by Terri Castillo-Chapin

Lover of Music and Animals

Thomas Chapin was a hard-playing, spirited saxophonist-flautist who performed jazz on big outdoor stages, in concert halls and tiny clubs all over the world. He was an original who often said, "Music is my first love." The critics called him "raucous" because he played with such intense physical energy and prowess, sometimes "using yells, roars and howls to charge his performances."

Yet when it came to animals, no one could be softer or gentler than Thomas.  Furry and feathered creatures especially delighted him. They were, shall we say, his second love. So it is not surprising that, in 1997, when he suddenly fell ill at the age of thirty-nine, an animal - a black-and-white stray kitten named Moi - became a comfort and strength to him in his final days.

As a child in Manchester, Connecticut, Thomas had grown up around cats: Boots, an all-black cat with white paws; Felicia, a regal angora with a huge plume tail; and Thomas's favorite, Charlie, a plump, gray-and-white tiger (named after the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker). Charlie slept at the foot of Thomas's bed during his teen years.

I remember first meeting Charlie at the home of Thomas's parents, and how he had a strong and intelligent presence, an independent air. By that time, Thomas was living in New York City, pursuing a career in jazz, and we were dating. I was struck by how dear this little creature was to him. Often we would arrive at his parents' house and the first thing Thomas would do was rush inside, drop his bags and call out, "Charlie! Charlie!" Thomas lit up when Charlie appeared. One year when we visited, his mother spoke softly upon our arrival. "Tom," she said, "Charlie was sick and had to be put down." Thomas' head dropped to his chest and, in silence, he walked to his bedroom and didn't come out until morning.

I Must Play

Shortly after, we lived together in a cozy one-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York. By then, Thomas had left the well-known big-band orchestra of Lionel Hampton where he was music director and lead sax for seven years to form his own group, writing and performing his own compositions. He was happily making a dream come true. "I don't want to play, I must play," he said, explaining that music was his fate rather than a choice. Thomas was deeply spiritual, and he thanked God for the privilege of being able to do what he loved.

Through the late eighties and nineties, he became widely known for his work in modern jazz with a trio that included a drummer and a bassist. Through his record label, he was regularly touring the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan, making records and gaining a following.

And animals? They were still a steady component of his life. While our working schedules didn't allow us to have cats, we were able to have two perky, yellow cockatiels. Tweeter and Pai. Thomas taught them words and, by whistling, he would imitate their irrepressible melodies and squawks.

As for cats, they still surrounded Thomas in the streets, darting in and out of alleys, at rehearsal spaces, at friends' homes, and on the road. He'd find them, play with them, and adopt them on the run. He even wrote and recorded tunes that captured the spirit of the animals he had known and loved.

Falls Ill

Thomas was now busier than ever, at the top of his form. He was cited as "one of the few jazz musicians of his generation to exist in both the worlds of the downtown, experimentalist scene and mainstream jazz." Then on one trip abroad, he unexpectedly fell ill. When he returned home, he was diagnosed with leukemia. This was stunning news, but even that could not keep him down. He brought that raucous playing spirit, along with his faith, to battle the disease. During his many months undergoing chemotherapy, he inspired his own doctors and nurses. He wanted to be back onstage playing, doing what he loved.

After three months of enduring some of the most punishing days a human being could suffer, he was in remission and returned home. It was Good Friday. We both had so much to be thankful for, and it was one of our happiest times. While a long road still lay ahead, the doctors said, "Live your life. Play music." In between treatments, Thomas performed again in clubs and at outdoor summer concerts. At home, he read, listened to music, and occasionally tried to compose, surrounded by the cockatiels who cheered him and whose sounds and antics inspired in him fresh ideas.