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Reggie and Mardra Thomas prepare musical farewells

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 14, 2011 - It's a chaotic scene in the Edwardsville home of Reggie and Mardra Thomas, as a pack of young grandkids buzz up and down the stairs from the kitchen to the basement, cajoling their grandparents for snacks and anxiously awaiting an upcoming afternoon swim.

In addition to dealing with their energetic grandchildren, the Thomases are preparing for a series of concerts this Friday through Sunday at Jazz at the Bistro and the Wildey Theatre. These may be extra special because they are billed as farewell performances for the musical couple.

After more than 20 years at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville as a graduate student and faculty member of the Jazz Studies department, Reggie Thomas is moving on to Michigan State University.

He has accepted a position on the faculty of the Jazz Studies department at the campus in East Lansing, where he will work with longtime musical compatriot and noted bass player, Rodney Whitaker.

So in addition to fun with the grandkids, hurried rehearsals for this weekend's concerts, days and nights are also filled with packing up their house for the move to Michigan in two weeks.

Amid all that, there are also moments of reflection, as they recall more than two decades of musical memories wrapped up in Edwardsville, East St. Louis and the entire area.

"It's a move that is definitely a new challenge," says Reggie Thomas as he sits in his living room. You have to be open to making move, and I know that working with Rodney at Michigan State is something that I just couldn't pass up. But there will always be a place in my heart for the SIUE jazz program - and the musical community here."

Thomas grew up in East St. Louis and graduated from Lincoln High School in 1983 during the early years of the tenure of acclaimed educator Ron Carter, who brought the jazz program there into the national spotlight. After attending Western Illinois University for his undergraduate degree in music, he came to SIU-Edwardsville in 1990 to get his master's. Thomas then joined the SIUE Jazz Studies faculty, where he has spent the past 20 years teaching and helping build the program's growing reputation.

"The Jazz Studies program at SIUE didn't even start until the late 1970s," says Thomas. "But now we have two big bands, a jazz vocal ensemble, a guitar ensemble and usually about six combos each year. And I'm really proud of the level of musicianship that the graduates of our program have achieved - not just in jazz, but in all styles of music as they have moved on to professional careers."

In addition to his role as a teacher, Thomas has made invaluable contributions to the area music scene through his talents as a pianist, Hammond B-3 organ player, composer, arranger and bandleader. And as he looks back on his years playing music here, Thomas recalls how important it was for his musical development to learn from older more experienced players who willingly shared their experience with him.

"I learned such an incredible amount from backing up singers like Mae Wheeler and musicians like Willie Akins, Freddie Washington and Daryl Darden," says Thomas. "They were great about allowing younger musicians to work - and pick up valuable experience with them. It's something I'll always remember - and something I try to do as well as a teacher and now as an experienced musician."

Mardra Thomas has also made memorable contributions to the area musical tradition as a vocalist - working with her husband as well as in the long-running educational presentation, "The Jazz Story," which has been performed for many years at the Sheldon Concert Hall for school groups. Like her husband, Mardra also readily acknowledges how much she has learned from experienced singers and musicians.

"It was through gracious vocalists like Jeanne Trevor that I learned how to become a better singer," she states. "And that really made me want to do the same kind of thing with students who came to the Sheldon. It's wonderful when you have that opportunity to plant a musical seed."

This weekend, Mardra and Reggie will present two very different farewell concerts at venues in St. Louis and Edwardsville. On Friday and Saturday, they will be featured with bassist Zeb Broskovich and drummer Miles Vandiver - both with deep ties to the SIUE Jazz studies program - in a tribute to the music of Stevie Wonder.

And on Sunday afternoon, the Thomases will be joined by Vandiver and SIUE Jazz Studies Director and guitarist Rick Haydon in a concert showcasing Reggie Thomas' skill on the Hammond B-3.

"These are two very different musical performances," explains Reggie. "The bistro sets have been booked for some time, and the Wildey show came about recently. So we didn't want to do the same thing at both. It's going to be a full weekend of music, and it will be fun. But it will be bittersweet, too."

Reggie and Mardra have already performed together in East Lansing at the Summer Solstice earlier this summer, and anticipate continuing their musical collaborations in the Michigan area. And Reggie Thomas concludes the interview by making sure St. Louis area music fans know that he and Mardra plan on returning here to perform when opportunity permits.

"It's funny," says Reggie with a chuckle. "The people at the Bistro told me that now that I'm in Michigan, they can book me on their national artist schedule. So I'm definitely looking forward to coming back to play as a touring artist!"

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who has long covered the area music scene.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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