Peabody Conservatory jazz director Gary Thomas passes a milestone this fall with the long-awaited start of Peabody's degree program in jazz. As player and teacher, the 40-year-old tenor saxophonist certainly seems up to the job. He has assembled a cutting-edge seven-member faculty (including himself) and expects to have seven to nine full-time jazz students. "I've been teaching classical majors--a lot of students are interested in improvisation," he explains. "I did get a few people to jump ship [to jazz]."
After playing locally for several years, including a lengthy stay at Henry Baker's Closet in a band led by drummer and high-profile lawyer William Murphy Jr., Thomas left town in 1984 to join drummer Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition. A year or so later he got a call from Miles Davis and played with both Davis' and DeJohnette's bands steadily for about six months. Forced to choose when the groups simultaneously went on tour, Thomas picked DeJohnette, staying with him for another nine years, with occasional side gigs with Davis.
A formidable technician with a triphammer tone, the saxophonist led and recorded with his own band during the '90s and finished off the decade as a member of guitarist John McLaughlin's group. "The students want the teacher to be able to do what he's trying to teach them to do," Thomas observes dryly. "I liked being a [band] leader at times. I'm sort of the same thing at Peabody. But being the leader of two things at the same time doesn't work." So he has put his own career on hold for a while to concentrate on his work at the conservatory.
The jazz faculty he recruited includes some big names in new jazz--saxophonist Greg Osby, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, and bassist Mike Formanek. Thomas' degree program represents official recognition of jazz at Peabody, which has only paid lip service to it for years. This time, Peabody's commitment looks like the real thing, and the school has the right man for the job.