I just got the following email from Terri Castillo-Chapin, widow of the musician and composer Thomas Chapin, marking what would have been his 50th birthday today. In the near-decade since leukemia claimed Chapin, many great musicians have passed on. But Terri's email informs of a new website and a charitable fund, and it reminded me of how especially hard Chapin's passing hit me (some of which I related in the following 1998 piece for Jazziz magazine):
Remembering Thomas Chapin
Musician Marty Ehrlich recalls a note that Jackie McLean once sent to Thomas Chapin. "You're the best student I've ever learned from," it said. In his life and career, Chapin had a way of turning things around -- in every context, and for the better. He seemed less interested in assumed roles, more in pure and open communication.
That just barely touches on the many and varied ways in which the jazz world will miss Chapin, who died on February 12th after a long bout with leukemia at age 40.
As a saxophonist, flutist, composer, and bandleader, Chapin was tireless in his passions, seemingly effortless in his mastery, and never without a provocative point of view. He's remembered right now as a powerful musical force cut short in his prime. He will be remembered for the ages as one whose focus and spirit changed the nature of the music and the musicians around him.
Chapin began his music studies with McLean; other formative teachers included saxophonist Paul Jeffries, and pianist Kenny Barron. After directing Lionel Hampton's orchestra for six years,and playing in Chico Hamilton's band, he formed a trio with bassist Mario Pavone, and drummer Steve Johns (Johns was succeeded by Michael Sarin). Chapin often augmented the trio with horns, strings, percussionists, and other instrumentation. He also worked regularly with many of jazz's more ascendant and adventurous artists, including Ehrlich, John Zorn, Ned Rothenberg, Ray Drummond, Peggy Stern, Tom Harrell, and Anthony Braxton, among many others.
Chapin is commonly pointed to as one who helped the "downtown scene" connect with a larger audience. He was the first artist signed to the Knitting Factory record label. Others credit Chapin with lending a more experimental edge to jazz's mainstream. Really, he transcended such analysis.
Like one of his main musical inspirations, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Chapin approached live performances with an extroverted sense of theater Also, like Kirk, Chapin's mastery of his instruments, particularly alto saxophone and flutes, were provocative on their own terms. He was a monstrous saxophonist, and certainly one of this generation's flute masters.
"There was a sense of this incredibly broad palette of expressive elements to his playing," said Ehrlich, "and he used them with a lot of panache and vigor and exuberance. So I felt inspired as a co-conspirator." Bassist Pavone shared an especially close relationship with Chapin, and found it hard to pick up his instrument after Chapin's death. "I'll miss the music I'll never get to hear," he said. "As Thomas told me, the plane was just gaining altitude."
That's true. And what sent Chapin's music and his career soaring was more than technical mastery. It was a purposeful spirituality, fed by Chapin's appetite for folk musics from around the world. "Plenty of artists could push art forward," commented Sam Kaufman, Chapin's friend and manager for the last year of his life. "but Thomas could be in front of any audience and hone in on what would touch them. He really was one of the great communicators in music. That's our biggest loss."
That sense came across during several stirring benefits held for Chapin in his last months and maybe most forcefully at a memorial in St. Peter's Church in New York, where musicians, friends, and fans celebrated Chapin's life and music. His widow, Terri Castillo Chapin, spoke of how Thomas shared even his final struggle -- of healing circles, of a "team" that united Western and alternative medical pracitioners as easily as Chapin's music united players from various musical camps. Musicians played, revealing the depth of Chapin's influence, as well as his own rich body of compositions. And in the room's center was a blown-up photo of Chapin, hat in hand over his heart after a performance, projecting humility, seeming to say that all of this flows from, and to, a greater place.
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