If Harvey Thompson had been a better 10-pin bowler, jazz would have been the loser.
“I never knew I’d be a jazz singer,” says Thompson, whose smooth and smoky jazz vocals have won him a core of dedicated fans in his adopted country of Japan. “I wanted to be a professional bowler.”
Thompson grew up with music in his native Detroit. “We had a family gospel group called the Thompson Spiritualettes. We played at churches and gospel revivals.”
But bowling was Thompson’s first career choice.
“What opened up the door to jazz for me was that my bowling game went into a tremendous slump. I was playing at Luxury Lanes in Ferndale, Michigan, and I shot a 256, but another guy shot a 257. I took all my bowling balls and threw them outside into the parking lot.”
Thompson then decided to try his hand at acting. While performing in a play, he met actor Marcus Belgrave, who was also a jazz trumpeter.
“Marcus started taking me around and introducing me to songs,” Thompson says. “That’s how I developed my repertoire. I knew jazz, but I never thought of singing it.”
Thompson, 57, says the key moment in his career was when he first heard “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” the 1963 album that remains the gold standard for male jazz vocals.
“I feel that no one’s been keeping the legacy of Johnny Hartman alive,” he says. “People have been calling me the keeper of the flame, even though I’m putting more of an R&B/soul feel into my music now.”
Listening to Thompson’s lush baritone work its sensuous way through “My One and Only Love” (one of the standout numbers on the Coltrane/Hartman album), I have to wonder why he hasn’t made a bigger mark on the jazz world. It could be that Thompson is simply too hip for the proverbial room — at least in his home country.
“I was fed up with America,” explains Thompson, who has lived in Japan since 2002. He says he was frustrated that his style of music wasn’t getting the recognition he felt it deserved in the U.S.
Thompson released an album titled “Jazz Is Anything You Want It to Be” while he was still living in the U.S. It got good reviews: “He sings with as much poetry as virtuosity and stands as a potentially major talent,” said the Chicago Tribune. But Thompson says the record industry was more interested in promoting white male jazz singers with nice hair like Harry Connick, Jr.
“After my record was released, I felt I’d gone as high as I could go,” he says somewhat ruefully. “I felt it would further my career if I moved to Japan.”
Since then Thompson has become a fixture on Japan’s lounge/jazz club circuit.
“There are more places to play in Japan,” he says. “But even here, the club owners expect the singer to bring in the audience.”
While Thompson’s forte is interpreting classics from the Great American Songbook, he sometimes writes with Osaka-based musician John Hulatan. One of the pair’s best collaborations is Thompson’s soulful contribution to Hulatan’s “Let’s Work to Make It Real.”
The ever-optimistic Thompson is now hoping to get a deal with a major Japanese record company. That would certainly help raise his profile and introduce his music to a wider audience — something that’s long overdue.