The world of jazz is filled with royalty. Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and Benny Carter were all dubbed "King" at one point or another, of jazz, swing and just plain, respectively. Ellington was Duke, Hines was an Earl and Basie held two titles, that of Count and King. When he was barely out of his teens, pianist Charles Phillip Thompson was dubbed "Sir."
"They call me 'Sir Charles,'" he said backstage between sets during a recent gig at The Jazz Standard. "I got that name from Count Basie. Actually, Lester Young gave me that name."
As a 12-year-old in Colorado Springs, Thompson was already playing piano piano at private parties when Basie came to town with Bennie Moten's band, a group that would later form the nucleus of Basie's band after Moten's death. "Somebody told him about me. He was playing with... Moten's band. My father let me go to those dances with my sister, because she liked to go to dances. And that's when I met Count Basie, and he let me come up and play the piano."
However, it was years later that via Basie the he would earn the nickname from Lester Young. That first introduction, however fleeting, was yet another step in the musical career of Thompson, whose roots in music went back to the church.
"Most of my family was musical," he explained. " My father sang in the church and my mother played piano. Some guys like to play football and basketball. Of course, I liked to do those things, too. But I was always interested in music. I think it's something that's god-given... I just liked to play the piano and I liked to play music."
At 86, Thompson is one of the last remaining links between the Swing Era and Bebop, having cut his teeth on the earlier style and risen to prominence with the more modern one. He said he sees the changes in the music were more the result of how people reacted to the performances rather than the styles themselves.
"The music did change a little bit," he said of the transition of swing to bop. "Jazz music originally was played for the purpose of dancing. If you look up the dictionary word for jazz music, it said that jazz was 'loud and boisterous negro music.' In other words, the music was played for people to dance by. It seemed like the main purpose of jazz music, as far as I can see in my lifetime, was for the purpose of dancing. It wasn't until later on, in the 40s and 50s, that it became so popular that they started having concerts and people coming in to just listen to the music. But basically, the music originally started for the purpose of people to dance. That means that you had to have a good rhythm and beat more than the notes. Later on, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, they changed the concept of jazz music by playing more notes and playing faster. So they had to find a name for that, so they called that Bebop. The names are very, very unimportant to me as a player."
Listening to Thompson, whether it be on Takin' Off,
a Delmark reissue of some 1940s Apollo label sides featuring Charlie Parker, or live some 60 years later, you can hear the spare, swinging influence of Basie, where the emphasis was on the quality of the playing and not the quanitity of notes. You especially hear that on his most famous composition, "Robbins' Nest," which became a huge hit for Illinois Jacquet.
"I just play music because I like to play," he said. " The kind of music that I play basically has a good beat to it, so if people would like to dance, they could dance to that music. That is the full concept of jazz music: is to have good beat and rhythm and feeling. If you play something sad, you should be able to play something that sounds sad. If you play something happy... and so forth."
Jazz's popularlity with the 52d Street scene in New York in the 1940s saw the dance floors become extinct in favor of room for tables of listeners, Thompson said. Does he miss having people be able to get up to dance?
"I don't miss anything, actually. I enjoy playing music. My only answer for that is I like to play. I never get my mind mixed up in what kind of music it is. I just play what I feel like playing. As I said, basically my music comes from the feeling of the beat of the music more than just the melody. No matter what it is, it has to have a good beat to make people feel something."
Oddly enough, Thompson doesn't immediately name Basie among his influences. That honor goes to saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.
"Coleman Hawkins probably was the greatest influence on me of the people who I played with who were professors before I started playing," said Thompson, using the honorarium given to earlier musicians when he was growing up.
"He had been living in Europe and I never heard him except on record. He made 'Body and Soul,' and that was a number that was imitated by almost every saxophonist that played the music. So it was musicians like him and Lester Young, whom I played with later on, who influenced me personally to play, of course, as well as the piano players: Count Basie was my really first mentor.
Thompson, who lived near Hawkins and played with him in his New York days, said "I went to his house several times. He had been living in Europe, and he was a very educated and cultured man."
As far was working with the sax giant, he called him "a wonderful professor. He played something that he thought would be suitable for everybody to be comfortable playing. He played mostly songs that you would appreciate playing. He was very compatable."
Sir Charles discounts the idea that Hawkins was a musician who advanced with the times. Rather, he said it was the other way around.
"As far as I'm concerned, Coleman Hawkins and those musicians were leaders. They didn't imitate anybody. Everybody who played any instrument after that were trying to play like those musicians that they had heard. And Coleman Hawkins was the most influential of all of them by his technique and not only that, but by his quiet mannerisms as a gentleman."
If you wonder why California resident Thompson has not made it to New York more often, there are a variety of reasons, one of which has nothing to do with music.
"I like the warm weather of California. You see, golf is my second hobby. And it gives me exercise and fresh air. That was my main reason for taking up residence in California in preference to New York, because I can play golf all year round," he said.
How, then, besides greens fees and caddies, can you get Sir Charles to New York?
"Hire me more often and pay me," he said with a laugh. " I always look forward to coming to New York, because as far as I'm concerned, in America, New York is THE city in America.
After all these years, Thompson's unfullfilled wishes are few. Asked what he would like to do if money were no consideration, he replied: "I'd just like to play more jobs where people appreciate my playing and I can enjoy it. That's it.
"The most important time to me now is now, that I have to play now. And I hope I can play good. That's what's on my mind now, how I can figure how I can play good tonight," he said.Suggested listening: Takin' Off
- Delmark Apollo Series DD-450 Robbins' Nest: Live at the Jazz Showcase
- Delmark 526 I Got Rhythm: Live at the Jazz Showcase
- (with Eric Schneider) Delmark 537