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Checking in No. 8: Reginald Chapman

Reginald Chapman playing bass trombone. (Photo by Elijah Harris)
For years, Reginald Chapman played bass trombone with NO BS Brass and numerous other groups in coffee shops and house parties around the VCU campus. After completing his doctorate he begain a successful career in New York playing in all kinds of different musical situations, from Broadway to Peruvian brass bands to circuses to his own projects. 

The guest for this episode of Checking in is Reginald Chapman, a bass trombonist, bass trumpeter, tuba player and composer who grew up in Richmond and now resides in the New York area. For many years he was a member of NOBS Brass and has since gone on to play in all kinds of different groups. He’s toured with Foxygen, Lucky Chops, the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra and he leads his own groups too.

[Music: Jebbish from Prototype by Reginald Chapman]

REGINALD CHAPMAN: Hello, my name is Reginald Chapman. I was born in Williamsburg, Virginia And I can say I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. I play low brass with bass trombone as my main instrument and I currently reside in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, New York. 

I got into music  - I used to love to sing in the bad back seat of my parents car. Lots of Whitney Houston and Tears for Fears and all of that. Then I was an only child and that was just kind of what I did. I love to sing. My mom used to sing stuff to me, for me to remember for my phone number, my address, so if I were to get lost as a youngster, I would know all of these things. And so I first started playing an instrument in fifth or fourth grade. I started with clarinet and starting in seventh grade, that's when my band director, Mr. Reginald Bassett, Sr. gave me a trombone.

[MUSIC: Brass Scene Kids by NOBS Brass]

It happened to be an Olds student model bass trombone. Little did I know that I was a bass trombone player at the time. 

PETER SOLOMON (HOST): What did you find about the bass trombone that was to your liking? What’s held your interest in that instrument?

CHAPMAN: I think there's there's a certain sense of - I like to just do things my way, and as the bass trombonist, you're the only person playing that instrument in whatever ensemble. And you also have a voice even though the bass trombone is a complimentary voice. It's a foundational voice, but it's a strong and powerful and important voice, one of those voices you don't notice until it's not there and then there's there's nothing for anyone else to stand on.I've heard that a lot about my voice in ensembles. And so yeah, I loved (that). I had the school record for pole vaulting, because again, like another specialist thing and track where there weren't that many and I barely had a coach for pole vaulting, they like just told me to go over my corner and figure it out. You know, like, I really enjoy doing things like that, like like that where, you know, I have a chance, it's harder to do like to succeed because maybe there's not the road isn't quite as paved, but but also at the same time it's more unique and so there's there's a weirdly higher chance of succeeding if you can get it.

SOLOMON: So what about improvisation? When and where did you get into playing improv?

CHAPMAN: Improvisation started - that started in middle school I played in church and I played with the choir. The guitar and bass and drum player would just like kind of sing the parts and then I would just play those parts that they would sing me. So that was a huge part of it. I remember playing – they called it a Bapti-costal church, which meant that there were moments where The Spirit would move. And that mean what that means is that this is sort of like open free time where it's not on the program where people are, you know, like praising God and everything and your job is to sort of facilitate that and there's there's nothing written down. There's just kind of these tropes that you would play ideas and call and response and all of that stuff and that was part of the culture there. So that was, that was one part of it but I never thought of that as improvisation for some reason. But then also like me and my friends would always make up songs. I remember being in Berkeley Middle School, going to the elementary school to play like a concert or something and we would just have all these little songs or someone would play trombone and other person will like beat box or something.

SOLOMON: Later on in high school and college, Reggie studied improv in more formal settings and developed a remarkable fluency that’s rare on his instrument. We’ll hear more from our interview with Reginald Chapman in just a few minutes. Here’s another selection from Prototype, his debut album on Fresh Select records. An arrangement of You Go to My Head featuring Sam Reed on vocals and Reggie on bass trombone.

Reggie Chapman (Photo by Nick Moore)
Regginald Chapman (Photo by Nick Moore)

[MUSIC: You Go to My Head by Reginald Chapman from Prototype]

I’m Peter Solomon, you’re listening to Checking in on VPM Music. Today I’m speaking with bass trombonist Reginald Chapman. In 2010, when Reggie was almost done with his undergrad at VCU, he met Jim Pugh. Pugh is a performer and educator renowned for his work in the fields of jazz, classical music and studios as well. He is an instructor at UI Urbana-Champaign

CHAPMAN: Jim Pugh came to do a thing at Virginia Commonwealth University and   we played a duet, the Daniel Schnyder duet. And, by the end of his week there, he offered me a fellowship to go get my master's degree. I started undergrad in 2004. And so I just definitely had been taking my time. I was a barista. You know, barista, community, playing music that I love, like I was pretty satisfied with that at the time, being in my early 20s or whatever. And so a master's degree program was not even something I was even thinking about. I mean, I had a few credits left at VCU, but I wasn't in any rush, you know, but he offered me a fellowship, which means they actually paid me to go to school, like a football player. Not only did I get a full tuition waiver, but they paid me to go to school there for the first year. Which was really cool and something I'm glad I took because … in Richmond, especially being a classical major, I didn't have “arranging chops.” I wrote stuff all the time,just never wrote it down. Well, hardly ever wrote it down. It was mostly in the air like a rock band. And that was great. Some of the if not the best music I've ever written, the most widely accepted music I've ever written, was written then in the period quote, unquote, before knowing what I was doing. I didn't understand chord scale relationships or, even like functionality and harmony and all of this stuff before going to University of Illinois. Basically I just learned the skills to where if someone calls me and  they need something, it doesn't have to be a sort of magical happenstance that I can create it or make it happen, you know. And so I kind of learned like how to work at University of Illinois. So coming to New York it made it so that I could teach myself how to play tuba to the point that after getting here in August, by May of that year, I was I was playing on a mostly tuba, bass trombone doubling book on Broadway subbing for Frozen, being on the call list for Frozen all the way up until when the pandemic hit. 

SOLOMON: Playing in the pit band for Frozen was just the tip of the iceberg for the variety of music that Reginald played once he hit New York. We’ll hear more about his experiences there in a few minutes. Here’s a little bit of the music that he composed while he was at VCU It’s a band called UTV Chamber. Reggie was the anchor for the group and would alternate between trombone and tuba.  It would featuring at various times drummer Devonne Harris, Marcus Tenney on tenor sax, David Hood on alto, Paul Wilsson on guitar, Mary Lawrence Hicks on Fluegelhorn and Chelsea Temple on vocals. This is Reggie’s composition Old Man Theme.

[MUSIC: Old Man Theme by UTV Chamber]

Can you tell me about what it’s been like to move to New York, what its been like to get settled in and the major projects you’ve been involved with up until the pandemic hit? 

CHAPMAN: In May of the year before last. I finished all my coursework and everything at the university and I was ABD, you know, all but the dissertation and so my first New York gig was with the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra in Japan. It was awesome.

[MUSIC: Chim-Chim-Cheree by the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra]

I was like the youngest cat in the band, like literally they were saying that the band had been touring for 33 years and I was like, 31 or 32. It was cool. Here I am like, in the Blue Note Tokyo or Club Billboard, and like all of this stuff, and, and it was it was just dope in Japan. It was so dope. But yeah, Marcus Rojas, I got to sit next to Marcus Rojas for like two weeks, Jim Pugh, John Fedchock on trombone. It was funny because I didn't know these guys. But as soon I got to know them, they started rolling out their resumes. It was really awesome. and finding a lot of really cool stuff. Anyway, so I did that. (I) flew into New York. My lady had just graduated library school at the University of Illinois and she has a job here in Brooklyn, serving public high school and middle schools. In downtown Brooklyn. And so we had a sublet in and I had nothing except for this band - Hot hand Band. A friend of mine, Kevin Moehringer,  before I even moved in, he was he was just like, “Reggie, I got you.” He needed a tuba player. Of course, I'm gonna say yes to everything. So I had my amp and he had a tuba and I would just bring my mouthpiece and my amp and I would just play tehse brass band tunes.  

There’s that and I literally every night, my job - Tony Garcia: “If you don't have a job, your job is to get a job.” 

I went out every night and I just went to jam sessions and different people's shows. I took my horn and sat in with people. I had just put an album out - my freshman album on the Fresh Select label out of Portland. It's called Prototype and it's got lots of people from Richmond on it as well as some homies from other places. And that was kind of my calling card. 

[MUSIC: Pentenacity featuring Reginald Chapman on bass trumpet]

SOLOMON: You play bass trumpet. What led you to that instrument? 

CHAPMAN: The bass trombone is cool and I've been pushing it to to be able to be a fit-all catch-all. I played with Foxygen on a bass trombone. And there was a tenor bone  / bass trombone hybrid book that Trey Pollard made for me. And so you know, I can play bright enough to like match Rob and Marcus Tenney, Rob Quallich and Marcus Tenney. I can play in a three person section and I can play in a rock band on my bass trombone. I can kind of shape shift that enough. But like there's, it's still a bass trombone, and let’s just face it. Hearing low blowing low improvisation is exciting and cool. But you know, it only has a short… I'm not saying it's a novelty, but my whole goal is to make and play music for people for regular people, you know. Like my mom loves the bass trombone, she loves my playing. But I always think like, what my mom like to listen to?  Would she like like this whether or not it was me playing, you know? 

[MUSIC; Calculation Theme by Pressure Fit] 

Tell me how you were impacted by the pandemic and what you’ve done to kind of beat the overwhelming part of it.

CHAPMAN: It was pretty amazing. Man, I was on the call list for Frozen, which is now done, you know, on Broadway, like officially they've closed it so that's really unfortunate because that was a really - it was great. And so I was doing that, I was getting to the point where… So, in New York, everybody works so hard, and works works because the bottom line is, I mean, just rent is expensive. Just rent alone, you know, let alone going anywhere. All of that stuff, all of the logistical side of living here is just - the bar is just so high. So you have to at least make that, and then that's still not quite a quality of life, right? So you do what you have to do, which is cool because I was able to really sharpen my tools. I was playing with Peruvian brass band ensembles on Sundays and I was playing wedding gigs and all types of just stuff I never thought. I played in a circus in the Bahamas on bass trumpet playing in a trio. You just do what you have to do so you just have to say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And then it gets to the point where you - like I was able to choose what I say yes to and I was able to decide maybe this time is better spent at home with my wife. Or maybe this time is better spent, you know, I'm gonna take a cut on this gig so that I can go play my own gig where I'm paying everybody out, maybe I'm not getting paid quite as much or whatever, you know what I mean? Like, I'm gonna build my own dynasty, all of that stuff. And so I was getting to a point where it was a really nice balance…. it was a nice work-life balance and also work that I really wasn't just being a worker, you know, I was getting to a point where I could be creative and work with people and not just for people, you know. And Yeah, just thousands of dollars like already on the books as far as tours. I was touring with this band Lucky Chope, and we were doing an album release tour. We had already done a short leg of it, which is really crazy to think that we're all safe considering like, right before the shutdown, we had literally been playing to like hundreds or thousands of people a night all over the, the Pacific northwest, it was so just bam, all of that stuff just got shut down. You know, and I just had to pivot, you know, and the pivot happened to be education. And it was really cool because a lot of people, especially at the time, you know, it's I guess what people are calling social emotional learning. A lot of kids and parents alike just needed something for their kids to do you know, if anything just to take their mind off of the fact that the world was going through something so crazy. 

So I was sitting in this room, you know, I had to make a deal with my neighbors. Because now they're working at home. Everybody's just at home here, and so, you know, five days a week for four or five hours a day, sitting here giving lessons to, you know, everyone from sixth grade all the way up to 40 years old. 

It's kind of died down now because you know, it's the summer also, people are running out of money, you know, that's just what it is. But like, there were - this gives me chills. There are some times where literally, a young man was like, Yeah, my dad and sister are being quarantined, on the other side of the house right now because they're sick. And he's asking me about questions about the bass trombone and, and I'm sitting here like, on this other side, just same same as him just trying to like, try to figure out a certain way of normalcy, you know, like, just still trying to like, keep figuring keep going on something right. You know? 

[MUSIC: Hoodie by Reginald Chapman] 

That died down, you know, and it's just been lots of trying to find certain paths as points of income. I'm selling mouthpieces, and then otherwise I've just been creating. I've been making videos and and connecting with people I've been writing I've been recording I recorded a bunch on to this album that I had, you know, I just kind of slow drip as far as creative content and because that takes resources and you know, like I have to like slowly just put stuff aside in order to to get people to do stuff and everything. 

SOLOMON: What’s been the takeaway for the pandemic and how it’s changed the mode of work that you’re doing?  

CHAPMAN: This is just a big version of what I've been doing my whole life as a freelancer musician, I haven't gotten a W-2 in like, I don't know how long, you know? Like, these pivots, you know, move to Richmond, figure out like, how does this work? Okay, cool. So we're doing this we're going to piece this together. Okay, I'm back in Urbana Champaign. What am I doing here? All right, cool. Move to New York start all over again. Alright, what's the scene? Okay, I need to do this. Here's the skills I need to learn. Okay, cool. Bam, do this. Who do I need to talk to? What do I need to be? Pandemic? Alright, cool. You know, like, all of this stuff is in the back pocket. And this reminds me of, there's a time where I was going through personal things and trying to figure things out as a young person in my early 20s, and I decided to, to take a break from school. And I learned a lot of hard lessons. Me and Marcus, that's our Donald Duck orange juice phase, where literally we would play in Carytown for money to go get some food to eat that day. Like, that was a reality, you know? And my parents did me the service of cutting me off, because they're like, hey, if you want to be grownup, like, if you don't want to go to school, get a job. Take care of yourself. This is what we have to do. And so there's actually some videos, I'm like, super skinny. And I was like, figuring it out, but through that period. I wrote Brass Scene Kids (and) Hoodie. We had our band UTV Chamber, I was setting up shows, certain places. We were just, we were just playing like we were all – Devonne (Harris), Chelsea Temple, David Hood, they would just come over my house, and we would just play every day. Record it. Write music, like we would just be musicians, you know? I wasn't savvy enough to be in the music business game yet, you know, I just wasn't old enough, or whatever, so I wasn't, I wasn't finessing clubs for like, for shows and bread. I wasn't even close enough to that. So we just made music. And to be honest, that period, that's what set me apart, in my opinion. Or set like, my group or my crew or my people is that it's about the music and we've had periods where it's always been about the music. It's not about the politics. It's not about who's playing the deepest like, bebop, you know, or who sounds more like John Coltrane, or who's  sounding like the newest hip hop blah blah blah. It’s just about music This is not about impressing anybody. This is not about like, who's gonna look at my Sound Cloud page when they go home. And like, I think having periods in our lives where it's like, actually about music, like, especially right now, you can't rough anybody up for money here. Right now this period of life is about, it's about life. You know, like, that's what all of our politics are about, life and death, right now. But like, that's what it's all coming down to, you know, and so it's almost even hard to have FOMO because nobody's doing anything. You know what I mean? All of our gambling bargaining chips are just like completely knocked off the table and it's just about people and about the moment. It's about here right now, like all we have is how we treat each other. You know, all I have is, my wife in the next room, and, you know, hopefully a nice call from my family saying they're okay. You know? Like, that's it. I mean, I can make a lot of money, but where am I gonna spend it? It’s not like I can book a trip to the Bahamas right now, So  it's a blessing and a curse, like part of it is. I've just been making music that feels good to me right now. You know, I think about, you know, this is kind of sad, but I think about if this were the last six months I had on this earth, like, how would I want to spend it? And for me, I want people to know about the music that I made. You know?

[MUSIC: Past Lives by Pressure Fit]