Don Lanphere, Northwest Sax Legend

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I discovered he was probably as influenced by pre-bebop swing styles as he was by his association with Charlie Parker. This was evidenced by the fact that he was never reluctant to swing hard with unabashed joy.
Submitted on behalf of Doug Miller.

The first time I met Don Lanphere was at Jazz Alley in Seattle. It was 1988, and I was playing a week-long gig there with James Moody. I went back to the band room to find Moody talking to a robust looking man. This person was wearing a beige sweater and a Greek fisherman’s cap, the latter being popular with saxophonists of the bebop era. Moody introduced me to the man, who of course was Don Lanphere. I had heard of Don since I moved to Seattle in ’87. He had been described to me as a strong, swinging tenor player who had been in the heart of the NYC 52nd Street scene in the ‘50’s, recording there with the likes of Fats Navarro and Max Roach. I later found out that he was tight with Bird himself.

As I shook Don’s hand, I was struck by the fact that his presence in the room was strong, and that clear, penetrating eyes looked back at me from behind his glasses. He asked how long I’d been living in Seattle, and I mentioned that I hoped to play with him sometime. To this he answered, “Chuck Deardorf is my regular bassist.” Oh well, I thought, I tried. During the following set I noticed Don sitting at the bar, obviously listening intently to every musician on stage. The pianist in the band was the great Marc Copland, then known as Marc Cohen. Dean Hodges, Don’s regular drummer was keeping the music cooking.

I had been getting together to jam with pianist Marc Seales for a while around that time, and before a gig at the Port Townsend Jazz Festival Marc suggested that we rehearse with a drummer he knew named John Bishop. This band soon became the Seales-Miller-Bishop trio, later renamed New Stories, after the title of one of Marc’s tunes. I also began getting sub calls from Don when Chuck couldn’t make a gig. Marc had been Don’s pianist for quite some time already, and by 1992, in what seemed to me to be a fairly organic process, New Stories had become Don’s regular rhythm section. With the exception of the inevitable substitutions that occur from time to time in the music business, we remained in that role until Don’s death a few weeks ago.

I learned many things about Don in that time. I discovered he was probably as influenced by pre-bebop swing styles as he was by his association with Charlie Parker. This was evidenced by the fact that he was never reluctant to swing hard with unabashed joy. He was a consummate balladeer, able to play a beautiful melody and let it sing to your soul.

And he never stopped growing, always experimenting with new thematic material. An example would be when Marc Seales showed Don a fragment from Marc’s intervallic improvisation toolbox, and it ended up in Don’s arrangement of “Get Happy” from the CD of the same name.

Don was a trip. As seriously as he took music and life, he also knew that one had better have fun! To quote cartoonist Walt Kelly through the mouthpiece of his character Pogo, “Don’t take life too serious. It ain’t permanent nohow.” Don understood this. Whereas he might play a brilliantly executed solo on one tune, he might get goofy on the next. One time less than a year before he passed, when we were playing a gig at Tula’s, he went to adjust a microphone stand that was too loose. In so doing, he ended up producing a high, squeaky pitch that was then amplified through the PA. Enamored by this, he used that effect as the rhythmic beginning of his solo, grinning and cutting up the whole time until he finally put the horn in his mouth to get down to business. We jazz musicians tend to take our art very seriously, but Don could always remind you to lighten up. In the last couple minutes of a Tula’s gig, slated to finish at 1 AM, he would start looking at his watch, literally counting down the remaining seconds. No matter how hot the current solo was, he would cut off the band at 1, without regard for ending on the downbeat of a measure, harmonic resolution or any of that apparently unnecessary trivia. Never mind playing the outhead. Then he would grin and say, “When it’s over, it’s over!” It was always fun to see the reaction of one of our occasional subs (like pianists John Hansen or Bill Anschell) when Don pulled this little stunt. He could be a silly man, that guy.

I’d like to conclude with the text of an e-mail I sent after learning that Don was gone: You’ve probably already heard that we have lost Don Lanphere. He was one of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever met; always supportive, always caring towards anyone who was going through tough times, always happy to put the horn in his mouth and blow. He was a benevolent musical father/grandfather to so many of us, a teacher who cared deeply about his students, a man who deeply loved music and his wife Midge.

My life was enriched to an incalculable extent by knowing this fine man. He was a model of how to age with one’s love, goals and inspiration very much intact. I will certainly miss him deeply, and at the same time I feel that his life has touched so many in such positive ways that he is now well-satisfied with the beautiful ripples that he left here. Hug someone today for Don. He would heartily approve.

Bless you, Don.
Doug Miller

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