Jazz is in Thaddeus Ford’s blood. He is a sixth generation New Orleans jazz musician. But this brilliant trumpet player had to move to North Texas and have a heart attack to find his true sound.
America’s music was being formed as Ford’s ancestors emigrated from the Dominican Republic back in 1875.
“Jazz wasn’t jazz at that time,” Ford says. “My family was there in the middle of it when the music was created.”
Traditionally, jazz is handed down, from one generation to another, through musicians interacting. Jazz compositions have only been written for about a hundred years, dating back to Jelly Roll Morton publishing “Jelly Roll Blues” in 1915. Prior to that, it didn’t even seem possible to write songs in a style of music so deeply rooted in improvisation.
Jazz has evolved tremendously after a century of being written, recorded and influenced by other types of music. But you can still hear those 19th century sounds coming out of Ford’s horn.
He uses a trumpet that his dad played in the ’70s and his music has a spirituality that must be experienced live. It seems to transport listeners to a different time, and not just rooted in the past. His music also seems relevant to the present and future.
Growing up in New Orleans, Ford’s father gave him a trumpet when he was 8. He started taking music seriously a few years later when he joined a marching band.
“It’s a huge deal in New Orleans,” Ford says. “In a marching band, you can be just as big as a football star.”
When he was 14, Ford decided he wanted to be a jazz musician after seeing Wynton Marsalis perform. He started taking lessons from his grandfather, Clarence Ford Sr. who was a session player in the ’50s and ’60s and part of Fats Domino’s band for several years.
“I still use the lessons he gave me today,” Ford says.
His grandfather passed away shortly after the lessons began but Ford continued and trained at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts before starting a career as a jazz musician. In the spring of 2005, he left New Orleans to follow the girl who became his first wife to Dallas.
“I was supposed to be here for two weeks,” Ford says. “That turned into months and then Hurricane Katrina hit. After that I didn’t have anything to go back to so Dallas became my home.”
Ford became a trumpet player listening to acoustic jazz, brass bands, swing and big band. The vibe of the culture back home was to keep jazz pure. But he always had an interest in funk and started getting inspired by the grimy local rock and hip-hop he heard in Deep Ellum. But the music stopped when he had a heart attack in 2013, just a few days before his 35th birthday.
“I thought it was some kind of anxiety or panic attack,” Ford says. “I just wanted to relax and get some water. But they hooked me up to the EKG at the ER and told me I was having a heart attack.”
Ford had a hereditary heart condition and would have died if he had waited much longer to go to the hospital. One of his arteries was blocked and he needed emergency surgery. From there, his doctor ordered him off the trumpet for ten months while he recovered.
He had been a working jazz musician for several years. But during his recovery, Ford considered his future and vowed to cultivate his own sound.
“I hadn’t been writing my own music or pushing myself as an artist,” Ford says. “I had been a working musician, but I wanted to be a working artist. I told myself I would do that if I could ever play again.”
A year after his heart attack, Ford started playing trumpet again and his decision paid off. He now has a very modern jazz sound, often performing with a guitarist and xylophone player. He made his songs more atmospheric by adding electronics and elements of funk and post-rock. These days his music is a dreamscape without a specific genre or perhaps beyond genre.
“I want my music to be the soundtrack to an imaginary film,” Ford says. “Anything I can pull from my past, present or future is going in one pot.”
Ford has reached new heights with recent compositions like “Afrinola” and “Malta is not Rome.” His new songs are memorable and thematic. It’s not hard to imagine one of them having several different variations, perhaps for a film score or for other jazz bands to stretch out years from now.
“New Orleans is a city driven by tourism and you can be a working musician with society gigs at restaurants and conventions. You play in the background, get paid and go home. But I never wanted to be that because playing music is spiritual and emotional. I just decided I wasn’t going to go from gig to gig anymore. It all started with the heart attack. I started being me.”
Thaddeus Ford performs at Fort Worth Central Library (500 W. 3rd St., Fort Worth, TX 76102) on Thursday, May 17 at 6:30 P.M.