Reggie Thomas makes transition to lead NIU program

Reggie Thomas is not only filling the shoes of a predecessor, but a close friend and former teacher, as well.

Thomas, 49, is Northern Illinois University’s coordinator of jazz studies following former director Ron Carter’s retirement in the spring after a 20-year career there. Thomas, and his wife Mardra, a jazz vocalist, moved to DeKalb this year from Michigan, where he held his last position as the professor of jazz piano at Michigan State University.

Before his time at Michigan State, he was professor of jazz studies and director of black studies at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. He also has been a consultant for Jazz at Lincoln Center for the past decade.

Thomas sat down with reporter Jessi Haish to talk about his new position at NIU and what he looks forward to in the years to come.

Haish: When did this interest in music begin for you?

Thomas: I've known all of my life that I'd be a musician. I can't recall a time that I didn't know I would be a musician. I started with African drumming, at the time I was in first or second grade. Very much like the kids that come through the program, I went through school band programs in junior high and high school.

My predecessor here, Ron Carter, happened to also be my high school jazz band director in the early days of his teaching.

Haish: Did he reach out to you about this position?

Thomas: He did. He let me know he was going to retire and asked if I would have any interest in applying for the job.

Haish: So did you keep in touch after high school, then?

Thomas: Oh yes, we're best friends. We've worked together in many different situations.

Haish: How do you feel about taking on the position after him?

Thomas: Those are some awfully big shoes to fill. But one of the things I told the faculty here, is the change of directors doesn't necessarily mean change of direction. Ron built a pretty strong program and my taking over doesn't mean we're going to make any drastic changes to the program. There's a lot of things, a lot of relationships he's built that we will try to continue. There's a lot of good programming things that he's established, such as the jazz camp, that we'll continue.

There are definite things that I am trying to bring to the program as well, such as reinvigorating our entire jazz faculty in starting to perform as a jazz faculty. It’s one of the first things we’re doing.

Haish: What kind of a group will that be?

Thomas: We have four full-time faculty and that is the group we're referring to as the NIU Jazz Nucleus. We also have five additional adjunct faculty who will perform with us from time to time. [The name] refers to, since we are the full-time faculty here, we are carrying a share of the teaching duties and the program, that we are the nucleus of the jazz program. I don't want the jazz program associated only with my name, but with all the faculty, especially that core faculty.

We’re getting ready to start playing immediately. We’ll have our first convocation for our jazz students in October.

Haish: What do you like about music that keeps you doing it your entire life?

Thomas: I can't imagine not doing it. Music is a language that speaks to us unlike any other language. I tell students that if words could express what music does, then we wouldn't need the music. I practice and perform every time as if it's the last time I'm going to be able to do it because I think it's a real honor and privilege to get to do what we do, to make music, and to share it with other people. What music contributes to our community cannot be replaced.


If you go

WHAT: NIU Jazz Ensemble

WHEN: 8 p.m. Nov. 20

WHERE: Duke Ellington Ballroom, Holmes Student Center, 600 Lucinda Ave., DeKalb