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Baltimorean Gary Thomas is world-class jazz saxophonist

Where can you hear one of the best living jazz musicians perform for free in Baltimore?

Amid the clatter of cutlery, the whir of a blender grinding ice and the conversational hum of an upscale Charles Village restaurant on a Friday night, two musicians playing a flute and electric guitar are levitating through John Coltrane's "Giant Steps."

The customers at Gertrude's have no idea of the pedigree of the performers providing the background music for their crab cake dinners.

That tall, elegant black man on the flute? That's Baltimorean Gary Thomas, widely acknowledged as one of the best saxophone players in the world.

"Gary Thomas is my very favorite living player of the tenor saxophone, bar none," said the celebrated drummer Ralph Peterson, leader of the Ralph Peterson Fo'tet, which performed recently in the Jazz at the Johns Hopkins Club concert series. "His is one of the most original voices we have on that instrument."

The shorter white guy bopping along with the green guitar, his curls flopping into his face, is Thomas' former student, the saxophonist Russell Kirk. He's no slouch himself, having performed with such groups as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Temptations.

But it's Thomas who's jazz royalty, even if no one in the crowd knows it.

"Sometimes when you're playing with like-minded musicians, all willing to give and take, it can feel like you can do anything," Thomas says. "You can play anything you want and it doesn't matter what it is — it's going to be good."

Occasionally, a diner transfixed by the sound will do a double-take. But most, as Gertrude's owner John Shields did, assume that Thomas, whose weekly "fee" consists of two crab cakes and a small honorarium, occupies a low rung on the musical hierarchy.

"When Gary started playing here, I didn't know who he was," Shields says. "He'd disappear for a few weeks and I thought he was with the USO. Then I found out he was touring Japan."

The 54-year-old Thomas is one of those Baltimore success stories whose life reflects something about not just him personally, but about the city that shaped him. He grew up in the economically depressed Cherry Hill neighborhood and has lived in Baltimore all his life. Through discipline, talent and force of will, he transformed himself into an internationally renowned performer whose concerts have been reviewed regularly in Europe and the U.S.

Thomas "is a brutal player," Peter Watrous wrote admiringly for The New York Times in 1989.

"With a tone that could pulverize rock, he unfurls solos that intermingle long chromatic and knotted lines with elliptical melodies that seem torn out of the deepest recesses of the imagination."

Thomas has performed and recorded with such jazz greats as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Wynton Marsalis. He's put out 11 albums and been featured on roughly 150 others, and has been a featured performer at Carnegie Hall.

Peabody hired Thomas to start offering jazz courses in 1998, and he later became the conservatory's first African-American program head.

As it happens, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels is a huge jazz fan who owned some of Thomas' albums long before coming to Hopkins in 2009. One day when the university president watched Thomas work out in the gym, he realized he'd found the right man to put together a local jazz series presenting such famous folks as Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette in an intimate setting.

Daniels usually gets to the gym by 7 a.m. Thomas beats him there by a full hour.

"When he works out, he works hard," Daniels said. "He's very, very serious. He gets this locked-in look that exudes focus and determination."

The two men began talking, and the Jazz at the Johns Hopkins Club concert series was launched in February 2012.

Everything about Thomas — from his health routines to his minimalist clothing aesthetic to his courtship techniques — is carefully planned to achieve a specific goal.

In 2009, during a visit to Madrid, he met an actress he knew only as Luz — a name that in Spain is as common as "Liz" is here. After returning to the U.S., he couldn't get her out of his mind. Though it took him three years, Thomas finally learned Luz's last name — Nicolas — and then tracked her down on Facebook.

"He got on a plane and flew to Madrid," she recalls, "just to say hello."

The couple were married Jan. 2.

Clearly, Thomas is a man who knows what he wants. He is resolute, he is meticulous and he cuts himself very little slack. For instance, during his freshman year in college, Thomas began practicing the sax for eight hours a day — and kept up that demanding regimen for two decades. During a recent music lesson, Thomas sat through the hourlong session without leaning even once against the chair back.

When these traits are combined with Thomas' appearance, the effect can be imposing. (He is 6-foot-5, has a shaved head and wears nothing but black.)

Kirk vividly remembers his first meeting with his mentor in the mid-1990s when Thomas was performing in Northeast Baltimore. At the time, Kirk was in his mid-teens and had an adolescent boy's prickly, fragile ego.

"He was scary," Kirk recalls.

"He was super-buff. Most jazz musicians move around when they play, but Gary stands really still. Most close their eyes, but Gary's eyes were wide open. He was fresh off the road, and his sax chops were stellar."

After the concert, Kirk was introduced to Thomas, who shook the boy's hand. The saxophonist stood up to his full height, mock-growled, "Don't grow up to play like me," and erupted into his trademark booming laugh.

"I literally ran out of the club," Kirk recalls.

It seems curious that such a disciplined man grew up in surroundings that often were chaotic. His family lived in a housing project, and though their block was relatively quiet, two neighbors were rumored to have killed people.

The tension, Thomas says, "was always there."

He was 14 when he began playing flute in the school band, 16 when he picked up his first saxophone, and 17 when became obsessed with the distinctive sound of tenor saxophonist Billy Harper.

"That sound that reeled me in," Thomas says. "I couldn't figure out where it came from. It sounded like a buzz saw. It also was very soulful, like a cry."

But Thomas' parents told their son he was too smart to play music for a living. His father refused to allow Gary to play the saxophone in the house.

"I would go in my room and finger the horn very softly," he says.

Thomas received a scholarship to Howard University that covered his tuition. But he had to drop out after his freshman year when the money ran out for room and board. He worked odd jobs during the day and played clubs at night.

"One night when I was taking the bus home, I fell asleep," he says. "When I woke up, somebody had stolen my horn. It was devastating."

More than three decades later, the memory makes his face tighten. But in retrospect, he says, the theft was a blessing in disguise.

He enlisted in the Army, hoping to join the band and get a free saxophone. That horn never materialized because Thomas was recruited not for the band but for military intelligence. Perhaps luckily, an injury during basic training ended his career as a soldier.

As he recuperated, Thomas resumed his old habit of practicing for eight hours a day on an instrument that he jury-rigged from saxophone parts and duct tape and began developing his unique style.

Before long, he was back in the clubs. When the pioneering jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette needed a substitute sax player, a friend recommended Thomas. It was his first big gig, and it launched him on an international career.

"There's no one like him, and no mistaking his sound," says former student and Peabody faculty member Blake Meister. "If you hear two notes, you know he's the one playing."

Thomas combines small groups of notes that form lines that are sharply angular but still related to the chord changes.

Some people describe his style as "playing out of the harmony," Meister says. "He superimposes different chords over the chord structures and uses scales with unusual intervals."

Thomas has said his signature style is rooted in his decision to remain in Baltimore instead of moving to New York, where there's pressure to copy other musicians.

"I'm a stubborn person," he says. "I was dead set on playing what I wanted to play."

As in all professions that depend on physical strength, endurance and speed, jazz musicians are at their best technically when they're young.

"When I was in my 20s, people said it sounded like I wanted to kill somebody because I played so many notes and there was so much sound coming out of my horn," he says. "I didn't care much about leaving space for other people."

But as Thomas got older, he began to find foreign travel exhausting and started looking for a job in which he could spend more time at home. Once he started working at Peabody, he threw himself into teaching with everything he had.

"As Gary has entered his third quarter, he has remained relevant by becoming an educator," Peterson says. "Now his students are his instrument."

The trade-off was less time for practicing the saxophone, though Thomas still puts in at least two hours a day. He acknowledges ruefully that some skills have started eroding.

Other musicians, he says, "expect you to function the way you used to function. They send you music at the last minute and expect you to get it together. There's something called 'teacher's chops,' which means you aren't as good as you used to be."

And yet, Thomas has gained skills that compensate for any he might have lost. He's learned how to listen. He's learned that creating a complete artistic experience means more than just filling up the space with notes.

"I'm not playing as well as I was 10 years ago," he says. "But I'm making much better music."

Those hard-won life lessons explain why Thomas has turned down prestigious jobs that interfere with his weekly concerts at Gertrude's — a gig that less-experienced musicians might shun, discouraged by their audience's inattention.

At Gertrude's, Thomas can experiment. He taught himself to play the double bass at the restaurant, and when he sounded awful, no one complained.

In addition, the weekly concerts have morphed into something like a family reunion. Friday nights at Gertrude's now attract a Peabody crowd, and Shields and his staff have become friends.

Between sets at a recent gig, the two musicians joined Luz at the table where she sat with Thanh Huynh, a former microbiologist-turned-Peabody student. Shields sent over a platter of appetizers made from garlic crostini, ricotta, broccoli and some kind of bean.

Thomas and Kirk are accomplished pranksters, and they started telling stories. The funniest began with Kirk stuffing Thomas' horn full of banana bread during a rehearsal break.

Thomas laughed and talked and ate and laughed some more, making a different kind of music.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

 

 

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If you go

Jazz at the Johns Hopkins Club continues on Saturday, Dec. 6 with the Alan Ferber Nonet. The first set is at 8:30 p.m.; the second is at 10 p.m. Tickets cost $25 for general admission and $15 for students. Go to peabodyjazz.org/hopkinsclub or call 410-235-3435.

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