A tribute to Tom Olcott

Volume 123, No. 9October, 2023

photo of Tom Olcott by Daniel Haskins

UPDATE: A memorial for Tom Olcott will take place on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023 from 12 noon to 3pm at the Ridgefield Park Civic Center, 159 Park Street, Ridgefield Park, NJ 07660. If you have any questions about the event, please feel free to reach to send an e-mail to: 

Thomas B. Olcott, a professional trombonist for 40 years and the financial vice president of Local 802 from 2011 to 2018, died on Sept. 9, 2023 from complications due to a chronic illness. He was an accomplished and beautiful musician, a committed advocate of the arts, a loving father, a beloved partner, and a dear friend and colleague to many. Along with his community of family and friends, we (Tom’s children) mourn the loss of this special and much-loved man.

Tom was born in Newark, New Jersey on Feb. 20, 1952 to Edward and Mary Olcott. He grew up with his younger sister Nancy Fergoda (née Olcott) in Summit, New Jersey, and attended Summit Senior High School, where he excelled in music and academics (and played baseball and basketball to admittedly less acclaim). In 1970 he enrolled at Yale, eventually earning a B.A in philosophy and literature. He liked to tell a story about the moment he knew he would pursue a career as a trombone player: a fateful meeting with an advisor who encouraged him to take a summer job in the Disneyland marching band after college. He joined Local 802 in 1975 and committed himself to playing professionally, touring with several productions around the country and building “chops,” as he liked to say. He decided to further his musical studies at Juilliard, where he earned a master’s of music degree in 1979.

From 1979 to 2011, Tom led a wonderful life as a performing trombonist in New York City. He performed with nearly every orchestra in the area — the MET Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet, New York City Opera, Westchester Philharmonic, American Symphony Orchestra, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic — and subbed on more than 20 Broadway shows. He was a member of the Radio City Orchestra from 1989 to 2011 and the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra from 1982 to 2011. Tom was immeasurably proud of his career, and his musicianship lives on with all who heard him play. As his children, we especially cherish our memories of his warm-ups; we grew up listening to his scales and arpeggios rumbling from his practice spot in the basement.

In 1982, he married Sarah Carter, a cellist and fellow Summit native, after they had reconnected while playing for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic. After several years living together in Washington Heights, they moved to Cresskill, New Jersey. In 1990 they gave birth to their first child, Emily. Ben and Anna were born in 1992 and 1995. We have the fondest memories of his imaginative and playful spirit. Together, we went on adventures, spun fantastic stories, and invented games that often resulted in hilarious three-toddler beatdowns (he took his bruises and skinned knees in stride). With our mother, he encouraged our imaginations and instilled in us his voracious curiosity about the world.

In 1985, while starting a family and continuing to play all around the tri-state area, Tom began his work with Local 802 as a member of the Freelance Orchestra Committee. From then on, he took on several roles in the organization: he won a seat on the Local 802 Trial Board, was the chair of both the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra Committee and Radio City Orchestra Committees for years and was elected to the Local 802 Executive Board in 2009. During this time, he earned a J.D. from Cardozo School of Law in 1991 and was admitted to both the New Jersey and New York bars. From 1992 to 2007, he was a participating or lead attorney in many ICSOM orchestra negotiations.

Over many years, he continuously committed himself to fighting for musicians. In 2011, he was elected as Local 802’s financial vice president, and for seven years he oversaw the general finances of Local 802 and had collective bargaining responsibilities for dozens of Local 802 agreements.

Tom retired in 2018, but he continued to work in his community until the very end. He was the treasurer of the Council for Living Music, the treasurer for the Ridgefield Park Arts Association, a member of the Ridgefield Park Zoning Board, and a board member of the Actors Federal Credit Union. He dedicated himself to those organizations, and they benefited from his intellect, attention, and willingness to do the work of organizing.

For the last 16 years, Tom lived life to the fullest with his partner, flutist Karen Purpura. Tom and Karen resided in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, where they hosted countless dinner parties, holiday extravaganzas, and even outdoor Covid-era barbecues with great humor, generosity, and delicious collaboration in the kitchen. They also enjoyed extensive travel together to their favorite place, Italy. We were so lucky to experience a blended family vacation to Tuscany in the summer of 2022. With us, Karen, and Karen’s daughter Leah, son-in-law Seth, and grandchildren Max and Lily all under one beautiful Italian villa roof, we know our father experienced a dream come true.

Tom dedicated passion and energy to his countless interests throughout his entire life. He took beautiful photos of the world around him, read lengthy tomes with almost suspicious enthusiasm, spent countless hours wandering around both the great and the humble art museums of the world, consistently wisecracked about politics, groaned about the Knicks, and always found time to explore the nature of New Jersey and beyond. He was insatiably curious, brilliant, funny, deeply loving, and a role model to many, including us. We will miss him profoundly.

Our family is planning a memorial service for Tom in the coming months to celebrate his remarkable life. In the meantime, if you have any stories or photos you would like to share, please feel free to email us at We would love to hear from you. For those wishing to make a donation in Tom’s honor, please follow this link to the Local 802 Musicians’ Emergency Relief Fund.

UPDATE: A memorial for Tom Olcott will take place on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023 from 12 noon to 3pm at the Ridgefield Park Civic Center159 Park Street, Ridgefield Park, NJ 07660. If you have any questions about the event, please feel free to reach to send an e-mail to: