Life of the cool

Rob Thompson, campus jazz man, translates boplicity into a way to live and smile.

by Lolla Mohammed Nur

The Jazz Man hasnâÄôt always played jazz. Years ago, he thought R&B would be more appreciated by college students.

“But that kind of music, nobody was into it,” he said. “And I said, âÄòOK, let me go back to my roots, OK? Jazz, OK?âÄô”

It was an instant success.

“My whole trip is about bringing people together, you know, and jazz is the only form I can do that, along with my personality,” he explained. “I want to show warmth. I want to show a full smile on the bus. ThatâÄôs my only tool of trying to bridge people together.”

If youâÄôve never been on the Jazz ManâÄôs Campus Connector before, you are surely missing out on some good music, good vibes and good company. Students ride on the Jazz ManâÄôs bus for a free jam session along with a few stolen moments of relaxation and indulgence in his compliments and upbeat jazz tunes.

I had a chance to chat over coffee with Rob Thompson, the Jazz ManâÄôs real name. One minute heâÄôs all jokes and the next heâÄôs lamenting about how segregation hurt black jazz artistsâÄô careers.

Sipping on a cappuccino and donning a cheeky grin, earring and baseball cap, Thompson said he owes his moniker to the ladies.

“They called me âÄòJazzy,âÄô and so from there it became âÄòJazz ManâÄô about eight years ago,” he said. “ThereâÄôs no lyrics to jazz. You just tap your feet and click your fingers, you know? And bob your head if you really like it,” he said.

Naturally, the Detroit nativeâÄôs passion for jazz started when he was a teenager in his hometown. The oldest of 11 kids, he grew up with jazz at home and at jazz stations.

Thompson was 13 when a friendâÄôs father, who owned a barber shop, played jazz on a turntable there. Every Sunday, theyâÄôd listen to Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and âÄî ThompsonâÄôs favorite âÄî Miles Davis.

But most of his peers werenâÄôt “turned on to jazz” in junior high because the music scene was about Motown then.

“I was sort of a rebel. I used to go to parties, you know. I would come in with my jazz LPs under my arm,” he reminisced. “And all my friends would say, âÄòRobert, we donâÄôt wanna hear Miles Davis.âÄô”

When Thompson was younger, his family moved to an all-white suburb, where he experienced racism and felt disconnected from his roots.

After his parents moved back to a black community, he said he turned it around and relearned his roots in the hood.

Now a Frogtown resident, Thompson still experiences subtle racism, even on his bus, but it doesnâÄôt bring him down.

“I see jazz music as a way to deconstruct those barriers and bring people together,” he said. “I donâÄôt care where youâÄôre from. Jazz is an international language, wherever you are.”

Thompson brings 40 CDs on the bus every morning and goes through 12 every day. Latin music and R&B occasionally spice up his jazz selection and an otherwise predictable route.

“Going round and round in a circle all day with no music âÄî itâÄôs enough to blow your mind!” he said. “ItâÄôs such a smooth ride to get some nice jazz kickinâÄô on the bus. It makes the atmosphere a lot more comfortable. People strike up conversations.”

And with Thompson, they do. Students wave when he passes down Washington Avenue. “Everybody knows me as the jazz hound,” he bragged.

“My philosophy is to be thankful for what you have. Take advantage of what you have,” he said. “And always be true with other people and always be true to yourself. If you can be good to yourself, you can be good to other people âÄî and there are rewards that come after that.”

Thompson says he enjoys luxury, like his vintage 1985 Cadillac Eldorado and a specially ordered $4,000 leather sofa.

“I live extravagant; I like the finest things of life. I like to enjoy things âÄî fine things âÄî where available,” Thompson said.

Besides going fishing and spending hours at the Electric Fetus, Thompson hangs out at jazz clubs and plays percussion for fun. Some Fridays, Thompson has jam sessions at his home with students.

Although Thompson has played music since he started driving in 1997, his contract was only supposed to last two years when he was first hired.

“Here I am 13 years later, OK! IâÄôm still here, yeah,” he chuckled. “Before I knew it, I was doing something people liked and made a difference. I thought, âÄòThere ainâÄôt no stopping now.âÄô”

And there really isnâÄôt any stopping him. ThompsonâÄôs management tried to prevent him from playing music when the University of Minnesota changed contracts a few years ago, he said. Two thousand students signed a petition in protest and organized a successful call-in.

“They canâÄôt [stop me] because the force of the people is too heavy, you know,” he said. “It just goes to show you the power of the people sometimes, to make a difference.”

The hardest part of his job, he said, is trying to keep up with the frantic schedule, which doesnâÄôt allow him to eat lunch. But the student appreciation he gets far outweighs any negatives.

“You cats are my partners in crime. This is not my job, itâÄôs my backbone. Students are why IâÄôm here and why IâÄôm up every day,” he said.

ThompsonâÄôs passion for jazz and positivity are contagious. He has never had a bad day and is content with life. Passengers thank him walking out, give him notes and ask him for music recommendations. He sometimes accepts requests, too.

“Sometimes I get teary-eyed, to know that you have touched a person in a very special way,” he said. “It keeps me motivated. Every day I get on the bus with a smile, and I canâÄôt wait to start.”


Lolla Mohammed Nur welcomes comments at [email protected]