Peter Batten pays tribute to one of the great British jazz pianists
One wet Friday evening in November 1961 I was about to leave my place of work, the Stevenage College of Further Education. As I came to the main entrance I met a bachelor colleague. Like me he was new to the College; we had both arrived in September.
“What are you doing this evening?” he asked. I explained that I was going to a jazz club run by one of my new neighbours.
“May I join you?” he asked.
Later that evening he gave me a lift and we arrived at the club just as Eddie Thompson was about to play. His dog was already settled comfortably under the grand piano.
Eddie [1925-86] had long been recognised as one of our finest jazz pianists. Born blind, he attended the same school as the great George Shearing. Like some other people with his disability, he turned to piano tuning as his trade. However his talent for jazz soon began to shine through. He performed solo and with bands in a variety of styles. That evening, although I had heard several of his recordings, I was to hear him in person for the first time. I fell in love with his playing. What I did not know was that his dog was about to retire. A few months later Eddie took a very brave decision to try his luck in the clubs of New York.
He was away for ten years. Although he won great respect in New York, he knew that the experience would enhance his ability to make a living in London. By the time he returned I was working at a new college in South London. He often appeared nearby at a pub called the Leather Bottle in Merton. One of my friends played bass with Eddie at his regular gig at the Playboy Club as well at Merton so I was introduced. At that time I was very fond of a great song by Tadd Dameron called “If You Could See Me Now.” Eddie played it superbly, so it became a regular request from me.
Then I decided to give myself a special treat. The music studio at the Sutton College was equipped with a small Bosendorfer grand piano, one of the world’s finest pianos. I arranged for Eddie to give a solo performance for an audience of about 50 people. He loved the piano. The result was an evening of outstanding jazz. I never heard him play better. And there was a bonus. Eddie had a very sharp wit and a stock of jokes, most of them unsuited for polite company. It was an “Evening with Eddie Thompson” to remember.
As we entered the 1980s he was playing better than ever. Sadly his years were limited. He was diagnosed with emphysema. Within 18 months he declined rapidly, was housebound, confined to bed and died, aged 61. He had been a very heavy smoker. ]
If you want to know what a great player he was, call up some of his recordings on Youtube. I would particularly recommend “One Morning in May” by his trio with the great Martin Drew on drums.
At 87 years of age I have been shielding at home during Lockdown. That is my excuse for leading you back through my memories of a lovely, gifted man. One special evening comes to mind. It was August and very hot. I went to the Bull’s Head at Barnes, a famous jazz venue, to hear the great American saxophonist Johnny Griffin. To my delight Eddie was at the piano, with Martin Drew on drums. The music was fantastic, the room was packed, the sweat was pouring off us and even seemed to be running down the walls. Through it all I could see Eddie, exactly opposite me at the grand piano, a broad grin on his face, enjoying the chance to accompany such a great musician.
A final story. One of Eddie’s friends had given him a lift home from a gig. Eddie invited him to come in for a coffee. The curtains were drawn, the house was in total darkness and the friend began to collide with the furniture. “Sorry” said Eddie, “I’ll put the light on. I’d forgotten you could see”.