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The University of Hartford

Remembering Thomas Chapin (1957-1998)
by Doug Maine

     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 Hampton’s band and a stint with drummer Chico Hamilton’s group. At the same time he began a fruitful association with New York City’s Knitting Factory performance space and record company, which issued six Thomas Chapin Trio recordings. Many critics have called the trio’s 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 didn’t 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.
     WWUH’s 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 doesn’t 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 criticism."
     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 there’s any commercial basis for it... It needs everything we can give it."
     One of Chapin’s 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 doesn’t 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 I’m not a musician and my knowledge of jazz can’t compare with his."
     That kind of approachability, respect for others and simple kindness carried into Chapin’s 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 didn’t matter... His music evolved, he didn’t 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 you’re not practicing and composing?’ He said painting, I was really struck by the fact that...whether he was working or relaxing, there was creativity involved."
     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. He’s 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

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