One of the most tasteful of jazz drummers, Ed Thigpen was a master of every aspect of music. He rejected the idea of the flashy, gum-chewing soloist who hogged the spotlight and drove the bobby-soxers mad in the Swing Era, nor did he ever try to lead the way in any of the bands he played in. Instead, his drumming was like the spring of a Swiss watch and he was uniquely talented at making himself an integral part of any jazz group.
He did this most notably when he worked in pianist Oscar Peterson's trio from 1959 to 1965. For more than 50 years the trio was one of the most effective and successful jazz groups. "Oscar often said, 'On our worst night we've got to sound better than most people do on their best night,'" Thigpen remembered. Like Peterson, Thigpen was also a perfectionist who had no difficulty with the maxim.
Until Thigpen joined the trio Peterson had always used bass and guitar rather than bass and drums. Barney Kessel and, later, Herb Ellis – had been among the most creative guitar soloists, and Peterson had to think long and hard before replacing the instrument with drums. Peterson's long-time bassist Ray Brown , himself the greatest virtuoso on the instrument at the time and already a good friend of the drummer's, persuaded Peterson to hire Thigpen.
"It almost didn't work," said Thigpen. "They called me at Christmas 1958 and they'd been interested earlier in the year, but I asked for too much bread and Peterson's manager Norman Granz decided to get someone else. I could have kicked myself. But, as they say, the Lord provided, and the call came anyway, five months later."
Although Thigpen was active across the whole face of jazz, it was the constant world touring with the Peterson trio that caused audiences to rethink their idea of what a jazz drummer should be, and as a result the retiring Thigpen became renowned. The three men thought as one, and it was incredible to see their instinctive anticipation and poise on stage, often making improvised jazz sound like the result of careful preparation. They constantly upped their game until the group was regarded not only as Peterson's finest ever, but also as one of the best in jazz.
Thigpen's father Ben had been the drummer in Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy, a leading band during the Thirties. He and his wife separated when he their son was five and Thigpen's mother took the boy to live in Los Angeles. She died when he was 12 and the boy was boarded with a family who couldn't stand his interest in drums. He managed to continue his playing when he studied at Jefferson High School, where Art Farmer and Dexter Gordon were among the embryo jazz musicians the school produced. Ending his studies, he turned professional at 18 when he joined the Los Angeles band led by Buddy Colette.
He moved in 1951 when he got a job with trumpeter Cootie Williams at New York's Savoy Ballroom, but was called into the US Army the next year, serving his time in military bands in California and then South Korea. On leave from Korea in Tokyo, he met Oscar Peterson there for the first time. He returned to New York after his discharge and rapidly made a name as a perfect accompanist, working around the city with the Johnny Hodges band, Dinah Washington and a myriad of burgeoning jazz stars.
"I did some recordings with John Coltrane, Art Farmer and Kenny Dorham and I recorded on Toshiko's first album and on Lee Morgan's. I also recorded with Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson and Harold Baker, and Kenny Burrell and I backed Blossom Dearie on one of her albums. I did lots of other work during this time, including two years with the Billy Taylor trio. But when the offer from Oscar came, Billy urged me to take it for my own good."
Thigpen made about 50 albums with the trio, among them Night Train (1962) which many critics regarded as his best. In 1960 Peterson founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto which provided tuition to accomplished students by leading professional musicians. Thigpen, Brown and Peterson were among the teachers, and Thigpen liked Toronto so much that he lived there for some time.
Leaving Peterson, Thigpen joined Ella Fitzgerald for a year. He then returned to live in Los Angeles, where he worked in the studios, recording with Peggy Lee, Pat Boone, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams, as well as pursuing the jazz jobs. Tempted by the chance to work with another of his favourite pianists, Tommy Flanagan, he rejoined Fitzgerald in 1968 and toured the world with the singer for the next four years.
For many years Thigpen had been unhappy about the lot of black people in the United States, and when he fell in love with a Danish girl, his first marriage having broken up, he left Fitzgerald in 1972 and settled in Copenhagen. Remarried and quickly forming his own band, Action-Reaction, he pursued his love of teaching and became a respected instructor at music schools in Denmark and Sweden. He published five books on the art of percussion as well as instructional videos and DVDs.
His two children, born in Denmark, clamoured to be shown the United States. Thigpen took them and rekindled his love for the country. He made many return trips but remained firmly settled in Denmark.
Edmund Leonard Thigpen, drummer, jazz educator, bandleader: born Chicago 28 September 1930, twice married (one son, one daughter); died Copenhagen 13 January 2010.