Jazz singer Jo Thompson, who broke racial barriers, dies of COVID-19 complications

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News
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Jo Thompson was described once as the "piano-playing Lena Horne." A jazz artist, Ms. Thompson performed well intoher 80s, building upon a decades-long career punctuated by performances at some of the country and the world's most illustrious cabarets and nightclubs.

From New York City's legendary Tavern On the Green to venues around the world, Ms. Thompson broke racial barriers during the decades she played the piano and sang to audiences from Detroit’s top supper clubs to ones in Cuba, New York, London and Paris during the 1950s.

Detroit native Jo Thompson performed well into her 80s at venues across the country.

Ms. Thompson, a Detroit native and longtime resident, died Tuesday, March 9, 2021, from COVID-19 complications in Montclair, New Jersey. She was 92.

Ms. Thompson's brother, Dr. Walter Thompson, died of COVID-19 three months before his sister. 

Born in Detroit, Ms. Thompson began her entertainment career at Detroit's Northwestern High School. A classmate suggested that she sing and play piano in an amateur talent competition and her career took off from there, said her son Greg Dunmore, a Detroit-based journalist.

Ms. Thompson played and sang jazz standards and show tunes in the same vein of performers Diahann Carroll, Frank Sinatra, Horne and Shirley Bassey. According to Detroit News archives, in 1994, she won Backstage magazine's Bistro award as outstanding jazz singer/instrumentalist; a year earlier, she was inducted into the magazine's hall of fame.

Thompson was among the first African Americans to perform in clubs that were part of Miami Beach's swank nightclub circuit. She, the late Mary Wilson of the Supremes and legendary Broadway star Elaine Stritch were the only women from Detroit who performed at the iconic Cafe Carlyle in New York City. The club is the pinnacle of the world's nightclub scene, said Dunmore.

“My mom was called The Fabulous Ms. Jo Thompson because she was an elegant lady who was not an elitist," said  Dunmore. “She clearly understood glamour, grace, and humility are what gives you true  class and sophistication!"

Dunmore, the founder of Pulsebeat Media, said his mother was the first singer to perform the song "For Once in My Life" before Tony Bennett and Motown singer Stevie Wonder, who popularized the tune.

Ms. Thompson's workdrew the attention of numerous entertainment greats, including musician/composer Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland, and Bette Davis. 

After stepping back for the better part of three decades to raise her children, Ms. Thompson re-emerged in entertainment circles after she was widowed in 1989, performing with the J.C. Heard Orchestra under the direction of Walt Szymanski.

Ms. Thompson's performances included one in Madrid, Spain, in the early 1990s. During her set, she included 16 songs, humor and dialogue in Spanish.

"My hope is that Spanish-speaking people will love what I'm doing," Thompson told The Detroit News in 1992. "You do not have to speak the language of the country because music is the universal language."

Jo Thompson during an appearance at the Paramount Hotel in New York City.

In a 2013 New York Daily News article, Thompson recalled the early days of performing in a segregated society in the United States.

"While performing at the Cork Club in Miami, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner came in to see me," she told the newspaper Thompson. "Now, you must remember this was during the time of great prejudice and discrimination. Even as the star, I was not permitted to sit with the White people who patronized the club.

"Well, when Mr. Sinatra came in to see me and asked me to join his party after my performance — that was a real no-no. When I told his manager (or whoever it might have been that asked me on behalf of Sinatra to join him) that I really couldn't, he said I better!"

Ms. Thompson was preceded in death by her husband, journalist Al Dunmore, who also was an urban affairs specialist for Chrysler Corp. Survivors include two other sons, Jonathan and Stephen Dunmore; stepdaughters, Ruth Williams and Charlotte Vaughan, and grandchildren, Jennifer Dunmore, Lauren Dunmore and Stephen Dunmore.

A memorial service will be held later this year, Greg Dunmore said.

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