Jay Thomas: We Always Knew

Paul Rauch By

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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. The 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 he recorded with James Moody as well. He studied trumpet with Carmine Caruso, and in 1971, discovered the flute and tenor saxophone.

Though largely known as a trumpet player, Floyd Standifer was a skilled saxophonist, and exhibited these talents in and around the Seattle club scene Thomas frequented as a youngster. In later years, Thomas would encounter the same musical dualism in veteran Ira Sullivan. For reasons in terms of embouchure and technique, there are few that venture into this realm. Thomas found it quite natural.

"For me it was pretty natural. Especially in those days when I would go the way that water would naturally flow. I was playing trumpet and I fooled around on my sister's flute. My younger sister had a flute around the house. I learned how to go up and down the scale. When this whole hippie thing really started hitting, I was in Boston and I got a flute. I was in an apartment and it was quiet, you could play it. The trumpet embouchure is a very small opening, your actual aperture. The aperture on the trumpet is so much like that on flute. One day I'm playing the flute, and instead of getting that immature amateur sound, which is hollow, all of a sudden I accidently got into having a professional sounding tone. I was getting all the harmonics in the sound. I was actually focusing the air, and it was hitting the back wall of my head joint, causing this whole harmonic wall along with the note. I recognized this is something," he says.

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. James 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 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."

He continues, "From the trumpet I knew how to focus the air, and I knew the fingerings from the flute. In about five minutes it was sounding pretty good, and my friend put a stop to that ! At that moment, a light went off in my head, and I knew I had to get one of these. When I was back in Seattle, I was playing with this band. The first sax I had was a baritone. I got my mouthpiece cover stuck in the curve of the baritone, so when I would hit a certain note, it would just shriek this Albert Ayler thing-and I was playing a rock gig! I'm soloing and shrieking, and everyone loved it. I'm thinking that no, something is wrong! I'm not trying to get it to shriek."

"Shortly thereafter, I got a tenor. There was this guy named "Speedball," and he had this apartment. There was no furniture in the apartment. It was painted this weird institutional green. I go inside and he takes out this tenor, and it had this string wrapped around it. I got it for like $25, and had a guy completely re-pad it. The other thing about this guy "Speedball." He had no furniture, but he had one album that was right next to the door, and it was Bobby Bland, Two Steps From The Blues (Duke/MCA, 1961). It was weird. So I got into sax after that. This was in 1970, I was twenty one. I started to download to sax as quickly as I could. The kind of music I was on, it was better. It helped me be employed and I loved it. When I was in high school, I really got bit by the Trane bug. My favorite musician was not a trumpet player, it was Coltrane," he recalls.

Thomas moved to the San Francisco area in the mid-seventies, now armed with his new found skills on saxophone and flute to add to his considerable trumpet prowess. His formidable skills were now a well known quantity in the jazz world, and gigs with pianist Jessica Williams cemented his status on the scene in the Bay Area. So many of his musical acquaintances were working gigs in and around the perimeter of a national jazz scene screaming for recognition within the progressive rock explosion of the late sixties through the mid seventies. So many of these legacy musicians who were taking post bop jazz forward in the new decade were being largely ignored. Players such as Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Gary Bartz, Eddie Henderson and George Cables were struggling to gain the recognition their jazz forefathers had received. Rock, and soul music via Motown were dominating the pop charts.

"The jazz guys I knew, the very best ones, were playing with Blood Sweat & Tears, and people like that. Randy Brecker would have stayed with them, but he didn't think they were going anywhere. When they hit it big, he was out making $150 a week with Horace Silver. Later on, he and his brother Michael made their money in the studios."

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.

"He bought it from Roy Parnell. Roy started it, and it started out as a jazz listening club. The people he liked were L.A. people. I had just returned from the Bay Area, and my father was doing great in real estate. He was looking around for a place to start a club. All of a sudden Parnell's came up for sale. It was already going, all we had to do was put different people in there, which we did. Roy was not a Cedar Walton kind of guy, or Woody Shaw or any of the players we had in there. We had a pretty adventurous booking policy. We also brought in a lot of singles to play with the local guys-people like Zoot Sims," says Thomas

Thomas performed at Parnell's with such notables as George Cables, Bill Mays, 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.

"When Roy had it, I played one week with Harold Land. At this period, I was getting a certain amount of calls. I had been down in the Bay Area, and it got me back into playing jazz after years of dance music and free-standing stuff," he says.

Thomas' dad Marvin, concerned about his son's heroin addiction, made the then common assumption that keeping an addict busy was the key to rehabilitation. He did everything to set up his son with performance and recording opportunities His first idea was that Jay and his second wife would run the club.

"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. We had Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan at the club. I was a big fan of Ira, go figure-sax and trumpet. The guys in the band were my age and slightly younger, and I got in with those guys. One night, I sat in, and was a little high. Both Ira and Red were addicts too. Red encouraged me to come to New York, and I went for three months. I had no support."
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