Coaching the cats

High school graduation is right around the corner. And you can imagine that many students are going to be happy to be done with school, but I think there are some high school musicians who are going to miss their good thing: The Albemarle High School Jazz Band. I recently caught the AHS Jazz Band performing their middle school show, and not only can the young musicians play, but the kids and band director Greg Thomas are clearly having a ball. Drummer Stephen Rouse, who is a senior, performs a solo with 10 things volunteered by the audience: pens, books, a shoe. At one point in the show, four tuba players get their own section. And the band cooked up a 1970s funk jam over which two members stepped up and rapped the words to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” first using the poet’s words and then creating their own updated version. The middle school kids ate it up.

Thomas was born to a music teacher father in New York City. He says that he was lucky to have a cellist prodigy for a brother, which meant that he got left alone. Thomas’ dad became chairman of the VCU music department until 1980, and Greg studied there, getting his master’s degree in music education. He spent a few years at Walton Middle School and took the job at AHS in 1993.

Since then, the band has consistently been winning awards. They have won the JMU Jazz Festival several years running, and they regularly come in second in the Chantilly Jazz Invitational, which includes all of the D.C. area high school jazz bands. The band’s performances are a mix of musicality, great repertoire, and sheer enthusiasm.

The show I saw recently had great playing throughout, and there were two distinct highlights. One was the Robert Frost hip-hop. The other was a rendition of the glorious Luiz Bonfa tune “Black Orpheus.” Thomas explains that Robert Jospé and Kevin Davis had come to play at AHS and that the show was recorded. Graham Doby, a ninth grade drummer, stayed home sick a couple days during the winter, and while he was at home he did not watch TV. He transcribed the intricate drum solo between Jos and Davis, which the AHS Jazz Band has inserted into their performances.

That is the kind of dedication that Thomas gets from his kids. “I don’t get that kind of performance without the lessons that kids take from John D’earth, Craig Jennings, Angela Kelly, Kevin Murphy, Paul Nibbe,” and other very good musicians around town. “The guys in the jazz band show up ready to play.” Three of his players are graduating next month and going on to study music in college. But some of them, like his first trumpet player, is a National Merit Scholar and headed to Brown. “Some of the kids do everything—music, sports, academics—and they try to do more.”  

But Thomas is clearly the spiritual center. When soloists return to their seats, everyone gets a high five from their bandleader. The band is so popular under Thomas’ leadership that only 25 percent of auditioning students make it in. Several years ago, Thomas won a regional Phi Beta Kappa award for Teacher of the Year. But Thomas says, “There are so many good teachers. If it were up to me, I’d always give it to a special ed teacher, because that is a whole different job.”

An AHS teacher recently said to me, “When a student comes from Greg Thomas’ class, you definitely know it. They are so inspired and positive.” Thomas says, “My job is to create a vibe. I love my job. Teaching is a little bit performance and a lot of improvisation. There are days when you have to crack the whip to get things done, but every day is so much fun. The kids are so engaged. So I just show love for the kids and the content.”

Although it is common to hear complaints about teachers’ salaries, Thomas says, “Secretly, I think they are insane to pay me to do something I love this much.”

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