John Thalin (1977) Trumpet
Ed Note: John was a member of the 1976 and 1977 Jazz Ensembles. He was chosen to be a Student Director during his senior year. In that capacity he provided direction, and inspiration, to younger members of the Lab Jazz Ensemble. He also participated in the national presentation of WTTW’s Made in Chicago Production. At the end of his senior year, he was awarded the coveted Benny Goodman Trophy, “presented for excellence in musical performance, superb leadership, and for providing inspiration to others.”
I began playing trumpet at the age of eight. There was a lonely old coronet, around our house, that had been gathering dust for some time. I have no idea where it came from. I used to watch the old westerns and I would pick it up and play the cavalry bugle calls out the window of our house. My Mom decided I needed to take lessons. She knew a really nice trumpet teacher, Betty D’Asaro, and that started things.
My first public performance was in church when I was in seventh grade. It was a quick little fanfare that I would perform at Christmas and Easter. Then in eighth grade I was invited to play at the Winnetka Community Center for a Children’s Christmas Concert and preceding this ‘debut’ I got the worst flu of my life. The day of the concert I laid in bed with a 103 degree fever. Not the best start in what was to become my lifelong love for the trumpet.
I am the youngest of seven and I had four older brothers. Two of my brothers attended New Trier West High School. Jeff was the starting fullback on the 1968 football team and Bryan was the starting tight end on the 1970 football team; both were very successful high school football players. When it was my time to enter high school, my mom, whose wisdom proved accurate, suggested that I follow my interest in music and not try to follow my brothers interests in sports. I had sore knees caused by a growth spurt, so I was not too excited to play football anyway.
My freshman year at NTW was kind of overwhelming. My graduating class at St. Phillip was around twenty students. In comparison, my graduating class at New Trier West was 655. I remember joining, and quietly playing, in the Concert Wind Ensemble and the Lab Jazz Band. I really struggled with reading music and that slowed down my musical aspirations. In the spring of that year, I remember trumpeter Al Proudfoot, then a junior and member of the much-proclaimed New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble, come to our Lab Jazz rehearsal. I can still see him standing there as he joined us, with his trumpet way up high, and playing really, really loud. What I thought then was loud, I later learned was instead a confident lead trumpet style. In any event, I knew I could play ‘loud’ too. So, I started playing more confidently and I remember my director Roger Mills began to notice me. I don’t remember the exact details, but he probably was excited to see somebody step up within the trumpet section.
I remember being in the audience listening to the Jazz Ensemble’s final concert in 1974. That seemed to me to have been one of the most powerful trumpet sections of all the bands. If you were to listen to the album (https://ntwjazzstory.com/1974-music/) the whistle you hear in the background, among the cheers of the crowd, is me. I also came to be a fan of another talented trumpeter, Dave Frohlichstein (1975). It was my dream to be like Dave, nicknamed “Little Doc” Frohlichstein, after famed trumpeter, Doc Severinsen. Though I tried like crazy, I came close but could never develop the stamina and power to play the ‘screamer parts’ like ‘Lil Doc.’
During my sophomore year I continued as a member of the Lab Jazz Ensemble where I was starting to build some musical and leadership skills while learning how to be lead trumpet. I remember practicing two hours a day, after school at home. For some reason I remember playing lead trumpet on the chart On The Street Where You Live that year. I genuinely enjoyed playing lead trumpet.
During my junior year I was asked to move up to the Recording Jazz Ensemble. I was both excited and nervous. I would be joining a trumpet section led by Mark Kupferberg who had been playing like a pro from the moment I first saw him during my freshman year. Mark was a talented soloist so there was a need for someone to step up to the lead trumpet responsibilities. I remember sharing that role with fellow trumpeter George Stein. I don’t know where George came from, but he could really play the high notes. George would graduate a year early and leave all the lead trumpet responsibilities to me. Thanks George! – Not!
My senior year went by fast beginning with a fun filled performance at Northwestern University in the fall of 1976, playing all the famous college fight songs with a jazz feel. In December we were invited to be featured in a TV Special ‘Made in Chicago.’ We performed for this special at the WTTW Chicago Sound Stage. With the cameras, lights, and a studio audience containing many of our New Trier West students, we performed a live unedited performance. I remember that a featured guest performer was Ross Traut (1972) on guitar. By then Ross had established himself as a formidable guitarist throughout the US. The Made in Chicago TV Special. was distributed nationally and was actually seen by my aunt who lived in San Diego at the time. It was an amazing experience! https://ntwjazzstory.com/1977-video/
My senior year concluded with our final June concert.
Also, during my senior year I was privileged and blessed to be chosen to be a Student Director. One of the best things about being a Student Director was spending time with our director, Roger Mills, in the office and joking with Phil Smith, who I think was the choral director that year.
In my role as Student Director, I learned so much about leading and how to build confidence in young men and women. Roger had the rare ability to challenge us and at the same time instill in us a confidence that we could meet the challenge. These are fundamentals of leadership that I would employ in all the various leadership positions I held after high school. At the end of the year, I was presented with coveted Benny Goodman Award, for superior musicianship, leadership, and providing inspiration to others. I hope and believe that it was really the third quality that won me the award.
After graduating from New Trier West I attended Northern Illinois University. I played in the Jazz Band there for only one semester, but I would often just run around the Fraternity and Sorority houses playing my trumpet. After college I devoted all my performance to the church.
As an aside, after graduation, Bruce Marsh (Bob (1977) and Greg (1979) Marsh’s dad) found a job for me at Vienna Beef as a sales rep. They transferred me to San Francisco and that’s where I met my wife, Katie. I soon discovered that it was a lot easier to sell electronics in Silicon Valley than it was to sell hot dogs.
Some of the highlights of my career occurred during the period 1985-88. Among them, I was the featured soloist at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Menlo Park California in honor of former president Jimmy Carter who was visiting to promote Habitat for Humanity. I performed Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, for Trumpet and bell choir. I also played lead trumpet in Easter performances at Shoreline Amphitheater and a sunrise service at Stanford’s outdoor theater, I remember playing The Easter Song as performed by the group 2nd Chapter of Acts. It was popular in churches in 1987 and we added brass. I just remember having so much fun because I had been taking lessons at the time from Bruce Haag, who was Stan Kenton’s last lead trumpet. I just saw the bass line and played it up an octave or maybe two.
I attended Seminary from 1990-94 and graduated with a M.R.Ed. I like to call it the Mr. Ed degree. My plan was to become a children’s pastor. During my time in seminary I began cleaning windows and that is how I have been paying the bills ever since. I do all the Crate & Barrel stores in the SF Bay Area, and AMC Theaters. I do all the work myself. I work like an artist. Sometimes people see me work and tell me I look like an artist. I actually keep a beat in my head and do the work like I’m performing. Not like a circus but methodically, skillfully, and smooth in rhythm.
In 1998, my oldest son Billy decided to join his seventh-grade wrestling team. I told him I thought that this was the hardest sport in the world. He did well that first year. I was asked to help coach the team, and well, I coached wrestling for the next sixteen years. I believe my training and experience in the New Trier West Jazz Ensemble Program played a big part in my success coaching wrestling. I knew the importance of practice, repetition, and dedication, as a key to developing skill and confidence in performance.
Finally, I have been very fortunate to be blessed and surrounded by the love of a wonderful family.
My wonderful wife, Katie, of 38 years, is still looking beautiful, young, energetic, and achieving new heights. Although her kindergarten students think she is one hundred years old.
Nine years ago she began working in the extended care program at Valley Christian elementary school. She was very nervous about filling out the application. Trying to find college transcripts from 30 years ago… I told her just to write down that she has home-schooled our five children for over sixteen years.
She has really blossomed at the school. She was quickly promoted to supervisor and navigated through the difficult Covid years, and last year became a coveted teacher’s aide for kindergarten. The principal calls her his “rock” (mostly because she can’t say no). I am often envious of the impact she is making now in helping families and little ones in her classroom navigate the difficulties of life.
My daughter, Elaina is 22. She is athletic and musical, with an amazing voice, but does not enjoy performing. We often have fun together singing Whitney Houston’s “Always Love You”, really loud, spontaneously, and out of nowhere. One time she suddenly went into a falsetto and sounded just like Mariah Carey. She came running into the kitchen and was so excited but she didn’t know how she did it and couldn’t repeat it. I am her biggest fan because I am the only one who hears her concerts. Maybe someday others will be able to enjoy her talents.
Our oldest son, Billy is 36. He loves Johnny Cash. He plays guitar and has a nice blues voice. He minored in music in college. He has been married for ten years and has six children. Three boys and three girls.
Billy has a Masters in Facilities Engineering. He has been involved with the implementation of the new ‘open space’ approach to facilities in ‘old school’ companies like Dolby Systems and Fairchild Semiconductor. He has also been recognized for outstanding performance at newer companies like Netflix and Lending Club. The project he managed at Lending Club was awarded the Best Workplace Design by Design Magazine for a Lehi, Utah building.
Our second son, Stephen is 34. He began playing drums when he was 3. He would imitate the drum line in drum corps, including side steps and leaning back for the big finish. His favorite color is green so naturally his favorite drum corps is the Cavaliers from Rosemont, Illinois. He has become an excellent drummer. He has been married for 10 years and has three children.
Stephen is a Structural Engineer working as an expert witness for a law firm.
Stephen was also named to the 2011 Pac-12 Wrestling All-Academic First Team his senior year at Cal Poly.
Our third son, Matthew is 32. He has been married for four years. He has a two-month-old boy. He is the creative one, and wrestling was not his passion, though he could have been the best. Matthew began playing piano when he was four or five. His first composition was around age eight, entitled Battle. It’s a fun family joke because it was so very simple. He began taking lessons when he was ten. I taught him how to play with a jazz feel. He quickly began playing all his practice lessons with a jazz feel. I was amazed to see his talent on the piano and his relaxed approach. He was never bound by classical training. At one of his recitals, I heard a piece by David Lanz. I told him it reminded me of his playing. I bought him the album and that has been the inspiration of his music to this day. He became interested in motion picture composition while at our community college. He moved to LA and soon became the music director for an events coordinator, Art Arellanes. Matt has directed some of the best musicians in the LA area for Hollywood fund-raising shows. He also loves to help local talented singers write and record their first albums with very little fame and money. Currently he is working with James A. Sims https://jamesasims.com/ a Sony Pictures editor, composing music for various short films. Here’s Matt’s website which has not been updated in a while. http://www.mattthalin.com/
Our youngest son, Jacob is 26. He is the pure athlete in the family. He was a baseball all-star when he was young. He is a 3-time high school All American in wrestling. He placed 2nd at the 2019 Pac12 Wrestling Championships and 4th in 2020. Jacob was also the captain of the Cal State University Bakersfield wrestling team those two years. He has perfect vision and is a marksman. He is currently in the Police academy in Bakersfield, CA. He loves music but he is not musical. He attempts to play a mean/scary violin.
Every year, during the Christmas season, I get my trumpet out and play Joy to the World (a la Percy Faith), up an octave…because I still can. Just once… because that’s all my chops can handle. As I am writing this, ironically it is the beginning of the Christmas season. And once again, I have taken out my old Bach Stradivarius-43 bell, oiled up the valves, and yes!! I can still hit the notes.
I am very grateful for the many blessings in my life, my wife, my children, and ten grandchildren. But one of the greatest and most meaningful times in my life was being a member of the New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble. The lessons I learned prepared me and enabled me to experience good times, and the joy I experienced sustained me and strengthened me in difficult times throughout my life.
I am especially grateful to our director, Roger Mills, I can only say thank you for teaching me, for your patience, and for devoting your life to ‘kids’ like me. Helping screwed up high school kids be part of something special!