"Evolution of an Improviser" by Michael Allison

"Evolution of an Improviser" by Michael Allison (EARSHOT JAZZ Vol.13, No.7) 

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Jay Thomas, winner of the 1996 Golden Ear Award for Best Instrumentalist along with bassist Phil Sparks, is difficult to categorize. But anyone who has encountered the playing of this multi-instrumentalist during his 30-odd-year career will testify to numerous qualities synonymous with the heart of jazz. He is at once a consummate craftsman and an emotionally charged improviser. His musical and personal evolution have placed him in a wide variety of settings both musically and geographically.

Says Jim Wilke, host of KPLU's Jazz Northwest and Jazz After Hours: "What always strikes me about Jay, whether he's playing with Jim Knapp, Milo Petersen, or in one of his own projects, is the unbridled enthusiasm for making music he brings to every setting – that and the strong lyrical quality he brings to all his horns. He's a very melodic player in the tradition of Chet Baker and Zoot Sims. He likes to 'sing a song',"

Born and raised in North Seattle, Thomas credits much of his musical success to the exposure and encouragement he received from his family. "I was really lucky. My father loved music and played trumpet himself," he says. "For some people it's football, for my family it was jazz music, so they were always very supportive of me becoming a musician."

Jay was already getting serious about music by his early teens, studying trumpet with Floyd Standifer and Jerry Gray. The year he attended Shoreline High School Jazz Band they won the Olympic College Stage Band Festival. He attended clinics and workshops including the Stan Kenton Stage Band Festival. He attended clinics and workshops including the Stan Kenton Stage Band Clinic in Reno, Nevada, and received a Down Beat scholarship to Berklee College of Music for a summer program.

A less official but no less important part of Jay's education came from sneaking into Seattle's jazz clubs-at that time generally segregated. One club which wasn't became a regular destination, The Black and Tan at 12th and Jackson. "A friend of my dad's would take me down for the Sunday sessions."

Singer Becca Duran, Jay's wife and musical partner, adds: "It didn't hurt that all of his babysitters were musicians."

In the mid '60s Seattle was hip to the hard bop sound and R&B jazz dance bands were springing up everywhere. Says Thomas: "At that time all the dance bands were modeled on each other, we had a kind of local sound. I idolized The Dynamics. They had this fantastic trumpet player, Mark Doubleday, and Larry Coryell would play with them, I got some jobs with those type of early R&B bands."

When Thomas talks about his early influences, it becomes clear how he came by his musical diversity. "My Dad had a really good record collection and when I was first starting I would just go through the collection and play everything – it didn't matter what – as a kind of exercise in uncritical listening. When you start out there's a lot of rapid development because we listen uncritically in order to gather information. Later on we become more selective and start to filter things out and go into our own narrow little thing. I'd listen to Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Cat Anderson would play those screaming high-note solos and I'd be digging that, but then I'd see this record by Ornette Coleman, Change of the Century, and I'd go 'Wow! What's this about?' So I listened uncritically and tried to hear what was going on."

Of course, Jay did have his favorites to emulate including Kenny Dorham, Joe Newman, Harry Sweets Edison, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, and Miles Davis. "With Miles we'd wait for each album to come out and buy it as soon as it did: Nefertiti, ESP...

Past the mid '60s [with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancoc, and Tony Williams]. It almost codified the advances in the playing for that time. Not only was it burning but it was really intelligent on many levels, playing with incredible rhythmic modulation. It really pains me to see people playing grade-B Vince Guaraldi or something when Miles went down the pike and really made things a lot freer, if people care to take those lessons to heart."

He adds: "These days you hear those advances more and more. It's taken 30 odd years for people to recognize, let alone catch up to what that band was doing in the mid '60s. I think the music has evolved to make it more comfortable for improvisers."

In 1968, Jay moved to New York where he was steeped in Village jam sessions, Latin jazz, and the drug culture around the music. He began studying with Carmine Caruso and landed a summer gig in 1969 playing with Machito's band featuring Mario Bauza. "The gig was up in the Catskills at the Concord Hotel, and Woodstock was happening nearby, so some of us drove over to check it out.

Thomas spend most the '70s based in the San Francisco area. He formed many important musical relationships, including meeting and working with Northwest favorite Jessica Williams.

When Thomas returned to Seattle in 1980, his farther Marv had bought Parnell's jazz club, and with the help of booking manager, Mark Solomon, began bringing in more adventurous artists such as Ornette Coleman, Mingus Dynasty, and Cedar Walton. Jay helped run the club and became a frequent member of the house band, sitting in with jazz greats like Zoot Sims, Sonny Stitt, and Chet Baker. The opportunities to play regularly with musicians of great caliber led to more development of his voice, but the drug use continued. "I was kind of the house junkie there. Guys with names like 'Smooth Slim' would corner me in the alley and try to sell me junk." It finally got to be too much and Thomas began 'cleaning up'.

Jay's first recording as a leader found him in extremely good company. With the help of his father he hired Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins for two sessions in '85 and '86 resulting in the 1989 release, Easy Does It.

"I had just totally cleaned up from a whole bunch of self-destructive behavior when we started recording and I was still seeing some phantoms. Becca and I went back and listened to the masters recently and there's this take that starts out really beautifully and suddenly I just stop playing and you hear my voice say 'what happened?' And Cedar says 'Norhing happened, man!'"

The recording ended up receiving solid airplay and excellent reviews, including a very enthusiastic 5-staar rating from Leonard Feather in the L.A. Times. But it sat around with no action for several years in between. "After the recording I just sat on it and didn't really shop it around actively, That's sort of the evoluation of a self-produced project: You start out rally 'gung ho' and then you listen to it, and you listen to it, and pretty soon, if it's not picked up, you know where everybody is buried, it becomes this big graveyard of little mistakes."

Since that first outing as a leader, Thomas has developed the business side of his career considerably, and has appeared on numerous recordings as both a leader and a sideman. His own projects include the long standing Jay Thomas Big Band, and the Pan-American band Evolution with Becca Duran which travels to Japan this month. He was featured on Choked Up, the debut album of Seattle acid-jazz group The Sharp Shooters. His most recent recording appearance is on Milo Petersen's release, Visiting Dignitaries.

Petersen, who has known and played with Thomas for many years, had this to say about Thomas's ability to bring something fresh to a wide variety of musical contexts: "Jay is a real believer in spontaneous composition and has all of the intellectual knowledge and emotional response and playing experience to adapt to any environment. But he also knows what he wants and is secure enough to extract himself from negative ones."

Thomas sees his varied musical activities as cross-pollinating and positive. He remembers a comment by Seattle legend Freddie Greenwell, a close friend and musical mentor: "Freddie said, 'I play so many different kinds of music that at times it makes it hard to know what it is I do. In the old days I knew exactly what my style was.' But whatever he was playing always sounded really good, so I guess maybe, it doesn't really matter what the label is."

Today, Jay Thomas returns to the exercise of "uncritical listening" with the aid of his son, Miles. "It's important to get out of judging, when you're exposed to something new. I have a 15-year-old and some of the things he's into are so different, and I've had to get out of that knee-jerk reaction of 'oh, my god, what is this?!' Music has a social context. It's nice to examine various aspects outside of it but I think it loses its meaning—it is part of an entire life experience and it's hard to isolate it. There's too much of that in jazz, too much of that dissection on the laboratory table. That examination can be really good but I think we have to get it back into a social context and see how's it going to fit in people's lives. I get worried about commercialism and all the people who step in as efficient marketers, There's something really phony about that. It becomes a whole image thing. I wish it was a lot less organized – the whole marketing and radio thing. There are things I used to like about radio. It used to be when you'd listen to a station you'd hear all sorts of things and it wasn't so organized, it was based on a DJ rather than being directed by marketing strategies. I just think our ears are bigger when we're open to hearing different things."

Still, he adds: "You can take that anti-commercial sentiment too far and pretty soon it becomes any skills that have been attained by repetition and discipline are suspect, and I understand where that's coming from. There's a lot of mistrust of the media and anything that's contrived or commercial. But it's got to the point where a youthful anthem has become "We Suck and that's a good thing!" And I thin there's a way to get around the bend here and find a place where you don't have to suck to be good."

Asked how he has done that, his answer is simple but speaks of dedication as to a form of meditation or devotion: "You need to cultivate that state of mind where you can still approach things fresh that you've been working on."

The rewards, he says, are there. "You can have a good life as a musician. We're having it! Becca and I have traveled and played all over the place. You have some of those magic nights and some others that are so horrible that you remember it and laugh."