Vibraphonist Thaddeus Tukes, a Chicago native, has just released his new album, Let’s Vibe. Tukes is a Luminarts fellow and recipient of the Vivian G. Harsh Emerging Artist Award. He has been featured at the Chicago Jazz Festival, Hyde Park Jazz Festival, and is one of the most virtuosic vibraphonist in the country.
Tukes started his musical journey around three, using his grandmother's upright piano to make up his own songs. By the time he reached almost five his grandmother insisted he take professional lessons with the first lady’s sister at his great grandmother's church. Studying mostly classical music, in the third grade he was nominated by his elementary school teacher to audition for The Percussion Scholarship Program, which is sponsored by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Here Tukes got free weekly percussion lessons with a husband and wife duo, who were members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic orchestra. “We learned classical piano, classical percussion, marimba, drums, xylophone, vibraphone, castanets, toms, anything you can think of. Every Saturday we had percussion ensemble rehearsal for seven to eight hours. Concert season would be seven hours every weekend for two months.”
While Tukes loved the program, he didn’t necessarily love the music. He would often remix the sheet music. This was the start of a series of events that led Tukes to his musical destiny. At his great grandmother's house he found Lionel Hampton’s album, Flying Home. “It had a picture of him in a bowtie with his vibraphone. Playing that album changed everything for me.”
“My personality and the vibraphone are the same, the instrument reflects my personality. It has so many nuance textures and overtones in all it can create."
While attending The Percussive Arts Society International Conference (PASIC), Tukes had a very eye opening experience. Stefon Harris’s Blackout ensemble was playing that year. It was the first time not only had he seen someone play the jazz vibes but found someone he could identify with. The vibes drew him to jazz. Soon he had his cousin, Theophilus Reed, a Chicago jazz singer and pianist, teach him and show him chord voicing. “My personality and the vibraphone are the same, the instrument reflects my personality. It has so many nuance textures and overtones in all it can create. What other instrument can sustain four notes and trigger the vibrato pattern. The vibraphone can stand in front of the band and be the star or can be in the background. You feel its presence and it works in both cases”
Tukes love for vibes shows through as he talks about the possibilities the instrument could have on the jazz genre, “I believe that the sound John Coltrane was going for, if he played vibes, it would have brought it to a different level. The walls of sound that he was presenting, imagine if he could sustain that, and control the vibrato. He could than really get those collective overtones”
He uses the vibes to elevate his music and gives his songs the movement that makes him stand apart. “I already have the melodies and chords written before I get to the studio, I’m just thinking about how the groove moves track to track. I don’t want it to sound like one long song and I want you to feel different things on different songs. To keep you aware that the music is there because the groove literally shifts, you move differently in response to what you're hearing. And I think it helps you feel something when the band is switching it up. I try to bring dance and movement back into the concert experience. Instead of being an observer you are a participation. I feel like music dies when you're not a participant anymore.”
Jazz is going to move everywhere like it always has. There is no jazz sound. It is a lifestyle, a mentality, a way of doing things, and you can execute jazz through a variety of tones, and a combination of tones accompanied with rhythms.
We asked if he thought this was one of the causes of the decline of jazz in the popular sense. “ I think people gravitate to what they think is available and what there is easy access too. I think people see other genres more from the global music community. Jazz has to repackage itself.” Tukes see’s this repackaging in people like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Splading, who he feels are doing amazing things for the genre. Asking where he does see jazz going, Tukes inspires us in his outlook. “Jazz is going to move everywhere like it always has. There is no jazz sound. It is a lifestyle, a mentality, a way of doing things, and you can execute jazz through a variety of tones, and a combination of tones accompanied with rhythms. It’s great people are still talking about it, asking about it. If you can’t define it, it isn't dead.”
When he's not performing, Tukes, is an educator, giving master classes and workshops from pre-K to undergraduate. Loving the variety, it forces him to come up with different ways to teach. “It keeps me sharp, staying at the very forefront of the research.” He has seven year olds who want to be jazz musicians and he hopes that he can encourage them right when their musical tastes are developing. His advice to young musicians is that your career starts now. “If it's something you want to do, study the people who are doing it, and realize even what you're doing now is building towards that career. Keep trying and don't be upset if it doesn't work out the way you think or looks different because the universe always works in our favor and if you follow your vibes you’ll find your peace.”
Tukes' overall love for the genre and his extensive educational background has given him the tools to do all his own arranging. One of his greatest arranging teachers was Victor Goines, who was head of jazz studies at Northwestern where he attended. “I was a fan of his arranging and writing at the age of fifteen. I was watching a PBS documentary, and Victor was on there , I just wanted to be like him.” Among other inspirations he lists, “Orbert Davis, Roy Hargrove, “September in the Rain” is a killer track, Count Basie, and of course Quincy Jones.”
His new album, Let’s Vibe, is about connecting. “Its about finding our common ground. To build a better future for all of us.” He listened to himself on this album critically and learned a lot about his own playing and arranging. The challenging part about the album was finding the sound he wanted, which was something stripped down. “The first and second album had six people, this album only had four people. A quartet has a different vibe. How do I avoid just using the vibes as a horn instrument when I can play chords and create textures with it? How can I present it in a way that shows the variety of its functions. On the song “Thad’s Theme,” the first time you hear the melody the vibe is the leading voice. The second time its used as a background to the piano solo and the third time it's used as a shout chorus for the drums. It's just showing off the beautiful instrument and what it can do.”
Let’s Vibe, is an ode to the vibes and Tukes' ambitions for his music career sound through the album. His main message and goal, “To actively make the choice to communicate with peace, empathy, and love in order to build a better future.”
As we ended our interview we ask what we always do, his favorite jazz album of all time, "Just One of Those Things: Lionel Hampton Featuring Oscar Peterson on Verve.”
Let's Vibe is streaming now, and be sure to check out Tuke's social pages: