It’s hard to find a single word that accurately describes Kimberly Thompson. In fact, it’s hard to describe her using several words. “Original”… “dynamic”… “versatile” … “skillful”… they all fit. But perhaps the most appropriate term would be “determined.” From the very beginning of her drumming history, Kimberly has been determined to succeed…and to do so on her own terms.
There’s no doubt that Kimberly’s determination has paid off. After first coming into contact with the drums as a youngster, she went on to play locally in church and in school. At the same time she immersed herself in jazz, absorbing the influences of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Kenny Garrett, Elvin Jones, Brian Blade, Jeff Ballard, and Terri Lyne Carrington.
Eventually Kimberly entered the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in New York. While still a student she had her first major professional gig: the 2000 Cuban Jazz Festival with the Kenny Barron Trio. (She was all of nineteen years old.) In 2001 Kimberly was picked to be the drummer in the all-female Sisters In Jazz ensemble—a group assembled by the International Association of Jazz Educators. While with the SIJ Kimberly toured Europe, where she performed at several jazz festivals including the famous North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland.
Kimberly performing at the TD Jazz Festival in 2015.
Kimberly graduated from the Manhattan School in 2003 with a degree in jazz composition. By then she was already immersed in the New York jazz scene, playing with top artists like trumpeter Wallace Roney, pianist Marian McPartland, bassist Rufus Reid, and guitarist Mike Stern (with whom she later earned a Grammy nomination for his 2006 album Who Let The Cats Out?). She also founded and performed with her own quartet. (More about that later.)
In 2006 Kimberly made what might appear to have been a radical career change. That’s when she was hired to play in Beyonce’s all-star (and all-female) touring band, the Suga Mamas. Playing for the world’s leading pop diva in arenas around the world was a far cry from playing jazz in smoky NYC clubs, but Kimberly was more than up for the challenge. Exchanging her jazz chops for a slamming pop groove, Kimberly helped drive the Suga Mamas to ever-more-exciting performances as the tour progressed. Since then she’s worked with other pop artists, including Jay-Z, Kanye West, and George Michael.
Returning to her jazz roots in 2010, Kimberly recorded her first album as a bandleader and composer: Like Clockwork. She continued to perform with her own group and with other artists until 2014, when she took another significant turn: She joined the 8G Band on the NBC television show Late Night With Seth Myers. In that same year she released two CDs: Live At Marian’s and the studio album A Child’s Eyes.
Performing at Gretsch Day at Rudy’s Music in NYC, August 3, 2013. Photo: Rick Van Horn.
Back in August of 2013 I had the pleasure of meeting Kimberly and hearing her perform. The occasion was a “Gretsch Day” at Rudy’s Music in New York City, and Kimberly was leading her quartet as part of the day’s entertainment. I was there with my grandson Logan, and we both were impressed with Kimberly’s talent as a drummer and composer—as well as her graciousness as an individual. I’m very glad that I had the opportunity to see and hear her, and I’m equally glad that she’s chosen Gretsch drums on which to express her unique musical personality.
Kimberly’s YouTube page offers many video and audio clips, as well as drum transcriptions, and other useful and interesting information.
A very, very live trio performance clip taken from a gig in Kansas City in 2013. Kimberly is on fire.
One excellent performance clip, recorded live with her quartet at the Zinc Bar, Sept 24 2015, “Hills Of Macedonia“.
Events celebrating Gretsch’s 130th anniversary have been taking place all over the U.S. this year—as well as in Canada and Japan. (Don’t miss the story of Fred & Dinah Gretsch’s expedition to climb Mt. Fuji, which you can find here.) But it was particularly fitting for two of those events to be held this past August 3 in Gretsch’s “home town” of New York City.
The Gretsch Company was founded in 1883 when Friedrich Gretsch opened his musical-instrument shop in Brooklyn. The company grew over the next several decades, ultimately being located in the famous Gretsch factory building at 60 Broadway, in the shadow of the Williamsburg bridge. And although the company vacated that building in the late 1960s, it still stands today as a monument to the legacy of a great New York-based musical enterprise.
And so it was that Fred Gretsch—representing the fourth generation of the Gretsch Family—came to New York City on August 3 to bring the anniversary celebration “back home.” Accompanying Fred (who himself grew up in Forest Hills, Long Island) was his grandson Logan Thomas—a sixth-generation Gretsch family member.
Meet And Greet At Maxwell’s Drum Shop
Fred and Logan’s first stop was at Steve Maxwell’s Custom & Vintage Drum Shop on Seventh Avenue at 48th Street. In addition to serving drummers across the country with vintage sales and custom repairs, Maxwell’s is the second-largest dealer of new Gretsch USA Custom drums in America. The shop is filled with new and vintage Gretsch drums, posters, and memorabilia, including a drumkit that once belonged to jazz legend Elvin Jones.
At Steve Maxwell’s Custom & Vintage Drum Shop, celebrating Gretsch’s 130th anniversary and the release of Rob Cook’s The Gretsch Drum Book. From left: Steve Maxwell, Fred Gretsch, Rob Cook, Logan Thomas, and John Sheridan. Rob presented Steve, Fred, and John with special leather-bound editions of the new book.
Owner Steve Maxwell offered his shop as a site for a meet-and-greet between local drummers and Fred Gretsch. In addition, the shop hosted a book-signing party celebrating the release of The Gretsch Drum Book, a new in-depth chronicle of Gretsch drums and the Gretsch Company authored by noted drum historian Rob Cook with researcher John Sheridan. While paperback production editions of the book were on sale, Rob presented Fred Gretsch, John Sheridan, and Steve Maxwell with special leather-bound commemorative editions to mark the occasion.
A special guest at the event was Sam Ulano, who himself is an NYC drumming icon. Sam has been an active player and a highly revered teacher since the early 1950s. And, at the age of ninety-three, he’s the oldest living Gretsch drum endorser. Although in a wheelchair following recent surgery, Sam “held court” in a lively fashion for drummers in attendance, inviting everyone to attend his birthday party on August 12.
Fred Gretsch spent most of the time chatting with drummers, signing autographs, and even adding his signature to several drums. One was a 1961 Starlight Sparkle kit owned by jazz drummer Brandon Sanders. Another was a snare drum belonging to Pavel Timoveev, who had just come to America from Moscow a week earlier dreaming of owning Gretsch drums and who couldn’t quite believe his good fortune.
Distant cousins Bill Gretsch (at left) and Sally Gretsch Coulson presented Fred Gretsch with an album documenting many generations of Gretsch Family history.
Fred himself received a pleasant surprise with the arrival of two distant relatives—Bill Gretsch, of Maryland, and his sister Sally Gretsch Coulson, of New Jersey—who had traveled to this event specifically to present Fred with a gift. That gift was an album illustrating Gretsch Family history back to well before Friedrich Gretsch came to America. Bill and Sally told Fred that their great-grandfathers were brothers, and thus they shared a common great-great-grandfather. Fred commented that having documentation of the family that far back in his hand while his grandson was at his side placed seven Gretsch generations in the room.
Gretsch’s anniversary celebration at Maxwell’s was also attended by several key figures in the Gretsch Drums manufacturing and sales operation. These included Jim Druckrey (COO of distributor KMC Music) and his family, John Palmer (Gretsch Drums product manager for KMC), Steve Nigohosian and Kim Graham (KMC artist relations), and Paul Cooper (production manager for Gretsch USA Custom drums).
The indomitable Sam Ulano was a special guest at the anniversary event. At ninety-three Sam is the oldest Gretsch drum endorser. He’s still an active player and teacher in NYC. Here Sam autographs a drumhead for an admirer.
Russian jazz drummer Pavel Timoveev (at right) got the thrill of a lifetime when he was able to purchase the Gretsch snare drum he’d always dreamed of owning—and then have it personally autographed by Fred Gretsch himself.
Concert At Rudy’s Music
Rudy's Gretsch Guitar Wall and Posters.
In quintessential New York fashion, Fred Gretsch and Logan Thomas then took a subway from Midtown south to SoHo for the second event of the day: A concert held at Rudy’s Music on Broome Street (just across the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn, and thus even “closer to home” for Gretsch). Rudy’s is an upscale shop specializing in upscale new and vintage guitars, and Gretsch guitars of both types were on display. These included a classic 1956 “Black Gold” 6120 model custom-made for Chet Atkins.
Once again Fred and Logan represented the family, once again signing autographs and chatting with Gretsch fans. Meanwhile, a stellar roster of performers was on hand to entertain the enthusiastic crowd. Fred acted as emcee, introducing each of the artists.
Kim with Her Band.
Although the main focus of the show at Rudy’s was on the guitar side of Gretsch musical-instrument manufacturing, the first Gretsch performer was a drummer: the talented Kimberly Thompson. Well known as the former drummer for pop star Beyonce, Kim is also extremely skilled at jazz, as was made evident by the playing she did with her own quartet. The group played an adventurous yet eminently musical set, combining odd times, dramatic dynamic shifts, poignant melodies, and complex compositions to earn a well-deserved series of enthusiastic ovations from the crowd. Kim herself proved an exciting soloist, with power, speed, and inventiveness to spare.
Up next were the CAAS Cats, a group named for and drawn from the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society. Led by long-time Gretsch guitar artist Bobby Gibson, the group demonstrated the finger-picking playing style made famous by Chet Atkins (himself an iconic Gretsch artist and the namesake of several Gretsch guitar models). With additional guitarist John Standefer, bassist Frank Gruner, and drummer Wayne Johnson, the Cats combined folksy humor with virtuoso playing to the delight of the audience.
Shop owner Rudy Pensa thanked Gretsch Guitars for helping him realize his dream of owning an upscale guitar store.
Shop owner Rudy Pensa took the stage next to thank the audience for coming, and to deliver a heartfelt description of how he came to America from Argentina with the dream of operating a professional guitar shop. With the opening of his SoHo shop—along with another location on 48th Street in Midtown—Rudy’s dream was realized, and he offered his thanks to Gretsch Guitars for helping to make that happen. In so doing, he singled out Gretsch Guitars national sales manager Joe Carducci and FMIC/Gretsch regional sales manager Dave Waters—both of who were in attendance—for their efforts.
Fred Gretsch returned to the stage to make some special presentations. The first was plaques for Rudy Pensa and Steve Maxwell honoring their achievements in the music business and particularly on behalf of Gretsch guitars and drums. The second was framed copies of the Gretsch 130th Anniversary Timeline Poster, which graphically depicts significant milestones in the company’s history.
Fred next introduced the day’s closing act: Paul Pigat & Cousin Harley. This Vancouver, Canada-based trio (with Keith Picot on bass and Jesse Cahill on drums) played an eclectic set of rockabilly, country, Latin, swing, and blues—all founded on Paul’s blazing guitar technique and roots-rock vocals. The group literally flooded the audience with musical energy, stopping at the end of their planned set only long enough to catch a moment’s breath before responding to demands for an encore.
Fred Gretsch closed the show with his thanks to everyone for their support of the day’s events and for their ongoing allegiance to Gretsch guitars and drums. It had been a heck of a party!
The CAAS Cats ably demonstrated the finger-picking style of guitar playing made famous by Chet Atkins.
Guitar ace Paul Pigat led his trio through a rousing and eclectic set of rockabilly, country, swing, blues…and much more.
Additional photos from the Gretsch events at Steve Maxwell’s Custom & Vintage Drum Shop and Rudy’s Music:
Nationwide Appearances Will Celebrate Gretsch History
This year marks Gretsch’s 130th anniversary, and the company is going all-out to celebrate this historic milestone. Special promotional events in cities across the US and Canada will showcase Gretsch guitars and drums, with concert performances by top Gretsch artists.
A special element of these events will be The Fred & Dinah Gretsch 130th Anniversary Tour. Representing the fourth generation of the Gretsch Family, Fred will be on hand to personally greet Gretsch fans, sign autographs, and relate the fascinating history of the business that was founded by his great-grandfather, Friedrich Gretsch, in 1883.
Dinah & Fred Gretsch. Photo: Spark St. Jude/MagicOnFilm
At several of the events Fred will be joined by his wife Dinah. A notable industry figure in her own right, Dinah is the founder of the Mrs. G’s Music Foundation, a charitable organization that supports music education in rural schools.
“Dinah and I are really looking forward to this tour,” says Fred Gretsch. “Among the things we love most in the world are traveling, meeting folks who appreciate Gretsch drums and guitars, and enjoying the performances of great Gretsch musical artists. And it’s a special joy for me to have the opportunity to share anecdotes and stories about my family’s 130-year history in the music business. So I want to personally invite one and all to come and enjoy these great Gretsch events.”
The Fred & Dinah 130th Anniversary Tour will start in late June, with stops at StreetSounds NYC (Brooklyn, June 15), The Sweetwater Gearfest (Fort Wayne, IN, June 22), and Bizarre Guitar (Reno, NV, June 29). Then it’s on to the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society convention (Nashville, TN, July 10-13), Sam Ash Music (Hollywood, CA, July 20), Rudy’s Music & Steve Maxwell Drums (New York, NY, August 3), Guitar Center (Chicago, IL, August 15), and Class Axe Guitars (Kemptville, ON, Canada, October 12).
Artists scheduled to appear at these events include The Romantics, the Michelle Marie Trio, Jet Weston & his Atomic Ranch Hands, Foxy Studs, Fountains of Wayne, the Joe Robinson Trio, Rosie Flores & The Rivetors, Mister Barrington (featuring drummer Zach Danziger), The Octanes, Steve Ferrone, Paul Pigat & Cousin Harley, and the Kimberly Thompson Quartet (featuring Beyonce drummer Kim Thompson).
For more information on the Gretsch Company and history, visit the Gretsch website.