Trumpeter and Jazz Port Townsend participant Steve Alboucq vacations on Orcas Island—where, when local islanders would find out he played the trumpet, they’d say: “There’s this old guy on the island, Willie Thomas, who plays trumpet pretty good. You should meet him.”
Learning that Thomas’s daughter owned a small French café on the island, Alboucq went to meet her. “I understand your father plays trumpet,” he said.
The woman laughed. “Oh yeah, he plays the trumpet, all right,” she said.
Within ten minutes, a man with a thick mane of white beard and bucket cap squashed on his head walked in.
“Sure, I’ll come over and we can play some music together,” he said.
It was only that later, through conversations with Thomas, searching his name on the Internet, and, most of all, through playing with him, that Alboucq realized who Willie Thomas was. He had played with everybody, and known everybody in the New York City jazz scene of the nineteen-fifties and -sixties: the scene of Dizzy Gillespie, of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. He’d played with Slide Hampton, Frank Strozier, Freddie Hubbard, George Coleman, Bob Cranshaw, Woody Herman and many others. Thomas was also known for being, often, the only white jazzman at all-black neighborhood clubs.
But crossing racial barriers was nothing new for Thomas, who’d grown up in Orlando, Florida, and started playing jazz in his early teens with local black musicians and several young “boppers” from New York that were playing in an Air Force band at the base near his house.
“A lot of the guys were just getting into bebop,” he says, “a new jazz movement coming out of New York.”
Bebop is a collection of special phrases drawn from the blues tradition, yet steeped in the intricacies of modern Western harmonic traditions, always played with a driving pulse.
“To learn jazz, especially bebop, you have to soak in extensive instrumental skills, and commit to memory hundreds of complicated riffs and original tunes created by its masters, and have them playable upon command,” Thomas says. “It’s a lot of sweat and hard work, but the rewards are indescribable, interactions with others in an emotional outpouring and sharing experience.”
“Jazz is a language,” Thomas says, “like English, or French, or any other language. Learning the language is the challenge. You have to speak or play as much as possible.”
Thomas, now retired, has kept his chops up. “I enjoy playing too much,” he says, “making sounds on that horn is really special. If you can still do it, then you gotta.”
There was something about Alboucq that intrigued Thomas. “He is very well-informed,” Thomas says, “and as it turned out, a good trumpet player, with definite potential.”
Typically, their music sessions last three hours, and consist of Thomas working Alboucq through his system of jazz improvisation—not a jam session, but work on specific drills and exercises. For example, Alboucq will work on a very specific jazz lick and play it over and over, in all twelve keys. Or they’ll take a specific bebop rhythm and play different melodies based on that rhythm over all the changes. Their every-other-day sessions are studded with occasional two-day marathon sessions, physically and emotionally exhausting for Alboucq because Thomas never lets up. “As soon as I make any real progress he is pushing me to the next step before I have time to celebrate,” Alboucq says.
“Some of my favorite times, when we aren’t playing our horns, are when he’s telling colorful stories of his experiences on the road,” Alboucq says. “All I have to do is mention the name of a well-known jazz musician and he’ll have a great story to tell. It’s a direct connection to the legacy of jazz and it sure beats reading about it in a book. I know I’m in the presence of greatness when our sessions are interrupted by a call from composer Maria Schneider or trumpeter Ryan Kisor, who just want to chat with Willie.”
Alboucq and Thomas have become close friends. They talk politics—the current presidential campaign is a hot topic—and share great meals with their families, but primarily they focus on bebop improvisations. “We’re keeping it moving,” Thomas says. “The bebop sound knows no bounds.”