BECKLEY (AP) — If Bob Thompson’s 30-year career as a professional musician has taught him anything, it’s that there are really only two kinds of music.
“Good music and bad music,” he says in an interview highlighting his career as a professional musician.
The path he’s followed around the globe to perpetuate his preferred style — jazz — has remained remarkably anchored to West Virginia. In return, the state, an unlikely one if ever there were to adopt jazz as a favored son, adopted Bob Thompson long ago.
Thompson grew up in New York and arrived in the Mountain State as a trumpet player accepted into West Virginia State College to study music.
“I was going to be a band director,” he says, explaining his more practical Plan A.
As it turns out, Plan B, making a career of music, was the better option. It wouldn’t come how he expected it or even upon the instrument he expected, but it came.
There at West Virginia State, Thompson encountering a trumpet rival who could make talented musicians take second seat, Thompson explains in his online biography, “So I started playing piano, just so I could be in the band with him.”
What came next were years of polishing his skills at playing piano, Thompson’s forte, particularly jazz piano.
As a student, Thompson was already taking the lead in developing bands with places to go and gigs to perform. His 1960s Modern Jazz Interpreters group carved significant inroads into an enduring music career, taking him on tours to Algeria and Nigeria and throughout Europe.
“I did get tired of traveling and being on the road and that’s why I came back here to play in this region, in Charleston. I get to go out and play music and then I get to come back home. It’s much nicer that way.”
Like classic interpretations of the music he’s always hung his hat upon, Thompson is himself a standard, especially in Charleston. Talent has certainly played a note or two in earning that distinction — but also has old-fashioned hard work.
“There were times when it was difficult to find gigs and then there were times when it wasn’t. I played for many years at a club at the top of the Holiday Inn in Charleston as part of the house band.”
That trio did regular shows — six nights a week — sealing Thompson’s influence on an earlier generation.
“I played for them. I played for their children. Now, I’m playing for their grandchildren. What has helped me a lot is the younger musicians in my band. The band keeps evolving. If you don’t grow, then you die. That’s the important thing.”
His band is called The Bob Thompson Unit and it was one of the featured groups at the recent kick-off of the Simply Jazz & Blues Festival in Uptown Beckley. Other members of the group include Doug Payne on saxophone, John Inghram on bass, drummer Tim Courts and Ryan Kennedy on guitar.
Thompson eagerly agreed to play in Beckley to support fellow musician Doris “Lady D” Fields’ efforts at growing a new fan base for jazz and blues in the mountains.
Thompson and his band also played at last year’s inaugural festival in Summers County. He, along with organizers, is hoping for a better showing at the new location.
“I thought (last year’s) was a great effort. It’s difficult starting anything new. Festivals I’ve been a part of, like Charleston’s Wine and Jazz fest and Multifest, I was around at the first of those events. I remember the crowds were sparse back then and now they’ve grown into huge events.
“Starting out, it’s important to not be discouraged and to push on — people will come and if you have a quality event it will be successful,” he says. “It just takes time and patience.”
Thompson is perhaps best known as the house pianist for West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s popular radio show “Mountain Stage,” an unexpected appointment at a time when his only intention was to help out.
“Before that, I was a frequent guest on the show. Then the pianist left and I planned on filling in until they found someone.”
That was 23 years ago.
The only thing was, Thompson’s genre was jazz — Mountain Stage held true to its Appalachian roots many times, but had also developed a reputation for drawing renowned musicians from around the world and across the genres. The onus for adaptation would be on him. Luckily, to Thompson, there wasn’t “jazz and everything else,” but there was good music and bad music, and both Thompson and Mountain Stage had an appreciation for good music.
“One of the things I’ve loved about being a part of Mountain Stage is that I’ve earned an appreciation for all styles of music. To me, it’s all about feeling.”
At the end of the day, still fully into his music career, Thompson isn’t amazed he’s been able to survive on music without being a school band director. He’s humbled.
“I was able to grow and learn by playing in this area because I had an opportunity to play. You don’t get to play unless people get back out to hear you. I credit the audience as much as Bob Thompson Unit.”