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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

Jazz Orchestra plays Thomas out

Nick Glover
Reggie Thomas cuts off the NIU Jazz Orchestra on a song where Sean Jones (left) and Wycliffe Gordon are featured. Thursday’s concert was Thomas’ final concert leading the orchestra. (Nick Glover | Northern Star)

The head of NIU’s prestigious jazz program Reginald “Reggie” Thomas said goodbye to the program Thursday night during the final leg of his farewell concert series.

The two-hour set featured two of the biggest names in jazz today – trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and trumpeter Sean Jones – playing alongside the band Thomas led throughout his time at NIU, the NIU Jazz Orchestra. 

If it were up to Thomas, however, this night wouldn’t be about him or his retirement; it would be about all the fantastic moments the NIU jazz program has had in his time at the helm.

The first song, Mary Lou Williams’ “O.W.,” highlighted the program’s recent turn to include pieces composed by women. The second song, “The First Lady: Lyrical Lynette,” showed off the band’s recent inclusion in the Jack Rudin festival – one of the most selective competitions in all of college jazz. The third was a collaboration with composer Joe Clark, “Fred Hampton,” part of a suite Clark wrote specifically for the Jazz Orchestra. 

For Thomas, everything was about the students and the music, not himself.

“So I look at myself in the legacy of, OK, what ways did we try to move the needle,” Thomas said. “Part of that was advocating for the students in terms of things that were in the degree, advocating for the students in terms of the facilities and making sure that they have what they need to be successful, and then always trying to give the best of myself musically.”

Even before the concert began, it was clear Thomas’ efforts paid off.  

Schools from multiple states sent their students to the show. NIU faculty came in droves – even President Lisa Freeman attended the concert. 

As the band took the stage, one musician even muttered “wow” as he looked into the packed auditorium.

The set didn’t only look back to the notable events Thomas has led the band through. It also made way for the future.

The next head of the jazz program, Roosevelt Griffin, was brought on stage to lead the song “Hip-Hop Bop Stop.” 

Thomas spent the night leading the way on how to be an educator and musician who will build up the next generation, something virtually any student or peer of his will tell you he has been doing his entire career.

“I knew that professor Thomas was going to be incredible for our program because he’s such a well-respected musician and jazz educator,” Freeman said. “What I didn’t know until he got here was how his values align with Huskie values and what’s important to the university, and seeing that in action over the past decade has been unbelievable, and the humanity and hope that he brings every day to his students and to this university is just enviable.” 

For the musicians on stage, these values are what they will remember Thomas by. 

“As someone that has known him for as long as he’s been in DeKalb, and for someone who I had known so long that I can’t remember when I met him, so much of his philosophy and way of speaking is about making a place a home, fostering a community and leading with love,” said Khadija Nagi, a vocalist and trombone player in the Jazz Orchestra and junior music composition major. 

Before the concert ended, tenor saxophonist Ryan Bills, pianist Austyn Menk and trumpeter Gabriel Wade brought out some gifts for Thomas, including a poster signed by the members of the band and some flowers. 

Before the final song on the program began – Thad Jones’ “The Farewell” – the audience gave Thomas a minute-long standing ovation. They had also given him one as he took the stage and were preparing to give another as the concert ended. 

Thomas received his roses, both from the audience and from the band – literally, in that second case. 

“I didn’t know how much of a family I’d find here,” Thomas said. 

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