James Dapogny died yesterday. He was 78 and had been keeping cancer at bay for nine years until he could do it no longer.
Because the absence of people I love is deeply painful, I have embraced the notion that the dead don’t go away, that their temporal selves leave us but they merely move into other neighborhoods. With Jim’s death, I cannot keep that illusion afloat. There is a void much larger than his human form that will never be filled. No parade of clicked-on Facebook sad emojis can express this. And this sorrow isn’t unique to me: ask anyone who knew him, who learned from him, who savored his creativity and his company.
Prof. and still-active cellist Mike Karoub to Prof’s left. Photograph by Laura Beth Wyman, 2014.
An expansive, restlessly diligent and curious person, he had several names. When I first met him (at Jazz at Chautauqua, 2004) I timidly called him “Mr. Dapogny,” and because I was shy, my voice was low and he referred to me — just once — as “soft-voiced Professor Steinman” while we were both leafing through Thirties sheet music. Later, I bought all his records and CDs, where he was “James,” but I summoned up the courage to call him “Jim” to his face and — referring to him in the third person, I took on the affectionate coinage that Laura Beth Wyman, whom he called “my best student in thirty years,” and his dear friend, had created: “Prof.”
I will hand off to Prof.’s friend Kim Cusack for his memories:
Jim was puckish, never morose, so my first musical example is a jam-session rouser. Keep your ears on the pianist, who explodes into a solo at 4:14:
Although he was characterized as a stride pianist and he loved the music of Fats Waller and Alex Hill, he dismissed that categorization, and told me that his mentors were Stacy, Sullivan, and Morton. In the fashion of those three great individualists, his playing was full of spiky surprises — arresting commentaries that could woo and distract in the ensemble or when he accompanied a soloist. I think he found stride conventions constricting, possibly monotonous, so I hear him as a Pee Wee Russell of the piano: going his own completely recognizable ways while uplifting all around him, creating bright-sounding treble lines but also providing solidly original harmonic support and rhythmic propulsion. He was never predictable but always heroically satisfying.
But LADY BE GOOD, because it was impromptu (rain and wind made reading charts impossible) was not what Prof. liked best. He delighted in “paper,” that is, arrangements — but they were charts with plenty of breathing room for the splendid soloists he hired and nurtured. Here’s his powerfully blue version of the Ellington-Stewart MOBILE BAY, also from Evergreen 2014:
and another 2014 romper — this time, because the weather was better, the band could use Prof.’s charts:
Here is Prof. and a band in 2012 — note his dry whimsical introduction:
and a piano solo on one of the most familiar jazz ballads, uniquely Dapogny:
Jim (I have shifted to the non-academic because it feels warmer) was also terribly funny, in person and in print. David Sager says he had “a sly and delicious wit,” which all of us experienced. He was a wordsmith, a jester, a stand-up comedian, a sharp-edged deflater, a Michigan S.J. Perelman. A deadpan improvising comedian, he didn’t mug and pander on the stand, preferring to let the heartfelt music speak.
He and I exchanged emails from 2011 to October 2018: a coda from one of his:
P.S. I don’t know if you ever read the columns of humorist Dave Barry, but I did because Wayne Jones used to send me bundles of them. The ones I liked best were those entitled “Ask Mr. Language Person,” in which Barry answered usage questions ostensibly sent in by readers. One asked about rules for the use of quotation marks in small-business signs. Barry answered that quotation marks
were to be used on words chosen at random. Then he gave three examples.
Try Our “Pies”
Try “Our” Pies
“Try” Our Pies
To me this is absolutely hilarious. It still makes me laugh.
My relationship with Jim grew and deepened. When I first met him, I was intimidated by his comic rapier, and when I got to know him a little better, I asked him to put it down, which he did without fuss. The more I encountered him, the more I admired him. And finally I — like everyone else who knew him — loved him.
I took him on as one of my not-so-secret spiritual fathers, even though he was only a dozen years my senior. The blend of humor and toughness (he could have shown up in a 1935 Warner Brothers picture, although not as the gangster lead) reminded me of my own father, so he was dear to me. I originally wrote, “I hope I didn’t embarrass him too much with my direct affection,” but on second thought I hope I did embarrass him: that way I would know he had received the message I was sending.
He was extremely kind, superbly generous. I had asked him to write a letter for me in support of a sabbatical I was hoping for, and I dare not read that letter now because I would not be able to write through tears. And every so often he would praise something I’d written, which would make me feel like a peculiarly graceful colossus of words and insights. (Of course, now and again, he corrected my wayward grammar, which made me wince and then rush to fix the lapse.)
Although he knew his own worth, he was infuriatingly modest. I, and then Laura, shot videos of him in performance at Jazz at Chautauqua, the Evergreen Jazz Festival, and the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party. The last email response I got from Jim — late October 2018 — concerned a trio video I had sent him to see if he would agree to my posting it. (Sometimes when I sent him videos, the answer was silence, which I could never tell whether it was “God, no!” or “I am too busy doing other things more important than considering my own performances.) His response, the names redacted in true CIA fashion, was, “OK with me, but this doesn’t scream out for preservation except by being documentation that I once weaseled my way into the company of H- and R-.”
He was always busy transcribing charts for PORK, researching new old music, and more. But I think his secret passion was in what we call, for want of a more gracious term, mentoring. Ask any musician who played or sang with him: Jon-Erik Kellso to Dawn Giblin to Mike Karoub to Erin Morris to the members of his bands. Like Ellington, he saw very clearly what strengths we had, and worked tirelessly to bolster us — offering the most gentle helping hand to make people more glorious versions of their natural selves.
One of my great pleasures, was my being able to visit him and Laura and Erin for a few days in 2016. Yes, Jim was a scholar of all things musical — not just Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson’s operas — and his range was broad. When I visited Ann Arbor, the plan was that I would stay in a quietly nondescript motel, and work on my blog over breakfast (instant oatmeal from paper envelopes, and coffee) and then Jim and I, sometimes Laura along as well, would eat deliriously good ethnic food in some restaurant that only Jim knew — Indian, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese — and the conversation would become expertly culinary as well, because he could cook, away from the piano. He was truly insightful but ready to applaud others’ insights.
I dreamed of visiting him again, but missed my chance, just as I missed the opportunity to help bring Jim’s band once again to the Evergreen Jazz Festival in Colorado.
It would please me immensely if others who knew Prof., or James, or Jim, would add their voices to this post. I will close with one of the great beautiful moments captured by video. I am particularly proud of this 2015 performance because of the lovely music and that it was recorded by my friend Laura Beth Wyman. Jim’s own FIREFLY:
The moral that James Dapogny’s life and art and generous friendship offers us is very simple. We are fireflies. At our best, we are brilliant: we trace paths along the summer night sky. But we are fragile. What can we do but live our lives so that when we depart, we are irrevocably missed? As he is.
I will eschew my usual closing — consider it here but unsaid — to send love and sorrow to Jim’s wife, Gail, to his family, to his friends, to all the people he touched.
Adieu, James. Farewell, Prof. We love you, Jim.