I pride myself on hardly ever having misjudged people. Naturally, I have been completely wrong at times (and when I am/was wrong, I am/was completely off), but as far as I recall, the number of blunders were rather limited. It is my profession to evaluate people and although that is often quite difficult, I usually get it right at some point, especially if I am able to spend longer periods of time with the people in question.
That’s why I would state that Ed Thigpen was not only a cool guy, but also a true gentleman. Now, I have absolutely no idea if he walked around at home throwing terrible tantrums or if he had a tendency to easily go off the rails in more private settings, but whenever I had the chance to experience his personality up close, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that he would be a great friend to have.
See, when I lived in Copenhagen, I met Ed Thigpen and was actually his student for a shorter period of time, a rather lazy student who didn’t hang around for all that long.
The story is easily told. I attended a school called CIS (Copenhagen International School) and Ed Thigpen gave drum lessons there for a while. And I took some. I didn’t get very far because I was a bone-headed person then, only interested in playing loud noisy stuff myself, and although I was interested in jazz also then, I had my sights set on Stewart Copeland, Simon Phillips and the likes. I could kick myself today, but it’s too late for that (well, not really, but rather pointless in the end). But the memories of those lessons are fond ones nevertheless. For example, there was this small miniature set standing in the basement of the school, built by some local manufacturer, and at some point I sat down and did a small bit of my Gene Krupa impression, floor tom and all, and Ed Thigpen smiled benignly and after I was finished he sat down and gave me his. Those 30 seconds or so just stunned me and, in a way, intimidated me as well. That was certainly not his intention, but I just went home and said to myself that I was never going to be that good. What I remember best though was his extremely pleasant way of talking, of explaining things and, when playing, his impeccable attention to detail, both as a teacher and a drummer. And his incredible patience.
I never had the feeling I needed to have the chance to turn the clock back a few decades, but in this one instance I’d love to have that chance, just to show that the more mature person I am today (I hope) would have approached the whole thing quite differently than I did in my rebellious years, trying to soak up as much of the incredible routine and professionalism Ed Thigpen was oozing on a daily basis.
No matter what, I credit Ed Thigpen with also rekindling a flame that had been burning brightly in my younger years and had started to flicker badly around the time I met him and took those comparatively few lessons. I’ve often stated on this site that my love for jazz came (mostly) from my father’s record collection and his obvious love for the music, but that love and interest had taken severe hits and was overpowered by heavy metal, punk and other rather noisy variants around that time. At that time, “Sunday Papers” by Joe Jackson was a few miles closer to my heart than the Count Basie big band’s smoking version of “Corner Pocket”, and the trade-offs between Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing of Judas Priest were regular favorites which relegated those of Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman in small group sessions to the dusty parts of my old shelf system.
I might not have learned my drum lessons, but I pricked up my ears the second Ed Thigpen started talking about jazz, about his experience, his hard work and the many highlights of his career. From my vantage point today, that made me search out the records again that I had listened to intensively the years previously and before I knew it, that door had opened again, first a tiny bit and then, after a comparatively short time, it was kicked open wide. Today, things have reversed completely. I still enjoy a rush of 60s, 70s and 80s metal, blues, pop and fusion, but jazz, especially that of the small group session type, has become the music I have listened to most these past 20 and more years.
Of course, I had seen Ed Thigpen play live tons of times, both before I met him and after, until today. He had moved to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, in 1972 and when I got there in the end 70s, he was well-established in the scene, frequently appearing live in Sweden with two famous Swedish singers, Sylvia Vrethammer and Alice Babs, and around Scandinavia and the rest of Europe with such luminaries as Svend Asmussen, Clark Terry, Milt Jackson, Monty Alexander, Ernie Wilkins, Kenny Drew, and, last but not least, Thad Jones, whose orchestra(s) I went to see frequently. And from the time I left Copenhagen, sometime towards the end of 1982, until last year’s Copenhagen Jazz Festival, I tried to catch Ed Thigpen every time he happened to be playing when I was around, at the now defunct Montmatre Jazz Club, or at the new Copenhagen JazzHouse.
As I got older, I managed to get in touch with him again on a more regular basis via the magic of virtual media and communication and I tried to get my hands on any of his recordings I could find. Today I would consider him my favorite drummer, only rivaled by Jeff Hamilton. Not surprisingly, the latter is as tasteful a player as Ed Thigpen.
Edmund Leonard “Ed” Thipgen was born on December 28, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois. His father, Ben Thigpen (born on November 16, 1908 in Laurel, Mississippi – died on October 5th, 1971 in St. Louis), is still today known as an accomplished drummer himself, having worked with the Andy Kirk Band in the 1930s and 1940s. Ed Thigpen grew up in Los Angeles and attended Thomas Jefferson High School there, a school which boasts such alumni as Dorothy Dandridge, Art Farmer, Chico Hamilton and Dexter Gordon. At Jefferson High Thigpen played in the high school’s swing band which was led by renowned teacher Samuel Browne. Browne’s name is closely intertwined with the history of Los Angeles and its music scene. The following comes from Rhino Records‘ website (link now dead):
The ’30s saw the beginnings of an integrated faculty in the Los Angeles public secondary schools, which dramatically impacted the music programs. High schools along the Central Avenue corridor had mixed enrollments–black, Hispanic, Japanese-American, Chinese-American, and white students. However, the faculties were solidly white. Despite the fact that many college-educated blacks lived throughout the community, none had been hired until the mid-’30s, when Samuel R. Browne was contracted to teach music at Jefferson, a few blocks east of Central Avenue at 41st and Hooper. Years later Browne recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that upon his hiring he was called into the office of an assistant district superintendent who cautioned him: ‘Remember, Brownie, now that you’ve got the job, you’re going to have to do the work of three white men.’ Browne remained at Jefferson for over two decades, creating a model program in jazz education and directly impacting the lives of many musicians, in and out of the classroom, who subsequently became major contributors to the art and culture. In Michael Ullman’s Jazz Lives, Dexter Gordon fondly remembers, ‘In high school we had a very good teacher named Sam Browne–very dedicated. He had all these wild young dudes. We used to call him Count Browne.’
In 1949 Thigpen graduated and after a year as a sociology major at Los Angeles City College he dropped out to pursue a career in music. His professional debut came with the Jackson Brothers Quartet that same year and later Thigpen continued his studies in New York at the Manhattan School of Music and with legendary drummer Jo Jones. In 1951 and 1952 Thigpen worked with Cootie Williams at the Savoy Ballroom and travelled with him and other bands all over America. Until 1954, the year he went on tour with Dinah Washington, he served in the Army as a drum instructor and later as a drummer with the Eighth Army Band in Korea (interestingly enough, this was also the time when he met Oscar Peterson in Tokyo, Japan, taking a short trip there from Korea). While studying percussion in New York, he worked with Lennie Tristano, Johnny Hodges, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon and from 1956 until 1959 with the Billy Taylor Trio.
II) The Oscar Peterson Trio
Although Thigpen is such a versatile drummer who has been on over 700 recordings of the most varying nature, he is still best remembered as a member of Oscar Peterson’s most famous trio. As a replacement for Herb Ellis, guitar, Thigpen joined up on January 1, 1959 and stayed until 1965. He had first met the bassist of the trio, Ray Brown, when he was a kid and through his father he had the chance to meet many of the jazz greats, such as Ben Webster, early on. So, when Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” was touring Asia, Thigpen flew over from Korea and met up with Peterson and Ray Brown in Tokyo, Japan. There he spoke to Brown:
‘The only thing wrong with this group is you need a drummer. I need to play with this group. I love this group.’ And they went out and proceeded to swing so hard I thought ‘Well, maybe I’ll miss it, but I still would like to play with the group.’ So it was four years later that I joined them. Yeah, it was a lot of pressure though. It was. Because whatever insecurities I had…I was in awe of those guys, I loved them, I really loved them, and when it’s like that, you give everything you have. They were so heavy, so fantastic and, obviously, so acclaimed, that I was in awe of both of them. Ray was very kind. All the time. He just took me under his wing and saved me.
A lot has been written about this trio, but it is certainly one of the best if not the best trio Peterson ever had and maybe even the best jazz trio in history (yeah, I know, Peterson detractors will certainly not agree, but they never will agree to anything Peterson was in, so …). Ed Thigpen’s quiet and extremely intelligent as well as relaxed but hard-swinging style perfectly supported Peterson and, especially, bassist Ray Brown. The recordings of this trio should be cornerstones of any jazz collection and well worth seeking out. A highlight certainly seem to be the “London House Sessions” which were this trio’s claim to fame. They showcase the intimate musical relationship these three stellar players enjoyed and one is not surprised that Oscar Peterson himself listed the live recordings from Chicago at the top of his list of favorite recordings. Oscar Peterson himself, referring to the many hours spent simply playing and rehearsing with Brown and Thigpen, said: “Some of the best playing I’ve ever done has been in the basement with Ed and Ray.”
Everyone who knows me has heard a million times that I’m a huge fan of the Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, and not a week goes by in my life in which that trio doesn’t appear with at least (=minimum) one full session on my stereo. What amazes me every time is the incredibly tight rhythm section of Ed and Ray that shows every second of the practice sessions these two went through. I have often suspected Ed Thigpen to have been the driving force behind the intense practicing that was done, especially because I do detect a streak of perfectionism in Ed’s playing, but I could be entirely wrong, especially if you know or suspect that Ray Brown was made of equal material. No matter what, Ed’s and Ray’s playing is some of the tightest, most ingenious, sometimes seemingly easy (because faultlessly pulled off) and often quite humorous (I often find myself laughing about some stunt the two pulled on a number) that I’ve ever heard. I’m in awe every single time.
III) Advanced School of Contemporary Music
In 1960, the members of the trio, Peterson, Brown and Thigpen, along with composer Phil Nimmons, founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music (ASCM) in Toronto, Canada. The National Library of Canada writes:
Located in Toronto, from 1959 to 1964, the Advanced School of Contemporary Music (ASCM) was founded by Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Ed Thigpen and Phil Nimmons, all of whom taught aspiring, young jazz musicians from across North America. The faculty also included Ed Bickert (guitar), Eric Traugott (trumpet) and Butch Watanabe (trombone).
The typical semester lasted 20 weeks and included weekly lessons on a student’s primary instrument, plus compulsory courses on piano, both in composition and theory. Most importantly, the students took part in experimental group playing with established musicians (Peterson, Thigpen, Brown, et al.) after which their performances were critiqued. Peterson also thought it was essential for all aspiring jazz musicians to have an understanding of the origins of jazz. Therefore, study included courses in music appreciation consisting of lectures, discussions and listening periods with visiting musicians.
The school’s main goal was to provide young jazz musicians with a structured environment for learning. Having accomplished teachers provide such training proved beneficial for many artists such as Skip Beckwith (bassist), Wray Downes (pianist) and Charles Mountford (vocalist) who all went on to successful jazz careers after graduating from the school.
Despite its popularity, the school closed after only five years. Unable to keep up with the growing demands of the school, and burdened with an overloaded touring schedule, Oscar Peterson chose to focus his time on his performance career instead. He did, however, go on to teach at York University in 1986 when he was appointed as adjunct professor of Music in jazz studies. He has remained involved with the university ever since, serving as its Chancellor from 1991 to 1999.
All throughout this time, the trio appeared at nightclubs and concerts regularly and several LPs were recorded.
IV) Freelancing and Teaching
Wanting to try his luck as a freelance musician and teacher, Ed Thigpen left the trio in 1965 and moved to Los Angeles a little later. This new direction was also signaled by the publication of his first book, “Talking Drums”, which was published in Toronto in 1965. Around the same time he started doing drum clinics regularly and continued performing and recording. In 1966 he could be seen working with Junior Mance and Duke Ellington in New York as well as with Ella Fitzgerald, whom he accompanied on virtually all of her world tours until 1972. Additionally, in Los Angeles Thigpen worked and recorded with Peggy Lee, Oliver Nelson and Gerald Wilson.
V) Session Leader
In 1966 Ed Thigpen recorded his first solo effort, “Out of the Storm“, and the list of musicians on that recording is impressive: Kenny Burell (guitar), Clark Terry (trumpet), Herbie Hancock (piano) and Ron Carter (bass).
This often overlooked little gem, with a running time of just about 32 minutes, was reissued in 1998 by Verve (Elite Edition) and it showcases Thigpen in a more exposed position. On the album you can hear Thigpen play a variable pitch tom-tom (a tom operated via a foot pedal almost like a tympani drum) which gives him more of a lead role. The tracks on this album are Cielito Lindo, Cloud Break (Up Blues), Out of the Storm, Harper, Elbow and Mouth, Heritage and Struttin’ with Some Barbecue. The highlight of the CD is Burrell’s Elbow and Mouth. On this blues tune, Thigpen shines on the pitch tom-tom while Clark Terry does the rhythmic backing playing the trumpet mouthpiece only (a mouthpiece-only solo is also thrown in for good measure). This CD is one of my perennial favorites in somewhere around 40 to 50 meters of music, especially because Ed managed to again and again put a smile on my face with his touch of humor that permeats this wonderful session. When Cielito Lindo kicks off after the drum intro, it just makes you smile and tap your feet. And that’s not the only truly entertaining bit – in the best sense of the word – on this session.
In 1972, Thigpen relocated to Copenhagen, Denmark, intensified his teaching as well as touring and performing with his own bands and a long roster of renowned artists. In 1973 he began a close working relationship with Svend Asmussen, whose quartet he toured extensively with. In 1974 he released another LP, “Action/Reaction” (GNP 2098), which was more rock and soul oriented.
Compiling a list of artists Thigpen has worked with since the early 70s is difficult, but looking at some of the highlights shows the breadth and stylistic variety of his work. Thigpen has worked with Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Clark Terry, Milt Jackson, quite a bit with Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Art Farmer, Benny Carter, Monty Alexander, Teddy Wilson, Zoot Sims, Chet Baker, Sonny Stitt, Cal Tjader, Frank Sinatra, Toots Thielemans, Duke Jordan, Teddy Edwards, Ernie Wilkins, Mundell Lowe, Horace Parlan, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Drew, Mal Waldron, Oliver Jones, Gerry Wiggins, Horace Parlan, Blossom Dearie, Dorothy Ashby, Teddy Charles, Charlie Rouse, Bernard Pfeiffer, Paul Quinichette, and many others, mostly in the 70s and 80s. In 1999 and 2002 he was a member of the Eric Watson Trio and in 2001 of the Monty Alexander Trio. If you actually find an online store which has more than a few sessions available that Ed Thigpen appeared on, the results usually run a minimum of 10 to 20 pages.
VII) Later Period
Several recordings of the later period with Thigpen in the lead are still available and more than well worth your time and money. In 1989 Thigpen recorded with his quartet, which included Johnny O’Neal on piano (“Easy Flight”, reissued on Stunt Records on January 1, 2002), in 1990, he assembled a fine cast of musicians, including Roland Hanna, Branford Marsalis and Terrence Blanchard for Ed Thigpen and Friends, who can be heard on “Young Men And Olds” (Down Beat (11/90) – 4 Stars – Very Good – “Thigpen’s tasteful, swinging, sensitive, and well-recorded drums continue to amaze…his style remains thoroughly eloguent…”), and in 1991 he released “Mr. Taste” (reissued by Justin Time Records in 1996, liner notes by Gene Lees), a wonderful and highly recommended recording of a “killer trio” (“Down Beat”, 5 Stars, 7/92) featuring Ed Thigpen on drums, Tony Purrone on guitar and the wonderful Mads Vinding on bass (listen into the album).
True highlights for me are two CDs released by Stunt Records in 1999 and 2002 respectively. “It’s Entertainment” (Stunt CD 19186), recorded by the Ed Thigpen Rhythm Features live at the Copenhagen JazzHouse on May 13 and 14, 1998, showcases everything that is good about Ed Thigpen. It’s got humour (Ed’s announcements are a hoot at times), wonderful playing (track 5, “Shufflin Long”, is my absolute favourite) and perhaps one of Europe’s best piano players, Carsten Dahl, a player easily comparable to the early Ahmad Jamal in his use of empty spaces rather than cascades of (unnecessary) musical notes. Add to this a young bass player whom we are going to hear a lot more about in the future, Jesper Bodilsen, also a former member of an excellent Danish quartet (Casper Villaume Quartet), and what you have is a wonderful recording which has become one of the CDs most often in rotation at my house.
Stunt Records wanted to celebrate Ed Thigpen’s 70th birthday with a recording of him in collaboration with an international artist. Both Thigpen and Stunt Records favored Grammy and Poll winner Joe Lovano and after a warming-up tour, the Ed Thigpen Rhythm Features released “The Element of Swing” (Stunt CD 01222), again recorded live at the Copenhagen JazzHouse (October 1 and 2, 2001), in early 2002. Thigpen had met Lovano at an IAJE (“International Association for Jazz Education”) conference earlier and they had both expressed the wish to work together in the future. This recording shows that Thigpen and Lovano have lots in common: both their fathers were inspirations to them, they both see music as not being “a technical thing first, but a matter of relationship and communication.” So it is no surprise that as soon as they started working together, Thigpen noticed: “Joe and I were on the same page with a lot of stuff.” This recording is a good example of Thigpen’s breadth when it comes to grooves, moods and styles, at the same time conserving that which he calls “feel-good pulse. This feel-good pulse or rhythmic beat is the unifying force that binds the ensemble, the soloist and the audience together”.
In an interview with Mike Zwerin, Ed Thigpen commented on his role as a teacher: “At this age you feel yourself in the position of a mentor, whether you like it or not. The youngsters who are now the new names want to sit down and listen to what you have to say. You know one thing sure, the jazz tradition will never die. This music is too good.” Ever since his time at the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto, Thigpen had intensified his teaching considerably. When he moved to Scandinavia, he started teaching and didn’t really stop until he passed away on January 13th, 2010. At university-level he taught mostly at the Swedish Music Högskolan and the Copenhagen Rhythmic Conservatory (interestingly enough, some of Denmark’s finest musicians have been Thigpen’s students, such as the aforementioned Carsten Dahl, who once started out on drums and only later switched to piano, Jesper Bodilsen, and many other young(er) ‘cats’), he gave master classes at many universities, he was on the board of the jazz-division at the Illinois School of Music, on the Board of Directors of the Percussive Arts Society and, last but not least, was the recipient of the 2002 Humanitarian Award from the International Association for Jazz Education. He wrote several instructional books such as Talking Drums, Be Our Guest (co-authored with Ray Brown), Rhythm Analysis and Basic Coordination (Copenhagen, 1977), The Sound of Brushes, and Rhythm Brought to Life and has two instructional videos out, Jazz Drumming and The Essence of Brushes.
VIII) Beyond …
What else is there? The IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), the 2002 Danish Jazz Awards and an induction into The PAS (Percussive Arts Society) Hall of Fame. Although he resided in Copenhagen, Denmark, he could often be found traveling extensively in North America and Europe, leading his own groups and heading gigs as a featured artist. You could find him educating the next generation(s) of drummers at clinics and seminars all across the globe and, most importantly, you were able to see him live regularly, especially in Scandinavia.
The man who so often integrated himself so well into any setting in order to not be unduly noticed was – to many – truly a giant of jazz music of the past 50 years, a man who did not only help shape jazz, both traditional and modern, but also shared his knowledge with new generations and, I’m sure, a man who continued to do so up until his death in 2010.
As Oscar Peterson once stated in an interview, “Ed Thigpen was a reflective yet complete percussionist. He wasn’t really a drummer, he was a percussionist. He had that feeling all the time that it wasn’t just drums that he was sitting at. He sees his drums as a complete, not instrument, but orchestra. Whatever he wants it to be. Ed Thigpen has a touch on the drums that you seldom hear. Jo Jones had that same thing.”
Yep, the man was that good, and better.
On a last personal note, it was my biggest wish to one day get together with Ed again in person, for an hour or two, to talk jazz with him and have a cool “Tuborg” in some smokey or smoke-free jazz club anywhere in Europe. I would have picked up the tab, for sure. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Still by means of other media we were able to stay in touch off and on and I still have the “Oh, it’s you! Those were exciting times, weren’t they!” mail he sent years ago when we started conversing again.
“Ed Thigpen was a reflective yet complete percussionist. He wasn’t really a drummer, he was a percussionist. He had that feeling all the time that it wasn’t just drums that he was sitting at. He sees his drums as a complete, not instrument, but orchestra. Whatever he wants it to be. Ed Thigpen has a touch on the drums that you seldom hear. Jo Jones had that same thing.”
“I was listening very carefully to Ed Thigpen with the Peterson Trio. There were two albums in particular: ‘The Trio Plays’ and ‘Night Train’, both on Verve. Those two albums just killed me.”
“Ask Cobham to name the drummers who inspired him while he was developing his craft and he reels off an impressive list: Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Stan Levey, Kenny Clarke, Louie Bellson, Gus Johnson, Don Lamond, Grady Tate, Connie Kay and Ed Thigpen.”
“So that ruins what I feel about jazz…those heavy drum solos and that shit. I’d much prefer to hear somebody like Ed Thigpen (drummer with New York session group Stuff, and featured on innumerable hits) take a solo. I mean, that’s what it is. I’d much rather hear that than the jazz/rock thing because it’s blowing an aspect of jazz that I really like…the level where you can snap your fingers to it and you can groove to it. You can do anything to it.”
“I’ve had many wonderful teachers and mentors, including – my first drum teacher, Billy Flanagan, to Gary Chaffee, Alan Dawson, Ed Thigpen, Jim Chapin, Fred Gruber, Pete Magadini, and Efrain Toro. […”> In my suitcase I carry a practice pad that I can strap onto my leg, an Ed Thigpen “Brush Up” brush practice pad, a metronome and some lightweight dancing shoes that I wear when I play.”
“He comes back and forth to the United States all the time and I was lucky to catch him when he was in New York. Ed Thigpen has been out there for a very long time. When I asked him to play drums on my date, I pulled on his tasteful expression of rhythm.”
Three On Three: Ed Thigpen, Jeff Hamilton, And Peter Erskine On Playing ln A Piano Trio:
“Hamilton and Erskine both credit Ed Thigpen as an important influence through his pioneering work as a member of The Oscar Peterson Trio from 1959 to 1965.”
“Free For All”:
from the Organissimo forums: “The most startlingly outstanding acquisition, though, was the Thigpen side Out of the Storm. This contains some amazingly great Clark Terry playing. It’s one of those things you listen to and just crack up, it’s so good. He does a solo on mouthpiece only that transcends “schtick”. Thigpen, Herbie, Burrell, Ron Carter and Clark. Can’t go wrong w/that band. Plus, I got Ed Thigpen to sign my copy.”
Note: This is a modified and slightly updated repost of a profile I published years ago on a site that has since gone the way of all things digital … up into extremely thin digital smoke.