Sam Thousand, Chicago soul Renaissance manLeor Galilon July 6, 2022 at 7:41 pm

Multi-instrumentalist, producer, and vocalist Sam Thousand moved to Chicago from Texas in 2009, and within a year he’d joined hip-hop fusion outfit Sidewalk Chalk. He’s since become deeply embedded in several overlapping arts communities, gaining increased visibility under his previous stage name, Sam Trump—I first saw him perform solo in 2018, during a cross-genre Steppenwolf show presented by Growing Concerns Poetry Collective. He does work as a hired gun for musicians who want a soulful trumpet player on their recordings, and in 2016 his experience booking shows around town helped him cofound ChiBrations, a live performance series and advocacy group that elevates local soul musicians. Thousand also wrote the score for Unapologetic, a 2020 Kartemquin documentary about Black millennial abolitionists directed by Ashley O’Shay and coproduced by TRiiBE cofounder Morgan Elise Johnson. 

As told to Leor Galil

Through the pandemic, I transitioned to fully performing solo. I started this online show called The Midnight Hour. I was making live beats with my looping station and my synthesizer and playing the ukulele and playing trumpet and singing. I was performing original songs; there’s some covers. It was a great way to interact with the audience and engage with my fans—we needed each other. 

An episode of The Midnight Hour from early 2021

Now that the city’s back open, I want to say June is probably the apex of my business. Leading up to this moment I was doing more performances, but a lot of them remain small. I was like, “Hey, I can just come and perform solo.” I have a lot of different iterations of my performing, so it just works out to be able to have so much variety while I’m stimulating the same market within Chicago. 

I have a duo with this gentleman named Justin Dillard, who plays the Hammond keyboard. We have a standing residency at Pilsen Yards, which is every last Thursday. I also have a trio—we started at Soho House; we were playing there once a month. 

I also have two sextets. One is an acoustic group, Acoustic Audile. Another one is a more dance, funk, soul, and R&B group—it’s called the Soul Vortex, and we’ve been doing a whole lot lately. Prior to the pandemic we recorded a live album—I recently was pushing it a lot. We did a listening party for that album, because I’ve been holding onto it during the pandemic. Once things started opening up, we finished it up, did all the editing and mixing. I actually reached back to everyone who was at the show and invited them back to the Promontory—where we recorded it—to hear it in the space. We mixed the whole album and did a reception and played the album for them. 

I do all my own booking; I do all my managing. I’m getting busy, especially in this last month. I’d been a booking manager for a couple different venues throughout Chicago. For about four and a half to five years now, I’ve been a booking manager for Untitled Supper Club, which is a speakeasy restaurant—it’s in River North. I was playing there—they offered me a residency back in the day, when I was performing. Then there was an opportunity to do some curating, and I was moving toward that space anyway, of just wanting to do more with my platform. 

Curtis Mayfield Tribute with Sam Thousand backed by Verzatile
Wed 7/6, 7:30 PM, Untitled Supper Club, 111 W. Kinzie, reservations recommended, all ages

Sam Thousand & Justin Dillard
Thu 7/28, 7 PM, Pilsen Yards, 1163 W. 18th, reservations recommended, all ages

I’m a founder of an organization called ChiBrations, which is shedding light and bringing more awareness to soul music in Chicago. We’ve got a Jazz Fest, we’ve got a Blues Fest, but prior to us starting ChiBrations there was no Soul Fest. Now there’s the Chi-Soul Fest at Navy Pier, and that kind of happened around the same time. Two years before the pandemic, ChiBrations partnered with the Chi-Soul Fest, and they let us have a block of time in the festival—to actually curate a whole three- to four-hour block of time. 

What ChiBrations was originally, it was bringing in an artist and their band to come into our studio—wherever we had a space. We partnered with the Den Theatre, so they just gave us a room to work out of. We would build it out, and then we would record two songs with them. Every month we would highlight an artist that we recorded; we would put out a video for one week, then wait two weeks and put out another. For that whole month it would be highlighting an artist, promoting these shows they’ve got. This is another way to give back, so I’m always trying to find ways to connect but also use my platform to really lift up others. 

Sam Thousand (then known as Sam Trump) performs at a ChiBrations session in 2019.

Throughout the three years that we did things before the pandemic, we would highlight about eight to ten artists at the end of each year. We would do an anniversary show—which happened usually in November, October—where we would bring all of those artists, and we would put them all onstage for one night. I’d be the one coordinating all these things and curating all the artists and all that. We’re looking to do more with ChiBrations, because ChiBrations needs to expand beyond soul music. 

There’s so much of the underground scene that really gets no love, and a lot of them are people of color. If you look at the festivals—I even tried to get my band at some festivals on the north side. There’s maybe a couple Latin bands, but I personally feel like it should be representing more of what Chicago is and its diversity, and even its political stance. 

I started playing trumpet when I was seven. I was in a magnet school, kind of like a fine arts elementary. My brother started playing the trombone when he was in third grade—he was a year older. Once you get to third grade, you’re able to actually get into an elective program, and so I was inspired by him to get into music. I wanted to play drums, but drums were inundated by the time I was making my choice, so I had to choose another instrument, and the trumpet resonated. It was a wonderful program, very competitive, and kept me busy—kept me out of a lot of trouble. And it kept me challenged. 

I like community; I’m an extrovert. [That school music program] allowed me to be around a lot of people, and taught me how to be a team player, taught me about individuality as well, and responsibility—because you’ve gotta learn your part, but for a bigger picture, right? I think that upbringing really prepared me for a lot of things I do now. I understand, as an individual, I need to make an impact, but there’s also the broader picture to look at, and how I operate within the scene in Chicago. How I operate as a Black male in America. How I operate as a teacher and a mentor. How I operate as a trumpet player, even, or singer. 

I got offered a scholarship to come out here and play in the big band at Columbia College. I did an audition through YouTube, and they accepted me. I came out to Columbia College, was a full-time student, playing trumpet. Although I was a singer and a songwriter, I wasn’t really pushing that in school, I was really just trying to do my job during the day. By night, if I wasn’t working my night job, I was out on the scene, hitting open mikes, just really getting my name out. 

I first made my name as an artist at an open mike—specifically a poetry open mike. The scene is super vibrant—it was back then as well—and I just really started to meld into what was going on in the scene, joining bands. I joined a band called Sidewalk Chalk. We toured for five years in the past, independently. I joined that band literally three months after I came to Chicago.

Sidewalk Chalk released An Orchid Is Born in 2017.

I got here in 2009. In 2013 is when I decided to go full-time, and when Sidewalk Chalk decided to actually start touring for real for real. Once we got off that first tour—after we all quit our jobs, we got that first tour—I was like, “I gotta find a way to make money.” That’s when I started hitting the scene as an artist, fully. I started really becoming more of a staple on the scene in Chicago, to where even people who were new fans at the time, they just assumed that I was from Chicago. 

It wasn’t until 2017, 2018 where I would start getting some real, real love and affirmation—confirmation—from people that I respect so much that are from the city. They’re like, “Hey man, you’re Chicago.” So to hear it from the right people—the people that I love and respect so much—I really felt the love, and felt like this was home. And then what really cemented it for me was getting the 3Arts Award in 2019, and that really made me truly feel that I was accepted here. 

It was so fulfilling to get that call. My last ChiBrations shoot for the 2019 season—I was shooting this artist named Wyatt Waddell, who’s super dope. We had just wrapped up his session, and I got the call from [executive director] Esther [Grisham Grimm] at 3Arts, and she was like, “Hey, just wanted to reach out, are you sitting down?” I was like, “No, should I?” 

Wyatt Waddell covers Josh Kelley’s “Walk Fast” for ChiBrations.

She broke the news that I won. She was saying how her and the judges, they were really impressed with the things I was doing, especially for the community. I was like, “It’s so cool that I get this call while I’m doing this ChiBrations shoot.” ChiBrations, we weren’t getting paid for that—that was just a passion project—so it felt really good to get that confirmation. That’s how they describe the 3Arts Awards: they’re thank-you awards. 

Unapologetic was another affirmation for me; getting into film is like a whole ’nother realm of music. And for them to reach out and say, “Hey, we want you to do the score,” I felt so honored. For such an amazing and powerful story line, with some amazing characters—I knew [activist, rapper, and writer] Bella [Bahhs] really well, because we had actually been doing music together prior to them reaching out. 

There was always a demand, there was always something coming up, I was always planning on something. It’s in my blood, man. My whole family on my father’s side, they’re workhorses; they’re always doing something, they’re always doing multiple things at once, so it’s really never a dull moment. Up until the pandemic, I’d been in Chicago for ten years and hadn’t owned a TV, just because I had no interest in sitting down and not doing much with my time. I could be practicing, I could be finishing up some idea, I could be putting a proposal together. There are so many things to be doing. 

I just always wanted to keep hitting people with stuff. When I would do a show, there’d be so much great feedback. People always be posting on Instagram, and I just be like, “Man, all right, well, come to the next one.” My social media—like, my Instagram and Facebook—all of that, like, tens of thousands of followers, and all of that is organic. It just comes from years of being consistent. 

I think it’s also an act of service too. I understand that there is a higher calling in my life, to do what I do, and only I can do it the way I do it. I think that’s what many artists—all artists, really, we have these very specific talents and skills and experiences that really make us who we are as creatives. And as long as we’re walking in it fully, we’re gonna be super impactful in a way that no one else can do it. And I feel like I just discovered that, because I was looking for it. When you’re in that space, there’s this purpose and drive, and there’s definitely a reason to get out of bed and operate with integrity.

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