It’s no surprise that Omar Thomas has become an educator, arranger and composer of renown. Born to Guyanese parents in Brooklyn, New York, he pursued opportunities to play music like an athlete drawn to competition, taking up trombone in the fourth grade and writing original music by the eighth. In high school, he participated in the marching band and sang in the choir. “I was the kid who the director would ask to run a rehearsal if they weren’t around,” he says with a laugh.
Today, Thomas’ musical offerings shift comfortably between jazz and classical idioms, thanks to his broad exposure to multiple genres and a fervent desire to continually push the boundaries and blaze new trails.
In his early years at home with his parents, Thomas was exposed to a steady diet of classic soul, Soca, Calypso and Reggae that shaped his musical DNA. “All of that just kind of sat with me and I’m really proud that I was able to take that part of who I am and put it into my own music,” he says.
“When I first started writing,” he continues, “I was really drawn to chords and to harmony, and I think that’s why jazz and R&B were such strong entry points for me because they were doing things harmonically that really spoke to me. I just sought to explore that as fully as possible … I wasn’t thinking too much about emotional catharsis or diving deep into issues and topics in those early days; I was feeling the harmonies and was really inspired to dig down and learn more from them. I would hear something and say, ‘What is that chord? What is going on there?’ I’d want to work with that chord progression and understand how it worked and see if I could manipulate it for my own uses.”
Thomas would eventually shift his interests in musical styles to more formal settings. After studying Music Education at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, he moved to Boston in 2006 to pursue a Master of Music in Jazz Composition at the New England Conservatory of Music. While still a student at the conservatory, he was named assistant professor of Harmony at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He later joined the faculty at the Music Theory department at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and is currently an assistant professor of Composition at the University of Texas at Austin.
Thomas, like many artists, was deeply influenced by his musical heroes. For him, the real dynamic duo is Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. “They were always so ahead of their time,” he says, “and were so prolific and had a deep love and appreciation for all art; you could hear that in all of their music. They were always searching for something; they had really deep and unique things happening orchestrationally that were just decades ahead of their time.
“I’m also inspired by who they were … You look at these old pictures of the Ellington big band, and it was very much integrated and people were hugging on each other and loving on each other.”
Thomas remains impressed by Ellington and Strayhorn’s resilience to create in an environment that was, at the time, openly hostile to Black people. “It just seemed like there was such a positive spirit about who they were and the situations in which they’d put themselves, even though they had to deal with a segregated country,” he says. “They were in situations where members of the band couldn’t walk through the front door … Despite that, they were able to maintain their class and their inspiration and their talent and their effectiveness and their reach.”
Sometimes things come full circle. In 2019, the National Band Association presented Thomas with the William D. Revelli Award for his composition Come Sunday, named as a nod to Ellington, making him the first Black American to receive that honor.
The Black Experience can be painful and dark. In those moments, many turn to music for comfort and understanding. In 2015, Thomas was asked to write a piece of music to honor the nine victims of the mass shooting inside Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It proved to be a profoundly meaningful experience and a memorable musical journey.
Thomas’ first instinct was to say no. “It seemed like such a daunting task,” he recalls. But after receiving gentle encouragement from his father, he embraced the challenge and decided to title the piece “Of Our New Day Begun.” When Thomas learned that church members would be in the audience at the premiere, he realized that their attendance would help him in making decisions about how the piece should sound. “The most important thing to me was that they would hear themselves and their experience coming from the stage; to know that they were seen and they were loved and that this piece was about them.”
For that to happen, the music had to be authentic in its melodic and vocal presentation. To achieve this, Thomas used the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as a cornerstone melody, and instructed the choir director to leave the African American English vernacular in place, telling them, “Don’t teach the singers how to pronounce their T’s and their D’s, and how to make the vowels round, because that’s not what this is supposed to be.”
Inspired by trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s scores for Spike Lee’s films, Thomas decided to go for “something a bit cinematic.” He also wanted to make sure that there was a clear journey throughout the piece. “I had to think about what I wanted people to go through and how I wanted them to feel at the end of the piece specifically,” he says. “And so it made sense to end on the entire band playing the same note, growing and growing and growing and bringing back the stomping and the clapping as kind of one voice becoming many voices and the resilience in saying ‘this will not defeat us, nor will it define us.’”
Check out this video of the Dallas Winds performing “Of Our New Day Begun”:
Some of Thomas’ earliest and fondest memories are those of carnival parades on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, which he remembers as being “loud, joyful and colorful,” speaking poignantly of “flatbed 18-wheeler trucks with massive rigs of speakers blasting this music out to the point where it’s literally shaking your body, overwhelming you in the best possible way.” This experience would serve to inform him when he was recently commissioned to write a celebratory piece for the 75th Midwest Clinic, which came to be titled “Caribana” — an exploration of the Caribbean music of his youth that would serve to honor his family and heritage.
“For years I had been batting around the idea of exploring Soca and Calypso music in a symphonic setting, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that,” he says. The name of the piece is taken from the annual festival held in Toronto — the largest Caribbean carnival outside of the Caribbean itself.
“I built everything off of the groove. The rhythms had to be very loose and free and over the bar line, and then the harmony underneath had to have this folksy intention.”
Despite his strong grounding in Soca/Calypso, Thomas found the composition process challenging because he didn’t have any models for how to express those rhythms and emotions in a symphonic setting. Convinced that the piece had to be conversational yet timeless, he made the decision to rely heavily on percussion, known in this style of music as the “engine room.”
“I built everything off of the groove,” he explains. “All of the rhythms were derived from what was happening in the engine room,” which in this case included glass bottles to simulate the sound of a car brake drum being struck — an element that’s specific to Soca music — as well as cowbell, wood block, congas and bongos. “The rhythms had to be very loose and free and over the bar line,” he says, “and then the harmony underneath had to have this folksy intention.”
The experience, according to Thomas, forced him to stretch and grow as a composer. “Walking that tightrope from beginning to end was really difficult,” he reports, “but I’m extremely happy with how it turned out.”
Check out this brief excerpt from “Caribana”:
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Thomas continues to contribute to Black History, building a legacy for young black composers to follow. But this stretches well beyond any one particular month. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think Black History Month is as big of a thing in Black households because we live Black history every day,” he says. In Thomas’ view, Black history is celebrated year-round in how “the Black experience … helped to shape this country.”
Looking ahead, Thomas plans to focus on themes related to the Black experience that aren’t rooted in trauma and pain — to paint sonic tapestries in brighter hues so as to convey the fullness and joy of Black life.
“The reason there aren’t more pieces like Caribana speaks specifically to issues of representation,” he says. “There are almost no composers out there who come from the Caribbean. [But] people need the opportunity to be able to tell their stories. Space needs to be made for them to be able to share with the world who they are. I hope that my presence in the field gives others permission to create music and tell their stories.
“I don’t believe that music just breaks down barriers; I believe that music phases through barriers as if the barriers are not even there.”
“I don’t believe that music just breaks down barriers; I believe that music phases through barriers as if the barriers are not even there,” Thomas concludes. “You may come to a concert feeling a certain way, but you’ll leave feeling a completely different way if there is a message behind that music, no matter how high your defenses were when you walked in the door. I love, and I take very seriously, having that kind of power to effect change and to move hearts.”
For more information, visit www.omarthomas.com