At the 880 Club, the hippie-looking alto saxophonist with the exotic headgear will run away with the tune if the house rhythm section doesn't keep up with him. The scalar pattern he just played sounds a little familiar, but an intervallic leap takes it somewhere my ears haven't been before. His fresh sense of structure rings with exuberance as well as chops. He's bouncing on the floor, aiming the saxophone at this table or that one, the baddest gun in town. . .or on any bandstand I've seen in the past ten years. Now he's shrieking through the horn. Then, he dovetails from an overtone to a glib phrase that brings him back to the bop head.
"Thank you," the saxophonist says, breathless through his wide grin. "And now we're going to play one of my originals, 'One Man Blues."'
As a solo traveler, I can relate to that, especially to the tune's ironic nod toward "Sunnymoon for Two."
At the end of the set, the house pianist steps to the mike."Tonight, on leave from Lionel Hampton's band, we have with us Manchester's own Thomas Chapin. . ."
This cat's unique. I want to talk to him. "Hey, man. You sound good," I say. The standard opener.
"Thanks, man." The odd gleam in his liquid blue eyes and the wide grin spreading above his long goatee convey a blissful aura that borders on otherworldly.
"Do you play very often outside of Hampton's band?"
"Whenever I get a night off, I try to have a little something lined up."
I mention that I used to write for Coda, that I'm currently a novelist in search of a publisher and a onetime bassist. When he asks if I still play, I tell him it's ancient history, that I just focus on writing.
"You have to do what's best for you."
Thomas's originality, inventiveness and intensity dazzle me till closing time. When I head home, I ask myself and the world in general, "How come this guy isn't famous?"
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Since the musician's lifestyle doesn't leave a lot of free time, friendships with non-musicians develop largely through intermission riffs, exchanges traded during the twenty-minute span when musicians glad-hand their fans, try to sell records and line up gigs while returning to earth from wherever they've traveled during forty minutes of improvising. Exchanges seem more intense, even though the call and response can get lost among the night's shifting topics, personalities and events. It's amazing that Thomas and I developed such a close friendship, considering the way we did it.
My starting a Connecticut column for Coda: the Canadian Jazz Magazine no doubt helped fuel our intermission riffing. Thomas appreciated the attention the column gave him, since very few jazz magazines were covering his work at the time. When I told him I'd begun to write poetry and get it published, he expressed an interest in reading it. When he sold his Radius and Forgotten Game cassettes, I bought them. And when I shook off twelve years of rust to record basslines and recite poetry over them, Thomas liked what he heard enough to say, " I'd like to record with you sometime, if you'd be up for it."
Up for it! I felt honored that someone so talented would want to record a track on my home-produced cassettes. But playing with Thomas intimidated me; my half-hour a day of practicing was nowhere near what I needed to play on his level. Even so, I was playing the bass part to "A Lunchtime Reunion" flawlessly. Thomas's bass flute obligato always seemed to place the right phrases in the right spaces around and between the lines of my recitation. This is fantastic! I thought. My pizzicato double stops are ringing, my bowed lines sound clean. And here's the closing, our sustained unison. Oh, shit! The long note I'm bowing has just turned wobbly as a drunk.
Thomas helped me edit the piece, cut>ting off the final bass note just before it wavered. When I released the piece on my
Haight Street, 1985 cassette, it sounded strong all the way to the end.
A few months later, when I got the opportunity to interview Thomas for
WHUS-FM, the University of Connecticut radio station, Mike DeRosa, the producer, and I had to scour Thomas's calendar to find a free date. We found one, on Memorial Day weekend. The morning of the interview, though, my right ear was so clogged I could barely hear through it or keep my balance. Mike woke up feeling as though his system had turned itself inside out. "Can you run the tape, at least? This is probably the only time we'll be able to catch Thomas free for a while."
"Yeah, I can do it," Mike said. "At least, I'm gonna try."
"I'll be struggling, myself."
If we managed to get through this interview, it would be a miracle.
Thomas arrived at the Storrs campus with a six-pack of beer. Downing five cans during the hour-long interview made him increasingly articulate. He talked about serving as Hampton's musical director and about starting his own group. When he discussed the similarities and differences between playing classical music and jazz, he paused to find the word that fit the nuance of his meaning. He chose "stuff," but his deliberation gave the phrase a more elevated sense, of substance.
After the interview, Thomas continued his buzz in Willimantic, the neighboring town, where an Anarchist enclave's Saturday night social club featured poetry readings, discussions, and an ample supply of alcohol and pot. When we arrive, the Circle-A crowd swoops down on him:
"Do you consider Anarchism a structural element of jazz?"
"Do you think government support of the arts produces statist propaganda?"
Thomas doesn't relate to the world in ideological terms, as his hems and haws indicate. He expresses his sentiments clearly, but with awkward diplomacy, while downing beer after beer. He's out to party.
By sundown, he's borderline comatose. We move from the social club to a nearby tavern for dinner. At the patio table, Thomas's head hangs forward. The purse of his lips suggests that he might hurl at any moment- unless he passes out first. In the five years I've seen him in the clubs, I've never seen him this drunk, or for that matter, noticeably intoxicated. For three hours he sits like a beer-bloated Buddha drunk on meditation while we party around him. At dusk, he rises from the table, sober enough to stand, says his goodbyes and leaves. The party continues till after midnight.
When Thomas had a July 5 gig at the Club Car, where I'd been hanging most Saturday nights, I thought it would be a particularly good time to hear him play and to talk with him on breaks. After a day of family cookouts, the people who usually came to the club would be watching the fireworks display above the Connecticut River.
During a lull in one of our conversations, we watch the Liberty Weekend celebration sparking fireworks on the TV screen behind the bar. The spectacle starts us grumbling about the money spent on frivolities by a nation with a growing homeless population. Thomas, after staring at the screen, shakes his head gently from side to side. After a long sigh and a pause, eyes still fixed on the screen he says, "I dunno, Vern. There's a poem in there somewhere."
Normally, I dismiss such comments as well-intentioned but misguided. Thomas, though, spoke from an artist's instincts. Over the next few weeks, I mulled over the raw material on the TV screen and "July 4, 1986" made its way onto the page.
By the start of 1987, I'd compiled enough poetry with basslines to make a full-length recording. A number of the pieces had appeared on two self-produced cassettes, Beatnik Poetry and Haight Street,1985. In February, I recorded two or three poems with Thomas, Mario Pavone and Brian Johnson at Real Art Ways. On playback, the rapport between the musicians and me sounded solid, but my recitation high-pitched and frantic. I'd have to slow the pace of my recitation and lower my voice when we recorded for real.
For the record date, scheduled in mid-July, I added Joe Fonda to the trio that did the trial run. With a two-bass lineup, I envisioned Mario roaming freely through the bass's registers while Joe added his own textures to whatever Mario was playing at the moment. The music would be bop heading toward free form.
Two weeks before the date, Brian Johnson told me that he and Thomas were playing a duo concert at Music Mountain, a sixty-mile drive into the western Connecticut hills. While reciting the work of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other poets, Brian played an incredible array of percussion instruments and Thomas played flutes, alto sax and his own collection of little instruments.
Why am I limiting myself to bop when these musicians can reach into so many other idioms? Mario's played free jazz ever since Bill Dixon's October Revolution brought it out of the bebop closet. Joe's recorded his own free jazz albums. Brian Johnson's played New Wave Rock and New Music. Thomas can play in any idiom. Why didn't I think of it before? I'll have to discard everything I've prepared for the date. Back to the drawing board. But what I have in mind will sound even better.
After the gig, Thomas rode with me to a party in a Hartford suburb. He wasn't laughing, joking or gushing his usual joie de vivre. He was moving more slowly than usual, acting distracted. "You feeling okay?" I asked.
"He shifted sluggishly in the passenger seat. "There's this new chick I met. .
"Think it'll turn into anything serious?"
"I dunno, Vern. . .I just- I dunno."
"What's her name?"
"Terri." He leaned his head against the passenger's window and drifted into a romantic fog.
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Around the time we recorded Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike, Thomas had formed Spirits Rebellious, a band that explored the Latin rhythms that had always fascinated him. It was an enjoyable excursion into a unique version of world music fusion. After Thomas recorded the Spirits Rebellious LP, he hired me to write the liner notes. Our greatest difficulty involved a choice of words and the way its nuances might affect prospective listeners. At times I thought we'd never find the one word that would capture the nuance he wanted. We seemed to be tearing our hair out with frustration during the final draft, but managed not to let the common- if seemingly unattainable- goal strain our friendship.
But Spirits Rebellious was only one area of endeavor for Thomas. His artistic restlessness, his continual search for something new, was becoming apparent to others, as well.
"Thomas says he's getting tired of playing the same old changes and the same old tunes," a member of the house trio said before Thomas arrived for a Thursday gig at the 880 Club.
It didn't surprise me. Thomas and I had talked a lot about keeping our work as fresh as we could. I wrote fiction, plays and nonfiction, as well as poetry. Shifting between forms kept me from stagnating in one. Thomas's voracious need for musical stimulation necessitated his playing in more than one band. He played in Machine Gun, a hard-core ensemble that fused punk, jazz and snippets of spoken word, and a number of other classical and Latin ensembles, and backed poets, in addition to playing anywhere on the jazz continuum.
When Thomas launched into the standards repertoire that night, his circular breathing enabled him to play long, intricate passages that flowed over the structures of the tunes to create their own extended structures. His cries and shrieks took more adroit turns than they had a few months earlier. His musical vocabulary had brought the mainstream and the avant-garde together through the unity of his voice and the scope of his thinking.
Not long afterward, Thomas organized the trio that would perform the core of much of his subsequent work. It had a fresh sound, at once more structured and more free than the other bands I'd heard him play with. His compositions grew more complex, each section suggesting its own improvisational direction. As the trio's rapport tightened, Thomas's solos almost transcended the compositional structures, becoming free form explorations of the sonic potential of his instruments and the fusion of logic and passion that informed his solos.
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Early on, I'd perceived Thomas as possessing a certain purity, a spirituality that I associated with such musicians as John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, who had died before reaching middle age. Like them, Thomas lived in the world, but seemed above its concerns, as if all that mattered was the music and the joy he expressed through it. One night, while Thomas was sitting in a chair in the 880 Club and laughing heartily over something we'd been talking about, I stared at the long face widened by his joyful laugh and slanted just a little to his left, and flashed that, like Trane and Dolphy, he wouldn't live a long life. The sensation unnerved me. My mother and my wife Elaine had psychic gifts; their premonitions had come true too often for me to consider them lucky guesses or random occurrences. Although I had premonitions every now and then, my own psychic abilities weren't nearly as developed as theirs. In this case, I certainly hoped they weren't. I never voiced my fear to Thomas. How do you tell a person who's the closest thing you've had to a brother that he's too pure to live in the world? I wanted to see Thomas playing decades into the future, his brown goatee turning white and distinguished. He was so creative he wouldn't begin repeating himself until he turned fifty.
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Michael Dorf booked me for a gig in the Knitting factory's Knot Room in November, 1991. Thomas agreed to do it. When he combined his array of little instruments with his saxes and flutes while I recited and played bass, we sounded larger than a duo, sometimes close to a quartet. Everything flowed, musically and personally, to an audience of two. Thomas and I bantered easily onstage. A few days after the gig, he phoned me at work. "Y'know, Vern, that was one of the most enjoyable gigs I've ever played where hardly anybody ever showed up. I'd really like to do it again."
"Me too." I was thrilled. As soon as he hung up, I phoned Dorf to book our next duo gig.
The time Thomas and I spent together before and after our performances flung open the doors on a friendship that previously had operated pretty much on intermission riffing. We discovered how much we enjoyed spending time together. He introduced me to the Jackson Diner, not far from his apartment, where we ate exquisite Indian food before every Manhattan performance. The collages Thomas showed me at his apartment convinced me he could have been as successful a visual artist as he was a musician.
The first time we played at the Nuyorican Poets Café, the audience howled through our comic pieces, which combined poetic and musical farce. In one poem, when I recited about a poet who announced "I spit," Thomas's gurgling alto cracked
up the audience.
Our biggest problem was finding gigs. Thomas and I found a steady venue at the Downtown Music Gallery, which held performances on Friday nights. Bruce Gallanter, the manager, was a close friend of Thomas and an avid supporter of his work. The musicians played gratis to "small but appreciative" audiences at the Gallery. I'd try to set up another gig at the Nuyorican or elsewhere for later in the evening, but couldn't always land one.
One of our most successful engagements took place at the Jumping Frog Book Store in West Hartford, Connecticut. Elaine's gourmet Thai dinner allowed us to relax before driving to the gig, and to focus on the performance, free from distractions. Everything we did that night clicked for us and our audience of eighty, an incredible turnout for a West Hartford bookstore.
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From the time we started performing as a duo, Thomas and I talked about putting out a record. We started recording Song of Baobab in June, 1992. Before the first session, Thomas and I had dinner with Steve Starger, a college friend who was a journalist, fiction writer and musician. We laughed, talked, and relaxed, sharing camaraderie and a spicy Indian meal. Steve came to the recording session afterward, then wrote about it in his weekly arts column in the Journal Inquirer, a Manchester-based daily paper. He supported artists like Thomas and me, who only received nominal attention from the Hartford Courant, the area's major daily newspaper.
My relaxation at dinner didn't carry to the recording studio. While watching Thomas play with effortless brilliance, I asked myself, "What am I doing in the same room with this guy?"
A few days later, I confided my feelings to Starger who replied, "I was just talking with Thomas the other day and, believe me, he's as impressed with you as you are with him. He sees you as this endless outpouring of creative energy. . .just the way you see him."
Thomas and I had become a Mutual Admiration Society. Knowing Thomas held me in such high regard allowed me to perform very comfortably at our second recording session, although on playback I didn't notice any difference in my performance.
We didn't know at the time we recorded Song of Baobab that I wouldn't release it for another five years.
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In summer of 1993 I decided to stop performing because of recurring health problems. But Thomas and I weren't entirely done performing together. I pulled my bass chops together in April, 1994 to record Frank(ly), a seven-poem suite, and several other poems with Thomas, with Mike DeRosa's help.
Sometime before the Frank(ly) session, Thomas had asked me to write a poem about a dancing chicken in Chinatown that reminded him of the way he sometimes felt onstage. He was going to record it on his new CD.
Thomas didn't like the ending I wrote for "Put Your Quarter In and Watch the Chicken Dance." It was too confrontational. So, I deleted the final stanza for the recorded version, leaving an upbeat ending. I published the version with my choice of endings in Nerve Bundle Review. Thomas recorded his preferred version of the poem on his Menagerie Dreams CD.
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The September after we recorded "Put Your Quarter In and Watch the Chicken Dance," Thomas called as I was stepping through the door from a Florida vacation. "Y'know, Vern, I've been thinking. . .It would be good for you to come down to the City every three or four months, keep your name out there. . ." He told me he met a woman who booked events at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village.
"I'll call her. But I haven't touched the instrument since we recorded last spring."
"You'll do fine. When you need chops, Vern, you'll always have them." The assurance in his tone seemed to transmit a lesson about spirit and inner resources.
I booked the gig for November and started practicing. My hands returned to playing shape in six weeks. But practicing bass and reciting poetry after a full day's work and an evening's writing exhausted me. By the day of the gig, I was very clear: no more performing. It was time to stop juggling two talents, a full-time job and a long-term relationship. When I told Thomas my decision, I felt much calmer about it than I'd expected. When the gig was over, I'd be done with the business. No more dividing my talents. It was time to concentrate on writing.
In the spring of 1996, though, Thomas invited me to read "Put Your Quarter In and Watch the Chicken Dance" with his trio at Cheney Hall in Manchester, Connecticut. Steve Starger wrote a preview article for the Hartford Advocate that took Thomas and me by surprise. Instead of talking about the trio, Steve had focused on the effect that recording with Thomas on a respected label could have on my career. Thomas wondered why Starger had written the piece with the focus on me and so did I. It was the trio's gig, not mine. When I asked him, Starger explained that he'd written about Thomas's trio a number of times and that if the Advocate were to publish another article on it, he would need a new slant. My appearance provided it. Thomas and I understood Steve's decision as a journalist, but even more, we understood that the matter had been out of our hands all along.
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Later that year, I decided to release Song of Baobab. I would handle mail order sales and Thomas would sell the CD on gigs. The CD would be pressed and ready by the end of February or the early part of March, 1997.
In January, 1997, Thomas, Terri, Elaine and I ate Indian dinner in Hartford, then went to a movie, The English Patient. During dinner, Thomas told us he was leaving February 1 to spend a month in Zaire. As I remember the conversation, Elaine blurted, "Don't go, Tom. You'll get a disease."
Elaine remembers the conversation differently, expressing her concerns about the risk of contracting diseases in Africa and telling him to come home early if he got sick.
Regardless of the exact dialogue, I didn't worry about what she said, despite her gift for premonitions. I'd forgotten my own premonition from several years before.
When March arrived, I waited for Thomas to call. After a few days, I left a message on his answering machine. When I didn't hear back, I assumed he'd probably gone on a last-minute tour immediately after returning home. Near the end of the month, Terri telephoned me. Thomas had come back early from Zaire because he felt weak. He'd contracted leukemia and wanted to keep it a secret; he didn't want to lose the breakthrough engagements he'd booked for the coming year. I was only one of two people outside the trio and Thomas's family who knew about it.
Some people lived fifteen years or longer with leukemia. If nothing else, fifteen years would give Thomas time to expand the inspired body of work he'd developed since the mid-eighties. I hoped his leukemia would be the most treatable kind, that this year would be nothing more than a rocky stretch of road through a long and brilliant career.
But his leukemia was an aggressive form. Thomas handled the chemotherapy well initially, but eventually the powerful medications wore him down. By his third or fourth treatment, he was pretty seriously laid up during his recovery periods. Still, he managed to perform his Suite for Terri Chapin with Borah Bergman in Toronto. When he got back from the gig, he told me he'd sold a copy of Song of Baobab while he was up there.
One day in late spring, I drove to New York to visit him. A traffic tie-up delayed my arrival by two hours. By the time I got there, he was too tired to see me for very long. He broke into tears when he said that what bothered him most about dying was not being able to play music.
He wasn't able to make the major engagements scheduled that year. The pain of watching helplessly as all he'd lived and worked for slipped away from him must have been more agonizing than the hell the chemo put him through.
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In November, the Knitting Factory held a benefit concert for Thomas. The music I heard that night was incredible. Musicians from Connecticut and New York had come together to celebrate Thomas, his music, and the love he communicated through it. Every musician I heard that night played a notch above his usual best- amazing when you consider the caliber of musicians such as John Zorn and Antony Braxton, among many other top-flight musicians.
February 8, 1997, Cheney Hall in Manchester staged a hometown benefit for Thomas. Friends and fans from the Hartford area filled the auditorium to hear local musicians pay musical tribute to him. I read two poems to start the second set, then Thomas came onstage. He thanked the audience and told them he hadn't practiced in a while. "I talked with some of my friends about playing. They told me I can go about ten minutes." The rest of his trio, Mario Pavone and Michael Sarin, moved onstage. Thomas played "Aeolus," one of his most lyrical ballad compositions, then launched into a solo whose creativity and passion moved the audience in a way that I've never seen anywhere, before or since. Live or die, My Boy had come through. It was like watching Ted Williams' last home run or a walk-off homer that wins a world series- the champion's will to triumph, only in music instead of sports.
I wanted to go backstage, but didn't know what to say. "You sounded good, man" would just sound hollow. Maybe, after such a fantastic musical moment, there wasn't anything to say. Thomas was going to be in the area for a while. He had to see his doctor in Providence the next day. I'd call him when he got back to town later in the week.
The day after he saw his doctor, he fell into a coma and went on life support in Providence.
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Thomas's death affected many of us beyond mere grieving. I dreamt about him several times, once showing him a Victorian house that he could enjoy living in, another time tunneling with him from the Hartford Civic Center to my former office downtown, possibly to bring him back to the surface and into the living world. In another dream he was puttering at an old wooden bench in a basement workshop. I asked how things were going, what he was up to, and received a knowing grin. "Oh, I'm busy," he said in a mysterious way that suggested endless puttering but nothing more specific. I sensed that his puttering involved the entire universe.
I expected Thomas's work to experience the posthumous success so many artists receive. That it didn't gain recognition immediately has disappointed me. I've listened to his music for a long time and believe he was as good as anyone I've heard on any instrument he played. Now that the LiftOff! Concerts held on the tenth anniversary of his passing have brought out a number of younger players who have come under his influence, I finally feel hopeful that Thomas's work will receive the recognition his illness so cruelly denied him, and that the love and vitality that infused his music will inspire joy, love and creativity in others for many decades to come.