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Memories of and gratitude for jazz pianist and composer Carei Thomas

Carei Thomas playing keyboard at Studio Z in Lowertown in 2012.
Photo by John Whiting
Carei Thomas playing keyboard at Studio Z in Lowertown in 2012.

We lost Carei Thomas last Thursday, May 28, in the midst of a global pandemic and growing chaos following the death of George Floyd. Anytime would have been a bad time to lose Thomas, a man of music, spirituality, creativity and community, but his death at this moment seems especially cruel.

Music was his medium, the piano his instrument, even after Guillain-Barré syndrome left his hands partially paralyzed. This was his message, as told to TPT’s “MN Original”: “We’re all connected as human beings. It’s not some way-out mystical thing, we really are, and we can all support and affect each other in positive ways.”

Louis Alemayehu, Thomas’ friend for decades and a founding member of their renowned poetry/jazz ensemble Ancestor Energy, has said that when they performed together, “people would bring children or babies into the performance space, and often children would end up singing or chanting along with us.” That although Thomas’ hands were impaired, “he could hit one key and it would sound like him and nobody else … producing beauty that would possess the hearts and the minds of everybody in the room.”

Thomas, 81, died peacefully at HCMC after a fall. Born in Pittsburgh, he grew up in Chicago and lived in Minneapolis for almost 50 years. We heard him play several times, most often with Keys Please!, a playful trio he formed with two other pianists, Todd Harper and Paul Cantrell. But we didn’t know him personally, so we reached out to people who did. Everyone we contacted suggested more people we should get in touch with. We’re sorry we couldn’t include them all. Here are the ones we could, in their own words.

Louis Alemayehu, poet, musician, storyteller and activist

What most of us understand to be death does not destroy a presence like Carei Thomas. My relationship with him has changed, but it is not terminated by any means.

In the wake of his physical departure I will meditate, listen to music, dwell in green spaces and listen for however his voice will make itself known: in the busy chatter of birds, the breathing forest along the riverbanks, Bill Evans’ “Time Remembered,” Thelonious Monk’s perfect “wrong” notes talking to the heart, rain on the pavement, the table set for welcome guests, a well-turned phrase, a bright child asking questions that tax your imagination as how the heck to answer, a warm embrace with a kiss upon the cheek and, of course, how the perfection of the lotus grows from the deep, dark mud of the pond.

Love like this never dies.

Brother Carei Thomas was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is in a long line of innovative jazz pianists also out of Pittsburgh that includes Earl “Fatha” Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, Errol Garner and Ahmad Jamal, to name a few. His name belongs on this honorable list!

Heather Barringer, musician with Zeitgeist

My colleagues and I at Zeitgeist have been so very privileged to have shared the stage with Carei Thomas on many different occasions. I’ve learned so very much from my friendship with him and have grown greatly as an artist from sharing his music with people.

The Carei Thomas experience that sticks with me most happened when Carei wasn’t even in the room. Zeitgeist was putting together a concert of his music with pianist/composer Paul Cantrell, and we were momentarily stuck. To vault us out of our rut, Paul, who played with Carei regularly, relayed a conversation he had with Carei about the nature of his musical scores and how one might approach the material. Carei had said, “It’s not really a score, it’s a runway.”

That changed my life, and I use it every day in every aspect of my life.

Paul Cantrell, composer, pianist, computer programmer

To those of us who made music with Carei Thomas, he was a giant. He reached across generations, races, and genres with a vision so idiosyncratic it could belong to no other human, yet that managed to accommodate – no, to elevate and honor – the voice of every other musician who played his work. I know of no artist whose mere name prompts such outpourings of affection.

His music – tender, rambunctious, bizarre, anthemic, cosmic, sweet – defies easy categorization. Is it jazz? Avante-garde serialism? Cinematic portraiture? Reincarnated children’s songs? Prayer? Yes. His chords, particularly the peculiar voicings (tight at the bottom, wide at the top), are one of the most radical and most humane things I’ve encountered in music.

Carei was never happy with performances of his work until players went off his map and let something uniquely their own into the music. When that happened, his eyes would give a contented flicker and his whole body would light up, barely able to contain his rapture at the precious thing coming into existence. Every time I play his “Cjalme” or “Of Families and Friends,” I hear his joy: “Oh, that touch!” “Mmmmm, the way it breathes, yes, yes.”

Being a musician is a lonely endeavor. We make music because we must; often we wonder why, whether it serves any purpose, if anyone has even truly heard us. Carei bridged that lonely chasm. He always heard. To collaborate with him was to be loved. To play his music is to be loved.

George Cartwright, composer, saxophonist, bandleader

[Cartwright tells the story of Thomas’ final recording, released in fall 2019. It’s called “Edge of the Guess or CTCTCTCT,” and you can find it on Bandcamp. The first track, “Alone in the Helix, Too,” features Thomas’ voice and text. BTW today (Friday, June 5) is Bandcamp Day.]

My family and I moved to the Twin Cities in the fall of 1999. I didn’t know any musicians, but Alden Ikeda called me up and asked if I’d like to get together and play with his friend Carei Thomas.

I met Carei and thought – wow. Alden had told me he’d been through a serious illness [Guillain-Barré syndrome]. Carei’s hands were gnarled up. We played a little bit and I thought – he sure plays piano good. They seemed to be two separate entities, the playing and what his hands looked like, because he could really play.

Carei and I stayed in touch. He was courteous, serious, and meant every note he played and didn’t play.

About a year and a half ago, I thought – God, I’d really like to record with Carei. So I talked to Michelle Kinney and Davu Seru and Josh Granowski and found a studio with a wonderful engineer named Alec Simpson and a beautiful piano. I talked to Carei and said, “I have this idea, are you interested?” And he said, “Well, what’s it gonna be like? I can’t really play written music very well. These old hands.” I told Carei, “I don’t care about the piano. But I really want you there. Then you’ll be in the music.”

My wife, Annie, came, and we were all there, and we had a wonderful time. Carei just killed. He played the real, he played the moment, he played everybody in the room and everybody not in the room. People on Jupiter and Mars. I wanted to do more and it never worked out. But that’s OK. We got what we got, and it’s a lot.

We also laughed a lot. It was funny, it was serious, and it was just lovely. As I think it was for anybody who was around Carei on any day.

Todd Harper, composer, pianist, ecologist

Carei Thomas has been my dear friend, musical mentor, and collaborator since 1978. In one breath, he told me to stop worrying about being a white guy (“You love this music, so just keep your heart pure!”), start my Buddhist practice and listen to Dufay and Machaut. Thus we began our connection.

Carei gave his friends unique names and invented words, fascinated by their sounds. (Like his own compositions “Cjalme,” “Jy’laahorlx,” “Quippihid,” “Tryxsisia.”) His quick and energetic wit was always energizing.

Instead of having one band, he had dozens of musical friends and created “neighborhoods” – collections of musicians, poets, and others with diverse backgrounds. For one concert, he had a bagpiper start solo, then cued the ensemble to come in. The tonalities clashed and then came together in a way I haven’t heard since. Carei was always exploring.

Keys Please!, from left to right: Carei Thomas, Todd Harper, guest Brian Roessler and Paul Cantrell shown at the 2012 Studio Z performance.
Photo by John Whiting
Keys Please!, from left to right: Carei Thomas, Todd Harper, guest Brian Roessler and Paul Cantrell shown at the 2012 Studio Z performance.
Carei showed me the interconnectedness of doo-wop, plainsong, Kandinsky, crab cakes, sunlight bursting through bubbles in a water glass, heard imagined conversations, and everything else in your experience.

It was a shock when Carei came down with Guillain-Barré. Many other pianists would have given up performing, writing, and music. Carei found new ways to play and taught us his intricate harmonic language.

I pray that I will always hear his voice in my mind’s ear, laughing and encouraging.

José James, singer, songwriter, bandleader

[From his Facebook page, used with permission.]

A brilliant pianist and composer, [Carei Thomas] was a mentor to a generation of artists including Walter Kitundu, Kirk Washington aka Bro Sun, Mankwe Ndosi, Jeffrey Bailey, Kevin Washington and many more. He opened my mind and heart to a deeper understanding of music and Black culture and showed me that everything is connected – jazz, blues, R&B, doo-wop and so-called classical music.

He was a true master and a great friend. When I was robbed in downtown Minneapolis of all my cash and rent money, Carei and his wife, Joyce, quietly wrote me a check and gave me a hug. My visits to their home were a constant joy and a window into a new world of art and culture. He – along with Louis Alemayehu, Donald and Faye Washington, Douglas Ewart and Dean Brewington – showed me that art and culture are vital expressions of the human soul and a passport to the world.

I only hope that my hugs and thanks to him were enough to let him know how grateful I was and am to him for showing me I could be greater than what I knew. For introducing me to a deeper side of jazz, composition and concept.

He once said to me, a 15-year-old kid with no passport, “Oh you’ll love Paris, JJ.” You were right, Carei. Thank you for believing in me and in all of us and for constantly shining your light and Buddhist teachings on the world. Rest in Power, King.

Michelle Kinney, cellist and composer

Carei’s music looked back into the past and forward into the future. Tunes like “Slavic Ponderance in the Brief Face of Dixie” and “Madame Chantel Delillie Brown of Savannah, Georgia” and “With Joan Miro in Mind” conjure precious memories and trigger startling new ideas.

“Brief Realities” were Carei’s words to describe these musical moments, an acknowledgment that each NOW is what we have, and how important it is to notice. This illusive and beautiful meditation on the present must have been inspired by his Buddhist practice of chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” to soothe the troubled mind, remove the veneer of suffering, grief, hardship and pain, and replace this with peace.

We could surely use this now, and I imagine Carei is chanting for us, praying for our enlightenment.

Earthling Carei was the embodiment of gentleness, joy, curiosity and strength, and the love and devotion he shared with his wife, Joyce, was an inspiration to all of us. Despite and throughout his challenge with Guillain-Barré, he continued to compose and perform, contribute to and support our Twin Cities music community with his illuminating presence. Though his struggle left him with hands that couldn’t open, it didn’t handicap his piano playing. He found a way to work with this limitation, and his sound became a uniquely gorgeous chiming and choosing of each note placed with a laser focus. We will deeply miss this sound, forged of pain and heartache at the loss of his lifelong technique building, as well as that of a life lived by a black man in America. Throughout circumstances that would bring down even the highest spirits, Carei sounded his enlightenment over and over.

Heavenly Carei will have full use of his hands again and will accompany that killer band we know is there to welcome him. I expect he will continue to chant for us as we attempt to tear down and remake our world. Thank you for your music, Carei. Play on, dear friend.

Mankwe Ndosi, culture worker, vocalist, composer, educator

Carei Thomas is ascended! He is everywhere!

Carei Thomas was a creative mentor in music, in building community, and in stretching ourselves interdimensionally. He changed my idea of what was possible in music and community. He didn’t color inside the lines. He conspired with all of us to open up to our most unique flowering.

He encouraged and nurtured creative partnerships, always with a gleam, a mischievousness in his eye, his talk, his music. He put together melodies and words as portals to different universes of thought and action. His faith, subtle and pervasive, patient and real, transformed his challenges into new eras of existence.

He was a mentor in how many lives are possible to live, and how to never give up. The intimacy of his attention and his lyric inverted and reordered the bodies of things, turning them inside out in his phrasing. He was always examining the liminal, the spiritual, drawing the sweetness from the sweat and spit, the hairs and pores of life.

I remember being struck by his pen and pencil drawings, musical charts merged with animistic forms … “Snellie.” I remember working to reproduce the environment of the snail shell, inspired to drag a used clawfoot tub on rollers as my musical universe for the night, into Intermedia Arts.

Carei encouraged stretching and weaving of the musical, the spiritual, the familial. He always encouraged me to be true, be my unusual self in unusual spaces, to take my space, and to cherish “each life’s moment.”

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Peter Rachleff on 06/07/2020 - 06:47 am.

    Thank you for compiling these wonderful tributes to a wonderful human being. For years I saw Carei reach out from his marginalized, marginal position in the Music Department at Macalester College to mentor students of color. They needed his presence and guidance; they received it; they grew from it. He was generous, patient, and there for them. At the East Side Freedom Library, we benefited from Carei’s music and his spirit, and we are so proud to have his book, COMPOSITIONS AND CONCEPTS, on our shelves. He will always be with us, and generations of young people will continue to learn about him – and from him.

  2. Submitted by Jim Roth on 06/07/2020 - 07:56 am.

    I worked with him in the late 60’s and early 70’s when we both taught music lessons at the Metropolitan Cultural Arts Center. He was a joy and inspiration then especially to the students he taught. I always looked forward to seeing and talking with him. I basically lost touch with him after that but occasionally heard about him and what he was doing. His was a life well lived and he made a difference in many ways.

  3. Submitted by john minczeski on 06/11/2020 - 03:24 pm.

    Brilliant, compassionate, creator, composer. Just a few of the words that immediately come to mind when I think of Carei, my close friend and collaborator since the mid-seventies. He would be the first to say that his brilliance was a reflection of the brilliance of others, and yet it takes someone as unique as Carei to recognize that, and to act on it: giving back to others in equal and even greater measure than what he got. It is the idea behind his series of “Gift Shop” concerts and multi-disciplinary events he produced and curated at locations around town. During one of those events, Chef Alex from Alma created hors d’oeuvres in the lobby to give audience members on their way to the auditorium.

    After he was stricken with Guillain Barre, he was completely paralyzed for months. A ventilator tube had been inserted directly into his trachea, and he could only communicate by moving his eyes, laboriously spelling out words by looking at clusters of letters on a plexiglass board held before him. One time, several of us were visiting him in the hospital, one asked how he managed day after day. Through a process of elimination, he eventually spelled out what he wanted: “You are my inspiration.”

    Seeing the excellence in others is what made him so effective as a teacher and band leader in the various groups he formed over the past fifty years. It also made him one of the best friends one could ask for.

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