Land of 10,000 Stories: Cruisin' with the 'jazz man'

10:57 AM, Feb 22, 2010   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS -- We like predictability in our transit. Same bus. Same time. Same stop.

But for riders of the shuttle buses at the University of Minnesota, predictability is for pop songs. Anticipation is for jazz.

"It's always a pleasant surprise to see the Jazz Man," beams Ph.D. candidate Barbara Pierre-Louis as jazz wafts through the campus connector bus she's boarded.

More than two dozen buses shuttle students from the university's west bank to the east bank to the St. Paul campus and back again. For a U of M student, catching the jazz bus is one of life's random pleasures.

"I have the easiest gig in town. I drive my friends around and we listen to jazz," laughs Rob Thompson, known less around campus by the name his mother gave him than the one his students did - Jazz Man.

"Jazz is top shelf with me," said Thompson as soothing jazz pumps through the bus from a boom box next to his right leg. "You don't have to listen to no lyrics or anything. You just tap your feet and just nod your head, you know what I mean, and get into the grove of it, yeah."

Born into a family of jazz fans in Detroit, the Jazz Man once dreamed of being a disc jockey. Instead he's programming the music from his 400 album collection for a 20 ton rolling lounge. He laughs, "I tell people the only thing we're missing here is the cocktails."

Students say there's no environment on campus quite like it. "When you come on the Jazz Man's bus you don't want your headphones in because you want to hear the jazz so you meet people when you're on the Jazz Man's bus," says Claudia Hochstein, a student from Chicago.

Thompson greets his students like a club doorman. "Smilin' faces, goin' places," he smiles as they board.

"Sometimes I have students that will ride with me a couple of trips and maybe three trips. They don't have a class or something; they just sit in and enjoy good music."

In his 12 years of driving bus at the university, Thompson has worn out five boom boxes. "And boom boxes are hard to come by now, okay, so when I seen this one here I bought two."

Megan Nimmo, a student from Janesville, Wisconsin, wasn't sure what to make of Thompson's bus the first time she happened to board it. "I got on and I was like this is different. And then the next week I got on it again and I was like this is great."

Most people couldn't give you the name of their bus driver. Thompson has 750 friends on the Facebook fan page set up by his riders. Not bad for a guy who doesn't own a computer.

"They ask me, 'I'm really getting into jazz, what should my first LP be that I should get?' And I always tell them if you're going to start out with your first jazz CD it should be Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. They'll be playing that song 20 years from now, grandchildren, okay, I'm serious."

Passionate as he is for his music, Thompson doesn't play in a band. Though often at home after his route he plays with one. Jazz musician Poncho Sanchez is a favorite. Thompson will pop in a DVD, stand in front of his TV and accompany the act on his drums or maracas.

The nights have been emptier since Thompson's wife passed away. But no man who loves jazz is alone. "I think God gave us all a talent. You find out what that that talent is and you use it," he says.

Every one of the Jazz Man's riders came to the U of M to learn something, but each time they catch his bus they get more education than they bargained for. "I always tell them you got a four year degree here, but when you leave here you will have a degree in jazz riding with me."

Class is in session weekdays from 9:45 until 3:20. Keeping beat across the blocks and rolling through the Miles Davis.

(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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