A few years ago, I wrote the following about saxophonist Thomas Chapin in a Wall Street Journal piece:
The standard bird’s-eye view of New York’s jazz scene in the 1980s and ’90s depicts a mainstream revival of 1960s tradition, a wild and woolly downtown, and nothing in between. The truth on the ground was more fluid. There were musicians—some experienced, others on the rise—whose deep knowledge of tradition, engaging manner, exalted skills and adventurous spirit naturally bridged such divides.
Thomas Chapin fit that bill.
But Chapin died of leukemia on Feb. 13, 1998, three weeks shy of his 41st birthday. We’ll never know quite where his music was headed. Still, we can learn more about what gave rise to Chapin’s artistry and what it suggests for the future.
In that regard, I’ve been following the development of Stephanie Castillo’s documentary, “Night Bird Song: The Thomas Chapin Story.” (You can see some of it here.)
Chapin was admired for his exuberance as a multi-instrumentalist, band leader and composer. Once a musical director for the legendary Lionel Hampton, he was one of the few artists of his generation to exist in both the worlds of the New York City’s downtown, experimentalist scene and the uptown scene of mainstream jazz. The saxophonist-flautist was just making his mark when his life was cut short when died from leukemia in 1998 at age 40.
You will meet a passionate soul who lived like there was no tomorrow in tireless pursuit of doing what he loved. In the face of a childhood condition that left him aware every day that life was fragile, Thomas Chapin soared and gained altitude, living out his dream of making edgy, engaging, exhilarating music that pushed jazz forward.Though he passed 15 years ago, his music lives on. And through the film, an unforgettable tale of love and passion, courage and boldness will unfold. NIGHT BIRD SONG is a tragic yet triumphant story of one artist who took the road less traveled, who faced its end much too soon when dreams still burned.Before he passed, Thomas Chapin had come into his own: having realized his own signature sound, having released numerous important albums, having gained a reputation for many outstanding live performances, and he was on the cusp of wide-audience recognition when he died. Thomas Chapin continues to be highly regarded as an influential and inspirational force to those who knew him and to those who continue to discover him.