Night Bird Song: Tracing Thomas Chapin’s Flight Patterns Through Film

The papers and memorabilia of a late and great musician provide windows through which we glimpse the inner world that gave rise to the music. While rooting around in the archives of the late saxophonist Thomas Chapin, Stephanie J. Castillo—Chapin’s sister-in-law, and an accomplished documentary filmmaker—found a folder of sheet music that was on Chapin’s stand when he died, and a draft of a letter from Chapin to the Banff Center for the Arts, concerning a position as Artistic Head of Jazz (a handwritten excerpt is above). Castillo is working on “Night Bird Song,” a documentary about Chapin’s life and legacy; there’s a Kickstarter page to support that film, which features wonderful video and audio clips.

In his letter to Banff, Chapin writes of “jazz musicians as creators of our own careers because the channels that exist are limited,” and he stresses “flexibility” and “openness.” These were not necessarily the pillars of a nascent jazz-education movement in the late 1990s. But Chapin was always ahead of the curve, not to mention above the fray. As I wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal piece on Chapin:

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. As I wrote in the Journal, the recently released three-disc set, “Never Let Me Go” (Playscape Recordings), provided telling clues—drawn from a 1995 concert at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, N.Y., and from Chapin’s final New York performance, at The Knitting Factory in December 1996. Chapin translated the essence of his celebrated trio to quartet settings. There were ambitious original compositions played in public for the first time. The final song—Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Lovellevelloqui”—was one of those on Chapin’s music stand at his death, according to Castillo.

There is no such thing as a typical story for a jazz musician; the music is too personal, it’s context too mutable. Even so, Chapin’s story is notably distinct. He grew up in suburban Connecticut; attended Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass.; served as Lionel Hampton’s music director for six years; and was among the first and most original of the musicians around whom promoter Michael Dorf built a record label and touring franchise from his Lower East Side club, The Knitting Factory. The many musicians who were touched, directly and indirectly, by Chapin’s innovative stance and enveloping spirit will determine where his legacy leads. Castillo’s film promises to root out more about from whence it came.

The title of Castillo’s film, “Night Bird Song,” is drawn from a signature Thomas Chapin Trio tune, composed and arranged by Chapin and his longtime bassist, Mario Pavone. While on a midnight walk, Chapin was inspired by the striking melodic turns in a bird’s song. Castillo reminded me of something I’d written for the liner notes of Chapin’s album named for that tune (which was released shortly after his death): “the arc of his career corresponded less to common categories of ‘downtown,’ ‘mainstream’ and more to the flight paths of birds Chapin seemed to favor in song titles. With grace and individuality, Chapin took us to places—lofty and striking and sometimes dangerous—that forced a change of perspective.”

“Night Bird Song”—the film—says Castillo, will take us to some of these places and linger long enough to find meaning.

Images/Letter: courtesy of S. Castillo/Chapin: Enid Farber

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