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The Jazz Artistry of Ron Thomas: Interfacing Jazz and Classical Music

By Published: June 10, 2004

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.

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