I remember as a teenager asking my father what he thought were the most important things in life. He said to build something and to leave the world a better place. I think it’s safe to say that my former Toronto Star colleague Geoff Chapman, who died yesterday at age 73 after a long battle with cancer, qualified as a success on both counts.
On the surface, there are few things as ephemeral as writing for a daily newspaper. As Chapman himself said more than once, today’s news is tomorrow’s fish wrap. But what he wrote about and how he wrote it made a substantial difference to the jazz community in his adopted hometown of Toronto.
Chapman won the National Jazz Award for journalism several years in a row, leaving him pleading with the jurors on the sixth time in 2008 to please present someone else with the trophy in the future.
The multiple wins came because Chapman had devoted himself more than the norm to jazz and the people who made it happen. He knew pretty much every musician in the city. He was a regular at every jazz bar. He listened to every album that crossed his path. And he itched to be able to share his passion for the artform, as well as his admiration for the artists at every available opportunity.
I remember him returning to the newsroom one afternoon after several hours out at the downtown jazz festival, probably in 2001 or 2002. It was one of those sticky-hot days that had been punctuated by a massive cloudburst. Chapman walked up to my desk looking like the survivor of a natural disaster, hair plastered to his skull, face flushed and dripping sweat, wet shirt plastered to his barrel chest.
He cursed the weather, then went on a short, intense recap of the musical glories he had heard. He had a review deadline to meet, and this chat was a way of helping condense his thoughts for the 500-word sprint ahead. I suggested he would be looking forward to going home for a shower and change of clothes. He shook his head and said there was much more to see and hear back at Nathan Phillips Square before he could contemplate that.
There were probably few people who knew he was a long-time diabetic and frequently had trouble with his feet in the years before he retired, because there was nothing that could get in the way of the music.
It wasn’t just the music; it was the people, too. When the Botos brothers — pianist Robi, guitarist Lajos and drummer Frank — were struggling to get official refugee status in Canada in the late 1990s, Chapman did everything he could at the paper to rally support for their cause, as well as get out the word at what wonderful musicians they were.
Chapman, who was born in England, wasn’t a trained musician. Rather, he was an enthusiastic fan who, through the accumulated experience of listening and reading and talking, was able to put everything into perspective. He also loved theatre, classical music and opera. And he took everything he touched very seriously.
On a music night, Chapman would finish his day’s writing around 4 p.m., sit down with a cigar in the smoking section in the Star‘s cafeteria and carefully go over detailed notes on the music and the artists he was going to hear that evening.
As is the case with just about every good critic, Chapman had a ear for talent, a nose for bullshit and an aversion to pomp and puffery.
When, once in a while, he would make a mistake in print — something we all do and did, despite our best efforts — Chapman would kick himself for days. One time, he renamed Sir Andrew Davis Sir Colin Davis in a review, and it took him months to stop dwelling on it.
He cared. His writing on theatre and music — no matter the genre — came out of love and respect. And, just as is the case with musicians, that attitude translated clearly into his work.
Chapman was a big guy who looked pretty intimidating when chewing and puffing on one of his beloved cigars. Never a man of a single word more than necessary, he could sometimes come across as gruff. But the hard shell was pretty thin, a fragile façade for a curious, sympathetic, open-hearted human being.
Through his hard work, which continued as a freelancer after he retired, Chapman built, by reminding his readers several times a week of the wonderful world of music that was teeming under their very noses. Along the way, there must be many, many people in Toronto and beyond for whom he left the world a better place for it.
The funeral service is at the Turner & Porter Funeral Home at 2357 Bloor St W. on Thursday at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, Chapman suggested making a donation to the Canadian Opera Company.
For more about Chapman, there is an excellent obituary in today’s Star.