Vibraphone virtuoso Thaddeus Tukes views music as a form of healing

"Playing the vibraphone is very meditative and restorative for me," says Thaddeus Tukes. "It has always been my diary and my outlet — my way of processing what’s happening in my world.”

Courtesy of the artist

Like the instrument to which he has devoted his life, fast-rising vibraphonist Thaddeus Tukes is from Chicago. A graduate of Whitney M. Young Magnet High School and Northwestern University, where his interest in and then obsession with the vibraphone took root, he is making a distinctive mark on the national jazz scene as a charismatic performer and skilled instrumentalist in the vein of vibe giants like Lionel Hampton, Gary Burton, Bobby Hutcherson and Milt Jackson.

While he’s certainly influenced by his legendary predecessors, Tukes, 28, is equally inspired by trumpet virtuosos such as Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. Their instrument, he explains, has more in common with the vibraphone than one might imagine.

“Trumpet players phrase in a way that’s more vibraphone-friendly, believe it or not,” says Tukes, an alumnus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Percussion Scholarship Program, says during a recent chat. “We don’t have the range that they do, but the way they emphasize certain parts of a chord or some of the tricks — the slides and trills and turn-arounds — work really well on the vibraphone.”

Critically acclaimed and audience beloved, with an animated performance style that complements his lush and soulful sound, Tukes will make his Symphony Center bandleader debut on May 20, with a set of original arrangements and compositions, including a new tribute to his hometown called “My Chicago Vibe.” The title of that work, which will appear on a forthcoming album, also points to the vibraphone's birthplace. The instrument began as the “vibra-harp,” invented by Chicago manufacturer J.C. Deagan Co. in the 1920s.

Tukes’ faith in and love for the city where he was born, raised and still lives remains strong: “Chicago is the best city in the world.” Despite serious social and political issues that frequently cast a pall over its better qualities, Tukes looks to the positive. Among those virtues is the city's vibrant arts community, wherein jazz, according to Tukes, is in the midst of a resurgence.

“We’re in a unique position right now in Chicago, where we’re trying to reclaim the culture of the music and make more intentional decisions and act as examples,” Tukes says. “I tell younger musicians — I call them my peers, because I’m not much older than they are — that I try to be an example for them. I’ve been approached by record labels and agents and managers. Oh, my goodness — everybody wants to be a manager. But if I can play someplace like Symphony Center without going through a big management or booking agent or without a mega-label backing me to guarantee ticket sales — if I can do it with just my mom and dad and sister to help when I need it — maybe you can look at what I did and take your career way further. I’m one of the few people who operates as a truly independent musician, and I want to help people dream. I want to use my career, in time, to help show folks that there really are no limits.”

Driven not by a quest for fame and fortune, Tukes believes the vibes are “something I feel called by my creator to play. So that keeps me pretty focused, because I don’t want to be in a situation where I can’t play my vibes well. It’s not an instrument you can play intoxicated, that’s for sure.”

He could, of course, but he doesn’t. Even a single beer before performing, Tukes says, would degrade his hand-eye coordination and his mental focus. He needs to hit the notes precisely not just sometimes, but every time. And he needs to feel the instrument “breathe” as he breathes — to be in tune with it physically, as if it too were a living thing.

“I have to center myself before I play,” he says. “I close my eyes and meditate or zone out to a song. If I’m about to go onstage, I always say a little prayer, take some deep breaths and remind myself to breathe and relax. Playing vibraphone is very meditative and restorative for me. It has always been my diary and my outlet — my way of processing what’s happening in my world.”

That was definitely the case when George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, among other African Americans, were killed by police in 2020, and protests erupted countrywide. In response, Lukes and other local musicians formed the Chicago Freedom Ensemble, a music performance and social justice advocacy organization.

A turning point for Tukes, the aftermath of the 2020 protests made him rethink his artistic intent. He asked himself why he was even playing music in the first place; why he was spending hours trying to book more gigs and put together a tour and meet with other musicians. It wasn’t just for his own psychological benefit, obviously, because playing the vibraphone at home in private was all the therapy he needed.

That intensely emotional and tumultuous time, he says, was a reminder of why he does what he does.

“I always wanted to play music because it made people happy,” Tukes says. “I can make people smile by giving a really good performance. If I am providing a form of healing for people, that’s important.”