- Donny Thompson, M.S., NPA
The Art will Take Care of You
Growing up in Las Vegas, I had a uniquely great music education largely because of my Dad, Roger Rampton. He spent his career as a percussionist playing in the Vegas hotels. I remember going to rehearsals with him from the time I was a little kid, before I even played an instrument. I remember sleeping under the timpani when he was playing with Bob Barclay's orchestra over at the Las Vegas symphony. I was just constantly exposed to music and loved being around musicians. Then when I got a little older and started playing piano as a little kid, I remember going to rehearsals with Johnny Haig's Relief Orchestra. I'd sit behind the piano player, Ronnie Simone. As he played, I'd watch the chords go by and look at his fingers and see how he played the piano. Then later when I started playing trumpet, I used to go and sit behind the trumpet section behind master trumpet players like Rick Baptist and Lynn Nicholson, and I would just sit back and watch them breathe and watch how they approached playing music. Here I was, a 12-year-old kid just starting out, and I was exposed to some of the greatest trumpet players of all time because of Dad. He would take me to rehearsals, and he saw that I was interested. It was unbelievable the education that I got through that experience of of just getting to go to rehearsals with Dad.
When I was about to start sixth grade, I had to choose what instrument I was going to play. I had already learned a little bit of drums from Dad and a little bit of piano from Mom. I went to a rehearsal with Dad, and the musicians let me try out their instruments. They had me try Charlie McLean's alto sax...I tried Carl Fontana's trombone and I tried Rick Baptist's trumpet. Rick told Dad that I was a natural on the trumpet, so that's what I ended up playing. Since then, Rick Baptist moved to Los Angeles and became the first call lead trumpet player in Los Angeles where he has done more than a thousand movie and TV dates for all of the movies and TV shows coming out of LA. So, the first trumpet I ever played was his trumpet, and he's one who told Dad that I should play that instrument. I actually wanted to play sax, because my brother Dale said saxophone players got all the girls, but Dad got me a trumpet instead.
In high school I decided that I wanted to play jazz. I was playing classical music with the Las Vegas Civic Symphony and things like that in Las Vegas, and I was taking lessons from Walt Blanton, who was more than a teacher to me. In some ways he was more of a father to me even than Dad. I loved jazz, and Walt turned me on to a lot of great jazz players, such as Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Don Cherry, Kenny Wheeler and Jack Walrath. He always encouraged me to play jazz, but we studied mostly classical in the beginning. So, one day I went into a lesson and told Walt that I didn't want to play classical music. I said something real stupid, like “Mozart gives me a headache” or something like that. After Walt got done basically yelling at me and telling me I was full of it, he said “OK, so you want to play jazz.” And then he sat me down and gave me a heart-to-heart about it. “OK,” he said, “Well, you've got to realize jazz music is an art form. It's not about showing up to jazz band and wearing a silly hat and some sunglasses and thinking you're cool,” which is kind of what we were doing. Walt said that jazz is an art form and that if I really want to play jazz I'd have to dedicate my life to it. He told me, “If you dedicate your life to the art form and do it for the sake of the art, the art will take care of you. But don't expect to ever make any money. Don't expect to ever own a home. Don't expect to make a good living. You might struggle, but if you're in it for the right reason, for the sake of the art, the art will take care of you.”
I took that to heart, and so I followed that path. I got a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston and used that as a stepping stone. After Berklee, I followed my path to New York. I was broke and had to work as a temp in a bank, but I was playing music in jam sessions, and I had the time of my life. I was flat broke for a lot of years, but I don't regret a second of it.
There were a lot of years I spent not having any money. I did whatever I needed to do to get by. I worked a day job, or I did gigs playing weddings or playing salsa gigs till three or four o'clock in the morning in the Bronx or whatever I needed to do to make ends meet. During the day we would be playing jam sessions in Brooklyn at my apartment or a friend's apartment. We'd be writing new music for each other, challenging each other, growing as artists. I was playing at the time with people like Geoff Keezer (my first roommate in NY), Joshua Redmond, Antonio Hart, Mark Turner, Steve Davis — so many great players who are really leading figures in the music scene today. Christian McBride and I were roommates back then, and now Chris is one of the leading figures in jazz today.
Most of us were broke back then, but we were loving what we were doing for the right reasons, for the sake of the music. Like anything else, you can be a success or a failure. But what does that mean? Does it mean making money, or does it mean doing something where you feel you're making a difference in the world? To me it's the latter. And if you need to make money in order to make more of a difference in the world, that's what will happen.
Everybody has to figure out their own path through life. I helped find my path thanks to Walt Blanton and the advice he gave me. The deeper I get into the music, and the more I've gotten into playing for the sake of the music as opposed to trying to become a star or whatever, the more opportunities seem to come my way.