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by Lee Tomboulian
James Williams, Memphis-born internationally known jazz pianist, said about Charles Thomas: "You know, those of us who know him consider Charles the best pianist in the South. And if he ever moved here [to New York], he'd be considered one of the best in New York, too."
Phil Marks, drummer in L.A., says, "Other players play at the tradition; Charles is the tradition."
Once again in the arts, the inevitable cliche arises; if he's so good, why isn't he famous?
Despite years of playing with the greats and near-greats he chooses to play mostly by himself in the Atrium of the Holiday Inn West, competing with muzak, noisy kids in the swimming pool, and the noise of the fountain for the attention of the young professionals in the restaurant.
He has no phone, calling his agent when he needs to, on a pay phone. He lives quietly, splitting his time between his job here in Little Rock and Memphis. If he misses playing with larger ensembles, he sits in at Lugano's Monday nights, where his tall, dignified stance and ubiquitous topcoat have earned him the nickname "Secret Agent of Jazz."
From my experience over a year and a half trying to track him down for some interview sessions, the answer might be that he may not want to be famous. However, when I finally sat down with him after a recent Sunday brunch gig and he saw the tape recorder, he stiffened. I offered to retire the tape recorder. He seemed relieved, but then when I asked him his age he declined to answer. Then, he surprised me by picking up my pen and notebook and writing.
"Charles Thomas, Memphis-born pianist-musician, began study of pianoforte at the age of nine. The early part of his musical venture was that of a highly religious nature. You might say that Thomas came from one extreme to another, so to speak. What I mean... is simply that at one time in my life I specifically listened to religious music, daily, which played a significant role in my music career...Thomas performed in local community churches up until his early teens then as I forementioned to another extreme."
Charles played for Baptist services in Memphis, and was already so accomplished that sometimes during a hymn, the preacher would stop singing, stop the congregation from singing, and say, "Let us listen to Mr. Thomas."
In his senior year of high school, Charles started spending his lunch hours, not "talking to the young ladies," but down in the band room listening to a fellow classmate, an already accomplished pianist, practice the piano. Charles didn't know what he was hearing, all the strange oblique chords his friend, Phineas Newborn, Jr., was playing, but he was fascinated.
On his senior prom night at a drive-in, he stumbled across the jazz program, "Live from Birdland in New York", on the radio and was so entranced with George Shearing's music that his date got angry, and left him listening.
Thus began a lengthy 9-year period of analyzing, transcribing and practicing with records of Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck and others. As his expertise grew, the word-of-mouth about Charles did, too, and national artists coming through Memphis would seek him out to play with him, which they still do. Freddie Hubbard, trumpeter Woody Shaw and saxophonist Junior Cook, "just to name a few", are among those benefiting from his deep study of the music.
Eventually Kenny Burrell and Yusef Lateef, two major jazzers came through on a gig, and asked Charles to come back to New York with them. This was a tough call for Charles. He had a family by then, and felt torn. He said to Yusef, "Man, I'm not ready for New York."
Yusef replied, "If you're not ready now, you never will be. Come on, Charles, you're ready."
But Charles had to decline.
The pressing needs of the family continued, and over the years Charles dealt with putting his children through college, and his daughter through medical school. On the way there, he underwent a metamorphosis.
"I used to have a hard-on for society ('be beyond serious'), man. I would stop in the middle of tunes if someone was messin' up, or if somebody asked me what my name was, I would say what difference does it make? If you like it, great. If not, why don't you leave. Then, one day, I looked around and I said to myself, 'Even if you are the artist you claim to be, nobody cares about that -- play the stuff people wanna hear. You can make money this way.'"
He is indeed practical about playing. "If you load something with too many strange chords, it makes people nervous, they can't relate. So you're left with your music, something that took you skill and work, and they leave." He remains unimpressed, though, with other styles he has to play. One time in the mid-70's when he had been out of work for months and in debt, he found a job way out of town for $10.00 a night playing Floyd Cramer-style country. So it has saved him a time or two but he hasn't sold out to it. It seems the challenge of playing bop keeps his mind alert and alive. "After you've attempted to play some uptempo jazz piece, tried to come up with some interesting lines, and play with good time, tone, swing, etc., then these other things (e.g., Cramer) are a picnic."
He's not an overly demonstrative player. Unlike many players, he feels no need to jump around and get jolly at the keyboard. If he plays something exceptional, a nice line, he might steal a look around the room to see if someone caught it. Otherwise all of his energy goes into playing.
Charles has his spiritual progeny too. Critics such as Robert Palmer consider him an important link in the so-called "Memphis school" of jazz pianists. It's traceable from the aforementioned Phineas Newborn, Jr., (the troubled genius whom Charles calls, affectionately, "Fines'") though Charles himself, and culminating in Harold Mabern, James Williams, Donald Brown and Mulgrew Miller. All of these have taken Phineas' bluesy yet orchestral conception and combined it with more modern concepts. Charles and several of them have performed at Carnegie Hall under the banner "James Williams' World of Piano," and an album is in the works, on the Concord Jazz label. Yet traveling doesn't appeal to Charles much. "It don't make much sense to travel three thousand miles to end up out of work."
As part of the Bosendorfer Imperial Dedication Series, Charles will join fine artists Art Porter and Tom Cox for a concert on Sunday, April 16th  at UALR's Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall, at 3 p.m. Cox, particularly, feels a strong debt to Charles, for helping him "fill in the blanks" of his previously modernist concept of playing, that is, Charles' command of the history of jazz piano was educational for him, as it has been for all the musicians who come in contact with him. Cox feels that regardless of what Charles is playing however lightweight, it comes out fine jazz under Charles' elegant touch. "Integrity is the key word here," Tom has said.
Meanwhile, you can hear for yourself at the Holiday Inn West, every night except Sunday, and for Saturday and Sunday brunch. And as Charles wrote that day, "Time and space will not allow me to elaborate further. However, at this point, I would like to say that I hope the reader can dig the sincerity and honesty."
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