Greg Thompkins performs with his band Olde Skool at Bertha’s in Fells Point. (Credit: Jennifer Bishop)

There was a time when just about all public elementary schools in the United States offered band to their students. Even if all you did was play the triangle, you too could take a place on stage. One of those kids was Greg Thompkins, raised in Anne Arundel County (Chesapeake High School, 1981), a resident of Govans and one of the premier jazz saxophone players in Baltimore.

“I started on a rented clarinet at Pasadena Elementary School when I was 12,” said Thompkins, 58, the leader of a band called Olde Skool. “Two years later I switched to saxophone.”

Like the parents of many young band students once upon a time in Baltimore, Leverne and Rudell Thompkins rented Greg’s instruments from Rosso’s in Curtis Bay. The Thompkins are originally from South Carolina and one of Greg’s aunts went to grade school with famed trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in Cheraw, S.C.

The Rossos (Henry, trumpet player/instructor, wife Marie kept the books), ran a combination music store/studio in the front room of their long-demolished Pennington Avenue home.

Said their daughter-in-law Mary Rosso, a former Anne Arundel County state delegate: “I waxed my share of violin bows. I helped type envelopes for the billing. I cleaned mouthpieces for trumpets and trombones. You’d soak them in a strong solution and run a rag through them.”

Thompkins will be blowing his horn on Wednesday at An Die Musik on a bill with Heonjin Ha, a blues guitarist from Seoul, South Korea saturated in the bent strings, whispers and moans of the Mississippi Delta.

Describing the intimate setting on the second floor of 409 North Charles Street, Thompkins said, “It’s one the few purely artistic music rooms in America. It’s because [of owner] Henry Wong’s commitment” to music in all its forms. DownBeat magazine has listed An Die as one of the top 100 jazz venues in the world.

An Die Musik is German for “to the music.” With 75 armchairs that might have come from your Aunt Irene’s parlor, it’s been the stage for everything from classical music to improvisational for 30 some years. An Die began in Towson before moving to Mount Vernon several decades ago.

Last week owner Henry Wong hosted the Hell’s Kitchen Funk Orchestra and several years ago a reading of Walt Whitman’s works set to an original composition by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra percussionist Brian Prechtl.

And always, jazz. In 1904, the building with the large bay window across from the Archbishop of Baltimore’s residence was Hall, Headington & Co., a rug and furniture store. That was the year Scott Joplin played a ragtime called “The Cascades” at the St. Louis World’s Fair. In 1978 (the year Chick Corea released “The Mad Hatter”), the address became home to the Eubie Blake Cultural Center. After a fire in 1993, the center moved from Charles Street to 847 North Howard Street.

Said Wong in 2020: “I think that’s the problem with a lot of the music industry. Everybody’s doing the same thing over and over.”

Not on North Charles Street. When Thompkins opens the show, keep an ear out for Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.” The headliner is Heonjin, whom I met on Beale Street in Memphis this past May when he competed in the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge.

Thrilled to be in front of an American audience – “Home country of the blues,” he beamed – Heonjin explained his approach to a musical style long out of fashion by the time he was born.

“When I write blues in Korean and can’t translate, I put in an English word, but it doesn’t sound right. It tastes like [a] kimchi hamburger.”

South Korean blues guitarist Heonjin Ha on Beale Street in Memphis, May 2022.

Though he didn’t win, the 34-year-old cherishes his first time in the U.S. and the chance to play American music on the same streets where B.B. King and Elvis Presley once sang. “It was a big blessing,” he said. “Meeting good people who love blues music, listening to what they play, encouraging one another – it was all some kind of therapy for me.”

The blues as a restorative more potent than cod liver oil. In the words of the great Dion DiMucci, it is “the naked cry of the human heart longing to be in union with God.”

“In Memphis,” wrote Heonjin from Seoul before boarding his flight to the States, “I regained a couple of things I lost during the pandemic – self conviction, motivation, enthusiasm [through] the joy of playing blues music once again.”

And therein lies the contradiction at the heart of so many truths: the blues bring joy. As the late Texas guitarist Johnny Winter once sang, “I make my living feeling rotten, but I feel good when I play blues.”

Thompkins, whose brother Kenneth is principal trombonist for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, agrees.

“Blues tells relatable life stories – songs are about relationships, work, not having enough money and too many kids,” he said. “Many are humorous and feature call and response where the audience feels like a part of the performance. For a performer, it’s great fun to mimic life’s experiences with sound.”

As much as Thompkins feels true to himself on stage – his band plays Bertha’s in Fells Point the second Sunday of every month – the joy is just as great when he’s teaching others to play an instrument invented in 1846 by the Belgian Adolphe Sax. Much of that is private lessons along with teaching 14 hours a week at Lakeland Middle School near Lansdowne.

Asked how hard it is to interest young people in the saxophone during the reign of hip hop, Thompkins said, “The only thing you can do is introduce kids to something and hope they take to it. I’ve had students who were taking lessons for two years and were not interested at all. Then, one day, the light goes on and they take off.”

The current young phenoms of the sax in Baltimore are teen siblings – Ephraim and Ebban Dorsey – known by old heads like Thompkins as “The Dorsey Kids.”

They have played Keystone Korner in Harbor East and Ebban, a freshman at the Peabody Conservatory, recently toured with Herbie Hancock. Her brother Ephraim, also at Peabody, is a year older. On his Instagram page, Ephraim writes: “In order to satisfy the vision, you need to disappoint some people.”

As Heonjin Hah has so deeply disappointed his single, workaholic mother by playing music, any kind of music.

“She owns a fried chicken restaurant in Seoul, there are so many, a hundred different kinds of chicken,” he said. “She says, ‘Music is a hobby. Come, let’s fry chicken together.’”

If you go: Tickets for the Wednesday Sept. 14 An Die Musik show featuring Heonjin Ha and Gregory Thompkins can be purchased here, for $20 or $10 for full time students with valid ID. Either a mask or a vaccination card is required to attend the show.

Rafael Alvarez will be reading from his new book – “Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery” – at 6 p.m. October 30 at Ikaros Restaurant in Greektown. He can be reached via