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January 31, 2024IM -
Name a style of music, and Chester Thompson of Locals 257 (Nashville, TN) and 47 (Los Angeles, CA) has probably had some experience playing it. For example, he was a drummer with the jazz fusion band Weather Report, and from there moved to the completely different job of touring drummer for Genesis. “Oh, and in between, I did a run of the LA touring company’s production of The Wiz,” he adds with a chuckle, sounding a little bemused by the versatility of his résumé.
It does seem a little crazy to be able to move smoothly between such disparate styles, but Thompson—who lives in Nashville and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in 2008—can’t imagine his life any other way. “First of all, I love all music, absolutely all of it,” he says. “I’ve never been a purist. Motown, James Brown, rock, jazz, you name it. If I had to play the same kind of music all the time, that would actually be harder for me.”
Thompson says he loves everything he gets to play precisely because he thrives on the sheer variety. “I’m especially lucky to get to do this in Nashville, of all places. We have so many different styles in this town. I’ve even played some country.”
His wide-ranging taste came early. Thompson was raised in Baltimore, where someone gave him a toy drum at five or six years old. “It was pretty loud in the house, so I’d play it outside, and people came to listen,” he says. Later in life, his mom showed him a letter he wrote in fourth grade that pretty much outlined his whole career. But unsurprisingly, he adds a disclaimer. “I thought I was going to have a total jazz career. I had no idea I’d wind up in a rock band beating the heck out of the drums.”
But that was much later. In elementary school, he learned to play the flute and read music. At age 11, he began focusing on the drums, taking lessons with a professional jazz drummer from whom he learned his rudiments. Thompson says his lessons in high school were mostly jazz-related. He counts drummers Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Art Blakey among his early influences.
“I would listen to them play, and play along with their records, and they gave me an idea of what I wanted to do,” he says. The independence of playing jazz was quite different from the kind of music he heard on the radio in those days. He made good progress and started playing in clubs at the tender age of 13.
“I was at my drum teacher’s house one day playing along with some albums, when someone called him about a gig,” he recalls. “He was about to decline. Then, he suddenly put his hand over the phone and asked me if I wanted to do it.”
Even at 13, Thompson remembers that he couldn’t wait to play in front of people. “My teacher loaned me his drum kit for the gig. After the first week, I got my own kit.” However, there was that age thing. He attempted to tackle the problem by drawing a mustache on his upper lip with an eyebrow pencil. On his way out the door after the gig, however, he remembers someone working at the club calling out to him to tell him his mustache was running.
Earning respect from his older musical peers at the club was an easier hurdle. Thompson says that came about simply because they liked his playing. “As with anyone, your playing speaks for itself.”
Cutting his musical teeth in Baltimore provided many opportunities to grow. “It’s a good town to learn to play in,” he says. “There were never less than two jam sessions a week in town with good players, experienced guys who would point you in the right direction.”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, a series of gigs led him back to Baltimore to study music at a community college, while building a name for himself as a session drummer. Then, in 1973, Thompson auditioned for Frank Zappa. He wound up staying with Zappa’s band for several years, which he says was a challenging period because of the difficulty of the music and the amount of rehearsal time.
Leaving Zappa in 1975, he met with the bassist in Weather Report, a longtime friend, who invited him to jam with the band. They hired him as their drummer after that. “My best memory of my time with Weather Report was the freedom,” he says. “The worst thing you could do on that gig was repeat yourself. We might play the same songs, but never the same way twice. With Zappa, I learned how to play all the notes. With Weather Report, I had to learn which ones to leave out,” he laughs.
After Weather Report, Thompson’s career path went in many directions. He played on LA recording sessions and did the stint with The Wiz, where he met his future wife. Then came the invitation from singer Phil Collins to tour with Genesis. “At first, that kind of playing was completely foreign to me,” he says, recalling his early days with the band as the biggest adjustment he ever had to make, musically and especially culturally. “They didn’t understand that ‘that’s bad,’ which I said a lot, was American slang for something that’s actually good.”
Thompson toured with Genesis from 1977 to 1992, appearing on several albums, as well as playing on Collins’ post-Genesis solo tours and the solo projects of other Genesis band members. The years since have included a tour with the Bee Gees and performing and recording as drummer for Santana.
Lately, writing music has featured in his activities. He has several albums to his credit, many with his own group, the Chester Thompson Trio. His latest recording project, Wake-Up Call, is a product of the COVID-19 pandemic. “A group of us started out just jamming together, and then we began co-writing. I sent several minutes of my playing for them to work with, most times just laying down a groove, which was fun because I didn’t have to fit into anything. It blew me away, different from anything I’ve ever done. They wrote around what I sent. We did that eight more times, and suddenly we had an album.”
As with his playing, writing music involves versatility and adaptability. Thompson credits a surprising source for his ability to be a musical chameleon of sorts: dance. “In Baltimore, we had a theater like New York’s Apollo. From an early age, I was seeing live shows. I would listen to the drummer and try to transfer his style, be as authentic as I could with it. But I also learned that, if I could see the dancing that accompanied the music, that always unlocked something deeper.”
After all, explains Thompson, early jazz was dance music. “You could watch old videos of people dancing to swing and big band. I also loved to dance, and I would apply that feeling to the music I was making.” Of course, he notes, live music back then was segregated on TV. “But once a month you’d get to see Black kids on TV dancing.”
His transition to playing rock also involved dance. “The feel was more metronomic than the stuff I was used to doing,” he says. “So, I stuck my head into a club and watched them dance to Genesis, and it suddenly made sense, musically.” Thompson recalls once playing a Genesis song that was quite simple, and Collins told him it didn’t have the right feel. “I asked him what he wanted, and he said it should feel like walking. I realized that I didn’t grow up walking like that. I had to leave out the swagger.”
That exchange brought Thompson to another realization: “If you’re going to play different styles of music, you have to respect the culture they’re coming from.”
Thompson enjoys sharing what he learned over the years, though teaching came later in life. He is quick to point out that most of what he has done was self-taught. “I was reluctant to teach because I was afraid I wasn’t doing things right,” he explains.
For years, he wanted to teach one of his sons, but he thought it would be awkward to have lessons at home. During his son’s second year in college, his drum instructor left. “The head of the college asked if I’d be interested in teaching. And really,” Thompson adds with a laugh, “it was the perfect dad job: teach your kid, flunk him if he fails, and get paid for it.”
Finally teaching formally, he says he fell in love with it. “I didn’t realize, though, that it would involve mentoring as much as teaching. Part of the job is making sure they get pointed in the right direction.”
Telling his students about the AFM is part of that direction. “When I joined the union at 18, that was a proud moment of my life,” he says. “The headliner of a show coming through Baltimore knew about me. They asked me to audition. But someone had a funny feeling about the gig and asked the union to look into it. The local president found out that the music director on their last gig had disappeared with the payroll. I also found out they were paying less than minimum scale, and realized I wasn’t being offered a fair deal. So, I declined and went back to college. That was my very first encounter with the AFM.”
Thompson praises the Nashville local. “They are proactive about reaching out and supporting all kinds of music,” he says. “When I first came here it was mostly country music and not much else. Since then, I’ve done sessions with the local president, and it’s a great musical environment. So many world-class musicians in a relatively small city.”
When his own students ask him about the AFM, Thompson shares his own stories about having union protection. “Tennessee is a right to work state, but I always advise them that AFM membership will help them get to the next level in their careers, especially right out of school,” he says.