and Dennis will show you what to do'.
Dennis wrote a C major scale on a piece of paper, and then put a sharp in front of the F. [This changes the 'mode' or sound quality of the scale. Miles Davis literally created a new jazz format using modal composition.- Eds.] And he said, I want you to write a whole composition based on that. It was sort of a Zen thing. I went home, started writing, and it all started to come forth.
What Dennis did was to break me free of avant-garde-ism. I thought everything I did had to be based on Stockhausen and all the post World War II European musical developments. Jazz had brought me back to the reality that I'm an American, and jazz is here along with Charles Ives, Emily Dickinson and Jackson Pollock. So I was emancipated from hang-ups from the bond I had made with the avant-garde philosophy, about which Kundera, the Czech-French writer said something like, 'The avant gardist is obsessed by the notion that one's work must be in harmony with the future.' Jazz moves on another level of freedom. So, Dennis Sandole's teaching liberated me from that prison house and helped me to see that I could approach classical composition that way. I became a classical composer whose approach and thought process was like a jazz musician's approach'.. For me, jazz is not a stylistic thing, but more basic than that, it's the way I think about composition.
AAJ: I'm going to read a few names from your website list of 'Influences and Friends.' Could you give a brief snapshot of what each has meant to you? Let's start with John Cage.
RT: John Cage was always a great source of joy and refreshment for me. I visited him once or twice a year. We drank strong Japanese tea together, and I would just let him talk about whatever he was into at the moment: Satie, Thoreau, Duchamp, Nanotechnology. We had some great discussions.
AAJ: John Cage's music, or non-music if you will, seems to many to be a gimmick and is very difficult for most people to comprehend. I think readers would be interested in any insight you could give into what he was doing.
RT: I think it's helpful to remember that John was kind of a Buddhist and also very interested in technology. He really was trying to change the way both artists and the public thought about art. And he succeeded.
AAJ: Ron Dewar.
RT: Ron is very much to me like Pat Martino. Except that Ron and his work are unknown. He's still out in the Chicago area and still a towering artistic figure, a fabulous saxophonist, in a class by himself as a player and as a thinker.
AAJ: Helmut Gottschild.
RT: I played for his dance classes at Temple University, and was also associated with his choreography and dance works. He is a dancer and a choreographer, ran two very successful and innovative dance companies for many years. He helped me connect my work as a musician with the 'kinesthetic' world of movement, energy, and gestures: the dramatic nature of physicality.
AAJ: Sir Roland Hanna.
RT: A supreme jazz pianist. But too few people know that he is a thoroughly classical musician who studied Piano and Composition at Julliard. I was going to study with Barry Harris, but Herbie Hancock convinced me to study with Roland instead who was perfect for me as I continued to try to forge a connection for myself between jazz and modern classical musical techniques''..
AAJ: Igor Stravinsky.
RT: I compose the same way Stravinsky did- pecking it out a note at a time at the piano, constructing it piece by piece, layer by layer as I go along. I have probably analyzed more of his music than I have anybody else's .
AAJ: Stefan Wolpe.
RT: Stefan's work straddles the 'old moderns' and the 'post WWII crowd.' I tried to appropriate his way of thinking.
AAJ: You had a close association with the innovative composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. How did this association come about, and how did it influence you?
RT: I discovered his music somewhere around 1958 or '59 through the famous Robert Craft recording of 'Zeitmasse' for wind quintet. After I graduated from the Manhattan School of Music, I learned Stockhausen was going to be in Philadelphia in the Spring of 1964. I just appeared in his class at the University of Pennsylvania. He was substituting for George Rochberg for a semester.(Rochberg was teaching at the University of Buffalo that semester as a guest lecturer.) I just latched myself onto him. I told him, 'I sold everything I had and came here!' He liked that. His eyes widened. 'Ah, a true artist!' he said. He was a young man still- 36, and I was 24. He gave me a direct insight into the post-World War II musical thinking in Europe. I absolutely adored him. He was a fascinating person. But he was also way too much of a 'blinding light' in a way- I needed to recover from him- a bit too charismatic.
AAJ: Can you give our readers a sense of what Stockhausen did for music.
RT: New forms of expression, new feelings. Miles Davis called it 'bettering the forms of music'. Berlioz called it 'endowing music with new actions.'
AAJ: Was Miles into classical music?
RT: Oh yes, he was. He had his own special kind of thing with it.
AAJ: You mention Ludmila Ulehla.
RT: She is a composer and was a student of Vittorio Giannini's at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 1950's. About two years after she graduated, they hired her on the faculty where she taught for many years. Dave Liebman is a big fan of hers. He republished her book, Contemporary Harmony: Romanticism through the Twelve-Tone Row (Advance Music), which made the rounds in the form of xeroxed copies when it went out of print some years ago. Many jazz musicians looked it over pretty carefully. Ludmila is a very historically important composition teacher.
AAJ: You mentioned that pianist Bill Evans had a profound influence. What's your own summation of Evans' contribution to jazz?
RT: When I heard, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, it astonished me, as did also the first Conversations with Myself album, and later Columbia's The Bill Evans Album. For me, Bill Evans and Miles Davis are mountains! They're massive and formative. I was intoxicated by the depth of Bill's lyricism, the ingenuity of his harmonies, the suppleness of all those rhythms. When I listen to his best recordings, it's like listening to Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, 'The Well Tempered Clavier.' I wonder, how did he do it? The profundity of that lyricism! Curiously, Bill and I were both part Welsh, and both from Northern New Jersey. I heard him and Miles a lot between 1965 and 1970 at the Vanguard and the Top of the Gate. In the summer of 1970 Evans played with Marty Morell and Eddie Gomez all summer long at the Top of the Gate. My connection with jazz is really through Evans and Davis.
AAJ: Were you at all familiar with Lennie Tristano?
RT: Yes, I was. He was a groundbreaker like Parker and Gillespie. A reporter once tried to get Charlie Parker to say something bad about Tristano. Parker set him straight pretty quick. The innovators really welcomed Tristano.
AAJ: Why did he fade into the background?
RT: A quirk of history, really. He did play quite a bit in Europe. He also became known as an educator- many musicians studied with him. And I think that became a part of his persona- that he was a teacher. Tristano was a marvelous player as well. There's a videotape of a live concert with him, and it is unbelievable. I like his solo playing the best. Very mystical. And very instructive. That rhythmic interrelationship between the bass part and his solo lines really incorporates the very essence of what the concept of bebop really is.
AAJ: Here's a tough one. On your website, you imply that music 'should be of its own essence, free of influence, history, and culture.' You use Berlioz as an example. How can you make such a statement? It's clear to anyone that all music is profoundly a product of time and place.
RT: Yes, I understand that'.. but what I oppose is a specific evolutionary form of aesthetic philosophy sometimes called 'historicism' which says that in music the chronology of art works must fulfill a preordained historical destiny. I believe this is nonsense. Berlioz responded quickly to this 19th century monster of a doctrine. His was the first and strongest reaction to that deadening philosophy which says 'Destroy the old, and start new.' Take Stockhausen, for instance, who said, and probably still believes, 'Everything starts with Webern. We don't care about anything before then. If your music resembles anything before Webern, it is of absolutely no importance to us.' I disagree entirely. I say, 'Let's have everything available to us.' As Chopin said, 'I help myself abundantly from the laws of freedom'. Quite a different idea.
AAJ: That sounds like composer George Rochberg's philosophy. [Rochberg had a profound influence on pianist Uri Caine; see AAJ interview with Caine].
RT: Stravinsky too. Like Berlioz , Stravinsky said something like, 'I don't have any ancestors.'
AAJ: So what you're saying is that we need to utilize history and culture in our own way rather than rejecting it or worshiping it. The newness comes from how you use the influences.
Let's go a bit deeper into this. Now, here's some musical notation from your website. Give us a little education.
RT: That's from my pre-jazz composing. I wrote that work soon after I had finished my studies with Stockhausen, and was struggling to make some sense out of it in my composing. It's a classy example of 'graphic notation'. Cage experimented very beautifully with this sort of thing.
These are cluster shapes. Some of them might be black keys, others white keys, or both.
AAJ: So this is a type of composition where the exact notes are not determined?
RT: Yes, you're right. They are note-clusters.
AAJ: There are no measures.
RT: There are no measures, but you could use the relative distances as a way of judging the time frame.
AAJ: So, like jazz, each performance might be different, it would never be quite the same?
AAJ: You mention Berlioz, Liszt. You consider Berlioz a 'free spirit.' Many modern composers and jazz artists have, in a sense, rejected the nineteenth century classical and romantic music. Why does this particular century impress you?
RT: Well, when we look back, there's not as radical a break between classical/romantic and modern music as there once seemed to be. Schoenberg and Stravinsky are two of what I call 'the old moderns.' Bartok and Hindemith, as well. In the early part of the century, a polarity emerged between Schoenberg, more 'evolutionary,' building on the past while moving away from it, and Stravinsky, who opposed this 'historicism' approach. So there was a little 'war' between the two that never got resolved.
What I believe, in contrast to the prevailing view, is that in reality there is no substantive difference between the nineteenth and twentieth century. 'Modern' music begins with Beethoven. Russian poet and writer, Joseph Brodsky, who came to live in New York, said, 'You know, a piano sonata by Beethoven can serve as the soundtrack for any of the Star Wars films.' That says it all for me. The world that Beethoven created back then is part of the modern sensibility with which I can identify. So, I don't see that big a dichotomy between 19th and 20th century music and don't think I'm alone in that.
AAJ: Let's come back to jazz. You've been a figure on the Philadelphia jazz scene for almost thirty years. What have been some of your most enjoyable gigs, and which musicians have you found most productive and fulfilling to work with?
RT: The longest lasting relationships I've had have been, for example, Pat Martino, but not so much playing with him but as a very close personal friend and confidante. Then there's a drummer that I've been working with for many years now, Joe Mullen, one of the best innovative musicians I've ever known'.he worked with me on The House of Counted Days . We've done many sessions together. Outstanding. John Swana. Tyrone Brown, Bill Hollis, Eddy Battles, Pearl Williams, and Bobby Durham (what a marvelous time I had with him). Benny Nelson, Bobby Blackwell, bass players who've passed away. Intriguing people every one, and marvelous players'
AAJ: What clubs do you play at these days?
RT: Well, I don't play in Philly much these days. I've played at Chris' Jazz Caf', however, with perecussionist Bob Brosh, a faculty member of the University of the Arts. Currently, I play out here in the suburbs of Philadelphia: The Rose Tree Inn in Media, the Mendenhall Inn in Chadds Ford, and Sullivan's in King of Prussia, where I play Sundays and Mondays.
Getting back to the philosophy, I really regard jazz and classical music as being in the same category. I see jazz as a subspecies of 20th century music. Jazz is essentially a form of modern music, along with Stravinsky, Hindemith, Schoenberg, etc..
AAJ: I reviewed a book entitled Jazz Modernism. The author shows the interplay between jazz and modern art. Some modern artists such as Matisse and Alexander Calder collected jazz recordings and referenced them in their paintings and sculptures. Maybe there's a book waiting to be written about the connection- even deeper- between classical and jazz music. I think of Stravinsky, Bernstein'
RT: And Darius Milhaud. Exactly right.
AAJ: It's interesting that both jazz and classical music began as forms of entertainment. (Classical music a la Haydn and Mozart derived in part from music that was played between the acts of theatrical dramas.) Duke Ellington was certainly one of the greatest modern composers. Dave Liebman explores new territories of modern music.
RT: Absolutely. You have a feel for this kind of sensibility and connection.
AAJ: I think jazz comes across so much as 'entertainment' that we miss this connection. And we don't respect jazz musicians the way we should. We think of them as showmen. In Clint Eastwood's movie, 'Bird,' there's a scene where Charlie Parker needs to earn some bread and plays popular tunes at a bar mitzvah in Brooklyn! But sophisticated musical artists like yourself have deep admiration and respect for jazz musicians as great innovators.
RT: Europeans were quick to see that jazz is an art form. That's because they didn't have the baggage we have.
AAJ: You know Uri Caine. What are your thoughts about his music that's based on classical composers like Mahler? 'Urlicht': First Light.
RT: Uri is a wonderful musician. I don't know if Mahler would have liked it, but Bach would have had no problem with it. Bach often takes one piece and transforms it into something else, adapting one thing into another. I like that- it's very interesting to mix genres and mediums that way. There shouldn't be any boundaries on projects like that.
AAJ: Let's talk about your personal life a bit. You've lived in Coatesville, PA for quite a while. You're married. Any kids?
RT: Two stepsons, my wife Mary Ann's sons, Jim and Tony McAnany, grown up now. I have five grandchildren, Michael, Nicholas, Timothy, Alyssa, and Dominic. We have very warm family relationships which are very rewarding and on which I put a very high value.
AAJ: I know that you have a spiritual/religious interest. Have you thought of composing some religious music?
RT: I have done some sacred works. They help me to express my beliefs and values.
AAJ: What do you have in mind for the near future?
RT: There was a period when I wanted to be famous and have a lot of money. But, like many artists, I don't like all that hustling and competition and I quickly retreated from the fied of battle in order to protect my vision as an artist. I'm an artist because I want to work at my art more than having a 'career.' I'm secure in my work and with my life. My jazz playing is always growing and changing. I experiment together with other players. I'm always composing a few notes of music, writing essays, keeping my website together, and teaching a great deal. I teach jazz, composition, and piano. I want to do more performing with the other musicians. I'd like to do a documentary based on my writings and music, make a film that exemplifies my philosophy. There's an essay on my website explaining the liner notes (entitled 'A Meditation') for The House of Counted Days. It's dedicated to Bill Karlins, who asked me to do it. Your readers may be interested in reading it.
AAJ: Of your own recordings, what are your own favorites?
RT: The Tom Cohen Trio album (1996 Cadence Jazz Records) is an extremely good example of my work as a jazz musician. The 1972 Erik Kloss album, One, Two Free ; the Pat Martino Live album; my own, as composer and leader, Scenes from a Voyage to Arcturus ; and The House of Counted Days - the latter two are both 'slam-dunks' as far as I'm concerned.
AAJ: Thanks, Ron. It was a great interview with loads of insight.
RT: I enjoyed it.