Gene Tomko Talks about a Forgotten Jazz Great

Gene Tomko’s Encyclopedia of Louisiana Musicians: Jazz, Blues, Cajun, Creole, Zydeco, Swamp Pop, and Gospel is the culmination of years of exhaustive research. Here, he shares some of the research that did not end up in the book as he relates the story of Evan Thomas, one of jazz’s early stars whose life came to a tragic end all too soon.

While compiling and researching the numerous artists to be included in the Encyclopedia of Louisiana Musicians: Jazz, Blues, Cajun, Creole, Zydeco, Swamp Pop, and Gospel, I came to realize just how many of the Bayou State’s early musical figures have been almost completely forgotten. One person who immediately comes to my mind as deserving more attention is bandleader and trumpet player Evan Thomas, who led a fascinating but ultimately heartbreaking life that unfolded like a Shakespearean play: a tragic hero whose story encompasses extraordinary talent, love and adoration, dark humor, and ultimately—violence and betrayal. 

Not long after jazz emerged in and around New Orleans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—pioneered by such familiar names as Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton—musicians from other parts of the state adopted this extraordinary and highly influential new style of music and helped popularize it throughout Louisiana and the surrounding region. Evan Thomas, whose Black Eagles rivaled some of the most popular bands in the Crescent City, hailed from the small southwest Louisiana town of Crowley. Thomas’s instrumental prowess was considered by many to be on par with that of some of the top players in New Orleans, and his formidable band often included such great early jazz figures as Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, and Lawrence Duhé. But sadly, his bright music career was destined to end in tragedy.

Born on January 6, 1894, Thomas studied locally under Professor Joseph Oger, a highly renowned and classically trained music teacher, bandleader, and trumpet player of Cuban and French descent, who was a graduate of the Mozart Conservatory of Music in Paris. By 1917—just as jazz was starting to be recorded—Thomas was leading the Black Eagles throughout Acadiana. The band’s popularity remained high around Louisiana throughout the 1920s, and his reputation quickly spread to New Orleans, where he routinely enlisted some of the city’s finest talent. Thomas’s expertise as an instrumentalist impressed even those in the upper hierarchy of early New Orleans jazz. When asked by jazz researcher and scholar William Russell to name the best trumpet players he had ever heard, master clarinetist Lawrence Duhé immediately responded, “I’ve never heard no one no better than E. T. Thomas. For high work, high register. He was as good as Louis Armstrong in those days.” Bunk Johnson, who had settled in New Iberia by 1920, regularly performed on second trumpet behind Thomas in the Black Eagles and in Gus Fontenette’s highly distinguished Banner Orchestra of New Iberia. Other notable members of Thomas’s Black Eagles at various times included Joseph “Kid” Avery, George “Pop” Hamilton, Sam Dutrey Jr., Earl Humphrey, Abbey “Chinee” Foster, Chester Zardis, and Mercedes and Harold Potier—all highly regarded on their respective instruments.

Thomas had a unique and very effective way of advertising his performances, assuring packed audiences night after night. Like Buddy Bolden before him, he possessed an incredibly powerful, clear tone, which could be heard across entire neighborhoods. To announce his presence, Bolden would do something he referred to as “calling his children home.” Likewise, as Harold Potier explained to jazz researcher Austin Sonnier Jr., in 1974, “Evan could come to those small towns, you know, and just decide he didn’t have anything to do, so he would sit in the window of the club or hall where he was playing and just blow his trumpet and drink. And do you know, that night there would be a full house.”

After leading his Black Eagles for over a dozen years, Thomas disbanded the group at the onset of the Great Depression. He continued playing occasional jobs with other regional bands such as Fontenette’s Banner Band. Then in the fall of 1931, he decided to reorganize his Black Eagles and scheduled an extended tour of the southwestern United States and Mexico. After assembling an impressive lineup—which included Bunk Johnson on second trumpet, George Lewis on clarinet, and Chinee Foster on drums—Thomas booked the first stop of the new tour in his hometown of Crowley on the weekend before Thanksgiving. Deciding to use the Saturday night before the show as a paid rehearsal, he picked up a last-minute job for the band at a dance hall in the “Promised Land” neighborhood of Rayne, roughly six miles east of Crowley.

On the day of the rehearsal show and before Thomas arrived, a few of his band members went over to a small wooden shed across the road from the dance hall to drink some bootleg whiskey. The cheap booze was sold by John Guillory, a local man with a reputation as being quite a rough character. Recently released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola after serving a year for theft, Guillory was also sporting fresh wounds he received in a knife attack by a woman.

When the pint was finished off, a couple of the band members went a few doors down to Guillory’s house for more whiskey. Learning they had no money left, Guillory refused to sell them booze on credit. Intoxicated and perhaps seeking to get even with Guillory after being cut off, one of the band members reportedly then told Guillory that while he was away doing his time, Evan Thomas—who had quite a reputation as a lady’s man—was paying regular visits to Guillory’s wife. Needless to say, the news did not go over well.

Word got back to Thomas at the dance hall about what had just transpired, but the band took the stage, despite the looming danger. According to one account, sometime after the performance began, a special request was asked of the band. Not wanting to go against tradition by refusing to play a request, Thomas and company nervously proceeded into the opening bars of “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You”—the song’s ominous theme certainly not lost on any of the members. As the band cautiously played on, Lewis and another musician spotted Guillory walking through the crowd and heading directly toward the bandstand, a large deer-hoof knife strapped to his side. Jumping up on the stage, Guillory exchanged a few angry words with Thomas before slapping him across the face and reaching for his knife. After a fierce struggle between Guillory, Thomas, and Lewis (who had tried to disarm Guillory), Thomas broke free and jumped off the bandstand in an attempt to flee for his life. But before he could make his way to the door through the panicked crowd, Guillory caught up to him and drove the 4-inch dagger deep into the bandleader’s back, with Thomas letting out a heart-rending “Oh, my!” Fueled by a combination of adrenaline and sheer terror, Thomas broke free once again and made it through the door, where he ran for two blocks before collapsing. He was rushed to the nearest doctor approximately twenty minutes later but died as he was being placed on the operating table.  

Back at the dance hall, Thomas’s attacker managed to flee the chaotic scene, but he was still not through seeking vengeance. After the dance hall was evacuated, Guillory returned—this time with a pistol—and proceeded to shoot up the abandoned bandstand and destroy all of the band’s instruments with the exception of Lewis’s clarinet, which Lewis had managed to grab before escaping. Within minutes, a police officer arrived at the scene and convinced Guillory to surrender without further incident. Guillory’s murder trial was held the following May, and, with all of the band members attending as witnesses, he was swiftly tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Days later, he was back at Angola to serve out the remainder of his natural life.

Remarkably, Guillory’s story did not end there. Three years later, he pulled off a daring escape from the notorious maximum-security prison and was on the lam for nearly a year before being fatally shot after resisting arrest and stabbing a night patrolman outside of a small tavern. Brazenly, Guillory had returned to Rayne, not far from the infamous dance hall, and was recognized by a patron in the bar as being the man who murdered Evan Thomas back in 1931.

The traumatic event had a profound effect on surviving band members. Bunk Johnson, who lost his only trumpet the night of the killing, also lost much of his enthusiasm for playing music for many years and was forced to turn down job offers when he couldn’t borrow an instrument. George Lewis, who would later rise to international fame as New Orleans’s greatest traditional jazz clarinetist of the 1950s and 1960s, also suffered deep emotional scars that haunted him the rest of his life. And Harold Potier, Thomas’s young apprentice who had turned down an opportunity to play saxophone with him that fateful night to perform with another band on trumpet—his preferred instrument—took the fatal incident as a sign to lay down the saxophone for good and commit himself completely to the trumpet.  

Unfortunately, Evan Thomas’s music only existed in the moment and was never preserved on recordings for the world to hear. The memories of his fellow musicians and admirers and a couple of rare photographs are all that remain of his relatively short but distinguished legacy as a master musician and bandleader of early jazz.

Gene Tomko is a writer, photographer, and artist who has documented roots music for more than twenty-five years, with a special interest in Louisiana music and culture. He created the Louisiana Music Map, and his work has appeared in numerous publications, including Living BluesDownBeat, and Juke. He is coauthor of What’s the Use of Walking If There’s a Freight Train Going Your Way? Black Hoboes & Their Songs.

Cover of Encyclopedia of Louisiana Musicians: Jazz, Blues, Cajun, Creole, Zydeco, Swamp Pop, and Gospel

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Louisiana’s unique multicultural history has led to the development of more styles of American music than anywhere else in the country. Encyclopedia of Louisiana Musicians compiles over 1,600 native creators, performers, and recorders of the state’s indigenous musical genres. The culmination of years of exhaustive research, Gene Tomko’s comprehensive volume not only reviews major and influential artists but also documents for the first time hundreds of lesser-­known notable musicians. Written with both the casual fan and the scholar in mind, Encyclopedia of Louisiana Musicians is the definitive reference on Louisiana’s rich musical legacy and the numerous important musicians it has produced.

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