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"What time is the PTA meeting?" asks the resonant voice on the other end of the phone, posing the question to someone in the same room. It's not an unusual concern, seeing that the person being queried is Jane Thomas, schoolteacher and mother of five-year-old Spencer. The person doing the asking, however, is another matter. That would be Robert "Bobby" Thomas, Jr., self-described bebop hand drummer, former member of the seminal jazz fusion band Weather Report, two-time Grammy nominee, singer, songwriter, painter, poet, cook, author, husband of Jane, and father of Spencer.
Whether the parent-teacher powwow is at Spencer's school or at the school where his mother teaches is unclear. And ultimately the answer is unimportant. The significance of the exchange is in the fact that Bobby Thomas, an active and acclaimed musician, takes the time to think about such things at all. But one must understand that aside from his family, school is very important to Thomas. If it weren't for school, he wouldn't have become a musician.
A native who grew up in North Miami Beach, Thomas, the oldest of seven children, didn't attend music school or receive any formal musical education. It wasn't until he reached the final years of elementary school that he learned that he could make music by whacking and pounding on things. His fifth-grade teacher encouraged students to bring musical instruments to class and, in Thomas's words, "jam out" at the end of the day. Thomas didn't have a musical instrument of his own, but ingenuity led him to the closest tool at hand -- his desk. "That's how I learned to play," he recalls, "by beating on the desk."
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During his early teens Thomas served as an usher at the Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, where he also began singing. At age sixteen he returned to percussion when he met the Broomfield Family, a talented local group that performed gospel, R&B, and soul in Miami churches and nightclubs. Thomas joined the family as a drum roadie, meaning he unpacked and set up the percussion instruments before every performance, then packed them up again afterward. That was the extent of his contact with the instruments until he found himself at a private party in South Miami where the Broomfields were the featured entertainment. The party's host insisted everyone be kept busy doing something. For Thomas that meant sitting in with the band on some sort of instrument. "Fortunately for me, there were some bongos lying around, and I knew I could keep time," he explains. When Thomas picked up the skins and began to play, it was quite apparent that he could do much more than just keep time. "The whole band turned around and said, 'Oh, my God! You're in the band!' That's how it started."
At the request of the Broomfields, Thomas learned to play drums and congas and worked on honing his vocals. Although he was too young to drink legally, he still played in the band at clubs such as the popular Castaways Hotel's Wreck Bar, located in the area now known as Sunny Isles Beach. "I used to steal my mother's mascara and draw a mustache on my face to get in, but when I perspired, it would run!" he chuckles. "What a sight I was, trying to look nineteen. But it felt great to make my own money at such a young age, to do something that was so much fun and be accepted as one of the group. It was really nice to be onstage and have that feeling of 'Wow. I'm somebody special.' "
Back when he was a kid drumming on his desk, Thomas didn't realize he had any unusual ability. "I just wanted to be a part of it all," he recalls. "Playing music was a fun thing to do at the end of the day. I never thought anything would come of it, because I was always a visual artist. I grew up painting and drawing. I never thought music would lead to anything, but it changed my life tremendously."
After his stint with the Broomfield Family, Thomas joined the local Top 40 cover band Unit Three. A few years later the disco era dawned; this was a turning point for many, including Thomas. "I thought I was going to go insane! I just couldn't take playing percussion to that music," he says, laughing heartily, "so I quit playing Top 40 and got more into drawing and painting." He began studying art at Miami-Dade Community College. There he met a girl whose radio dial at home was always tuned to a jazz station, and she introduced him to that genre. It was a completely new sound for a boy who had grown up listening to R&B and rock and roll at home. "When I would come home from school, my mom would be singing to American Bandstand every day," he says. "When I discovered jazz, I just couldn't believe it."
Once Thomas got a taste of jazz from the radio, he ventured out to hear it performed live at many of Miami's swinging hotspots. One such place was the Gold Dust Lounge, then located on Biscayne Boulevard near 79th Street. During his first visit Thomas heard local saxophonist Jet Nero, who allowed him to sit in on bongos. "That straight-ahead rhythm was so infectious," he exclaims. Thomas returned to the Gold Dust again and again. Soon he was accompanying Nero on other dates around town and meeting other local legends such as Ira Sullivan and Billy Marcus, who held court at the Airliner Motel, then on Le Jeune Road near Miami International Airport.