Bryan Thompson: From The Apollo To The Artsgarden

A quick Q&A with the 19-year-old sax star, who’s doing a free show tomorrow at lunchtime.

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Up-and-coming musician Bryan Thompson is only 19, but in his young career, he’s visited everywhere from Los Angeles to Africa to showcase his prowess on the saxophone. The Indianapolis native performed this past weekend at Indiana University for its Gospel Explosion. Tomorrow, on February 23, he hits the Indianapolis Artsgarden for a free lunchtime performance for its Black History Month “Art & Soul” celebration. We chatted with Thompson about his musical inspirations, playing the Apollo, and mastering an instrument few millennials do.

How did you begin playing the saxophone?

I started playing when I was 9 years old. I grew up with my aunt and uncle, who always listened to jazz on the radio. Once I grew tired of listening to jazz with them and watching saxophonists perform, I decided I wanted to learn how to play.

Who taught you how to play?

I only took lessons for only six months. For the majority of my career, I was mostly self-taught. A lot of what I do now is based off what I learned how to do on my own.

Who are some performers who influenced you growing up?

I listen to a lot of older performers, like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Growing up, I also listened to modern-day saxophonists like Dave Koz, David Sanborn, Kenny G, Boney James, and Mindi Abair.

What’s your style of jazz?

Most people call it smooth jazz, but I call it instrumental pop and R&B. I like to take pop and R&B songs and make instrumental versions of them.

How often do you play in Indianapolis?

I’ve played thousands of times in Indy since I was 10. I perform at least four times a week here. Sometimes, I’ll do three or four performances in one day. Performing at a Pacers game helped me become comfortable performing to a crowd of that size. It prepares me in the future for when I’m given the opportunity to perform in front of larger crowds.

Are there any places you’ve perform outside of Indiana?

I’ve been able to perform at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles, California, which is on Sunset Boulevard. I performed in Las Vegas and Nairobi, Kenya. In March, I’ll be performing in South Carolina at a college university.

What was your experience like in Africa?

When I went to Africa, I was on a mission trip with my church. Our band and choir performed at many different locations in Africa. It was amazing to see life in their point of view, and they were so appreciative to our culture of music. We were able to share our part of the world with them, because they don’t have as much access to our culture.

You played at the Apollo Theater last summer, which has had artists like Lauryn Hill, Stevie Wonder, and Little Richard on stage. What was it like playing for a music hall that had so many famous African-American performers perform there?

Performing there was life-changing. Nothing can compare to that feeling of being on the same stage as James Brown, Michael Jackson, Jill Scott, and the rest of the legends who performed there. Once you done something like perform at the Apollo Theater, you now are a part of that history.

Playing an instrument like the saxophone seems like a lost art with millennials. How does it feel playing in an era where music has shifted from the days of live performances being the best way to listen to music?

It can be discouraging and a little bit tough at times but I like being unique and going against the grain. It has challenged me to learn how to make my music more appealing to my generation. We generally aren’t listening to jazz or care to know anything about it. I’m glad I’m able to be a vessel who can introduce them to it.

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