June 19, 2011
Innerviews: City jazz king 'just starting out'
Vic Burkhammer
Chip Ellis
Wearing his familiar smile, premier jazz pianist Bob Thompson tickles the keyboard during his regular Tuesday-night gig at the Boulevard Tavern with his group, the Bob Thompson Unit. Bassist John Inghram (left) and guitarist Ryan Kennedy carry on in the background. Saxophonist Doug Payne and drummer Tim Courts round out the band.
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- What can you say about Bob Thompson?

In jazz circles, he's the man, the king, Charleston's revered jazz pianist. He's a composer, teacher and nationally recognized recording artist, the consummate musician.

Reared in New York, he landed here in 1960 as a scholarship student at West Virginia State, where he formed his first band, the Modern Jazz Interpreters.

He honed his contemporary style in Charleston nightclubs. One gig spawned a radio show that evolved into Mountain Stage. He signed on as a Mountain Stage regular in 1991.

On Tuesday nights, the jazz king holds court at the Boulevard Tavern. There, friends and fans nourish and inspire him. He could play anywhere in the world, and has. He stays here because of them, that connection with his people.

Wherever he plays, the music flows from him like honey, sweet and smooth, as mellow as the genial gent producing it.

He will play Friday at Haddad Riverfront Park, a Live on the Levee concert for FestivALL.

He's 68.

"I grew up in Jamaica, N.Y., in Queens. My dad retired from the Navy as a lieutenant junior grade. He was into photography.

"My mother played church piano and sang in the choirs. She had a lot of recordings, everyone from Hank Williams to Duke Ellington, so there was always music playing around the house.

"When I was in sixth grade, I went to my junior high, and they had a little assembly, and the doors swung open, and this little drum and bugle corps marched in, and I thought, 'Man, I want to be a part of that.' So I got a bugle and learned to play.

"I had a piano teacher who came from Manhattan out to my house. He had several students in the neighborhood. He told my mother he thought I had something and offered to teach me that summer for free. I wasn't interested because that was going to take up my summer. Later, I went back to New York and tried to find him to tell him I was playing piano.

"I played horns in school bands. And we had a little doo-wop group, the Chanters. We used to sing on street corners. We did six or seven recordings for King Records. And we did shows.

"There was a big alumni association in New York from West Virginia State. Every year, they gave scholarships to two students to come to West Virginia State. I got that. I didn't know where West Virginia was at the time, but I thought it would be fun to get out of the city and go live on campus away from home.

"I came here in 1960. I saw that integration-in-reverse happen during the years I was at State. The population was about 10 percent white, mostly off-campus commuters. So that was an interesting time to be there.

"I started as a trumpet player majoring in instrumental music. I thought I was going to be a high school band director.

"They had a five-piece jazz band on campus -- trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass and drums. The trumpet player just passed away this weekend, Mitchell Lee. He was a great trumpet player and a great mentor. I started playing piano just so I could play in the trio with him. I thought when he graduated I could move into the trumpet spot. That never happened.

"When he graduated, I was left with a trio, the Modern Jazz Interpreters, my first band. We had piano, bass and drums. Once I started playing piano, I found that was my home, the instrument I really loved. I could play chords, harmony, and I could play by myself. With the trumpet, I always had to be involved in a band.

"The first place we played was right down the street at the Charleston Athletic Club. We also played on the West Side at the Crazy Horse, and on the East End at the Palm Gardens, all these after hours places.

"That was before the private club law. You went to the Crazy Horse, and there was a big fence around it, and you would push a buzzer and someone would look out a window and let you in.

"It was quite a music scene in Charleston then, lots of great players. You would play your regular job downtown then migrate over to the Crazy Horse or Palm Gardens. Jam sessions would go on until early morning.

"That was really night school. Musicians would let you sit in. When they figured you could handle it, they would sit down and let you play. Frank Thompson, Rabbit Jones, Francis Taylor, all these people were really helpful to young musicians trying to learn.

"Bunky Green taught me a lot about music. He's a great alto saxophone player. We went on a State Department tour to Algiers. One of the things he always said was, 'You have a responsibility if you are playing this music. You should never just jive around.' He said to play as though it is the last time, like you might not get another opportunity.

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