I used to study trumpet at a conservatoire. But I always wanted to play jazz. I mean I don’t want to be in an orchestra and count “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8… 100, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8…” Do you know how many times I’ve lost count?! Like where are we? You can’t say that in a 100-person orchestra… everyone’s like “shhhh”! And I’m like, no seriously, where are we? And they’re mean people… once I had a conductor throw his baton at me, coz I came in too early! That’s embarrassing… so yeah, I always wanted to play jazz.
Our afternoon with Andrew Thomas was one of the most entertaining, thought-provoking afternoons I have ever had. A jazz trumpet player, based in Brooklyn, New York, Andrew met us at the door with his Miles Davies t-shirt on, brought us into his kitchen and into his world.
Talking at an engagingly frenetic pace, and jumping from topic to topic, our interview felt more like short glimpses into a creative genius’ brain. I felt like I was peeping through the windows, and whatever I could see inside was so intriguing that I wanted to see more, but he was already onto the next piece of the puzzle, and off we went.
Andrew took up the trumpet in his teenage years:
At 15, you either think you’re THE sh**, like you’re amazing, or you think you’re a piece of sh**. There’s not much inbetween, because you’re trying to find yourself. I used to be like “I’m the man” – even though you know you’re not but you say it anyway, and someone tells you you’re not, but you’re like “Yeah, I am.” So I went through that with my first teacher.
My first lesson, I played for him. Then, you’re gonna love this, he gave me just the mouthpiece. He took away the rest of the trumpet and he said “you’re not gonna use this for the next six months” and I’m like what? He said everything you play, you must sing.
So now I come from a vocalist standpoint. A lot of instrumentalists play well technically; like they can play scales all day and all night. But I love the voice – I love Sarah Vaughn, I love Ella Fitzgerald, I love that sometimes the notes weren’t right, but then the question is, how do they get somewhere else from that note.
Andrew worked hard to get into a conservatoire:
I had to work twice as hard because I was in a music conservatory that I couldn’t afford. It was US$40,000 per year. I was working in the morning at UPS loading the trucks. So, my normal day was that I would be there from 2am and I would be there til about 8 o clock. Then I would take a two hour train ride, one way, to school, for my first class, and I’ve been up already for 8 hours, and everyone is like “I’m so tired”! and I’m like… you don’t even know…
Andrew’s creativity, coupled with dyslexia and ADHD, and his long days made it impossible for his to succeed in the rigours environment of the conservatoire.
Some days I would be able to sight read perfectly. But then, when I was tired and my dyslexia was bad, I really COULD NOT sight read. Coz it’s dots on lines, you know? I mean, it was bad… So I was frustrated at school. And I was frustrated with my job. I basically had a complete mental breakdown. And I was like, this is not what I wanna do…
Andrew left the conservatoire, with a lot of anger, a lot of pain, disappointment and questions. He went to Florida, and cut himself off from the world in some ways. He lived on the beach. He stopped playing music. He gained weight, lost weight, tried alcohol, drugs… but nothing filled the gap that music left.
When my father passed away, the music is what kept me, it became my centre. Everybody has a sense of music as therapy. Even if you look in the bible, it’s there. King Saul, he hired David to play the lute. And that developed a relationship between them. Music… isn’t just music… it’s not just notes that I play. Music changed my life, music gave me discipline. It allowed me to focus. And it makes me feel good, coz I’m always running at 100mph, I’m just that sort of person.
You see the way I talk, that’s exactly how I am. I’m like a puppy – I’m like hey that looks interesting, or here wow that’s looks interesting.
By chance, Andrew met John McNeil, a legend in the jazz world.
I was working at the gym. I would practice trumpet by myself, but I was so frustrated. And there’s this guy who I would see him come in. And I would sometimes help spot him while he worked out. And then I asked him his name, and I’m like “You’re John McNeil?!” This guy like wrote all the books for trumpet. He is down to the t about articulation, how to breathe; this is how Charlie Parker plays, this is how Miles Davies plays. He puts in a way that it’s not above you. He breaks it down and helps you understand.
He teaches jazz at a conservatory. All the things I wanted to know, he teaches! He says, “Andrew you’re a funny guy, I like you so much, keep your money!”. And I’m like, “I don’t have to pay you?!” We’ve created a cohesiveness. I’m just so fortunate to have that with John. He’s the friendship that I always wanted.
He helped me put it all together… I was like “I have all this stuff and I don’t know what to do with it. It’s making me crazy, I don’t wanna do this any more, I’m going back to the same frustrations.”
John simplified everything, when he brought me back to where I started, to the mouthpiece. At 30 years old, I said “what?! I’m getting the mouthpiece again? I have to do this all over again?” But then I realised, I did this already – that means it’s gonna go faster, I’m gonna be better; all the mistakes that I made, I’m not gonna make again.
And you know what I learned? I learned that I have a beautiful frustration.
I have the satisfaction of saying I made it work, I did what I had to do. That’s what I did with the music – it’s the relationship of it. You may feel frustrated but you love something so much that even though… like it frustrates you but it makes you a better person.
After we talked, we played. Andrew is good. He is really good. And he helped me to question my music, my writing, and why I make the choices that I do. He truly feels the music, understands, pushes and pulls and extends and draws it into something new.
He doesn’t perform much at the moment. He said he knows he can be unreliable: I don’t even own a cell phone! But he is concentrating on learning, growing and expanding himself as a person.
I don’t wanna make money from music. I don’t care… I could live under a bridge and eat sardines for the rest of my life and be happy. As long as I have music. It’s something that people can’t take away from you. I love music. If I don’t even have a trumpet I can make music, I can sit here and I can make music. I can drum rhythms. It might not be cool to you but it’s cool to me…