In Memoriam: Thom Mason

Photos courtesy of USC Thornton.

Remembering a beloved faculty member and professor emeritus of jazz studies.


The USC Thornton School of Music mourns the loss of Professor Emeritus of Jazz Studies Thom Mason, who died on July 10. He was 80.

Appointed to USC faculty in 1979, Mason led the official founding of the Thornton Jazz Studies department in 1982. He chaired that department until 1996. During that period, he helped create the bachelor of music, master’s of music and doctor of musical arts programs in jazz studies. He taught both undergraduate and graduate courses and served as academic advisor for all jazz studies doctoral students. He retired as a full-time professor in 2016, but he continued in a part-time capacity until May 2018. During Mason’s time at USC, he gave master classes to Los Angeles high schoolers involved in bands and orchestras in partnership with the Boys & Girls Club.

Mason appeared as a soloist on saxophone, clarinet and flute at jazz concerts throughout the world. As a sideman, he performed with such notable artists as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Shelly Berg, Steve Houghton, Jack Sheldon, Louis Bellson, Ndugu Chancler and Ernie Watts.

In 1996, he received the Jazz Educator of the Year Award from the Los Angeles Jazz Society, both for his work in promoting jazz education and for his work in the community as executive director of the Jazz Arts Foundation, a non-profit outreach organization.

Prior to his arrival at USC, Mason taught from 1972-1977 at Southern Methodist University. Before that, he taught at Queens College (CUNY), Eastern Michigan University and DePaul University.

Thornton Jazz Studies Professor and trumpeter John Thomas recalls meeting Mason in the fall of 1981 while auditioning trumpet students for the jazz band.

“From that first meeting, I knew that Thom was a very special person. He became my mentor, friend and colleague. I was always impressed by his abilities to find creative solutions for any situation,” Thomas says. “He inspired hundreds of students that have enjoyed a career in music. He was a great lead alto player and exciting improvisor. Above all, he was my friend and will be missed.”

Dr. Thom Mason: Celebration of the Jazz
and Swing Musical Seasons of His Life

Saturday, October 22, 2022, 2:00 p.m.
Lanterman Auditorium in La Cañada Flintridge
4491 Cornishon Ave., La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011

Thom Mason will be celebrated in a concert on Sat., Oct. 22 at 2 p.m.
The event is free and open to all. Registration instructions to follow as seating is limited.

Bob Mintzer, the Bowen H. “Buzz” and Barbara M. McCoy Endowed Chair in Jazz at USC Thornton, remembered Mason as a welcoming and supportive presence among the faculty. 

“Thom was a warm, supportive, caring individual who was so very passionate about music of all kinds. While he came from an older school of jazz playing, he was equally engaged and appreciative of more contemporary styles. I learned a lot and am grateful for our regular conversations on music and life. Thom was extremely supportive and encouraging towards me as a professor and later as the six-year chair of the jazz studies department. He acknowledged my contributions to the department while offering helpful hints as to how things could work. Thom offered a warm welcome when I interviewed at Thornton, and was instrumental in helping me to figure out what my duties would be in the jazz program. I will miss Thom’s gracious spirit and selfless giving to the music community.”

Ron McCurdy, the assistant dean of the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee at USC Thornton, met Mason before he joined the faculty. 

“I first met Thom at the International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE) conferences in the 1990s. We both were playing in the reading band of new big band charts showcased at the conference. He was well respected by all the musicians and educators alike. I got to know him better when we became colleagues at USC Thornton when I joined the faculty in 2001. Thom was always looking for innovative ways to teach his students. He was especially effective working with our doctoral students helping them to prepare for careers in higher education. In many ways, Thom was ahead of his time as it related to incorporating technology into his classroom teaching. May Dr. Mason Rest in Peace.”

More than a decade before they would become colleagues on Thornton faculty, Larry Livingston, chair of the conducting department and dean of USC Thornton from 1986 – 2002, had a chance meeting with Mason in 1970 in Chicago as presenters for the first World Saxophone Congress.

“I was impressed then with his creative mind and virtuoso skills as a jazz player. As luck would have it, in 1986, I became dean of the USC Thornton School of Music only to find Thom as chair of the newly formed jazz studies department,” Livingston says. “Throughout his years on the faculty, he was a leader, an exemplary pedagogue and an inspiring colleague. Thom built the jazz program from its embryonic beginnings and helped it achieve national recognition, and he was an important figure in the evolution of the Thornton School. He was also a good and kind human being. I send my very best wishes to his family in this difficult time.”


Mason’s life and musical gifts will be celebrated through a concert on Saturday, October 22 at 2:00 pm at Lanterman Auditorium in La Cañada Flintridge. The event is free and open to all. Registration instructions to follow as seating is limited.

Dr. Thom Mason: Celebration of the Jazz and Swing Musical Seasons of His Life

Saturday, October 22, 2022
2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Lanterman Auditorium
4491 Cornishon Ave., La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011

Free and open to all. Registration instructions to follow as seating is limited.