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Jay Thomas: We Always Knew

Paul Rauch By

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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
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.

It could well be that Thomas, who just turned 70 years of age, is producing his finest work in current times. 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 jazz, age doesn't matter. They would like to sell it like it matters, but it didn't matter in the fifties, and it doesn't matter today. It didn't matter in the forties," says Thomas.

Indeed. Thomas is one of a rare few who can apply virtuosity to both the trumpet and saxophone. On I Always Knew, he is featured on trumpet, flugelhorn, alto, tenor, and soprano saxophones, surrounded by Groenewald's Newnet, a nine piece ensemble of top shelf players.

Getting together with Thomas to talk about his career, is akin to two friends having a long conversation over cups of green tea. There is talk about the great players who led the way for him as a teenage phenom on the Seattle scene, about time playing with the likes of Cedar Walton, Larry Coryell, and Billy Higgins. There are insights into a man with a kind and gentle soul, and a great genius within. There are moments of laughter inspired by his humorous witticisms.

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 did one thing in high school for Floyd, playing with Chuck Metcalf, who had written all these arrangements. He had all of the cream of the crop players around him," says Thomas. Standifer would as well be an inspiration for Thomas to double on saxophone as he did, something that would take several years to come into fruition. Nonetheless, Thomas continued to associate with veterans on the scene in Seattle, and assimilate everything he could to add to his personal creative base. Having the opportunity to play afternoon sessions at the legendary Black and Tan bottle club on 12th and Jackson proved to be key.

"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 was 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.

He played in R&B bands then as well, integrating jazz sensibility into what became known as the Seattle Sound with such artists as Dave Lewis, as well as Jimmy Hanna of Dynamics fame.

"When I was sixteen, I was starting to figure it out, and we did this album. Jimmy Hanna Band," recalls Thomas.

The band played an eclectic mix of R&B, jazz, blues and rock, and backed many touring acts passing through the Pacific Northwest. The personnel was remarkable as well, including soon to be jazz star Larry Coryell on guitar, and trumpet ace Mark Doubleday.

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. Thomas began interpreting those sounds while on the bandstand playing within other musical forms.

His first taste of nightlife as a professional was at the House Of Entertainment in Pioneer Square. He recalls, "My first steady gig was at the House of Entertainment, at Occidental and Washington. It was open from 11PM until 4 AM. I was a junior in high school. This was dance stuff. We improvised for days. We loved Coltrane and stuff like that. We'd be playing, and there'd be some vamp, and the old guys would be looking at me saying, 'Wow, what kind of a scale is that?' Ron Soderstrom was instrumental in getting me gigs. He got me the gig at the House of Entertainment. I played with Jimmy Pipkins and the Boss Five. We had a hit they were playing on the black radio station called "Walkin' The Duck." Can you imagine that?"

Thomas was surrounded by older musicians of every sort, defining a unique musical crossroads in Seattle between jazz, R&B, rock and soul music. Hammond B-3 master Dave Lewis, who played not only a prominent role musically but was largely responsible for the integration of Seattle's formerly segregated musicians unions, was among the now historic artists who took a chance on the young Thomas. He saw the budding talent within. B-3/ trumpet master Sarge West, who essentially taught Larry Coryell how to play, was a major influence as well.

"The best lessons I ever had were from a guy named Mike Mandle, an organ player from Seattle. He played in Larry Coryell's Eleventh House. He was so great. Now he does all the music for Ellen Degeneres, and lives in New York. He taught me "Blind Man, Blind Man" down at the Black and Tan. I became his student in high school. He had no teaching materials. I had to learn it from him, which was good," recalls Thomas. That process of learning via the oral tradition, would eventually influence his approach as a mentor as well.

Thomas cites saxophonist/vocalist/comedian Gerald Brashear as an important figure not only in his personal journey, but as a major contributor to the jazz lineage in Seattle.

"I played a couple gigs with him when I was sixteen. He also came in and terrorized me when I was on Dave Lewis' band," says Thomas. Brashear brandished his amazing triple-tongue technique on saxophone and voice, giving a young Thomas a seemingly impossible standard to strive for.

"He could triple tongue on the tenor. People talk about Jazzmeia and how good she is, and she is. But these guys were fifty times better. He could do stand up comedy, he could have been real famous. Instead he went to McNeil Island for drug use. That's a civil rights issue. On tenor, he did some triple tonguey things, he was so fast. Singing, you could transcribe it, it was all notes. It wasn't barnyard stuff. Nobody triple tongues on a sax. Gerald did," says Thomas.

He continues,"When I think of Gerald and that whole scene, I was a kid, and my dad played. They had one jazz festival out in Mountlake Terrace, and this guy named Jerry Carasco put it on. Jerry Carasco was an amateur singer, with a beautiful voice. He knew all these jazz players. He later on became paralyzed. He had a gardening business and someone hit him in his truck when he was on his way home. After that, he couldn't sleep at night, and he painted rocks and things. I have some Jerry Carasco artwork. At the time he put on this jazz festival, because he just loved the music."

"I remember it was in this canyon up in Mountlake Terrace in the summer. The headliners were Chuck Metcalf, Dave Coleman and Gerald Brashear. They all came riding in on this giant horse. There was the three of them on the horse, and they jumped off and Gerald did his stand-up, and played the rivets off the saxophone, and that was it. I thought, 'Whoa.' Even as a novice kid, who didn't know anything about jazz, I knew those guys were very good. I knew that, without knowing anything."

Lewis provided some comfort and insight for the young trumpeter after his abrupt introduction to Brashear's talents on the bandstand. He provided a truth that listeners can attest to today in Thomas' playing-a modern approach to melodic improvisation. "I love your playing. I like you better than Gerald, you play so melodic," he would say.

Seattle in the mid-sixties was a city riding a high generated by the the Century 21 Exposition, the Seattle World's Fair in 1962. Nearly ten million people visited the Emerald City that year, exposing the world to its burgeoning culture, and geographic splendor. On the local music scene, there was work. For a jazz musician, that usually meant playing music that wasn't jazz, one needed to be a bit more utilitarian to make a living. Though only a teenager, Thomas was discovering this reality in real life.

"Jazz wasn't a career until later, and then for only a few. If you were a good player, you were going to be in some other kind of band, period. There were a few jazz gigs that were kind of commercial. Floyd Standifer was the only horn player I knew that actually played full time. In those days, there were many free standing jazz clubs. There are hardly any anymore. It was a different world, says Thomas in reference to those times.

There seemed to be a renaissance of great players converging in Seattle in those days, all contributing to an overall sound that seemed to express the great tradition of jazz culture in the city, an interpretation performed comfortably in listening and dance environments alike. One legendary gig took place at The Embers, a club in West Seattle that included Trumpeter/organist Sarge West. West had a trumpet sound that spoke clearly to the then teenaged Thomas.

"Sarge West, he taught Larry Coryell basically how to play. He was the most talented trumpet player I'd heard as a young guy. Sarge, Larry and Dean Hodges had a legendary long term gig at The Embers. You could see the Seattle skyline from West Seattle. They had this gig there, and a young Randy Brecker, right when I was starting out, was around and at sessions. He followed a girl out here, and he stayed for three or four months. He was all over the place, and I would see him all the time. We got to be friends, even though I was quite young," says Thomas.
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