Brothers in Horns
John Dierker and Gregory Thompkins have shared a lifetime of music together
Published: November 27, 2013
Greg Thompkins asks John Dierker if he’s shared their retirement-plan idea yet. Around 10 p.m. on a weekday night, Thompkins meets up with Dierker at a North Baltimore café for an interview, each coming from a gig. Multi-reeds player Dierker had a gig up in Hamilton. Tenor saxophonist Thompkins had sessions with music students that ran into the evening. They both play in the New Volcanoes, pianist Lafayette Gilchrist’s band, which has remained one of Baltimore’s most potent live combos since the early 1990s. Dierker’s been playing in the unit since the early ’90s; Thompkins for about 12 years. And over the years together they’ve come up with a plan for life as older jazz guys.
“We’re going to move to New Orleans,” Thompkins says. “We’re going to get a gig at one of those [French Quarter] cafés and play for two hours at noon—and then go hang out for the rest of the night.”
“We’re going to play ‘When the Saints Go Marchin’ In’ all afternoon,” Dierker adds, and the pair laughs like it’s the funniest idea they’ve had all day—even though you suspect they’ve made the joke a few times before. They have that kind of private-language camaraderie that comes when musicians play together for years, but in Dierker and Thompkins’ case, that closeness runs much deeper. They finish each other’s sentences when talking about people they played with, teachers they had, and things that happened at gigs. Their stories simply criss and cross from way back. They briefly attended Towson University at the same time in the 1980s. They both attended Chesapeake High School in Pasadena, where they played in the jazz band under Al Shout. They had the same band director in middle school, Dennis Lewis. And they were born on the same day of the same year: Dec. 1, 1963.
They turn 50 onstage this weekend at a special performance of Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes at the Windup Space on Nov. 30. Thompkins says he wanted to do something guys don’t do that often: make a little fuss over themselves.
“With this gig coming up, I want to celebrate getting old and being in a band and playing with John,” Thompkins says. “I want to mark it. It’s important to mark events. It’s just saying, shit, man—we made it to 50.”
And with that they’re laughing again, their conversation quickly running down the rabbit hole of memories. Thompkins recalls the bus drivers playing the radio loud on the way to school and hearing “Hotel California” over the PA in homeroom. Dierker doesn’t—but he does recall how their high school band director transcribed horn charts for Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” and taught the middle school students to play it. “He was tops, man,” Dierker says. “With what he had to work with, he made the band sound as good as it possibly could sound.”
“Imagine a skinny black guy with an afro and huge stiletto shoes doing this,” Thompkins says of Lewis. “And that was the cool thing. Imagine a bunch of middle school kids playing tunes that are actually on the charts at that time. He was a great teacher.”
Wonder’s 1977 No. 1 single opens with the lyric “Music is a world within itself,” a fitting leitmotif running through Thompkins’ and Dierker’s overlapping lives in the Baltimore area. Thompkins grew up in Severna Park, earned his jazz degree from Towson in 1989, and wandered into Baltimore’s blues and jazz and funk communities, playing with the Persuaders and the All Mighty Senators, among others. Dierker hails from Chelsea Beach in Anne Arundel County, attended Towson for a few years before transferring to UMBC, where he earned his degree in 1987 and hooked up with some musicians coming out of there—percussionists Jeff Arnal and Will Redman—and some of Baltimore’s experimental hubs, such as Jason Willett (in the Pleasant Livers, the Can Openers, the Jaunties) and John Berndt. While they knew of each other in school, it wasn’t until they were out of college and playing around that they started to become close friends.
It’s a conversation that offers a snapshot of a different Baltimore as much as it offers a slideshow of their lives. When asked about various places to play or see bands as a young jazz guy in the 1980s Baltimore, they mention the Jazz Closet, which was located across the street from the Marble Bar on West Franklin Street. Then, when Dierker mentions the legendary Left Bank Jazz Society at the Famous Ballroom, located where the Charles Theatre is today, Thompkins says, “I saw everybody that came through there. Art Blakey, Dave Liebman, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard. . . ”
“Sun Ra,” Dierker adds. “It was fucking amazing. [It cost] $10 [and bands] always played three sets. You could stay for all of them. It was one of the best things Baltimore ever had.”
Thompkins recalls going to see Dexter Gordon around 1980. “It’s completely packed in there,” he says. “It’s all these old school people, cats in furs and canes like they had come out of the 1940s. And Dexter came out and came off the stage to check the sound. And he went into his vest and pulled out a cigarette, and there was this guy in the back with a camera. And he put the camera down, ran toward the front, slid on one knee, and just as Dexter got the cigarette up, bam! Lit it. And Dexter didn’t even flinch. It was like it happened to him every day.”
More than just an amusing anecdote, the story causes the pair to think about what’s happened to them over the years—the process of going from being a young player, watching history, to maturing into a veteran who is part of if. “It used to be on the scene, coming up, when you’re young, it’s all these old guys,” Thompkins says. “And they’re like, ‘Get away from me, kid.’”
“And now we are those old guys,” Dierker adds the punch line, shaking his head and laughing at the realization that two young guys who came out of the same middle school jazz band are still doing the music thing decades on. “Who could have ever guessed that we would have ended up playing in [the New Volcanoes] together?” Dierker asks.
“I’m just so happy to have stayed in [music] for so long,” Thompkins says. “When you’re in high school, there’s the anticipation of going to college. Then there’s the swamp of college, and it’s hard to get through that. And then you get out and you’re trying to figure out the gig thing. That might take a couple of years. And you keep doing it and doing it, and hopefully you get something going and then you’re in it. You’re in that period where you play, play, play.
“Now we’re in the period where we’ve done that, I’m looking at getting older, and I certainly don’t want to wind up getting nothing out of this deal,” he continues. “We know people—and we’re not talking about just jazz players—people who have sold records who wound up with nothing [later in life]. That’s what I’m thinking about. I got to get this stuff together.”
“There’s an urgency that happens in this time period,” Dierker adds. “I remember thinking when I turned 40, there’s a real good chance that this ride is halfway over—a real good chance. And turning 50? It’s definitely almost halfway over.”
“Turning 50 is like the next chapter,” Thompkins offers.
“The final chapter,” Dierker jokes.
“No,” Thompkins says. “That’s when we move to New Orleans.”
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