The jazz pianist Thomas Reese was an established artist on the Dallas/Fort Worth music scene when I first met him in late 1966. I'd heard him perform with the Julius Hemphill Quartet, which participated as the intermission band at a concert by the Ornette Coleman Trio. This was my first hearing of alto saxophonist Hemphill, who led his group through a set of standards, played with fire and creative spirit equal to that of the headliner's more adventurous free jazz. Hemphill's bassist Louie Spears was familiar from having heard him with the Red Garland Trio performing at the Arandis in Dallas. The drummer's identity is less certain in my memory, and the sidemen weren't identified during the concert or on the printed program. It was possibly Saul Samuels or Chester Freeman. I would soon leave western swing to pursue my dream of playing jazz, so the opportunity to hear this group was an unexpected treat, added to this unusual Fort Worth booking of Ornette by his sister Trudy Coleman. In hearing the pianist Reese, two things relating to my own musical development were immediately clear: First, I realized immediately that I still had much work, or "woodshedding" to do. Second, I felt that attaining the degree of artistic proficiency I heard in the playing of Thomas Reese was within my grasp, given that I was quite determined to find my way into this exciting genre of music. But I didn't meet him that night, and hadn't yet learned his name. All I knew is that he played really well, with a natural sense of swing, rich left-hand harmonies and an unusual rolling type of rhythmic-melodic invention in his right hand soloing. I'd not heard anyone quite like him, even though he seemed to me very comfortable in sort of a Wynton Kelly bag, for lack of a more precise description. Anyone close in spirit to W.K. was alright in my book!
Within a few months after the Coleman concert, Reese came out to a weekly jazz jam session where I was playing with the Adrian Watts Trio. I'd been hearing Adrian talk about a pianist whom I should hear and get to know. As soon as I saw Reese walk in the door, I recognized him as the pianist I'd heard at the concert. I remember some things about that night so clearly, especially sitting at a table with Reese and how easily we became friends. He was into the hippest of jazz: "Do you have that Booker Little side Out Front?" Then his response to my affirmative answer: "Yeah man, that's a beautiful side." Within the same conversation, "Yeah I want to hear more of this NEW THING!" He was referring to the avant garde free jazz movement in New York, inspired by Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. Their adherents included Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, Paul Bley, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray, Henry Grimes, Bill Dixon, Carla Bley, Don Pullen, Milford Graves, John Tchcai, Roswell Rudd, Marion Brown and many other adventurous and innovative artists. Sonny Rollins and especially John Coltrane were among the few well-established jazz artists to welcome the free jazz movement. I kept abreast of the New Music (another name for the "New Thing") by mail-ordering recordings that could seldom be found in the retail record stores. My desire to play jazz was not limited to the bop and post bop which I was eager to learn, but also extended to the music of those young musicians rebelling against the expressive limitations they perceived in previous types of jazz. Learning of this same interest in my new friend was most refreshing, because I heretofore hadn't known anyone who shared my taste for avant garde jazz. From this first encounter with Thomas Reese, I felt that we were kindred spirits.
Thomas became a frequent participant in the Sunday jam at the Escape Club on Fort Worth's West Freeway. It was the only such open session for jazz musicians in Fort Worth at that time. The Flamingo Club on Evans Avenue had a fine organ trio (Hammond B3, guitar and drums) but pianists and bassists were therefore not part of the Flamingo's scene. Reese really needed the chance to keep active and our gig provided that, although he was accustomed to playing with musicians far superior to most of us at our Sunday set. Sometimes, Reese would play Adrian Watts' set of drums, and I would get to play with him. Reese had a happenin' thing on drums, and I felt inspired, never intimidated. The reason I didn't feel intimidated is because already the sense of real friendship was strong and although I truly looked up to him, it was easy to relax in his company.
I invited him to come visit me and check out some of the newest sounds from the avant garde. Reese was receptive to the idea and a series of visits followed, sometimes separated by many months. Typically, he'd call from the bus station downtown. My gigging schedule left my days free, so whenever he called I was on hand to provide his ride. During the course of more than a dozen years, Reese had day jobs, some of which didn't last very long. There was one period, however, when he remained on the same "day hang" for an extended time enabling him to buy a car and to feel more independent. From his very first visit through all those that came later, it was a rewarding educational experience for me to simply hear his comments on the artists and their music. As a collector of LPs I literally had them in rows, standing propped up against a wall. He'd look through the albums slowly, carefully reading the pertinent info. Sometimes he'd make no comment, but often he did, and the sight of some would earn an exclamation of excitement! It was through this routine that I would gradually learn something about his associations with other jazz players. It was only upon seeing the name in a personnel listing that Reese would acknowledge his ties with heavyweight jazz men. He'd point to a name and begin..." This stud here is a player, I knew him in St. Louis..." He would fill me in on their musical activities and perhaps add some other observations. In addition to his obvious affiliation wih Julius Hemphill, I learned in this manner about his link to Ronald Jackson (later known as Shannon Jackson). Reese held the Charles Tyler LP on which Jackson had recently made his recording debut. Reese referred to Jackson as "Roundhouse", a nickname known only to insiders. On another occasion he became excited when seeing his friend John Hicks listed as pianist on a Sonny Simmons record. We listened to the whole album, much to Reese's obvious enjoyment. The trumpeter Lester Bowie, just then beginning to make a name for himself in conjunction with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, would visit Thomas Reese while in Fort Worth for short periods of time. Reese himself had once played trumpet, and on one Sunday afternoon brought it with him to my house where I recorded us playing the old standard "Blue Moon". The acoustic bass was another instrument he'd played in the past, but it was the piano Reese had settled on, and when he played the piano at my pad, you can believe I listened. He was adept at using spread-out left-hand chord voicings when I relied on close-voiced chords. Hearing him do this encouraged me to start striving for more variety in my playing...all to the good! I never officially took lessons from Thomas Reese, but he was a mentor to whom I'm indebted. My record collection served as a "lending library" for my friend, and I didn't hesitate to let him take as many LPs home with him as he wished. Often there would be a dozen or more. I never worried about not getting them back, even though I treasured them. Reese always returned all of my records, and always in the same condition as when they left my house.
Long after the Escape Club jazz session had become history, I'd still get to hear Reese play in different contexts. I enjoyed hearing him in a trio setting, especially when in the company of bassist Charles Scott, or his brother Nathaniel. The better the other musicians were, the more uninhibited Reese played. One night he brought Julius Hemphill to my house. It happened to coincide with a time when my brother was at home. Jerry played acoustic bass, I had a snare drum and cymbal for my pacification (and probably the others' irritation!) while Julius wailed on the alto and I heard Thomas playing some of those dark chords I immediately recognized as familiar voicings of pianist/composer Andrew Hill. The best I ever heard Reese play was in the 1970's when he had a regular gig three nights a week at The Recovery Room in Dallas. I think it was structured so that Reese played on Red Garland's nights off. The line-up was Marchel Ivery, tenor saxophone; Thomas Reese, piano; Charles Scott, bass; Walter Winn, drums. It is likely that James Clay frequently sat in with his friend Marchel as they often liked to do the two-tenors thing. I heard Reese with this group and realized I had never before heard him really inspired, with his chops up. Only a steady gig with primo players can bring out this wondrous and energetic free-wheeling creativity. I've said to many musicians, Thomas Reese could not be touched when he was "on". Of the numerous times I heard Reese play in different settings with various musicians, it was indeed only a precious few times that I had the privilege of hearing Reese perform up to his full potential. It was one hell of a natural phenonenom, awe-inspiring to those of us who witnessed a ferocious storm of spontaneous music.
Maybe it's because Fort Worth is like a small town, but Reese and I would happen upon each other quite often. I was playing the Three Stags Club at a hotel called Green Oaks Inn, when I encountered Reese in the hallway on my break. He was headed for a banquet room where he was to play later that night. After my own gig finished, I hung out in the doorway next to the trio, and absorbed more about the Red Garland approach than I'd previously known. The upright piano was a bit out of tune, the room was noisy...and for whatever reason Reese stuck pretty much to the locked-hand style while I was there. The trio had a nice groove, but I don't recall if I knew who the other players were. I believe the bassist was Clayton Mitchell, whom I was yet to meet. I also had gigs playing bass (I had owned a Kay upright since 1964, and began seriously trying to play bass in the late 1960's). On bass I worked with pianist John Pointer's Trio at the Club Malibu. Actually it was the drummer's gig - his name was Monte Gillium. We played other clubs, including Boozie's Lounge, where Reese strolled in one night. He played two or three tunes, at Pointer's invitation. There was another haunt in the black community where Reese and I played regularly on Sundays, with me on bass. The name has left me, and so have the names of places where we played only one time. My bro Jerry was on a few of those gigs with Reese, the club names and dates are now far beyond recall.
At some point Reese was actually with a "commercial" funk-type band. He played electric piano with Six Feet Under, and although I never heard the group, my brother had occasion to hear them and confirmed that it was a good group of the type. I certainly did hear Reese on keyboard at several different night spots. After I had married, Kitty learned of the Bob Stewart Trio playing a gig not far from our home. Again in a hotel club, we went to hear Reese with the trio, and he sounded good on the Fender Rhodes piano. Reese was among my subs at Sardines, where the house piano was a Yamaha grand. I remember him coming by to sit in and when he turned the piano back over to me the impression I had, following what I'd just heard from Reese, was that my playing sounded mechanical and sterile. Another lesson...I resolved to work harder to avoid falling into that trap.
Years later Reese and a lady came by Sardines one night, sat at a table and listened. At break time, he introduced me to Elise Wood, a flute player and friend of John Hicks, who had been booked into the Caravan of Dreams. I implored Reese to play something. Time limitations, however, dictated they couldn't stay very long: Reese and Elise had hurried over to my gig between the two nightly shows at the Caravan of Dreams. Ms. Wood was complimentary of my playing and I was flattered at the thought that they'd actually come to hear me play, being that she was in town with Reese's famous friend, direct from New York City. I recalled how Reese, many years prior to this night, had educated me about John Hicks, who was destined to earn his stellar reputation in the jazz center of the world.
I haven't talked about Reese's demeanor. He was an unusual cat and he was unusually quiet. I'd seen him in white clubs but also in some black clubs where few whites would go. He was much the same, a very reserved..almost shy but thoughtful personality. He had the "slow walk" down! I term it thus and I'd try to match his ultra-slow pace whenever we were walking together to or fro a gig site. I can tell you, his gait was - slow - to the extreme. He had a thin frame, often wore a coat and a groove fedora hat. When Reese was surprised at suddenly seeing an old friend, he had this loose dance-like body movement that seemed to radiate a joyful greeting: "Well look here!!" With a smile he'd speak, tagging that hip gesture: "aw man, good to see you... how've you been?" Obversely, whenever confronted by a beligerent white man with a racist attitude, he could deflect the antagonism with his quiet but firm adherence to Black Pride. He refused to engage in counterproductive banter.
He could be funny. Some of his expressions were very humorous. Before I started my stint at Sardines restaurant, three other pianists had played that gig. The first was Al Malacara, a fine jazz pianist who was classically trained. Nevertheless, Al had his personal style of playing jazz that avoided the usual tell-tale signs of academia. On my first date with Kitty, I took her to hear him play solo while we had an Italian dinner. Sometime later, I saw Reese and related the experience of hearing Al suddenly go into a very modernistic, advanced musical excursion which left me without a clue regarding whether it was improvised or written or where in the hell it came from, as the harmony was very different. I told Reese: "Al played something that scared me!" Reese chuckled a bit with "oh yeah?" and was obviously amused. He brought up the subject months later. "You remember that time you said Al scared you? Yeah I heard him doing that too". Just like me, Reese seemed mystified at what he'd heard. Then he summed it up: "Yeah, man...Al's got some secret shit!" Later I learned that Al was playing Bartok, then it all made sense to me, and I'm sure to Reese as well.
One unforgettable night for Kitty and me was when a special engagement at the Caravan of Dreams jazz club brought together many alumni from Fort Worth's I.M. Terrell High School, an all-black school during segregated times, known for producing an unusually high number of formidable jazz musicians. On the stage that night, playing together in their hometown as they had not in decades, were Dewey Redman, Ornette Coleman, Prince Lasha, Charles and Nathaniel Scott, Charles Moffett and Thomas Reese. After closing my set at Sardines Ristorante Italiano, I rushed with Kitty downtown to the Caravan where we heard the last set, and caught a very inspired Thomas Reese at the grand piano, not playing it safe with Red Garland chords, but burnin' like nobody's business - true creativity in motion, which is what jazz is all about. Kitty became one of his biggest fans that night. Forever-after, whenever Kitty encountered Thomas Reese, she'd let him know how much she loved his playing. We saw him a few times in the eighties and a couple of times he came to visit in the 1990's. He told me that "Roundhouse" was moving back to Fort Worth. This was exciting news. Ronald Shannon Jackson had made an international name for himself in the decades since that debut recording with Charles Tyler in 1966. Jackson had played in New York with Charles Mingus briefly, then had longer stints with Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. He made recordings with all three of those titans of free jazz before striking out on his own and forging a successful career with his band, The Decoding Society, which played his original music.
Once relocated in Fort Worth, Shannon Jackson seldom played locally, but practiced routinely and rehearsed with various Fort Worth musicians. His name stature was such that he booked gigs overseas for a substantial fee, thus enabling him to make do with only one or two concerts a year. Reese was part of Jackson's band in the mid-1990's when they played a concert in London and recorded "Shannon's House" for Koch International. The CD has consistently been available since its initial release. Two of the recorded works are by Thomas Reese: Hymn to Mandella and Midnight Sermon. He is heard on keyboards alongside another talented Fort Worth performer/composer, the tenor saxophonist Rachella Parks.
While playing late one night at the relocated Sardines restaurant, my dear friend walked in and up to the bandstand. I eagerly greeted him with a hug, as it had been years since we'd seen each other. Reese was accompanied by another man, whom he introduced to me as "Roundhouse" Shannon Jackson. After my last set came to a close, I sat with them for a long, satisfying conversation. Jackson asked me what had brought me to jazz. I told him it was hearing a record of Wynton Kelly playing a blues called "Old Clothes". Mostly though, I listened to these longtime friends reminisce about jazz in Fort Worth during the 1950's, including a time when Ornette returned home from California and brought Don Cherry with him for a gig. Reese and Jackson were both in attendance. I had often heard Reese speak about a club called the China Doll, but this evening there were clubs mentioned I'd never heard of before. They recalled famous jazz artists coming through town, playing one club or another in the black community without the white public ever having a clue about the event. No advertising (outside the community) was necessary to fill one of the local joints where jazz was played. Reese recalled how he had reacted the very first time he heard a record by Thelonious Monk: "Man, I understood him right off!" I laughed because it seemed natural that Reese would groove on Monk at a time when many folks found Monk's music bewildering. Reese credited me with having introduced Albert Ayler's music to him, back around the time we first met. Ironically, Ronald Shannon Jackson was destined to become his drummer. We talked about Ayler. Jackson was certain a major biography was to be published within a year. The only one I am aware of (by Jeff Schwartz) had already been published online. The author's acknowledgements include Kitty and John Case because I supplied the author with a French recording of Ayler and Kitty translated the French liner notes into English. Jackson was not happy that the author hadn't tracked him down for a personal interview, but relied on information second hand...an article on Jackson that had appeared in Downbeat. I felt that Jackson had a valid point in saying that a biographer would be better served by talking directly with the people close to the author's subject. On the way out to the parking lot, Jackson chided me for not recognizing him on a previous occasion when he had come to the original Sardines. Perhaps I should have known him because I'd seen Jackson giving testimony at the funeral of James Clay in early 1995. What could I say? I told Jackon the truth: "I'm sorry man I didn't know it was you!"
As a result of this reunion with Thomas Reese, I began calling on him again to sub for me at the "new" Sardines (we'd relocated due to eminent domain having pushed the restaurant out of its original location). He subbed mostly on the solo piano nights, but also at least once with the trio on a weekend. Once when Jerry Case was flying into the area, I took the night off so Kitty and I could pick up my brother at the airport, then drive to the restaurant so the three of us could have dinner and listen to Thomas Reese. It was wonderful hearing him again, and it was some of the best solo playing I'd ever heard him do. He also seemed happy to be back into playing situations such as this restaurant offered. After all, it was indeed a jazz gig.
One winter night, Reese came out to see me, and I was on break when he walked in. We sat at the bar. He told me he'd just learned that he had a terminal illness. My heart sank when I heard his words. He said ever since the doctor gave him the bad news, he'd been "feeling a little queasy". We sat there together, not saying anything for a while until Reese began talking about musicians in his neighborhood and some distant relatives who were musicians. Some were names I was familiar with, others weren't. I was still learning from him, although much of what he said didn't fully register, or not enough to stay with me. After awhile he left, and when I came home to Kitty I had to share the saddest news that we would be losing one of the most soulful spirits among our friends. Rachella Parks and I decided to co-host "A Tribute to Thomas Reese" to be held at Sardines on Sunday, April 18, 2004.
In addition to numerous circulars we distributed to publicize the event, Ken Shimamoto's article in Fort Worth Weekly ("The Show") featured a photo of Reese along with a thoughtful write-up. I will quote the opening paragraph: "When Thomas Reese and Ronald Shannon Jackson were teenagers in the segregated Fort Worth of the 1950's, it was pianist Reese who introduced budding drummer Jackson to jazz in the form of a record by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. By the late 1970's, Reese was playing weekend gigs at the Recovery Room on Lemmon Avenue in Dallas with saxophonist Marchel Ivery and his quartet. It was fast company - Reese would occasionally relinquish the piano bench to Red Garland, a former member of the classic late-50's Miles Davis Quintet - but Reese was equal to the task, a player of deep feeling and impeccable swing."
Shimamoto's article goes on to cite Reese's bout with cancer, which rendered him unable to work and left him struggling to pay for health care. This was definitely a time to pay tribute to this largely unheralded but masterful jazz musician. Word of this event also was broadcast on public radio. Of course the circular was prominently displayed in windows and elsewhere at Sardines Ristorante Italiano, the most natural choice for a tribute venue. It's safe to say everyone who knew Thomas Reese was willing and able to help spread the word and eager to help in any possible way. Reese was much-loved and respected by everyone who knew him.
The guest of honor arrived with family members several minutes before the slated 5:00 PM starting time. They were seated at a long table close to the bandstand. It's doubtful that any other event in Fort Worth has attracted as many jazz musicians from the neighboring larger city of Dallas, a real indication of the high esteem in which Thomas Reese was held in the North Texas jazz community. On this occasion Dallas and Fort Worth musicians merged in a musical outpouring of love and support. Although Reese did not feel up to playing, the participants included pianists Roger Boykin, Frank Hailey, D.J. Sullivan, John Pointer, Joey Carter, Red Young and myself; bassists Bruce Mendoza, Brandon Nelson, Alex Camp, Kyp Green, Byron Gordon; guitarists Dave Marcus, Clint Strong, Keith Wingate; trombonist Pat Brown; multi-instrumentalist Chris White (trumpet & flute); trumpeter Freddy Jones; violinist Jennifer Bryan; tenor saxophonist (and co-host for this event) Rachella Parks with church musicians; tenor saxophonist Dave Williams; trumpeter Bill Atwood; drummers and percussionists Lamar Favors; Ron Thayer, Jaelun Washington, Daniel Tcheco, Duane Durrett, Don Sowell, Ahmad Medina plus vocalist Carla Norris-Hopkins. One very special moment for Thomas Reese was the presentation of "Father's Verse", a reading by his daughters Dwana Mishun Reese and Twyla Reese-Hornsby. The attendees also included the talented Toby Guynn, who made an audio recording of the entire event and Marjorie Crenshaw, truly Fort Worth's perennial "First Lady of Jazz". Marchel Ivery could not attend but sent a generous donation to assist with medical costs. Many, if not all of those in attendance filled the tip jar with cash and checks presented to Thomas Reese and family at the conclusion of the show around 11:00 PM. Some folks were surprised that Reese had managed to stay for the whole show. He was still strong enough to pose for numerous photos outside the restaurant. Reese expressed deep gratitude to everyone for their love and support.
Thomas Wesley Reese was born July 22, 1937 in Gladewater, Texas. His parents, Amos and Estella Wesley Reese, moved to Fort Worth when Thomas was very young. He attended public elementary school and graduated from I.M. Terrell High School in 1955. Afterward, Reese attended Lincoln University in Missouri. It was during this time Thomas married Faye Perry and they had three children. Reese played music professionally for almost 50 years, eventually becoming known as the "Elder Statesman" of Fort Worth jazz musicians. Thomas Reese passed away February 10, 2005. Survivors include his wife Faye Reese, his son Derek, daughters Twyla Reese Hornsby and her husband James, and Dwana Mishun Reese, two grandchildren and one grandchild. Celebratory Services were held on a wet and dreary Wednesday afternoon, Febuary 16, 2005 at Saint Andrew's United Methodist Church on Missouri Avenue in Fort Worth. The Officiating Pastor was the Reverend Doctor Luther Henry. Musical performances were by Marjorie Crenshaw ("Come Sunday") and myself ("Someday My Prince Will Come"). Services included heartfelt testimonies from friends and associates. Particularly memorable was the testimony of vocalist Carla Norris-Hopkins. Other musicians paying their respects were John Pointer, Duane Durrett and Ronald Shannon Jackson. David Washington was there to represent both himself and his wife, the tenor saxophnist Rachella Parks, who had been hospitalized. I was left wondering about some things Thomas had told me regarding his interest in Buddhism. His personality, his whole character seemed to harbor the wisdom I associate with that eastern religion. I was in fact under the impression he had become a Buddhist.
As we stood outside the church, Marjorie Crenshaw spoke to me about Thomas, and how she'd known the Reese family since the early 1940's when Thomas was a small child. Every Sunday the Crenshaws, Reeses and numerous other families attended Saint Andrew's United Methodist Church where the funeral had just taken place. Marjorie could remember Thomas playing outside the church building, more interested in the fun of childhood games than in hearing the Sunday sermon. Marjorie's words gave me a deep sense of the continuity of these families, their longevity in terms of community, religion and culture. Burial of Thomas Reese was in the Garden of Paradise at Cedar Hill Memorial Park in Arlington, Texas.
Shannon Jackson: SHANNON'S HOUSE - Rachella Parks, Thomas Reese, others. Rec. March 19/20, 1996 Koch International CD 3-7834-2H1
Carla Norris-Hopkins: HELLO, I REMEMBER - Reese on 2 selections w. Alex Camp, Roger Boykin, Andrew Griffith. Issued 2005 YESIAM CD
Dewey Redman in Concert with Thomas Reese, James Gilyard, Duane Durrett. Recorded in Houston, Texas 1995 cassette transferred to CD-R
Thomas Reese Trio with Charles Scott & Larry Reynolds live recording, date unknown. archival recording - cassette transferred to CD-R
Thomas Reese & Johnny Case: Reese on trumpet at the Case home - probably early 1970's. archival recording - tape on reel transferred to CD-R