Getting to know 2020-21 Rising Star Isaiah J. Thompson

February 1, 2021

Man in a hat smiling while sitting at a piano

Are you ready for our first Jazz Rising Stars concert of the 2020-21 Virtual Season?! It’s on Sunday, February 7 at 4 PM ET and features the Isaiah J. Thompson Quartet. In order to prepare for their concert, we asked Mr. Thompson if he would be willing to answer a few questions for us to get to know him better. Here’s what he had to say!

You started playing the piano when you were just five years old with The Calderone School of Music and studied jazz with the Jazz House Kids and NJPAC Jazz For Teens programs. What made you start studying it and what has kept you going through now?
My parents always said there was nothing more dangerous than a young person with nothing to do. It didn’t matter what it was that I did, as long as it was something. I’m so thankful to them about how open-minded they were. I was put in oratorical competitions, fencing, basketball, swimming and piano, just to name a few things that I took part in over the years. I mainly grew up listening to R&B and gospel because that’s what my parents played on the radio. Later, I began to study with a great teacher named Bob Mikula who introduced me to actually playing blues, R&B and jazz. He sparked my interest and ever since then, I was seeking out the music. Once I joined programs like Jazz House Kids and NJPAC Jazz For Teens, I started to see how serious you had to be to play the music and to truly appreciate its cultural significance. 

You received both your Bachelor’s of Music and Master’s of Music from Juilliard. What was your experience there like?
I made a promise to myself when I was about 14 years old that I was going to go to Juilliard and complete their 5-year Master’s program. I’m so thankful because sometimes promises are broken simply because of life. It didn’t have to happen that way but I’m glad it did. I consider myself very lucky that I had some great mentors including the late Frank Kimbrough who opened my mind. I also was extremely fortunate to have such a talented class with whom I made mistakes, grew and learned from. 

We’re excited to hear you perform with your quartet, comprising of Julian Lee (saxophone), Philip Norris (bass), and TJ Reddick (drums). How did the four of you become acquainted and how long have you been performing together?
Julian is the eldest of the group. I met him in my first few years at Jazz House Kids. He is and has always been the prime example of excellence in music. I’ve looked up to him for many years now and I’m very thankful that he plays in my band. I met Philip at a summer academy for music. We played in a lot of ensembles together and then he ended up at Juilliard so we’ve been close for some years now. TJ is the youngest of the group, the soul messenger. I met him when he got to Juilliard but we’ve played more outside of school than in. The feeling he plays with is hard to miss. 

You recently released your album, Isaiah J. Thompson Plays the Music of Buddy Montgomery. How does the experience of preparing to record a cd differ from practicing for a concert?
This was my first official album as a leader. I definitely spent a lot of time making sure that I was upholding truth not only to Buddy Montgomery’s legacy, but also to what I felt I connected with most about his playing and his compositions. In a lot of ways, recording can be stressful because you know that for the listener, it’s not necessarily in the moment. When I record, I try to remember that it’s just a moment in time. A recording can never reflect the entirety of an artist. It’s just a glimpse. When preparing for a live performance, you strive for perfection before the concert, but once you’re on stage, what happens is what happens and that moment is gone forever. There’s something really special about that. 

You recently worked on the soundtrack for the film Motherless Brooklyn. How did you become involved with that project and what was the experience like for you?
Working on the soundtrack for Motherless Brooklyn was a bit of a dream come true. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between jazz and film and I had hoped that I’d get to explore some of that kind of work sometime in my career. Opportunities like that don’t come up all the time so I was really excited to do it and when the great Wynton Marsalis asked me to be a part of the project, I of course said yes. 

This is our favorite question to end on: if you had any advice for young pianists just starting out, what would it be?
Your sound on the instrument is not wrong, delve into it. The most significant contribution you can make to art and to yourself is to be just that, yourself. 

Thank you to Isaiah J. Thompson for his candor and we hope you’ll tune in for his quartet’s virtual concert on Sunday, February 7 at 4 PM ET. Get your ticket today!

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