In memoriam: John Rapson, 1953-2021

John Rapson performs on the Iowa City Ped Mall. — Jo Mercurio, Waters Edge Photography

I’m tearing my house apart looking for a piece of paper. The hunt delays the grief. That paper led me to take all of Ira “John” Rapson’s classes and to gratefully leap when he called me back into his ensembles years after graduation, playing first in jazz vespers, then in Hot Tamale Louie and now his swan song, Esteban and the Children of the Sun.

I don’t know who I would be without those experiences. John had a belief in me that I have yet to live into.

I am spinning out about a piece of paper that I will never find.

I take a break. Social media has never failed to send me down a rabbit hole, and I want to get lost in distraction.

I send messages to current bandmates and to friends from the first class I took from John in 1997. For our final exam, we assembled and rehearsed our jazz combo and performed at Sanctuary Pub. Three of us are still here in Iowa, the other three far flung to Virginia, NYC and the Netherlands. I recount to them the paper as I remember it. On a single page, John distilled his philosophy of education developed over years of teaching his son Sam to play frisbee. The part I’ve been carrying in my heart is John’s conclusion that the teacher is the student.

Our pianist Joseph McKinley replies, “Those were happy days for me. Great memories. John smacked some jazz discipline into me in a way that had never happened before. He definitely helped me become a better player. I was always inspired by his knowledge, openness and the genuine care he had for his students. I was amazed when I discovered, years later, the jazz piano monster he had become. My mind was blown.”

This becomes a common theme, knowing John as a tremendously caring teacher and finding out years later what an absolute musical legend he was also.

We were so young, late teens and early 20s, similar in age to John’s children at the time — yet we were still collectively shocked to realize that our teacher was the age we are now.

Are we living as deeply and as well as John was at our age?

Michael Davies was our drummer. We named ourselves Davies after him although none of us can remember why. He recalls, “My overarching memories were that John genuinely cared about his students, both while we were in college and after. I also appreciated how much exposure he gave us to a wide range of music. He really opened my eyes to what more was out there.”

This is another refrain: the way John illuminated the equal worth of multilinear musical paths and the spectacular ways in which they can converge.

Our trumpeter, Alicia Rau, performs and teaches in NYC. She remembers John for his innovative teaching. “I feel so blessed to have been in his wonderful orbit, an orbit that continues to shape and spin around all that he has reached. I still tell the story of the final exam for my first jazz combo class in college back in 1997. We didn’t take a test sitting at a desk; we prepped and performed a jazz set at the hippest local jazz club. Classic Rapson — making class ‘classy.’”

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John’s commitment to his students never wavered. Dan Padley, my bandmate in HTL and now in Esteban, took his first class from John 12 years after me. He shared, “I wouldn’t be the musician I am today without John. I treasure that our relationship grew from him as my teacher, to my advisor, to my collaborator and most importantly to my dear friend. He was well loved, and will be greatly missed.”

Nobody has a copy of the elusive paper, but all their stories nourish me.

John’s beautiful obituary is published while I struggle to gather these thoughts. Reading about his professional accomplishments and personal joys brings me the peace I was seeking. I read the line that awakens my purpose for this piece: “John … would notoriously remind his audiences to support local establishments and to tip their wait persons well!”

John consistently treated the person in front of him at any given moment as the most important person in the world. He honored each individual’s story with dignity and fascination.

This final lesson from my teacher is one that I will have countless opportunities to practice every day. Imagine if we all did so together.

A celebration of John’s life will be held on Aug. 8 at 2:30 p.m. at Voxman Recital Hall.

John’s services will be livestreamed and can be viewed here.

Tara McGovern is the vice-president of HTLIC (501c3), a nonprofit organization with the goal of bringing projects like Rapson’s “Hot Tamale Louie” and his final work, “Esteban and the Children of the Sun,” to audiences across the country and supporting Iowa artists in generating new musical collaborations across traditions. She is looking forward to taking part in performing Rapson’s final work on Oct. 3 at the Englert. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 297.

Ed. note: This article has been updated to reflect the new time and location of Rapson’s memorial service.