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20 Seattle Jazz Musicians You Should Know: Jay Thomas


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"I just remember like it was yesterday, asking everybody how they did things, and I would get a lot of different answers. All of them were correct"
—Jay Thomas
The city of Seattle has a jazz history that dates back to the very beginnings of the form. It was home to the first integrated club scene in America on Jackson St in the 1920's and 30's. It saw a young Ray Charles arrive as a teenager to escape the nightmare of Jim Crow in the south. It has produced such historical jazz icons as Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson. In many instances it has acted as a temporary repose for greats such as Jelly Roll Morton, Joe Venuti, the aforementioned Charles, Larry Coryell, Julian Priester and Randy Brecker to mention but a few.

With this series of features, I will introduce you to twenty jazz musicians currently living and working in Seattle. It is not to be seen as any sort of ranking, it has no positional value in that regard. It is simply an effort to introduce the jazz world at large to the vibrance and innovative nature of the jazz scene in and around the jewel city of Seattle, Washington.

10. Jay Thomas

Legacy is a fleeting notion. It is incomprehensible in real time when a career hits high points, when certain doors open to quantitative opportunity. Jay Thomas can tell you a thing or two about that, based on his own personal experience as a jazz artist over half a century. His story includes playing on the Seattle scene as a teenager, leading to opportunities hampered by among other things, drug addiction. It is as well a story of overcoming those obstacles and producing an impressive legacy of recording and performance credits.

Now approaching 71 years of age, Thomas is one of the rare musicians that can play both trumpet and saxophone with virtuosity. It is not uncommon for him to play a melody in on tenor, switch to flugelhorn for a solo, perhaps probing the tune on alto as well for good measure. These are decisions to be made in the moment for Thomas, part of his creative process as an improviser.

He recently united with German composer/arranger Oliver Groenewald , producing a brilliant album for the Origin record label titled I Always Knew (Origin, 2018). At last, this recording will provide the opportunity for his music to orbit around the jazz universe, outside of the Pacific Northwest where he has attained legendary status. In many ways it is career defining for an artist who has had many doors opened for him, and walked through but a few.

Thomas grew up in the middle of the fertile jazz scene of the sixties in Seattle. While still in high school, he was subbing for Seattle trumpet and saxophone legend Floyd Standifer at the famous Black and Tan nightclub at the corner of 12th Avenue and Jackson Street.

"I used to go to sessions at the Black and Tan. Jim Walters and those guys were down there. They became Ball and Jack, which became War. They never checked my ID. They had sessions on the weekends, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Those sessions were when I first understood the changes that were being played. Ronnie Buford (organ) was playing. Pops Buford was kind of the man, he not only a great saxophonist, but he sold dope also. Bernard Blackman was on guitar, Tommy Henderson played drums. It was really cool. It was kind of out of the way, because it was a bottle club, they just sold setups," remembers Thomas.

Still a high school junior, Thomas began to gain a reputation as a formidable player, with a deep connection to the blues expressed through a style often described as melodic and lyrical. His probing style on trumpet began to reflect the progressive changes in jazz largely due to saxophonists like John Coltrane.

Jazz in the late sixties was firmly in the throes of post-bop, and entering into the era of fusion, with hard bop beginning to phase out. In many ways, it was the very end of a connection to dance music, and a full on consolidation of the form in its status as a performance art. In Seattle, people danced to bebop, and still in its later hard bop incarnation. Recalls Thomas, "When jazz became just this listening thing, and that's great, it kind of diluted the blood quite a bit where it's not attracting a new audience other than people who have been indoctrinated in jazz. In those days, jazz was like boogaloo. A lot of bands would be picking up on jazz things. They'd be playing things by Cannonball Adderly, or Bobby Timmons. Art Blakey's band was still dance related stuff. So was Horace Silver. The hard bop thing is kind of the end of the road for dance. They used to dance to bebop!"

Thomas' teenage years were accentuated by recognition from Downbeat Magazine and Leonard Feather, resulting in a year of study in Boston at the Berklee School of Music. In 1968, he moved to New York, landing a notable gig in Machito's Latin Band, and recorded with James Moody as well. He studied trumpet with Carmine Caruso, and in 1971, discovered the flute and tenor saxophone. Inspired by Standifer, Thomas expanded his musical interests to saxophone, something he oddly found quite natural. For reasons in terms of embouchure and technique, there are few that venture into this realm.

""For me it was pretty natural. Especially in those days when I would go the way that water would naturally flow," he recalls.

Thomas was living the jazz life in New York City, along the way dodging, and at times, falling into the many social distractions along the way. Still, while living in the now iconic Albert Hotel, he discovered the tenor saxophone, and in the process, his musical and creative identity. While Thomas' history is full of colorful tales, this one in particular is career defining on one hand, and as well foretelling of struggles he would encounter going forward for at least another decade. He was just twenty years old, and now had one of his original compositions on a major jazz release. Moody recorded "The New Spirit" on his 1970 release, The Teachers (Perception, 1970).

"When I was living in New York, I was living in the Albert Hotel. It was like the sister of the Chelsea Hotel. It was in the village, pretty close to Bradley's. A lot of musicians stayed at the hotel, in and out. So I'm in the Albert Hotel, and my neighbor always had a big bag of speed, always. I was with saxophonist Joe Brazil, and he wanted to try my trumpet-he was playing my trumpet and making no headway at all. I was holding his saxophone, and I put all the keys down and started to play it. In about five minutes I was basically playing the sax. I didn't do anything, like Jerry Bergonzi who teaches the no embouchure system," recalls Thomas.

Thomas moved back to Seattle in 1978, and began to frequent Parnell's Jazz Club in the Pioneer Square neighborhood. Thomas' dad had bought the intimate jazz spot from Roy Parnell, and between the two, began to book artists more from the hard bop/ post bop lineage. The room had magnificent sound, and the Thomas' fitted the venue with tables, stuffed chairs and couches, a real living room type of feel.

Thomas performed at Parnell's with such notables as George Cables, Bill Mays, Zoot Sims, Harold Land, and Slim Gaillard, and made friends with jazz legends such as Sims, and Sal Nistico. The relationships formed there opened several doors of opportunity for the multi-instrumentalist, some of which he took advantage of, and some not. Thomas had trouble running in the background of his life in the form of addiction that was impeding his progress as a musician, and negatively impacting his relationships with friends, professional colleagues, and family. He began to gain a notorious reputation for unreliability, and yet still continued per his considerable talents to receive opportunities to elevate his status among the jazz elite.

"I was a complete numbskull," says Thomas. "I was playing a lot, but was also a full time junkie since the age of nineteen. So while everything is going on, I have this thing running in the background creating a lot of turmoil, eating up all my time and resources. I was fighting several wars at once on several fronts. My dad thought the key to me kicking my habit was to be busy. It's kind of a joke now," he says.

In 1982, Thomas returned to Seattle for good, to address his illness which had by this time completely dominated his life. His fate seemed to be tied to that which had taken so many of the greats that preceded him. He knew the stability of family, and familiar surroundings were important factors in finally staring his addiction down, and placing it firmly in his past.

"That was the end of the line where I went into a treatment facility, to get that part of my life handled," he recalls with a sigh. He would spend the next three years fighting this battle, until completely free of drugs in 1985. November 1, 1985 to be exact.

He found himself focused and energetic, anxious to move forward with a career that in a real sense, had been severely curtailed for some fifteen years. "I was this walking ball of energy, and didn't know which way to go. I was an emotional wreck, but busy trying to be employed all the time. At that point, things really changed," says Thomas. His dad Marvin arranged an opportunity to perform with Cedar Walton, Chuck Israels, and Billy Higgins that eventually that led to his first record Easy Does It (McVouty, 1989).

Thomas was featured in a full page article in the Wall Street Journal by Nat Hentoff in April of 2000. It appeared that finally the jazz world would become fully cognizant of this master of the realm, sequestered in the great northwest. Still, despite being sober for fifteen years, Thomas' musical prowess did not translate to a keen business sense, and he flatly did not take advantage of the huge opening career wise the Hentoff article provided. States Thomas, "Huge! I had no snap in follow up."

Today Thomas is a member of one of Japan's leading big bands, CUG (Continued in the Underground Jazz Orchestra), and co-leads a sextet with Kohama Yasuhiro and Atsushi Ikeda. He records and performs in Japan several times a year. His efforts have built a bridge between Seattle and the fertile and enthusiastic jazz scene there,

Most jazz talent arises from academia these days, with most young players graduating from schools like Berklee and the Manhattan School of Music. Thomas provides mentorship in the oral tradition much like his experiences as a teenage phenom in Seattle. He has held an adjunct professorship at Cornish College of the Arts, and works individually with students at the nationally renowned program at Garfield High School in Seattle. But those fortunate enough to study privately with him are treated to an individual approach that places an emphasis on ear training. Thomas has never forgotten the sage advice he received from his elders on the Seattle scene.

"I just remember like it was yesterday, asking everybody how they did things, and I would get a lot of different answers. All of them were correct," he recalls.

Thomas chose Origin Records to release this latest work, and for good reason. With trust being a huge factor in any creative endeavor, or for that matter, in any business transaction, Thomas' relationship with Origin principal John Bishop dates back more than 35 years. Their friendship has been developed largely on the bandstand and in the studio. A fine drummer with performance credits that include the groundbreaking Hal Galper Trio, Bishop has a firm understanding of Thomas' creative language, and what this recording means in terms of establishing his friend's legacy. In the age of digital media, the music of this jazz warrior will perhaps take its place among the top jazz artists of his era. It should call attention to the lyrical prose that is his signature, to the broad and pure sound that is his identity, that which we have known in Seattle for 50 years.

Photo Credit: Daniel Sheehan

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