Keeping jazz alive through the next generation

Willie Thomas has a simple goal: to raise the consciousness of jazz for the island’s youngest musicians.

“I want an estuary for our little jazz minnows, so they can stuff their gills with bebop and swim out to sea,” the 80-year-old trumpet player said.

Thomas is offering two programs for Orcas kids: “Jam Cats” for middle school students, and “Jazz Experience” for seven- to 10-year-olds. Jam Cats has been meeting in music teacher Lizz Hanks’ band room for the past three weeks, and Jazz Experience starts Jan. 25 at The Funhouse.

Thomas, whose career spans 45 years, played professionally in New York with jazz greats Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Peggy Lee, and more. He eventually left the city to settle in his hometown of Orlando, Fla., where he opened a music store and began writing music curriculum for schools.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize the urgent need for jazz curriculum suitable for school music programs,” he said. “My jazz materials proved to be the birth of a publishing company, ‘Jazz Anyone?’ Eventually my company was acquired by Warner Brothers, and my materials are still used in many schools.”

Thomas taught across the country and was active with the International Association of Jazz Educators. He was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 1994. He moved to Orcas in 2001 to be closer to his daughter, Wendy, and says he “laid low” for the first few years. He eventually played a few gigs, and developed a friendship with trumpet player Steve Alboucq. At his urging, Thomas taught a jazz clinic in Port Townsend, and says that’s what reignited his spark.

“These programs are my last hurrah,” he said. “I decided to put my hat on and do this again.”

He enlisted the help of Andrew Youngren and drummer Tony Morales to maintain a website,, which provides lesson plans and video for aspiring jazz players. Also on the website are videos of sessions with the kids and performances by Thomas. Click on the Orcas Funtime Blues Band link for the most recent recordings.

Thomas hopes that Jam Cats and Jazz Experience are the start of a long-term jazz program on Orcas.

“It’s about getting the consciousness elevated,” he said. “The kids deserve that. And this is a start. I hope it’s a beginning.”

The purpose of Jam Cats is to create a group of kids who can jam together. Thomas meets once a week with the students, and receives help from Alboucq, Morales, and sax players Emily Miner, Al Bentley, and Gregory Books. The kids practice and follow online lesson plans throughout the week. He hopes to move the program, which is free, to The Funhouse soon.

The 12-week Jazz Experience classes are designed to introduce the fundamentals. Experience playing instruments is not required. The classes will include singing, learning a variety of instruments, dancing, and performing. Twelve kids have already signed up, and there is room for eight more. Tuition is $75, but scholarships are available.

Both programs will culminate with a concert on May 5 at Orcas Center.

“The concert will be a showcase of what is possible here,” he said. “You don’t need hordes of kids to do this. You need 20 interested kids and you’ve got a program.”

Orcas Center is funding the performance, which will also feature numbers by Thomas, Alboucq, Miner, and the local band Orcas Horns.

“It’s important to pass this on, to keep it mainstream, to keep jazz alive,” Thomas said.

To sign up for any off the jazz programs, call The Funhouse at 376-7177.

Want to help provide scholarship money? Willie Thomas will have a booth in front of Island Market on Jan. 2 to raise funds.