Sir Charles Thompson, a jazz pianist of supple power who bridged the swing and bebop eras while performing alongside luminaries of both styles, and who helped compose the much-recorded bebop anthem “Robbins’ Nest,” died June 16 in a hospital near Tokyo. He was 98.
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Trumpeter Yoshio Toyama, with whom Thompson recorded in the 1990s, confirmed the death and said the cause was complications from colon cancer. The pianist settled in Japan in 2002 after living for many years in the Los Angeles area. He continued to play well into his 90s.PhotosShocking celeb deathsSee alsoSee more LI, U.S. obits
Once dubbed “the house pianist of 52nd Street,” the New York artery once known for its profusion of nightclubs, Thompson had been a jazz mainstay ever since he was “knighted” in the early 1940s by saxophonist Lester Young.
His stature on the musical vanguard was such that sax titans Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon played as sidemen on Thompson’s first recording as a bandleader, in 1950. He continued for years to oversee his own jazz combos, including a quartet in the mid-1950s whose phenomenal rhythm section included bassist Walter Page, guitarist Freddie Green and drummer Jo Jones.
A musician capable of fusing speed and precision - with a deceptively laid-back execution - Thompson thrived mostly as an accompanist. He was prominently featured on the thrilling “Hollywood Stampede” recordings of 1944-1945 in a band headlined by saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Howard McGhee. The selections, including Thompson’s solo on “Stuffy,” are considered formative in the development of the nascent bebop sound, with its challenging rhythmic and harmonic concepts.
For all his talent, Thompson was largely unheralded beyond the smoky realm of jazz nightclubs. Critics often felt the need to express his skill by comparing him to better-known pianists: He could be as spare and rhythmically taut as Count Basie, as propulsive as Art Tatum and as elegant in his playing as Teddy Wilson.
Thompson wrote or co-wrote several original compositions, most indelibly “Robbins’ Nest” (1947), a title that paid homage to the radio program of the same name hosted by media personality Fred Robbins.
Thompson shared credit on the song with saxophonist-bandleader Illinois Jacquet, who recorded a definitive version. First-rate recordings of “Robbins’ Nest” were also made by Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Claude Thornhill’s orchestra (with a haunting Gil Evans arrangement). Under an alternative title “(Why Have A Falling Out) Just When We’re Falling In Love,” with lyrics by Bob Russell, the song was recorded by the Mills Brothers, among others.
Charles Phillip Thompson was born in Springfield, Ohio, on March 21, 1918, and he grew up traveling with his father, a Methodist minister, on church assignments.
Thompson initially trained as a violinist but switched to piano at about age 6 after the family settled in Colorado Springs. As he later told the Colorado Springs Independent, the leaders of the city-sponsored band “made it clear that the violin was not an instrument for black kids.”
He mostly learned by listening to jazz records and was soon earning good wages at house parties. A turning point, he said, was the day in 1930 that the Bennie Moten jazz band came to Colorado Springs with Basie playing piano.
“I went to that concert because my father would only let my older sister go if I went along as chaperone,” Thompson told the Independent. “During a break, someone told Basie that I played, and he summoned me up on stage. I was only 12, but playing for Basie before that crowd really fired my interest.”
Thompson later played with a succession of well-regarded regional bands in the South and Midwest before hooking up with nationally known groups led by Lionel Hampton and Lucky Millinder. In New York, he accompanied rising stars such as trumpeter Miles Davis and also made an impression on Young during a week-long gig at Café Society in Greenwich Village.
As he told the Independent, “One night Lester turned to me and said, ’You’re a swingin’ cat, Charles. I’m going to give you a title. From now on, you’re Sir Charles.’ “
He also was an admired jazz organist, notably appearing on singer Jimmy Rushing’s 1960 album “Rushing Lullabies.”
With the rise of rock ’n’ roll, Thompson began to tour widely beyond New York and teamed with longtime collaborators such as trumpeter Buck Clayton and saxophonist Don Byas. He also played solo engagements, often in small clubs, and appeared at jazz festivals, leaning on a repertoire heavy on jazz standards whose melodies and structure were ripe or extended improvisational forays.
Survivors include his wife, Makiko. A full list of survivors could not be confirmed.
Toyama, the trumpeter, wrote in an email that Thompson had been in and out of the hospital since his last birthday. “Before he went back to the hospital for the last time, although he was very weak, he insisted he play piano for his wife Makiko, saying, ’This is for you, for this might be the last chance.’ He played for an hour, with much feeling in his playing.”