In 1973, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald headlined the first-ever pops concert for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. A few days later, she was a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
“We all gathered around the television to watch,” remembered John Giordano, the retired longtime conductor of the symphony. “Johnny asked Ella what she had been doing lately. She said: ‘As a matter of fact, I just played with the Fort Worth Symphony. They had the best lead trumpet player I’ve ever worked with. His name was Don Thomas.’ ”
Giordano was delighted but not surprised.
“Don was one of those people who had that reputation in this business,” he said.
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Superstars like Fitzgerald or Sammy Davis Jr., Doc Severinsen or Dean Martin would come to town, performing with the orchestra or needing local players to fill out their bands. All would be surprised and delighted by the talent of Mr. Thomas, agreeing that he was one of the finest of his generation.
“Word just gets out about a player, and Don was one of those guys that everyone around the country knew about,” Severinsen, who led Carson’s Tonight Show orchestra for years and was a close friend of Mr. Thomas, said by telephone this week.
“The guys who were the real professionals all had great respect for him and if you ever worked with him, which I did, you heard it with your ears. That was the rating system right there.”
Mr. Thomas died Dec. 2 in Arlington. He was 90 and had been in failing health for several years.
Tonight at a Dallas hotel, musicians will gather to remember the man known for “stone chops,” a somber fellow but loyal friend to those who came to know him, and a player whose tone, musicality, versatility and endurance left an indelible mark on the music world.
“If I had to make a comparison, I would say he was probably at the same level as Doc Severinsen,” said Marvin Stamm of New York, another leading trumpeter of his generation and a friend of Mr. Thomas. “He was that good.”
That Mr. Thomas chose to ply his craft in the relative anonymity of Fort Worth — playing for the symphony and Casa Mañana musicals and as a studio musician — only added to his legend. For all his talent, Mr. Thomas never struck out for the bigger stages of New York or Los Angeles.
Only those who knew him best understood the real reason why.
Trumpet saved his life
Mr. Thomas grew up in Allentown, Pa., and insisted on playing the trumpet at an early age, said his widow, Jenny.
“He was really young and his mother took him to the music store, but they didn’t have a trumpet,” she said. “She tried to convince him to play the trombone.”
Mr. Thomas wouldn’t have it. At age 9, he was playing on local radio, and as a teenager he played in bands in the area. In World War II, he enlisted in the Army and was stationed for a time in Mineral Wells, playing in a series of Army ensembles. His first wife, Constance, was a singer in one of them.
The couple had two sons, Richard and John, who both became accomplished trumpet players. Constance Thomas died of heart disease in 1967.
“During the war, he was on leave and then he was supposed to go to the Battle of the Bulge,” Jenny Thomas said. “But they called him back to the base because they needed a bugler. So the trumpet saved his life.”
After the war, Mr. Thomas and his wife settled first in Mineral Wells, then in Fort Worth. He played gigs wherever he could find them, including Casa Mañana and the Fat Stock Show rodeo band, and worked part time at a local TV station as a film editor. In 1973, when the station told him to choose between his music and the film editing, Mr. Thomas quit on the spot.
The next day, Giordano called to hire Mr. Thomas as the orchestra’s lead trumpet, a position he held until retiring in the mid-1990s. By then, his legend was secure.
“I was paying attention to him and his playing long before we met,” Severinsen said. “He had a reputation of being one of the really fabulous trumpet players in the country. If I was in the Dallas area, and I needed a band, he was the first guy I made sure to find.”
But Mr. Thomas never struck out from Fort Worth.
“If he had decided to move his family to L.A. or New York, he would have made a ton of money and became a very well-known trumpet player,” his friend Bill Collins said. “He just didn’t want to raise his family in those places.”
But that was only part of the story.
Unlike Mr. Thomas, his son John Thomas did seek out bigger stages. From his start with the jazz band at Paschal High School, he eventually landed in Los Angeles, where he has performed with Count Basie, in the bands of Woody Herman and Chick Corea, and as a soloist on several TV and movie soundtracks.
“I’ve played with the greatest trumpet players in the United States, and toured with so many different singers, and I have to tell you, there is no one I’ve ever played with, including myself, who is better than my father,” said John Thomas, who also teaches jazz at the University of Southern California.
“It was very intimidating, having such a great musician as my father. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I felt comfortable sitting next to him.”
On one of John Thomas’ trips home, Don Thomas noticed his son reading a book about overcoming performance anxiety.
“Why do you keep reading that book?” the father asked.
“I have a difficult time with performance anxiety,” John Thomas said.
“Really,” Don Thomas said. “I do, too.”
The son was stunned.
“This is a man who played with such confidence, you never would have known he had performance anxiety,” John Thomas said. “I think that’s why he didn’t go to L.A. or New York. A lot of things became clear.”
Jenny Thomas attributed much of the anxiety to his Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing.
“Don was very cautious,” she said. “As a Pennsylvania Dutch, you didn’t speculate a lot. You went for the sure thing. It made him so nervous to think that, at his age, he could [compete with] all these great players. He never could bring himself to do it. We talked about it. He just could never give up the sure thing.
“He never felt like he was good enough,” she said. “If he ever had a bad concert, it would just bother him for days. He wouldn’t say a word.
“He had this strange thing where he would portray all this confidence with his playing, but inside was this tentative nervousness. You’d have a hard time getting him to admit that to anyone out of his circle, but it was always that way.”
So there were regrets, she said.
“The only thing I heard him say was ‘If only I would have been 25 years younger,’ ” Jenny Thomas said.
But friends in the business said Don Thomas didn’t need to leave North Texas. He leaves a huge legacy, both as a musician and a man.
Marvin Stamm met him while Stamm was a student at what was then North Texas State University in Denton. Mr. Thomas was always willing to help younger musicians, Stamm said.
“He was someone I could always look up to,” Stamm said. “He was always willing to help me. Sitting next to him was always a marvelous learning experience, just by absorbing his music. He was just one of those very special people who inspired you to go on and be the best musician you can be.
“If you attend the tribute, you will see how many people he touched and hear the stories. They are myriad.”
Severinsen is still performing at 87. A few years ago, while in Fort Worth for a gig, Severinsen took time to drive to the care center in Arlington where Thomas spent his last days.
The two old friends talked about trumpets and mouthpieces.
“And a few things that will not be mentioned,” Severinsen said. “He was as good a person as he was a trumpet player, just a hell of a good friend. I went out to see him that day. That’s a trip I won’t be making anymore and I’m very sorry to say that.”