Renowned Valley jazz musician Tom McClung dies in Paris of cancer at 60

  • The Paradise City Jazz Band, with Tom McClung (far left), Dave Pinardi, Marion Groves, Jim Fryer, Claire Arenius, Richard Downs and Jamie Bryce. SUBMITTED PHOTO—SUBMITTED PHOTO



Wednesday, May 17, 2017

AMHERST — Local jazz legend Tom McClung, a pianist and composer known for his versatility, died Saturday at the age of 60 after a yearslong battle with cancer.

McClung was born in New York in 1957 to Robert McClung, the acclaimed Amherst author of some 65 books, and Gale McClung, editor of the Mount Holyoke College Alumnae Quarterly Magazine from 1962 until her retirement in 1989. He grew up in Amherst and began playing the piano at 6 years old.

“It was the piano that spoke to me the most: it was a self-contained orchestra — and all the different styles it could handle! Bach, Bartok, the Beatles!” he told UK Vibe in a 2015 interview.

McClung’s brother, Bill, told the Gazette that his brother’s first ever performance came when, at 10 years old, Bill bet him he couldn’t learn Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” in time for First Church’s Merry Musical.

After months of suffering, listening to his brother plug away at the piano learning the song, Bill said he lost the bet spectacularly when Tom performed the song flawlessly.

“But you were happy to lose the bet,” Bill’s wife, Emily, said.

“Unforgettable performance, that’s for sure,” Bill said in agreement.

McClung went on to play trumpet and baritone horn in his high school concert band, but his focus was always on the piano, which he studied assiduously, learning to play everything from jazz to blues and ragtime.

McClung eventually studied at Marlboro College in Vermont, as well as under some of the Pioneer Valley’s best musicians, including University of Massachusetts Amherst professor and pianist Nigel Coxe.

“The Valley is a great workshop,” a 26-year-old McClung told the Gazette in a 1984 interview. “I don’t think I’d want to move to a big city.”

McClung played tons of gigs across the region, including in several local bands like the Paradise City Jazz Band and the Springfield-based salsa group Orquestra Juventud ’77.

But even back then, McClung recognized the shortcomings of playing in a small scene, saying, “You don’t have that intense competitive pressure to either make it or break it.”

The move to big city, Paris

A passion for the world’s music, as well as the economic difficulties of being an artist in the Valley, eventually compelled McClung to move to a big city when, in 1998, at the age of 40, he left behind his circa 1890 model A Steinway piano and began living in Paris.

“It’s worth us all giving some thought to why someone who was such an incredibly important contributor to our artistic community, that the economics of trying to survive as an artist in the area are such that someone like Tom couldn’t stay,” friend and longtime collaborator Andy Jaffe said in an interview Tuesday.

McClung and Jaffe met in the mid-’80s, and played as a piano duo throughout the years. The two eventually recorded the album “Double Helix” together on Liscio Records the year before McClung left for Paris.

They stayed in touch over the years, and Jaffe flew to France to be with McClung and his wife, Anne Erle McClung, during McClung’s final days. Jaffe played piano for McClung, and the two friends talked about what they always talked about: nature and music.

“He was extremely generous, he had an unbelievably good sense of humor,” Jaffe said of McClung. “He was obviously brilliant, not just as a musician but intellectually.”

That brilliance took McClung across the world, playing with preeminent names in jazz wherever he went, among them Yusef Lateef, Marion Brown and saxophone great Archie Shepp, a former UMass Amherst music professor whose quartet McClung moved to France to play with.

One person who spent a considerable amount of time with McClung in France was his nephew, 33-year-old Greg McClung, who spent around a decade studying and working in Europe, first in France and later Germany.

“He really touched the lives of so many people, through his music but also by being such a kind-hearted and fun person to be around,” Greg McClung said. “He was my inspiration to go over there and live abroad and experience other cultures.”

Despite his talents and critical acclaim, Greg McClung said, his uncle was a modest man who took as much delight in playing at a prestigious venue as he did playing somebody’s birthday.

Bassist and vocalist Fred Clayton met McClung playing around the Valley in the ’80s, and moved to France a few years before McClung did.

“We were all like a family in Northampton, and we were all encouraged to move to Europe by Marion Brown,” Clayton said.

In Paris, Clayton said all of the local musicians knew McClung and respected his talents.

“Paris Tom was stepping out because he was playing with all the masters,” Clayton said.

Although he lived on a different continent, McClung would come back frequently to play shows at First Congregational Church of Amherst. His last performance in the region, according to his brother Bill, was in 2015, when he played at Amherst College with Archie Shepp.

Emotional time

Drummer Claire Arenius met McClung in the ’70s, and the two played together frequently. She accompanied him on the drums during one of his last gigs at First Congregational Church, and was impressed with his playing after having been in France for so long.

“It was just phenomenal to see his growth, his maturity as a player,” Arenius said, choking back tears over the phone on Tuesday.

Those same emotions were felt by many musicians who played with McClung over the years.

“Tom McClung left us,” Shepp, the renowned saxophonist, wrote on Facebook. “The Man I love.”

That comment was just one among an outpouring of support on social media in both English and French for McClung, a man who enjoyed nature and playing cards.

McClung was known for his technical prowess, but also for his unique voice on the piano and his genre-spanning tastes.

“Along with forming my own groups to play my own music, I played in rock, blues, country, salsa, and trad jazz bands, accompanied singers of all styles, in clubs and for weddings and bar-mitzvahs,” McClung told UK Vibe about his musical upbringing. “I considered this like an apprenticeship. I learned about functional music, for dancing and merry-making, and I always try to keep some of this spirit in my music.”

“Everybody who played with him appreciated his empathy,” Jaffe, his friend and fellow pianist, said. “That’s the most important quality in a jazz player — empathy — because you’re always playing with other people.”

McClung is survived by his wife, Anne Erle McClung, his brother Bill, sister-in-law Emily, nephew Greg, niece Melissa and seven cousins.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.