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

By Published: June 10, 2004

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.

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