Musician John LaChapelle dies in Richland

By Dori O'Neal, Tri-City HeraldMarch 8, 2013 

Legendary musician and teacher John LaChapelle, 91, died Tuesday at his Richland home.

He was known to many people in the Tri-Cities -- and beyond -- as the godfather of jazz guitar.

Hundreds of LaChapelle's friends and fans sent the family condolences via his son Steve's Facebook page when they heard the news.

"He went to sleep the other night and his heart just stopped," said his wife, Joan. His health had taken a downward spiral two years ago when he slipped and fell in the bathroom.

"In the hospital, he also developed a bladder infection and soon after, dementia kicked in," Joan said. "He couldn't even talk anymore or recognize anyone. But I cared for him at home and hospice came in once a week to look after him."

Joan is honoring her husband's wishes by not having a funeral service or publishing an obituary notice.

"He never liked attention to be drawn to himself," she said. "But I never promised him a story about his music and mentoring wouldn't get into the newspaper."

At a musical tribute to LaChapelle 10 years ago, he was introduced to the packed house by thunderous applause while Tri-City pianoman Steve Haberman played the theme from The Godfather.

Many of his students have gone on to bigger and more famous musical careers, such as renowned jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, a Richland High grad.

"John is a prince of a guy, a great lover of music and an assiduous student of the guitar," Coryell told the Herald a few years ago. "He took great pains with me to assure I had a strong foundation for my music. His recommendations and encouragement were all excellent."

LaChapelle knew he had the talent to take to the big leagues of music, but his life took a different turn after he married Joan and started a family. He turned down many professional playing gigs with famous bandleaders so he could stay close to home and help Joan raise their two children.

He told the Herald in an earlier story that he never regretted his decision to turn his back on a career as a professional musician.

"John was as humble as he was talented," said Andy Plymale, a friend and former student of LaChapelle. "And he had this great sense of humor. We will all miss him, and I feel honored to have known him."

Another former student, Mark Reeder of Richland, credits LaChapelle with teaching him much more than guitar chords.

"I took my first guitar lessons from John when I was 19 years old, and returned three years ago for more lessons," Reeder, 52, said. "I would not be playing guitar, or composing music today, had it not been for John's faith in me, as well as his encouragement that I express what was in my soul. That's the kind of teacher he was. He gave music his all and wanted his students to do the same.

"He was invited to play with the Doc Severinsen band once, but he turned it down," Reeder said.

LaChapelle told the Herald in 2003 that if anyone wanted to know how he felt about something, all they had to do was listen to him play the guitar. At the time, his longtime friend Gary Danielson said he couldn't agree more.

"Some people express themselves verbally; John always did it with his music," Danielson said. "His legacy will always be the kids he's taught through the years."

LaChapelle taught budding musicians the magic of playing jazz guitar for more than a half century. "The music keeps me young," he once told the Herald.

His son, Steve LaChapelle, said he never found time to play guitar growing up. He was more interested in sports at the time and his dad never forced the guitar on him, though he did learn to play trumpet and drums.

A celebratory musical gathering to honor LaChapelle's memory is in the works, local musicians say.

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