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.

Ed Bickert with Don Thompson (bass) in the late 1970sAs all Canadian jazz fans know, guitarist Ed Bickert passed away on February 28 at the age of 86. A bit of time has elapsed by now and his death has been marked by numerous eulogies in the jazz and mainstream press, both here and abroad. I wrote a remembrance of him on my blogsite on March 6 which some WholeNote readers have probably read. For those who haven’t and are interested, it’s available here: wallacebass.com/so-long-ed-a-remembrance/

Despite all this coverage, it’s only right that Ed should be remembered in the jazz column of this publication; he was that important and his death is a huge loss that is still reverberating, just as his magically voiced chords once did. Judging by the many comments left after my post about Ed, the scores of emails I have received, not to mention perfect strangers who have come up to me in clubs to share their memories and stories of Ed and how much they admired him as a person and musician, he will not soon be forgotten, if ever. He withdrew from playing in late 2000, yet the huge body of work he left behind, both live and on recordings from the mid-50s on, made a lasting impact on both musicians and fans. As he would have put it, he was an “Ed-biquitous” presence on the Toronto jazz scene: with Phil Nimmons, on the CBC; with Rob McConnell (in duo, small groups and with The Boss Brass); with Moe Koffman, his own groups, the Barry Elmes Quintet, the Mike Murley Trio; accompanying countless US jazz luminaries here and abroad; and much more.

He was a true original and Toronto jazz fans knew how great he was for years, but word began to leak out south of the border by the early 70s. I was at Bourbon St. as a young jazz fan the first night he played there with Paul Desmond, the first of several such engagements. I clearly remember the altoist’s head swivelling slowly toward Ed as he played some of those penetrating, glow-in-the-dark chords which so often punctuated his solos like little gems. Desmond’s jaw dropped ever so slightly – he was a subtle man, not given to overt gestures – and he grinned and shook his head slowly with his eyes closed. The thought bubble over his head would have read “Oh, my God, this guy is a jewel.”

Indeed he was, and we know the rest. Desmond admired Ed’s playing so much he took him to New York to record Pure Desmond, one of the finest albums of his career and one which brought him out of retirement. Such was the inspiration of playing with Ed; and the impact of this belated showcasing of Ed’s playing with such a star, universally well-received, boosted the standing of Canadian jazz and musicians almost overnight. Before long, Canadian players such as Don Thompson, Bernie Senensky, Dave Young and Terry Clarke were being celebrated and recognized by Americans. Without saying much, Ed kept the bar high and led by example through his understated but powerful playing. Quiet though he was, his inspiration of, and influence on, several generations of Canadian jazz musicians cannot be overstated, and continues to this day. His playing was inimitable, yet the let’s-keep-it-real musical values he projected became an integral part of the jazz aesthetic around these parts even well after he retired. When Ed Bickert was around, either on the bandstand or in the audience, you sharpened up, brother, and played your best.

It’s a big loss for us all and Ed Bickert can’t be replaced, but he can be remembered and will be. He lives on through other musicians, his many fine recordings and the countless stories that are told about him. Nobody gets out of this saloon alive, but in our sadness over his passing we must be grateful that he was with us for so long and left behind so much good music and so many nice memories. Thanks for everything Ed, and rest in peace.

Mezzetta

Ed Bickert was a jazz institution and I want to touch on several others which crossed my mind lately. One is Mezzetta, the excellent Middle Eastern restaurant on St. Clair Ave. W. which has featured live jazz on Wednesday evenings since soon after opening in 1991. One night a week may not seem like much, but the café is small and primarily a restaurant, yet is also a wonderful place to play partly because of its tininess. Its commitment to presenting jazz in a respectful and uncompromising way has been steadfast for over 25 years, making it an integral part of the Toronto jazz mosaic. Mezzetta is worth going to for the food alone, which consists of mezze – the Middle Eastern version of tapas – a choice of 40 small dishes priced at five dollars each which offers a wide variety of flavours and textures for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. I’ve probably had everything on the menu over the years and it’s all authentic, delicious and very consistent in quality. Like the food, the presentation of music at Mezzetta is living proof that small is good, small works. Owner Safa Nemati is a very cultured and congenial man who always treats the musicians fairly, introducing the groups – generally duos featuring a guitarist, as there is no piano – with a polite but firm insistence that people listen, and they do. The ten-dollar cover charge all goes to the musicians; nobody gets rich playing there but that’s not the point. I’ve always left there feeling musically fulfilled because Mezzetta’s intimacy, natural acoustics and warm atmosphere encourage audiences to listen intently, which in turn brings out the best in musicians. And that’s all we want, really. It’s real, a small oasis of culture, high-minded yet modest, not unlike Ed Bickert.

I played at Mezzetta on March 13 with Mike Murley and Reg Schwager. It was originally booked as a duo, but at the last minute Mike asked me to come along to fill out the trio, and that he’d take care of paying me himself. It would serve as a kind of live, paid rehearsal for an upcoming concert and recording we would be doing a few days later with pianist Renee Rosnes as a guest. It was a very special evening for a number of reasons, chief among them being that Ed Bickert seemed to be in the room with us. My piece on him had been out for about a week and the room was packed with his fans, many of whom came over to me to talk about him or share a memory. Mike spoke about him briefly before we started, mentioning that Mezzetta was Ed’s favourite place to play in Toronto, which says a lot. And we played I’ll Never Stop Loving You as a tribute to him, inspired by his beautiful 1985 recording of it. With the people sitting so near and listening so closely, there was an effortless and silent communion between the audience and the band which was as close to a religious experience as I can imagine coming to.

Brian BarlowEllington Society

Another longstanding jazz institution is The Duke Ellington Society, chapters of which have existed in major cities worldwide for decades, celebrating and promoting knowledge of the most imperishable genius jazz has produced. The Toronto DES will be presenting its annual concert on April 27 at Walter Hall in the Edward Johnson Building; further details in the Quick Picks section that follows. This year’s concert features a big band led by, and arranged for, by drummer Brian Barlow, featuring vocals by the estimable Sophia Perlman. I’ve played on quite a few of these concerts over the years in groups ranging from trios to quintets to big bands, including one led by Ron Collier and an another one by Barlow some years ago. They’re always rewarding; partly, of course, because they offer the chance to play music by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, but mostly for reasons similar to the ones mentioned in connection to Mezzetta: the audience wants to be there, values the music and they listen. The concert I played with Brian Barlow’s big band revealed a side of him I didn’t realize until then: what a fine and imaginative arranger he is. He clearly loves and knows Ellington’s music and his charts managed to bring out new things in the maestro’s music; no small achievement.

Renee Rosnes. Photo by Daniel AzoulayRenee Rosnes

Finally, a few words about another great Canadian musician who, much like Ed Bickert, has raised the bar and inspired so many jazz players in this country: Renee Rosnes. Being a major star out of New York and internationally for many years now, Renee hardly needs the likes of me to pump up her tires, but nevertheless, I’m going to. The aforementioned project with Renee joining the Mike Murley trio as a guest consisted of a March 16 Jazz In The Kitchen concert, followed the next day by a marathon recording session in the same venue, namely the home of Patti and John Loach in the Beaches. Much thanks to both of them for generously hosting this event and to John for his superb and easygoing engineering.

As for Renee, well, we’ve known each other for about 35 years now and this was the first time we’d played together, which came as a small mutual shock. All I can say is that finally playing with her was the fulfillment of a long-held wish and she was everything I expected and hoped for, and more. Simply put, she’s a joy to play with and to be around. She fits into the trio’s dynamic effortlessly, plus she doesn’t seem to have any ego whatsoever. With her, it’s all music all the time and she can play anything with anybody, anytime. And as we discovered on the recording, she’s a two-take gal: she plays great on the first take, and really great on the second. If I had to pick someone to offer as a model to a young aspiring jazz musician, male or female, it would be Renee Rosnes. They might as well aim high.

Oddly enough, as if to underscore all this, the last tune we recorded was a trio version of I’ll Never Stop Loving You featuring Reg Schwager, as a tribute to Ed Bickert. Mike Murley’s cell rang right after we’d finished and it was Ed’s daughter Lindsey calling. They chatted for a moment and Mike told her we’d just finished the recording with Renee and that it had gone really well. Lindsey asked Mike to tell Renee that Ed once told her that Renee was one of his favourite people. Being Ed’s daughter, we knew Lindsey meant it, and nobody was about to argue.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

APR 13, 8PM: Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society presents the Dave Young Trio. Music of Duke Ellington. KWCMS Music Room, 57 Young St. W., Waterloo. 519-569-1809. $35; $20(students). The dean of Canadian jazz bassists leads a trio performing Ellington music. My guess would be Robi Botos on piano and Terry Clarke on drums, but whoever is playing with Young, this is sure to be well worth hearing.

APR 14, 4:30: Christ Church Deer Park. Jazz Vespers. Rob Pitch, guitar; Neil Swainson, bass. 1570 Yonge St. 416-920-5211. Freewill offering. Religious service. Two of Toronto’s best veteran players who have a special chemistry through a long history of playing together.

APR 27, 7PM: Toronto Duke Ellington Society’s “Annual Concert.” Ellington: Suites (excerpts). Sophia Perlman, vocalist; The Brian Barlow Big Band. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto, 80 Queen’s Park. 416-239-2683. $35. Limited availability. This was already discussed in the article. Enough said – be there or be square.

APR 28, 2PM: Visual and Performing Arts Newmarket presents the Drew Jurecka Trio. Jazz trio with violin, piano and bass. Newmarket Theatre, 505 Pickering Cres., Newmarket. 905-953-5122. $30; $25(seniors); $10(students). Drew Jurecka is listed here as a violinist and he’s a brilliant one. But he’s also one of Toronto’s most talented and rangy multi-instrumentalists, playing clarinet, alto saxophone and singing. He’s also stylistically encyclopedic, especially on violin, ranging from trad/swing to contemporary. Whatever mode he’s in this evening, the music will be rewarding.

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

I turned 62 last August and have been a jazz bassist for 46 years now and counting, so aging has been on my mind some for a while. It’s so bewildering on so many levels. On the one hand I’m amazed I’ve made it this far and feel the accumulated mileage, at least in my body. On the other hand, I often feel as though I’m just getting started and that, while I don’t quite have the stamina and energy I used to, I know much more now and can think my way around the music better than ever. But maybe that’s just my aging brain rationalizing, and there’s the rub: is jazz mostly a young person’s game or is there still room for those approaching their dotage, like me? Is the music primarily physical or mental? Obviously it’s both, but playing an instrument as large and demanding as the bass has me wondering occasionally how long I can keep up, physically speaking.

I recently had an epiphany which made me realize that because of its openness and constantly evolving nature, but also its considerable history, jazz is music for all ages and for all seasons. Jazz constantly puts you in the moment, so being involved with it at any age – whether as a player or a fan or a student – can act as a kind of anti-aging renewal of the mind, even if the body is showing signs of creeping rust. Before coming to this eye-opening experience though, I’d like to relate a favourite story on the subject, one involving one of our ageless jazz wonders, Phil Nimmons.

Phil NimmonsAbout 15 years ago my oldest (that is to say longest-standing) friend Robert Allair told me that a colleague of his had been to hear Phil Nimmons play with his quartet (which I was in) at the Montreal Bistro, and commented that he was amazed not only by Phil’s music but at the infectious energy and enthusiasm he put out. Robert asked, “Yeah, but do you realize how old Phil Nimmons is?” (He was a mere pup of 80 at the time.) And the colleague answered, “You know, when somebody is having that much fun, it’s hard to tell how old they are.”

The simple and profound truth of this observation delighted me then and has stayed with me ever since. It resurfaced in an unexpected way during the epiphany I mentioned earlier, which came from a lecture I gave on February 11 to a seniors’ jazz appreciation course, a part of the Academy for Lifelong Learning program which has taken place the last 25 years at Knox College, the center of theological studies at U of T. (The irony of delivering a lecture on the “devil’s music” in such a setting was not lost on me.)

The class, which meets every two weeks, is run by a charming and savvy gentleman named Colin Gordon, a long time and knowledgeable jazz fan. Members of the class are asked to make presentations and every once in a while they bring in a special guest. Mike Murley gave a lecture on Lester Young last October which was a resounding success, and he recommended me to Colin, who asked me some months ago to give a two-hour talk on a jazz subject of my choice. With some guidance from Colin, I decided to present an informal lecture on the role of the bass in jazz, how it has developed and changed over time, and some of the pioneers who helped move this process forward.

Colin suggested I bring along my bass so I could play and demonstrate some musical points directly, which I thought was a good idea. And to further avoid the monotony of my droning voice, I decided to pick some recorded examples of key bass innovators and present them in a more or less chronological sequence. These selections represented the bulk of my preparation along with a few notes, which I ended up mostly ignoring. I also resolved to weave the story of my own development as a bass player into the narrative to make the whole presentation more personal and less academic.

Hurtling toward senior citizenship myself, I was not concerned about the age of the 30 or so class members – they were largely in their late 60s, 70s or early 80s, about the same as many stalwart jazz fans on the local scene. I was a little concerned that what I had to say might be too dry or detailed for them and maybe too boring, but I needn’t have worried. To cut to the chase, after about five minutes it was clear from their faces – smiling, eager, engaged, loving the musical examples – that they were enjoying what I was presenting and I relaxed and started to wing it a bit.

I’d like to say their pleasure had to do with my insight or scintillating delivery, but no, it was mostly on them. They were bright, humorous, curious and eager to learn about something they were personally interested in. Not because of work or money or because they had to be there, but because they wanted to be there. Like Phil Nimmons in the previous story, they were having a ball and so was I, so they all seemed ageless and only a dolt could have turned off an audience like this. The two hours flew by with me covering only about two-thirds of what I had planned. Such is jazz and the value of preparation.

It was all very satisfying and afterward there were some takeaways I turned over in my mind. I love presentations that combine education with entertainment, and it was nice to watch these folks learn new things while also having fun. I’ve often thought that the keys to keeping your mind and outlook fresh are spending time with younger people, and learning new stuff. Teaching is just learning turned inside out and teaching younger students as I have recently has demonstrated this; their energy and enthusiasm rub off. But this was a little different; I felt the same inspiring feedback from folks who were my age or older. It occurred to me that jazz is not a trendy flavour-of-the-month music, but one which you can savour for your whole life. It’s not a race, there is no finish line and I felt my angst about aging fade. I also love the term “Lifelong Learning.” The minute you think you have nothing more to learn, your life may as well be over.

I was also struck by this paradox in the age-defying process of teaching/learning: that the very exhilaration of imparting information to a receptive audience is in itself exhausting – it lifts you up while wearing you out. Old and young.

It also occurred to me that the “new stuff” you may teach or learn doesn’t have to be contemporary to be relevant. If you discover a record or a song or any other piece of information that is interesting to you, its age doesn’t matter because if you’re experiencing it for the first time, it’s new to you, and that’s all that really matters. Learning about things from the distant past can lead just about anywhere and sometimes can offer a new and illuminating window from which to assess the often inscrutably chaotic present.

As a case in point, the first music track I played for the class was an off-script illustration of the brilliant-yet-obscure New Orleans bassist Sidney Brown, from 1927 with the Sam Morgan Jazz Band. I only vaguely knew of Brown and I’d like to say that this discovery was the product of my in-depth research for this lecture, but no. As is so often true, this nugget of new-old information came randomly from the invaluable musical grapevine: my friend Bill Kirchner sent a YouTube clip of Brown with Morgan which demonstrated Brown’s fluid and driving 4/4 bass lines, years ahead of the accepted notion that early jazz bass playing was all thumping primitive two-beat. This was back-to-the future modern and after 40-plus years of study and listening it forced me to reconsider my preconceptions about the past and I decided to include this in my survey to the class. Thus do we all learn, by ad-hoc sharing.

Knox College. Photo credit Mallika Makkar / The VarsityAn Aging Bassist’s Timeout

True to form, schlepping around a bass offered a dose of reality which almost counteracted all of this rosiness about the class and the youth-restoring mental benefits of learning. Namely, getting a bass into Knox College, built in 1828. I’m pretty sure the architects didn’t exactly anticipate anyone having to get a bass through its front doors. You know how there’s never a cop or a cab around when you need one? Well, picture this: there I was with a knapsack and the bass slung on my back to enter this Hogwarts, which proved next to impossible. For one thing, the doors are about 25 feet from St. George Street so nobody noticed my plight and for another, they’re really narrow, heavy as lead and begin to close on you immediately, even if you don’t happen to be carrying a large heavy log on your back. With nobody to help I got trapped and, inwardly laughing while inventing scathing new combinations of swear words and worrying that the weight of the door would crush my bass, I wrenched my shoulder in the ensuing and undignified lather. It was even worse on the way out and the result was a tight knot of pain which has been slow to dissipate, unlike me. The good news is that playing the bass seems to help it rather than hurt it. Go figure.

One more story which illustrates the anti-aging effects of music and learning about it, albeit a bittersweet one. About ten years ago when my mother’s cancer became terminal, the family decided for various reasons she should spend her remaining time at my place. It was tough, but being around my mom in her last days was a great gift. She was very passionate about music, mostly classical piano and ballet music. My clearest and dearest memories of those days are about hearing music with her. One day we were listening to a bunch of her beloved Chopin played by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Among his many compositions, I’d forgotten about the macabre Funeral March, and in a surreal moment as its famous grave theme started, my wife Anna leapt for the fast-forward button. My mother, a gamer to the end, just chuckled and said, “Now, there’s some appropriate music.” One day while listening to her favourite Tchaikovsky ballet music, I decided to play her the Ellington/Strayhorn version of The Nutcracker Suite. I wasn’t sure she’d like it, but about a minute in she raved. “Oh my goodness, this is wonderful. I can recognize the music, but they’re making it dance in a new way, with their own colours. This really goes!”

Yes, Mom, it sure does. And that’s what discovery about music does for us: when least expected, it makes us GO.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

MAR 10, 4:30PM: Christ Church Deer Park. Jazz Vespers. Amanda Tosoff Quartet. 1570 Yonge St. Freewill offering. Religious service. A thoughtful and graceful pianist performing in a thoughtful and reflective setting. What’s not to like?

MAR 21, 7:30PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. U of T Jazz Orchestra and 11 O’Clock Jazz Orchestra. Rathbun: The Atwood Suites; and other works. Tim Hagans, trumpet; Andrew Rathbun, composer; Gordon Foote, Director, U of T Jazz Orchestra; Jim Lewis, Director, 11 O’Clock Jazz Orchestra; Tony Malaby, saxophone; Terry Promane, director. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto Both these big bands are first rate and so are the guest soloists, making this doubleheader a bargain.

Michael Davidson (vibraphone) and Rob Fortin (bass)MAR 23, 8PM: Michael Davidson & Dan Fortin. Clock Radio CD Release. Works by Davidson. Michael Davidson, vibraphone; Dan Fortin, bass; Chris Pruden, piano. Canadian Music Centre, 20 St. Joseph St. A CD release by two of my favourite young Toronto players, Fortin and Davidson.

MAR 24, 7 TO 9PM: Mike Murley Trio with Reg Schwager and Steve Wallace Dakota Tavern, 249 Ossington Ave. 647-637-7491. Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but what can I say? This is one of the best trios going, even though I’m in it.

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.

First of all, a somewhat belated Happy New Year to all the music fans out there; I hope 2019 holds a lot of happy listening and new (and/or old) musical discoveries for everyone.

Departures

Since The WholeNote last went to press, the jazz world suffered significant losses with the deaths of singer Nancy Wilson on December 13 and trombonist Urbie Green, on December 31. While the passing of these two giants received ample and timely coverage in the jazz press, I feel it only right to use some of this space to briefly look back on the long careers of these artists who brought so much listening pleasure to us all.

Nancy Wilson Cannonball AdderleyNancy Wilson: Wilson died at 81 after a long battle with kidney cancer. She retired from performance in 2011 after a career which began in the mid-50s and spanned five decades. She was born in 1937 near Columbus, Ohio and her friendship with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley had a major impact on her early success. He urged her to move to New York, which she did in 1959, and helped secure for her the services of manager John Levy, which in turn led to her signing with Capitol records. Her first massive hit, Guess Who I Saw Today? was so successful it led Capitol to release five Wilson albums between 1960 and 1962 and she never looked back.

Her smoky voice, overall style and versatility – she could sing jazz standards, pop, ballads, blues, soul, and R & B – suggested a smoother, toned-down version of one of her early idols, the great Dinah Washington. This versatility, coupled with her fashion-model good looks and engaging manner, allowed Wilson to achieve crossover popular success as an artist in the 1960s and beyond. But even so, her singing and records often had a high jazz quotient, as Adderley urged her to stress ballads and jazz repertoire along with pop. Their 1962 collaboration, Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, cemented her place with jazz fans even as she was reaching a wider audience, and it yielded a rare jazz hit in Please Save Your Love For Me. She had so much success as an entertainer – later branching out into acting and hosting her own TV show – that many forgot or doubted her bona fides as a jazz singer. But the record with Adderley belongs in any serious jazz record collection and she returned to singing straight-up jazz in the 1980s until the end of her career. Few of us will soon forget the glamorous image of her in that mango-yellow dress on the cover of the album with Cannonball.

Urbie GreenUrbie Green: Trombonist Urbie Green died at 92; he had been inactive for some time and suffering from advanced dementia. He was born in 1926 in Mobile, Alabama, and both his older brothers also played trombone. He was a natural – simply stated, Green was put on this earth to play the trombone perfectly, which he did effortlessly for six decades. I feel strongly that Jack Teagarden and J.J. Johnson are the two greatest jazz trombonists in history, but I would place Urbie very close to their level. While not as original or innovative as either man, Green combined elements of each into a fluent melodic style of his own, with an unmatched technical mastery of the horn often featuring the high tessitura register associated with Jack Jenny and Tommy Dorsey. Unlike many virtuosos he had musical taste to go along with all that gleaming technique; he never played a wasted or spurious note.

After serving an apprenticeship with a series of increasingly prominent big bands in the mid-to-late 1940s culminating with Woody Herman’s Third Herd in 1950, he moved to New York City in 1953, quickly establishing himself as a jazz player and first-call studio musician. He won the 1954 Down Beat New Star Award in the trombone category and began making a series of fine jazz albums throughout the 1950s. Because he never had a regular working group and did so much anonymous studio work buried in trombone sections, his jazz playing was often overlooked and underrated, though never by other trombonists – they knew.

Under the circumstances his death was hardly tragic, yet it hit me personally because I had the privilege of working with Urbie twice in the early 1980s at Toronto jazz clubs and came to know him a bit. He was such a nice man, incredibly modest for someone so accomplished and so shy and soft-spoken that at first he seemed almost backward. But once the ice was broken, Urbie loved talking about music and musicians and his conversation was laced with wisdom and insight. He took me under his wing and taught me some specific things about tunes and chord changes and he also liked to play duets with the bass. Trying to match his level and be heard over his massive sound was a challenge that forced me to up my game. I will always be grateful for having known him even so briefly.

Arrivals

These losses are inevitable but as always are assuaged by the knowledge that jazz keeps looking forward and new talent continues to arrive. What follows is a cross-section profile of young musicians in the U of T jazz program who have impressed me lately, either from playing/working with them as a teacher or hearing them perform, or both. It is by no means complete (there are at least three other post-secondary jazz programs in our catchment area)! These are simply some I’ve grown aware of in the last few months, and they’re just beginning to emerge. We’ll begin with three young women.

Jenna Marie Pinard, vocalist: Jenna hails from Montreal and at 25, is a little older than most U of students. She’s been performing since the age of seven and confesses to still having severe nerves before a performance, but one would never guess it. She has the gift of converting this anxiety into positive energy on stage. She has a big voice, a fearless delivery, an ebullient sense of rhythm and bubbles with humour, yet there is also an attractive introversion in her, as in a recent performance of her own ballad, Green Eyes. She has a flair for song-writing, both on her own and in collaboration with her close friend, pianist-singer Hannah Barstow.

Maddy (Madeleine) Ertel, trumpet: Maddy, 20, hails from Kelowna, B.C and is in her third year. I’ve heard her several times now in a variety of ensembles and have been impressed by the following: first, her sound, which is clear and centred, a real brass sound; second, her concentration and composure: she’s always entirely focused on the music at hand, always plays with musicality. Most of all, she’s a thoughtful, lyrical player not given to technical display or running a bunch of notes, she means what she plays. She’s also very open to a number of styles without seeming to be beholden to any particular one.

Charlotte McAfee-Brunner, trombone: There have been very few female trombonists in jazz and this continues even as there are more and more women entering the fray. Charlotte, just 18 and in her first year at U of T, may change this on the local scene, if not beyond. I heard her recently for the first time and it was immediately apparent that she is intimately acquainted with early jazz styles. It showed in her big, extroverted sound and blustery, gutsy delivery using plunger and mutes with a vocalism echoing trombonists of the 30s, yet she acquitted herself very well in this ensemble playing contemporary jazz. She’s from the Toronto area and learned to improvise while busking in a Dixieland band called The Eighth Street Orchestra. Best of all she’s something of a live wire who shows a natural joy in playing jazz. This cannot be taught and will serve her well in the future.

Next, three young pianists brimming with potential:

Anthony D’Alessandro: Anthony, 21 and from Toronto, is a protégé of Mark Eisenman and he shares many of the older pianist’s virtues: a natural feeling for swing and groove, the blues vocabulary, and making a rhythm section happy with buoyant comping. He has a scintillating technique and a penchant for such feel-good pianists as Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly and Monty Alexander. He also has a knack for arranging tunes for a piano trio with attention to detail.

Noah Franche-Nolan: Noah is 21, from Vancouver and in his third year. I’ve heard the name for a while now, but heard him recently for the first time at The Rex and was very impressed by his originality and abandon. He’s sturdily built and plays the piano with a crunchy percussiveness and physicality which recalls Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and the recently departed Randy Weston. He has plenty of technique but seems delighted to throw it all out the window in the pursuit of spontaneity. He’s also a gifted composer, as evidenced by his tune Hey Booboo, which also is redolent of Monk, without being derivative.

Ben Isenstein: Ben, from Calgary, is 20 and also in third year. He’s in my small jazz ensemble and I’ve yet to hear him apart from playing with him, which provides a special window. He has radar ears, is a very quick study and has a stylistic openness ranging from Phineas Newborn to Chick Corea and more contemporary players. He also loves the blues and has real jazz time, which can’t be taught.

And two bassists to watch:

Evan Gratham: Evan, 20, is from Vancouver and (conflict declared) a private student of mine. He already has a thorough enough technical grounding on the bass that you feed him raw information and it comes out sounding like music almost immediately. I recently heard him play an arrangement that involved playing Scrapple From the Apple at a brisk tempo but up a fifth in the key of C. He negotiated it so easily I wanted to cut off his hands. Enough said.

Leighton Harrell: Leighton, 19, hails from North Carolina and is in second year. I heard him for the first time recently and he sounds like a bass player – rock-solid time and sound with a natural feel for groove and the blues. I was also impressed with his tune Cook Out, based on Sonny Rollins’ Doxy. He also delivered some effective bow work on a Dave Holland piece.

As a bassist, I pay particular attention to drummers; you sink or swim with them. One of the most heartening aspects of the local scene is the recent influx of talented young drummers, starting with, but by no means limited to, these three:

Nick Donovan: Nick is 22 and in fourth year. He’s slightly built but powerful, and extremely versatile in his approach. I’ve heard him play very musically with everything from straight-ahead piano trios to larger scale ensembles playing ambitious music.

Jacob Slous: Jacob is 19 and in second year; he comes from Toronto but his family also spent some time in New York. I played with him in my ensemble last year and was impressed, but he has only improved since then, very strong in a small group or a big band, and he’s a talented composer to boot.

Keith Barstow: Keith, the younger brother of the aforementioned Hannah Barstow, is 19 and from Napanee. Already at a professional level, he’s a very serious, contained player with no flies on him, meaning he gets the time off the ground straight away.

I used to worry about where all this young talent will play and whether they’ll be able to make a living, but not so much anymore. For one thing, that’s out of my hands. Having made the commitment to pursue jazz, all I can do is support them and make people more aware of them, as here. But more importantly, I’ve come to recognize that these are smart, dedicated, resourceful young people. I have faith that they’ll figure it out just like I had to, so long ago. 

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

FEB 9, 8PM: Royal Conservatory of Music, Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. W. Hilario Durán’s Latin Jazz Big Band with Horacio “El Negro” Hernández and Sarita Levya’s Rumberos. This promises to be an evening of spirited Cuban-inflected jazz with Durán’s powerhouse big band and special guests.

FEB 10 AND 24, 4:30PM: Christ Church Deer Park 1570 Yonge St. Jazz Vespers. Free Admission. Feb 10: Allison Au Trio. A chance to hear one of the best young saxophonists in the city in an intimate acoustic setting. Au is a thoroughly modern player, but her alto sound has a pleasant sweetness which suggests Benny Carter. And on Feb. 24 at the same time and venue, the wonderful duo of Chase Sanborn (trumpet) and Mark Eisenman (piano) will be performing.

FFEB 14, 9PM: Jazz Bistro, 251 Victoria St. Valentine’s Day with John Alcorn and Alex Samaras. Two of Toronto’s best male singers with an established chemistry will be performing a selection of romantic standards with a crack band.

FEB 15, 8PM: Gallery 345, 345 Sorauren Ave. Patrick Boyle Quartet: Boyle, trumpet; Bernie Senensky, piano; Jim Vivian, bass; Mike Billard, drums. A launch of the innovative Newfoundland-born trumpeter/composer’s latest release, After Forgetting.

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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