Thomas Chapin, Night Bird Song (The Incandescent Life of a Jazz Great)

Documentary, Music, Biography
Runtime: 2 hr 30 min
Director: Stephanie J Castillo

Destined to be among the great virtuosos of jazz, Thomas Chapin, an alto sax and flute master, was nearing the pinnacle of his meteoric rise when leukemia took him at the age of 40 in 1998. Though fame and world recognition have eluded him despite the mark he left on jazz n the ’80s and ’90s, his passionate life and incandescent music remain unforgettable to fans who knew him and musicians who played with him. And today, his music is inspiring a new generation of artists and musicians who have discovered him. The new documentary THOMAS CHAPIN, NIGHT BIRD SONG draws an intimate portrait of this musical explorer who pushed and transcended the boundaries of jazz and dissolved the distinctions between sound and music. Because of this film, he will no longer be only a footnote in jazz. His indelible mark will be known.

From his early days in jazz school as a young prodigy, to his formative years with big-band showman Lionel Hampton, and then to his immediate success with his own “power” jazz trio, it is clear that Thomas Chapin was ahead of his time. According to music critics and musicians who played with him, no one since the 80’s and 90’s when he lived has bent the genre of jazz the way he did or has emerged with the innovative originality that he played with.

Who was Thomas Chapin, where did he come from, and where was he going? This intimate, 140-minute documentary (two-parts) will unfold his fascinating story, beginning with his rapid ascent as a jazz artist and as the Thomas Chapin Trio enters the wildly inventive, experimental days of music during the 1980‘s and the 1990‘s when the “downtown scene” of New York City exploded with artists who were pushing the music and bending genres. The journey thought his incandescent life and music will mesmerize and inspire.

Director Stephanie J. Castillo captures Chapin’s story through an amazing treasure trove of photographs and archival footage that document his career. Chapin himself seemed to have kept every document and shred of his musical existence (most of it archived at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library), greatly aiding the detailed and compelling story woven by Castillo, a 1993 EMMY winner. Adding great depth to the storytelling is Chapin’s highly innovative and highly original music that dictate a lot of the film’s editing style (the film is edited by Castillo). Castillo calls it a “film collage”, in describing the feel of her epic creation. Viewers who have seen the rough cut call it mesmerizing and absorbing.

With 40-plus interviews and no narrator, Castillo’s engaging storytellers weave a rich and moving tapestry, accented by Chapin’s own collages, journal entries and poems. Fellow musicians, family members, and jazz writers who followed Chapin’s career through its ascent and then decent into the illness that took his life provide insightful and soulful windows to who Chapin was. As the film soars to the heights of Chapin’s musical life, viewers will be taken on an amazing, joyful biographical journey to what Chapin called his “abyss of despair”, which Chapin also described as as “the realm of the miraculous.” Just as he had transcended the boundaries of jazz and music, Chapin tragic end proves to be transcendent even as his life had to end too soon.

The film contains moments of jazz history, as Chapin’s life is put into the context of his time and as he is defined by his times. In his day, in jazz, there was a schism — between the traditional and the avant-garde, between what was known as the uptown and the downtown camps of jazz. NIGHT BIRD SONG will show how Chapin made no distinctions in the music he composed and played as he freely moved between both camps and bridged the gap. Rare in this way for his day, Chapin became known an ambassador from the downtown to the uptown and was called “a centerpiece” and a powerful force despite the schism.

Bob Blumenthal, jazz writer-critic of the Boston Globe wrote this: Affirmation, honesty, passion, risk, the coherence of successful collective enterprise; all of the things we expect from the strongest and most lasting jazz permeated the music of Thomas Chapin. In every note he played … and until the leukemia that took Chapin’s life on February 13, 1998 interrupted his ascendance – Chapin was a study in the testing and exceeding of limits.

In every live set and on every recording, he plunged headlong into the musical abyss and responded with a driven yet upbeat concept that held humor, cataclysm and contemplation in rare equilibrium. The sound tapestries that resulted – solidly rooted in a tradition Chapin knew intimately, yet straining that tradition’s boundaries at every turn – were both lucid and combustible. They remain just as inspiring now that Chapin is gone. “The point is to stay awake and alive to what is going on,” he wrote in 1996; and the sounds Chapin left assure that he continues to be a living force.

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