Jazz musicians earn part of what is laughingly referred to as their “living” by doing what they call “jobbing gigs,” on which they provide all-purpose music for various functions. Guido Basso calls what is generally required on these gigs “jolly jazz”: a variety of familiar songs – standards, bossa novas, maybe even the odd jazz tune – well-played at tempos which are danceable, or at least listenable. Not that anyone at these dos actually listens – the music is generally intended as background to deafening chatter – but just in case. The time-honoured m.o. of these gigs is “faking” – that is, playing umpteen songs without using any written music. Even when all of the musicians involved know a lot of tunes, there is a certain amount of repertorial Russian roulette involved. Nobody knows every song – well, Reg Schwager maybe – but even if you know the given song, it may not come to you until after it’s over and it’s too late. Generally though, faking works and it cuts down on schlepping music and music stands.

But a couple of bullets are added to the faking Russian roulette pistol every December, when seasonal music is thrown into the jobbing mix. Both the risks and stakes suddenly go up as musicians are naturally expected to play Christmas standards – familiar and dear to all – but which they haven’t played for a whole year. (By “Christmas standards” I mean more modern seasonal songs with some kind of jazz element such as Walking in a Winter Wonderland or White Christmas, as opposed to traditional carols which are generally performed by roving choirs or brass ensembles.)

On the face of it, faking seasonal standards doesn’t seem like such a challenge, because we all know how these chestnuts (no pun intended) go, right? But you’d be surprised. Not all Christmas standards are as simple as they seem, some are quite complicated and after a year in mothballs they can prove a little elusive. Even the easier ones – such as Santa Claus Is Coming to Town or Let It Snow – present challenges because they don’t behave like other songs. Often their middle sections – or bridges – go into the key of the dominant, which very few other songs do. And because the bridges often occur only a quarter of the time, they’re harder to remember. I’ve been on many a seasonal gig where a faked Christmas tune is going along swimmingly until the middle is approaching and everyone gets a panicky look on their face which says, “Where the hell does the bridge go?” It’s ironic, but the seeming simplicity of the easier seasonal songs confound jazz musicians who spend the rest of the year negotiating the fiendish complexities of songs such as Lush Life or Round Midnight without a hitch, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Being accustomed to complex harmony, jazz musicians playing simple Christmas tunes are a bit like cryptic crossword experts who have difficulty solving regular crosswords.

There are two harmonically complex seasonal standards though: The Christmas Song, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, each of them a must-play. Both are ballads and their slow tempos exacerbate the chord change clashes which lurk around every corner. Taken in the key of E-flat, The Christmas Song has two quick and tricky modulations in its first eight bars alone: to the key of G-Major then immediately to G-flat Major. These key changes come as something of a surprise if you haven’t played it in 12 months, but even if you do remember them there are all sorts of chord-change options to trip over before the modulations. Altogether this makes faking Mel Torme’s classic for the first time in a year a sweaty experience.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas may be the best of the lot and is somewhat easier, but still has its scary moments. It’s smooth sailing up until the beginning of the bridge, which can start on one of two chords fraught with conflict for a bassist and a pianist. Again in E-flat, the first chord of the bridge could be A-flat Major 7, or the “hipper” option – an A Minor 7 flat-five chord which has all the same notes save for the all-important root. Notice the roots are a semitone apart, and there’s the rub. As the bridge arrives, a bassist has to make a split-second decision about which root to play, with a 50/50 chance of being dead wrong and sounding like an idiot. If he or she chooses the A and the pianist plays the A-flat chord it sounds awful and vice versa; it’s a game of chord-change chicken. If I had a dollar for every time I zigged when I should have zagged in this situation, I’d be a rich man. The smart solution would be for the pianist to omit the root altogether and leave the choice up to the bassist. But no, that would be too easy, and not many pianists think this way. This may seem like a small detail and it is, but the trouble with these clashes is that they leave you frazzled and jar your concentration, which can lead to further clunkers along the way.

The big problem is that these seasonal faking mishaps occur in a context riddled with expectation, memory and the potential to spoil the seasonal mood. It’s an important time of year and the people at a seasonal gig know all these tunes intimately from years of hearing them on records and in movies, usually in more deluxe versions with strings, choirs, Bing Crosby, etc. Messing up a Christmas tune leaves the band with eggnog on its face and is like messing up a national anthem – everybody hears it right away and sometimes offence is taken. As in, “Who hired these bums and how much are they being paid? They can’t even play White Christmas, for crying out loud!”

Ted Quinlan - Photo by Sanja AnticBut not all the disasters of seasonal gigs come from faking tunes; some of them have to do with the merrymaking of the audience. Here are a couple of Christmas party stories to illustrate this. About 15 years ago guitarist Ted Quinlan hired saxophonist Mike Murley, drummer Ted Warren and me to play a Christmas party, held on the third floor of The Senator, for a small company. Ted is prized for his musical versatility and his whacky sense of humour, both of which came in handy on this gig. After no time at all it became clear that the people weren’t going to pay any attention to the music, all was din. We were playing God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman when, thinking of the lyrics, I glanced over at Ted, who had a typically maniacal grin on his face. Somehow I knew this meant that he was going to yell out “Satan!” from the carol’s fifth line and when the time came we both bellowed “Satan!” at the top of our lungs. Nobody noticed except the other two guys in the band, who proceeded to join us with “Satan!” in the next choruses. I still don’t know how we managed to get through the tune with all the laughing, but we had to take a break afterwards from sheer exhaustion.

A few years later, singer John Alcorn hired guitarist Reg Schwager and me – his regular band – to play a Christmas party for a small law firm, held in a private banquet facility in a downtown restaurant. It was a fairly intimate party with the people close at hand, some of them even listening to the music. All was going well until we came back from our second break and noticed that suddenly everybody was drunk. Particularly a large East Indian gentleman who really had the lamp shade on, like Peter Sellers in The Party, only louder. Alcorn called Route 66 – not a seasonal song, but a good party tune. As he began singing it, the Indian guy bellowed out “Oh goody, it’s Route 67!” and began dancing a ridiculous teetering boogie only he understood. Reg and I both doubled over laughing, but still somehow managed to keep playing. Alcorn didn’t bat an eye though; his face was a mask of composure and he kept singing as if nothing had happened. That, ladies and gentleman, is professionalism.

So these are a couple of examples of musicians getting their own back amid the minefield of Christmas gigs. A few years ago some of us found a new way of having fun with seasonal music: a mashup game in which we combined the names of Christmas carols/songs with jazz tunes and standards to form wacky new titles. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing Sing Sing,” “Joy Spring to the World,” “Sippin’ at Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night in Tunisia,” “What Child Is This Thing Called Love?” and “O Little Rootie Tootie Town of Bethlehem” were among the first of these; later I expanded the game to include readers and wrote a piece about it. If you’re interested, google wallacebass.com and look for the title “Birth of the Yule” (or use the direct link:
wallacebass.com/?p–4462).

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a joyous and safe holiday season and a Happy New Year. The latter usually comes with resolutions, some of which are easier to stick to than others. A few years back I resolved to stop taking New Year’s Eve gigs, only to discover they’d disappeared. All New Year’s resolutions should be so easy to keep.

Toronto bassist Steve Wallace writes a blog called “Steve Wallace jazz, baseball, life and other ephemera” which can be accessed at wallacebass.com. Aside from the topics mentioned, he sometimes writes about movies and food.

Clubs have traditionally been the lifeblood of a city’s jazz scene. It was certainly that way for this “old dog” in the early part of my career, during the heyday when Toronto boasted numerous longstanding clubs such as George’s Spaghetti House, Bourbon Street and Basin Street, the Montreal Bistro and Top O’ the Senator, which presented both international and local jazz six nights a week.

If measured by this yardstick alone the health of jazz in Toronto now, with just three major clubs presenting the music on a multi-night-per-week basis – The Rex, Jazz Bistro, and the Home Smith Bar – can be called into question. However, it’s not as bad as all that, because in recent years new ways of hearing live jazz have arrived, thanks to the persistence and ingenuity of the jazz community at large – those who play the music, those who are trying to learn to play it, those who enjoy listening to it, and those who present it. These new models include:

Student Jazz Concerts at The Rex

For the past several years, Monday nights at The Rex have been given over to sets by student ensembles from the jazz programs at U of T and Humber College. These generally begin with three different U of T ensembles starting at 6:30pm and playing for 40 minutes each, followed by the Humber groups at about 9:30pm. I began teaching (and, unusually, also playing in) a jazz ensemble at U of T last year, which brought me into direct contact with this scene, and I liked what I saw and heard right away. Playing in a real club setting, one where their teachers often perform, brings out the best in the students, and I wish this opportunity had been on offer when I was a jazz student. Mondays are not a prime night out but I urge local jazz fans to attend, not just to support the students – which is worthy in itself – but because you will hear some interesting and sincere music. Both schools are brimming with young talent; in essence you will hear the future of the music in Toronto, a future I feel confident is in good hands after hearing some of these young people play.

Big Bands Are Back

Well, sort of. Phil Nimmons retired his big band years ago and following the deaths of Rob McConnell and Dave McMurdo, it seemed the future of big-band jazz in Toronto was in peril. Starting and running a big band in these times is perhaps the ultimate jazz labour of love, but John MacLeod has persisted in doing so with his Rex Hotel Orchestra, which has performed at its namesake club on the last Monday of every month for years now. The lion’s share of the arrangements are written by MacLeod in an eclectic style reflecting both modern and traditional elements, featuring stellar ensemble work and plenty of solo room for some of Toronto’s best players carrying on in the tradition established by those mentioned above. The band has produced several recordings and its latest, The Toronto Sound, will be released at a gala concert at the Old Mill on November 6, which I will be attending. Kudos to John MacLeod for his perseverance and talent in guaranteeing that high-quality big-band jazz can still be heard around these parts.

John MacLeodBut there’s more. Three days after the Old Mill event, November 9, the Wee Big Band will be heard in concert in the Garage at the Centre for Social Innovation, 720 Bathurst Street, starting at 7:30pm. The band has been a Toronto fixture for years and has survived the death of its founder-leader Jim Galloway and several of its key players, such as lead-alto stalwart Gordie Evans. But it continues in the capable hands of Martin Loomer, its longtime rhythm guitarist and principle arranger, or perhaps I should say transcriptionist. The band’s repertoire consists mostly of early big-band classics from masters like Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Duke Ellington, Benny Moten, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford and many others, all lovingly transcribed by Loomer and played with authenticity and spirit by the musicians. It’s not possible to hear this kind of music performed live very often anymore and I for one look forward to the November 9 concert.

The House Concert

The old model of the salon concert has been revived in recent years, as an alternative to bigger clubs which can be crowded, noisy and expensive. Increasingly, dedicated fans are staging intimate concerts in their own homes, offering a unique up-close jazz experience. By necessity the audience size is small and the concerts are sporadic, which only makes them more special. Perhaps the greatest success story of these is the Jazz in the Kitchen series presented by John and Patti Loach in their spacious Beaches home, which is uniquely equipped for musical presentation. Opposite their large open kitchen is a music room sporting a wonderful Steinway grand and perfect natural sound that encourages the non-amplified jazz on offer. The audience is generally limited to 35 or 40 paying guests who sit very close to the band – Mark Eisenman’s trio plus shifting guests including John Loach on trumpet – and simply listen, enjoying both a real jazz experience and the verbal byplay between the musicians. The series started about four years ago and is always sold out. October 22 will be the 40th concert in what looked at first to be a risky proposition. I’m sure there are others run along the same lines, such as JazzNHouse in the Ottawa area, which I’ll experience for the first time when Mike Murley’s trio plays there on October 28 (also sold out).

A New Jazz Festival

The Kensington Market Jazz Festival made its debut in September of 2016, the brainchild of star singer Molly Johnson – long a neighbourhood resident – ably abetted by her organizational partners in crime, performers Ori Dagan and Genevieve (Gigi) Marenette, plus an army of volunteers. This year’s festival, a weekend affair held September 15 to 17, significantly built on the promise and success of the first one. Well over 300 local musicians performed in various small venues in the tight streets of Kensington in a dizzying array of one-hour concerts running from solo piano and guitar to trios and larger groups in various styles, all well- and enthusiastically attended. The recipe is simple, inclusive and refreshingly non-corporate – keep it small, because small is good, present “all jazz as we know it” played by local musicians of many generations, and use the vibe of the ’hood, its unique food, local businesses and “streetness” as a feel-good backdrop. As to the finances, I have no idea how they make it work, but there are ticketed events and free events; it’s cash only and all of it goes to the musicians save for a small percentage to cover costs. I played one concert in the first festival and two this year, enjoying each immensely while being paid very fairly. It was a pleasure to walk the streets and see so many musical friends all packed together so happily; this is an event which puts “festive” back into the jazz festival. Congratulations to Molly and company for their leap-of-faith vision in bringing this unique festival to Toronto at a time when the city desperately needed it.

CDs Galore

PJPerryThe self-financed CD is another way jazz artists can continue to reach and expand their audience, and good locally produced jazz records have spread like wildfire in recent years. One can barely keep up. These involve a leap of faith in that the outlay involved cannot often be recouped, but musicians keep making them anyway as a means of documenting their art. Even ones who have nothing left to prove, like PJ Perry. Now 75, a JUNO-winner and recent recipient of the Order of Canada, PJ has long been one of the best alto saxophonists in the world, although he doesn’t have that profile because he plies his trade in the relative isolation of Edmonton. His latest release, just out, is Alto Gusto, recorded live during two nights at Edmonton’s venerable Yardbird Suite. But here’s the real leap of faith on his part: while he had played with each member of the rhythm section – veteran Los Angeles pianist Jon Mayer; drummer Quincy Davis, originally from Michigan and until recently based out of Winnipeg, and yours truly on bass – the three of us had never even met before this gig. PJ just knew the chemistry would somehow work and it did, about two bars into our hasty rehearsal. The result is a very hard-swinging, inventive record, an honest portrait of musicians creating music in the moment.

As long as jazz has enough people – musicians, fans and presenters – who believe in it enough to make these leaps of faith, it will continue to evolve and flourish. Perhaps not as in the “good old days,” which are past, but by creating some good new days. 

Toronto bassist Steve Wallace writes a blog called “Steve Wallace –
jazz, baseball, life and other ephemera” which can be accessed at wallacebass.com. Aside from the topics mentioned, he sometimes writes about movies and food.

Jim Galloway was The WholeNote's longest standing columnist, tenacious to the last. We greet the news of his passing, yesterday, December 30 2014, with sadness. We have lost a blithe spirit, a true champion of live music. Here are the last words he wrote for us, just four weeks ago.
David Perlman, publisher

Jazz Notes-2004This being the 15th or 16th December/January edition of these Jazz Notes for The WholeNote, I thought that rather than essaying something completely new, I’d dip back through my little stack of back issues for things that, still being appropriate, I might appropriate. Take this, for one example:

This month’s column is a departure from the familiar concert listings of previous issues, reason being that the above mentioned departure was mine - for a month-long trip to Europe! As a result this article is coming to you from the waltz capital of the world, Vienna.

First of all, for the record, the Danube is not blue, but an industrial brown which would not inspire Johann were he to see it today. Also the Viennese waltz does not make up 3/4 of the music heard in Vienna, even though it is in 3/4, and since being here I have not heard a single zither play the theme from The Third Man.

Is there jazz in this stronghold of Strauss? – this fatherland of Freud? – this Mecca of Mozart? – this city where you can have your Vienna Phil? Yes there is and quite a lot of it at that, although, as anywhere else it is music for a small minority – and a minority that is broken into at least two camps. There are the obvious ones traditional and modern, and it would seem that never – or very seldom – the twain shall meet. (No, not you, Mark!)

Read more: The More It Changes...

beat - jazz notesNo, this really isn’t about my favourite things. It’s about the relationship between music and war and it’s triggered by the fact that Remembrance Day falls on the 11th of this month and that got me thinking about songs that in all probability would not have been written had there not been the background of violence. So much for music being the food of love – it can also be the food of sorrow, anger, regret and the whole range of human emotions.

Patriotic songs have been around for centuries. One of the first Canadian examples dates from the war of 1812: ”Come all you brave Canadians I’d have you lend an ear / Unto a simple ditty / That will your spirits cheer.” Fast forward to the First World War, “the war to end all wars,” which gave us “Keep the Home Fires Burning” (1914), “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” “The Hearse Song,” “Over There” (later featured in the film This Is the Army) and “Roses of Picardy.”

“Bless ’Em All” (also known as “The Long and the Short and the Tall” and “F*** ’Em All”) is a war song credited as having been written by Fred Godfrey in 1917 but not really popular until WWII.

“Lili Marleen” became one of the most popular songs of the Second World War among both German and British troops, the most notable version sung being by Marlene Dietrich.

Irving Berlin wrote “This is the Army, Mr. Jones” (1942) for the revue This is the Army that was remade as a 1943 American wartime musical comedy film of the same name. It mocks the attitudes of middle class soldiers forced to undergo the rigours of life in the barracks.

“Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major,” (1939) is a British soldier’s song, mocking their officers.

Popular concert songs in Britain during the war included “Run Rabbit Run,” sung by Flanagan and Allen (1939) and “There’ll Always Be An England” (1939–40,) sung by Vera Lynn who also had a huge hit with “We’ll Meet Again.”

And the point of all this? It’s worth noting that the solemn music that gets trotted out at times of significant remembrance like this is generally written after the fact. What lifted the spirits of those who were then and there was music more like this.

From chalumeau to licorice stick: The chalumeau was the forerunner of the present day clarinet and the clarinet has maintained its strong presence in classical music throughout the centuries. In jazz however it has had its ups and downs.

In the review section I covered a CD by clarinetist John MacMurchy. Well, a few decades ago clarinet was king with Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and less famous names. But right up there were instrumentalists such as Barney Bigard, known for his long association with Duke Ellington, Edmond Hall, for my taste the most exciting clarinet sound of them all, Jimmie Noone with one of the most liquid sounds of anybody on the instrument and Irving Fazola, born Henry Prestopnik. He got the nickname Fazola from his childhood skill at Solfege (“Fa-Sol-La”). And of course the somewhat eccentric – in sound as well as his approach to the music – Pee Wee Russell, whom you either love or hate. All I can say is that if Pee Wee’s music escapes you then you are truly missing out.

Less well known is that he was also an abstract painter. The story goes that one day his wife Mary came home with a bunch of painting supplies and told Pee Wee to try them out. The cover of one of his LPs features a painting by him. I used to have it but somebody borrowed it and I never saw it again!

I didn’t meet him until late in his life. I was playing on a jazz gig at the King Edward Hotel and we finished at 1am, but on weekends at George’s where Pee Wee was fighting a really inappropriate back-up trio, the music went until 2am. So off I went and as I reached the club he was ending a set with a lovely old song called “I’d Climb The Highest Mountain.” When he came off I told him how much I enjoyed that song and he told me it was one of Bix’s favourites. Anyway when he went on for the next set he played it again and I was innocent and vain enough to think it was perhaps for me.

Speaking of eccentrics there was a New Orleans clarinet player called Joseph “Cornbread” Thomas who took his false teeth out before playing!

Groups of clarinets playing together, or clarinet choirs, are not uncommon, although some cynics refer to them as sounding like a fire in a pet shop!

Back to Pee Wee – he had a long sort of sad face – a bit like a mournful bloodhound, but without the bark. We spent an afternoon together in his hotel room but he did not seem like a happy man. The death of his wife really affected him and I believe that a large part of him died with her. I remember he sat there in his underwear drinking straight gin – a sad figure, especially when I think of the pleasure his music gave to so many people. There will never be another like him.

Happy listening and try to make some of it live.

Jim Galloway is a saxophonist, band leader and former artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz. He can be contacted at
jazznotes@thewholenote.com.

BBB-JazzNotesA survey in the 60s claimed that the average lifespan of jazz musicians was 44 and certainly there are facts to support this. Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke only made it to 28; Clifford Brown died at the age of 25 in a car accident; Guitarist Charlie Christian died of tuberculosis at age 25; John Coltrane had liver cancer and died at age 40. Albert Ayler drowned at age 34; Guitarist Lenny Breau died a violent death at age 43. Another violent death was that of Lee Morgan, shot by his common-law wife at age 33. Jaki Byard, a pianist, saxophonist and teacher who recorded with some of jazz’s most important figures, was shot dead February 11 in his house in Queens. (Mind you, he was 76 by then!)

On a slightly less morbid note Sidney Bechet, born in New Orleans in 1897 moved permanently to France in 1950 and had an international hit with “Petite Fleur” at the age of 53, becoming something of a national hero in his adopted country.

Some years ago I was playing at La Huchette in Paris and on the way back to my hotel one night what did I hear coming from a late-night bar? Bechet’s version of “Petite Fleur,” more than 20 years after his death in Paris (from lung cancer on May 14, 1959 on his 62nd birthday). Sigh.

Continuing the litany: Leon “Chu” Berry, hardly even remembered today, was a big, fat-toned tenor player, killed in a car accident at 33. And some of you might remember guitarist Emily Remler from her appearances here. She died of a heart attack at 32. Jimmy Blanton, pioneering bass player died of tuberculosis at 23, Frank Teschemacher whose reed playing influenced many of his successors was killed in a car crash. He was only 25. And these are only a few of the many fine musicians who left us too soon.

The flip side? If the lifestyle doesn’t kill you, the joy of the music will keep you going to a ripe old age!

One more for the road: In the days of prohibition in the U.S. there was plenty of “bathtub gin around but good alcohol was hard to find.” I remember Wild Bill Davison telling me that they always liked playing Detroit because there was a late-night bar where you could get good whisky which was hauled from Canada on a skiff under the surface of the Detroit River. Sometimes the delivery was a bit late, but it was worth the wait! And quite often the labels were washed off, not that it mattered too much, because the booze was good.

But don’t get the idea that prohibition didn’t ever exist in Canada. It was present in various stages, from 19th-century local municipal bans to provincial bans in the early 20th century, and national prohibition from 1918 to 1920. Alcohol was illegal in Prince Edward Island until 1948. Parts of west Toronto did not permit liquor sales until 2000. But by and large the enforcement of prohibition laws is a little bit like King Canute trying to turn back the tide, and, in its various forms, it has spawned drinking songs throughout the centuries: “Whiskey in the Jar,” “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me,” “ One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” “What’s The Use of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again),” “The beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for dessert (Sunday Morning Coming Down),” and “Gimme That Wine,” to name only a few.

Meanwhile, getting back to the business of longevity, the mean life span for a survey of 33 male symphony conductors was 75.6 years.

Moral? Spend a lot of time waving your arms about.

I wish you all happy listening – and try to make some of it live.

Jim Galloway is a saxophonist, band leader and former artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz. He can be contacted at jazznotes@thewholenote.com.

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