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The Jazz Artistry of Ron Thomas: Interfacing Jazz and Classical Music

Victor L. Schermer By

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Unbeknownst to me, I was destined to have this amazing jazz encounter... So it was Miles Davis? 'My Funny Valentine' album, Bill Evans? 'Sunday at the Village Vanguard,' and, of all things, Gil Evans? 'Quiet Nights.' Those three albums totally turned my world upside down.
Ron Thomas' persona reminds me a bit of the Archangel Gabriel, who appears on all those great Renaissance paintings playing the trumpet, except that Ron is a pianist. Ron, like Gabriel, stays in the background, but has a big influence on what goes on, and you know he's always up to something musical while affecting the destinies of those around him. A jazz pianist who resides in Coatesville, PA, he came up in the 'sixties', formed a close personal and musical bond with guitarist Pat Martino, and has remained heavily involved in both modern jazz and classical contemporary music throughout the last four decades. His website reveals an erudite musician and scholar, someone who is not afraid to 'dare disturb the universe' (a line from T.S. Eliot's poem, 'The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.') At his website, there is a wealth of information about music as well as challenging ideas and fascinating vignettes about the musical figures he's known, from fellow-travelers like Martino to radical composers Eliot Carter, Karlhaus Stockhausen, and John Cage. Ultimately, Ron is a free spirit who thrives on going his own way without concern for what others think. At the same time, he plays haunting and beautiful 'mainstream jazz' on his piano gigs, for example, at the Rosetree Inn, a restaurant in Media, Delaware County, where the management graciously gave us a spacious room for the interview, with piped-in jazz in the background, and enough refills of coffee to give Ron and me an adrenalin rush!

I first learned about Ron coincidentally from pianist Tom Lawton and legendary guitarist Pat Martino, both of whom tremendously respect his work and feel indebted to his influence. Since I, in turn, have great respect and admiration for both Tom and Pat, I thought I should catch up with Ron. So I studied his richly endowed website and found that, as its mastermind, Ron is not only a jazz pianist, but a gifted scholar and essayist, and- perhaps his first and last passion- a composer with a rich lode of productivity in that ethereal and elevated sphere. I interviewed Ron with an open mind, looking for something to evolve in our conversation. What came out was mostly about the rich connection between classical music and jazz. Ron has some interesting slants on this conjunction of two forms of music. While many listeners think of jazz as self-generating, we know that classical music impacted profoundly on Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Keith Jarrett, David Liebman, and a host of other jazz innovators. So following this linking thread with Ron brought some new insights, which I trust that you, the reader, will find enlightening and enjoyable as well. There are also some reminiscences about Ron's creative beginnings, the Philly jazz scene, and Ron's own personal life. So, tune in, and learn a good deal 'more than you know.' I certainly did!

All About Jazz: Let's start out with your background. Your website indicates that you became interested in music at a very early age. At 3, you were stirring the piano keys. What led that spark to catch fire? What were the (no pun intended) key experiences?

Ron Thomas: It was there from the beginning. I don't recall ever NOT being fascinated by music. But there was a critical turning point. As a teenager, I realized that I wanted to do music full time- I didn't want to do anything else.

AAJ: Did you have a music teacher?

RT: I did, yes. Her name was Martha Motchane. She was a French pianist who settled in Montclair, New Jersey where we lived. I studied piano with her all through high school. The story is on my website.

But what led to my career decision, believe it or not, was one Saturday afternoon at the movies in 1957 seeing Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe in, 'The Seven Year Itch.' For one thing, I was just beginning to experience sexuality, replete with all the usual puzzling yearnings, etc. Of course Marilyn Monroe was such an icon in that respect. Now, I think the plot was silly, but do you remember the fantasizing scenes where he entertains Marilyn's character in his apartment while playing Rachmaninoff? Well, in my home, I was called 'Rach-y,' little Rachmaninoff. He was a God in our home- his music was always being played on the 'record player'. So there was the eerie Rachmaninoff factor. There's Ewell, 'playing' Rachmaninoff on the piano in his NY apartment, and Monroe coming down the stairs from the upstairs apartment. Later I realized that what struck me was that the multiple-layers of significance I found watching the movie represented a principle of musical composition: the plurality of worlds- like Charles Ives, you know, with multiple consciousness- the bands going by, and the strings doing something else. Parallel worlds! That was the driving engine in all my searches in all my music up until the early nineties when I began to realize what my music was fundamentally all about.

AAJ: How does that relate to 'The Seven Year Itch?'

RT: There were several layers- the sexual attractiveness of Monroe, the fantasy of her, and this guy playing Rachmaninoff, and then here I am in the movie theater. The combination of those associations somehow created the realization in me that I wanted to be an artist. Seeing that movie that day was kind of like a 'happening'!

AAJ: What were your first experiences on the jazz scene as a listener and performer?

RT: It was at the University of Illinois in 1965. My peers out there turned me onto jazz. They knew that I was innocent regarding modern jazz. Jon English [1943-1996] was my best friend and most important influence: he later had a Quartet with Kenny Wheeler and had a good career in Europe. The musicians I met there were astonishing: John Garvey, Will Parsons, Pat Pursewell, composers Sal Matirano, Jerry Hiller, Herbert Brun and many others. Most of the young players were in the contemporary music ensemble out there as well as being jazz players. I went there because I wanted to meet contemporary musicians, and there was a big modern music Festival going on. I met John Cage, Eliot Carter, and Luciano Berio at that Festival.

I went out there trying to strike out on my own, and unbeknownst to me, I was destined to have this amazing jazz encounter. These guys played me records, and I just sat there speechless- and they knew how much they were affecting me. They knocked me off the Stockhausen horse I had ridden into town on, so to speak. [Ron had studied with Stockhausen the previous year- Eds.] I was never the same. I went for it hook, line, and sinker and began my jazz apprecticeship immediately. So it was Miles Davis' 'My Funny Valentine' album, Bill Evans' 'Sunday at the Village Vanguard,' and, of all things, Gil Evans' 'Quiet Nights'. Those three albums totally turned my world upside down.

AAJ: Which brings me to my next question. Could you reflect briefly on the three or four key moments or epiphanies in your musical development? You just gave us one. Are there others? What were the moments when things really came together and transformed you musically?

RT: The Illinois event was certainly one, and the 'The Seven Year Itch' but before that, what set everything up, was my encounter with the music of Debussy when I was 14. My teacher gave me tickets to a recital at the local college. All I knew before that was Debussy's potboiler, 'Claire de Lune.' This recital rocked me! It led me directly into modern music. I went to the library and began to listen pretty systematically to all the modern music records, Schoenberg, Webern, Shostakovitch, Berg, everyone. Thus, my interest in modern music started with Debussy. Debussy's music revealed to me that, for me, the captivating thing about music is that it is really a 'theatre of the mind' not just tunes, symphonies, composer skills, player chops, and such...

Another 'key moment' came while I was working with Pat. Some time after I recorded with him I told him, 'I don't have any idea what my identity as a composer is any more.' It was jazz that did that to me. Pat said, 'I think you should study with Dennis Sandole, but I'll go with you and introduce you. Don't let him give you his theory- you don't need that. You tell him what your problem is, and Dennis will show you what to do'.

Dennis wrote a C major scale on a piece of paper, and then put a sharp in front of the F. [This changes the 'mode' or sound quality of the scale. Miles Davis literally created a new jazz format using modal composition.- Eds.] And he said, I want you to write a whole composition based on that. It was sort of a Zen thing. I went home, started writing, and it all started to come forth.

What Dennis did was to break me free of avant-garde-ism. I thought everything I did had to be based on Stockhausen and all the post World War II European musical developments. Jazz had brought me back to the reality that I'm an American, and jazz is here along with Charles Ives, Emily Dickinson and Jackson Pollock. So I was emancipated from hang-ups from the bond I had made with the avant-garde philosophy, about which Kundera, the Czech-French writer said something like, 'The avant gardist is obsessed by the notion that one's work must be in harmony with the future.' Jazz moves on another level of freedom. So, Dennis Sandole's teaching liberated me from that prison house and helped me to see that I could approach classical composition that way. I became a classical composer whose approach and thought process was like a jazz musician's approach'.. For me, jazz is not a stylistic thing, but more basic than that, it's the way I think about composition.

AAJ: I'm going to read a few names from your website list of 'Influences and Friends.' Could you give a brief snapshot of what each has meant to you? Let's start with John Cage.

RT: John Cage was always a great source of joy and refreshment for me. I visited him once or twice a year. We drank strong Japanese tea together, and I would just let him talk about whatever he was into at the moment: Satie, Thoreau, Duchamp, Nanotechnology. We had some great discussions.

AAJ: John Cage's music, or non-music if you will, seems to many to be a gimmick and is very difficult for most people to comprehend. I think readers would be interested in any insight you could give into what he was doing.

RT: I think it's helpful to remember that John was kind of a Buddhist and also very interested in technology. He really was trying to change the way both artists and the public thought about art. And he succeeded.

AAJ: Ron Dewar.

RT: Ron is very much to me like Pat Martino. Except that Ron and his work are unknown. He's still out in the Chicago area and still a towering artistic figure, a fabulous saxophonist, in a class by himself as a player and as a thinker.

AAJ: Helmut Gottschild.

RT: I played for his dance classes at Temple University, and was also associated with his choreography and dance works. He is a dancer and a choreographer, ran two very successful and innovative dance companies for many years. He helped me connect my work as a musician with the 'kinesthetic' world of movement, energy, and gestures: the dramatic nature of physicality.

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