The University of Iowa and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences mourn the death of Professor Ira “John” Rapson, who passed away at the age of 67 on July 21, 2021, from cancer.
Since joining the faculty of the School of Music in 1993, John was known as a caring and committed teacher and musician and a ceaseless ambassador for jazz and the School of Music.
An award-winning composer, trombonist, pianist, and recording artist, John’s work mixed ethnic and experimental elements with more conventional jazz forms. At Iowa, he established both the BA and MA programs in jazz studies and successfully advocated for increasing the instructional capacity and breadth of the jazz area over his 26-year career. John taught and mentored countless students who remember him as a wonderful friend and role model who taught them how to be good human beings as well as good musicians.
Learn more about Professor Rapson's career as a band leader, sideman, and recording artist.
Beloved by his colleagues as well, John’s influence was deeply personal, according to James Dreier, UI associate professor of instruction in jazz.
“He opened doors that students and colleagues often did not see," Dreier said. "There was always joy in his demeanor even as he held himself and all of us to high standards. There was no doubt that he cared deeply. For those of us who claim the title of 'teacher,' this is John's legacy and the lesson we are left with: Knowledge, skills, and ability are all critical, but to truly make an impact, more is required.”
John never tired of composing and performing for all. In 2019, CLAS honored him with the CLAS Outstanding Outreach and Engagement Award for his sustained efforts to bring outstanding jazz music to communities across the state and the nation. His last finished project, Hot Tamale Louie, was seen by more than 6,000 people all over Iowa and the US, supported entirely through grant funding to eliminate barriers for those who couldn’t afford a ticket.
In a 2020 interview for Iowa Public Radio's "Talk of Iowa" program (the segment was titled "Contemplating Death and Mortality"), the host asked John what he wanted people to know about facing his terminal diagnosis.
“Gratitude is a story that we use to explain what our lives have meant," John responded. "There’s a choice involved in how you collect your thoughts and the kind of narrative you want to create.”
John’s life created a narrative of curiosity, generosity, love, and an unbounded desire to connect with others through the arts. His colleagues and many students—as well as his family, friends, and fans—will carry forward that legacy, ensuring that John's ethic of inspiration, service, and kindness will remain essential to the School of Music's future, just as it has helped shape its past.