The mood in and around Calahan Funeral Home on the South side of Chicago was at once somber, respectful, and celebratory. Outside the funeral home people smoked cigarettes, adjusted their ties, and traded their funniest stories of the deceased with each other, nodding their heads to everyone entering the building. Inside, I approached one of the ushers, exchanged pleasantries, asked each other how we knew the deceased, and picked up a funeral program. I briefly glanced at the booklet, folded it in half, signed the registry, and walked into the viewing room.
As I entered the viewing room, there were more attendees milling about, smiling, singing, and renewing old acquaintances. I caught the eye of Yoko Noge, the Osaka-born blues singer who moved to Chicago so that she could learn the blues properly; she saved me a seat next to her and pointed out where the family of the deceased was seated. I weaved my way through the crowd, getting ribbed by musicians who had never seen me in a suit and tie before, and made it to the family section. I approached the widow of the deceased, who stood up, gave me a warm hug and a touch to the cheek, and, after I inquired about her condition said, "Thank you for coming. Thank you so much for coming." Her smile was one of joy and certainty that her life's mate was in a better place.
I went back to my seat and took the program from my suit pocket. The front cover read "Homegoing Celebration For Phillip Palmer Thomas: April 1, 1926-August 23, 2002." The title of the program spoke volumes about the reception, the attitudes of the attendees and the man who I came to pay my respects. This wasn't a funeral. It was a going home celebration. I and the other friends and family of Phil Thomas had gathered to ensure that he received a most fitting sendoff.
Phil was a drummer; one of the best I've ever heard. Phil had an unerring sense of timekeeping that could not be taught. He never dropped or lost a beat in all the time I knew him- even in the days when it was obvious that he was laboring on the throne. Phil was not one with whom casual listeners would be familiar. He was a working musician: if he didn't have a club or studio gig lined up, he supported his family as a public servant. But, oh, the musicians he played with: the Preston Love Orchestra, Charles Brown, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Nancy Wilson, Sonny Stitt, Stanley Turrentine, Buddy Guy, Shirley Scott, and the Freeman brothers- Von and George. He had a million stories about each of them, and other tales about studio gigs in the house band at Chess, Cobra, Columbia, and Vee-Jay Records.
I met Phil almost a little more than three years ago when I took on a job tending bar at HotHouse, the internationally renowned jazz and world music club in Chicago. Yoko's Jazz Me Blues Band has a regular residency there on Monday nights, and while these days the band is a popular attraction, in the late summer of 1999 they couldn't draw flies with either honey or vinegar. It frustrated me to no end that a band with consummate musicians and entertainers as Noge, restless bassist Tatsu Aoki, trombone player John Watson (a Basie Orchestra alumnus who's also an accomplished actor. Remember Uncle Pete from the movie "Soul Food"? That was John.), tenor monster Sonny Seals, and later alto master Jimmy Ellis could only get five people into the house every week.
Phil was low on the band's food chain to me. He only caught my attention because he wore a crisp white cowboy hat and spoke with the help of a larynx vibrator, the result of numerous operations that left him with a permanent chest tube to breathe. I allowed to myself that Phil was a decent enough drummer, but in Yoko's band you only needed to keep the beat steady. He had a ear for dynamics that he applied to each song he played. He was onstage simply to set the table for the other musicians to play over. I didn't consider Phil's wonderful sense of touch at the time one of the band's strengths. Then came the Chicago Jazz Festival that year. Every day I would get to Grant Park two, maybe three hours early so I could stake out a place in line and get a good seat in the band shell area close to the stage when the festival opened. It was a Friday night and George Freeman's trio was one of the early acts on the bill. Freeman was getting good reviews for his album "George Burns"
(still one of the best album titles ever) and the band shell was packed.
I was a bit surprised to see Phil and his white cowboy hat on the stage with Freeman and organist Chris Foreman. But then he started to play, hitting the skins with a fury and fire I never picked up on when he played with Yoko, but he still kept that grooving pocket that he laid down with her. As volcanic a guitar player as George is, Phil was laying down a gauntlet that show, slapping down layers of cymbal runs, dive bombing tom rolls, crisp snare shots, and a booming kick drum that rattled the fillings in my mouth, daring Freeman and Foreman to keep up. In forty minutes, Phil Thomas had totally converted my sweat drenched self. I swore on that day that I would never underestimate a musician again.
The following Monday Phil lugged his kit out of the elevator and toward the stage. I popped open a Clausthaler non-alcoholic beer (his preferred drink) and told him about seeing the gig at the festival. He looked at me, raised his vibrator to his throat and said, "George was lagging a bit." Then he laughed.
Over the following months, as the band and I got more comfortable with each other, I got to know the band better. Phil loved to fish and sail- he was a past commodore of the Museum Shores Yacht Club. He loved his family. And he loved to joke around. Because of the chest tube, Phil used an economy of words, but he had a razor sharp wit that only seemed to get better after he lost his voice. Between sets we would joke around at the bar and someone would say something that just begged for a one liner. Phil could always crack us up. I think it was because he had those extra two to three seconds to think about what he was going to say.
In 2000, Phil started a revolving door routine of hospital stays and gigs. Yoko was just starting to get some positive word-of-mouth among the Chicago swing dance community; that had developed into a loyal audience that still attends every Monday night to this day. On days when Phil was in the hospital or too tied to play some of the dancers would come up to me and talk about how the fill-in drummers always felt the need to make their presence felt on stage by over-playing. They knew all along what took me a month to figure out: nobody could keep a groove like Phil Thomas.
When we received the phone call from Yoko on August 26 that Phil had died over the weekend, most of us were shocked but not really surprised. We knew that the hospital stays were more frequent than not. John Watson had taken to hauling Phil's cymbals into the building and making sure that he was ready to go when it was time to hit the stage. Breaks between sets would get longer as Phil spent more time in the restroom catching his breath. But when he got behind the kit, none of that mattered. Every Monday night I got a front row seat to see a drummer whose sense of time was more accurate than an atomic clock. Yoko called him her "uncle" because that's what he was like to her and those of us who cared about him.
Phil Thomas was one of the toughest, most caring men I ever had the pleasure of knowing- a man of few regrets and untold rewards. As John broke character at the funeral, wiping away tears from shade-rimmed eyes, and poured all his grief and joy into his trombone, I realized that Phil was indeed going home. Going to a place where thoughts become words become actions become memories. Where voices aren't needed because eyes and smiles are loud with passion and reward. He was a husband, a father, a musician, a teacher, and a friend. To me, he was simply Phil: a man who always wore a snappy hat, smiled lightly, always had a kind word to say, and never complained that I didn't have Equal for his coffee.
And that's probably something he'll let me know about when I'm ready to go home, as well.