Joshua Thompson loved his cartoons growing up. Not for the reasons you’d think, however.
“I loved Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry—those were my favorite cartoons,” says the classical pianist and Indianapolis native. “When I was 3 or 4 years old, I distinctly remember not paying so much attention to the cartoons themselves but the music behind them. It was fast, it was witty, and it was quick. At a young age, I just remember telling my parents, ‘One day, I want to play for cartoons.’”
While he may have moved past his Looney Tunes phase, Thompson still has a love for orchestral music to this day. And while his brother Jared specializes in jazz, Joshua has gone down the classical music path, regularly performing around Indy at conventional and nonconventional venues. One of the featured artists at this year’s Art & Soul celebration, Thompson will perform at the Artsgarden on Friday, Feb. 22 at 12:15 p.m.
At an early age, Thompson and his siblings were encouraged to play music. “From age 5 up until we left mom and dad’s house to go to college, music was a central part of all our lives,” Thompson says. “So all three of us children picked up piano at age 5. And then when each of us got to be 10 years old, we picked a different instrument.”
While picking up the trumpet, Thompson continued forward with piano as well. Eventually, he and his brother Jared would hone their craft, each going down their own unique musical path.
“My brother’s [passion] was jazz,” Thompson says. “While he has a deep respect for classical music and classical musicians, it just wasn’t his thing, and it’s very much the same way for me and jazz. I respect the genre and the people who do it because it is complex in its own right. It just isn’t my thing.”
As he’s pursued his classical music aspirations, Thompson has received help and support from several individuals along the way, including fellow DePauw University graduate Michael Mitchell, who is now an award-winning pianist, music director, and arranger.
“We were very good friends while we were there [at DePauw],” Thompson says. “He kind of took me under his wing, as I was a few years younger. But as we’ve continued to grow into adulthood, he’s a person I go to a lot.” In addition to Mitchell, he’s quite grateful for local organization Classical Music Indy and the opportunities they’ve granted him.
“That was one of the first organizations that really gave me repeated opportunities to hone my craft as a performer and take the music where it needs to go, which is out into the community,” Thompson says. “There are more places for us to go and perform that don’t have to strictly be at the Hilbert Circle Theatre.”
Overall, Thompson is excited to see classical music represented at more places around town. In particular, he mentions how classical music is featured on this year’s Virginia Avenue Music Fest lineup.
“It’s definitely gotten better [in recent years],” he says of classical music’s representation in the city. “There are actually multiple places and platforms where you’ll see classical music and the musicians who play it out and about. That goes for traditional settings and nontraditional settings.”
When it comes to his own personal mission, Thompson strives to get more works from Black composers played regularly.
“A lot of people are unaware that Black people even composed and wrote classical music—let alone that you can actually know what their names are and the histories of these people,” Thompson says.
“You can go around the country and see Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Brahms on a program multiple times a year,” he continues. “Until you see [composers like] William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds, and Robert Nathaniel Dett multiple times a year on programs in this city and around the nation, the need for what I’m doing is still there.”
Thompson’s Art & Soul performance will feature pieces from William Grant Still, Duke Ellington, and more, as he presents a program that ties into the celebration’s 2019 theme of “Black Migrations and Urban Realities.”
“My program provides a classical music soundtrack to ‘Black Migrations and Urban Realities,’” Thompson says. “While I do not follow it in chronological order, I follow this progression, this migration, and this existence as a Black person from its inception. And by inception, I mean this: Our history didn’t start with slavery. It started well before then.”