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Meet Thom Keith: Thom Keith was born in Rochester, New Hampshire during the first Nixon administration. He grew up in a home filled with the sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Coltrane, Walt Dickerson, Air, and David Murray, courtesy of a very musical family. At the age of eleven, he took up the alto saxophone, later switching to tenor, and still later, baritone.
Much schooling and a varied education from the school of life lead him into the field of secondary education. Other factors reinvigorated his musical pursuits in recent years and his chief hobby has turned into a second career - that of the weekend warrior jazz musician.
Teachers and/or influences? Teachers: Richard Gardzina, Jeff Coffin, and Chel Illingworth.
Influences: Charles Brackeen, David Murray, Billy Harper, William Parker, Horace Tapscott, Eddie Gale, Dennis Gonzalez, Clifford Jordan, Henry Threadgill, Pharoah Sanders, Cecil McBee, Elvin Jones, Hamid Drake, George Adams, Harold Land.
I knew I wanted to be a musician when... I'm not really sure. Probably early on. I rejected jazz music until the fourth grade when, on a Sunday morning, Tony Cennamo on WBUR in Boston played a cut from Sonny Rollins's Don't Ask (I believe it was the title cut). That was the first time "jazz" reached me. I hated Giant Steps the first time I tried to listen to it, but once I heard "My Favorite Things," that was it - I was hooked.
Your sound and approach to music: Simple - if it sounds right, or feels right in the moment, it is right. One of the problems with modern mainstream jazz is, it's too damned clean. Gimme a missed note, a squeak, a "wrong" note within the harmony - let me feel some angst!
Your teaching approach: You can't force anything. In fact, you can't teach anyone anything. All you can do is help them see and understand how to learn. Galileo said that. I think music, especially jazz, has become stale and formal in the way it is taught. If you want to be a studio or pit musician, by all means, get introduced to everything. But if you want to play, don't play it if it's not in you.
Your dream band: My dream band would be very similar to Lee Morgan's late nonet, only I think I'd add a second drummer, maybe even a miscellaneous percussionist. This has been a tough stretch, as I'd have had a list that included Elvin and John Hicks (and Cecil McBee!!!). Of the living guys, I had the opportunity to sit in during a jam with William Parker and Hamid Drake, so I guess I've lived that. I love the band I'm currently in with Tim Webb, Derek Kwong and Mike Walsh. The music is real and honest, and each of those guys knocks me out.
Anecdote from the road: Playing a gig where the opening band (us) played for the headliner and wait staff - and maybe 3 patrons. We opened with a free improvised tune. Afterward, some drunk woman at the bar called out, "Play 'Mustang Sally!'" I replied, "That was 'Mustang Sally.'" She said, "Play somethin' we can dance to!" Tim said, "Alright, we'll play a Pharoah Sanders tune ["Greetings To Idris"], you can dance to that." And damned if she didn't try.
Favorite venue: At the moment, Lotus Rising, because we're running the shows, so there's no BS involved.
Your favorite recording in your discography and why? Probably one of the unreleased things with Equal Time. Of the released stuff, it's Trio Encompas Live On The Vaughan Mall. There was something special about that night - music happened.
What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically? Me. I don't know the value of that on the grand scheme, only that it's what I have to offer and I do so with each opportunity to play.
Did you know... I love Tom Jones and Peter Frampton. (Laughter.)
How you use the internet to help your career? I'm a web whore. I have numerous sites, but these days I focus on www.thomkeith.com. I don't get to update it as much during the school year, because my daytime gig is school teacher. I try to put shows up as soon as I know they're happening, and list with as many calendars as I can. Natch, I have a MySpace, and one for each band, as well. I despise Murdoch and his site, but it's all about promoting the message.
CDs you are listening to now: Horace Tapscott - Dial "B" For Barbara (Nimbus, 1981); Alvin Fielder - A Measure Of Vision (Clean Feed, 2007); Arthur Blythe - Lennox Avenue Breakdown (Koch Jazz, 1978); Sonny Criss - This Is Criss! (Prestige/OJC, 1966); Eddie Gale - Black Rhythm Happening (Blue Note, 1969).
Desert Island picks: Walt Dickerson - A Sense Of Direction (Prestige/OJC, 1961); Bobby Hutcherson - Now! (Blue Note, 1969); William Parker - Raining On The Moon (Thirsty Ear, 2002); Miles Davis - Kind Of Blue (Columbia/Legacy, 1959); Duke Ellington - "The Queen's Suite" from The Ellington Suites (Pablo/OJC, 1959).
How would you describe the state of jazz today? Tired, confused, feeling funny.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.