How did a kid from a poor neighborhood in New York City end up playing jazz in clubs in West Virginia and on stages around the world? VOA has the story behind the music of Bob Thompson, which is heard on CDs, on tour and Saturdays on VOA Music Mix.
"In order to find truth in music," Bob Thompson said, "you have to find truth in life. You have to find who you are and be strong in your beliefs and personality and in the way you live your life. That comes out in the music."
Music is in Bob Thompson's blood. From the time he was a child growing up in Queens, New York, whether it was his mother playing the old family piano, the choir singing in church on Sunday, or a radio blasting through an open apartment window, he was always surrounded by music.
Of course, as a child, Mr. Thompson didn't realize his future was in music. In fact, he wanted no part of the free piano lessons his first teacher offered him. "I refused. I said, 'No, I can't have my summers taken up with piano lessons, I want to be out playing ball,'" he said.
But it didn't take long for destiny to catch up with him. He learned to play the trumpet in high school and went on to study music at West Virginia State College, a historically black college. That's where he saw the band that would help him start his jazz career. "I wanted to be a part of that band," he said, "but there was a great trumpet player. I knew there was no chance of me being in the band as long as he was the trumpet player, so I started playing the piano just to be around him and learn the music."
Mr. Thompson practiced the piano for four or five hours a day and soon, he says, something wonderful happened. He continued, "I felt when I started playing piano, that was my home. It really felt natural to me because the ability to play harmony, chords things like that was as though I'd found my voice."
With his newfound voice, he won the Notre Dame inter-collegic jazz festival and toured Algeria with his band. The next year he won again, and toured Nigeria. Bob Thompson's international jazz career was launched. "Jazz," he said, "for me is the freedom that was involved in the music and the freedom of being able to express myself - have my individuality. [When performing] other types of music, I was just performing the part, fitting into a slot and doing what was required."
When he graduated in the early 1960's, Mr. Thompson moved to nearby Charleston, West Virginia and quickly made a name for himself on the local music scene. He soon had regular performance dates at area hotels and clubs.
Melissa Anderson is just one of his faithful fans. "I never really understood jazz until I saw his hands," he said. "His hands are where it's at."
Not only did working and playing in Charleston allow Mr. Thompson to bring in a paycheck and attract fans, it also gave him the chance to develop his own musical style. Mr. Thompsaon said, "If you are a jazz center there's a lot of pressure to conform to the styles that are in vogue at the time. I feel that my learning in this area, I've got a sound that's really unique. I incorporate some of the music of this region and this part of the country."
With a growing group of fans, Mr. Thompson realized he needed to record his work. At first, records were produced and distributed locally. But when his 1984 album became a top ten hit on the national music charts, he signed a contract to record for a division of Capitol Records. His latest CD's have been released on his own record label, Colortones.
While continuing to tour and record in the 1990's, the pianist expanded his career interests again by landing a regular spot on the nation-wide radio program, Mountain Stage. Each week he plays with the show's regular band, and has a solo spot as well. "I also get to perform with other people who might need a piano player for a couple of songs," he said. "So I learn a lot of different styles and incorporate it in my music."
As much as he loves touring and recording, Bob Thompson says it's his regular gigs in the intimate settings of Charleston's clubs that he enjoys the most. His three-piece band, saxophone, bass guitar and drums, travels with him, as well as helps him write new music and perform at local clubs.
That's when Mr. Thompson is at his best, according to saxophonist Doug Paine, who's performed with him for nearly two decades. Mr. Paine said, "When you watch Bob play as an audience member you can understand that everything he plays is from the heart. That shows not only in the sound of his music, but the writing and performance. Bob's probably the only person I know of, we rarely if ever use a set list. He just goes by the feel of the room."
Tim Courts, Mr. Thompson's drummer, says there's another reason the pianist continues to pack in the crowds at small venues night after night. "I think what sets him apart is his personality,". He said, "I've come in contact with a couple of jazz musicians and some are unpleasant to play with, but Bob is just - he creates an easy atmosphere. Sometimes you get nervous being young and playing with older cats, it's just easy to do with him."
Mr. Thompson continued, "In this idea of playing music, the one thing that your looking for is honesty and truth. You can't fool an audience. Either you feel and you believe or you don't. It's picked up instantly."
During the coming year Bob Thompson and his band plan to work on new pieces and a 12th album, all the while, staying true to the music.