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Earma Thompson Jazz Pianist

Earma Thompson Jazz Pianist

Date Posted: July 14 2009

Written By: Steven Dollins

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Chicago pianist Earma Thompson passed away on today July 14th. There will be more information regarding memorial services as they become available.

Below we have re-published an article that Sirens Records president Steven Dollins wrote on Erma when she was honored with the 2008 Captain Walter Dyett Lifetime Achievement Award.

The jazz world has lost a great musician.

Re-Published from Chicago Jazz Magazine September/October issue 2008

Earma Thompson is being honored with the 2008 Captain Walter Dyett Lifetime Achievement Award by the Jazz Institute of Chicago. Eddie Johnson, long-time tenor sax player from Chicago, is the other 2008 recipient of this award. Earma Thompson attended DuSable High School in Chicago, where she was classmates and friends with Dorothy Donegan, Johnny Hartman, Von Freeman, and many other musicians who created the vibrant Chicago jazz scene. Through her marriage to drummer Marshall Thompson, Earma befriended and often accompanied the dominant Chicago jazz musician's of the past fifty years. Despite being recognized by other musicians, Earma’s graciousness and humility have kept her from achieving the wider recognition she deserves.

Earma Thompson studied piano with Mabel Sanford Lewis, organist and pianist at Ebenezer Baptist Church, at 8 or 9. Earma played at Sunday school and Junior Church. Much later in life, Earma discovered that Ms. Lewis also taught John Young, another talented Chicago jazz pianist, at an early age.

It's fitting that Earma Thompson receive the Captain Walter Dyett Lifetime Achievement Award since she attended DuSable High School where Walter Dyett was the famed band leader and music teacher. Earma graduated in 1939, a year early due to taking extra classes. Looking back at high school, Earma said Captain Dyett was a mentor and disciplinarian. She said, "Some of them [students], they really needed what he had to give them. And looking back they knew it too now, you know. Because you had people like Gene Ammons, he was in there. Johnny Griffin. They were in the band. Jimmy and his brother Morris Ellis. Von and George Freeman. He had some great people and he helped them realize their potential cause like I said he didn’t take no foolishness you know. He got down to business and give you work. I'm sure everyone benefited that knew him. Looking back, they all realize it now. They thought he was sort of tough."

Although, Earma played piano, she was never in Walter Dyett's famed band. However, she worked with Captain Dyett during rehearsals for the Hi-Jinks, DuSable's annual musical show. Earma sang in the special voice choir under the direction of Mildred Bryant Jones. The same choir that Johnny Hartman was in. Although Earma's connection to Captain Dyett was through the Hi-Jinks, she said, "He'd see us every day. During the school, down the hall, going in the band room sometime when they weren’t rehearsing. We all knew each other. That's what was so nice about that school."

The Hi-Jinks was an event that showcased the incredible talent at DuSable. It also provided students with opportunities to be discovered. A lot of students left school early and joined bands; Earma talks about Johnny Hartman and Johnny Griffin leaving school early to join bands.

After high school, Earma studied classical piano at Herzl Junior College, on Chicago's west side, and the Chicago College of Music, at Jackson and Wabash, upstairs from Lyon & Healey.

It wasn't until after Earma met Marshall Thompson, her future husband, that she started to play jazz. Although Marshall attended DuSable, they did not really know each other during high school. They met each other because they lived near each other on South Michigan Avenue; Earma lived at 4450 S. Michigan and Marshall at 4441 S. Michigan. She explains how she met Marshall and interestingly enough, also how she got introduced to jazz, "So one day Eddie [Marshall's brother and trumpet player], Marshall, and Lank Keys [tenor player and later an arranger for Billy Eckstine's band] … come by together by the house just to say hello and I was on my porch. They just stopped. They was talking. And then Eddie, Marshall's brother, says you ought to hear her play the piano, she plays real good, and Marshall's says yea. He [Lank] told me where he worked 43rd street which wasn’t too far. He said come by tomorrow night and come sit in with us. I said, Sit in with you? Yea, he said all you have to do is comp. And I said I don’t know the songs you all play. So he said you know "Blue Skies". I said yea, well he said play that. He said just comp and I didn't know what that meant. You know what it means to say comp don’t ya?

I didn't, I say comp? So he said yea. He said where do you live and I said right there. He said I'd come by your house tomorrow and show you how to comp. And then come by and sit in with us. And Marshall was with them. I probably didn't say okay, I probably looked at them with my eyes coming out of my head. Oh, the next day I was sitting on the porch and Marshall come by hisself and looked at me so we spoke and he said did you learn how to comp? And I said what is he talking about. I said what? [thinking to herself] I thought Lank Keys said he was going to come by and teach you how to comp. [telling us what Marshall said] I said I didn't see him. So anyway, we started talking like that and he said you want to go to the show. And I don't know who was there, they had stage shows at the Regal just about every week. I said I don’t care. That's the way we got started."

During the 1940's, Marshall had an act with Clarence Allen, called Peck and Peck. They toured and performed music, dance, and comedy prior to big band performances by Duke Ellington and Erskine Hawkins. It's thrilling to hear Earma talk about seeing Avery Parrish, pianist for Erskine Hawkins, perform "After Hours" sitting backwards on the piano stool. After Peck and Peck broke up in 1950, Clarence Allen moved to California where he still lives today, Marshall started playing drums in a band with his brothers, William, a pianist, and Eddie Jr., on trumpet. Once they started getting gigs, they’d encourage Earma to play with them. Earma reminisced, "You know how I am; they had to really beg me."

Earma did not play jazz professionally until after she married. She initially learned jazz by listening to other musicians, listening to records, and also from learning new tunes from sheet music. She accompanied Joe Williams at the Cotton Club, prior to Williams joining Count Basie's orchestra, and Billie Holliday at Partners at 58th and Prairie in a basement.

Earma's piano playing swings but she also has bebop chops. She credits Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore for helping her make the transition from swing to bebop: "When I got to the Cotton Club and met John Gilmore, and Clifford Jordan, and all that bunch, and Tom Archie. Tom Archie [tenor sax player], he comes from Texas. He was very good. Most of those cats had bad habits. Tom Archie drank like mad but he could play. … They [Gilmore and Jordan] took me under their wings. Showing me this and helping me cause they saw I wanted to learn, and what they showed me I applied in my playing and for them it was a thrill. They appreciated it, whatever they told me maybe the next night when I come back out and play it so they were very, very, very nice to me. John Gilmore played tenor with Sun Ra and Clifford played tenor too. I know Clifford died up in New York. Clifford got in trouble. Most of those cats messed around. I never heard nobody say anything about John Gilmore. He loved Sun Ra. In fact he turned out to be Sun Ra's assistant in the band. He's gone too. I had a lot of fun with them and they were very, very nice to me. When I think back, I think they appreciated me trying to do what they told me. I listened to what they told me and so that way they always had something to tell me. "Try this chord here" or "don’t play that chord there" and I was doing all of that. I'm glad I met them. I got in their way and they got in my way."

Later in Earma's career, Penny Tyler asked Earma to play at Andy's, and Earma played there for many years with Sonny Seals and John Watson. In more recent years, Earma plays with Juli Wood, or John Brumbach, or Ray Bailey, or Teddy Thompson at various venues like Katerina’s. After Marian McPartland heard Earma’s solo recording "Just in Time" on The Sirens Records (, she said it was the best example of bebop piano she’s heard in many years and invited Earma on her National Public Radio program "Piano Jazz" in 2004. In the last few years Earma has also recorded "Blues for Earma Jean" with Juli Wood, Dennis Carroll, and Mike Schlick and "Madam Queen" with Ari Brown, John Brumbach, William "Bugs" Cochran, and Yosef Ben Israel for The Sirens Records (reviewed in the July 2008 issue of DownBeat).

Earma Thompson has played jazz professionally in Chicago for fifty-eight years. She knew, knows, and has played with every great jazz musician from Chicago. Some of those musicians' moved on to achieve stardom but Earma was always satisfied being supportive in the rhythm section and not drawing attention to herself. Earma Thompson justifiably deserves the 2008 Captain Walter Dyett Lifetime Achievement Award.

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