2204 Jazz Stories 1As in jazz, in writing this column it’s sometimes delightful how one small thing can lead into another. Mid-November, publisher David Perlman and I found ourselves in attendance at the Ken Page Memorial Trust gala at the Old Mill (see last month’s column), where each guest received a jazz recording tucked under the napkin on their table. Mine was courtesy of Humber College from their “New Standards” series. All recordings on the Humber Records label feature performances by Humber students and faculty; making the recordings is not only a priceless experience for all involved, but also a neat way to archive the talent that goes through the program.

Speaking of talent, and how one thing leads to another, one of the musicians featured on track two of said New Standards collection was someone I was planning to write about in this month’s column. Ladies and gentlemen, there are three chances this month for you to see and hear rising star clarinetist-saxophonist Jacob Gorzhaltsan, who recently graduated from Humber College’s prestigious jazz program.

As it happens, I got a chance to ask him a few questions, this month, including of course, why in the world he would choose the clarinet as his main instrument.

JG: My mother had a lifelong dream that her son would be a clarinet player, and at age eight (after about a year and a half of playing recorder) I finally received my first clarinet to try out. Although the clarinet was almost twice my size and I had to play it while sitting down, with the bell propped up on my feet, I felt immediately compelled to continue pursuing music and, in particular, the clarinet.

While in my early studies, I was influenced first by many traditional clarinetists/classics, such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Pee Wee Russell, Woody Herman, and, of course, Buddy DeFranco. About two years after I began playing clarinet (at age ten), I would attend a life-changing workshop in Toronto with the one and only Buddy DeFranco, with whom I would jam on Moonglow - which I remember was one of the few tunes I really knew at the time. In this one masterclass, Buddy DeFranco gave me so much of the encouragement and support I needed in order to continue seriously pursuing a career in performance with a focus on clarinet/woodwinds. Studying privately with Vladimir Belov and Peter Stoll, I eventually began to pick up the other woodwinds (alto first, followed by tenor saxophone) and now am equally at home switching between the various doubles. In the midst of my studies, I would be influenced greatly by Eddie Daniels and Canadian clarinetist, James Danderfer. Both these clarinetists are highly inspirational, as they push the sonic boundaries of contemporary jazz clarinet while also being exceptional saxophonists/composers and arrangers. They would have a huge influence in shaping my perception of what it means to be a jazz clarinetist in the 21st century.

OD: You’ve included two vocal pieces in your album, performed by Denzal Sinclaire. Tell me a bit about this experience and working with singers in general and what that means to you.

JG: The album features two vocal pieces sung by Denzal Sinclaire. He is an incredible musician and, in my opinion, is easily one of the greatest male jazz vocalists in Canada, not to mention an incredibly warm and kind-hearted, supportive human being. I had the pleasure of performing with him around a year ago at a few Soulpepper Cabaret concerts and instantly thought his voice would be the perfect fit for a couple of my original songs. It was a real thrill to have him join us in the studio, and I am so thankful for the opportunity and experience. I have always had an interest in lyrics and songs, and it is an absolute delight to be in Toronto where there is such a vast wealth of singers and songwriters. I have been honoured to have shared the stage with so many great Toronto singers, such as Jackie Richardson, Divine Brown, Sophie Milman, Julie Michels, Don Francks, Laura Hubert, Denzal Sinclaire, Denielle Bassels, Andrew Penner, Big Rude Jake and many more. It is such a delight to be surrounded by so many strong and compelling voices, and they have all helped in their own way to shape my playing, expression, and exploration into song/lyric writing.

OD: Tell me a bit about your experience studying at Humber College. What were your favourite aspects of this post-secondary program, and what are the most important lessons you learned there?

JG: While at Humber, I received music lessons and attended classes/ensembles under the tutelage of some of the top musicians in the city and country, such as Pat LaBarbera, Neil Swainson, Geoff Young, Mark Promane, Kirk MacDonald, Drew Jurecka and so many more. The environment of the school welcomes musical exploration and creativity while honing the theoretical, rudimentary and technical skills of jazz and contemporary idioms of music. It was an honour to be surrounded by so many knowledgeable teachers, as well as a prosperity of talented up-and-coming musicians, so many of whom will become the voice of the next generation of professional musicians in Toronto’s music industry. The strong sense of community within Humber provides an incredible support for creative development/collaboration and experimentation. This environment (and the amazing musicians within it) was truly a great setting for me to explore my personal musical ambitions and further pursue my interest in composition and original music.

Jacob Gorzhaltsan’s Fly Softly CD release is December 1, at Jazz Bistro at 9pm; he’s also at the Emmett Ray on December 19 at 7pm and at the Burdock Music Hall on December 30 at 8:30pm.

2204 Jazz Stories 2Disterheft: Composer, vocalist and JUNO-winning jazz bassist, Brandi Disterheft has released four records since graduating from Humber College. She also speaks about her time there fondly:

“Humber College taught me the importance of memorizing a plethora of jazz standards; I also learned how to rhythm read at brisk tempos. Lenny Boyd taught me Miles Davis solos. Don Thompson allowed me to believe that it is possible to change and revolutionize jazz, as he is one of the great innovators of the double bass. If he could be potently lyrical and play those peaking, clear lines that made your stomach sink, then I also could somehow contribute to the art form via exploration and hard work.”

Disterheft is currently on tour celebrating her latest Justin Time release, Blue Canvas, featuring 80-years-young piano legend Harold Mabern with dazzling drummer Joe Farnsworth. Always one to choose her collaborators carefully, Disterheft reflects upon the experience of working with these two particular musicians:

“Harold’s piano playing reflects that potent, romantic nostalgia one can only achieve from a lineage of years of living and hearing the music. His focus while entering that “dream world” when performing reminds me of when I had the opportunity to play with Hank Jones. It seems nothing can get in the way of their music, and it’s their special place. Harold is also a gracious human being who innately supports people. Joe and I have been a rhythm section team as sidemen for numerous records under the bandleader and alto hard-bop player Vincent Herring (Smoke Sessions Records) with other world-class players such as Cyrus Chestnut and Jeremy Pelt. Playing with time with Joe is to effortlessly soar across the sky while holding onto an oversized helium balloon gliding over a raging river. His finesse and power is something I experienced when I was in my early 20s when Laila Biali and I opened for Pharoah Sanders at the Toronto Jazz Festival. Joe was playing drums, and you never forget hearing him live for the first time.”

The very same can be said of Disterheft’s own approach to music. In her hands the acoustic bass drips gloriously with a well-oiled liquid groove, and what makes her exciting to watch is that she always goes for it, with each solo resulting in surprising smiles, nods or hollers, depending on the audience.

In his review of Blue Canvas in the September WholeNote, Raul da Gama wrote that “listening to her is like putting your finger into a naked power-socket,” later adding that she “handles her bass violin with as much visceral audacity as the great Charles Mingus once did…A particular highlight of the recording is Disterheft’s vocals which play off her bass, but in an altogether different palette of thrilling, luminous colours.”

If you get this memo in time, catch Brandi Disterheft on December 3 at Jazz Bistro where she will be celebrating Blue Canvas with Mabern and Farnsworth on the bandstand – do not miss this gifted composer whose interpretations of standards are always fresh. Cheers to Brandi, Jacob, everyone at Humber College and most of all to you, live music lovers, who keep us all going!

Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.

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LailaBiali-Photo1-1-1024x681.jpgPianist, singer, composer and arranger Laila Biali was born in Vancouver and has been celebrated worldwide, from the North Sea Jazz Festival to Tokyo’s Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall. She’s toured with Grammy award-winners Chris Botti, Paula Cole and Suzanne Vega, and has toured and recorded with Sting. 

These days, seeing and hearing her is a profound experience, especially when she works in trio setting with such musicians as bassist George Koller, drummer Larnell Lewis, or her husband, drummer Ben Wittman. This is masterful, world-class music—accessible, soulful, intelligent and deeply moving.

Currently on the Laila Biali website there are dates posted in Australia, Switzerland, Poland, Germany—and Canada. After living in Brooklyn for a few years, Biali has recently moved back to Toronto, and is making her Koerner Hall debut on December 1. In addition to the musicians named above, she will be joined by trumpet ace William Sperandei, sharing the bill with Italian vocalist Pilar.

I wrote to Biali to ask her about her process, and about the music that inspires her to keep doing what she does.

Who are your three greatest musical inspirations and why?

Greatest three musical inspirations (though there are many and it’s hard to pick my top three!):

- Keith Jarrett. As a classically-trained pianist who moved into jazz later in life, I was inspired by Keith's ability to bridge the two worlds in a way that was familiar and compelling. When in college, I was so struck by the profundity and depth of his solo piano recordings, they would bring me to tears. His music touches a very deep place that transcends words.


- Björk. I'm not sure I've encountered a single artist as unblocked and free in their creative expression as Björk appears to be. She moves boldly and fluently through genres, various artistic media, science and technology, all the while creating art that is, in my opinion, a sumptuous feast for the senses.

- Joni Mitchell. No one tells a story like Joni does. Poetry and power, wisdom and whimsy, beauty and brashness all co-exist happily on her albums. She's a veritable force, a bright star within our great lineage of Canadian singer-songwriters.

You seem to be pushing yourself consistently to play, sing, write and arrange better and better...where does your musical motivation come from?
As a human being and as a musician, my primary desire and goal is to connect with others. Playing, singing, writing and arranging thus become instruments of communication and a means of connection within the world. I'm also driven by a thirst for the divine, and music provides a way of reaching beyond ourselves, to something greater.

When it comes to cover tunes, how do you select these?
I used to pick cover songs myself. [That] began when the CBC commissioned me to put together the project From Sea to Sky, which featured material from the Great Canadian Songbook (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, etc.). But now, I crowdsource covers through an initiative we call the “request-o-matic”. In short, I invite listeners to submit songs they'd like me to arrange personally and unveil at upcoming shows. A couple such songs have become fixtures of our live performances and are actually featured on the new album. You'll hear two or three of these at Koerner Hall on December 1!

For tickets to Biali’s December 1 show at Koerner Hall, head to http://performance.rcmusic.ca/tickets/seats/12403.

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Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at www.oridagan.com.

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2203 Jazz Stories 1On November 8, my vote goes to Dave Young, for two reasons. First, that Tuesday evening will be the night that the legendary Canadian bassist/composer celebrates the release of his new recording This Way Up. Second, the release takes place at Jazz Bistro, which has another reason to celebrate: namely the fact that Sybil Walker, who for 15 years ran the Top o’ the Senator jazz club (1990-2005) and has been the general manager of Jazz Bistro since its doors opened in 2013, has been announced as this year’s recipient of the Ken Page Memorial Trust Lifetime Achievement Award

Anne Page, founder of the KPMT elaborates: “Sybil’s versatile career in the restaurant and hospitality business has spanned several decades during which she has become a devoted and respected member of Toronto’s jazz community. Sharing her creative expertise and extensive knowledge of the music, she has donned the roles of program director, general manager and presenter of both Canadian and international artists at the city’s top jazz clubs, festivals and restaurants. As one of our unsung heroes, Sybil is a most worthy recipient of this award.”

Among the hundreds of artists Walker presented in the heyday of the Top o’ the Senator were Bill Evans, Joe Pass, Dexter Gordon, Shirley Horn, Blossom Dearie, Betty Carter, Jimmy Smith, Lou Donaldson, Ray Brown, Terence Blanchard, Christian McBride, Russell Malone and a budding Diana Krall, whose career she greatly aided. Yet to those in the Toronto jazz community, Walker is known not just as the booker of international talent, but as a loyal supporter of the jazz scene. For decades she has been an advocate for live music, ensuring that musicians get paid fairly and that audiences listen. To illustrate just how much she means to Toronto musicians, I asked two of her favourites for some words.

“Huge congratulations to Sybil Walker on this award,” said multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson. “She has been a major force in Toronto’s jazz scene for many years. A lot of great music happened because of her hard work and dedication, and the rest of us owe her a huge thank you.” Bassist Neil Swainson had the following to add: “So many musicians rely – whether they know or acknowledge it or not – on a very few equally dedicated individuals, for an outlet for their talents. Without these few, there would be no flourishing jazz scene in this city. Sybil Walker has for the last 20 years, given as much to this music as we have.”

Sybil Walker’s award will be presented at The Old Mill Dining Room at the Ken Page Memorial Trust Fundraising Gala on November 17. The gala will feature an all-star team of musicians – jazzmen, if you will, since no women were selected – billed as the finest masters on the international jazz party circuit. They are Terry Clarke, drums; Alastair Kay, trombone; Jon-Erik Kellso, cornet; John MacLeod, trumpet; John MacMurchy, clarinet and saxophones; Mike Murley, tenor saxophone; Ken Peplowski, clarinet; Russ Phillips, trombone; Reg Schwager, guitar; Neil Swainson, bass; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Don Thompson, vibes/piano; and Warren Vaché, cornet.

2203 Jazz Stories 2Now back to Dave Young (who I had the privilege of interviewing, on the fly, a couple of weeks back at The Rex). To see him live is to witness a soulful player, as well as an incredibly efficient technician. Those fingers. Gigantic yet graceful, with a swinging way of walking quartet notes that will knock you out.

As bandleader, Young’s arrangements are clear and accessible, and as a trustworthy captain he navigates the ship effortlessly. Also on board that night were some of this country’s very best: Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, Perry White on saxes, Terry Clarke on drums and Gary Williamson on piano. As Young says, “You’re only as good as the musicians you play with.”

Young was born in Winnipeg in 1940 and showed musical promise early on. Before long a young, ambitious Young started out playing the violin, switching to the guitar for five years in his teens. “There were a lot of very good guitar players in Winnipeg, including, of course, Lenny Breau. Then, I didn’t exactly give up the guitar but I took up the bass. Actually I was playing guitar in a dance band when the leader said, if you want to keep this gig, I’m firing the bassist, so come back with a bass. The bandleader was an old buddy of mine named Vic Davies, in the late 50s, probably 1956 or 1957. So I went out and bought a bass and came in the next week with a bass! (laughs).”

Young famously toured with Oscar Peterson for a few good decades, and also enjoyed symphonic work as principal double bassist for the Edmonton and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestras and the Hamilton Philharmonic.

As a master of both classical and jazz music, he observes that they are entirely different artistic experiences:

“Playing either one of those disciplines is pretty demanding, so when you’re playing one you kind of have to divorce yourself from the other. Especially when you’re playing in the classical setting. The phrasing and the sound is quite different, and obviously there’s no amplification. You get there and you have to read!”

Young decided to leave the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for the irresistible offer of touring with Oscar Peterson.

“I met Oscar in Banff in 1974, it was the very first Banff summer school program for jazz. This was organized by Phil Nimmons and he invited us both; that’s how we met. When I got the offer to work with him I said, ‘Who’s in the band?’ The lady said, ‘There’s you and Oscar. It’s a duo for six months.’ My first engagement was four weeks in Japan, 1975, and it was my first time there. I remember that it was relentless. We seldom had a day off. We were always on trains going here and there.”

Summarizing his new recording: “The music is in the hard bop, East Coast jazz tradition, with a few standards. As for the originals, I’m inspired by the writing of Cedar Walton, one of my favourite pianists, as well as by the great Joe Henderson. Also by a guy named Marcus Belgrave, who just left us recently. He was a trumpet player from Detroit. And Freddie Hubbard has always figured big in terms of composition. I play a lot of tunes by these guys and they inspire my own writing.”

At 76, Young remains one of the shining diamonds of the local scene. A decade ago he was inducted as an Officer into the Order of Canada, tonight he is playing The Rex Hotel on a Wednesday evening, probably for 100 bucks and change. There are fewer gigs than there used to be, and more competition. So, what has kept him motivated to continue creating all these years?

“You keep motivated by hoping that you’ll play better tomorrow or next week. That’s the whole carrot that’s dangling in front of you. I can play better, improvise better, get a better sound, that’s what keeps me going.”

Here’s to timeless music; to endless commitment and invaluable dedication; to jazz heroes and heroines alike.

Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.

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2202-JazzStories-Photo1.jpgKenny Barron has been one of my favourite pianists for 25 years,” says Mervon Mehta of the Royal Conservatory, recalling that it was pianist Danilo Perez who turned him on to the piano genius. “Danilo said to me that when he first arrived from Panama to New York he used to go and sit and watch the left hand of Kenny – how his fingers and his mind work, how he would play individual chords, melodies and percussion on the piano. So I listened more and more and realized that Kenny has a facility at the keyboard that very few have. He can play any style of piano from the past 50 years and he continues to sound relevant. On his new record he doesn’t sound like a 70-year-old guy playing like he did in the 60s – he’s playing for today.”

As part of the Art of the Trio series presented by the Royal Conservatory and curated by Mehta, Barron’s October 29 date at Koerner Hall is a double bill with gifted keyboardist Robi Botos. Born to a musical Roma family in Nyíregyháza, Hungary, in 1978, Botos is the winner of several international honours including the 2004 Montreux Jazz Piano Competition, the 2012 Festival international de jazz de Montréal TD Grand Jazz Award and the 2016 JUNO for Best Jazz Album of the Year for Movin’ Forward. Among other influences, Botos certainly echoes the school of Oscar Peterson, not only recalling OP’s dazzling technique but also his showmanship, treating each solo as an opportunity to knock it out of the park.

The Robi Botos Trio varies slightly from night to night. On October 29, he will be joined by two of the brightest lights in Canadian jazz: Mike Downes on bass and Larnell Lewis on drums. Says Botos: “The three of us have been playing together for a long time on and off in a lot of different musical situations. Working with Mike and Larnell is very easy. They’re both amazing listeners and willing to serve the music. This way it’s easy to keep things fresh and in the moment. We also recently recorded some of my original compositions. I’m really not into a lot of rehearsing because the best moments are always the unrehearsed ones. We do enough to make sure the compositions sound good and leave lots of room for improvising. That’s how jazz should be played I believe.”

Says Mehta: “I knew the only possible choice to co-bill with Kenny Barron would be Robi because they have a mutual admiration. I saw them interact at the Oscar Peterson 90th birthday celebration concert last year. I asked Robi then and he almost said no because Kenny Barron is such a huge hero for him, but thankfully he did say yes.”

With a gentleness of spirit that comes in handy for his brand of musical sensitivity, Barron is one of the jazz world’s living legends, winning just about every award possible – except perhaps a Grammy, for which he has been nominated nine times. While in his teens, he started out with Dizzy Gillespie in 1962 and worked with Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, Buddy Rich and Yusef Lateef before recording his first LP as leader in 1974. Since then Barron has released over 40 albums, an astonishing discography if you think about the ratio between years and releases. I asked him what some of his favourite jazz trio recordings are, and why:

“Ahmad Jamal, live at the Pershing Lounge. [At the Pershing: But Not for Me]. It sounds so tight and the way he uses space. He uses the other members of the band to finish his phrases sometimes. You think he’s going to play it and he doesn’t. It’s a unique approach and it always sounds very together. Then there is Tommy Flanagan. There are so many. One of them is an album called Overseas with Wilbur Little and Elvin Jones. It is the epitome of taste but for me, everything Tommy does is like that. That’s what I call the real smooth jazz.”

With regards to the trio that Toronto audiences will hear at Koerner on October 29, Barron reflects on his sidemen:

“I met (bassist) Kiyoshi Kitagawa when he first moved to New York from Osaka, Japan. He played around town with a lot of fine musicians like Winard Parker and Jon Faddis. He has been a part of my bands for almost 20 years now. I’ve known Johnathan Blake since he was seven or eight years old – his father is the wonderful violinist John Blake and we used to play together, so I watched Johnathan grow up. His first instrument was violin and he later switched to drums. He studied at William Paterson University in New Jersey right outside of NYC so I was able to hear him frequently.

“The three of us started working solidly as a trio about ten years ago, touring around the world and the US. It seemed time to make a recording of our time together so we went into the studio and came out with 20 songs in two days! That’s how Book of Intuition came about…Working as this trio doesn’t require hours of thought or rehearsal. I usually say here’s a song and let’s see what we can do with it and they do. I don’t tell them what to do – they respond and we go with it. They bring in music and make suggestions too. They push me.”

The “Art of the Trio” concert on October 29 is sold out but the series continues – November 19: Stefano Bollani Trio & Roberto Occhipinti Trio; December 10: Joey DeFrancesco Trio & Jensen/Restivo/Vivian Trio; April 1: Jason Moran and the Bandwagon & Alexander Brown Trio; May 13: Christian McBride Trio & James Gelfand Trio.

2202-JazzStories-Photo3.jpgFay’s Home (Smith): That being said, the notion of the jazz trio being an art is explored very frequently at the intimate Home Smith Bar at the Old Mill, thanks to the booking of Fay Olson and the loyalty of the owners to live jazz programming. I last wrote about Olson in October 2009 and since then she has not missed a week of booking local jazz talent at the Old Mill and elsewhere. Says Olson:

“Then-owner of the Old Mill Inn, Michael Kalmar, first gave me the mandate to enhance jazz programming at the Home Smith Bar toward his vision of it becoming a ‘first class jazz room’ at the beginning of 2009. The first thing I did was add Thursday nights to the schedule and book trombonist Russ Little with a trio for a ‘Jazz Thursdays’ residency that ran that whole year. I’d actually been on the books at the Old Mill Inn as a marketing PR consultant for a couple of years before that, helping promote shows Michael had scheduled into the Dining Room.”

A much-prized occasion each year in the Home Smith Bar is New Year’s Eve, which once again this year will be hosted by June Garber and her trio.

“She’s uber-talented, but I think the ideal NYE experience should be so much more than a great performance, and June delivers in spades. She has the kind of warmth and personality that make everyone in the room feel as though they’re attending a blowout house party. One of the staff said when June hosted last year that she treats everyone as though they’re her personal dinner guests.”

If you check out the Jazz Listings section you will see how difficult it would be for Olson to recommend just three shows to WholeNote readers…nevertheless, I asked her to try her best, to which she replied:

“When I’m booking the Home Smith Bar, my mission is to present a monthly lineup that ensures no matter which first Tuesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday someone chooses to be there, they’ll be assured of enjoying jazz performance of the highest calibre, whether delivered by the best established artists or some of the most talented emerging artists on the Toronto jazz scene.

“Soooo, my three recommendations are by no means intended to place anyone higher on the October roster than anyone else booked, but here you go:

“On Thursday, October 13, the great drummer (and head of the Drum Department at Humber College) Mark Kelso presents his stellar Trio (pianist Brian Dickinson, bassist Mike Downes) but with a twist people don’t usually expect from Mark. His outstanding singing talents will also be on display. I first heard Mark sing a jazz arrangement of The Rainbow Connection with Brigham Phillips’ band a few years ago and was knocked out. I kept pushing him to make singing a bigger part of his act for the Home Smith Bar, so he finally did, and he’s great!!

“On Friday, October 14, the superb singer and musical theatre actress/singer Alana Bridgewater (she’s wonderful on June Garber’s new album, and a veteran of the Charlottetown Festival) makes her debut starring appearance at the Home Smith Bar. Alana has sung there before as the guest of an instrumental trio, but never leading her own ensemble (Scott Christian on piano, Henry Heillig on bass).

“Saturday, October 29 is a rare departure from mainstream jazz - a special blues edition of the ‘Year ’Round Jazz Festival’ when outstanding blues guitarist/singer Brian Blain relaunches his New Folk Blues recording lampooning life in the music industry (in collaboration with saxophonist Alison Young, Michelle Josef on drums, bassist George Koller and an ‘element of blues-tinged electronica’ by Joel Blain.”

One important thing to note, which distinguishes the Home Smith Bar from other rooms, is that there are no reservations taken. Seats are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis, which appears to be working quite well! Glasses raised to audiences who respect, listen to and support trios everywhere.

Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.

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2201_-_Mainly_Mostly_1.jpgToronto musicians have been cutting their teeth at Free Times Cafe for 35 years. That’s how long owner Judy Perly, a local hero to Toronto musicians and audiences alike, has been booking: since the early 1980s, over 12,000 evenings of music, more than 400 poetry readings, 500 nights of comedy and improv, 100 original art shows and nearly 1000 concerts of klezmer and Yiddish music.

Located just seconds from Kensington Market at 320 College Street, Free Times is a casual, inviting, warm restaurant and music venue. The live music is presented in the cozy back room, seating approximately 50. According to Perly, the much buzzed-about “Bella, Did Ya Eat?” Sunday brunch literally keeps her business alive. “It’s not unusual that we will do in sales more at the brunch than in the back room the entire week. The brunch averages 100 to 200 people a week. The reason it works is because there is nothing else like it – in the world!” Indeed this might be the only place on earth that has weekly klezmer and Yiddish music accompanied by an all-you-can-eat buffet, serving 50 items from smoked salmon and potato latkes to gefilte fish and blintzes. Bella’s Bistro, the front room where the Brunch is served, is sentimentally decorated with a variety of art including a large portrait of Perly’s mother, painted by Judy herself.

“I wanted to do something for my mother after she passed away. And the more connected I got with my mother, the better things got. My mother would always get the right ingredients – she worked very hard all the time. People say I work hard, but I say she worked way harder. She had a husband and three children.”

Growing up, the Perly family’s record collection contained everything from the blues and reggae to folk icons like Ian and Sylvia, Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie, as well as classic jazz from Holiday to Sinatra.

“The other connection I have to jazz is that late in their lives, my parents started following Dixieland jazz. My mother even made up this crazy dance! (laughs). In fact Jim Galloway played for free at my parents’ 32nd anniversary because he loved them so much …”

I pause to tell Judy about Galloway’s work for The WholeNote and his support for the Toronto jazz community, and she reminisces about the great jazz musicians that walked through her doors, especially in the early days.

“I would say the music started on a regular basis in 1982. The very first time was a year earlier, at an art opening. I was going out with a man who was a part-time bass player [in the] Sam Miya Trio – Sam and Roy Miya who were Japanese Canadians – and I was going with Sam. He played bass and Roy played piano. Then Sam’s nephew was studying at York University and he asked me, ‘Can we play on Saturday night?’ We had a very small room in the back in those days. So he started on Saturdays, and we gave him some food, and then other people asked. So many great musicians.

“If you scrape the surface of the Toronto music scene you will find a lot of people who started out at Free Times. We didn’t even have a stage. It was a lot of folk singers at that time. Tex Konig, Mose Scarlet. Ian Tamblyn, who is coming back here in September, he’s from Ottawa. Sneezy Waters is another icon. David Rea who played guitar with Ian and Sylvia. And then I hired a gentleman by the name of Michael Katz who used to bring all these musicians from the great folk festivals. Soon we were packed every night. We were one of the only places as there weren’t a lot of clubs like ours. George Koller was here all the time. Micah Barnes, Fern Lindzon, Brian Katz, Rob Piltch. We had a poetry series with major poets …

“But I have to tell you, the economics of jazz are hard. This is a small room and jazz audiences don’t spend a lot of money. They sit on a drink, it’s not a party night, it’s a little bit more serious, right? So I never really sought it out, but of course I always welcomed it, and the first time we had music it was jazz.”

But it wasn’t always easy, to say the least:

“It was a real struggle. And the downside to all of this where the music was concerned was that for quite a few years – five years I would say – I didn’t even enjoy the music. I just wished that it would go away! I was mean, I was nasty, I never was here at night. After I started the brunch I realized I could do $2000 to $3000 in five hours and the whole night of live music was $300. From a business point of view sometimes it feels like banging your head against the wall. But I didn’t have a choice – I tried to kill it and it wouldn’t die! (laughs) Isn’t that interesting that it just wouldn’t die. And of course, it’s because of the music that I’ve been able to go on, because as you know music is a healer. It makes you feel so good about everything, and you have those moments. Like any relationship there are the ups and the downs … and I realized that I had to change my attitude. I had to go through a spiritual evolution in order to do this because things weren’t going to go my way, and I had to deal with it. I’m happy that I was able to get out of that.”

Speaking of healing music, one of the series that Perly is most excited about presenting these days happens on the third Wednesday of every month called “Where Have All the Folk Songs Gone” hosted by folk duo Sue and Dwight. Covering classics by Dylan, Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary and many more, this is a popular series in its fourth year that often sells out.

“People are practically in tears and they keep coming back! A lot of my brunch customers heard about it on the newsletter and once they come once, they are hooked!”

After all these years of hard work and determination, does she consider herself a success?

“I’ve lasted. I guess I’m sort of successful now, but I worked for nothing for years, and I cried for ten years straight! (laughs). Nobody helped me. They’d say, too bad, so sorry! I used to want to quit every day, then it was every week, then monthly and now it’s maybe once a year.

The thing is with me that I’m not coming at this with an agenda. That’s why the club has lasted. I’m a conduit – I allow other people to do things. My agenda is keeping my business going.”

Meet Judy Perly in person at the Ashkenaz Festival where she will be a featured guest, speaking on Saturday September 3 at 6pm on the Fressers Summit and a not-to-be-missed special demonstration of her potato latke-making on Monday September 5 at 2pm, including latkes! 

Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.

Author: Ori Dagan
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