If there's a jazz band in heaven, it's a good bet that Chantilly's Geoffrey Thaler is playing alto sax.
The well-known musician, woodwinds instructor and founder of the Contemporary Music Center died, last Monday, Sept. 22, at his home of complications from diabetes. He was 42.
"He'd had some close calls, over the past year-and-a-half," said his mother, Barbara Thaler of Centreville Farms. "I think his body just gave out. He was such a sweet man, always smiling — a cheerful and dear person. He had a full life and career, and he brought so much joy to other people's lives."
A lifelong resident of Centreville and Chantilly, Thaler began his music education in the fourth grade at the old Centreville Elementary. And he was in the first class to go all the way from seventh through 12th grades at Chantilly High, back when it was called Chantilly Secondary School.
He graduated in 1979, but not before making his mark on the school's music department. Under band director Tony Aversano, he played woodwinds in the Jazz Ensemble and — while maintaining a near-perfect academic average — he won numerous awards for his musical abilities.
AVERSANO FIRST MET Thaler when he was in eighth grade. "I was most impressed by Geoff's explosive energy and excitement for music," he said. "He already was a very talented young saxophonist who continued to develop into one of the best Chantilly has ever had. I truly believe the award he cherished most was the 'Louis Armstrong Memorial Outstanding Jazz Soloist' award which was presented to Geoff at graduation as a culmination of his high-school career."
While at Chantilly, Thaler began playing professionally with Aversano's band, Lace Music, which is still going strong. He earned a bachelor's degree in history at Georgetown University while, at the same time, playing in American University's Jazz Ensemble. He then continued his musical studies at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Returning home, Thaler established The Band Aid music store in Chantilly, where he taught woodwinds. It proved so successful that he later moved it to a larger space in Chantilly, on Sullyfield Circle, and renamed it Contemporary Music Center — where countless local musicians, both student and professional, have since gone for instruction and to record songs.
Besides giving private sax, flute and clarinet lessons, Thaler also taught woodwinds for 14 years during Franklin Middle School's summertime Band and Orchestra Camp. And during the school year, he instructed woodwind and saxophone sectionals there.
"He was phenomenal — he had such a gift," said Franklin Band Director Lawrence Walker, who knew Thaler nearly 20 years. "What Geoff had, he was born with. When he put that sax to his mouth, he commanded music. His death is such a loss to the music community; I feel so bad."
HE SAID THALER just loved to play and had many friends in music circles, including music directors in this area. "We all loved him," said Walker. "He was a neat colleague, friend and musician. And he was one, nice man."
Calling him a wonderful instructor at band camp, Walker said Thaler loved working with children. "Geoff had a passion for students, especially ones with good attitudes," he said. "And they loved him — and so did their parents."
Recently, said Walker, parents who knew how ill Thaler was becoming would call and leave him messages at home, offering whatever help he needed. And his mother recalled how he'd vigorously rally parents to fight to save Fairfax County's music program whenever it was in danger of being cut from the school system's budget.
Walker also noted how, on the first day of each band camp, while the beginning music students auditioned, Thaler would perform for an hour for all the other students. "He said, 'I can play anything you ask me, in any key,' and he did," said Walker. "He'd also have the students give him two notes, and he'd make a song out of them. We've really lost a wonderful musician. I had great respect for him."
Thaler also played gigs with Lace Music for 20 years, and he and Aversano became friends as adults. "We saw each other socially, and for golf," said Aversano. "And with Lace Music, Geoff gave that incredible performing ability to all of us, every weekend, so very matter-of-factly. He just had no idea how fluid he was as a musician, what a shining star he was as a soloist and how beautifully he could speak with his horn."
Thaler's mother noted that her son even copyrighted flashcards to help children learn the music notes, terms and symbols. "He also composed and arranged music," she said. "He was quite amazing. It was a joy to see him making a living at something he loved to do. We hope he's up in heaven playing with [famed alto saxophonist] Charlie Parker — if Charlie made it."
THALER ALSO ENJOYED bowling in a league, Friday and Sunday nights, and even won trophies. And he had three motorcycles, competed in races and liked riding in the country — especially to Winchester to visit his longtime friend Golder O'Neill, a bass player and assistant professor of music at Shenandoah University.
They played together in many groups, and O'Neill called his buddy one of the best musicians he's ever known. Thaler also had a big heart. "He thought of other people first; he was very humble," said O'Neill. "He was a dear friend — we were like brothers. I'd talk to him, every week or two, and I played so much music with him. I have 30 years of memories."
He's taking Thaler's death very hard and will miss their friendship and chats on the phone. "It was always good to hear his voice," said O'Neill. "And one of the things I'll miss most is how Geoff would drop in on his motorcycle and visit my wife and I at home and we'd hang out. That won't happen anymore."
Still, said O'Neill, "I feel very grateful for knowing him. I wouldn't be where I am musically, or as a person, without him in my life."
Besides his mother, Thaler's survived by his father, William; three brothers, Paul, Gregory and Peter; and a sister, Alice. Eldest brother Mark died in 1990. Contributions in Geoff Thaler's name may be sent to: The American Diabetes Assn., 3877 Fairfax Ridge Road, Fairfax, VA 22030.