Sticking With It

Here's a little secret that modern musicians across the globe have had to learn: Music begins with drums. That's right -- before you add voice, guitars, keyboards, horns or even bass, you gotta have drums. It goes back to our prehistoric days as a species. Did we strum a harp or toot a horn while we danced around a fire celebrating a huge kill? Hell no, we beat the drums.

With drums being the foundation of music, it makes sense that in Houston's jazz realm, Bubbha Thomas is himself a foundation. He began laying down killer beats for jazz acts during his formative days in the Fourth Ward; his father was a minister, and his mother was a piano accompanist in local churches. "She was the only one in the area who could sight-read music," Thomas says. "And it used to drive her crazy, because my father had no training but a great natural ear, and he would just play anything she played right back at her after hearing it just once. Oooh, that used to make her mad."

Thomas would later gain prominence in the jazz world as a master player, sharing the stage with the greats, including Eddie Harris and Stanley Turrentine. But he made his real bones as a bandleader. "Used to be a whole bunch of great bandleaders who were drummers," he says. "Guys like Art Blakey, Max Roach, Billy Cobham. People don't think of it that way, but it makes perfect sense. Any band is only as good as its drummer. A great drummer can make a mediocre band great...but a mediocre drummer can also make a great band mediocre."

His ability to mold mediocrity into greatness is what has made Thomas's bands a consistent training ground for Houstonian-cum-international jazz stars such as Kirk Whalum and Frank Lacey. But it's off the stage that Thomas has made perhaps his greatest impact. In the mid-'70s, he created the Summer Jazz Program, the Jazz and Poetry workshop and other courses designed to teach the fundamentals of the music to Houston elementary, middle, high school and college students. "People don't realize what's going on in Houston," says Thomas. "There's more jazz in the Houston school system than anywhere in the world."

Arts funding has always been difficult to obtain, something Thomas realized while trying to procure resources for his programs at school-board meetings. He found some pretty outrageous -- if creative -- arguments against arts education. "One guy at a board meeting wanted to know why, if we were expecting funds to teach jazz in school, why there also shouldn't be money set aside for possum races," he says.

The financial crush was resolved 14 years ago with the first annual Houston International Jazz Festival, conceived solely as a means of keeping the programs alive and healthy. Performers at this year's festival include Eddie Palmieri, Poncho Sanchez, Chris Botti and Brian Culbertson. The event kicks off this weekend, when Thomas will be showcasing material from his band's new CD, Love Ain't Enough. Onstage and off, from behind the scenes and from his set, Thomas continues to lead Houston's blossoming jazzers.

"People complain about the negativity in a lot of today's popular music," the jazzman adds, "but they don't ever talk about the alternative. And that's what I see as my job."

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Scott Faingold