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Alfred Jack Thomas was an African-American composer, educator, and conductor born on April 16, 1882, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He began his musical training from a young age, taking lessons on an assortment of instruments such as trumpet, mandolin, and violin. His violin teacher was James A. Jordan, a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He won an athletic scholarship that allowed him to attend Washington and Jefferson College.

Upon graduating in 1903 he enlisted in the army, where he served in the 10th U.S. Cavalry at Fort McKenzie, Wyoming, one of only four black outfits of soldiers in the United States Army. While in the army he had the chance to study at the National Conservatory of Music in Manila, Philippines, the Institute of Musical Art of New York, and School for Bandmasters at Chaumont in France. In 1917, he joined the 368th Infantry, 92nd Division, serving as the first black bandmaster in the army from November 21, 1917, to November 4, 1918. He served overseas from June 15, 1918 to February 14, 1918, and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant on November 5, 1918. On March 5, 1919, Thomas was honorably discharged from the army at Camp Meade, Maryland, settling in Baltimore.1

In Baltimore he started his own music school, the Aeolian Conservatory, to teach all willing students since many institutions still barred black students from attending. One advertisement for the conservatory in a local Black newspaper, The Afro American, stated “You cannot go to the Peabody. You don’t have to. Come to the Aeolian. Precisely equal standards are maintained.” At this time Thomas also conducted the Commonwealth Band and the A. Jack Thomas Jazz Orchestra. In 1922 he pushed for the creation of Baltimore’s first “colored” municipal band and upon its creation was appointed its first director. He held positions on the faculty of both Howard University and Morgan State College. He split his time in the late 1930s between his home in Baltimore and New York City, where he opened a music studio and conducted the Negro Symphony Orchestra. In 1941 he was a finalist in a Washington D.C.-based composition competition and had his tone poem Etude en Noir premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra. In 1946 he became the first African American to conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a performance of this same tone poem. He wrote at least two other symphonic works, Scenes Pastoral and Mirage, a march entitled Sons of Liberty, and a few smaller works for voice and piano. He died of complications following a stroke on April 16, 1962.

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             1. Veteran’s Compensation Application, 1936, Ancestry.com

 (Gabriel Severy, Bibliography, Fall 2015)   

Thomas's orchestral work, Etude en Noir, is presented here.

 
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