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Don Lanphere, Seattle Sax great, dead at 75

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From the Seattle Times:

'Seattle Jazz Patriarch' was top bebop artist By Stephen H. Dunphy Seattle Times associate editor

Don Lanphere, the legendary Wenatchee-born bebop jazz saxophone player who overcame dependence on drugs and alcohol to become one of the deans of Seattle jazz musicians, died yesterday at Group Health Eastside Hospital in Redmond. He was 75. Mr. Lanphere, of Kirkland, was a regular at jazz events in the region, playing a gig at Tula's, in numerous festivals and as featured tenor sax with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. He was among the top bebop jazz musicians, improvising with the rapid-fire riffs that characterized that style of jazz.

But he was more than that. He could write a chart a musical arrangement used as the base for improvisation on the sound of water dripping in a tub. He could bring listeners to tears, playing a solo jazz version of the Lord's Prayer on the soprano sax at a Sunday brunch at the end of a weekend jazz festival.

“He was a candidate for sainthood around here," said Bud Young, of Bud's Jazz Records, a longtime friend and colleague. For the past several years, Young and Mr. Lanphere co-hosted the “Don and Bud Show," a Monday morning jazz program on Bellevue Community College radio station KBCS-FM (91.3), playing and talking about their favorite musician and pieces. They knew what they were talking about.

“Seven or eight years ago he came as a guest on my show and he never left," Young said. During the past two months, because of Mr. Lanphere's illness, Young hosted the show alone. But it will always be the “Don and Bud Show," Young said.

“(Don) is absolutely the nicest, kindest, most intelligent man you could ever know," he said. “We just got along really well. ... He's the most admirable person I have ever met." Mr. Lanphere was a gentle spirit and an inspiration to many, Young said.

“He was well-respected by every musician who came in contact with him," he said. “He never had a bad word to say about anybody."

While best known in his later years to Seattle and Northwest audiences, Mr. Lanphere could hold his own with the best, playing with top groups and orchestras around the world.

He was ranked with some of the top jazz musicians of his time before he was 20, recording with such bebop trumpet legends as Fats Navarro and Max Roach in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He played gigs with Woody Herman and Charlie Parker and with big-ticket big bands such as Artie Shaw's.

Yet Mr. Lanphere also succumbed to the fast life of the jazz world in New York, using drugs and alcohol to such an extent that by 1960 he was back in Wenatchee running his father's music store, his horn gathering dust, all but forgotten in the jazz world. “From the Big Apple to the little apple," Mr. Lanphere once said about that period.

Mr. Lanphere was frank about his problems. His official biography says “the rest of the following decade and a half was punctuated by narcotic difficulties causing him to return to his father's store in Wenatchee."

But in 1969, Mr. Lanphere, and Midge, his wife they celebrated their 50th anniversary earlier this year changed. They became born-again Christians, and Mr. Lanphere stopped his substance abuse and started playing music again.

“One of the major things would be my conversion to Christianity," Mr. Lanphere once said, “which was thoroughly unexpected by me, and it was a life-changer because I would be dead by now, otherwise."

Mr. Lanphere went on to rebuild his career. By the time of his death, he was the dean of the jazz world in Seattle, a veteran whose 75 years of life reverberated through every note. “For all of his 75 years he's been a consummate musician and never stopped improving his skills and showing the rest of us how modern jazz should continue to evolve and grow," said Michael Brockman, a professor at the University of Washington School of Music.

Brockman is a respected jazz saxophonist and is co-founder of the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. Mr. Lanphere played lead tenor in the group until he became ill.

Mr. Lanphere had a “constant ability to deliver an emotional performance that served the audience and employed form and structure from beginning to end," Brockman said. “He was the best player on stage wherever he went."

But it is his students who remember him most.

“Don Lanphere is the Seattle Jazz Patriarch and Grandpop to all those who have been his students, his colleagues, his friends, and of course, his fans," said Aadip Desai, one student. “His enthusiasm, guidance and wisdom have been integral to the development and success of many musicians. As a musician, he is creative, humorous and a great presence on the bandstand. It is impossible to not learn volumes from Don at a gig or during a lesson."

Mr. Lanphere was born on June 6, 1928, in Wenatchee, where his father ran the biggest music store in town and where he first encountered jazz, learning to play from listening to recordings. In his teens, he would travel to Seattle to play with touring bands.

He briefly went to Northwestern University in Chicago to study music. But the growing postwar jazz scene in New York, where big-band swing bands were being replaced by a “cool" new sound, soon lured him. By 1948, at 20, Mr. Lanphere had a growing reputation that secured him a recording date with the trend-setting Max Roach/Fats Navarro band.

He played with Herman, Shaw and became part of Parker's circle, making a series of recordings that came to be known as the Apartment Sessions.

In 1982, he was invited by Arkansas businessman William Craig to make a quintet recording, released by Hep Records, which marked his return to the scene. Mr. Lanphere, like his mentor Herman, had the gift of finding and inspiring young players. In particular, he has eagerly promoted the talents of pianist Marc Seales and trumpeter Jon Pugh. For the past 20 or so years, he taught and encouraged young jazz talents in the Seattle area. Mr. Lanphere also helped to create a renaissance in jazz in the Northwest. Today, jazz is heard almost every night in restaurants and clubs throughout the region.

His students were most important to him. They ranged from adults who might barter for services such as dental, roofing and accounting work to high-school players eager to learn from the master. Several times a year, he would use his usual gig at Tula's to showcase the work of students. Mr. Lanphere is survived by wife Midge, of Kirkland. Arrangements for services are pending.

Seattle Times reporter Tina Potterf contributed to this report.

Stephen H. Dunphy: 206-464-2365 or sdunphy@seattletimes.com
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