Slayton Thompson, well-known drummer, to join Cedar Rapids Municipal Band on harmonica

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Cedar Rapids Municipal Band

Green Square Park — June 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Bever Park — June 11 at 7:30 p.m.

Cedar Rapids Municipal Band performs June 7 and June 11. — photo by Stijn Debrouwere

Years ago, Slayton Thompson was playing drums in the Marion Community Band. After a performance, he clapped the teenaged piano player on the back and told him, “When you grow up, I want to be in your band.”

That teenager was Steve Shanley, who is now the director of the Cedar Rapids Municipal Band. And this week, Thompson will be in his band — but not on percussion.

“Everybody thinks I play drums, but this time I’m doing something different,” Thompson says. He’ll be performing two numbers on harmonica as the featured soloist during the first week of Municipal Band concerts for 2017.

The band will perform Wednesday, June 7 at 7:30 p.m. in Greene Square in downtown Cedar Rapids (a prelude concert by the Cedar Rapids Youth Wind Ensemble beings at 6:30 p.m.), and on Sunday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. in Bever Park (a prelude concert by CR Jazz begins at 6:30 p.m.).

It’s true that Thompson is well known as a percussionist in Cedar Rapids. In addition to his own playing, he led the All-City Drum Corps for many years, taking the group to march in the 2005 presidential inaugural parade. The program is in the early stages of a comeback via a partnership with Jane Boyd Community House.

But harmonica has long held a special place in Thompson’s life. “The truth of the matter is I don’t ever remember not wanting to play harmonica,” he says. As a child, he was bullied and suffered from some serious illnesses that left him academically behind and open to more ridicule from his peers. The discovery of the harmonica provided some relief.

“I always loved the harmonica because it was my friend,” he says. “It was something I could accomplish on my own and no one could tell me I was good or bad because no one knew I was playing but me.”

These days, one person who knows he is playing is harmonica virtuoso David Kettlewell. Kettlewell complimented Thompson on his phrasing after viewing a video online. Thompson innocently asked, “Do you play harmonica?” A friendship was born, and it has pushed Thompson to improve and pursue the quality of some of the world’s great players.

“That’s the bar I’m try to catch,” he says. “I can’t go over it, but I can go under it a whole lot.”

Part of the process of improving, he says, is to play in front of people. “If I don’t play in public, under that pressure, I’ll never get better.”

For this performance with the Municipal Band, Thompson will play “Londonderry Air” (more commonly known as “Danny Boy”) and “‘S Wonderful” by George and Ira Gershwin.

Thompson’s hope is that the intentions of the composers and lyricists will be honored by his playing. “That takes the ego out of it,” he says. “I can’t blow feathers through a harmonica.”

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