To hear him tell it, this afternoon's 11th Annual D.C. Free Jazz Festival at Freedom Plaza will mark a homecoming, a comeback and something of "a miracle" for jazz trumpeter, composer and band leader Malachi Thompson. A former District resident, Thompson was informed last August that he had a rare blood disease -- T-cell lymphoma. By November he couldn't play a note.

"The doctors didn't tell me that it was terminal," says the 40-year-old Thompson, who moved back to his hometown, Chicago, in 1986. "They just told me that they'd help me along. But I found out through my own research that I was in the fourth {and last} stage of a terminal disease. ... It was the most frightening and frustrating event of my life."

Earlier this year, Thompson underwent radiation therapy, but he mostly credits meditation, creative visualization and prayer for a "recovery that left the doctors amazed. ... The cancer has been in remission since April," says Thompson, "and now the doctors have cut me loose. ... I didn't tell them about the meditation and everything, but these things really work. There's an inner power to the human spirit, and when you learn how to tap it, remarkable things can happen."

For the past month, Thompson has been preparing for this afternoon's concert with his five-piece Freebop Band as if it were a boxing match, honing his tone and building up his stamina by jamming with other musicians in Chicago. "I went from not being able to play anything to about 60 percent of my former capacity almost overnight, and I've been improving ever since. ... In some ways I think the illness has been good for my music. I think I have a more centered tone now because I'm more centered. When I close my eyes to hear my inner voice now when I'm playing, I can hear it much more clearly."

Formed in New York in the late '70s, Thompson's Freebop Band has undergone numerous personnel changes over the years -- even the size and instrumentation of the ensemble have changed frequently -- but its fundamental purpose remains the same. It's always been a vehicle for Thompson's diverse compositions and arrangements, and for the players involved. The band's current lineup features Thompson, saxophonists Carter Jefferson and Gary Bartz, bassist James King and drummer Nasar Abadey.

"Carter's playing acts as a kind of a foil to Gary's playing, and that's what I'm interested in," Thompson explains. "In one set we might go from a hard bop tune to an all-out avant-garde piece where you can show what you're really worth. I try to use different styles and colors and arrange them to create some desired effect. It doesn't always work out, but I guess that's one of the great things about music. There's always that X factor at work -- human inspiration."

Apart from his own performances and recordings, including last year's widely acclaimed "Spirit" (Delmark), Thompson is perhaps best known for his long association with fellow trumpeter Lester Bowie. Most recently he was a member of Bowie's freewheeling Brass Fantasy, a band noted for exploring pop, jazz and R&B with both whimsy and daring.

"I guess if Lester taught me one thing, it was the importance of dynamics -- that and showmanship," says Thompson. "It was a great band to be in because it was a lot of fun being around Lester and all those guys. It was like being in high school, because everyone was always joking around, but there was also a serious side to the music because Lester is a very dedicated musician... .

"It's funny, but just yesterday we were talking about the high mortality rate as far as trumpeters are concerned. Whether it was Fats Navarro or Lee Morgan or Clifford Brown. ... It goes all the way back to Bix Beiderbecke. For some reason a lot of trumpeters have a hard time getting through their forties. We figured that we already beat the odds. We're still alive and we still have our sanity."

The Freebop Band is one of several groups scheduled to perform at today's free outdoor festival, produced by District Curators. Other acts include European avant-gardists Alex von Schlippenbach, Evan Parker and Paul Lovens; the Washington-based Latin band Peligro; the U Street Project; and the Senegalese singer, griot and social critic Baaba Maal. The music begins at noon and is expected to end by 8 p.m., in time for the fireworks on the Mall. Freedom Plaza is on Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th streets NW.

The On the Beat column will return.