A New Barbershopper in a New City

Voices of Gotham baritone  Jude Thomas  is Brooklyn-based composer & performer.

Voices of Gotham baritone Jude Thomas is Brooklyn-based composer & performer.

By Jude Thomas
Baritone, Voices of Gotham

June 20, 2013, 10:20 AM: My plane’s wheels touched down on the runway at JFK airport. After several hours in the air and an overnight layover at MSP airport in Minneapolis/St. Paul, I had arrived in New York City, my new home. After disembarking from the aircraft and gathering my luggage, I found my way to a car and caught a ride to the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn.

I was immediately greeted by my friend Siobahn, who had not only suggested that I move out to New York, but also offered me housing while I get my bearings in this new city. I found a place for my effects and settled in, Siobahn introduced me to her roommates, and since we hadn’t seen much of each other in the last year, we caught up for a bit.

We both hailed from California, and she mostly spoke of the ways that New York is different than California (San Diego in particular).

“They’re called ‘bodegas’ out here, not ‘corner stores,’” she said among many other things. Soon after she asked me if I had any plans for the day or evening, which is something I had actually been considering for a few days now.

“Well, it is Thursday,” I said, “and Voices of Gotham rehearses tonight.” Siobahn knew immediately I was talking about one of the local barbershop chapters in New York. “They’re a few weeks from going to contest in Toronto, so I doubt I’ll be able to sing with them in rehearsal, but I’m sure they’ll be doing something afterwards. And I’d love to hear them work on their set for International.”

Still tired from traveling I laid down for a nap and slept through most of the afternoon. After some hours of rest, I accompanied Siobahn into Manhattan. She needed to stop off at her workplace and it was on the way to Voices of Gotham’s rehearsal venue. We caught the L train into Chelsea where she worked. I met a couple of her coworkers and she showed me around the neighborhood for a bit, pointing out the High Line among other things.

“Voices rehearses about twenty blocks north of here. I think I’ll walk, ” I said. Walking has always been one of my favorite ways to get my bearings and learn about a new place, so I got my feet moving and headed uptown along 10th Avenue toward Voices of Gotham’s normal rehearsal venue. When I arrived there however, something was not right. I turns out that they weren’t here, rather some kind of play was scheduled there.

I knew that they would be rehearsing tonight. As a member of two different competitive choruses (Pacific Coast Harmony and Masters of Harmony) I knew that no serious chorus takes a week off this close to contest. Here I was however, in a brand new city, barely aware of even where I was, wondering about how to find the group I’d intended to visit.

Luckily, Voices of Gotham maintains a robust social media presence and I whipped out my smartphone and found that tonight they were rehearsing at the Trevor Day School about 40 blocks uptown. “Better late than never,” I thought and proceeded to take a subway train up to their temporary rehearsal location.

One of many Twitter interactions between    Voices of Gotham    and I before I moved to New York City. Voices of Gotham has been a leader among barbershop groups in their use of social media.

One of many Twitter interactions between Voices of Gotham and I before I moved to New York City. Voices of Gotham has been a leader among barbershop groups in their use of social media.

When I arrived at Trevor Day School Voices was in the midst of working on their uptune, the New York Medley. I sat down to listen and was immediately impressed. I had known about Voices of Gotham for sometime now; I had seen almost every video they had posted online and at the 2012 International Convention in Portland. Pacific Coast Harmony (the chorus I competed with in 2012) followed them in the queue, so I had watched them run their set in the warmup room prior to going on stage. What I was hearing today was a different sound: cleaner, more resonate, and with way more lock and ring than in Portland. I was planning on joining this group even before I moved to New York, but now there was excitement bubbling inside of me. I couldn’t wait to be on the risers, to be a part of the great sound coming out of this chorus.

At the break I met a couple members of the chorus, Alex and Nemo, came to speak with me. I was invited to their afterglow and gladly accepted their invitation. After rehearsal I joined several of them at a local bar/restaurant about six blocks from the rehearsal venue.

At the afterglow I met many more of the guys and reconnected with Voices of Gotham Assistant Director Eric Engelhardt, who I met at Harmony U 2012. I sang tags and polecats with them until about 3:00 AM when we finally decided to call it. After getting directions home, I hopped on a train and headed back to Brooklyn. When I arrived back at Siobahn’s apartment I reflected on my first night in New York City, my new home, and upon the hospitality, camaraderie, and above all the sound of Voices of Gotham.

Voices of Gotham would go on to win eighth place in Toronto and score higher than ever, and over the month I would officially join the ranks of the chorus. Today I proudly call this chapter my new home.

I moved to New York almost on a whim. I was completing my master’s degree in music at San Diego State University, and after 33 years in San Diego I knew it was time to change. As a composer, San Diego offered my very little in terms of career prospects, and after some research, New York City was the best option. In about six weeks I received my degree, wrapped up my affairs, gave away almost all my possessions, and boarded a plane for New York.

Moving across the country with no job prospects, few contacts, and a modest savings is a difficult proposition. However, Voices of Gotham, and barbershop in general, made this transition not only easier, but also actually rewarding and enjoyable. Because of barbershop music I was immediately able to plug into a community and meet dozens of people ready to share their music and friendship with me. In addition, because of the contacts I’ve made here in Voices of Gotham, I’ve been able to find some work, meet people in my profession, and even found a place to live. It has transcended the music-making experience and it is truly a community of people interacting and doing what people do.

Voices of Gotham is more than a group I’ve joined to simply open my mouth and make sound with. It is a place I go every week to remind myself what kind of person I am, and why I make music. I still have a long way to go on my journey here in New York, and in my career; but I know that wherever that takes me I will always have Voices of Gotham and barbershop harmony as an important part of that journey.

In addition to singing baritone in Voices of Gotham, Jude has performed at Brooklyn's Cathedral Basilica of St. James and with Montclair State University's Harry Partch Ensemble. He is currently employed as the Operations Manager for Flying Carpet Theatre. For more information about Jude's work as a musician, hear samples of his music, and read more of his writings, visit his website: composerjude.com