By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
Music pulsated Thaddeus Tukes’ childhood house in Hyde Park.
His parents, Warren and Celeste, liked to play Gospel and old-school soul at their home in Chicago, as well as the occasional Motown song.
“My parents fostered an appreciation for music when I was young,” recalls the 29-year-old Tukes, who still calls Hyde Park home. “I remember going grocery shopping with my mother. As soon as a song would start playing inside the store, it would be time for me to play the ‘Guess the Song’ game she had invented.
“Whenever we’d go to my grandmother’s house, I’d sit at her upright piano and play mostly made-up music. It would usually be nonsense.”
Tukes, a Chicago Whitney High School and Northwestern University graduate, is a downright serious and decorated musician today. A stellar vibraphonist, pianist, composer, and producer, he’s set to pulsate Studio5 in Evanston on May 19, when he’ll headline—as a quintet’s vibraphonist— Thaddeus Tukes’ Dolphin Dance concert from 8 to 10 p.m.
The other four musicians scheduled to perform are Ryan Nyther (trumpet), Brooke Wyatt (piano), Micah Collier (bass), and Jeremy Warren (drums). Warren is also a former Whitney Young Dolphin, hence the appearance of the school’s mascot in the title of the Studio5 event.
The vibraphone, shaped like a xylophone, is a percussion instrument consisting of tuned metal bars.
“I play the vibes,” Tukes says, adding the words “vibraphone” or “vibraharp” are instruments in the vibes family, and that the King of Vibes is the late Lionel Hampton, who lived in Chicago and later performed with the Benny Goodman Quartet. “I like to research things, and the topic of vibes interested me. So I traced how the word has been used over time.
“Vibes,” the former Ravinia Festival jazz scholar adds, “is a super-important part of jazz, I learned, and it was an essential representation of jazz in jazz’s heyday, largely in Chicago. It helps musicians relate to each other. It’s also a certain feeling you get while you’re interacting with a person or spending time at a place. It brings out the art in people.”
Studio5 is an intimate performing arts center that also boasts excellent sight lines and comfortable seating. Co-founders Steve Rashid, an Emmy Award-winning composer, and Bea Rashid, a dance educator, choreographer, and theater director, opened the welcoming space in 2016—expanding Dance Center Evanston to include Studio5 as a performing arts venue presenting professional dance and music events among other forms of entertainment.
“Our (Dolphin Dance) concert will feature modern jazz elements that some friends and I created during a jam session at a recording studio right before the start of the pandemic,” Tukes says. “I was sitting at home one day earlier this year and came across the tape of the session. I listened to it. We had jammed all over the place but managed to come up with some impressive sounds.
“The concert at Studio5,” he continues, “will be an incredible, new experience for many in the audience. For others it will transport them back to the South Side of Chicago. I’m such an advocate for Chicago. The people in Chicago are amazing. The music scene in Chicago is unparalleled.”
Tukes’ four years at Whitney Young were formative ones. He embraced and appreciated the diversity of the enrollment at the magnet high school on Chicago’s Near West Side.
“It was utopia to me, with the presence of students with many cultural backgrounds,” says Tukes, who, at the age of 16, earned an Illinois Music Education Association award for being the top high school vibraphonist in the state. “I wanted to learn and understand our differences because the diversity was palpable. Our principal did a great job of creating a sense of unity and encouraging acceptance among all students.”
Tukes applied to a number of colleges after deciding to eschew the conservatory route. He chose to attend Northwestern University, where he earned degrees in vibraphone/piano and journalism and found a major mentor in former NU Director of Jazz Studies and Music Professor Victor Goines, a jazz saxophonist and clarinetist who was named president and CEO of Jazz St. Louis in September 2022.
Tukes is president of the record label Vibestown Studio, and he performs as a band leader and special guest with various ensembles throughout the U.S.
Tukes likes to bowl occasionally to escape his busy life as an artist on stage. The man scored a 255 recently, rolling five consecutive strikes in one sublime stretch. To Tukes’ ears, the resounding sound of a heavy ball knocking down every pin in sight must rival the beautiful sounds that he creates while playing the vibraphone.
“I’m a straight shooter as a bowler, just like I am as a person,” he says.
But he’s a musician, through and through, and particularly grateful for an ancillary benefit of working in the industry.
“The best part of making music has been meeting the people I’ve met through music,” Tukes says. “Music makes people happy. I’m always surrounded by happy people who make me happy. My best friend is my younger sister, Candace, who has always been there to cheer me on and to hold me accountable and to laugh with me. She’s the best and super supportive.”
Tukes insists he has never been in music for fame or fortune. What’s priceless to him is bringing joy to his audiences.
“If I’m able to evoke, through my music, a positive memory for someone or maybe a fond memory of someone’s late father, for example, it makes me smile,” Tukes says. “It thrills me every time, knowing I was able to do something for somebody else on my professional journey.”