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Dec 25, 2013 09:00 AM WV Sound

Keep a beat in the Mountain State.

Joy to the World

Dec 25, 2013 - 09:00 AM
Joy to the World

Photographed by Josh Saul

For jazz pianist Bob Thompson, the holidays are a busy time of traveling and performing his “Joy to the World” concert and other shows with his band, The Bob Thompson Unit. This year Bob celebrates 21 years of performing the holiday concert and took the show on the road for the first time. The band started at its home base, The Cultural Center in Charleston, before heading to Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, and then Morgantown for a performance at WVU’s Creative Arts Center. All three concerts were recorded by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and will be edited into a one-hour program to be broadcast on stations across the country and around the world. But as the days draw nearer to Christmas, it’s with family and friends at home in Charleston where Bob likes to be.

“I like being around my kids. Of course, now they’re all married and now it’s grandkids—I’m at level three now,” he laughs. “But I remember, because I worked a lot during the holidays, I would give my kids one special gift and put it in their stockings and it said: ‘This certificate is good for one shopping spree with dad.’” Bob would take his kids shopping for anything they wanted, and, he says, “It was just spending that day together, the day after Christmas. We always did that. It was a tradition we kept many years.”

Music is the other tradition Bob’s been keeping alive for many years—50 years, to be exact. He grew up in New York City and found his way to West Virginia State University in Institute via scholarship. “I thought, ‘I’ll do that for a year and go back to New York,’ but I’m still here,” he laughs. “I love being in West Virginia. I love this part of the country, and I think I had a lot of opportunities to learn and play music in West Virginia I may not have had in other places.” College is where Bob really became involved in jazz and, because there already happened to be an excellent trumpet major, began playing the piano. “I always knew growing up I wanted to be involved in music, and at that time the vision was I’d be a trumpet player, but once I started playing piano, that was my home. It was the instrument I really loved.”

Today Bob and his band record, perform, and travel from Charleston to Morgantown to Elkins to Lewisburg and back to Charleston again. “One of the things I’m really grateful for is my band,” he says. “I have some great musicians all from this area and I get to play with them all the time—Ryan Kennedy on guitar, Tim Courts on drums, Doug Payne on saxophone, and John Inghram on bass.” Bob hopes to do some new recording in 2014 and is also working on putting together a new show based on the history of jazz, moving from older to more contemporary styles. Of course, he’s also been a pianist for Mountain Stage since 1991. And even before that, he performed on the initial pilot show with his then-trio—so you can always hear his solo performances there.

The man behind the piano has no intention of stopping anytime soon—or really ever. “It’s what I love to do. They say if you do something for your living that you enjoy, it’s like you never worked a day. Playing music is always fun and exciting. I feel like I’ve been retired for 50 years because I’ve been playing music since I was in college, and I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living doing that. I’m real thankful for that,” Bob says. “Now sometimes people ask me, ‘Are you going to retire?’ I have no reason to retire because I enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy every opportunity I get to play music.”

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