I had started a masters in composition at Rutgers, but I was not happy with the program because it was too musicological. I wound up studying at C.W. Post College and had lessons with Wolpe for two years, 1968-70. I had studied with Stockhausen when he was visiting professor in Philadelphia in 1963. Then I went to the University of Illinois, and the players out there turned me on to the great modern jazz of the time. I got really swept away by it. Once I realized I was infatuated with modern jazz I put my compositional interests on hold. So even when I went to Wolpe, I was still trying to make a "jazz, classical" connection.
I was working on some things that were still tinged by the Stockhausen influence, and I now acknowledge they were false trails for me. Wolpe was very patient with me and allowed me to work through these scores. One piece had very little notation on it and a tape that went with it of sound materials from the sculpture of Harry Bertoia. Wolpe went right on ahead and taught me a lot of things anyway. He talked about pieces he was working on at the time, about his way of constructing them. He didn't pull out the actual music, but he would do these incredible improvisations at the piano while he was talking. He would demonstrate with a few notes here and there, little clusters and rhythmic shapes, changes in register, ways of using pitches, anything you could imagine that he might be interested in dealing with, almost as if he were doing a commentary on his remarks by playing at the piano. Those improvisations just stuck with me, and I remember taking a lot of notes.
The ideas took root very strongly both in my composition and in my approach to jazz playing. As so often happens with our experiences as apprentices to these masters we work with, a lot of it sinks in and takes root in some mysterious way and bears a lot of fruit later, because a lot of these things don't make sense at first, as they are very new, and fresh, and innovative. Every now and then I'll look at something I'm doing in my music and I'll realize that these things are coming forth out of those wonderful times I had with Wolpe, the remarks he made and the things he shared with me. This incredible freedom to explore music with a sort of unlimited focus, with nothing but your own vision for what you want the piece to be. I am really grateful for having gone through the experience with him. Even as a jazz player I don't play a single old straight ahead F-blues without in some way realizing that what I try to do as a "player" is directly connected with the ideas Wolpe shared with me. [...]
The strongest memory is that he really dealt with me lesson by lesson, and he talked about different things each time. But they were always accompanied by these wonderful demonstrations. It was almost as if he were showing me a lot of things about how he thought about pitches, and about how other aspects of composition were so fundamentally important to him beyond the fact of what notes were there. The whole concept of having everything in one work, everything needing to be there. I read Thinking Twice very carefully many times. That did support a lot of what he was saying as well. At the same time I was studying with Raoul Pleskow and Howard Rovics, who were sharing a lot of their experiences with me of studying with him.
Ron Thomas (b. 1942) received the masters in composition from C.W. Post College. He is active as a composer and jazz pianist, and teaches jazz at Rowan University. Telephone interview: AC, Coatesville, Pennsylvania, 31 January 1998.