Composing A Jazz Anthem For Gay Rights: Omar Thomas’s ‘We Will Know’
By the time the Omar Thomas Large Ensemble’s debut album “I Am” reached number one on the iTunes jazz charts earlier this year, Omar Thomas himself was already hard at work on his next project: composing an anthem for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
The 29-year-old Boston composer and arranger was inspired to take on the challenge when he entered a video contest for the “It Gets Better Project.” Driven by his own sexuality as an openly gay male, and more so by the struggles that too many others face, Thomas saw the project as an opportunity to create a musical voice for those who felt silenced. Knowing words weren’t his strong suit, over time the idea transformed from a video project into a jazz arrangement that he eventually named “We Will Know: An LGBT Civil Rights Piece in Four Movements.”
“It all felt right at that point,” says Thomas. “What it became was something reflective of our past, which was really important to me, but also a reminder of our present and future.”
Each movement of the piece, encompasses a certain era in the ongoing fight for gay rights; beginning with the retrospective “Hymn” and “In Memoriam,” and working its way to the finale of “May 9th, 2012” which commemorates the day that marriage equality was endorsed by President Obama.
On June 26, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, creating another giant step forward for marriage equality.
“My initial reaction was just sheer emotion on so many levels,” says Thomas. “I was buzzing, shaking—I hadn’t felt that way since May 9th, 2012.”
The victories of June 26 hit on a more personal level for Thomas as well. That same night, coincidentally, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ opened the first night of its 35th anniversary concert at San Francisco’s Nourse Theatre by performing a movement from Thomas’s “We Will Know.”
Thomas may live on the opposite coast from San Francisco, but this type of recognition is not unusual for him. Thomas won the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award in 2008 and the 2012 Boston Music Award for Jazz artist of the Year, among other accolades.
The attention is well deserved, too. Thomas’s grasp for classic big band construction can be traced back to legendary composers such as Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington. His classical training, however, is matched with an affinity for the cutting edge, guided by the modern stylings of his greatest musical influence, Pat Metheny. Even when stretching his limbs towards more Latin-inspired grooves or technically complex realms, his command on stage provides for a cohesive and monumental sound.
After graduating from James Madison University where Thomas studied music education, he arrived in Boston in 2006 to pursue a master of music degree in jazz composition from the New England Conservatory of Music. Not long after starting there, he applied for a teaching job at Berklee School of Music on a whim while looking for staff jobs. Out of an applicant pool of over 80, Thomas was appointed assistant professor of harmony at the ripe age of 23.
Five years later and Thomas has been a nominee for the “Distinguished Faculty Award.” His youthful energy and recognition of modern and relevant music styles are both things that his students praise. But while Thomas’ energy in the classroom has affected many young musicians, he aims to connect with an even larger audience with his own music.
Thomas plans to record and release “We Will Know” as an EP, but is raising money to do so through a Pledge Music campaign. If he and his ensemble raise their goal of $5,000, he says a portion of the proceeds beyond that will be donated directly to the Human Rights Campaign. Rewards for donating to this project include signed albums and personal music lessons from Thomas. You can directly through his Pledge Music page at http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/wewillknow or through his website at http://www.omarthomasmusic.com/.
“I like to think that what I’m doing is no different than what a journalist or filmmaker does,” says Thomas. “The medium of music is a powerful and empathetic force that has the power to open people’s minds to what is going on in the world.”
Perry Eaton is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Boston music blog Allston Pudding, where he stays busy writing about new bands, booking shows around Boston, and even soundtracking local films. Eaton has also written for various online and print publications.