Alfred Jack Thomas paved the way for African-American musicians in the 20th century. Born in Pittsburgh in 1884, Thomas began music lessons at a young age, learning trumpet, mandolin, and violin. Upon winning an athletic scholarship, Thomas attended Washington and Jefferson College, graduating in 1903. After graduation he enlisted in the army, serving in the 10th U.S. Cavalry at Fort McKenzie, Wyoming. The unit was segregated, being one of only four black units in the United States Army. While serving in the army, Thomas had the opportunity to study at the National Conservatory of Music in Manila, the Institute of Musical Art of New York, and the School for Bandmasters at Chaumont, France. While in New York, Thomas studied with conductor and composer Walter Damrosch.
In 1917 Thomas joined the 368th Infantry, 92nd Division, where he served as the first black bandmaster from 1917 to 1918. He served overseas for a short time and soon thereafter was promoted to 1st Lieutenant. In 1919 Thomas was honorably discharged and settled in Baltimore.
Thomas opened his own music school, Aeolian Conservatory, in response to the segregation of schools in the area. His mission was to open a conservatory where all people were welcome to study music. He would often advertise in the local black newspaper The Afro American, stating that Aeolian Conservatory had equally high standards as the Peabody Conservatory.
In 1924, Thomas was named director of the music department at Morgan College and later became a faculty member at Howard University as well. Thomas conducted several bands including the Commonwealth Band and the A. Jack Thomas Jazz Orchestra. He also founded and directed Baltimore’s first “colored” municipal band. In the 1930s, Thomas was also involved in the New York music scene, opening his own music studio and becoming associate conductor of the Negro Symphony Orchestra.
In 1941 Thomas was a finalist in a composition competition in Washington, D.C., where his tone poem Etude en Noir was premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra. In 1946 the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra also performed his tone poem, where Thomas was invited to stand in as conductor. With this he was the first African American to conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Thomas also composed other works including Scenes Pastoral, Etude en Noir, Mirage, a march entitled Sons of Liberty, and smaller works for voice and piano. In 1946 Thomas founded an African-American musical conservatory, the Institute of Musical Arts, in Baltimore. He passed away in 1962.