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Washington State saxophonist and "favorite son"by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2003 Todd S. Jenkins
A native son of the Pacific Northwest, saxophonist Don Lanphere was one of the region's jazz icons. He learned to play at home on his father's alto sax. As a teenager he idolized Coleman Hawkins and gigged with name touring bands whenever they came to Washington. Lanphere began his music studies at Northwestern University in Illinois and played with local bandleader Johnny Bothwell. At the age of nineteen Lanphere and the band answered the Big Apple's beckon-call and headed for New York.
After a short time in the city, Lanphere was fired for stealing Bothwell's girl, Chan Richardson. He secured a job with Fats Navarro and recorded some excellent sides, then explored the big-band and swing scene. He played Carnegie Hall with Woody Herman's Second Herd, moved on to Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five, and gigged with the bands of Claude Thornhill, Charlie Barnet and Billy May. Lanphere also made friends with Charlie Parker and recorded the altoist at home with some friends. Those legendary tapes became known as "The Basement Sessions"... and Lanphere's girl, Chan, later became Mrs. Charlie Parker.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Lanphere soon got hooked on narcotics and alcohol. Much of the 1950s was a haze of confusion and he eventually quit the business, returned to Wenatchee and worked in his father's store. In 1969, after he and his second wife, Midge, became born-again Christians, Lanphere dusted off his horn and began playing again. He slowly worked his way back into gigging, and in 1982 he landed a contract with the Scottish label Hep Records which resulted in some fine recordings (Don Loves Midge, 1984). In 1996 he moved to Origin Records, which issued five recordings up through 2003's Where Do You Start? He encouraged young Washingtonians like trumpeter Jon Pugh and pianist Marc Seales, and collaborated with singer Jay Clayton and guitarists Larry Coryell and Mimi Fox.
In his later years Lanphere became an educator, took up the soprano sax as a double, frequently guested at Bud Shank's Port Townsend Jazz Seminar, and held 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 earlier this year. 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. He is survived by his wife of fifty years, Midge.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.