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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
Review: “The Watchers”
Published June 13, 2024

Where did the Jazz Man go?

Rob Thompson, widely known as the “Jazz Man,” was transferred away from campus.
Where did the Jazz Man go?
Image by Erin Westover

Christian Gerrard started riding Rob ThompsonâÄôs bus on a rainy fall afternoon two years ago.

The University of Minnesota junior was âÄúblown awayâÄù when he first stepped onto the bus âÄî he heard Miles Davis blaring over the chatter of other passengers.

Like many students, Gerrard grew to expect a smile and âÄòhelloâÄô from the man who became his favorite bus driver âÄì the man known around campus as the âÄúJazz Man.âÄù

After 12 years, Thompson no longer drives his Campus Connector bus.

During a trip on his route this summer, he gave a passenger his phone number to âÄútalk jazz.âÄù According to Thompson, the passenger notified First Transit, the UniversityâÄôs provider for buses and drivers, in late July.

By September, the company re-routed Thompson to Brooklyn Center.

First Transit, which contracts with the University to operate connectors and circulators, employs more than 40 drivers at the University.

 Bus drivers receive guidelines when they are hired, outlining policies like driver-passenger interaction.

âÄúGiving out contact information isnâÄôt something we encourage,âÄù said the companyâÄôs spokesperson Maureen Richmond.

She called ThompsonâÄôs relocation a âÄútransfer.âÄù

First Transit officials acknowledged ThompsonâÄôs presence in the University community, but they said he wanted to âÄútry something different.âÄù

Thompson said his employer and the University are working with him to return to his route on campus as early as November.

The UniversityâÄôs Fleet Services, which handles the titles and insurance for University vehicles, declined to comment.

Thompson believes the jazz might be part of the reason he was relocated.

His management tried to prevent him from playing music on his connector when the University changed contracts in 2007. With the help of more than 1,000 student signatures on a petition, the jazz that defined Thompson kept on playing.

He carried about 30 CDs with him each morning, often varying tunes by time of day and season, blowing out five boom boxes over the years.

Bus riders started wondering where Thompson was by the time September rolled around.

âÄúI was confused when I didnâÄôt see him at first. I loved getting on that bus,âÄù University senior Jennifer Jacobsen said.

Many students said the rides from West Bank to the St. Paul campus and back again arenâÄôt the same without Thompson.

âÄúThe times on [ThompsonâÄôs] bus canâÄôt be remade. They were always fun, and they were always a way to escape for a few minutes,âÄù senior Kyra Underbakke said. âÄúHe went above and beyond his job as a bus driver.âÄù

ThompsonâÄôs following isnâÄôt limited to students âÄî University faculty also rode his Campus Connector over the years.

He created a unique atmosphere for his passengers, said Karen Moon, an adviser in the College of Continuing Education.

âÄúI think people who offer something different are extremely [valuable] âĦ He did his job with heart,âÄù she said.

Connecting through jazz

As a teenager, the Detroit native dreamed of becoming a DJ, hoping to connect with people through the music he played.

Thompson said playing jazz on the bus is like living his childhood dreams.

Students said he exposed them to dozens of jazz musicians during their short trips between campuses.

Many students, like Clinton Bergene, arenâÄôt even jazz fans. But the computer science junior said that didnâÄôt matter.

âÄúItâÄôs not about the music âĦ ItâÄôs about the atmosphere and how he made you feel on the [bus]. HeâÄôs a kind of person who doesnâÄôt come around often,âÄù he said.

To many students, Thompson was a campus celebrity.

âÄúYou hear about him before you even step foot on the campus,âÄù Gerrard said.

Thompson hopes to return to his University route just as he was âÄî with the jazz that he loves.

Many students said they used to wait for ThompsonâÄôs connector to swing by, recognizing ThompsonâÄôs honk and wave.

 âÄúHeâÄôs a model for what everyone should be like âĦ IâÄôve never seen him with a frown on his face,âÄù Bergene said.

Thompson isnâÄôt allowed to bring his boom box on his new route, but said he appreciates his job.

âÄúItâÄôs more of a routine in [Brooklyn Center] âĦ I want to get this show back on the road.âÄù

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