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Learning From a Master

The Baltimore Jazz Education Project elevates students to the grand stage

Photo: Michael Northrup, License: N/A

Michael Northrup

Tenor saxophonist Greg Thompkins hopes to inspire another generation of Baltimore jazz musicians


Greg Thompkins is best known as the burly tenor saxophonist for Baltimore’s Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes, but the Govans resident actually makes the bulk of his income giving private lessons at the Music Arts stores in Ellicott City, Timonium, and Arundel Mills. He recently estimated that he now has 66 private students, and the jazz musician manages to bond with most of them, whether they are inner-city high school students or business executives.

In the latter category is Greg Poling, the president of W.R. Grace, the chemical company whose global headquarters are in Columbia, Md. Poling has neither the time nor the ambition to become a professional jazz musician, but he values his moments with his horn as rare opportunities to focus on something other than business. He formed a surprising friendship with his freelance sax teacher, and they wound up talking about financial strategies and favorite records as much as their lessons.

“He’s the rare breed who started out in the mailroom and worked his way up through the corporation,” Thompkins says. “Whenever I meet someone who’s the best at what they do, I try to get as much knowledge out of them as possible—and he did the same with me. Whenever I would rent a church for a recital by my students, he would show up. He could see the progress they made from year to year. One day he came into a lesson and, out of the blue, said he wanted to start an organization that would raise money to provide instruments and lessons to kids who needed them. I had never even thought of such a thing. When he asked me to be the music director, I thought about it for almost two seconds and said yes.”

That was in 2007; the organization became the Baltimore Jazz Education Project, and this Saturday, the BJEP holds its fifth annual fundraiser show at Towson University’s main concert hall. The house band is an all-star quintet featuring Thompkins, Gilchrist, guitarist Carl Filipiak, bassist Blake Meister, and drummer Robert Shahid. The guest performers will include the Berceuse Saxophone Quartet, several BJEP students and alumni, two middle school bands (including the Minor Seven Flat Five Quintet), and Poling.

At the center of it all is Thompkins, the rare saxophonist who manages to keep his notes warm and pleasurable even when he’s negotiating quick, tricky lines. He has three recordings as well as a DVD under his own name as leader; he has appeared on three of Gilchrist’s albums, including this year’s It Came from Baltimore; Thompkins even performed on the Almighty Senators’ 2000 album, Flow. He almost died three years ago from congestive heart failure, but the latest tests show a full recovery. That’s good news, for it would be a tragedy to lose such a vital addition to Baltimore’s long saxophone tradition of Mickey Fields, Gary Bartz, Gary Thomas, Antonio Hart, Ellery Eskelin, and others.

As a teacher, Thompkins is making sure his sound will be passed on to another generation, no matter what happens with his health. On the BJEP’s Facebook page, there’s a video that captures him and his student Chris Young playing an unaccompanied tenor-saxophone duet. Thompkins has a brown pork-pie hat perched precariously atop his moon-shaped head, with a gold earring in his left ear and a thin crescent of silvery beard on his chin. Whether playing loud or soft, fast or slow, his golden horn gives every note both a buttery tone and a crisp definition. Young, who left the BJEP only when he had won a full jazz scholarship at Towson University, wears rimless glasses and an untucked pink shirt. He echoes Thompkins’ tone but puts that sound to his own uses. It’s an enviable example of a teacher who casts an influence malleable enough to be useful without being constraining.

“In jazz education,” Thompkins says, “we’re not teaching students certain patterns of notes to play: We’re teaching them how to recognize what their options are on their instruments. We’re teaching them how to choose between various paths—and how to create additional paths. That’s what gets lost with the cutbacks in school music programs. Without music, we’re teaching the kids enough facts to pass the test, but we’re not teaching them how to think. Jazz makes you think.”

Thompkins, who benefitted from the strong music programs in Anne Arundel County during the ’70s and ’80s, was born on the same day as John Dierker, his fellow saxophonist in the New Volcanoes for the past 10 years. Their association goes back a lot further than that, however: They played together in the school bands at Chesapeake Middle School, Chesapeake High School, and Towson University.

“There aren’t many times in school when you go into a class and experience a genuine emotional release,” Thompkins says, “but music class was like that for us. The way a band comes together and creates a specific sound under a leader is a tremendous experience, and we wouldn’t have had that if not for public school. Only rich kids could afford private lessons, and I didn’t have lessons until the end of high school.”

To fill some of that void, the BJEP buys instruments for the students and pays for a Towson University music major to provide assistance to the band program at the Patterson Park Charter School. The program also pays for two promising high school students to take private lessons from Thompkins. Young used to be one of those students; Brian Vanhook and William Pefok are the current students. All three will perform on Saturday night. Vanhook, who began the program somewhat reluctantly, under parental pressure, experienced an epiphany about jazz and is now so gung-ho he wants to be a professional musician.

“My own epiphany came during middle school,” Thompkins reveals. “I was lying in bed one day listening to Eric Dolphy on WPFW, tapping my pencil. At one point my pencil caught the rhythm of the drummer and Dolphy. Suddenly it was like I was in the band. It felt awesome.”

Greg Thompkins performs Saturday for the Baltimore Jazz Education Project Fundraiser at Towson University, oct. 9 for the Out of Your Head Series at the WindUp Space, and Oct. 21 with the Berceuse Saxophone Quartet at the Arundel Mills Corporate Park.

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