A Life in the BandJohn Thomas was talented in many ways. He enjoyed playing organ for church services and accompanying students at the piano. He had a cartoonist’s knack for drawing, and his figures were whimsical and expressive. In a 40-year career as an orchestral flutist, he played under Stokowski and Bernstein. And his teaching career spanned sixty years, most of it at the Eastman School of Music. His life was devoted to two loves: music and family.
John Taylor Thomas was born August 15, 1922, the second of Ralph and Rebekah Thomas’s three sons. Ralph was a teller at Mellon Bank; Rebecca, the music-lover of the pair, trained as a school teacher at Indiana Normal School (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania). John grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Schenley High School. In his youth, and to his family, he was “Jack.”
Young Jack studied flute with Victor Saudek, who was well known in Pittsburgh as a flutist and radio pioneer. In 1922 Saudek organized the first music ensemble created solely for radio, the KDKA Little Symphony; he then conducted the world’s first live orchestral concert broadcast on the station. Saudek was the first flute teacher of Joseph Mariano, who would in time become Jack’s teacher. (Vic’s son, Robert Saudek, was the producer of Omnibus, a pioneering arts broadcast on CBS and ABC TV in the 1950s.) Jack studied piano with Mary Scanlon and organ with Homer Wicklein.
In 1940, Jack moved north to Rochester, New York to attend Eastman School of Music as a student of Joseph Mariano. Many other well-known players passed through Mariano’s studio at that time, including Doriot Dwyer, Murray Panitz, Robert Willoughby and Walfrid Kujala.
The U.S. involvement in World War Two began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. After three years at Eastman, John was drafted into the Army, serving from June 7, 1943 to March 6, 1946. As he left for training, Howard Hanson, Director of Eastman School, hand-wrote his recommendation:
“Mr. Thomas is an excellent student, a splendid flutist and a young man of attractive personality and sound character. His record as a student has been most satisfactory and I recommend him highly to your consideration.”
John’s basic training was at Fort McClellan, Alabama. “After almost three weeks of a 13-week cycle in a unit of mostly college kids we were on a 5-mile forced march. I had athlete’s foot and in the march fainted. It had spread over my body, then after 4 or 5 weeks in the hospital, they put me in the 4th week of a 16-week cycle, then into the band.” Percy Grainger’s performance of Grieg’s Concerto and his own music at the camp in June 1944 must have lifted spirits a bit. John became a devoted Grainger fan.
Among John’s bandmates was Edgar Lee Kirk, a bassoonist who would later play quintets with John and go on to a distinguished career at Michigan State University. Ed recalled that in June of 1944 “we were told that the band was being disbanded, and on July 19 we were shipped to Fort Meade, Maryland, then to Fort Dix, New Jersey and on to Europe where, thanks to your father’s efforts, he, Bob Guenther and I all wound up in the 29th Division Band.”
Marriage to MimiAround that time, John met Marian Parsons, who had dated his brother Ralph, in Pittsburgh. In letter to his granddaughter Rebekah shortly before his death, John wrote:
“We were told ‘no band’; we would all be ‘replacements’”—replacements for soldiers killed or wounded in action, that is. “That day I phoned a nice girl I had met back home and at the time my brother liked her too. She trained down and we were married.”
Mimi was a lively redhead. She had no formal musical training, but she was always singing; her sweet voice kept the music of radio days alive in the Thomas household for decades. John and “Mimi” were married on June 22, 1944 while John was on leave before shipping out.
John was stationed in Germany and the Netherlands during the War. He credited his service in the 29th Infantry Division Band with saving him from the Battle of the Bulge.
While based near Bremen during the Allied occupation of Germany, John took flute lessons with Eduard Wissmann, principal flute of the Bremer Staatsorchester, who had studied composition with Sigfrid Karg-Elert at the Leipzig Conservatory. “Müller, the repair man and the instrument maker, told me about the flutist who lived right around the corner,” John remembered. “He said ‘He just came out of the army.’ So I went in and traded stuff from the kitchen [for flute lessons]. For the first time they had lots of butter and so on. With me, the very first thing: pure tone [no vibrato]. He was the one who taught me how to do it.”
After the war, John returned to Eastman, receiving the B.M. in 1947 and the M.M. in Flute Performance and Literature in 1949. His thesis was an edition of a sonata by Jean-Marie Leclair. As an awardee of the Performer’s Certificate, he performed the Concertino by Norman Dello Joio with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra conducted by Howard Hanson in 1948. (Dello Joio’s work has remained unpublished. This was an early example of John’s interest in new music.) During that time, John also played in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Erich Leinsdorf for two seasons, 1947-49.
San Antonio and RochesterIn 1949, John was appointed principal flute in the San Antonio Symphony under Max Reiter. The Symphony was one of the nineteen “major” orchestras at the time, and the only one in Texas. Reiter was a German-Italian Jewish émigré and friend of Richard Strauss. Among the highlights of those years, John played in the U.S. premiere of (3 of the) Four Last Songs by Strauss, with soprano Kirsten Flagstad. (The Board of the San Antonio Symphony announced the dissolution of the orchestra on June 16, 2022.)
But Thomas’s tenure in San Antonio was brief. When Reiter died of a heart attack in 1950, Victor Alessandro became music director. Shortly thereafter, Thomas and a number of musicians left the orchestra. In retrospect, John seemed proud of his brief, makeshift second career in San Antonio, often recalling services as the organist at Travis Park Presbyterian Church, selling Fuller brushes and working for Maxwell Meyers, a flute-maker. In future years, John would often be the quick-fix flute-repair guy for students at Eastman School.
In 1954, John, Mimi and their three children—John Jr., Jeff and Tim—moved back to Rochester, N.Y., where John assumed the 2nd Flute and Piccolo chair in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, succeeding Walfrid Kujala, who had taken the piccolo position with the Chicago Symphony. The music director was still Erich Leinsdorf. Once again, he was seated next to his teacher, Mariano. In the RPO, John played under many of the great conductors of the day, including Leinsdorf, Bernstein, Stokowski, George Enescu and Pierre Monteux.
That orchestra was busy. In addition to the Rochester Philharmonic subscription series, the orchestra under Paul White performed radio concerts as the Rochester Civic Orchestra. As a recording orchestra, it made dozens of landmark LPs of American music for Mercury Living Presence. In the pre-stereo age, these single-microphone recordings were the audiophile standard. The total number of tracks recorded by the Orchestra in those years approaches two hundred. When Hanson conducted, it was called the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra; under Frederick Fennell, it was the Eastman-Rochester “Pops.” Many of the recordings are still in the catalogue. During the 1960s the Orchestra also released recordings on the Everest label of music by Sibelius, Debussy and Ravel as the “Rochester Philharmonic” under Theodore Bloomfield.
John’s piccolo work can be heard on two different recordings of Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite: one conducted by Grofé, one by Hanson, Curiously, on Grofe’s Everest recording, made in 1958, the piccolo enters a little late. John would say later: “Grofé was drunk!” Hanson’s 1960 recording is more straightforward. Other recordings with piccolo highlights include Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune, Bernard Rogers’s Leaves from the Tale of Pinocchio, and the Ballad movement of Lyndol Mitchell’s Kentucky Mountain Portraits.
During his fourteen-year tenure in the Rochester Philharmonic, John made many solo appearances with Mariano, including a 1963 Cimarosa Concerto for Two Flutes with the Eastman Chamber Orchestra (ECO) conducted by Clyde Roller, and performances of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in 1962 with the ECO conducted by Fennell, and in 1967 with that orchestra conducted by Richard Bales. Mariano and Thomas also played in the annual Rochester Bach Festival orchestra, appearing several times as duo-soloists in Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto.
As part of the 1957 Festival of American Music, John played in a performance of Dominick Argento’s Ode to the West Wind, a doctoral dissertation that featured Argento’s wife, soprano Carolyn Bailey. (John’s upturned head is visible in the left third of the photo, right.) Many years later, John’s “No. 4 son,” David, who was born in 1958, would become Argento’s student and grad assistant at the University of Minnesota.
In addition to his piccolo work in the Philharmonic, John appeared as piccolo soloist several times in his career. In 1962 he played Vivaldi’s C-major Concerto with Eastman Chamber Orchestra conducted by Fennell.
“The instrument twittered with a lovely, liquid brightness that we are sure many a bird would have envied. Mr. Thomas’s tone is always on the mellow side, never shrill.” (Harvey Southgate, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, 7/6/62)
In 1967, John was the first piccolo soloist ever with the Rochester Philharmonic in Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor, conducted by Music Director László Somogyi.
“…a rare and welcome exposition of one of the Philharmonic’s most capable musicians. Opening the program, he and his tiny instrument brought high-pitched elegance and a fine sense of delicacy to Vivaldi’s music.” (George Kimball, Rochester Times-Union, 2/3/67)
Listen to John’s performance of the Larghetto, from Concerto in A minor, RV 445:
Thomas was one of over a dozen musicians who resigned from the Rochester Philharmonic en masse at the end of the 1967–68 season in an artistic and labor dispute. It was at just this time that the youngest of the Thomas children, Christine, was born.
Chamber Orchestra and Chamber MusicJohn played principal flute in the Rochester Chamber Orchestra (RCO) for twenty-five years, appearing every few seasons as soloist under the direction of David Fetler: in Richard Lane’s Legend (1971); a Vivaldi piccolo concerto (1974); Fauré’s Fantasie (1978) and Bloch’s Suite Modale (1981).
In 1986 John and his daughter Christine were soloists with the RCO in Waterways: A Rochester Triptych, a work by David Evan Thomas commissioned by the Orchestra. John’s last solo performance with the RCO was in 1989 in the Bloch Concertino.
John loved to play chamber music. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Eastman Faculty Woodwind Quintet. In the mid-1960s, he formed the Rochester Chamber Trio, a flute-cello-piano ensemble that at different times included cellists Polly Hunsberger and Alan Harris, and pianists William Cerny and Jared Bogardus. He also played a number of recitals with Cerny. And he presented many summer chamber concerts at the University of Rochester— with a different ensemble each year: In 1972, a partnership with guitarist Gene Bertoncini; in 1973, a woodwind quartet program with pianist Maria Luisa Faini; in 1974, a program of mixed chamber music with Faini, violist Francis Tursi and violinist Oliver Steiner. And son David joined John as pianist for three summer recitals, 1978–80.
When asked to name his favorite composer, John typically would say “Howard Hanson.” But that was a pose. He was very fond of French composers, and passionate about J.S. Bach. He had a knack for finding interesting chamber music that needed to be heard, and contemporary music figured in many of his concerts. Looking through programs, (with the exception of Bach, Vivaldi and Cimarosa) one rarely sees the same title twice.
John’s irrepressible artistic side would come out in the informal concert programs he would decorate with whimsical figures. One program by the Rochester Chamber Trio featured puppeteer Rick Lyon, then a student at Denonville Junior High School. Lyon would go on to create the puppets for the Tony Award-winning musical, Avenue Q. For several years John designed and printed linocut cards for Christmas, usually depicting a musical elf or angel.
For 44 years, John taught flute and chamber music at Eastman School and the Eastman Preparatory Department, which later became Eastman Community Music School. He was not the primary flute teacher at Eastman; for decades that was Mariano, then Bonita Boyd. But he taught many music education majors, music minors, River Campus students and Prep Department students. In his summer studio at Eastman, John taught woodwind doublers who came for Summer Session and the Arranger’s Holiday. To see where John fits into the landscape of American flute-playing and teaching, see Demetra Fair’s dissertation, Flutists’ Family Tree: In Search of the American Flute School, Ohio State University, 2003.
John taught summers at Tally-Ho Music Camp in the 1950s and 60s and at the Allegheny Summer Music Festival from 1974 well into the 80s. He played principal flute in the orchestra, and enjoyed a quintet with Galen Kral, oboe, James Gholson, clarinet, Richard Dolph, horn and Richard Yeager, bassoon.
For many years, John was a member of the Monroe County Parks Band, a scrappy, county-funded, Union ensemble conducted by old-timer John Cummings. The band played two-hour outdoor programs without intermission on a mobile shell throughout the summer. In 1991 the Band toured Germany. It was the first time John had been overseas since the war.
RetirementAfter retiring from Eastman in 1995, John continued to teach at home. And he returned to the organ bench, serving a Brighton congregational church through his last year.
John and Mimi Thomas were married for 67 years, living for the last 47 in Penfield, N.Y., an eastern suburb of Rochester. Mimi Thomas died on June 25, 2010. At the memorial service, John accompanied his niece, Debbie, as she played his composition, Memory, on the violin.
John T. Thomas died February 15, 2012. He was 89. At the memorial service, his son David noted words of Pablo Casals printed on the cover of his father’s music folder: “When you wake up in the morning, thank God you are alive. Remember you are the most important person in the world. When you are unhappy, play Bach.”
John was cremated and interred in the Thomas family plot in the Community Cemetery in Monroe, New York (Orange Co.), the town where his Welsh grandfather, Thomas Bennett Thomas, had served as minister over a century before.
A tribute to John appeared in the Summer 2012 Flutist Quarterly, the magazine of the National Flute Association. Two former students offered reminiscences: “He was my flute teacher for one transformative summer at Eastman, when I was still in high school,” notes NFA member Zara Lawler. “I will always remember his ‘Karate Kid’ approach. Although I had been playing advanced pieces for many years, he took me back to the beginning and we spent the summer working through very simple pieces to make them musically communicative and meaningful. Though I had been working on scales for years, I never really ‘knew’ them until that summer of being put through my paces by Mr. Thomas in our daily lessons.”
Anne Harrow, associate professor of flute at Eastman, recalled: “John Thomas’s studio  on the third floor of the Eastman School of Music was a fixture for years. We knew that behind that door, surrounded by a fascinating assortment of flute repair tools and gadgets, we would find one of the kindest, most knowledgeable flutists anywhere. He was never too busy to tinker with a leaky pad or sluggish key for a relieved student. I often think of him when I pass that door. We will miss you, John Thomas.”
John is survived by five children: John, Jr. (Sarah Davis); Jeffrey (Jane) and children James, Rebekah, Sarah, and Susannah; Timothy (Jody) and children Joel and Joelle; David (the author of this biography); and Christine (Thomas) Tsen (William Tsen) and children Kira and Liam. Since 2012, three great-grandchildren have been born: Aida and Luna, daughters of Rebekah and Fabian Martinez, and Jane Grace, daughter of Sarah and Mike Lopez.
John’s epitaph is a phrase he would occasionally recall from his Army Days. About two months after D-Day, his company landed at Omaha Beach. The beaches were all cleaned up, but there was still fighting at Brest, where the submarine pens were. The men had been sleeping in foxholes. An officer came around, looking for truck drivers. He asked Private Thomas: “What do you do?” “I play piccolo, captain.” (He never called anybody “Sir.”)
Next day, before break, there was a call for Thomas: “Pack your stuff. Report to command.” Then, over his shoulder, the sergeant said: “You’re in the band.”