Chapin, who was born on March 9, 1957, is not related to any other famous musicians with the same surname.

"I'm just a kid from Manchester, Connecticut who attended a prep school in Massachusetts and happened on jazz" is how he described his background. "I used to dance and jump around to music as a little kid, and I took some piano lessons like everyone at the time. But you get into things like music dirty, and then the rest of it is a process of purifying and getting down to essentials. Underneath is the ball of magnetism you're trying to polish and refine."

The polishing process began in earnest for Chapin at Phillips Academy, the prep school he attended in Andover, Massachusetts. "I remember listening to a Boston radio station with a jazz show that began with a Coltrane invocation each morning," he explained. "Then someone gave me a Roland Kirk record by chance, and that changed everything." The iconoclastic multi-instrumentalist Kirk became a role model for the student musician, one whose unpredictable imagination and ability to draw literal life-strength from music after physical incapacitation would be reflected in Chapin's subsequent career. "Kirk was really important to me, because he was a person who is neither 'in' or 'out,'" Chapin noted in a 1991 interview. "He is so deeply rooted in tradition, and yet the spectrum in which he operated was total."

Chapin also had the benefit of instruction and support from James Harwood, his music teacher at Phillips Academy, and as a result was grounded in a wide range of music. By the time of his high school graduation, he had performed from Tellemann's "Suite for Flute and Strings" to alto solos with a big band on ballads like "Misty."

College was the next step. "I began at the University of Miami, but bailed out real fast," he recalled of his experience in one of the larger music programs. "Then I went to Hartt College in Hartford, where I met Jackie McLean and Paul Jeffrey." Both saxophonists became mentors and lifelong friends, and Chapin grew particularly close to Jeffrey, who (like McLean) had been formed by his experiences with Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. When Jeffrey left Hartt to teach at Rutgers, Chapin followed. "Paul really taught me the bebop catechism," Chapin noted, though he quickly added that his Rutgers years were not filled with cut-and-dried exercises. "I never took the time to transcribe solos or copy other players," he explained in our 1996 conversation. "I've always preferred to grab a bit of this and a bit of that" - here Chapin kneaded his hands together - "and make my own mud pies."

Jeffrey put his students into real gig situations whenever possible, an aspect of his Rutgers years that Chapin found particularly valuable. On one such job, a 1980 tribute to Charles Mingus that Jeffrey had organized in Hartford, Chapin met the musician who proved to be his single most important collaborator, Mario Pavone. The bassist had already established an international reputation for his work with pianist Paul Bley and trumpeter Bill Dixon. Unlike Chapin, Pavone learned music and his instrument primarily through trial-and-error rather than formal instruction; yet the pair immediately sensed a connection, and Chapin was soon playing in Pavone's band. The first Thomas Chapin album, an octet effort called The Bell of the Heart, was produced by Pavone and released on the bassist's Alacra label in 1981.


by Bob Blumenthal, jazz writer-critic, The Boston Globe