Thomas Chapin

Please support this beautiful documentary and tribute to Thomas Chapin

Thomas was an incredible artist and person, originally from Manchester, CT.

I wasn’t a close friend, but he always remembered me the different times I would see him, always was welcoming, warm, and gracious. That is exactly how I remember him.

Thomas was 9 years older than me, and had also been a student of Jackie McLean’s. Jackie was like another father to me, but much older and from a culture, time and place I had yet to learn much about. I looked up to Thomas in that regard and he was someone close enough in age as to be inspiring in a way only someone that close in age, and also from Connecticut, and also an alto player, could be.

When I went to hear him play in Hartford, he invited me to sit in. I was probably about 17. I was shy and nervous and he made me feel comfortable and brought out the absolute best performance I could have possibly made.

His music was so on the edge, and constantly fresh – I didn’t fully appreciate that when I was younger as I was still at a stage just trying to assimilate familiar things – but now, all these years later I listen to all the many recordings he made and I am doubly inspired all over again – to keep seeking, to keep reaching out, to not stay safe inside the comfortable confines of what is familiar.

He was truly special, unique, gifted – and most of all entirely generous of himself, his spirit and his art.

I don’t think I ever had more than an hour’s worth of conversation with him in sum total – but many, many smiles and knowing looks. We shared similar roots and a love of music and words weren’t entirely necessary.

I wish I had the opportunity to get even closer to him – but his energy lives on quite strongly, and he still has new things to show me everyday.

Aping Jackie McLean

I started getting serious about music when I was 15. When I was 16 I wrote Jackie McLean a letter because I knew he had developed a music program at the Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford, which was only a half hour from my house.

He graciously invited me to come and meet him in his office at the school. I was very familiar with his playing at that point and he was probably my very favorite alto saxophonist. I brought some of my favorite recordings which he autographed for me. He invited me to come to his house so he could hear me play, which resulted in my studying with him privately over the next few years until I graduated high school and entered the Hartt School.

By the time I graduated I really sounded like Jackie – or at least a fair rip-off. I always had my own feelings about music – but Jackie became a larger-than-life super hero to me during those years between the time I was 16 and my very early twenties. To me he was much like a parent, and I wanted to do and think about everything the same way he did.

Jackie had such a massive persona – it would take me many years to understand that and put that wonderful gift into perspective and integrate it into a “self” that melded peacefully into Charley.

My very first job out of school was playing in the lounge band on a cruise ship in Los Angeles. The house band was a really tired and disharmonious group – and it was very, very difficult for me – without going into detail, a young twenty-something from the East Coast fresh out of school with a big New York alto sound and ideas and presumptions to match was not exactly well received.

The highlight of the time I spent on that boat gig was a week-long jazz cruise featuring some of the legends who were still alive at the time.

I was practicing in the lounge one day – and in walked Billy Higgins himself, with a huge smile on his face. Jackie and Billy Higgins were very close.

The minute he saw who was playing the saxophone his face dropped. It was one of the type of moments I’ll never, ever forget.

He didn’t say anything to me. He didn’t have to.

I realized at that moment that I had some deep soul searching to do. I switched to tenor for many years.

In school it wasn’t popular to talk about anything outside the 50’s/60’s hard bop legacy. I began listening to all kinds of music and rediscovering my own tastes – and making my playing personal and more about me.

Two musicians who are very close to me – Tony Scherr and Tony Lee – made comments to me that there was something personal in my alto playing that they liked – and I realized I had “thrown the baby out with the bath water”. It wasn’t that I needed to stop playing alto – I just had to finally become Charley and play the alto like that.

There is still a lot of Jackie McLean in my playing – and there is a lot of Jackie McLean in who I am. He was a great mentor and remains one of my heroes. I’m free to express the Jackie McLean inside me – but it is now in the context of Charley.

This is something that took me YEARS to understand.

$250 Chinese Made Soprano Saxophone Review, Opus USA

Purchased from KTone in Queens, NY – arrived in two days. Nice case, mouthpiece, reed, cork grease, cleaning rags, swab. Horn plays surprisingly well. Wouldn’t think twice about bringing it on a gig.

Singer in the Subway

Musicians in the subway are pretty common. I see them every day. Some are impressive, some not.

Last night I was leaving the gym after an especially tiring workout. My legs felt like rubber and I just didn’t feel like going down into the hot subway right away – so I caught an uptown M104 and rode it cross town and up to Columbus Circle where I caught the A train.

As I descended down to the platform, I heard singing. I thought it was a woman singing tunes by The Temptations. Often singers and performers will sing or play to backing tracks blasting from boom boxes or battery powered amps. They nearly always sing through a microphone of some sort. I usually listen for a minute and go through my usually critiques: Are they in tune and singing in the right key? Do they know the song? Is there anything different or unusual about their style?

There was something that captured my interest last night. As I looked across the platform to the other side I scanned the Friday night crowd to catch a glimpse. I couldn’t seem to find her – although I did seem to locate the direction of the sound in the large underground echo chamber that is the station at Columbus Circle.

As I looked closer I saw an old man sitting on the wooden benches, mouth moving in time to the music and I realized he was the source of the music. He completely blended in with the crowd. He sat in the bench spread legged with his hands on his knees and sang the tunes with the the background tracks.

He sang the tunes spot on and then riffed around the melody. When the tracks stopped he kept singing. He’d go right into the next song when it started. He had no microphone – so the vocal was all him. Just that old man sitting on the bench completely filling that huge underground space with the the power of his voice and his love of the music.

My train came and I left. My parting thought was how utterly natural he was. Genuine. No hype. No glitter. No effects.

Just an old man sitting on a bench doing what he was born to do.

Not With the Band

There was a physical therapist I met a few years ago when I was in the hospital. She was a very nice older middle-aged woman and we got along well from the start.

We got talking about our lives and it turned out she had been a dancer many years before. While she loved dancing, there were other things she wanted and wasn’t finding in her life. The lifestyle didn’t suit her and she moved into her current line of work helping folks like me learn to move our own bodies in better ways.

The thing I remember best about our brief acquaintance was a conversation that started out with a question I get asked frequently. It is an innocent question—but one filled with deeply rooted emotion for me.

The simple question was if I go out to ‘hear jazz’ anymore. My response, as always, was that I don’t play much saxophone these days, that I favor the piano, and that no – not really – I don’t go out to hear music much.

People’s’ response to my answer is usually one of surprise—or maybe a little embarrassment when they realize that I left a music career behind in a tactical decision—and perhaps that seemingly insignificant small talk of an ice breaker is just the opposite; and leaves me feeling defensive, nostalgic, and even a bit regretful all at the same time.

My friend the therapist surprised me. I went through my usual mental contortions of saying ‘no’ and trying to make this answer sound reasonable in such a way that most people would take my answer at face value and forget it. To my shock; she said something a kin to feeling the same way as I—having been a performer and left it behind, how difficult it was to go and see other people perform.

This might seem shallow at first – but imagine a relationship with something (or someone) that is so deep that your every breath is taken for it. All your dreams revolve around it. Everything you are, every friend you have, everywhere you’ve been, every victory and defeat – all involve this relationship. One day the relationship ends. You change. Your perceptions change. Your needs change. For one of a million reasons you just have to leave.

I sometimes look back on those years with a heavy heart – and though I know why I made the decisions I made – I don’t need to relive my twenties on a regular basis. In fact, it is painful to do so.

I still derive great pleasure from music. I bought a piano. I play it often. I’m constantly trying to work out new things to play. My listening tastes have expanded into new areas. The music is still in me. There is still a saxophone inside my head that gets played – so much so that on the rare occasions I do pick the instrument up, it is all still under my fingers. But this is all very private for me now.

There was a deep sense of belonging to something back then. This need to belong went way back to my earliest roots as a player in my teens. Maybe it is that camaraderie and the being ‘one of us-ness’ I miss. Maybe I feel like an outsider,  just a patron, on the other side of the curtain with no back stage pass.  It isn’t ‘us’ anymore and I cant say ‘I’m with the band’

My Rhythm Is Good

Tito PuenteOn the worst of days I will find a moment and live there—in a precious place unto itself neither present nor past.

I had a moment today on the fourth beat of the 28th bar of Tito Puente’s’ Oye Como Va.

So far I’m going on many words to express the singular special-ness of this one beat.

It is no secret I like music, all kinds, and I spent the day at my desk listening to a mixture of Bach, Bird, Mozart and Bill Frisell. On my way home, to Washington Heights, I hungered for el sabor latino.

I recently downloaded the Anglo-Saxon Salsa for Dummies collection from iTunes – everything from cheesy 90’s’ synth pop dance numbers, to classic clave (clah-vay) tappin’ – drop everything else – this is the best time I ever had being human – and when can I book my next flight to San Juan, kind of music.

I queued up my salsa playlist and first up was Mr. Puente and crew from the Mambo Birdlandalbum. Everyone has heard Oye ComoVa a hundred times or more. Santana covered it. Its in the drug store, market, elevator, la bodega, everywhere. Its a simple cha-cha really, and the words roughly translate to “Listen to my rhythm girl, it is good for partying”

The moment for me lies in the last bar of that 28 bar intro. There’s a pause, a guttural “HOO!”, and then the fattest horn hit ever, “BAP!”

You feel that horn hit coming, you know it is inevitable but somehow it’s different when it arrives. It lands heavy on the beat like a fat man sitting down to eat lunch.

After the intro’s repetitive on the beat/off the beat riff, the click-click cha-cha squarely on the beat, and the riffing flute: those horns squash that last beat of the intro soundly in place.

I can live in a moment like that. My rhythm is ready for a party.


I Love a Piano

Willie I’m not sure exactly where my passion for stride piano started. I started my musical career with piano lessons when I was very young – but it never went anywhere as I just didn’t have that much interest. Dumb kid. When I finally did start paying attention and getting interested in music it was all about the saxophone.

The piano has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I grew up with a baby grand piano in the house. I guess you could say its really a part of me even if I was too ignorant to understand this privilege early on.

When my ambitions as a professional saxophonist kind of petered out in my thirties I began returning to the piano as an outlet for my musical inclinations.

If you don’t know what stride piano is; in short it is a style of piano playing that descended from ragtime but is far less rigid and much more open to the artist’s skill and interpretation. Listen to this excerpt of Thomas “Fats” Waller playing “Carolina Shout”. Get the original recording here.

One thing that always frustrated me with the saxophone was that it doesn’t easily fit into the idiom of solo instrument. I mean with the possible exception of some great artists like Sonny Rollins; it is pretty difficult to hold an audience’s interest (or even my own interest) playing solo saxophone.

Stride piano brings an entire orchestra to the keyboard. From the low register bass through the harmony and counterpoint in the middle to the melody itself. – and rhythm. Stride got it’s name because it employs the use of a very mobile left hand that constantly strides between the bass notes, chords and counterpoint of the tune. In fact, stride pianists often criticize a lot of ‘modern’ jazz pianists as being ‘right-handed’ players. Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith used to heckle young players with a quip like, “What’s the matter with your left hand there…? Are you crippled?” When that left hand and right get together and the pulse is right it is pure magic.

I think my fascination comes from this ‘one man band’ aspect of stride. I can spend hours by myself at the keyboard working on a ‘complete’ piece of music – in my ‘own’ style. With the saxophone my practicing was always geared toward what I would play with the band at the next opportunity. My focus is much more toward pleasing myself and playing for friends or family now. I think if I can play Carolina Shout by the time I die I will have lived a full musical life.

I recently watched a terrific documentary on the pianist Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith. He was a fascinating character and absolute piano master. Unfortunately there aren’t many recordings of him available.

Jackie McLean used to talk about Willie “The Lion” Smith in his jazz history classes all the time. Smith was one of the great influences on Thelonius Monk. Monk was a stride pianist or “tickler” before he came to prominence as one of the architects of modern jazz. Smith’s influence on people like Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Monk among others can’t be underestimated. Listen to Monk’s Solo Recordings. (I found his solo recordings to be a great entree into his genius)

My favorite pianist has to be Thomas “Fats” Waller. Waller isn’t someone I really got interested in until just a few years ago. Like Louis Armstrong, Fats was subject to the style dictated for Black entertainers to mug for the camera. This kind of turned me off to Sachmo and Fats for a long time. All I could see was that image which seemed so denigrating to the music and to people of color in general. I knew Fats had written “Ain’t Misbehavin” but in my mind he was just some entertainer and not among my musical heroes like Charlie Parker, Miles, or Coltrane.

Sometimes I get into these ‘intellectual’ moods where I’ll buy a book or a recording just because I think any self-respecting scholar would have it… or because I read somewhere that it was important. “Fats Waller Greatest Hits” was one of those purchases. I think it sat around my place for a year before I finally took a hard listen one day. The cover art sucks; but the music is great! When I got to the solo piano renditions of “Carolina Shout”, “Handful of Keys”, and “Smashing Thirds” I was completely blown away. It was one of those rare and beautiful moments in life where you discover something wonderful for the first time. The Smith documentary features an audio visual mix of James P. Johnson, Wille The Lion, and Waller playing “Carolina Shout” which is fascinating.

James P. Johnson is another major figure and he, Fats, and Smith were fans of each other. Johnson was the elder of the three and significant early influence on Waller.

Pianist Art Tatum is in a class by himself. Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock said that when he’d gotten comfortable with himself as a jazz pianist he’d listen to Tatum and have to reevaluate… Tatum’s style is very much about incredible technical virtuosity in addition to the use of stride. He was an early admirer of Fats Waller.

My musical passion has returned in the form of this style of piano playing. For now, my digital keyboard and headphones will have to do. Its a really good digital keyboard with a very nice action… My mother still has the out of tune baby grand, so I play when I visit. One day I’ll have my own grand piano sitting proudly in our new living room.

My next goal is to find the right piano teacher who can help me with the basic piano chops I so desperately need to work on, and pick up on what I’ve already been able to develop and take it to the next level.

All things is due time.

Photo of Willie “The Lion” Smith and Thomas “Fats” Waller stolen from New Jersey Public Television’s Willie “The Lion” Smith page.