New Documentary Chronicles Life, Death of Thomas Chapin


Thomas Chapin is the subject of the new documentary Night Bird Song, which chronicles the pioneering reedist’s ascendant career and untimely death.

(Photo: Courtesy

Like Jaco Pastorius, alto saxophonist-flutist Thomas Chapin was a meteor streaking across the night sky. Both were astoundingly gifted, remarkably charismatic spirits who charmed people off stage and blew minds on stage with their transcendent talents and passionate intensity.

Both made a profound impact on musicians and fans alike—albeit Pastorius was operating in a larger arena with Weather Report and his Word of Mouth big band—and both left far too soon. Pastorius, who struggled with bipolar disease in his final years, was murdered in 1987 at age 35. Chapin lost his fight with leukemia in 1998 at age 40.

Night Bird Song, a new documentary on Chapin’s life directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Stephanie Castillo, tells the story of the saxophonist’s ascendancy on New York’s “downtown” scene, primarily focused around the old Knitting Factory on the Lower East Side. The film chronicles his emergence as a prominent figure on the European jazz scene, his triumphant appearance at the 1995 Newport Jazz Festival and his sad and sudden descent into the illness that ultimately took his life.

Four years in the making, Night Bird Song (named for a tune the Thomas Chapin Trio performed at Newport) traces Chapin’s amazing journey from his Connecticut roots (he studied with saxophonist Jackie McLean at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music) to his studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey with former Mingus saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, to his five-year stint with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s touring band, where he ultimately served as lead saxophonist and musical director.

As he became an integral member of New York’s downtown scene in the ’80s and ’90s, Chapin found himself pursuing a new muse. He played with a variety of groups during this time, including the hardcore punk-jazz group Machine Gun, his experimental Zasis ensemble, the Brazilian-flavored Spirits Rebellious group and a trio augmented by brass and strings. Though his playing could be characterized as distinctly avant-garde, he kept one foot firmly planted in jazz traditionalism by incorporating swing into much of his music.

In the film, respected jazz critics Bob Blumenthal, Larry Blumenfeld and Gene Seymour speak eloquently about Chapin’s ability to comfortably straddle the inside-outside divide.

These critics’ commentary is interspersed with anecdotes from longstanding colleagues like bassist Arthur Kell, guitarist Saul Rubin, saxophonist Jerry Weldon, bassist Ray Drummond, and bassist Mario Pavone and drummer Michael Sarin of the Thomas Chapin Trio. Their stories help illuminate the man behind the fountain of music.

In one of the most touching scenes of the documentary, a visibly ailing Chapin (who discovered that he had leukemia while on a trip to Africa) plays flute to his wife, Terri Castillo, at their wedding ceremony. Nearly 20 years later, Castillo’s sister, Stephanie, has brought this documentary film to fruition to remind jazz fans of what a potent force Chapin was on the ’90s jazz scene.

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On Sale Now
July 2019
Anat Cohen
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