Seattle's Jazz Master Of Five Horns by Nat Hentoff

"Seattle's Jazz Master Of Five Horns"
By Nat Hentoff, Wall Street Journal - April 19th, 2000 "Leisure & Arts"

As a teenager in Boston, the highlight of my week was the Sunday jam sessions in the city's clubs. In one of them, the band consisted of local musicians; many of whom had day jobs, and such mighty visitors as Sidney Bechet and Wild Bill Davison who made us Bostonians swing beyond our dreams.

The music was straight ahead "hot" jazz. It made you feel good, even the blues. Those afternoons came back for me recently when I listened to the recordings of Jay Thomas, a Seattle trumpet player who quintuples on alto, tenor and soprano saxophones and flute.

He doesn't play "Muskrat Ramble" or "High Society" -- the staples of the sessions of my youth. But as conversant as he is with all the jazz idioms going beyond John Coltrane, Thomas improvises with the joyous élan of his vintage progenitors. "The music," he says, "has the power to transform and fulfill like no other activity I know. It's sort of a compulsive-obsessive disorder." Or, as Isaac Stern put it, when it all comes together, "it's a kind of personal ecstasy."

Mr. Thomas, at 51, is not a household name among many jazz listeners, although his recordings have been warmly reviewed in some of the jazz journals. He has appeared on more than 50 CDs, mostly as a sideman, and has a following in Japan, where he often plays.

But his career reminds me of what Coleman Hawkins, the magisterial tenor saxophonist, once told me about hearing a very impressive player in Oklahoma. "I told him, 'You've got it, but you'll never make it until you make it in New York.' " Hawkins said. He could have also included Chicago or Los Angeles, but there are indeed formidable, largely hometown players around the country who never have broken through to the big time.

Mr. Thomas was in New York briefly in the late 1960s, but Seattle has been his primary base. His father was a trumpet player who became a pharmacist. The son, starting on trumpet when he was ten, studied his father's wide-ranging record collection and started gigging around town when he was 15. He says that he used to sneak into the segregated black jazz clubs for further education.

Mr. Thomas is well-known among jazz musicians, having played with a number of them visiting the west coast. But by 1984 he was describing himself as just "a solid journeyman player." He kept trying to promote himself, however, and over several years, I kept receiving copies of his new recordings, most recently his first ones as leader of his own group.

So many CDs come in to my office that it wasn't until a couple of months ago that I finally played one of his. Having been immediately brought back to the pure jazz feeling of the jam sessions of my youth, I asked for more and now have a substantial Jay Thomas collection, including a "live" recording, "12th and Jackson Blues," (McVouty Records, 2414 N 41st, Seattle, WA 98103, e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.), named after a black-and-tan club in Seattle where Thomas used to sit in at Sunday afternoon jam sessions. Those afternoons represent to him -- and to me -- "a wilder and freer time in jazz. Along with the fun there was an atmosphere that was sensual and slightly dangerous. As much as I love and appreciate the strides that jazz is making in academia, I hope the music keeps some of the atmosphere of those days."

His music does that. As on another of his sets as a leader, "Live At Tula's / Jay Thomas Quartet" (McVouty), his repertory ranges from Gershwin and Ellington to Fats Waller and such later jazz players and composers as Lee Morgan, Thelonious Monk and Tadd Dameron. There are also Jay Thomas originals.

Although the trumpet is his main instrument, Mr. Thomas's full, sensual sound on tenor is equally compelling and personal. On all his instruments, there is constant spontaneity. He avoids what used to be called "licks" -- set phrases and harmonies to fall back on when imagination slows. And on ballads, Mr. Thomas exemplifies Quincy Jones's observation: "The melody is the most powerful thing there is. . . . The right melody is the magic, man. Melody does something electrical to your soul."

"You can recognize jazz as an art form," says Mr. Thomas, "but remember, it also used to be danced to. And that became part of people's lives." As Duke Ellington once told me, "When I hear a sigh on the dance floor, that becomes part of our music."

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