Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Thigpen, Ed (Edmund Leonard)

The title of drummer Ed Thigpen's 1991 solo album, Mr. Taste, aptly sums up his career. His calm and elegant confidence at the kit, especially with brushes, infuses immediate sophistication to any project. Whether on his long-standing gigs with Billy Taylor, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald or his freelance work in Europe, Thigpen has always demonstrated elegance in rhythm.

Edward Leonard Thigpen was born in Chicago, Illinois on December 28, 1930. His father, Ben Thigpen, was a professional jazz drummer who worked in Andy Kirk's band for close to twenty years throughout the 1930s and 40s. Even though Ben was based in Kansas City with the Kirk group, Edward spent his childhood years with his mother in Los Angeles.

Thigpen attended Chicago's Thomas Jefferson High School, where he performed in the school's jazz band under the tutelage of renowned music educator Samuel Browne. Other notable jazz alumni from Thomas Jefferson High School include Dexter Gordon, Chico Hamilton and Art Farmer.

Upon graduating from high school, Thigpen briefly studied sociology at Los Angeles City College before leaving to pursue a career as a professional drummer. At age 19, he moved to St. Louis, where his father was living. Thigpen's first major gig was playing with the regional touring band led by Floyd 'Candy' Johnson, which at the time also included Jack McDuff. When Johnson's group broke up after he accepted the tenor seat in The Count Basie Orchestra, Thigpen decided to relocate to New York City to further his professional career.

Shortly after arriving in New York, Thigpen found himself playing at the Savoy Ballroom with Cootie Williams' rhythm 'n blues group. Thigpen toured with the group throughout 1951 and 1952.

Thigpen then entered the army, working as a drum instructor and a drummer for the Eighth Army Band in Korea for close to two years. Upon his return to New York, he performed with an increasingly wide range of jazz talents, including tours with Dinah Washington and Johnny Hodges, and local work with Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, Gil Melle and Toshiko Akiyoshi.

In 1956, Thigpen began playing with pianist Billy Taylor. He performed with Taylor on the 13-week educational television program, The Subject is Jazz, which focused on teaching a different style of jazz in each episode. Guests on the program ranged from Duke Ellington to Cannonball Adderley to Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. The Billy Taylor Trio, featuring Thigpen and bassist Earl May, also released two records in 1957 - The New Billy Taylor Trio and My Fair Lady Loves Jazz,the latter of which featured arrangements by Quincy Jones and appearances by Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Cleveland and Ernie Royal. Thigpen remained with Taylor through 1958.

At the beginning of 1959, Thigpen joined Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown to form perhaps the most revered incarnation of the Oscar Peterson Trio. The group stayed together until 1965 and can be heard on close to 50 recordings, which include Oscar Peterson Plays the Duke Ellington Songbook (1959), Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson (1959), which contained �In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,� Sound of the Trio (1961), Very Tall (1961), Night Train (1962), which featured "Things Ain�t What They Used to Be,� Canadiana Suite and Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One from 1964, which featured trumpeter Clark Terry.

The sensitive, quiet burn of Thigpen�s famed brushwork and the forward-leaning foundation of Brown�s bass playing made for one of the most well-developed drummer/bassist relationships in the history of the piano trio. Once asked to discuss the style of his longtime drummer, Oscar Peterson explained, �Ed Thigpen was a reflective yet complete percussionist. He wasn�t really a drummer, he was a percussionist. He had that feeling all the time that it wasn�t just drums that he was sitting at. He sees his drums as a complete, not instrument, but orchestra. Whatever he wants it to be. Ed Thigpen has a touch on the drums that you seldom hear. Jo Jones had that same thing.�

Upon his departure from the Oscar Peterson Trio, Thigpen became Ella Fitzgerald�s drummer of choice for many of her world tours from 1965 through 1972. In between tours with Fitzgerald, Thigpen relocated to Los Angeles in 1967, where he performed on many jazz and non-jazz records with artists including Oliver Nelson, Charles Brown, Peggy Lee, The Staples Sisters and Mahalia Jackson. During this period he also released his first album as a leader, Out of the Storm. The 1966 release featured an all-star cast of Kenny Burrell, Clark Terry, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter.

Thigpen had also become a renowned clinician and author during the early to mid 1960s. An endorser of the Ludwig Drum Company, Thigpen�s impeccable technique and gracious, soft-spoken demeanor made him one of the more effective clinicians in the jazz drum world. Thigpen and Ray Brown collaborated on a 1963 book entitled LBe Our Guest. Thigpen�s first book under his own name, Talking Drums, was released in 1965.

After completing his final Ella Fitzgerald tour with the Tommy Flanagan trio, Thigpen relocated to Denmark in September, 1972. He remains there to this day, and since the 1970s has flourished as a freelance musician, educator, and author based in Europe. In the early 1970s, Thigpen worked with Svend Asmussen, Helen Humes, Sylvia Vrethammer and Alice Babs. In 1974, Thigpen released Action/Reaction, a soul-influenced record with Copenhagen musicians. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s, he worked throughout Europe and only occasionally in the United States with Dexter Gordon, Thad Jones, Milt Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Zoot Sims, Johnny Griffin, and Toots Thielemans, among many others.

In 1977, Thigpen released his second book, Rhythmic Analysis and Basic Coordination, which he would later revise and re-release in 2000, under the title Rhythm Brought to Life � A Rhythmic Primer.

Throughout the 1980s, Thigpen worked mostly as a sideman, most notably with Monty Alexander, who is featured in a duet with Thigpen on �The Serpent,� Kenny Drew, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and Art Farmer. As the 1990s approached, Thigpen vastly increased the number of sessions he released as a leader. Some of these include: Easy Flight (1989), Young Men and Oldsin 1990, which featured Branford Marsalis, Terrance Blanchard, Roland Hanna and Rufus Reid, and of course Mr. Taste in 1991.

In 1998, Thigpen formed a long-standing group, Ed Thigpen�s Rhythm Features. Their first record, It�s Entertainment, featured pianist Carsten Dahl and bassist Jesper Bodilsen. In 2002, Thigpen released the group�s second record, Element of Swing, with the addition of tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano. Thigpen�s most recent group, The Ed Thigpen Scantet, released its first record, #1, in 2004.

Thigpen released another book, The Sound of Brushes, in 1999. Many consider it the ultimate educational guide to mastering the complex art of jazz brushwork. He has also released two instructional videos, Ed Thigpen on Jazz Drumming and The Essence of Brushes.

As an educator, Thigpen taught courses in jazz percussion at the Music Hogskolan in Sweden and the Rhythmic Conservatory in Copenhagen, the latter of which he still teaches at presently. Thigpen can occasionally be seen in Tootie Heath�s The Whole Drum Truth, a live historical program in which multiple classic jazz drummers perform standards entirely on drum kits. Ed Thigpen has signature drum sticks, brushes, and a brush pad designed by the Regal Tip Company. His line of signature ride cymbals, the Crystal Rides, is developed by the Sabian Cymbal Company.

Ed Thigpen defined a musical niche for himself the way few jazz drummers did. He was the first-call drummer when a refined, gentle style was desired. A master of brush work and a sympathetic improviser, Thigpen�s tasteful drumming appears on more than 700 recordings over the span of over 50 years. He is the recipient of the 2002 IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education) Humanitarian Award and is a member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.


As a Leader:

Out of the Storm (1966), Action-Re-Action (1974), Easy Flight (1989), Young Men and Olds (1990), Mr. Taste (1991), Its Entertainment (1998), Element of Swing (2002), #1 (2004)

Additional Recordings (Selected):

Gershwin Songbooks (Oscar Peterson, 1952), Grand Night for Swinging (Mundell Lowe, 1957), Chet Baker Introduces Johnny Pace (Chet Baker, 1958), Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson (Oscar Peterson/Ben Webster, 1959), Jazz Soul of Oscar Peterson (Oscar Peterson, 1959), Ella Returns to Berlin (Ella Fitzgerald, 1961), Very Tall (Oscar Peterson, 1961), Sound of the Trio (Oscar Peterson, 1961), Night Train (Oscar Peterson, 1962), West Side Story (Oscar Peterson, 1962), Canadiana Suite (Oscar Peterson, 1964), Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One (Oscar Peterson/Clark Terry, 1964), Live from Los Angeles (Oliver Nelson, 1967), Ella Fitzgerald and the Tommy Flanagan Trio (Ella Fitzgerald, 1969), Legend (Charles Brown, 1970), Blues for Harvey (Johnny Griffin, 1973), Two Loves (Duke Jordan, 1973), On the Sunny Side of the Street (Helen Humes, 1974), More than You Know (Dexter Gordon, 1975), Zoot Sims in Copenhagen (Zoot Sims, 1978), Eclipse (Thad Jones, 1979), Summer Serenade (Benny Carter Quartet, 1980), Teddy Wilson Trio Revisits the Goodman Years (Teddy Wilson, 1980), Manhattan (Art Farmer, 1981), Your Soft Eyes (Kenny Drew, 1981), The River (Monty Alexander, 1985), Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury (Dinah Washington, 1991), Mahalia Jackson, Volume 2 (Mahalia Jackson, 1992), In Sweden, 1958-1960 (Stan Getz, 1995)




Contributor: Eric Novod