My first meeting with Ed Thigpen was in rehearsal for a series of trio and quartet concerts that took place between 1998 and 2001, mostly in France. The band was led by the fine American pianist Eric Watson and included special guest saxophonist Bennie Wallace. I remember Ed saying to me, “You know, Mark, next year will be my 50th year in show business.” I thought to myself, “‘Show business’—that’s what we’re doing!” On reflection, Ed made me realize that no matter what my self-image was as an artist, at the end of the day, we had an audience who was there to have an experience with us. We’d talk a lot about music and playing in a rhythm section. He’d talk about the mini-pulse within his beat. I remember him telling me to “put the ‘feel-good’ on everything you play.”
Ed told me about his background growing up in Los Angeles, how his mother, who had been a live-in domestic worker for a white family, once had to put him in an orphanage. But I never sensed any bitterness in him; on the contrary, he had a remarkably optimistic attitude and was always looking forward to what the next project was going to be.
He spoke a lot about his mentor Papa Jo Jones as well as his father, who was also a drummer. He spoke a lot about his time with Oscar Peterson and especially with Ray Brown; he told me that “Pine” was the nickname Ray had given to him.
Ed was really open to musically stretch out and try new things and play outside of his comfort zone. Still, underneath everything he played was this beautiful sound, profound swing and great sense of orchestration. It was amazing to watch his hands—he was so powerful and at the same time able to coax all these subtle colors from the set. At a soundcheck in St. Moritz, Switzerland, I was woodshedding this new groove in 11/8, a kind of a shuffle with a missing last eighth note at the end. Ed was all over it! After playing a series of gigs together, a fan of Ed’s came up to him and said, “Ed, I didn’t know you played modern.” He was really tickled by that, so I started calling him “Modern Pine,” which he liked. Eventually I dedicated the tune in 11 to him, “Modern Pine.” It was such a joy playing with him.
He was religious man who would go to mass when we were in a new town, and he had a serious work ethic; Ed always had a practice pad out in his hotel room. The last time I saw him was at his home in Copenhagen in 2007, and sadly learned that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Still, he was speaking about a new idea for a program that he was going to bring into the schools in Denmark, where he was going to be talking and singing. He was an inspiring man and a beautiful person who spoke often about his children and grandchild. Ed had a wonderful laugh and was a beautiful musician.