Don Lanphere: A great jazz sax man and a follower of Christ

Sunday 10th April 2011

Tony Cummings looks at the history of a giant of jazz saxophone, DON LANPHERE

Don Lanphere
Don Lanphere

In an age when all manner of lesser instrumental talents in the US have found a comfortable marketing niche turning out "Christian jazz" or "gospel jazz" which is often as creatively innovative as Kenny G on a bad day, it's sad that so few believers know the name Don Lanphere. Yet Don, who died in 2003, was truly one of the great Christian instrumentalists and a saxophonist that The Virgin Encyclopedia of Jazz called "exhilaratingly inventive" and a musician who made a series of fine albums. He was also a man who knew full well the healing power of Jesus, having been delivered from heroin addiction after years of substance abuse.

Lanphere was born on 26th June 1928 in Wenatchee, Washington. He first began playing saxophone when he was eight. He reminisced to journalist Jason West, "I was rummaging around the basement of our house and I found my dad's saxophone down there. I used to sneak down and open the case and push the keys, and one day I got caught. He said, 'You like that?' and I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'You want to hear it?' and I said, 'Yeah.' That was the tenor, his tenor, and he played it for me. Then he said, 'Would you like to play?' So that's where it began, right there. Around my home there was always music playing. My dad was a big band lover. In fact, in those days, in the '30s and early '40s, the bands were known by kids all over the country. You talk about the Duke Ellington Band or the Count Basie Band or the Tommy Dorsey Band and you could tell people who played second trumpet, who played third trombone. Part of growing up interested in music was just knowing who played with who."

Don first played tenor saxophone professionally at 13, having already played in public as a guest with visiting bands. At the age of 17 he guested with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra when they played a gig in his home town. After studying music at Northwestern University, Illinois, Lanphere recorded in New York under his own name with, among others, Fats Navarro and Max Roach. In 1949, he joined Woody Herman and the following year was with Artie Shaw. In 1951 he was in Sonny Dunham's band which was touring with Bob Hope. It was then that addiction to narcotics and alcohol threatened his career.

He told journalist Les Tomkins how he'd first slid into the drug culture. "One of my high school teachers had said: 'When you get to Chicago, bring me home some of that light green.' I didn't know what that was, but I found out that it was a very high grade of Chicago marijuana; so, since a teacher had recommended it, I started into that right away. And it wasn't more than a year and a half after arriving there that I was talked into 'If you think that's good, wait till you try this.' It was the needle in the arm with the heroin, and I was off and gone. I became an addict, remaining so from about '47 through '51.

"In '51 I returned to Wenatchee a 'failure'. I had had good jobs; I'd done the records with Fats Navarro and Max Roach; I'd played with Woody's band. I'd had good opportunity to play, but I was just a personal mess, getting busted and thrown in jail and so forth. An arrest took place in '51 when I was travelling with the Bob Hope show - a band put together by Sonny Dunham, the trumpet player. We were in Toledo, Ohio when I ran out of heroin; on a night off, I went to get some in Detroit. [The police] saw me walking down the street with my coat collar up and said: 'Come over here we want to talk to you.' They found what they were looking for, and I ended up in the Detroit County Jail and that was the first my parents knew of my addiction. They came and bailed me out; then we went to New York and got my phonograph, my tape recorder and my clarinet out of the pawn shop - all the things that I had hocked to get money - and we went back to Wenatchee."

Don Lanphere:  A great jazz sax man and a follower of Christ

For a season Don turned his back on the jazz scene. In 1952 he met a lady, Midge, who within a year was to become his wife. Don worked in his father's music store in Washington. But Midge recognised that her husband was pining for the chance to play jazz professionally again. So the couple moved first to Boston and then on to New York. But with his return to music old, destructive habits began to reassert themselves. Don told Tomkins, "Once more I was back with Woody Herman, and I did trips with Claude Thornhill, Charlie Barnet, different bands that were going out on two-month, three-month things trying to recreate the old music again. It never really got recreated. In the process, this time around, I became an alcoholic - they were pouring me into bed every night. Then, once again, I got busted with pockets full of marijuana; this was in Oklahoma, in '61, ten years later. I'd had another successful musical stay, but another fall down personally. Back to Wenatchee, and for the next eight years I was in and out of jails for various things. My wife had overdoses of drugs and was in mental institutions and it was just an ugly eight years. In November of 1969 I met the Lord Jesus.

"Back in 1950, before I ever knew her, my wife had gone forward in a Billy Graham Crusade in Minneapolis, before he ever left his home base; so it was easy for her to reverse direction again. That night we flushed [all the drugs] down the toilet." The born again Don, aided and encouraged by Midge, slowly but surely worked his way back into gigging. In 1982, he was invited by Arkansas businessman William Craig to make a quintet recording which was released on Britain's small but perfectly formed Hep Records.

Lanphere, like his mentor Herman, had the gift of finding and inspiring young players. In particular, he eagerly promoted the talents of pianist Marc Seales and trumpeter Jon Pugh. These musicians are heard on his Hep recordings. Don's first Hep album 'Out Of Nowhere' was a revelation. It featured "Biddip Bow" with some breathtakingly hot solos from Lanphere, the bebop blitz "Who Wrote This Thing" and a haunting soprano sax/grand piano duet "Lord's Prayer", making the album a timeless delight. Equally impressive were 1983's 'Into Somewhere' and 'Stop' while in 1984 Lanphere recorded his most successful album, a beautiful collection dedicated to his wife titled 'Don Loves Midge'. The album contained some eloquent ballad playing including a superlative version of the standard popularised by Coleman Hawkins, "Body And Soul". Don reminisced about playing such standards in the "old" days. "One particular night I was drunk while playing with Woody's band. He called up a tenor feature on 'Body And Soul'. I created what was to me, in my drunken state, probably one of the finest, most beautifully engineered tenor saxophone solos ever put down. After I had finished, Woody came over to me; he leaned over and said: 'How can anyone take such a lovely melody and make it so ugly?' Those words rang in my ears, and I tried to remember them while I was recording [the 'Don Loves Midge'] album. Because in most cases with those beautiful ballads there is no great necessity to create fantastic new melodies, since they had such a beautiful melody to begin with.

"Making that album was a revelation to me too. I'd always told my wife, 'Anybody can play a ballad,' and I've found out, over these last few years, that they can't. It was Midge who initially tried to get me to record a ballad album, after listening to those first two albums. Certainly, there are things on them that show my busyness as a saxophone player; I am - I was raised on 'The Flight Of The Bumblebee' and winning contests for this ability. So I thought that was the essence of it all, being busy. About two years ago, she was listening to the first of the two albums and she said, 'Doodle, doodle, doodle! Doodle, doodle, doodle! Is that all you can do doodle, doodle, doodle? Why don't you just play me a pretty song?'

"In the course of our romance together, we had always carried Stan Getz ballads with us in our record player. Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan. And Zoot Sims playing 'My Silent Love' and 'I Understand' and some of those beautiful things. Yet I never really flirted with them myself. I would listen to others and appreciate it, but I didn't really get into it. She said, 'You know, Stan Getz knows how to stand up and play a pretty song for me.' So I mentioned this to Stan in Seattle a couple of years back, and he said, 'Well, there may be some players around that swing more than I do but I'm very big with the ladies!'"

Don Lanphere:  A great jazz sax man and a follower of Christ

After the success of 'Don Loves Midge' there was an inevitable sequel, 'Don Still Loves Midge' (1988) before the saxophonist extraordinaire switched to Origin Records for whom he recorded five albums. But as the years rolled on it was Lanphere's role as a music teacher and mentor to a new wave of musicians which took up most of Don's time though he annually participated at the Port Townsend Jazz Seminar organised by Bud Shank. He told journalist Jason West about his role as music teacher. "I've probably had 500 different students in the 13 years we've lived in Seattle, and in all those students there is a lot of give and take as well as just give - you're exchanging ideas all the time. And I guess I never give a lesson where I'm not playing right along with the student. So I have the advantage of three or four hours of daily playing in my studio with different students at different levels, including the university students who are really excellent players - they come in with their guns loaded thinking, 'Gonna shoot the old man down today.'"

Even in old age Don continued to play occasional concerts, particularly at colleges. He said, "About half of the colleges I visit are Christian colleges and they are especially meaningful stops for me because I usually get to speak in their chapel and play. Sometimes the concert will be on a Saturday night and I'll stay over and do a Sunday morning service. You'd be amazed at the quality of the jazz bands at some of these Christian colleges. And where it is down, I just go in and tell 'em, you know, we should be better than the other colleges - we've got the Holy Spirit to work with."

Even today, many people still feel that jazz with all its free flowing improvisation is irrevocably intertwined with the drug and alcohol abuse that grips the lives of so many jazz musicians. Don Lanphere, who unquestionably created his best work after breaking free of booze and drugs, told a different story. He said, "What happened was, a whole generation looked at their idols and said, 'Well, if drugs makes them play that way, what will it do for me?' We just thought there was some magic ingredient to be had. But the only ingredient was getting yourself physically addicted to something that made life harder and harder. You can go back and listen to records that were made under the influence and those that weren't and there was no help musically. Bird used to tell the kids, 'Don't do what I do - do what I say. Try to avoid getting hung up on things I'm hung up in.' With alcohol especially, you can really think that you're breaking through every musical barrier that ever existed and if you have the opportunity to listen to it later, when you're sober, it's usually kind of ugly."

Right up to his death Don continued to play, holding down a regular gig at Tula's in Seattle. He performed with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO Live, 2002, Origin) and co-hosted a radio show with his friend, Bud Young, until Lanphere fell ill with hepatitis C. Lanphere's website and cadre of friends proclaimed him as "Seattle's Jazz Grandpop", a title he wore proudly and had more than earned over two decades of serving the Northwest jazz community. On October 9, 2003, Don Lanphere passed away at Group Health Eastside Hospital in Redmond, Washington at the age of 75.

At Tim Price wrote in Saxophone Journal, "Don Lanphere was a piece of jazz history." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


Reader Comments

Posted by Kevin McCament in Tacoma Washington @ 18:28 on Mar 15 2012

I am Don Lanphere's nephew. I lived with Don and Midge during my teenage years and attended concerts and church with them. I loved Don and Midge very much and miss Don every day. He taught me a great deal about life and introduced me to the best gift I could have hoped for, which was comming to really have God as my friend. I owe a great deal to Don. He left me a journal of his life and I am the only one who has it. It was a great gift. I know Don is still playing his sax in heaven.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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