Through the years, jazz in Hamilton has often been overshadowed by the bigger scene in Toronto, just as Toronto jazz has been dwarfed by the huge and active scene in New York. Part of it has to do with economics and sheer size, as jazz, not being a popular music for some time, has always required a large population base in order to flourish. Generally, the bigger the city, the bigger and better its jazz scene. While all sorts of jazz musicians have come from very small towns, they have cut their musical teeth either on the road or by moving to bigger cities. Part of it also has to with Toronto tending to see itself as the centre of the universe, as many big cities do.

None of this has been fair to Hamilton, which has had its own interesting jazz scene for many years and continues to. For one thing, Hamilton, like its steel-producing sister city Pittsburgh, has produced a remarkable number of significant jazz musicians for a city its size. For example, guitarist Sonny Greenwich is from Hamilton, and it’s hard to think of a more singularly original voice in the entire history of Canadian jazz. Granted, like musicians from Pittsburgh who gravitated to New York in search of more work, Greenwich settled in Toronto and later Montreal, but he got his start in Steeltown.

So did saxophonist/arranger Rick Wilkins, another hugely important figure in Canadian music, jazz and otherwise. Being so quiet and mild-mannered, Rick is perhaps the ultimate insider in Canadian music. By this I mean that one could randomly pick 100 people on the street aged 60 or older and ask them if they’d heard of Rick Wilkins and maybe one or two would answer yes. But all of them would have heard lots of his music in some form – a saxophone solo with the Boss Brass, countless scores for television or movies, an arrangement on somebody’s record, a jingle – often without realizing it. Most of his career has taken place in Toronto, but he was born in Hamilton. Torontonians who are boastfully proud of their city’s rich jazz history would do well to remember that an awful lot of the major contributors have come from somewhere else – Vancouver, Winnipeg, Northern Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and yes, Hamilton.

David BraidA more recent example is pianist/composer David Braid, who has had a major impact with his sextet, the more recent quartet, The North, and as a composer and educator. He grew up not far from Mohawk College in Hamilton and, as much as any Canadian jazz musician, has taken his music abroad with frequent tours in China, Russia, Europe and elsewhere. There have been other important Hamilton-born jazz players – pianist Bruce Harvey, two excellent trumpeters in Jason Logue and Steve McDade, and no doubt many others I’ve forgotten or overlooked.

Mohawk and more

The jazz program at Mohawk College has had a major impact as a centerpiece of jazz in Hamilton in several ways. It draws talented young players from the surrounding region, provides a venue for concerts and has attracted, as teachers, important musicians, some of them previously Toronto-based, who have raised the level and profile of jazz in Hamilton in recent years. 

Mike Malone and the Writer’s Jazz OrchestraSome musicians who were full-time faculty, such as the late trombonist Dave McMurdo and trumpeter Mike Malone, moved to Hamilton from Toronto, reversing an age-old tradition. McMurdo had a huge impact on Hamilton jazz as a teacher and by starting his Mountain Access (sometimes affectionately known as “Mounting Excess”) Jazz Orchestra, which provided an outlet for writers and players both from Toronto and the Hamilton area. Malone has continued this with his Writer’s Jazz Orchestra, which performs regularly in and around Hamilton and at Toronto venues such as The Rex. More recently, the Hamilton-born, gifted pianist Adrean Farrugia and his equally gifted wife, singer Sophia Perlman, who both teach at Mohawk, have moved from Hogtown to Steeltown, perhaps attracted by a city that’s less hectic, more affordable, and still offers opportunities for cultural expression. With the Toronto jazz scene shrinking in recent times, the worm is beginning to turn toward smaller cities.

Hamilton has also boasted attractive musical venues and organizations through the years, often created and sustained by dedicated music lovers and arts activists. Liuna Station is an excellent example. It was originally a CN Railway station which had fallen into disrepair until a guild of local artisans was commissioned to give it a lavish facelift. The result is a unique and splendid venue for concerts as well as other functions. I’ve played there numerous times with the likes of Oliver Jones and David Braid and was bowled over by its extravagance. One of my favourite places to play in Hamilton was not really a jazz venue but a small Polish restaurant on Main St. called Izzy’s, named for its cheerful and generous proprietor Isidora, who loved jazz, cooking, jazz musicians and Irish whiskey, not necessarily in that order. I’ll never forget playing there one night with the Mike Murley Trio when Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, Dave McMurdo and Mike Malone were in the audience. Wheeler and Winstone were in Hamilton as artists-in-residence for a week of clinics and concerts at Mohawk College, another example of how that institution has boosted jazz in Hamilton.

Steel City Jazz Festival

Hamilton boasts many other long-term jazz outlets – the Corktown Pub, Artword Artbar (on which more later), Fieldcote Park in nearby Ancaster, The Pearl Company, as well as concert venues at Mohawk College and McMaster University. Hamilton has also staged its own festival for the last seven years, The Steel City Jazz Festival. This year’s festival runs from November 6 to 10 and will feature shows at Artword Artbar, the Corktown Pub and The Pearl Company. It will return to its roots by showcasing pianist Paul Benton, a longtime seminal figure in Hamilton jazz, in its opening concert, and by focusing on the past 30 years of jazz in the area.

Other artists will include the Nick McLean Quartet, the Sextet of Smordin Law artist-in-residence Jason Logue, the Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble and Mike Malone, playing as part of the ECJ quintet led by bassist Evelyn Charlotte Joe. This year the festival is also launching performances at the legendary Corktown Pub – George Grossman’s Bohemian Swing featuring Brandon Walker on November 7 and Blunt Object on November 8. It’s a diverse and interesting lineup.

Farewell Artword, hail Zula

Unfortunately, this year’s festival will mark the end of one of Hamilton’s best music venues, Artword Artbar, a café-bar on Colbourne Street which has been hosting jazz and other interesting music and theatre for the past ten years. Proprietors Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford have sold the building and its future use is unclear, but it won’t likely have to do with music or the arts. This is a decided blow to the local scene and one hopes someone will step in with an alternative space at some point. I only played there once, some years ago with the Mike Murley Trio, and very much enjoyed the experience. Artword Artbar has (had) good natural sound and a relaxing, casual, grassroots feeling which combined the best of both worlds – a small concert space and a rustic pub – one which encouraged audiences to listen and inspired artists to play their best. It will be missed.

But not all is lost… finally, a word on another force in Hamilton jazz, one largely unknown to many Torontonians, including yours truly until recently: Zula, a bold and independent arts organization dedicated to presenting adventurous and under-the-radar music against long odds in Hamilton. It is the brainchild of music lover and arts activist Cem Zafir, who originally founded Zula in Vancouver way back in 2000, transplanting the concept to Hamilton when he moved there in 2012. It is supported by the Ontario Arts Council and has gathered a board of local artists including Donna Akrey, Chris Alic, Neil Ballantyne, Gary Barwin, Ted Harms, Connor Bennett, Taing Ng-Chan, Kay Chornook, Andrew Johnson, Heather Kanabe, Neal Thomas and above all Zafir, whose non-conformist and creative spirit is the driving force behind it all.

Since 2014, Zula has staged the Something Else Festival, presenting under-known and adventurous musicians from Canada and abroad who one would never expect to hear in Hamilton, never mind a larger city like Toronto. Such as William Parker, Samuel Blaser, Dave Gould, the Lina Allemano Four, David Lee, Ken Aldcroft and many more. Zula often coordinates with the equally adventurous Guelph Jazz Festival, another good example of uncompromising music flourishing in a smaller population centre against long odds, largely due to the vision and dedication of its founders.

So, as we’ve seen, bigger is not always better and jazz continues to grow in Hamilton, with all signs indicating that it will continue to.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

NOV 2, 8PM: Royal Conservatory of Music. “Music Mix Series: Toronto Sings the Breithaupt Brothers’ Songbook.” Jackie Richardson, Kellylee Evans, Denzal Sinclaire, Heather Bambrick, Patricia O’Callaghan and others. Koerner Hall. A lineup of first-rate Canadian singers performing the witty and artistic songs of the Breithaupt Brothers.

NOV 8, 7:30PM: Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts. Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express and Larnell Lewis Band. Works by Monty Alexander and Larnell Lewis. Monty Alexander, piano; Hassan Abdul Ash-Shakur, bass; Jason Brown, drums; Andrew Bassford, guitar; Larnell Lewis Band. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre Partridge Hall, 250 St. Paul St., St. Catharines. An attractive doubleheader featuring Monty Alexander, who needs no introduction, and local drummer Larnell Lewis, who has become something of a force in recent years.

NOV 21, 7:30PM: Ken Page Memorial Trust. Jim Galloway’s Wee Big Band. 40th Anniversary celebration of swing-era music with special selections from Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Martin Loomer, guitar, arranger, leader. Arts and Letters Club, 14 Elm St. Licensed facility. Even after the death of its founder, this band is always worth hearing because it is so unique and has been left in the capable hands of its chief arranger/transcriber and longtime rhythm guitarist, Martin Loomer.

Nick Fraser TrioNOV 30, 8PM: Zula. Nick Fraser Trio: “Rock on Locke.” Nick Fraser, drums/composition; Tony Malaby, saxophones; Kris Davis, piano. Church of St. John the Evangelist, 320 Charlton Ave. W., Hamilton. zulapresents.org. $15 or PWYC. A concert by a very interesting trio featuring three of the most inventive players on the local scene, or any other for that matter.

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.

I mentioned in my last column that I injured my left shoulder in a fall on June 20, just as the Toronto Jazz Festival was starting – timing has not always been my long suit. Like most accidental falls, it was silly and avoidable, but only in hindsight. I was about to put out the recycling bin, which was quite heavy owing to some stranger mysteriously filling it with an outrageous number of wine bottles. My neighbour Gary was standing at the bottom of the steps and, noticing I was struggling with the weight, decided to lend a helping hand by grabbing the bottom of the bin and pulling it. The sudden yank caught me off guard and I did a spectacular twisting tumble down the steps – the international judges would have given me 9.5s across the board for clumsiness, which has always been my long suit. Just as well I play the bass, but as I was about to discover, I wouldn’t be playing it for quite a while.

I was lucky in that the bin broke my fall and prevented my head from smashing on the pavement, preventing a concussion. But otherwise I was buggered; I’d landed in an awkward position with the left arm bent up behind my back at an angle I was pretty sure was not natural. My wife Anna, and Gary, helped me to my feet and the arm felt dead; I couldn’t move it or feel anything except a dull ache, which started to intensify.

John AlcornI iced the shoulder, which seemed to be the main problem, and took some Advil for the inflammation. As the shock wore off the reality set in – I could barely move the left arm, certainly not enough to play the bass. The next night I was to play a festival gig at Jazz Bistro with John Alcorn which I had been looking forward to because it involved such wonderful players – Drew Jurecka on violin and clarinet, Reg Schwager on guitar and Mark Micklethwaite on drums. I hated to do it but there was nothing for it except to call John and tell him he needed to get a sub, no easy task on such short notice. He took it well and, incredibly, Neil Swainson was available to take my place. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to cancel out of other upcoming gigs as well, and made the necessary phone calls.

An aside: Neil also subbed for me on a Pilot gig a few days later with Mike Murley, Harrison Argatoff and Harry Vetro. When a bassist as good as Neil is available twice on short notice during Jazz Festival time... well, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

The morning after the fall I awoke and soon noticed another problem: my left wrist and hand were incredibly sore and swollen, roughly the size and colour of a ham hock. I hadn’t noticed this at first and immediately iced the hand, trying to fight off the growing panic that my issues were worse than I had first thought. It was a losing battle. An irony – one that I could have done without – is that my wife Anna has been suffering for months from a similar injury to the same shoulder, enduring a lot of pain and limited mobility. I wondered if it would be the same for me and how we would cope with basic daily functioning now that we both had broken wings. I realized it would be weeks, maybe months, till I could play the bass and this sent me to a dark place. Playing the bass and just schlepping to gigs has become harder with aging, but this had taken it to new level.

I came out of this despair after about a day or so. Despite having a deep cynical streak, I’m a cockeyed optimist at heart – probably one of the reasons I chose a “career” in jazz – and I began to feel more philosophical about the setback. I heard a voice inside me saying, “Steve, you’ve been pounding on that big goddamn log for 45 years now, you’ve given at the office, so maybe having to take a break from it for a couple of months is not the worst thing ever. Try to enjoy the summer, kick back and relax, watch some baseball, see how the other half lives.”

This small optimism was helped by my first visit to East Toronto Orthopaedic & Sports Injury Clinic, where I met Mackenzie Merritt, the splendid young man who would be my physiotherapist. He examined the arm and tested it for range of motion and told me I likely had a full tear of the supraspinatus tendon in the shoulder, part of the rotator cuff, a diagnosis later confirmed by an MRI. I explained to him about being a jazz bassist and tried to demonstrate the movements that bass playing required of the left am, which he understood immediately. He said this was typically a slow-healing injury and that I was probably looking at six to eight weeks of rehabbing before I would be able to start practising again. He showed me some simple exercises designed to increase strength and range of motion in the shoulder and also to loosen it. He also told me about “muscle guarding,” essentially the mind protecting the muscles by “telling” them not to do certain things which might be painful. He said there would be pain but the good news was that I couldn’t do further damage to the muscle unless I had another fall calamity.

This was heartening and I set about faithfully doing the exercises, while gradually the swelling and soreness in the hand and wrist subsided. I began weekly physio appointments where Mackenzie manipulated and stretched the shoulder and ramped up the difficulty of the exercises I was to do at home. These involved stretching and lifting the arm at various angles to increase flexibility, and some resistance training to strengthen the muscle. Gradually I began to notice improvement; there was still soreness but I was able to do more with the arm.

Meanwhile, back at the bass ... I was concerned about getting rusty and losing my calluses, so I began just plucking the open strings to keep my right hand in shape, which was pretty boring. Toward the end of July I decided to try lifting the left arm up enough to get on the fingerboard and begin fingering some notes. There was an initial pinch but I found that if I angled the bass back toward me – or better still, sat down – I could use my left arm to actually play some. It was a Eureka moment and I began practising this way a little every day, increasing from about ten minutes to half an hour. I was usually quite sore afterward and was concerned but Mackenzie told me not to worry about it, that this was progress.

I had an upcoming gig with the Mike Murley trio on August 18 at the PEC Jazz Festival, with my son Lee filling on guitar for Reg Schwager, and I decided I’d made enough progress to manage doing it. As it approached I grew more anxious – it would be my first real performance in over two months and practising is one thing but actually playing for a solid hour on stage is another. It was a leap of faith because until I was out there and got a tune or two under my belt, I had no real idea how the arm would hold up or how long I’d be able to go. What if I had to suddenly stop? What if my left hand wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do? I stanched down these doubts, telling myself it was like riding a bicycle and that Mike and Lee had my back; there are no two musicians I trust more than them.

In the end, the concert was a kind of out-of-body experience, but it went fine. I felt a pretty serious burn in the shoulder after the second tune, which went away, only to return a couple of times later. Playing wasn’t as easy as it should have been but that was to be expected; I was really rusty. But the arm held up, none of the tempos slowed down and I didn’t have to stop playing at any time, so overall I was pleased. We closed with Just in Time at a “manly” tempo which I was able to keep up with and I even managed to solo on it – not the best solo I’ve ever played, but I had enough gas left to pull it off. Best of all, both Mike and Lee said that I sounded like myself.

The following Sunday I had a Jazz In The Kitchen gig, which would raise the stamina ante some. Murley’s concert was just one hour, whereas this would be two one-hour sets, with no amplifier and playing with drums, so there would be some more grinding involved. It was the first JITK gig in some time and there were some unique emotional stakes involved. For one thing, others in the band were also in the process of physical recovery. John Loach, who co-hosts and plays trumpet, had been suffering from embouchure issues since the spring from dental surgery gone wrong. Saxophonist Perry White is suffering from multi-concussion syndrome and has had to greatly reduce how much he can play. Patti Loach, who always plays a piano piece before each concert, had broken her collarbone in early July in a biking accident. So I had company among the walking wounded; only pianist Mark Eisenman and drummer Mark Micklethwaite were healthy.

Beyond this, there were memorials involved. Just days before the gig, Patti and John’s good friend Tex Arnold, a first-rate pianist and composer based out of New York, died suddenly after suffering multiple strokes. They were devastated, but in tribute to him decided to play his arrangement (for Margaret Whiting) of a complex and obscure song called The Coffee Shoppe. They brought it off brilliantly, injuries be damned. And this was the first JITK since John Sumner died in June. He’d played on the vast majority of the nearly 60 concerts we’ve done and his absence was palpable. We played a trio version of Django dedicated to him.

I’ve always thought of JITK as an easy gig and in a lot of ways it is, being held in a relaxed, small venue with good sound and a listening audience. I told myself to take it easy, but it’s a funny thing. Once the music starts and the players start coming at you with all that energy and intensity, you can’t take it easy, you have to match them. I found myself digging in for all I was worth, pain and all, sweat streaming everywhere. It hurt and I started to develop some serious blisters but I was overjoyed to be back where I belong, in the crucible of a jazz band creating in the moment. It was one of the most emotionally satisfying gigs I’ve ever done and when it was over I realized I was mostly back. Amen to that.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

OCT 5, 7:30PM: Yamaha Canada Music. Yamaha Canada Jazz Orchestra Featuring Bobby Shew. Led by Rick Wilkins. Walter Hall. 416-408-0208. $25. A rare Toronto appearance by the estimable veteran trumpeter Bobby Shew, with Rick Wilkins directing the band – enough said.

OCT 13, 4:30PM: Christ Church Deer Park. Jazz Vespers: Tribute to Ray Brown. Dave Young. 1570 Yonge St. 416-920-5211. Freewill offering. Religious service. A tribute to one of the great jazz bassists by one of our best, Dave Young.

OCT 24, 7:30PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. U of T 12tet. Walter Hall. 416-978-3750. Free and open to the public. A first-rate ensemble of U of T jazz students directed by trombonist-arranger Terry Promane.

Warren VacheOCT 31, 5:30PM: Ken Page Memorial Trust. The Irresistible Spirits of Rhythm Halloween Jazz Party. Warren Vaché, cornet; Guido Basso, trumpet/flugelhorn; Ken Peplowski, reeds, Houston Person, tenor saxophone; Russ Phillips, trombone; and others. Old Mill Toronto. Call Anne at 416-515-0200. $200. Complimentary cocktail reception, gala dinner service and grand raffle. Not sure who the “others” are, but the list of headliners alone makes this attractive, even at that price.

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.

JPEC at the Paintbrush Bistro 2013 (From Left): Joe Sealy, Rochelle Koskie, Jackie Richardson, Ray Koskie. Photo by Air'Leth AodfinI can’t remember a year in which the Toronto jazz scene suffered so many momentous losses; it’s been absolutely dreadful and has left many of us reeling in grief and shock. Close on the heels of Ed Bickert dying in late February, Norma Thompson (wife of the brilliant multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson) and pianist Gary Williamson both passed over the Easter weekend. We had barely begun to absorb those losses when drummer John Sumner died in early June after suffering a massive stroke. And in late July came the news that Rochelle Koskie, long-time Toronto jazz fan and co-founder of JPEC, had died unexpectedly. I hate to keep using this space as a floating jazz obituary, but when in Rome, as it were. Each of them deserves remembrance and never so more now that they’re gone.

Don Thompson is a private and stoical man, so there was very little public marking of Norma’s death. Out of respect I won’t say much except that Norma had been suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s for some years and Don had been looking after her with heroic dedication, hence his reduced presence in public recently. Norma was a lovely woman, kind and vivacious, and also a talented musician – she played the bagpipes and the drums. She’ll be missed by many of us who knew her for a long time and our hearts go out to Don, who will miss her most of all.

Gary Williamson died at 75 after a long struggle with cancer which had left him unable to play much in recent years. Perhaps for this reason, Gary’s passing didn’t attract a lot of public attention either, but it certainly did among his fellow musicians. In fact, Gary was a classic example of a “musician’s musician” – one capable of improvising extraordinary things on the piano which might have gone over the heads of many listeners, but regularly left his musician colleagues open-mouthed.

He was a brilliant man who had an unusual and interesting life. His gifts extended beyond music to the academic sphere, where he particularly excelled in sciences and math. He made the Ontario Scholar’s list and was in the Engineering Physics program at U of T when he decided he wanted to pursue music full-time, much to the initial chagrin of his parents. As a young man, he played around Toronto on all manner of gigs, jazz and otherwise, including a stint in the house band at the Victory Burlesque Theatre which he often looked back on with great affection.

Gary spent much of the mid-to-late 1960s on an extended tour with a showband covering most of Asia. It was adventurous to say the least, leaving him with many great stories and a lifelong interest in all things Oriental. He met his lovely wife Rose in Hong Kong and brought her home to Toronto, where they bought a house and raised two beautiful children, Ty, and Sue May.

He became a fixture on the Toronto jazz scene from the early 70s on, performing regularly at Bourbon Street, George’s Spaghetti House and many other clubs, as well as doing his share of jingles and other studio work. He was the pianist with Nimmons ‘N’ Nine Plus Six during its heyday, and Gary and I often performed together with Phil Nimmons in his quartet and with trumpeter Sam Noto’s quintet among other groups. In recent years, he could be heard in many of bassist Dave Young’s bands. He was very active on the Local 149 TMA board and for a time edited its publication, Crescendo. He taught piano in the jazz program at U of T for many years and the list of fine young pianists who benefitted from his guidance is a long and distinguished one.

Pianistically, he had very few peers. His studies with Darwin Aitken left him with a thorough mastery of the instrument which he augmented with his own incisive intellect – especially when it came to harmony – and his wide-ranging and adventurous tastes in music and pianists. Gary had a natural feeling for blues and gospel and blended these with elements from older bebop masters like Bud Powell, Red Garland and Phineas Newborn, and more modern players such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett to form a challenging and intense personal style with great scope and a very wide, swinging beat. His playing was invariably inventive and uncompromising – he came at you – and expected you to respond in kind. I always found playing with him immensely rewarding and being around him a lot of fun, largely due to his rich sense of humour and wit.

I wish Gary had cultivated himself more as a leader and made more recordings of his own – there’s only one, long unavailable – but it wasn’t in his nature to do so. For this reason, he’s much less well-known than he should be and his illness keeping him off the scene in recent years didn’t help. Simply put, he was one of the very best pianists I’ve ever heard or played with. Like many, I miss him a lot but am glad his suffering is at an end.

Though a vastly different character than Gary Williamson, John Sumner was similarly under-recognized by the jazz public, even locally. Part of this was due to his somewhat reserved and standoffish nature – at least until you got to know him – and like Gary, John’s declining health had kept him out of the public eye lately. Along with long-term hypertension, he began suffering from acute fibromyalgia in the last 15 years, which left him with constant muscle/joint pain and fatigue, hampering his mobility in recent years. He somehow managed to still play the drums well through all this, but as the condition worsened, he was less able to get out and play, which was sad for his friends to witness.

He had become virtually housebound, and when he suffered the stroke in late May, doctors told his wife Juanita that even if he recovered, his days of living at home were over. This was unthinkable to his many friends because John was a guy who loved to be at home surrounded by his incomparable library – many thousands of CDs, scores of jazz books, favourite films, DownBeat magazines dating back to the 50s and all sorts of other goodies.

In this sense, and this sense only, John’s death was a mercy; otherwise I’ve found it personally unsustainable. He was my closest jazz friend for 34 years, and even though I’d seen him almost gradually disappear before my very eyes in recent years, he’s loomed so large in my life that I simply can’t believe he’s gone.

I’m in the midst of writing a long memorial blog on John that may take the rest of my life, so I’ll confine my remarks to the musician side of him rather than the personal. He was a superbly musical drummer, not given to technical displays – he often eschewed solos or even exchanges of eights – but always listening, always knowing what to deliver and when. He valued swing, groove and sound, and understood the subtleties underlying them, the value of texture and dynamics and how to develop these over a long arc in a performance.

He and I had an effortless rhythmic consensus, which developed when we first met and played together on an epic jazz concert tour of the Soviet Union led by Fraser MacPherson in 1986. After 30 concerts in 30 days we were joined at the hip, both musically and personally. Not long after that, he and his beloved Juanita moved to Toronto, and I soon introduced John to pianist Mark Eisenman, knowing that the rhythmic chemistry would extend to three. And it did. Playing with that rhythm section has provided me with many of the most enjoyable and satisfying musical moments of my career.

John was the ultimate autodidact. With only a couple of introductory drum lessons, he was playing high-level professional jobs in Portland, Oregon by the time he was a teenager, followed by vast experience playing with just about everyone imaginable in San Francisco and Los Angeles before moving to Canada in the early 80s. He knew more about jazz than anyone else I’ve ever met and was extremely generous in sharing his vast knowledge with anyone who showed interest. I can’t possibly say how much I learned from him and his vast collection of records and stories over the years. Suffice it to say that not one word of anything I’ve written about jazz in numerous blogs and articles would have been possible without knowing him, and that’s no exaggeration. I’m enormously grateful to have had John Sumner as a friend for so long and will miss him for the rest of my days.

And then out of nowhere, the news that on Sunday, July 28, 2019, Rochelle Koskie died suddenly and peacefully at home. Along with her husband Ray, Rochelle was co-founder of the Jazz Performance and Education Centre (JPEC) which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year. The vitality that fed Rochelle’s love of jazz could be seen in everything she did and her relationships with jazz musicians were personal and long-lasting. I observed this often with both local and American musicians over many years of knowing Rochelle as a jazz fan. She was also a grandmother extraordinaire. Condolences to Ray and the rest of her family, and to her JPEC colleagues; she’ll be greatly missed.

Her special love was JPEC’s School Outreach program, which she created. As a former teacher, bringing music to children was extremely important to her and she was personally involved in arranging and paying musicians to head up JPEC workshops in schools with little or no music education.

A memorial fund has been set up to keep her love of music for students alive. Donations can be made to the Rochelle Koskie Jazz Student Scholarship Fund c/o The Benjamin Foundation, 416-780-0324. www.benjamins.ca.

In the midst of all these losses, I suffered a small calamity of my own: on June 20th I had a small fall and tore one of the rotator cuff muscles in my left shoulder. It left me unable to play the bass and I had to cancel out of all upcoming gigs, some of them on short notice. The good news is that it’s improving thanks to physiotherapy and I’ve been able to resume practising and actually did my first real gig in almost two months on August 17. I was rusty, but it went pretty well and I didn’t have to stop playing at any point during the one-hour concert. As John MacLeod told me when I first began, the key to playing jazz bass is not stopping, no matter how much it hurts.

Oddly, this time on the shelf has helped me deal with the reeling sense of loss I’ve felt all spring and summer. Not being able to play made me realize how much I love it, and never to take it for granted again. The same goes for knowing these departed ones and others. Never take your friends for granted, mourn their passing but be grateful for the gifts they brought. And keep on, one foot in front of the other. It’s all we can do. The living owe the dead that much and more. 

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.

Photo by Don Vickery / TD Toronto Jazz FestivalThe weather in April and May was so cool, grey and damp it barely felt like spring, yet here I am pondering a column for this summer issue of WholeNote, which covers not only June, but July and August as well. I’ve always found this tricky, as it involves a time warp of looking three months into the future – something I’m ill-suited to at the best of times – and the weather this year has only made it worse. It’s like hugging thin air – what to write about? A preview of the many upcoming festivals, perhaps? Well, yes, but they haven’t happened yet and besides, they’re often covered elsewhere in the issue.

For jazz musicians, summer means not only jazz festival season but often playing in hot and muggy conditions, indoors or out. So, after some head-scratching I’ve decided to write about what it’s like to play in the sticky cauldron of summer. Lest the following litany of complaints seems too petulant or kvetchy, remember they’re mostly meant to be humorous, real though they are.

For starters, there’s what happens to instruments as the weather grows more hot and humid, in particular my instrument, the double bass, which vehemently protests the onset of each summer by becoming almost impossible to play for two or three weeks in late June to early July. It tightens up and the body swells, forcing the action – i.e. the distance of the strings above the fingerboard – to get uncomfortably high. Now, I generally like a high action, but what happens right when the festivals are starting and you’re hoping to be at your best, is just ridiculous. The bass feels like concrete and its sound gets choked, not exactly what you need while having to deal with the enervation of the heat yourself!

Then there’s the stickiness. The fingerboard and neck get all gummy from sweat and the humidity, as do the strings, so you’re constantly wiping them down, which works for about five seconds. All the stickiness leads to greater friction, which leads to – you guessed it – blisters. No matter how much I’ve been playing or how tough my calluses are, I always end up with blisters playing in the summer as the skin gets softer from the humidity. There’s usually one on my right thumb, one or two on the plucking fingers and a couple of small ones on the tips of my left fingers. All this while the action is so stiff it feels like the strings are steel cables. But best of all – pinch me, I’m dreamin’ – is when these blisters break, and sweat, never in short supply on a jazz bandstand, gets into them. It feels roughly like squeezing lemon juice onto a paper cut and brings a whole new meaning to “burning it up.”

The best part about jazz sweat though, is the sting when it runs down into your eyes, rendering them useless for sight-reading purposes. (Luckily, I don’t read music well enough to ruin my playing.) Bassists and drummers often play continuously throughout a piece, so they rarely have a chance to wipe their eyes, making the rivulets of acid off the forehead a constant torture. I’ve had many experiences with this, but the one that stands out came during a performance of Two Bass Hit with Rob McConnell’s Tentet during the Toronto festival years ago. It was late June at The Rex, always a steambath in the summer, but especially so when packed.

Two Bass Hit eventually becomes a very fast blues in D-flat – not a bassist’s favourite key – and our version devolved into a marathon joust between the three saxophonists, P.J. Perry, Alex Dean and Mike Murley, each having their way with the changes and giving the others no quarter. This saxophone combat usually lasted 15 to 20 minutes, with drummer Terry Clarke and me flailing away underneath, playing time at this breakneck tempo. After about a minute there was so much sweat running into my eyes all I could do was shut them tight to keep it out. Eventually there was a break when the band stopped and left all three saxophonists alone in a kind of Coltrane-meets-Dixieland polyphonic wankfest. Terry and I couldn’t wipe ourselves down fast enough but as soon as we resumed playing it was sweat blindness all over again and I remember playing the head out by memory because I couldn’t see my music. There’s a blown-up photograph on the wall at The Rex showing Murley, Dean and me in the middle of this soggy battle, hair soaked and faces beet-red, a testament to a jazz ordeal I won’t ever forget.

Just to show that the trial-by-fire of tropical jazz conditions extends beyond musicians to their audience, on that same night at The Rex, a lady – and a youngish one at that – fainted from the heat, flopping out of her seat onto the floor right in the middle of a tune. I remember the band playing on as the paramedics arrived and carried her out on a stretcher. As they say, the show must go on.

The conditions don’t improve much, if at all, when jazz moves from sweatshop clubs to the other common summer venue – the outdoor stage. It’s a general principle that often what’s good for the paying customer – in this case, enjoying live jazz in the open air with some shade and maybe a beer – is not so good for the performers. And outdoor stages, even when adequately covered, present difficulties. First of all there’s the sound, which dissipates into the open air with nothing to hold it, or bounces back off tall buildings, creating a weird echo-chamber effect. This causes musicians to play harder than they should without getting much back and is often exacerbated by soundmen of the louder-is-better school, who decide to “help you out” by boosting things in the monitors to Thor-like levels. Great, my prayers have been answered, now it sounds thin and deafening.

Beyond sound, there’s odour. As in the venerable jazz tent, which, after a few days of use not only resembles a giant sneaker, but smells like one too – a piquant mixture of sweat, stale beer, mildew, melted plastic and barfed-up popcorn with just a hint of salami underneath. Heavenly.

And for bands using written music, wind is always a useful ally, tossing charts to and fro, or blowing cymbal stands to the ground – “Wow, that drummer is really bringing it today!” There are solutions like clothes pegs or see-through plexi-glass covers to hold sheet music in place, but they never quite do the trick even if you can get them in place. As for turning pages with these gizmos, forget it. And in some jazz version of Murphy’s Law, it’s never a chart you hate that blows away, but one that you actually were looking forward to playing.

But the best part of playing jazz al fresco is the wildlife, as in insects. There’s nothing quite like being in the middle of a ballad and watching several mosquitoes land on your forearm, all damp and juicy, knowing they’re going to bite you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Or flying into your eye and buzzing about your ears while you’re in the middle of a solo. It’s also fun when a fly lands in the middle of a complex passage of 16th notes on your music, lending a whole new meaning to “reading fly shit.” Bees up the ante and have been known to swarm bandstands; being bitten by mosquitoes is one thing but being stung by a bee while playing is the frozen limit, though all in a day’s work in the great jazz outdoors.

Sometimes the wildlife comes in human form, particularly in sweltering tents where beer has been served all day long. I once played in a tent at the Barrie Jazz Festival where the audience had been imbibing for hours and were in something of a Belfast mood. The leader did a little too much talking out front and someone bellowed out “Play some *$#&ing music already!!” So we made with the sounds, but they did not soothe the savage breast. The bird was definitely in the air and I had the distinct feeling that if live produce had been on hand it would have been hurtling toward us with a vengeance. Jazz is not an open-air sport and when I approach playing an outdoor venue I often feel like W.C. Fields – “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia” – or at least indoors, with a frosty martini and a ballgame on.

So, outdoors or in a sweatbox, the next time you hear some live jazz in the summer and notice the musicians seem a little bedraggled and moist, perhaps a little red in the face or less focused than usual, you’ll understand why and extend them some empathy. Or at least refrain from throwing vegetables at them. After all, they’re not getting danger pay – that’s if they’re getting paid at all. No pun intended, it’s hard to play hot music while you’re melting.

I’d like to leave off by wishing everyone a happy summer of listening to music, and with a favourite joke about the season: How many singers does it take to sing Summertime?

All of them, apparently. 

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

AUG 3, 7:30PM: Festival of the Sound. “Jazz Canada: That Latin Flavour.” Guido Basso, trumpet; Dave Young, bass; Terry Clarke, drums; Reg Schwager, guitar; David Restivo, piano. Charles W. Stockey Centre, 2 Bay St, Parry Sound. What amounts to a Canadian jazz all-star band performing Latin jazz in concert.

AUG 4, 2PM: Westben. “Sophisticated Ladies.” Music of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson, Dinah Washington, Etta James, Blossom Dearie, Sarah Vaughan. Barbra Lica and Sophia Perlman, jazz vocals; Brian Barlow Big Band. The Barn, 6698 County Road 30, Campbellford. A fine big band accompanying two good singers paying tribute to some of the jazz divas of the past, in a wonderful setting.

AUG 18, 7PM: Stratford Summer Music. John MacLeod’s Rex Hotel Orchestra. The Avondale, 194 Avondale Ave, Stratford. A chance to hear Toronto’s premier big band away from their natural habitat.

Remi BolducAUG 25, 3PM: Stratford Summer Music. “Rémi Bolduc Jazz Ensemble: Tribute to Dave Brubeck.” The Avondale, 194 Avondale Ave, Stratford. One of Canada’s best alto saxophonists puts his own stamp on Brubeck’s music.

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.

Bassist Michel Donato moved to Toronto from Montreal in the mid-70s and though he was here a relatively short time, perhaps six or seven years, he became an integral part of the Toronto jazz scene. He certainly had a huge impact on my development as a bassist in a number of ways: his powerful playing provided a model and inspiration; he began giving me work subbing for him; and he took me under his wing as a mentor. One of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was that if I wanted to become a good jazz player, I had to play every day. Not just practise and study on my own, but play. With other musicians, preferably some who were better than me. I took it to heart and spent a lot of time as an aspiring musician playing daily “sessions” as we called them, which were arranged much like gigs but with no audience or money involved. (The jaded wags out there will note that these conditions sound a lot like some real jazz gigs, but never mind.)

Michel DonatoMichel’s advice was true then and, as jazz education has expanded and evolved in the intervening years, is just as true now. Any post-secondary jazz program must stress performance and provide students with a lot of group-playing opportunities, not just in classroom ensembles, but in actual performances – i.e. in front of an audience, which heightens the whole experience by providing both pressure and inspiration. There’s nothing like playing in front of a listening audience to make musicians, young or otherwise, focus and play their best, and everything else – individual practise, study, learning about theory and harmony, repertoire development, listening to records, etc. – should run through live playing.

Live performance is certainly stressed in the jazz program at U of T where I’ve become increasingly involved as a teacher, and I assume it’s similar at the three other local schools offering jazz programs – Humber College, York University and Hamilton’s Mohawk College. I hope so, anyway. At U of T, each of the numerous small jazz ensembles, which meet once a week, must do three live performances during the year – one at Upper Jazz, the makeshift concert hall in the music building at 90 Wellesley St., and two at The Rex on Monday evenings. Three performances over two semesters may not seem like that much, but remember there are a lot of jazz ensembles to fit in, and each student likely plays in more than one, so it works out to a fair amount of playing for each. Three for each band feels about right.

In terms of my small jazz ensembles over the last three years, I’ve had a unique window into these performances because I don’t just coach the bands, I play bass in them as well, so I’m wearing two hats. (The opportunity of playing with me is somehow seen as a draw – go figure.) It’s interesting to experience the difference between performing in Upper Jazz and at The Rex. The concerts in Upper Jazz are attended by fellow students, members of the public and some teachers, so they’re real performances and the students certainly raise their game for them. But they’re on school grounds so somehow feel safer – invariably the students get up more for playing at The Rex as it’s a more public venue and a real jazz club. And while there is no cover (something I feel could be rethought) for the student concerts, people are there spending money on food and drink, plus the students receive some pay from the proceeds of the tip jar, which brings a small stamp of professionalism and realness to the proceedings – attendance is generally good and people are fairly generous, so the students walk away with some money for a 40-minute set. Along with the all-important complimentary jug or two of draft beer provided to each ensemble – yes, this is part of jazz education too. But above all, my ensembles always play better at The Rex, only in part because we generally play there later in the year – but mostly because the students realize they’re playing on the same stage as the professionals have over many years. It’s palpable and stretches them.

Of course the jazz students also take a lot of initiative in creating playing situations for themselves. There’s always a lot of jamming going on at the school at all hours and I’m constantly seeing posters advertising performances at venues like the Tranzac, The Emmet Ray, the 120 Diner, The Rex, the Cavern, Alchemy, The Dakota Tavern, Burdock and others.

Due pay: As key as live playing is to the musical growth of young jazz players, getting paid for performances is equally important to the development of professionalism. Or, to put it more bluntly: to hell with internship, and the sooner, the better. Fortunately, there are signs that this is happening, as there are initiatives afoot to ensure that young people are getting work opportunities, being paid, and paid fairly. Some of these have come from policy at U of T itself. At any school performance, jazz students who are skilled at sound design, usually two of them, are paid to do the sound and this includes year-end recitals, of which there are many. Also at these recitals, a student is hired to “do the door” – greeting people, making sure that they get seating and a program, and that everything runs smoothly. I’m not privy to how much the students are paid for these services, but to hear them tell it, it’s generous, fair and they’re very glad of it. It fosters professionalism and more importantly, it helps them get by. Apart from how busy they are with school, a big challenge to being a student is keeping the wolf from the door, just as it is for professional jazz musicians. And the jazz program at U of T has a good record of hiring graduates as part-time teachers and of creating employment opportunities for them in other ways. For example, a position of social media co-ordinator was created for next year and a recent graduate, Jenna-Marie Pinard, as skilled with the Internet as she is at singing, has been hired.

JPEC: The Jazz Performance and Education Centre (JPEC), has always made the inclusion of opportunities for young jazz players a priority of their mandate, and deserve credit for this. Apart from their many jazz education outreach programs, student groups have always been featured prior to regular JPEC concerts, often playing in the lobby of the venue, and have always been paid for this. The idea is not only to provide young people a chance to ply their trade, but to create a younger jazz audience by doing so. Yes, young players go out to hear veteran musicians, I see them all the time in numbers at gigs I do. But they really come out to hear their peers, it’s the way it works, and they represent the future of jazz – not only as players, but as an audience.

JPEC takes its student concert series to the Aga Khan Museum’s Diwan RestaurantJPEC has expanded this with a recent initiative at the Aga Khan Museum, its preferred concert venue – a Student Concert Series at the Museum’s Diwan Restaurant. As part of a pilot program, four different trios consisting of saxophone, guitar, and bass – it’s not a large space – have been organized from the four jazz schools and will be performing in this intimate setting. The trios are properly paid and also receive free meals and paid parking. As an incentive to attract audiences, attendees are given free admission to the museum’s permanent collection as well as to special exhibitions. This resulted in a 90-percent-capacity audience for the first concert in Diwan. JPEC has been supported in this by the Trio Restaurant in North York’s Novotel Hotel, where student groups have been hired and compensated, also receiving free meals. These are small steps, but steps in the right direction. As Duke Ellington once put it, “There is nothing to keeping a band together. You simply have to have a gimmick, and the gimmick I use is to pay them money.” What a concept.

“There is nothing to keeping a band together. You simply have to have a gimmick, and the gimmick I use is to pay them money.” – Duke Ellington

High calibre concerts: To return to the importance of performance values in jazz education, a closing word about some I’ve attended a lot in recent weeks: the end-of -year jazz recitals by third-year, fourth-year and master’s students at U of T. These are held in Upper Jazz at 90 Wellesley during April and early May. I’ve been present at some as an adjudicator grading the performances, but just as often I attend just to hear the music, especially if the leader is a student of mine. According to how far along the student is, there is an increased emphasis on composing/arranging as well as instrumental (or vocal) performance, so these concerts often involve either original music you’re not going to hear elsewhere, or arrangements of familiar material which are often fresh and highly imaginative. Between last year and this year I’ve been to about 30 of these, with more to come, and the music has never been less than good, and most often well beyond that. There are some fairly advanced players involved and the leaders put a lot of thought and preparation into forming their bands and offering a cohesive and broad-ranging program of music; and it shows. Many of the concerts I’ve heard have been inspired, compelling, sometimes technically brilliant and always emotionally rewarding. Along with parents, fellow students and teachers, I’m beginning to notice members of the jazz listening public turning up regularly as part of the attentive audiences at these concerts, which is very heartening. These fine young players are often at their best in this pressure-packed crucible and are beginning to make names for themselves, which bodes well for the future.

Having been at jazz for a long time now, I’ve witnessed the huge shrinkage in the jazz scene as I once knew it, not to mention of the music business in general, and it’s been hard not to get too downcast about it. In fact, for a long time I have been discouraged about it, mourning the loss of the “good old days.” But hearing the musical conviction and imagination displayed in these recitals has me convinced that there are good new days ahead, as Pollyanna-ish as that may sound. These young players have me almost in danger of feeling optimistic, in spite of myself.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

MAY 8 AND 9, 9:30PM: The Rex Hotel, 194 Queen St. W. The Kirk MacDonald Quartet. One of Canada’s most accomplished jazz musicians, backed by a stellar trio of Brian Dickinson, Neil Swainson and Barry Romberg.

MAY 9, 7:30PM: The Homesmith Bar, 9 Old Mill Rd. The Worst Pop Band Ever. Chris Gale (tenor), Matt Newton (piano), Drew Birston (bass), Tim Shia (Drums). A lively quartet made up of some of Toronto’s best players.

MAY 18 AND 25, 7PM: The Rex Hotel, 194 Queen St. W. Triple Bari Ensemble. As advertised, three baritone saxophonists – Alec Trent, Alex Manoukas and Conrad Gluch – backed by a rhythm section. Manoukas, in particular, is a brilliant player.

MAY 24, 7:30PM: The Homesmith Bar, 9 Old Mill Rd. The Warren Commission. Drummer Ted Warren leads a marvellous band with Mike Malone (trumpet). Ted Quinlan (guitar), Pat Collins (bass), and special guest Melissa Stylianou, now based in NYC.

MAY 27, 8:30PM: The Rex Hotel, 194 Queen St. W. John MacLeod’s Rex Hotel Orchestra. Toronto’s premier big band in their natural habitat, always worth hearing.

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.

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