StoryCorps recently visited Charleston, West Virginia to help over 100 people record their stories. One of the conversations recorded was between Mountain Stage Host Larry Groce and jazz musician Bob Thompson. Thompson grew up in New York City, but moved to West Virginia in the 60s to attend college at West Virginia State.
Since 1991, Bob Thompson has played piano on Mountain Stage. In October 2015, Bob Thompson was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
Bob makes his home in Charleston, West Virginia and has enjoyed a long and active career as a performer, composer, arranger, and educator.
When he arrived by bus to Charleston for the first time in 1960, he faced one incident of racial discrimination. He asked to eat lunch at a business called the Chuck Wagon, and they told him they could serve him, but he couldn’t eat it in the restaurant; he had to take his food and eat it outside.
From there, he said his experience in West Virginia was much better, and at West Virginia State University he met great mentors, who taught him to play music, both in and out of the classroom. At that time, there was a place in Charleston that used to be called the Triangle District, where many African-American owned businesses and nightclubs once thrived. “It was a very vibrant community,” said Thompson.
One night, a professor took him to an after-hours club called, The Crazy Horse, which was on the West Side of Charleston. “There were jam sessions there that went on all night.” Local musicians played with musicians who came through town. “So there was a constant flow of great players. As always, music brought all kinds of people together. You know, young, old, black, white. And that was what was great about it. Plus the willingness of everyone to help you. There was a piano player. And if I thought I knew a song I’d say, ‘can I sit in?’ He’d stand beside me and call out the chord changes to me. And when he felt like I had it he’d say ‘ok kid you got it,’ and he’d go sit down.”
“At that time, liquor by the drink was illegal in West Virginia. It was actually a big house, and there was a big gate, and you went up and you rang the buzzer. Somebody looked out of a window upstairs, and then they buzzed you in. And the club was on the second floor.”
Thompson recalls the music scene in Charleston drastically changed when many of these after-hours clubs were closed down. Many of the businesses in the Triangle District were replaced by urban development in the 1960s and 70s. “But a lot of us just moved into the other clubs. So it was always fun. The thing about it is that the musicians, both black and white, all played together. You know, in other cities I know they had separate musicians unions. But not in Charleston. Musicians were always together. I took it for granted until I saw what was happening in other places.”
Eventually, Thompson decided to stay in West Virginia, instead of returning permanently to New York City. “I was kind of torn, in-between. I liked it here.”
He said the thing that really convinced him to stay was the people. “The friendliness of people, the openness of people. You know, when I first came here, I would walk down Capitol Street, and somebody would pass me and say ‘Hi’. And I was like, ok, what kind of game is this? We didn’t have this in New York. What’s ‘Hi’?”
Thompson recalled another story when he was playing at a ski resort in West Virginia. “And I had a problem with my vehicle. And I drove into Elkins, and I drove into this garage. And I went into Red Stalnaker’s Garage, and he told me what the problem was, and at that time I had this credit card. And he said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not set up to accept that.’ And I didn’t have a checkbook or anything, so I started out the door. And he came out and got me and said, ‘Hey, but I’ll fix your truck.’ And he fixed it and said, ‘wherever you get where you’re going, send me a check. Now, he didn’t ask my name, where I was from, where I was going, nothing. Just ‘wherever you get where you’re going, send me a check.’”