Tulsa Jazz.Com’s Jazz Legend Spotlight: Walter ‘Foots’ Thomas

Walter “Foots” Thomas
February 10, 1907 – August 26, 1981

Reed specialist, arranger and sometimes bandleader Walter “Foots” Thomas retired from fulltime playing in 1948, then became a professional manager whose specialty could easily have been coaching players on the art of amassing discographies capable of encircling Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza. Thomas hailed from Muskogee, Oklahoma, a point of interest in connection with country and western star Merle Haggard’s famous lyric, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” Nonetheless, one of Muskogee native Thomas’ most famous sideman affiliations was with Cab Calloway of “Reefer Man” fame. This artist is the brother of Joe Thomas, also a noted classic jazz reed player who eventually took over the Jimmie Lunceford band. Older than his brother by a year, Walter Thomas began playing with local bands as a college student. He moved to New York City in 1927 and began working with the famed Jelly Roll Morton less than a year later.

Thomas joined the The Missourians in 1929 after short stints in bands led by Luis Russell and Joe Steele. The Missourians provided the contact with Calloway, who eventually took over that band. With and without Calloway, Thomas was involved with this outfit through 1943. Calloway sidemen were said to have received some of the best salaries in jazz, perhaps one reason for loyalty. Thomas finally began playing with Don Redman by 1944, then led his own band for a bit less than half a decade before moving into management. Firmly associated with swing styles, Thomas made one of his finest recordings near the end of his playing career when combined with the rootsy yet always forward-looking tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Thomas gave saxophone lessons to the late Jackie McLean, a brilliant bebop and modern jazz alto saxophonist. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi



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