Remembering jazz great Willie Thomas

Death has silenced the brass trumpet of island resident Willie Thomas. The internationally recognized jazz artist, educator and preacher of the gospel of bebop, died in his cabin in Olga on Saturday, Feb. 16, three days after his birthday.

He was 88.

“Dad was exactly where he wanted to be and pleased with himself for reaching 88,” said Wendy Thomas, his daughter and owner of the restaurant Wild Island in Eastsound. “We had a few friends over to celebrate his birthday, enjoyed some Key Lime Pie – his favorite – told stories and shared laughs. Friday night, I stayed with him, and Saturday morning, he left about 11 a.m.”

Wendy says her dad was ready.

“His pace had slowed for the last several months, and we had arranged for hospice care. But I think it was when we rolled the bedside commode into his room that he figured it was time to go. Wille T out!” she said.

Willie, who grew to become an internationally recognized jazz performer and instructor, began life in New York on Feb. 13, 1931. Following the tragic motorcycle death of his father when the boy was a mere 18 months old, the family landed in Florida. There, under the Orlando sun, Willie started playing trumpet at 10 years old and quickly warmed to the sounds of jazz and all things bebop. Known as the “Harry James” of Orlando High School, he won the Horace Heidt Talent Show in 1947 with his arrangement of “Blue Skies.” After high school, Willie played with the Third Army Band, where he met and became friends with pianist Wynton Kelly. It was a friendship that propelled him into the hot New York jazz scene of the 1950s.

“He lived an interesting and robust life,” Wendy recalled. “It was a life that occasionally clashed with the prevailing norms of the day.”

After a decade in the Big Apple, Willie returned to Florida in the 1960s, where he continued to perfect his bebop style. He recorded under the Mark, Vee-Jay and Atlantic Record labels, and blew horn with the likes of the Woody Herman Orchestra, MJT+3 with Frank Strozier and Bob Cranshaw, the Slide Hampton Octet with Freddie Hubbard and George Coleman and singer Peggy Lee.

Willie’s love of playing jazz was matched only by his love of teaching the art form, a passion that brought him across the country to Washington state in the early 1990s. He spent the next several years traveling, teaching and writing work that presented jazz as a language, accessible to anyone with the slightest interest. “Jazz Anyone …? Play and Learn Blues and More, Book 2 B Flat Edition,” Alfred Music Publishing 1996 and “Jazz Anyone…?”Alfred Music Publishing 1998 and accompanying CDs provide the curious and the impassioned student with “lessons and concepts, licks and mini-charts … that can help any student acquire invaluable improvisation skills.”

His students on Orcas remember a man with patience, wit and an uncontainable enthusiasm. Accomplished violinist Paris Wilson, a student of Willie’s while she was in elementary school, learned much from the bebop preacher.

“Willie introduced us to jazz and the art of improvisation. We learned the scales and the melodies and then how to pick and choose the notes to play. I will miss his sense of humor and his musical wisdom,” she said.

Cierra Lutz also studied with Willie and, like Paris, was an early member of the group “Fiddle in 4.” She remembers his spunk and a philosophy “that one could be a musician without being forced into a particular style.”

A fierce advocate of the genre, Willie was often available for island fundraisers and musical showcases. During a fundraiser in 2010 for the Funhouse Commons and a performance by 32 members of the Funtime Blues Band, Willie’s joy for his art was evident.

“I’ll have to say, that when I hear those young voices singing the ‘Hello Blues’ for the first time, this 79-year-old heart still leaps for joy,” he said at the time.

Wendy believes her dad will be remembered for his tenacity, his woodpecker-like determination, his creativity and a love of jazz that led him to write his books of instruction and create videos with Andrew Youngren, both of which culminated in the website

“His ability to translate that passion into an online presence that is accessible by anyone, anywhere speaks volume to the man and his legacy,” Wendy said. “He was a brilliant jazz trumpet man who lived for music and preached the gospel of bebop.”

Willie leaves behind three former wives, Jerri Winters, Barbara Meyer and Valerie Sanson; children Mary Rainer of Ft. Pierce, Florida, and Wendy Thomas and son-in-law Oliver Groenewald of Olga.

A memorial celebration will be held sometime this spring; a concert will follow in the fall.

Contributed photo                                Willie at age 11 in 1942 with his mother and grandmother in Florida.

Contributed photo Willie at age 11 in 1942 with his mother and grandmother in Florida.