Courtesy of Bubbha Thomas
A sign for Bubbha Thomas' free jazz classes, taken in 1972.
A sign for Bubbha Thomas' free jazz classes, taken in 1972. Courtesy of Bubbha Thomas
I discovered the Houston jazz drummer Bubbha Thomas' albums around the same time I discovered those of the Kashmere High School Stage Band. Thirteen years ago, friends in the Space City — knowing I would pony up a wealth of breaks and beats if they could offer local LPs or 45s in trade — mailed me copies of Kashmere's Out of Gas (But Still Burning) and Energy Control Center, a record made by Thomas' group, The Lightmen Plus One. I can still access the audio imprint that those records burned in my mind. The Kashmere album contained everything I loved about unbridled funk; Energy Control Center held everything I loved about jazz's limitless expression.
It wasn't long until I contacted Thomas to buy some of the records I didn't own, and to interview him for a radio show I hosted on Vanderbilt University's radio station, the now-defunct WRVU. It was then that I learned of his label, called Lightin' Records, and of 45s so rare that copies had never surfaced in the collecting community.
The most interesting 45s that I purchased from Thomas were two with "Not for Sale" stamps on them. A demonstration record is the rarest of the rare, and I hoped that these two 45s — credited to an ensemble with the unwieldy name of Musicians From the Summer Program for Youthful Musicians — would be as good as their titles ("Jazz O.D.," "Brougham") promised. They were. I begged Thomas to tell me more.
Thomas told me that, although his band had produced some fine talent (notably a fledgling Ronnie Laws) who left Houston for the jazz metropolises of New York and Los Angeles, he could never desert the city that reared him. Instead, he decided to educate. His greatest gift to the city of Houston is the program — celebrating its 40th anniversary this year — that produced those two 45s. Thomas had founded the Summer Jazz Workshop because of troubles he'd encountered in college.
"When I went to college, I didn't have any knowledge of music theory," he said. "I could read from sheets and stuff like that, but it was a struggle, 'cause I was behind most of the kids that were in my class. So I decided that I would do something about it."
He couldn't have formed his workshop at a more opportune time. In the early 1970s, Houston's high-school stage bands were at their peak: The Kashmere Stage Band would win "Best High School Stage Band in the Nation" in 1972. During the summer months, a mix of middle school, high school and a smattering of college students honed their chops under the instruction of The Lightmen and respected educators like the Kashmere Stage Band's late bandleader, Conrad O. Johnson. The workshop consisted of instruction, performance and a business course in releasing records.
"We'd go on field trips to see how records were made," Thomas said. "We tried to take the kids through the whole process — writing the songs, selecting the right personnel and then going ahead to record."
Thomas released a total of eight 45s by Musicians From the Summer Program for Youthful Musicians throughout the '70s on Lightin', and I've collected my favorites here.