Barbara Thompson obituary | Jazz
The vibrant history of fluid, cross-cultural musical innovation of the early 21st century now takes for granted the contributions of a growing cohort of powerful saxophonists. But not so long ago, a woman was a striking rarity on an instrument whose evolution in modern music, from the 1920s onwards, had been carried almost exclusively by men. Barbara Thompson, who died at the age of 77 from Parkinson’s disease, was one of the most inspiring exceptions.
Thompson’s formidable instrumental skills included a tenor saxophone voice that could range from the sultry lyricism of Coleman Hawkins or Stan Getz to the power of John Coltrane’s rambunctious soliloquies; agile mastery of bebop on alto sax; and a soft to abstract tonal range on the flute. As a prolific composer, she has written classical concertos and choral works, television themes (including A touch of frost) and decorations for poetry. She made friends and fans all over Europe (especially in Germany) and across generations. Composer and trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, as part of her Polyhymnia project for International Women’s Day in 2015, composed a suite simply titled Barbaric as a tribute to the work and influence of its formidable elder.
Barbara was born in Oxford, to Dick Thompson, later clerk of the court of criminal appeal, and Joan (née Gracey), who had been a student at Oxford University before their marriage. The child was raised in London, first at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and then in Notting Hill, where she attended Fox Primary School and learned to play the recorder. Her parents separated when Barbara was six years old, and her refuge from loss and conflict was to study the finer details of musical creation for hours on end.
At Queen’s College, Harley Street (1955-62), she learned clarinet and piano, and played for five years in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra. Then she spent a season with the Ivy Benson All Girl Band, after learning the alto saxophone by hearing Johnny Hodges play with Duke Ellington. At the Royal College of Music (1962-65), she studied flute, piano, clarinet and composition while taking private lessons in saxophone.
In 1965 Thompson joined the New Jazz Orchestra (NJO), an adventurous big band led by Neil Ardley, and formed the previous year at the Green Man pub in Blackheath. Her jazz experience was still limited, but she learned quickly and enthusiastically, especially through exposure to new music by such original local composers as Ardley, Michael Gibbs and Michael Garrick. Thompson and NJO drummer Jon Hiseman began a relationship that grew into a marriage in 1967.
Thompson’s career gained momentum, both as a composer (her first published piece, for flute and piano, was written while she was still in college) and as a freelancer. Between 1967 and 1971, she played in the all-female band She Trinity (playing beefy baritone sax with them as the opening act for some The Who gigs), co-led a quintet with saxophonist Art Themen, and worked with John Dankworth. and Cleo Laine, Gibbs and Don Rendell. In 1972, Thompson formed the genre group Paraphernalia, with Hiseman joining later in the decade – changing incarnations of the group would continue as a vehicle for her to compose for the next 40 years.
Thompson played saxophones and flute alongside Hiseman’s jazz-rock quintet Colosseum on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1978 classic crossover album Variations, and she later collaborated with Lloyd Webber on the musicals Cats and Starlight Express. From 1973 to 1980, she led Jubiaba, a group of nine Latin jazz musicians, and in the late 1980s, she launched the big band Moving Parts. During these years she was also a regular member of the International United Jazz and Rock Ensemble, a powerful ensemble with a European audience and a line-up including British trumpeters Ian Carr and Kenny Wheeler, German trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff and the Le American sax player Charlie Mariano.
In 1992, to mark the Year of the European Union, Thompson formed the all-acoustic sextet Sans Frontiers, which featured Italian trumpet star Enrico Rava and Polish violinist Michael Urbaniak.
She was made an MBE in 1996. The following year, following concerns about her fingering, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She continued to work, tour and record for the next four years, but was eventually forced to retire from active performance. In 2001, she told the Observer jazz writer Dave Gelly that, although the drugs could probably get her through a few more years: “I won’t play below my best”.
But the meds got better, and Thompson returned to the stage for a 2003 tour with Colosseum and for Paraphernalia concerts in Europe in 2005, recorded as Paraphernalia Live ’05. In 2007, she and Hiseman released the studio album Never Say Goodbye. By the end of the decade, Thompson was working on a piano concerto, the four-movement suite Quantum Leaps for flautist Shona Brown and the single-movement Perpetual Motion, for a 12-piece saxophone ensemble, and more. A BBC documentary directed by Mike Dibb, Play against timea sensitive study five years in the making and published in 2011, depicted Thompson’s artistic and physical battles.
Thompson contributed to Colosseum’s swan song album, Time on Our Side, and toured with the band again in 2015. She completed work on Paraphernalia’s eclectic final album, The Last Fandango, with the ‘Apollo Saxophone Quartet and guest Shona Brown, and his own lyrically shapely and muse of narrative improvisation on soprano and tenor saxophones.
In 2018, Hiseman died after surgery to remove a brain tumor. Thompson witnessed a heartfelt celebration of the couple’s accomplishments at Shepherd’s Bush Empire the following year, featuring members of Paraphernalia and Colosseum, and their daughter, Anna (singer-songwriter Ana Gracey). The National Youth Jazz Orchestra’s collaboration with the other active Paraphernalia players on 10 Thompson Originals was released in 2021 as the studio album Bulletproof.
Thompson is survived by his children, Marcus and Anna, and two siblings, Hugh and Jane.