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Documenting A Music Visionary

courtesy of Stephanie Castillo

When saxophonist Thomas Chapin died of leukemia at age 40, his obit in the New York Times hailed him as "one of the few musicians to exist in both the worlds of the 'downtown' experimentalist scene, and mainstream jazz."  Chapin died in 1998 just as his musical talent was emerging in mainstream jazz circles. Independent filmmaker and producer Stephanie Castillo was Chapin's sister-in-law. Her new film "Night Bird Song" documents Chapin's prodigious talent, creativity, and vision. After a screening at Canne, the film shows at the Normal Theater August 27. Castillo said while Chapin was alive, even SHE wasn't aware of his musical abilities, or the revered status he held in the "downtown" New York jazz scene.

"I wasn't a jazz fan so I wasn't following his music" said Castillo.  "Every once in awhile my sister Terri would say 'wow you should hear what Thomas is doing now. You should come and see him play because he's never going to play this again.  He's going to keep exploring and keep moving.' So when he got sick with leukemia and was at the end, I flew out to be with my sister.  When he passed away soon after that, the New York Times had an obituary, and that's when I learned who he really was."

Castillo has been making films since the late 1980's, and was producing a film when Chapin passed.  But she made a mental note to one day explore the idea of a film about Chapin.  "I had no idea, honestly" she said of Chapin's revered status in the downtown jazz scene.

Castillo said as a filmmaker she's drawn to biographical stories, and to people who are suffering or shunned by society.  Her first documentary focused on Hawaiians cast aside to another island because they had leprosy.  And she said her background as a newspaper journalist trained her to look for stories that are new or different.

"So already I had it in my mind that here was a story that nobody knows about ... that is ... who Thomas was.  He was a great musician known by a small subset of jazz.  Here's was a person cut down in the prime of his career" said Castillo.

It wasn't until 2012 that Castillo began to tackle Chapin's story.  She said because producing a film takes a lot of time and money, she had to be convinced his story was worthy of a film.

"So I took a trip to New York to interview about 10 people who knew him well" she said.  "These were promoters, people he played with, family members.  I asked them all the same question, 'does Thomas Chapin deserve a film?'  All 10 people said absolutely."

Stephanie Castillo recording interview for "Night Bird Song" in Paris.

In the film, Castillo touches on Chapin's indifference to the piano at a young age, and how switch turned on in Chapin once he had a saxophone in his hand.  She said because she had access to Chapin's artifacts and notes during the process, she was able to understand his connection to the instrument.

"In his writings he says that 'sax is just an instrument.  I am the vehicle through which this divine energy passes through.'  So when I think he found the sax, it was like a marriage between the way he would express this energy coming through him, and the way he was created.  Which was to self express something greater than himself" said Castillo.

Unlike a lot of "serious" jazz musicians, Chapin had a gregarious stage presence.  On stage, he was a whirling dervish, dancing, moving, and vamping with his audience not unlike an energetic lead singer of a rock band.  Castillo said he carried himself in a similar manner offstage.

"I talked to 47 people for this film, and everybody said he was a lot of fun and a bunch of laughs.  But he was a caring person.  A deeply deeply caring person.  And when he was with you, he was with you. And he was present, very present. I think Thomas practiced being present."

As an example of Chapin's in the moment nature, Castillo recalled an incident in Manhattan. He was in a car in when traffic stopped because a truck carrying live crated chickens had tipped over.

"And now the chickens were loose because the crates had opened" said Castillo.  "And people were running around trying to catch these chickens.  And Thomas got out of his car and started acting like a chicken, flapping his wings and making chicken noises.  That's the kind of guy he was. He was that kind of spontaneity, he didn't take himself too seriously.  He wanted people to be awake with him." 

Because he was such a musical visionary and died as he was nearing the heights of his powers, Chapin's contemporaries and various music critics often speculate about where he would have taken his music had he lived longer.  Castillo guessed he would be teaching and playing with younger musicians.

"He loved to bring people up.  To bring them alongside to raise up their game.  Someone said when Thomas walked in the room and the band was on the stage, everyone's game went up. It shot up because they knew they'd be playing at a level they don't normally play at, but with Thomas Chapin they had to."

She also speculated he would have continued working on this compositions and explore new musical territory.

"To him, music was music" said Castillo.  Music has labels, but he was into music and sounds, so I think he would have continued that.  He would have been really popular on the big stages of jazz.  He would have been playing all over Europe.  He would have been way up there because he was such a great entertainer, a great showman."

The Normal Theater will screen Castillo's movie "Night Bird Song" August 27 at 7:00 p.m.  Bloomington-Normal saxophonist Glenn Wilson, who was a friend and contemporary of Chapin's, will play Chapin's music beginning at 6:00 p.m. and during intermission.  Castillo, via Skype,  will be part of the talk back after the film.

Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.