If you had to name the one thing that fueled Carei Thomas’ passion for music through a six-decade career as jazz pianist, composer, educator and community arts organizer, his wife believes the answer would be: everyone else who worked with him.
“When he got out there with other musicians and artists, you could just see him light up,” Joyce Thomas said. “He fed off the energy of other people like no one else.”
As the Minneapolis neighborhood he and Joyce called home for three decades was engulfed by racial tensions that he long worked to alleviate, Thomas died last Thursday at 81. After a fall, complications arose at HCMC that led to heart failure, his wife said.
Despite the consuming chaos surrounding George Floyd’s tragic death just blocks from the Thomases’ home, many friends, fans and fellow musicians from around Minnesota sent online tributes to Thomas over the weekend.
Internationally known jazz singer José James — who performed with and learned from Thomas’ many Twin Cities ensembles — called him “a brilliant pianist, composer and mentor to a generation of artists.”
“He opened my mind and heart to a deeper understanding of music and black culture and showed me that everything is connected — jazz, blues, R&B, doo-wop and so-called classical music,” James said.
Another singer half his age, Mankwe Ndosi said Thomas — who also preached Buddhism to many of his protégés — taught her “theory, joy, humility, persistence, resilience, transformation.”
Known for crafting adventurous and genre-bending musical pieces under his own name and with such groups and collectives as Zeitgeist, the Elders and the Neighborhood Ensemble, Thomas also pioneered such musical concepts as controlled improvisation and tonal fabrics.
He invented new ways of playing the piano after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome in 1993. The nerve disorder required years of physical therapy, limited his finger movements and left him using braces to walk.
“I’m not into the ‘poor thing’ thing,” Thomas said in a 2004 Star Tribune interview. “I think of that illness as something that threw me down another road in life.”
Born in Pittsburgh in 1938, Thomas spent his teens and early 20s in Chicago, where he crossed paths with one of his heroes, Sun Ra; formed a doo-wop group, and collaborated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
After serving abroad in the U.S. Army for two years, Thomas moved to Minneapolis in 1972 to study music education and therapy at the University of Minnesota.
He was involved with many Twin Cities organizations, serving as music director for Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts and on the boards of West Bank School of Music and St. Paul’s High School for Recording Arts; and receiving grants and fellowships from the McKnight and Bush foundations, the Minnesota State Arts Board and more.
In 2011, he published “Compositions and Concepts,” with sheet music and stories behind his pieces dating to 1959. Asked in 2004 about his varied and brave output, Thomas said with a laugh, “I’m too old to be called arrogant. So I can more often get away with doing whatever the [expletive] I want.”
In a 2010 episode of TPT’s “MN Original,” he offered up a comment that spoke to his Buddhist faith of 40 years as well as the tumult that hit his beloved Minneapolis last week.
“We’re all connected as human beings,” he said. “And it’s not some way-out mystical thing. We really can all support and affect each other in positive ways.”
Along with his wife, Thomas is survived by his three children Joi, Jaahred and Aairam, and 10 grandchildren. The family hopes to organize a public tribute to him.