Bass trombonist, composer, and creative spirit Reggie Chapman has been a fixture in the Richmond music community since 2004. Now with his band UTV and his unique and cozy music series at The Black Hand, he’s making a new mark.
Bass trombonist, composer, and creative spirit Reggie Chapman has been a fixture in the Richmond music community since beginning his music studies at VCU in 2004. As a member of No BS! Brass Band, and frequent presence in big bands, orchestras, and alternative rock groups, Reggie has made an indelible mark as a trombonist with a huge sound, a taste for exploration, and an affinity for playing from the heart. In the past two years, he has become a band leader with his own eclectic band Use the Vastness (or UTVchamber, in its most recent incarnation), a group that has the “heart of a singer-songwriter, and the mind of an avant,” and has pursued promoting a weekly music series at The Black Hand Coffee. In this interview, Reggie discusses his most cherished musical inspirations that feed his creative output with UTVchamber, and what keeps him moving in the Richmond community that has meant so much for him.
RVANews: How did UTV start? What’s the background?
Reggie Chapman: It started about two years ago while I was taking a semester off from school. Of course, I was doing No BS! Brass Band stuff, but I had a lot of time on my hands. I started recording with Lance Koehler, the owner of Minimum Wage Studios, and I was doing a lot of creating at home. Just making these scratches of ideas that I had.
Also at the time I was really into Eastern philosophy [ laughs] and in that vein, came a lot of openness, and exploration and “seeing” and just that train of thought of accepting things as they arise no matter what they might be. There were a bunch of us that at that time didn’t have another identity. These were all my friends, like Marcus Tenney, Mary-Lawrence Hicks, Stuart Jackson, Brett Ripley, Chelsea Temple, and David Hood. There are all these other bands like Fight the Big Bull, Glows in the Dark, and No BS! So a bunch of us that were all friends would make these scratches on my computer with my little Mbox and my condenser mics. So we would build these songs by playing free for hours.
We worked a lot on playing free, because playing free is a thing. It’s a language. We would be asking things of each other like “What does that mean to be reactionary or not reactionary to what’s going on around you? How do you be in the moment?” That sort of playing became the underlying vibe for the band, where everyone has free reign but also responsibility for the sound that is happening. We’d continue to do that, and then we’d learn songs, and then try to forget them and then play them again. [laughs]
Listen to “Lamplighter”:[audio: http://media.rvanews.com/lamplight.mp3|titles=Lamplighter|artists=UTVchamber]
Chapman recording with No BS! Brass, March 2010. Photo by Lucas Fritz
What was the first show you guys did as a band?
I’m not sure which came first, but we did a backyard jam at Lucas Fritz’ place, and also a basement show. The basement show had a lot of raw energy, so it was a lot of fun. People were freaking out! My whole group thing is taking a harmonically and melodically explorative sound, and making it palatable to those that otherwise wouldn’t listen to that music or it wouldn’t be as accessible to them. So it was great to see these VCU kids in a basement dancing to this horn-based experimental music. The show at Lucas’ backyard was where we literally improvised the entire time! [laughs]. It was great, and we had some sketches of tunes that we had been working on, but it was completely open. It was cool!
You guys did a recital too, right?
Yes, and this backyard jam was before the recital. Since these two shows, we’ve gone from there, and it’s been this whole continuum of through-composed stuff. We never write anything down. Everything is memorized. I’ll sit at a piano, and say, “play this, or play this.” Or we’ll make scratches and then learn it all by ear. More recently there have been a couple things written down.
It’s in response to groups where there is sort of a totalitarian rule. UTV was supposed to be an answer to that and supposed to be the exact opposite. Anything anyone wants to do is fair game, no matter what line of thought it’s coming from. The goal is for there to be no boundaries. And in that our natural boundaries are augmented, because we’re not trying to force the boundaries. There are already unsaid boundaries. We can’t help but have our sound. I’ve been way more intentional with the sound, but even when we play the tunes, they’re never the same twice. Everyone has an ear towards the whole sound, and it still works. It’s still cohesive.
Marcus Tenney, David Hood, and Mary Lawrence Hicks with UTV at a VCU recital, Oct. 2009. Photo by Dean Christesen
Have there been other inspirations for the music outside of Eastern philosophy and free improvisation?
Oh, of course. Since getting the band started, it’s begun evolving, and isn’t quite as loose anymore. Everything is getting more intentional. For me, most recently, I got into Christianity and that thought and I feel like that’s changed the way I work with the band and my motives for the music. Ultimately, I want to affect people and write from the heart and be honest with myself and the people around me as much as possible.
Other than that, I got really into punk rock music and the Richmond vibe and just the openness. The elevator speech for UTV right now is “the heart of the singer-songwriter meets the mind of an avant.” We’re going for avant-pop as a genre. And I feel like that’s Richmond. We’re finding things that are very conventional and mixing those with what’s unconventional and creative, and everybody is okay with that. That is post-modern society, if you will.
I think that’s the thing, is realizing that, “Yeah, I play a bass trombone, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be this or that.” Realizing that being creative or artistic can be off-the-wall, and mystical, and even ridiculous, and sometimes ugly. We’re not afraid to be ugly, because that’s part of the artistic continuum. But sometimes also it can be very “inside” and very beautiful. That whole spectrum is nice to be a part of. My whole philosophy and study of theology are usually the driving force behind my creativity. Affecting people is the most important part of it.
It started as Use the Vastness, was given the acronym UTV, and has also been seen as UTVchamber. How have the different names come around, and what do they mean?
On the fly, I named it Use the Vastness. But that was too long for people to grasp, and it was shortened to UTV.
UTV performing at Musicircus 2009. Photo by Dean Christesen
Where did “Use the Vastness” come from? Was it a quote, or something else?
It was a philosophical statement, something that I was thinking about at the time. Basically, there’s complete freedom in form, and it’s something that popped into my head one day. It’s about using it all, using everything. Maybe one day I’ll understand more of what it means. But basically with the UTVchamber thing, I thought that maybe UTV wasn’t an adequate enough name, but I wanted to express the Third Stream vibe of Use the Vastness.
I don’t want us to be seen as a jazz group, really. To be honest, somehow it sounds nobler and like a more serious art group with “chamber” in the name. I was directly trying to be unconventional by calling it a “chamber ensemble,” but doing free improvisation, and maybe by changing the name a little bit, it might lodge the name in more peoples’ heads that have already heard of it.
We also learned at least another forty-five minutes worth of music over the summer, and we got Devonne Harris on drums when Brett Ripley left. That was indicative of us remaking ourselves, and we have a whole lot more tunes and it’s not quite as nebulous as it used to be. With playing free, it’s a risk, and sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it goes nowhere. Now we’re being a little bit more intentional, and working on framing our freeness.
How has the band developed over the past couple years?
It was off to a good start, and then there was a hiatus while we were all too busy. It’s been ebbing and flowing, and it’s kind of been on the backburner since school and playing with No BS! and surviving have been higher priorities. But then I got energized and said, “I’m going to do this, because there are people that believe in this and are showing up to rehearsals.” So we decided to just push through again, and in building the scheme, we wanted to get shows going regularly at The Black Hand, and be in residency there. This was in the summertime last year. We also wanted to talk with different bands and have them bring in different audiences to expand the energy of what we’re trying to do.
What can we expect for The Black Hand series?
The Black Hand series was every other week. Now I’ve decided to push it to every week, and starting next Sunday it’s going to be from 4:00 to 6:00 pm. We’ll have two bands, and there’s good food, coffee, and it’s a small, really good listening environment. It’s not a bar, but they have really good beer there too. It’s free, and we’re trying to get a community to develop around it.
How did you get in touch with the people at The Black Hand, or did you know them previously?
I knew the owner Clay, who told me I could book shows in there whenever I want. He’s so stoked about it. I also used to go there frequently. That was my spot, probably for the last four or five years I’ve been going there. I really like that place because it’s really homey, and part of the social architecture of the Fan. That’s really important to the music that we play.
Yeah, there are good opportunities in all these little Fan coffee shops or sandwich shops, as a place also for musicians to come in and do their thing.
Yeah, and the communion is the music and it’s obvious when you go in there. People watch intently, and that’s different. They’re up in your face, and it’s not incidental music at the time. It’s the main event. When that place is packed, which is kind of easy to do, it feels awesome!
What will UTV be doing in the next couple months?
UTV will be there roughly every other week. Narod Ensemble is playing, Jason Scott, and Paul Willson both have groups that will be there. To all the musicians around, contact me if you want to play at The Black Hand. For UTV, we just finished our first CD, and it’s going to be released soon. We have some dates at The Camel in January. Hopefully the CD release party will be in the next couple months. I’m also a member of Murphy’s Kids, which is a punk/dub/rock band, and I’ve been playing with them a whole lot. I’ve learned a lot about showmanship and work. No BS! is going to be playing with them at Happy Skalidays coming up.
I’m also working at Lamplighter Café and Roasting Co., and from my bosses and the people that go there, I’m learning a lot about being an entrepreneur and being creative. They take what they love, and they manifest it in a very viable way, and it’s obvious because of all the people that flock to them. They never give up on who they are, and that’s what’s beautiful. The place has so much character. And I take that home with me, in terms of my music. I don’t ever want to give up on the things that I cherish.
In the future, I may or may not go to The University of Illinois where trombonist Jim Pugh offered me a full tuition waiver and fellowship. I’m still in school at VCU and doing my senior recital in February. On Sunday mornings, I’m also playing at Redemption Hill Church.
You’re keeping really busy, Reggie!
What is your favorite thing to eat or drink at The Black Hand?
Try the PCP. [laughs] It’s a sandwich!
The Black Hand Coffee music series begins this Sunday with Narod Ensemble and Hannah Standiford. View event details. Watch this space for more information on the next UTV shows.