2105-JazzStories.jpgOn an excruciatingly cold January afternoon Gene DiNovi welcomes me into his home and provides warm smiles and a pair of slippers. He leads me up the stairs, through the kitchen, proudly showing me family photos and art pieces he has collected through the years. We finally reach “the museum,” a spacious room busily adorned with framed photos and autographed posters, shelves full of sheet music and a grand piano.

Now 87-years young, DiNovi has been in show business for seven decades and has hundreds of stories to share: We talk about his new gig at The Old Mill on the first Tuesday of every month; on his triumphant career as pianist, arranger, songwriter and musical director; on working with Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne and Carmen McRae; sitting in with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; recording with Lester Young and Benny Goodman; his native Brooklyn; a stint in Los Angeles; moving to Toronto.

But how did he get into this music in the first place? He takes a moment, stares ahead, and smiles as he remembers his first musical inspiration: “I heard a record of ‘The World is Waiting for the Sunrise’ which is a Canadian tune actually, by Ernest Seitz and Gene Lockhart. It was Mel Powell and His Orchestra – Melvin Epstein from the Bronx, who became Mel Powell. My brother Victor used to take me to the Paramount Theatre on a Saturday, or the Strand, or the Loew’s State Theatre. But I heard Mel there. Mel recorded that song a number of times with Benny. On this particular side he plays a solo which had three or four horns on it: Billy Butterfield on trumpet, George Berg on tenor, Lou McGarity on trombone and of course Benny on clarinet, Kansas Fields on drums, who I played with later. So I heard this piano solo, and it is, to me, the greatest piano solo I ever heard in my life. Mel Powell was very different from me – incredibly gifted guy. At 16-years-old he had it all together. He could play like Teddy, he could play like Tatum, he could play like everybody. Once I heard that record, that was it … and I’m still trying to do it,” he laughs. “I still get chills when I hear it!”

As for diving into the music:

“I started late, at 12 years old – the reason I got the start was, my brother would decorate houses in Brooklyn, and this guy, Frank Izzo, who was a very eclectic guy said, I don’t have enough money to pay you, can you wait? And my brother said, give my kid brother piano lessons. To this day I can’t really say if it was a good deal or not,” he chuckles.

Living in Brooklyn meant being a subway ride away from the seminal musicians of the day. “I used to hang out on 52nd Street, where you could stand in the doorway and listen to Art Tatum. You go to the next one, you listen to Billie Holiday. You go to the next one, you could listen to Red Norvo. There were six, seven, eight clubs. You could hear all of this on a summer night.”

At the age of 15 – 15 and a half, to be precise – he found himself on stage with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, a life-changing moment.

“This was at the Spotlight, in 1945. There was still a curfew in New York City because of the war. They would start playing at four in the afternoon. I would get a ginger ale and just sit there. By that time I was on the street so much the owners and the musicians knew who I was. Dizzy had heard me at one of the other clubs … eventually he was like an older brother to me.”

By his late teens, DiNovi became a fixture on the modern jazz scene, but before long he needed a change.

“You got to remember, this was the beginning of the bebop period, which was a terrible period from the narcotics point of view,” DiNovi recounts. “And I never understood it – why the hell do you want to do that? For me, the music was enough … . Working at Birdland a couple of years later on, I turned around and realized that everyone on the bandstand was a junkie but me. And I said, wow – I have got to get away from this – where can I go to play the music I love without being around this – so I ended up with Peggy Lee, the first singer I played for. Can you believe it? Never a note out of tune. Never a note out of time. She was one of the great natural musicians.”

DiNovi spent many years as a treasured accompanist and musical director to some of the greatest vocalists of the day: Tony Bennett, Carmen McRae, Mel Tormé, and most notably Lena Horne, with whom he worked from 1955 to 1963, and occasionally after that.

Composing and arranging: Studying with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco launched DiNovi on another arc in his career – composing and arranging. “He trained me, he trained André Previn, Nelson Riddle, Mancini, John Williams, Marty Paich, a generation of film composers. A lovable man, an Italian Jew who had to get out of there fast when Mussolini hooked up with the other guy. He ended up in Beverly Hills where he taught all these people. Can you imagine? You walk in and Villa-Lobos is in there or Segovia is there going over the fingering, you know? (laughs) It was heavyweight stuff!”

Living in Los Angeles, DiNovi started to gain respect as an arranger and musical director and worked on six specials for Gene Kelly. But the times they were a-changin’: “Things really dried up because this was a period where you could replace 65 guys with two synthesizers.”

DiNovi pauses to ask me if I want to hear one of his tunes that Carmen McRae recorded, and how can I decline? It’s titled “Boy, Do I Have a Surprise for You” (lyrics by Spence Maxwell) from the 1968 album, Portrait of Carmen on Rhino Atlantic. To the ears of this McRae fan, she never sounded better than on this majestic recording, which DiNovi also arranged and conducted.

After a memorable engagement with McRae at the Colonial Tavern for a week in 1971, DiNovi tells me, he soon found himself back in Toronto accompanying two other MacRaes – Meredith MacRae for two weeks, followed by two weeks with her mother, Sheila MacRae.

“So I lived at the Royal York Hotel for six weeks for the lowest rate in the 20th century! It was a couple of hundred bucks for the six weeks (laughs). ... So I said hey, I like it here in Toronto! It looks like New York in 1945. In L.A. you had to drive 50 miles just to have a cup of coffee with somebody. I liked the New York feel of Toronto.”

These days DiNovi still maintains an admirable performance schedule, appearing with clarinetist James Campbell, guitarist Andrew Scott and bassist Dave Young, to name a few. And at the end of our interview he melts my heart as he gracefully tickles the 88:

“There are three tunes always on my piano: Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life,’ Harold Arlen’s ‘Last Night When We Were Young’ and ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ by David Raksin – those three, you’re gonna go in the swamp if you don’t play them every week.”

To experience the magic of Gene DiNovi’s playing up close and personal, and to hear some of his famous stories, do not miss the opportunity on the first Tuesday of every month at The Old Mill’s Home Smith Bar from 7:30 to 10:30pm.

Stylianou JPEC-Bound: Some 70 years after DiNovi sat in with Gillespie and Parker, it isn’t uncommon for Toronto-based jazz artists to leave the nest and head towards the Big Apple. Vocalist Melissa Stylianou, formerly a fixture at the Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar, where she started out as a waitress and ended up a headliner, is a fine example. About the decision to relocate, she says:

“I did the Jazz and Improvised Music program at the Banff Centre in 2003, and many of the faculty and other musicians I met happened to be from New York. I came down to visit and to take some lessons and later received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to relocate here temporarily and study. I fell in love with the place and the people and decided to stay. I feel a real kinship with the large but still tight-knit group of musicians I play with and listen to here and find myself inspired to explore different musical directions as a result.” 

Stylianou performs regularly in New York City, especially at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, where she has held down a monthly residency for the past six years. Of all the venues in New York City, this casual, cozy and unpretentious spot is perhaps the most Rex-like.

“Toronto will always be my home, but New York is the source of much of my creative inspiration. Living in New York is an intense proposition. I’ve found I need to be really present all day long here: to navigate this crazy city and get where I need to go; ... to be aware of my surroundings in the interest of my personal safety, and to grab opportunities for connection with the people in my life. And being the parent of a toddler in the city adds some interesting elements  - what little time I have to work on my craft and the business of music is often squeezed into tiny cracks in my life.”

The silken-voiced Stylianou will be performing a concert titled “Everything I Love” at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Saturday February 13, launching an exciting new series presented by JPEC (Jazz Performance and Education Centre).

“I’m really excited to be coming up to play this concert. Jamie Reynolds (my husband and musical collaborator) and I have been exploring the voice/piano setting since our first musical meeting in 2003, and we both love the intimacy and space this format provides. We’ll be playing repertoire which stretches from Fats Waller and Irving Berlin to Bjork and Annie Lennox, along with some of our original songs. We’ll be joined by my friend (and former member of the Melissa Stylianou Sextet back in the day!), John MacLeod on cornet and flugelhorn.”

The TCA JPEC series continues February 27 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts with “Justin Gray’s Synthesis” fusing Indian music and jazz, featuring Justin Gray on bass, Derek Gray on percussion, Ravi Naimpally on tabla and special guest Ted Quinlan on guitar. On March 5: “Jazz n’ Pizazz” with Jane Fair on saxophone, Rosemary Galloway on bass, Nancy Walker on piano, Lina Allemano on trumpet and Nick Fraser on drums. Tickets are $30 and $20 for students. Visit jazzcentre.ca for details.

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

Author: Ori Dagan
For a list of writings by this author, click the name above
More from this author:

Jazz Stories 1This holiday season, choose old-school LPs over iTunes gift certificates. The reason? #VinylRevival. It’s the old thing. It’s the new thing. And for the record: if you need cash, dig out those old LPs – they could be worth something. To get your money’s worth, check out a store called Good Music Toronto, recently relocated from its Queen Street location downstairs from Black Market Vintage Clothing to new premises at 1611 Dundas West, at Brock, just steps away from Lula Lounge. 

“I’ve been selling records in Toronto for ten years – eight as manager of Vortex Records and two as owner of Good Music [ilikegoodmusic.com],” says Lincoln Stewart, who prides himself on giving the fairest prices in town (half of what he sells the record for) for quality vinyl. “I have been a music lover my whole life and got into the business when the owner of Vortex asked me to work for him. Seven years prior I’d been the manager of his video store, Art & Trash.”

What about this business has changed in the past few years? I asked him.

Author: Ori Dagan
For a list of writings by this author, click the name above
More from this author:

Jazz StoriesJane Bunnett’s day is so chock full that the only time we can find to do an interview is at Ana Maria’s hair salon, down the street from her Parkdale home. It’s a big week. Two nights ago (October 20) she won Ontario’s Premier’s Award for Excellence; today (October 22) is her birthday; and on Saturday night (October 24) she performs at Koerner Hall with Maqueque and Emilie Michel. I congratulate her on the Premier’s Award and ask what this particular honour means to a five-time JUNO winner, two-time Grammy nominee and Order of Canada recipient:

“First of all this is my third time up for this award, and every time, the people in this category have been people that I respected. Some of them I knew because they are closer to my field, but when I’ve been seeing the other nominees and investigated and researched what they do, I’m extremely honoured because I look at them and I think, ‘That’s amazing, look what this person has done, look what this person has done!’ and I’m saying it about everybody and then I go, ‘Wait a minute, I’m in the same category!’ so that must mean, you know? The jury, my peers are recognizing me in the same way. I’m so very honoured.”

Bunnett’s talent is astonishing, her passion contagious and her discipline inspiring. She is also lucky in love: her husband of nearly 35 years is producer manager and occasional sideman Larry Cramer. “He is my other half in making these things happen. We are a real team …my vision is not as strong as his vision. A lot of the time I can’t quite see it, but Larry sees the end results. I just see all the work that has to get done and I freak out. We’re a great team.”

The two have toured this planet dozens of times in the past 30 years, acting as Canadian ambassadors, standing up for social and political causes, collaborating with some of the very best in the world and providing countless opportunities for others every step of the way.

“Sometimes it’s hard for us to stand back and just look at the total body of what we’re doing because artists are so forward thinking and you never know where your next bread and butter are going to come from. To sit back and savour the moment, the recognition because we are always moving forward – you finish a project and you’re on to the next one – so to be able to stand back with Larry, it means so much to us. And not to look like a materialistic person, but there is a monetary value to the award that could not come at a better time, when we’ve been stretched financially. We’ve set a certain standard for ourselves, and it can’t be any less that that. Twenty records later, we have to keep our standard high ... keep it interesting for yourself and your fans if you have fans. So sometimes we have to beg, borrow and steal to make a project happen.”

Making a living as a jazz artist in Toronto can seem nearly impossible without a secondary income. Most jazz musicians teach either privately or in a post-secondary institution. Although she is a natural mentor, Bunnett has never had a regular teaching position, which arguably has allowed for the 20 recordings under her belt.

“Who knows down the road, as I get older – I don’t know how long my body can handle the running around – as a jazz musician when you are doing what I’m doing, when you don’t have a teaching position, you have to travel. To work I have to travel. There’s only so much you can do in Toronto, there’s only so much you can do in Canada, so you have to up and move, and so when I can combine that with going into a university or a high school or a community arts organization, I really enjoy doing that and I like to be able to shed light on what I do, because some people really don’t understand what is entailed in being an artist – the sacrifices that you make to do that. How you put the whole thing together – the whole record – especially with young people, because there is a disconnect with creativity, everything being so hi-tech. The way I work is very organic – in the case of Maqueque – I write a piece of music and then we sit down and we work on it, and I’m very open to people’s ideas. If a change is suggested we’ll all bounce it around and a lot of the time their suggestions are great. We workshop the material to bring in the different influences. I see myself as a collaborator – I thrive on not only doing my own thing, but bringing other ingredients into what I do – and I think in a certain way, I am good in the educational world, to be able to explain this experience.”

Maqueque: The group Maqueque – which is also the name of their debut album – is Bunnett’s latest triumph, finding her in the company of five female Cuban twentysomethings: Daymé Arocena, vocals and percussion; Dánae Olano, piano and vocals; Magdelys Savigne, vocals and percussion; Célia Jiménez, vocals and bass; and Yissy García, drums. Maqueque won the 2015 JUNO for Jazz Album of the Year – Group.

“The record was done in 2013 and it was done pretty quickly. We put the group together down there, and we rehearsed three or four days, and then went into the studio and made the record. I hardly even knew most of the girls.”

Having followed Bunnett on Facebook for the past few years, I’ve noticed many posts about favourable receptions on their North American tour. I asked her what surprised her about the response to the album, both from critics and audiences:

“That’s a good question. When we made that record, I had no idea – Maqueque was actually a very difficult record to make. There were certain things that happened … part of the tracks were recorded on a broken bass, and I didn’t even know it! Celia didn’t even own a bass – she was a classical bassoon player but she really wanted to play jazz and picked up the bass but she didn’t own one. I don’t even know whose bass she was using. We were in the studio and then when were mixing, both Jeremy Darby and David Travers-Smith were like ‘I don’t know what to do about the bass sound, it’s just dreadful’ and I was quite overwhelmed with all the things that were going on. I knew something was funny but, I later found she was playing on a broken bass that wasn’t hers and she didn’t want to tell me because she thought I wouldn’t let her be in the band. Yeah, thanks! Thousands of dollars later and trying to clean up the sound.

“And then there was making a record and not knowing who the record was going to be for, because at that time EMI was being bought by Universal and so we didn’t have a label for it. A lot of people work like that, do it independently, but we had spent a lot of money and we were very lucky, we got some assistance from Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council and FACTOR to make that recording. That all being said, when it was done, I thought, ‘This music is very, very different from any of the musics I have written.’ There is a feminine – there’s something different from any other record I’ve made. There’s all these women singing – there’s a vocal component on four tracks – it’s not a pure jazz record, not a pure Afro-Cuban record, it’s a real mixture of the two things. I was really afraid of how people were going to react to it.

“As with all of our recordings, we are always moving ahead of the curve when we make something and it’s also our problem in a way too. I can’t stay in one place, do the same thing over and over again, but just as somebody starts to understand what our last project is, we have moved on to something different. So there’s always kind of a catch-up mode with your audience, and some people get it and some people don’t. But yeah, I was really afraid, to be totally honest. Plus with it being an all-female record, I was worried that people wouldn’t give it their ears – an all-girl group – not give it the real attention and look at the integrity of it. Every one of those artists, even though some were more developed than others – it was a leap of faith taking a bunch of girls – most of them had never been into a studio before and it was their first recording.

“It’s a whole bunch of firsts and Larry and I were carrying all these new things, it was a huge leap of faith and money to do this and say to the world, “What do you think of this one now?” Larry really was the one that was saying, ‘It’s going to be a great record.’”

Maqueque is now working on their second album.

“We’re writing new material and rehearsing every day, much to my neighbour’s chagrin,” laughs Bunnett. Following Saturday’s concert, they are doing a tour of Australia – Bunnett’s first time down under since 1993 – as well as performances planned in Cuba as part of the JAZZ.FM91 jazz safari and the Kennedy Center in May.

“The record was great and it’s the door opener, but I think when this group gets on stage, people’s minds are blown because the energy is so strong from these young women. They so love performing and they so love the opportunity to get on a stage. I have been saying this for years in interviews: the only way you get better – you get more popular, you become great – is by performance opportunity. Look at Esperanza Spalding as a perfect example. She is a great talent, but if she didn’t get all those opportunities with Joe Lovano and all those people, they have all been stepping stones to her becoming her own artist.

“There’s the 10,000 hours thing which has been studied – but you can put all those hours in and not get the opportunities too. I feel it so greatly when I get on the stage with them … they have these great big smiles and they are not being phony. They’re so excited to be in front of an audience, playing and getting feedback. They love it and it’s very contagious. And they’re all kickass musicians who play their instruments so well. They love being together as a group, and I know that because they’re all living in our house! So I see how it works, there is a deepness in the relationship, all the girls coming from Cuba and knowing what they’ve had to be up against. And knowing that what is happening for them right now is a huge opportunity. It’s been great for me because it has given me new energy also.”

Jazz Stories 2Heavyweights’ Chris Butcher: As selected by Bunnett, the Emerging Artist Award that goes with the Premier’s Award went to trombonist, composer and bandleader Christopher Butcher. At the awards gala, she introduced him:

“This wonderful young musician has been in the trenches as an artist/educator/radio show host at U of T and an arts activist. Along with his Heavyweights Brass Band, he brings great musicianship to the streets and concert halls…”

And says Butcher: “It is a huge honour to be selected by Jane Bunnett as emerging artist at the Premier’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts. The award comes at an important moment in my career. I’m heading to New Orleans in January to study with trombone master and producer Delfeayo Marsalis, with support from the Ontario Arts Council. I look forward to being able to focus on my art while soaking up vibrations from the birthplace of the music I love. I’ll be coming back to the first American tour of my group the Heavyweights Brass Band in March, with clinics and concerts in NYC, Buffalo, Williamsville, Cleveland, Akron, Detroit and more, as well as heading out west with Mexican singer/songwriter and JUNO award-winner QuiQue Escamilla.”

Butcher, like many musicians – yours truly included – feels lucky to have Jane Bunnett as an inspiring beacon in our community.

“Jane has been a mentor and inspiration to me for years. I feel validated and inspired to have been selected by her. Not only do I want to work harder for a positive change to the fabric of Canadian culture through my art/music, I also want to give back to the community and have a positive impact on humankind. With her Spirit of Music Foundation, which provided instruments for Cuba, and countless benefit concerts, Jane has showed the way.” 

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

Author: Ori Dagan
For a list of writings by this author, click the name above
More from this author:

Ray JesselWhodunit? Ray Jessel done it. He lived a life that was full. Much more than this, he did it his way, right up until the night he passed away in his sleep at 85, just a few months ago.

Born in Cardiff two weeks before the stock market crash of 1929, the acclaimed Jewish-Welsh-Canadian-American was five times recognized by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs. Jessel’s songs were recorded by Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante, Michael Feinstein and John Pizzarelli, to name a few. He will forever be considered a master composer, lyricist, musician and cabaret performer. If that weren’t enough, in his final year on the planet, at 84, he became a YouTube sensation, when he performed What She’s Got (The Penis Song) on the NBC reality television program America’s Got Talent.

“The comedy was always there, and so were the one-liners,” recalls his beloved sister Vivienne Muhling, with whom he was extremely close. “When he was in college in Cardiff, he wrote a story in his college magazine which was a whodunit, and he started by saying “Who done it? The butler done it!” (laughs).

Before showing me a 1965 Broadway playbill of Baker Street, which brought Jessel to New York City to collaborate with Marian Grudeff, Muhling reminisces about her brother’s humble beginnings as an aspiring classical composer.

“Grudeff persuaded him to write for a revue called Spring Thaw in Toronto – that was the beginning of it. Then, when Alex Cohen came here to put on the very first musical that opened the O’Keefe Centre, which was Camelot with Richard Burton, he was told about the two of them. Then, when he needed someone to write Baker Street, he called Ray, and that’s how he got to New York from Toronto.

“But let me go back a little. He wrote his first song at two-and-a-half years old, and he wrote it because we were close, and I went off to school because I was five … When we got older there was a competition in the weekend papers, a songwriting competition, and we wrote a song together called ‘Stargazing’ which I still have a copy of, and we lost out to a pair of old spinsters who had written ‘Cruising Down the River on Sunday Afternoon’– so he was already writing popular music, even though he thought of himself as a classical composer then.

“In Toronto, he did a lot of writing for people – he wrote whole programs for them for them to go on stage – Pamela Hyatt is one of those singers.”

Indeed, at Lisa Particelli’s “GNO Jazz Jam,” on a June night in 2011, actress and singer Hyatt was showcased. Out of her five selections, three were by Jessel, including a definitive version of Life Sucks and Then You Die, what she calls “Jessel’s ode to Shirley Temple.” That night, Hyatt’s brilliance matched that of Jessel’s on The Things You Do and I’m All Right Now, a classic collaboration between Jessel and his wife Cynthia Thompson. The two met in 1980 and collaborated on songs since then.

Hyatt had the amazing experience of working with Jessel in 1958 for CBC’s musical revue Off Limits directed by Norman Jewison, co-starring with Jack Creley, Dave Broadfoot, Sammy Sales, Sheila Billings and Jimmy Hannan.

“Ray wrote deliciously silly material,” says Hyatt, “and it was always fun to perform his songs. That show broke all house records for the Mountain Playhouse in Montreal, ran the entire summer. Looking back, I am hugely privileged to have worked with Ray in his youth, and been given the opportunity to perform his and Cynthia’s songs in my dotage.” Asked if she has a favourite Jessel tune, Hyatt says: “I adore his and Cynthia’s tender ballad I’m All Right Now because the images are so precise and they don’t demand any self-pitying nonsense. He was a brilliant wordsmith with a great love of his fellow humans, our foibles, our fears, our utter lunatic behavior. His songs really covered so much of the human condition. They were never formulaic.”

Jessel’s career highlights on Broadway would include being chosen by Richard Rodgers to write additional lyrics for I Remember Mama in 1979, and his songs being recorded by Louis Armstrong, John Pizzarelli and Michael Feinstein (who nicknamed Ray Jessel “the millennium Noel Coward”).

At 72, Jessel made his cabaret performing debut at Hollywood’s Gardenia Room in April 2002, after which he played to a series of sell-out performances there, at L.A.’s famed Jazz Bakery and in New York at Danny’s Skylight Room and at Don’t Tell Mama. He made his debut at Toronto’s Top o’ the Senator in May of 2003, and ten years later, October 2013, he played at the same address, 251 Victoria, now Jazz Bistro. Both shows were booked by Sybil Walker, who reflects on the first time she presented him alongside the great Jackie Richardson:

“Meeting Ray and presenting him to Toronto audiences was a uniquely rewarding experience – I was prepared for him to be entertaining but he was jaw-dropping funny, singing impossibly clever lyrics that left every member of the audience in a state of hilarious disbelief. Top o’ the Senator audiences had been entertained by the wonderful lyricists Dave Frishberg and Mose Allison through the years but Ray’s was a talent that caught us all off guard.”

JAZZ.FM91 on-air personality, producer and Jazz Safari bwana, Jaymz Bee, has long been a fan:
“The first time I saw Ray Jessel was at Birdland in New York City. My dad and I laughed so hard we literally had tears in our eyes and he came over to our table to chat.

When I told him I knew his sister Viv he made a big fuss over us. Since then I had the privilege of interviewing him several times for JAZZ.FM91 and he was always down to earth and hilarious. The fact that he was so funny never prevented him and his wife from writing serious love songs. He is up there with Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg in my books – one of my favourite composers!”

Ray Jessel’s legacy will be celebrated at Jazz Bistro on Monday, October 26 from 7 to 11pm with a very special lineup of singers that will pay tribute to his life and music. Reservations are highly recommended (416-363-5299).

Lea DeLariaFinally, I do have another live music tip for you. If you’re not planning on going trick-or-treating, I recommend that you treat yourself October 31 to a night with Lea DeLaria at the Danforth Musical Hall.

Since being cast as Big Boo on the hit Netflix show Orange is the New Black in 2013, the larger-than-life DeLaria has become an international star, but she has been hard at work for quite a while. In 1993 she made history as the first openly gay stand-up comic on the late-night talk-show circuit with an appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show. She has been based in New York for many years, appearing on countless stages and screens.

In addition to her stand-up and acting career, DeLaria is a well-known and highly entertaining jazz singer whose bebop chops are served with an in-your-face bravura. With a voice that is as big as her imagination, she has long been an audience favourite in New York clubs for her outrageously entertaining shows. DeLaria’s latest jazz recording, House of David, finds her reimagining a dozen David Bowie classics. On the Danforth Music Hall stage, DeLaria will be joined by longtime friend and frequent collaborator, stand-up comedian Maggie Cassella. Expect big laughs, good times and priceless timing.

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

Author: Ori Dagan
For a list of writings by this author, click the name above
More from this author:

Jazz_Stories_1_-_Pangman.jpgResearching the subject of this month’s column, I found myself on the website of the late Herman Leonard, jazz photography master and pioneer, whose work provides a crystal clear window to the smoke-filled Greenwich Village of jazz’s golden age. To name a few examples, Leonard’s soulful stills of Ellington, Parker, Davis and Holiday provide definitive glimpses into each artist’s personality, one magical moment at a time. Google him and you will discover a remarkable career in which this man immortalized everyone from Art Blakey to Zoot Sims. Herman Leonard’s priceless prints are collector’s items that sell for top dollar, which is cool considering that some were shot for free in exchange for the price of admission.

Which brings me to my interview with Bill Beard, local shutterbug with a real good eye and a heart to match. His knees are not so good – as we sit to speak at a local Timmy’s he is readying himself for surgery, and disappointed to be missing out on live jazz until he heals up. For Beard photography is a serious hobby which provides both pleasure for himself, and a service to the community.

“I was senior project manager in IT for a large bank, but I’d always been photography-minded,” he says. “I was taking city stuff, abstract, some nature. No musicians.”

All this changed around the time of his retirement, when his brother, a big jazz fan, brought him out to see local jazz group Red Hot Ramble, a unique local quintet that performs music inspired by New Orleans. Beard brought his camera along and began taking photos of the band; before long he became a regular fan and their official photographer.

“I took their pictures and got to know them, kept shooting, then I branched out into all sorts of other things. One of the great things about doing this is that I’ve become friends with a lot of these musicians. I remember one night a few months back we were at the Old Mill to see Joe Sealy, and then I said I was going to The Rex, so a whole bunch of these singers and players all joined me. There I was hanging out with these amazing artists and staying out late at night…felt like I was living the life! I certainly never spent nights like this when I was in the corporate world.”

Just how did Beard initially begin to hone his craft?

“The best thing that I ever did was join a photography club – the Toronto Guild of Photographic Art, as it was called then, back in 2004. Being surrounded by all these amazing photographers, I learned a lot from them, and before you know it they asked me to come along and shoot with them. Me! With them! I couldn’t believe it. I guess it’s kind of like when a musician is asked to sit in with a great band. I loved it and I learned a lot.”

Nowadays he greatly enjoys volunteering with JAZZ.FM91.

“It’s the greatest gig for someone who’s retired. I get to go to all their shows, meet the artists and photograph them. I’ve learned about so many different types of jazz!”

On the challenges of photographing this music:

“The biggest one for a photographer is the low light in most clubs, so once you have the right equipment you can get past that. It’s also very important to know the person you’re photographing and the special things they do on stage, so you have to watch for a while, then you photograph them. Everyone has their own special way of singing or playing an instrument and you want to capture their uniqueness. The biggest thing is to watch. It’s like when you go out to do street photography. You don’t just get off the streetcar and start shooting. You always take the time to look around. It’s the same with jazz musicians. Certain bass players will play the bass a certain way, same with horn players and so on. So you’re always kind of waiting for them to do that thing that they do. You want to get that picture that captures their energy.”

Red Hot Ramble was the first band that inspired Beard, so they hold a special place in his heart – and a lot of space on his hard drive.

“They’re the most fun band I have ever photographed. They’re always having fun on stage. And they’re great people. I know them all now. They’re joking around when they play, and the music is so high energy, it’s contagious fun.”

The band’s drummer and one of its founding members, Glenn Anderson, sings Beard’s praises:

“Upon retiring, Bill took every opportunity he could, in every venue possible, to photograph Red Hot Ramble. We are a five-piece band, and Bill soon became our unofficial “sixth Rambler,” even travelling with the band to hone his photography skills. Over the past four years, it has been interesting and exciting to compare the parallels in the evolution and growth of both Red Hot Ramble as a band and our friend Bill Beard as a photographer.”

Check out Red Hot Ramble’s monthly gig at The Rex Hotel on a Sunday afternoon from 3:30 to 6:30 and it will be difficult for you not to smile all the way home. Oozing charm with every note, Roberta Hunt plays double duty on piano and vocals, while swingin’ firecracker Alison Young on saxophones is an active volcano of fiery soul. Along with the solid-as-a-rock Anderson on drums, the band is made all the more red hot by trombonist Jamie Stager and co-founding bassist Jack Zorawski. I asked leading lady Hunt how the band got started:

“Red Hot Ramble was conceived by Jack Zorawski and Glenn Anderson. They imagined the sound of Alison Young and me joining forces long before Alison and I had even met! They wanted to build on their love of traditional New Orleans jazz and blues by adding a saucier, bolder and funkier angle. Turns out their idea was a keeper! New Orleans music is about groove and ensemble playing while leaving room for individuals to share the spotlight. RHR truly is the sum of all parts, kinda like a spicy gumbo of music!”

Pangman: Another artist that Beard loves to photograph is vocalist Alex Pangman, who, fresh off a national tour, plays a few groovy gigs this month, from Rimouski to Gravenhurst, and a few Toronto stops too, including the Reservoir on September 10.

“I started photographing Alex with JAZZ.FM and later branched out to also photograph her when she sings with her husband Colonel Tom. She’s such a nice lady and so photogenic on stage. Always wears great outfits. And I love her music.”

Pangman is a great admirer of Beard as well: “It has been really interesting to watch Bill’s photographic style develop around his ardent appreciation of jazz music, musicians and imagery. More than that, he understands that live music is best. I fully believe he’s in the audience as much to enjoy the music as for the images. He’s there to make a visual record of live shows. We could send his images out in a spacecraft or time capsule so they could see what jazz looked like in Toronto in 2015.”

Indeed, you’ll always find Beard taking a moment to contribute to the tip jar in between framing his shots.

“The nice thing about it is that I don’t usually work for money…I just find that I come in – I cruise in – I’m one with the artist and I just shoot what I feel in the moment. There’s no preconceived idea about what I’m going to get, because then there’s a pressure that comes along with that. I like it to happen naturally. I’ve had years of corporate pressure. Now that I’m retired it’s nice to go in, watch them, shoot, and give the photos away to them. It’s my way of giving back. They’re giving me so much entertainment.”

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

Author: Ori Dagan
For a list of writings by this author, click the name above
More from this author:

Back to top