In Good Hands
"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."
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.
In the Miami of the late Sixties and early Seventies the Airliner was the place to play and listen to jazz. Thomas got to work alongside greats like saxophonist Zoot Sims, trumpeter Thad Jones, and drummer Mel Lewis. He also met pianist Monty Alexander, who gave him a chance to show his skills outside the city by taking him out on the road. Nero, though, who these days is still eking out a living locally, remains a friend and a force in Thomas's life. "Without him in my life I don't know what would have happened," he says reverently. "He pushed me to become a bebop drummer."
Thomas developed into more than just an ordinary drummer. He played cymbals, cowbells, and a drum set, all with his hands. He also appreciated the virtues of silent moments and refused to fill every second with noise. His unusual style and technique attracted the attention of many. One notable who noticed was pioneering electric bassist Jaco Pastorius, then a member of Weather Report, the most important jazz fusion band in music; the group was cofounded by keyboard whiz Joe Zawinul and extraordinary saxophonist Wayne Shorter. In the late Seventies Pastorius, who lived in South Florida, performed alongside Thomas at a benefit for a fellow musician held at a Miami Springs nightspot. The bassist was astounded by what he heard and enthusiastically promised to report his new discovery to Zawinul. "A month later I got a phone call," says Thomas, "and it was Jaco saying 'Hey, man, you want to audition for Weather Report?'" The tactful Thomas never let on that he had no idea who Weather Report was.
Another thing Thomas didn't know was that his audition in New Haven, Connecticut, would consist of performing with the band at a show, a big show, in front of 6000 people. "What overwhelmed me was when we pulled up and we saw these two huge tractor-trailer trucks, and I thought 'What kind of gig is this?' " he laughs. Yet the 24-year-old musician was unfazed: "I was confident and comfortable with who I was and doing what I was doing. I was happy and knew that I was doing something different." Thomas was hired immediately and went on the road with the band for a month and a half, not really knowing what he was getting into. "Until we hit Japan, and then I saw all the groupies scratching on the limo windows like we were rock stars, that's when I realized, 'Hey, this is a big deal.' "
Thomas made France his home base, and he traveled the world with Weather Report, singing, writing, playing percussion, and earning two Grammy nominations, until the band's demise in 1986. Still he remained loyal to Zawinul, a mentor who had given him the tag of "hand drummer" and who encouraged him to learn to play keyboards, string, and wind instruments, and to write songs. The two worked together on various musical projects until 1994. Throughout those years Thomas also took a few breaks to perform with major figures such as drummer Art Blakey, flutist Herbie Mann, and saxophonist Stan Getz. "I had this rare privilege to work with all of these famous guys and learn about life and music," says Thomas, who characterizes the time he spent with Weather Report as the "most educational and most exciting musical experience" he's ever had. "That's about as high as you can go, to be up there with Wayne and Joe and Jaco and [drummer] Peter Erskine," he notes wistfully. "That commitment to really letting yourself go in the music has died out."
Thomas is still committed, however. Two years ago, after having resettled in Miami in the late Eighties, he released In the Dreamtime on a local label. It's an exuberant album of socially conscious tunes he dubs "world pop," inspired by his many years of globetrotting ("CNN News doesn't go to places I go to") and the aboriginal view that the waking world is actually a dream. Thomas co-produced the album, wrote eight of its nine songs (the other he co-wrote with violinist Vicki Richards and multi-instrumentalist/co-producer Amitava Chaterjee), sang lead, and played -- along with the ordinary snare and kick drums -- some uncommon instruments such as the double-reed snake charmer and the Kenyan five-string bow harp. Although In the Dreamtime hasn't exactly sold at the rate of his old Weather Report work, Thomas hopes the album will bring him recognition from the major labels.
That wish may actually come true owing to the peripatetic percussionist's most recent project: the Bermuda Triangle trio, consisting of Thomas, vibraphonist Tom Toyama, and bassist Felix Pastorius, the sixteen-year-old son of Jaco, who died in 1987, at age 36, from injuries he sustained during a fight at a Fort Lauderdale bar. After Pastorius's death, Thomas took an active role as godfather to his friend's twin sons Julius and Felix. Both boys were interested in music and had performed with Thomas on one occasion when they were thirteen. Recently Felix called Thomas and said he was ready to perform again. Pastorius had his audition the same way Thomas had with Weather Report: at a gig, albeit a much smaller one. "We played at Jazid to test him out, and he was fantastic," says Thomas. "He has a lot to learn, but he learns so fast."
The name Bermuda Triangle symbolizes the mysterious, hypnotic state Thomas hopes his listeners will enter when they hear the music. "When I met Tom Toyama, who is so incredibly creative, I remember having an out-of-body experience and not knowing how to get back," he guffaws. The group has no written, pre-rehearsed songs. Only the rhythms Thomas creates are memorized; the music's harmonic elements are entirely improvised. And forget about a set list; the trio develops melodies on the spot based on one-word themes written by Thomas. "My music has changed so much," he explains. "I'm finished talking about problems and preaching to people. I'll let the world take care of itself. I just want to make happy music. That will be my contribution."
Apart from his musical work, Thomas lives a quiet life in South Miami, sharing parenting duties for his son (whom he describes as "five going on fifteen"), cooking family meals, doing laundry, painting, and writing a book about his hand drumming technique. While he likes the privacy that living in obscurity affords him, he still feels frustrated by the indifference of his hometown. "It's a Miami thing," he says emphatically. "There's no etiquette among club owners, managers, and audiences. People talk over music while others are sitting there trying to listen. Living here, where you get no recognition, my biggest struggle is remembering I am a great artist, but I'm taking it all in stride. I have fans far beyond South Florida. I can't get bent out of shape about one spot on the globe."
The Bermuda Triangle performs Tuesday, October 20 and 27, at Jazid, 1342 Washington Ave, Miami Beach. Showtime is 10:30 p.m. Admission is free. Call 305-673-9372.
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