Remembering Willie Thomas (1931-2019)

The trumpeter, educator, and tireless proponent of bebop has died at 88

Willie Thomas
Willie Thomas

Bucolic Orcas Island, part of the San Juan Islands chain off the northwest coast of Washington state, is hardly a jazz mecca. But for the past couple of decades it was home to Willie Thomas, the trumpeter and educator, who died there on Feb. 16, three days after his 88th birthday.

In an article posted on the website of the Island Sounder, Thomas’ daughter, Wendy, said that her father’s “pace had slowed for the last several months…he figured it was time to go.”

No specific cause of death was cited.

Born in New York City on Feb. 13, 1931, Thomas grew up in Orlando, Fla., and took up the trumpet at age 10. He played in the Third Army Band and, through a connection made at that time with pianist Wynton Kelly, went to New York to try his luck as a professional musician. He returned to Florida in the 1960s, recording for the Mark, Vee-Jay, and Atlantic record labels. His move to Washington took place in the early ’90s.

Thomas’ recorded credits include albums with MJT + 3 (with alto saxophonist Frank Strozier, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Bob Cranshaw, and drummer Walter Perkins), the Slide Hampton Octet (with Freddie Hubbard and George Coleman), Peggy Lee, and Woody Herman and Tito Puente.

As a leader, Thomas released Discover Jazz—Live! at the 1982 NAJE Convention (which featured altoist Bunky Green) and In Love Again (1987, also including Green).

As an author, Thomas created a series of educational books titled Jazz Anyone?, published by Alfred Music. He was also a member of the International Association for Jazz Education and was inducted into the International Association of Jazz Educators’ Jazz Education Hall of Fame in 1994.

In his later years, Thomas created an educational website called JazzEveryone.com, billed as “The Authentic Bebop Guide.” A tireless bop proponent, he wrote on that site, “Wynton Marsalis’ attempts to marry the more traditional Big Easy music and mainstream it into jazz along with today’s fester of fusion, crossover, cross under, and a myriad of other styles of music masquerading under the jazz banner, has made some inroads into the jazz vocabulary tool box. However, players like Chris Potter, Roy Hargrove, Ryan Kisor, Walter Smith III, and more, keep pushing the boundaries with bebop at the roots of these new explorations.”

Thomas continued to play the trumpet into his late eighties (he played on Orcas Island with the Funtime Blues Band) and gave lessons via Skype. In a 2012 interview, he said, “I consider myself still evolving and developing as a player.”

Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin on social media

Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.