Thomas Chapin occupied a
special place in the jazz world and in the hearts of Connecticut music fans because he was
as good a person as he was an engaging and innovative musician.
Chapin, 40, who died February 13 after courageously battling
leukemia for nearly a year, was a Connecticut native, born and raised in Manchester. He
was one of the most exciting and beloved performers on the area jazz scene for nearly two
decades and had achieved global prominence in recent years with the Thomas Chapin Trio.
He formed the trio after several years as musical director of
Lionel Hamptons band and a stint with drummer Chico Hamiltons group. At the
same time he began a fruitful association with New York Citys Knitting Factory
performance space and record company, which issued six Thomas Chapin Trio recordings. Many
critics have called the trios latest, Sky Piece, released in February, one of
the best of his career.
Chapin was little changed by the recognition and adulation he was
starting to receive. Thus, his success was a source of local pride, even among those who
didnt always understand some of the more experimental aspects of his work; most know
it was the restless, seeking energy -- the striving for transcendence -- that made him the
artist that he was.
Happily, Thomas Chapin was no stranger to the WWUH airwaves, as
he visited the station for interviews on many occasions. We announced his gigs and played
his recordings -- maybe not enough in the more challenging cases, not always being as
fearless or as open to all that could be made into music as he.
WWUHs Chuck Obuchowski who also grew up in Manchester, knew
of Chapin early on. He recalled seeing Chapin during his grammar school days sitting on a
swing in a nearby schoolyard playing the flute. He doesnt remember what he was
playing, but was definitely struck by the sight.
Obuchowski was one of many who put together "In Harmony: A
Vision Shared," a benefit concert for Chapin, held February 1 at Cheney Hall in
Manchester. In the program notes, Obuchowski wrote, "Thomas Chapin is a musical
pioneer of the highest order. He has mastered many varieties of flutes and saxophones,
including non-western versions of these instruments; his technical prowess is beyond
reproach. Above all, he has always dared to pursue his own muse, unfazed by
Obuchowski included a quote from a radio interview, during which
Chapin said, "I always try to remember and remind all of us that the music exists
because we love it, not because theres any commercial basis for it... It needs
everything we can give it."
One of Chapins long-time friends at WWUH was Donna
Giddings, who hosted Thursday Morning Jazz from 1983-1994 and interviewed the musician
several times. In fact, Chapin even played at her wedding to fellow UH staffer Jim Bolan.
"Although Tom got paid, he certainly did it as a favor to us," she said.
She doesnt remember exactly how they met, but -- like many
area jazz fans -- heard him play numerous times at the 880 Club in Hartford. She also
recalled him playing at the annual summer picnics WWUH held through the early-80s
and also saw him in New York with a band led by one of his most important teachers,
saxophonist and educator Paul Jeffrey.
"Tom had an infectious laugh. He was always so easy to be
with and unassuming," said Giddings. "I felt I could be his friend even
though Im not a musician and my knowledge of jazz cant compare with his."
That kind of approachability, respect for others and simple
kindness carried into Chapins musical life as well. Even after becoming a
cutting-edge jazz star, Chapin was never less than professional when sitting in with local
musicians with whom other musicians with bigger egos and less talent would not deign to
share a bandstand. And, thanks to his infectious energy and intense musicality, he usually
managed to create something special in the process.
"He was someone with an artistic vision... He played so many
types of jazz, it didnt matter... His music evolved, he didnt get stuck in one
particular style," said Giddings.
"After the last time I interviewed him, we went out to
lunch," she recalled. "I remember asking him, what do you do in your free
time when youre not practicing and composing? He said painting, I was really
struck by the fact that...whether he was working or relaxing, there was creativity
Even when facing the challenge of leukemia, Chapin maintained his
optimism and pursued all kinds of approaches to battling his illness. On the day before
the Cheney Hall benefit, he said, "Our mission sometimes does not go the way we want
it to go. But nonetheless we are in life for some kind of purpose. So you have to find
what the purpose is in all things that you come across or might come across."
Thomas Chapin understood his purpose better than most of us ever
will, no matter how long we live. That he gave music all he had was never more apparent
than when he surprised even his family and closest friends by performing a piece at the
February 1 benefit.
Thomas Chapin could have achieved so much more in music, but in
many ways his life seems to have been a journey fulfilled. Hes with us still, in his
recordings, through the musicians who continue where he left off and in the certainty that
music is as eternal as the human spirit itself.
Memorial contributions can be made to the
Leukemia Society of America, 475 Park Ave. S., New York, NY 10016, or to the Thomas Chapin
Music Fund at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA 01810.
Copyright©WWUH: May/June Program Guide, 1998