The Bob Thompson Quartet to open Esbenshade Series Sept. 16< < Back to
“One of the great nights of music that I’ve attended was there,” Thompson said. “It was the Branford Marsalis Band, with vocalist Kurt Elling, it was a wonderful night of music. I just happened to be in town for another event…I stayed and went to that and I was just thrilled to be in that audience.”
On Friday, September 16, Thompson will step out of the audience and onto the stage as The Bob Thompson Quartet opens the 2022-2023 Esbenshade Series at the Peoples Bank Theatre (222 Putnam Street). The annual series brings performers and speakers to downtown Marietta each year free of charge.
“It’s such a wonderful series and just being a part of it is just really an honor for me and my band, because they’ve had some really great musicians there,” Thompson said.
Thompson, who was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame 2015, will be joined on stage by friends Meredith Dean Augustin, a jazz singer from New York and Dwayne Dolphin, a bassist from Pittsburgh.
“It’s going to be a fun time, we’re all looking forward to playing music together again,” Thompson said.
Audience members will be some of the first to hear new music that Thompson wrote during the pandemic, as the quartet will be playing a mixture of originals and standards.
One of the pieces that Thompson wrote during the pandemic lockdown is called “Freedom Ring,” it celebrates Juneteenth being made a national holiday. Thompson also wrote a piece called “Morning,” which evokes the feeling of that time of day and the hope that it brings.
“Musicians, artists, we have a kind of a responsibility to make people feel better, to bring a little love to the situation, most of all to bring people together, and I find that music is something that does that,” Thompson said.
Music has been part of Thompson’s life for as long as he can remember. Growing up, he sang in a church choir and listened to his mother’s eclectic record collection, everything from the New York Philharmonic, to Duke Ellington and Hank Williams. Many of his friend’s fathers were professional musicians and Thompson remembers helping out his neighbor who was a blue’s musician set for shows.
At age 15, Thompson and a few friends formed a doo-wop group called The Chanters, with Thompson singing bass. They signed a record deal with King Records and produced eight singles and one album. They had a few hits that received radio play in the mid-Atlantic region.
“That was a thrill, it was just great,” Thompson said. “At that time record stores used to have speakers outside of the stores to draw people in. We passed a record store and they had our music blasting out onto the sidewalks. That was an exciting time.”
In the mid 1960s, Thompson moved to West Virginia to attend the then West Virginia State College to study music. He started off with trumpet, but switched to piano after seeing the need for one in a five piece jazz band on campus.
“I realized that was the instrument that I really loved, because of the ability to play harmony and play cords, that’s what really drew me into the piano,” Thompson said.
Thompson credits a large amount of his music education to his experiences outside of the classroom. West Virginia State College didn’t have a jazz program while he was studying, so a band director took Thompson to a nightclub called “The Crazy Horse Cafe” that regularly hosted jazz musicians.
“That became like night school to me. There were lots of great musicians who would let me sit-in, and I remember there was a piano player that would stand behind me and call out chord changes to me if I didn’t know the song,” Thompson said. “The older musicians were very generous with their help and their time, so that’s something that I try to do is pass that down to younger musicians.”
During this time Charleston, WV was a common stop on what was known as the “Chitlin Circuit,” an informal tour of venues that hosted Black musicians. Many of the venues sold chitlins, which are stew or fried pig intestines, and other soul food items.
“Black musicians used to come and play at some of the clubs and they were all after-hours places. Jazz was a big thing and I got into that scene and I learned a lot from some of the great players who were around at that time.”
Because of this, Thompson said that West Virginia is home of his musical roots – a big part of why he has made his home in the Mountain State over the last several decades.
“In some areas there’s such a strong (music) scene that you have to conform to fit into. In West Virginia, there was never that pressure to conform to any particular style so I was able to really develop my own and create things as I saw them,” Thompson said.
Thompson has been able to carve out his own music identity in the state and across the nation. Two of his jazz albums have reached the Top 25 in Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart and he’s been featured on BET. He’s also hosted Joy to the World, an annual holiday jazz show on Public Radio International for the last 30 years.
Perhaps most notable in the region is West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Mountain Stage, which is broadcast around the country. Thompson is the house pianist for the show and has been involved since its beginning, he said that the program allows his music to reach people who he would normally through the jazz industry, as the program focuses on a variety of music genres.
“It’s just a wide mixture of music and I get to hear it all. I just sit here and it all comes through,” Thompson said. “And I get to play with different people too. I believe all musical experiences add to your understanding and the music that you create,” Thompson said.
Music isn’t the only thing that has kept him in West Virginia though. Thompson thinks of the area as his “oasis.”
“I like going out places and traveling and playing, but it’s always nice to come back here. I like this part of the country, I like the lifestyle and the quality of life and the beauty of the place.” Thompson said. “It’s the people, it’s my relationships with people that’s really the reason why I love this area.”
The Bob Thompson Quartet and Meredith Dean Augustin will open the 2022-2023 Esbenshade Series at Marietta College at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 16 at the Peoples Bank Theatre. Tickets are free and available at peoplesbanktheatre.com. Find the rest of the 2022-2023 Esbenshade Series schedule at this link.