Master Class with John Thomas

With Bill Evans and John Coltrane in the room, looking on from framed photographs lining the walls of the performance space, jazz was clearly in the air as notes bounced from every corner of the acoustically enhanced room, and the Los Angeles Youth Jazz Ensemble (LAYJE) was warming up for an afternoon of music and education.  On November 18, a master class, free and open to the public, being taught by trumpeter and USC professor John Thomas was about to begin.


Not only were the greats looking on, but the event’s educational handout was proof that the Carson Television Building on the campus of USC was talking jazz.  “Slur everything until you have a really good legato tongue” and “Use tongue stops:  cut off all notes with the tongue.  The cut off is as articulated as the attack”…all words clearly spoken by an accomplished veteran of his craft.

Professional trumpeter and USC professor John Thomas was able to share stories of his years playing with the Count Basie Orchestra and Chick Corea to name a few.  Thomas first listened, then critiqued, and moved through the horn section one by one stressing the importance of legato tonguing.  He then moved on to the importance of rhythm, noting, “You always have to stay engaged with the music…you have to be ‘on’…a good drummer makes you want to dance with him.”  The exercise led to the entire ensemble playing cymbal patterns with their pencils.


Guitarist Julian Apter, a Santa Monica High School student in his first year playing with LAYJE, and member of local jazz quartet “Half-diminished”, noted how impressed he was with the experience.  Apter enjoyed experiencing Thomas’ “culmination of experience, mixed with his skill…he hears things that other people may not hear.”  Apter also noted how Thomas’ experiences playing with jazz legends bring to light “the difference between someone simply loving the music, versus actually living the music.”

The audience was just as engaged as the players.  The parents of Daniel Cole, a student of Millikan High School in Long Beach and trombone player with LAYJE, spoke highly of the LAYJE experience.  “The program seems to challenge him more than the high school band.  Today’s experience seemed to transition from learning, to feeling, the music.”  Daniel’s take on the day was more concise, “I loved it!  Awesome!”

LAYJE Musical Director Ryan Kienstra stressed the importance of the master classes, by adding, “The students get the viewpoints of someone who has played with different styles of jazz; who has lots of experience.  It’s nice for the students to experience someone who can demonstrate vocally, and then play that on the instrument.”  LAYJE Assistant Musical Director Liz Palmer adds, “With the master classes, music can be said in a variety of ways.  And with a third party instructor involved, it might all of a sudden click.”

The master class experience is all encompassing.  It combines musical skill, education, and an interaction with the local community.  Palmer sums it up nicely, “It’s great that Thornton has a relationship with local schools to keep arts going.  Master classes show the academic side of the music, not just as entertainment… it’s part of who we are as a culture.”

For more information on LAYJE and other Thornton Outreach Programs, please visit:


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