Archie Thompson, San Diego jazz musician par excellence, leans back in the chair of his office in the First Presbyterian Church on downtown San Diego’s 4th Avenue, in a small office space secreted above the chapel in the balcony, next to the pipe organ. The space is small, filled with his computers, a small drum kit, chairs, microphones, cables, and assorted recording devices and various instruments and books filling every square inch. This is the creative clutter of a busy man. Fashioning a broad smile and looking casually resplendent in golf cap, black tee shirt, and jeans, Thompson is a man thoroughly enjoying this time of his life. It’s hard to think otherwise.
He leans forward: “I am a journeyman musician myself. I have to pitch myself. I am 54 years old and I have never done anything except play music. I live in San Diego, owned a home for 22 years, and raised two kids—all through music. I love it.”
“You’re the kind of person I’d call ‘the world’s luckiest man,’” I offer. Thompson leans back in his chair again while the smile grows wider; he folds his hands behind his head. The smile is ubiquitous, freely offered.
“Yes, that’s what it feels like,” he replies.
What strikes you about Archie Thompson almost at once is that his easy-going persona isn’t a veneer or a façade but the genuine article. Gregarious, cordial, quick to extend the hand, he seems at once intense and sublimely relaxed, a quality he brings to his dates at various restaurants and clubs that feature live music. A recent appearance with his trio at Eddie V’s in Seaport Village, an elegant eatery where he performs every Thursday, Thompson, along with Jason Littlefield, a melodic and quick-witted bassist, and the percussive insightfulness of drummer Charlie Weller, livened up the place with a perfect balance of elegance and funk. Firmly rooted in a blues groove, the trio swung mightily through a surprisingly diverse set list, commencing with a riveting adaptation of Cannonball Adderly’s “Work Song,” the Willie Dixon-penned Little Walter classic “My Babe,” and a very fine reconsideration of Albert King’s “Born under a Bad Sign.”
Thompson sweetens the signature riffs with rich, ringing piano chords and short phrases to underscore the humor and the dolefulness of his expressive vocals, often looking up to both Weller and Littlefield as the tempo slows down for a time and then picks up the pace, or breaks into a different time signature. Bass and drums weave suitably tight and organic patterns under Thompson’s piano work, which responds with a continually inventive improvisation. A combination of styles intersect in his playing, with quotes from classical pieces, pop tunes, and bits and pieces of melody, made part of the enjoyable, rumbling eloquence the trio puts forth.
Most notably, the music swings while not losing the grounded grit of the blues. Even on an interpretation of the Turtles pop hit “Happy Together,” a song generally not found in most jazz trios’ book of tunes, these three retained the oldie’s classic arrangement and even excelled at bringing forth the song’s signature chorus, the solo section is solid jazz, with a finely composed piano solo from the ever resourceful Thompson over a bass and drums interplay that pushed the tune with a verve only an intuitive grasp of the other’s playing provides. Thompson, of course, is an especially soulful saxophonist with a style that combines the honking grit of Illinois Jacquet and King Curtis (two formative influences he speaks highly of) and the hard bop panache of Nat Adderly and Dexter Gordon. Thompson, though, is one of those players you make note of, where you can simultaneously hear who inspired him in his playing as well experiencing the personal voice built on the lessons he learned. The combination of Thompson, Littlefield, and Weller results in a night of fun, funky, continuously surprising music.
Born in San Carlos in San Diego’s East County and a resident most of his life, Thompson grew up in a musical family—with two brothers who were also musicians and parents who supported and encouraged them with their passions. Archie was the youngest of three boys, and it was when he was very young that their passion music became his.
“I started on piano at six,” he recalls.” I have two older brothers; my oldest brother is eight years my senior and was a real music prodigy. He had perfect pitch and was quite accomplished by the time I was born. We realized he had perfect pitch by the time he was in second grade or something like that. I was really fortunate to grow up in that environment, in San Carlos. We all started out on piano and then we all picked up the horn. I wanted to play the horn, but we had to learn piano first, and thank god for that because it’s the foundation for theory and harmony. We all took lessons from the same elderly piano teacher who had a classical emphasis.
She had a great way of teaching harmony and theory and the basics. If we heard a song on the radio that we liked, she would write it out for us. So we were playing things that were fun to play, which makes a big difference to an eight-year-old kid. So then saxophone started when I was about ten years old. We all played in Ozzie’s Marching Chargers; Ozzie’s was a music store that put this band together. We did all the Charger half-time shows back in the day. That was great experience as well. I wanted to be a drummer as well and my parents bought me a drum set when I was six. And there were guitars, lots of guitars around the house. My middle brother was a bass player and there were always instruments around. We were always picking them up and playing. My parents were very supportive of us.”
Thompson recalls that the period he spent living in Los Angeles after graduating high school in San Diego was a cornerstone in his decision to make a career as a musician.
“A huge influence on me was moving to Los Angeles after high school. I was fortunate to tag along on a bunch of my brothers’ recording sessions As an 18-year-old sax player I wasn’t polished enough to compete with guys like Tom Scott, and Pete Christie, but it worked out to my advantage. I would sit in the control room and watch the producers and engineers work. Many of these sessions were Motown Records sessions; I learned so much as a fly on the wall. Not only technically how a studio operates, but also how to work with musicians and singers—how to get great emotional performances and how to get the best out of your musicians and singers. I worked the clubs on the chitlin circuit, which was what the black club circuit was known as. Backing up singers and playing with some of the great Motown musicians that were present at those recording sessions. It was an education, one that you do not get in college or by formal training, and it helped to shape me into the musician I am today. I played deep in ‘the hood,’ and it was nothing but a positive thing. My brother and I would be the only white people in the clubs; I played pool with hustlers, drank whiskey with old-timers, and blew my horn with the baldest dudes in town. I am so grateful for those experiences.”
Thompson often expresses amazement and gratitude that he’s been able to earn his keep and, in the long run, flourish by way of creating and performing the music he loves. He is one of those musicians who make you think of the James Brown honorific: “the hardest working man in show biz.” In any event, a visit to his website (www.archiethompson.com) reveals a musician involved in many projects tailored to different audiences, his many permutations evidenced in his principle group the Archtones, and with vocalist David Stranger called the New Moon Flyer in the vein of Sinatra, Bobby Darin, and Nat King Cole, paying tribute to the Great American Songbook. Ever versatile and expansive in his tastes, Thompson also headlines the surf combo Archie T and the Tidesmen and a cocktail lounge solo piano/saxophone act. Thompson adds to his schedule with frequent work as a producer and songwriter and a busy schedule of regular performances. In addition to the weekly Jazz Vespers services at the church on Saturdays at 4:30pm, he performs at the elegant U.S. Grant Hotel Saturdays from 8pm to midnight, holds forth with his trio at the posh Eddie V’s in Seaport Village on Thursday, at the U.S. Grant Hotel from 8pm to 12am, and appearing as a solo act four nights a week at Truluck’s in La Jolla. A considerable amount of activity for the working musician, but it’s a full schedule Thompson built from the ground up, acting as his own booking agent. It’s a skill he acquired in the earliest days of his professional life.
“What was really cool was when I was 14 or so I got into a band and not a garage band. I already had a reputation because of my brothers. I was pretty good on the sax by then and I joined a band with guys who in their early 20s. They got me in the band, probably, because they knew my family got all the gigs. My mom and dad were managing and booked the gigs for a long time by the time I had started to play live. By the time I was 14 I was in a band and out making money. At 16 I was playing night clubs five nights a week starting in high school. That was probably not the best place to be for a 16-year-old boy, but you got an education that you probably don’t get in a class room. From my older brothers band my dad would go out and be the band manager on site, or my mom would. By the time I came around they were over it. I was the 14-year-old in the band but I was the one who was the band leader. We played all the Navy clubs—Camp Pendleton and all the military installations. They all had live music, even over at Balboa Hospital. We played Navy clubs, marine bases, sub bases, church dances, high school dances, and after-game dances every week, Sadie Hawkins dances. You know, live bands in the gymnasium!
“I was the point of contact for the account. I was the one who got paid; I was the one they came to if we were too loud. I handled a multitude of problems. I don’t think my brothers got the business smarts as I did because they didn’t have to do it. Basically, I tell people that I have been doing the same thing since then, but doing it bigger and better. The booking aspect of what I do led me to working six nights a week and twice on Saturday, and I used to give gigs away. I’d get a call for a gig and I would say, ‘Call so-and-so.’ But then I thought after a while why am I giving gigs away? There is a value in that they’re calling me. I’ve spent 30 years building my brand here so I thought why don’t I just start booking stuff? I book the Grand and other venues and we’re looking to grow that more downtown.”
Thompson is also a prolific songwriter whose songs and instrumental compositions have found a productive and profitable niche in work he’s been commissioned to write for publishers who work in the film industry, particularly in items they call “sound alikes.” It’s clearly something else Thompson gets great pleasure in doing.
“What I’m concentrating on is writing songs for publishers who can then plug them into their productions. You don’t make music selling CDs unless you’re Kanye or Beyonce. CDs are really just business cards. Music licensing is where you can make a living in TV, film, and commercials. I got a contract with a publisher out of Hyde Park in Chicago named Ed Caldwell to produce. He catalogues about 25,000 songs in a lot of places. He’s an African-American guy, and he loves retro-soul. He asked me once, ‘Hey Archie, can you do something like Blaxploitation, like the theme from Shaft and Superfly?’ And I said “Oh yeah, I can do that.” I cranked out a bunch of those, so now whenever he needs authentic black music he calls the white guy in San Diego.” It’s interesting because a lot of the young black musicians are coming from Hip Hop culture, which is not the same thing.…
“A lot of times a publisher will request a sound alike, and you have to be very careful. They want a particular sound to go into a movie, but they don’t want to pay Isaac Hayes for his song, but they want something similar, but not too close. I have gotten pretty good at sound alikes; I go for tempo and overall feel. If you say that a particular artist’s song influenced you, you can be sued. And I mean, come on, every song out there is influenced by another song by another artists.”
Thompson has had a checkered music career with regard to the kinds of music he played as he learned his craft both as musician and performer. His words make you think of someone who is glad he played each and every lick of each and every kind of music on his journey to becoming a full-time, flourishing musician.
“The first band I got into was in 1975 or 76, right in the heart of the disco era. I was the sax player and we played a lot of ’70s music: Tower of Power, Earth Wind and Fire, Average White Band. I loved all that stuff. I’ve always loved Black music. We played rock like Peter Frampton and Doobie Brothers and all that. But we’d throw in some jazz, like Les McCann and Eddie Harris and their song “Compared to What.” But while I was playing pop tunes I knew, I really loved Black music and really got into it—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Coltrane. I remember the first time I saw Ray Charles on the Cher Show. He did “Georgia on my Mind” and that was it! So then I really got into Ray, and I was a huge James Brown fan. While other kids were listening to Boston, I was in my room wearing out my James Brown records as well as Parliament Funkadellic and Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. I was a bit of a freak compared to most high school kids.
“I wanted to be a jazz musician. I remember in 7th grade they had a vocational fair where they tried to find your aptitude and what you wanted to be. You would choose your occupation and research it. I wanted to be a jazz musician. Other classmates wanted to be doctors and I remember being told I would make really lousy money and be out at really smoky clubs. I wanted to be a sax player. I loved playing piano and had to keep it up in order to work, especially with the advent of new wave music. There is no saxophone in most of that stuff. I’m a bar musician.
“I was playing more rock ‘n’ roll and I was drinking a lot. I quit drinking at 27 in 1989. I’d been fired from one of the popular working rock bands not because of my musical skills but because of my shenanigans. It’s an occupational hazard. Then I decided that I had had it, I wasn’t going to work as a sideman anymore. I started doing a solo act. I was going to leave the past behind and concentrate on the music I loved. I started the solo act in 1988 and booked a gig at Humphries in ’89 playing solo piano during happy hour five nights a week. I played some sax a little bit, cheating by using some tracks I created. You can’t just played unaccompanied sax. That’s where I put my sound together. I was there from 1989-2001, for 12 years. The name of the first band was Archie Thompson and Team Moro. I got a gig at Croce’s Top Hat; playing the Jazz Room, around 2002, the trio concept came into play. Playing Piano, drums, and bass, acoustic. We played everything, a million standards, Ray Charles. We played “Happy Together “ by the Turtles and Johnny Cash, but we would swing it up.”
With their two children now grown and moved out of their home in San Carlos, Thompson and his wife, Trish, moved downtown a few years ago and now enjoy the growing hustle and bustle of an area where the urban experience is constantly improving and becoming more exciting for both San Diegans and visitors. As with any person who has had the good fortune of making a decent livelihood doing what they love, Thompson’s ability to thrive as a working musician, producer, and songwriter has much to do with taking a realistic assessment of the city he wanted to work and live in.
“San Diego is a good gigging town,” he says. “There are a lot of gigs here. But is it a great jazz gigging town? Here’s where the line gets drawn, though. True jazz musicians look down upon the working musicians. When I play most of the time, it’s to enhance the atmosphere. My niche is upscale lounge and fine dining venues. People are not there for the music, they are there for a thing the establishment offers and my job is to enhance the environment. Basically, I’m a liquor salesman.
“Not all, but for a good many jazz musicians it’s about the artist who wants audiences to pay attention to their solos. I don’t care about that. I want to go play my music, get paid for it, and play what I like. There are perimeters I have to stay inside, not too loud, of course. It’s a great gigging town. Now, is it a great jazz gigging town? I’m not so sure. If you’re able to put your ego in your back pocket and play the rooms that do feature some jazz, then yes, it’s a good gigging town. You can make a living supporting yourself. But if it’s all about your artistry and you want people transfixed upon you, then, no, I don’t think you’re going to make it.”
In the ’70s and into the ’80s San Diego had a number of clubs with solid jazz policies, such as Elario’s and Chuck’s Steak House in La Jolla, the Catamaran Hotel in Mission Beach and the Crossroads Bar in downtown’s Gaslamp District, all of which are closed now.
“It’s sad that those types of rooms don’t really exist now,” says Thompson. “The kinds of rooms that do exist… take Eddie V’s for instance, they have 11 or some odd number of restaurants around the country, and they have a live jazz trio every night at every restaurant. The owners are from New Orleans and they love jazz music and their concept is that they don’t want karaoke or a pop singer; they want a bass, a piano, and a drum, with some vocals. Those are the kinds of rooms you can do well in. They are steady and they make good money. They are able to pay pretty well.”
As you talk to him, it becomes clear that playing music is not just a means to make a living, but also a spiritual foundation. Among the many hats he wears, he is music director for the First Presbyterian Church on Fourth Avenue in Downtown San Diego, where he’s presented the weekly Jazz Vespers for the last six years. An evening prayer service highlighting Thompson and his band the Archtones and various guest musicians, the music is jazz, blues, and gospel. The services take place in the church’s chapel with its near perfect acoustics and, as Archie advises, everyone is invited. “You can come just for the music, that’s just fine, or you can participate in the service and take communion and fellowship, which is perfect as well.”
Founded in 1860, the church has been a constant in downtown life, witnessing both growth and decline in its congregation as downtowners moved to the suburbs, followed by subsequent growth again. Pastor Andrews , witnessing the rapid growth in the downtown area over recent years and aware that there is a diverse population of citizens ranging from the upscale, middle income, seniors on fixed incomes and the too many who make their homes on San Diego streets, became interested in establishing a jazz service, a Jazz Vespers. Such services have long been established in Detroit, Kansas City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, usually scheduled on a monthly basis. The San Diego Vespers became that rarity, a religious jazz service presented weekly, every Saturday at 4:30pm in the Churches 4th Avenue Chapel. Around 2011, Pastor Andrews began asking musical friends and congregation members if anyone knew of local musicians who would be the best fit to organize and conduct the music for ongoing jazz service. Thompson’s name was mentioned, and Pastor Andrews went to see him and his band at the belated Croce’s restaurant and jazz club on 5th Avenue in the Gaslamp District. After the set, Andrews approached Thompson. They spoke and Andrews made his proposal.
“I have been affiliated about six years now; I grew up in a Methodist church. Jerry Andrews, the pastor for First Presbyterian, had the idea for Jazz Vespers and asked Kevin Womac, ‘Hey, do you know anybody who can lead a jazz service?’ Jerry tells the story about how Kevin began to answer the ‘Yeah… I do… ah, no…’
“Then Jerry said, ‘It’s on a Saturday night,’ and Kevin said. ‘Oh yeah I do.’ Jerry came down to Croce’s where I was playing and asked me. We did a few pilot programs in the spring of 2011 to get some feedback from folks to see if it was going to work , and after that we started to do Jazz Vespers in September. We received a grant from the Presbyterians for Jazz Vespers a couple of years after that, which was a nice grant. We received $45,000. With that we recorded and released three Jazz Vespers records. We might do another one.
“If you told me 20 or 25 years ago that I would be leading a church service; I would have told you that you were crazy. I love it, it’s great, and the chapel where the services are performed has great acoustics and the people are paying attention… We had Matt Hall in here, this guy on trombone, at last week’s service, and he did ‘Memories of You,’ his featured tune written by Eubie Blake. I just love it. He is 86 years old and he put tears in my eyes when he played the trombone. It’s more than just the musician, it’s the context, and it’s the reverb. It’s a solemn atmosphere, you know, and I have had some of most beautiful moments here. For me, anyway, this is what worship should be like.”
To those words, I might add that the quality he brings to his live gigs is a combination of imagination, technique, and contagious joy that impresses and moves the listener and that elicits the best work from the superb roster of musicians he works with over his broad swath of projects and collaborations. It is what music should always be: expressing the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable.