RONALD BERNARD THORNTON
The year is May 1974. Ronald Thornton has graduated and is ready to begin his first job as band director. Reality has set in because this is “the beginning of his new life.” North Forest ISD hired him as an assistant director on August 1st for the campus of the Forest Brook High School Jaguars. His heart was fluttering because he did not know the head director and what challenges to expect. However, during his tenure, the band program became one of the most successful and respected programs in the state. The band consistently received First Division ratings in UIL Concert, Sight Reading and Marching events, including Sweepstakes awards. The most exciting and rewarding was the phenomenal stage band he started. The band was highly acclaimed throughout the United States. The band won contests at Dulles High School, Texas Southern University, Lamar University, Stephen F. Austin University, Sam Houston State University, and Wharton Jr. College. They had the opportunity to travel on an Eastern tour with the Kashmere Stage Band to Rutgers University to perform for their jazz camp with Rufus Reid.
Some of his students are currently playing professionally: Frank Lacy, trombonist; Land Richards, percussionist; Daryl Richards, saxophonist; Stephen Baxter, trombonist and Wendell Brooks, saxophonist with artist such as Gladys Knight, Frankie Beverly, and Ray Charles just to name a few.
After seven years with Forest Brook High School, his professor, Benjamin J. Butler, II called him to join his staff at Texas Southern University as an assistant director. He did not hesitate to say yes because this person molded him to become a band director. If you ask his wife, she would say he’s his “Daddy.” During his tenure from 1981-1988, he was responsible for the drill designs for half-time shows, was the recruiting coordinator for the band and was the low brass instructor. He was the sponsor of the Kappa Kappa Psi Fraternity and Tau Beta Sigma Sorority. Seven years rolled by and the dean of his area told him that his raise would be a dollar. His wife said it was time to go.
On August 1, 1988, the “Director in Demand” was chosen to head the band at Willowridge High School in the Fort Bend Independent School District. His pride, commitment, tenacity, versatility and excellence gave the band the heart to strive to the highest at all times. He was so amazed by the students’ musicianship, he forgot to pick up his first pay check. The principal, Ed Glover and his secretary delivered it to the practice field. This marching band grew very rapidly, from 100 members to 250 members, and including the auxiliaries it was 320. These members allowed the school’s name to be spelled across the entire football field. The WHS band has won Sweepstakes honors and First Division ratings at UIL Marching Contests. They also led the 105th Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, January 1, 1994, and yes, they did march 5 ¼ miles! This marching band was also named Outstanding Band in the 1996 Orange Bowl Parade in Florida. Mention parades and Ronald Thornton jumped to the “yes” mode. He and his band were labeled “The Parade King of Bands.” Mr. Thornton became head of the Fine Arts Department and 1991 Teacher of the Year. Although the marching band was at high peak, the jazz band was exploding on the scene. What was started at Forest Brook was carried to Willowridge with invigorating ambiance. The jazz band won contests at Dulles High School, Texas Southern University, Southwest Texas State and placed second at the TCU Jazz Festival. They also performed for the International Association of Jazz Educators and the Texas Bandmasters Association. The marching band and the jazz band traveled near and far and thus prompted his wife to ask, “When do we have vacation without your 300 piece band?” His response was, “This IS our vacation.”
Some of Mr. Thornton’s accomplishments include: Rose Bowl Parade leader 1994; Orange Bowl Parade 1996; Street Olympics 1993-2009; Veteran’s Day Parade 2001-2009; Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo 1993-2009; Mardi Gras Parade, Galveston 1993-2009; Houston Rockets Championship Parades 1997-2001; Division One rating UIL Marching Contest and Sightreading Contest; International Association of Jazz Educators 1996-2000; Juneteenth Parades, Austin and Houston;, University of Texas Jazz Festival - 1st Place 2001; Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York City 2001; Governor Rick Perry’s Inaugural Parade 2003; Annual “Summer Finale, Tobacco Blow-out! & Health Fare 2003”; 1st Place, Martin Luther King Battle of Bands 2004-2009, Band Movie Participant 2004 - Friday Night Lights, starring Billy Bob Thornton, The “Pan Pacific Parade” Honolulu, Hawaii 2005, President’s Award NAACP-Missouri City 2008 and Trailblazer Award for Educators from XI Alpha Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha. He also served as clinician throughout the Houston, Dallas, Austin, Beaumont and Louisiana areas. He was determined to expose the students to other cultures and ways of life. Seven years later, his wife asked him if he was leaving Willowridge for another job. Ronald stated that he was there to stay. Seven years at Forest Brook, seven years at TSU and three times seven (3x7) at Willowridge High School; that was a legacy to remember.
Ronald Bernard Thornton was born March 23, 1949, in Houston, Texas. He was raised by his grandparents, the late Griffin Van and Luella Nina Lewis. He was the oldest of five children. His mother, Lanier Page, was born deaf. Ronald started playing the trumpet and cornet at church with his grandfather on Sundays. He also marched with the Masonic Lodge Band. His education began in the renowned Third Ward area beginning at Douglass Elementary, Ryan Jr. High and ending at the Mighty Jack Yates High School-Class of 1967. Ronald played taps over the loud speaker at Ryan on his cornet when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Before he left Ryan, he changed his instrument to trombone. At Yates, he remained 1st chair under the leadership of the late Will Henry Bennett. Upon graduation with the class of 1967, he attended Prairie View A&M University until 1969. Benjamin J. Butler, II recruited him to join the Texas Southern University Band, “Ocean of Soul”. He was 1st chair trombonist, president of the band, student director and a member of the TSU Jazz Ensemble, under directors Lanny Steele and Howard Harris. He graduated in 1974, receiving Bachelor of Arts degree in music education. Ronald was an accomplished musician in his own right, trained in vocals, trumpet, euphonium and trombone. Ronald played 1st trombone in the Texas All State Intercollegiate Band under conductor Donald Hunsberger. Ronald would not just play an instrument; he joined the concert choir, directors Ruthabelle Rollins and Ruth Stewart. He continued his education receiving his Master’s at University of Houston, studying under the direction of trombonist, Al Lube.
Mr. Thornton was a member of numerous organizations, some of which include: Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Kappa Kappa Psi band fraternity, Phi Mu Alpha music fraternity, Pershing Rifles Military Fraternity, Phi Beta Mu International Bandmasters Fraternity, Tau Beta Sigma Band Sorority Honorary Member, Professional Musician Local 65, Texas Black Music Educators - Vice President, Texas Bandmasters Association, National Association of College Band Directors, Texas Music Educators Association, International Association of Jazz Educators, Texas Exes & The College of Education-The University of Texas.
Along with his professional accolades, he was a member of the Choraleers Acapella Ensemble for over twenty years. Also a trombonist, he has performed with many well-known acts: Lena Horne, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Lionel Hampton, The Temptations, The O'Jays, The Chilites, Arnett Cobb, Nancy Wilson, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Len Carnagey’s Big Band, The Scott Joplin Orchestra, and Ebony Brass.
In November 2004, Mr. Thornton also received the Channel 2 Sunshine Award for Outstanding Educators. He successfully assisted with Houston's Summer Jazz Workshop training, a program started by jazz legend Conrad Johnson. He was a role model and friend for all persons who shared his life.
Ronald was a member of Brentwood Baptist Church, and was married to Michele with two children, Ronald II and Monique. He has three grandchildren, Tyron, Jazzmin and Joshua. His family is very grateful for the recognition of Ronald’s life-long accomplishments with his induction into the Texas Bandmaster Hall of Fame.