Jazz is forever being pronounced dead, or at least sickly, yet it has continued to survive and grow, if not in terms of audience share, then at least musically speaking. On the local level it’s a little difficult to assess the state of the music’s health these days, and I’m often flip-flopping on the subject. On the one hand there’s a pool of talent in Toronto growing deeper and more diverse all the time, but there are fewer gigs and places for everyone to play. It’s certainly harder to make a decent living playing jazz than in the past, yet the music is being played at a higher and higher level. Part of the problem in assessing all this is the disconnect between financial and musical success: there’s a lot of the latter but not much of the former for many. Further on the local Jekyll-and-Hyde axis, we have the continued success of the new grassroots Kensington Market Jazz Festival, contrasted with the recent troubles of JAZZ.FM91, which I’ll return to later.

We’re always being told by its keepers that jazz, like everything else these days, is a business. But to those who truly care about it – the fans, who consume it, and the musicians, who produce it – it’s not a business, it’s a music, a form of art and entertainment. (Louis Armstrong and countless others having long ago proved that the two are not mutually exclusive.) We care about it in terms of music, not dollars, and are thought to be naïve for this, yet saying that it’s primarily a business rather than an art form is putting the cart before the horse: the only reason there’s a business aspect to jazz is that people are willing to spend money to hear it because they’re drawn to its artistry; it’s that simple. The moment people stop being attracted to jazz as music there will be no business, because they’ll stop spending money to hear it. This may seem obvious, but a lot of people fail to see it. We’re constantly being told that the business side must take precedence otherwise there will be no music, but I think it’s the other way around. I’ve always found that when the artistic/real side of jazz is stressed and presented honestly then it thrives, as in the case of the KMJF, but woe betide when that focus gets lost amid too many extrinsic considerations.

I’m not going to comment too much further on the JAZZ.FM situation because it’s still up in the air and on a jazz musician’s salary I can’t afford a legal dream team, but I will say this: There’s a lot of angst and outrage in the jazz community over a recent turn of events, which is seen as another black eye for jazz, a fail which the music can ill afford. As currently constituted the station probably can’t continue, but there is a movement afoot to save it by making some changes. For those interested, I recommend going to savejazzfm.com and signing up; you’ll be casting a vote to salvage jazz on the air in Toronto, with some changes in management and philosophy, some lessons learned, greater accountability and more input from listenership.

But even if the station goes under, I hasten to point out that JAZZ.FM and jazz itself are not the same thing, not even close. Sooner or later another jazz station will crop up because there’s clearly sufficient interest in having one. In the meantime, make up for the dead air by going to hear more live music.

Jazz Survival 101: A Primer

Jazz Humour – With all the adversity the jazz life entails, how does one carry on? By boosting one’s morale, that’s how. What follows is a kind of jazz survival kit – to translate an old cliché into jazz terms: “When the blowing gets tough, the tough get blowing.” The first requisite is developing a sense of humour. I’m biased, but jazz musicians are the funniest people I know, mainly because they have to be. Jazz humour is laced with a gallows irony, a dry “laughin’ to keep from cryin’” wit. Here are some examples: Back in the early days of fusion when some jazz musicians were accused of selling out by trying to reach a wider audience through playing more rock-oriented music, Jim Hall turned to Paul Desmond (or perhaps it was the other way around) and asked ”So…. where do I go to sell out?”

Or “How do you make a million dollars playing jazz? Start out with two million.”

Or the one about a musician hiring another for a jazz gig, boasting that it pays “three bills” – two tens and a twenty.

Because jazz musicians improvise so much, the humour pool is constantly expanding on the fly, as when I recently bumped into Lesley Mitchell-Clarke on my way to a gig with John Alcorn at the KMJF. Lesley, well-known to WholeNote readers, is a jazz survivor extraordinaire on many fronts and one of the funniest people I know. She asked, “Steve, do you realize we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of the venerable $100 jazz gig?” I doubled over and nearly dropped my bass because the line was so darkly funny and true. While house prices have at least quintupled over the last 20 years, the pay for many jazz gigs has stayed the same. This may not seem funny to many, but to jazz people it has an inverse, “do your worst” kind of sick irony. What else can you do but laugh?

(Two asides, in the interests of fairness and full disclosure. After many years, The Pilot Tavern recently upped the pay for its Saturday jazz matinee to $120 per musician, to which I remarked “Hey, alright! Tonight we eat!!” And just to show that not all jazz gigs top out at $100, the aforementioned Alcorn trio gig at the tiny Jazz Poetry Café was sold out and paid almost twice as much as we were expecting. This is because the KMJF volunteers collect the cash and then give all but a tiny fraction of it to the band. Somehow or other this very direct jazz economy works, so not all is lost.)

Peter LeitchTake A Week and Learn the Classics

This was guitarist Peter Leitch’s dryly sarcastic advice to a jazz beginner long ago. As in “listen to some records, for God’s sake,” and fortunately it takes much longer than a week. If the present seems chaotic and less than rosy, turn to the embarrassment of riches found in the back catalogue of great jazz records. This is not a matter of burying your head in the sand or living in the past, but rather a way of renewing yourself by taking a bath in the glories of the music while perhaps reminding yourself of why you love jazz in the first place. And you no longer need an extensive/expensive record collection to do so, because almost all of it is available on YouTube, another mixed blessing. Somehow things don’t seem so bad when you’ve just heard some Hot Fives, the 1938 Basie band, Spiritual Unity or whatever else takes your fancy. I do this all the time and it buoys me up, sending me off to a gig with a spring in my step and my musical sights set higher because I’ve just spent some time in the company of the masters.

Herbie NicholsA variation of this is checking out some jazz history by reading about it, which can bring some much-needed perspective. You think things are rough now? Try reading Mark Miller’s superb Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life, which tells the story of the pianist/composer who literally died from neglect and yet lives on through the efforts of people like Miller, the late Roswell Rudd, who curated his music, and The Herbie Nichols Project, which keeps his music alive by playing it. This is called inspiration and can also be found in books such as Robin D.G. Kelley’s exhaustive biography of a better-known giant who also endured much adversity – Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Or one I’m currently reading about clarinettist Pee Wee Russell. Not only did Russell never own a house, he mostly lived in shabby apartments, was perpetually broke and often out of work. And yet he earned permanent jazz immortality because of his singular and fearless individuality. Things were always tough, why would they be any different now?

Communal SupportThe local jazz community is a symbiotic relationship between fans, musicians and those employed as enablers of the music – writers, broadcasters, promoters, presenters, and so on. Essentially they’re all jazz fans and offer support to one another by attending jazz shows and events, which is crucial. But even more important is the palpable moral support shown by this group when the chips are really down. A good example – among many – is the recent memorial service for Kiki Misumi, who died at 58 in late August after a long and brave battle with cancer. Kiki was a very talented and creative cellist, singer and songwriter who was married for many years to one of our great stalwarts, guitarist Reg Schwager. Her memorial, held in early September at a facility of the Buddhist society to which she belonged, was packed to overflowing with her fellow Buddhists and members of the local jazz community who had known her for decades and came to pay their respects. Despite the overwhelming sadness of her too-early passing, it was a singularly moving and inspiring service, marked by some uplifting chanting, some lovely music and eloquent speeches, including one by Reg which staggered everyone – he’s normally quite reticent and I still don’t quite know how he managed it. Kiki fought fast-moving terminal cancer and ten gruelling surgeries for 12 years through a unique, self-styled blend of prayer, chanting, diet, humour, and sheer courageous positivity. We could all learn a lot about dealing with adversity from the way she lived her life and faced her death. Rest in peace Kiki, we will all really miss you. And come what may, I’ll take my chances with a jazz community as stout as this every day of the week. This video shows what Kiki was all about far better than I ever could in words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MU0sZo13YWY.

I continue to face the fragility of jazz with a mixture of defiance and ambiguous world-weary irony, as in this paraphrase from the refrains of Mose Allison’s Gettin’ There: “I am not downhearted. I’m not discouraged. I am not disillusioned… But I’m gettin’ there. Yeah… I’m gettin’ there.”

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

Jackie RichardsonOCT 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 AT 6:30PM: The Rex Hotel 194 Queen St. W. - Jazz Ensembles from U of T and Humber College – The regular regimen of Monday performances by students and graduates from the jazz programs of these two schools. The music is varied, stimulating, honest, often surprising, and always worth hearing.

OCT 11 AND 12, 9:30PM: The Rex Hotel 194 Queen St. W. – The Mark Eisenman Quintet. I’m maybe biased (because I play in it), but this is one of my favourite Toronto bands, one which plays a bristling brand of contemporary bebop often laced with Eisenman’s compositions, many of them ingenious contrafacts on standards. John MacLeod, cornet, Pat LaBarbera, saxophone; Mark Eisenman, piano; Mark Micklethwaite, drums; and yours truly, bass.

OCT 14, 4:30PM: Christ Church Deer Park 1570 Yonge St: Jazz Vespers: The Drew Jurecka Trio – An opportunity to hear one of Toronto’s most brilliant and versatile multi-instrumentalists in a quiet and reflective setting.

OCT 18, 7:30PM: Garage at the Centre for Social Innovation 720 Bathurst St. Jim Galloway’s Wee Big Band, directed by Martin Loomer, special guest Pat LaBarbera, soprano saxophone. With its lively and retro repertoire, this unique band is always worth hearing, but having the encyclopedically talented LaBarbera as a guest soloist makes this a must-attend.

NOV 3, 7:30PM: Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts – FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre 250 St. Paul St., St. Catharines: “Voices of Freedom Concert”For those willing to travel further afield, a concert featuring two of Canada’s best-loved jazz singers, Jackie Richardson and Molly Johnson, backed by a superb trio of Robi Botos, piano; Mike Downes, bass; and Larnell Lewis, drums.

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.

Jazz Takes a Holiday: As with most things, when the dog days of summer hit, jazz slows down a bit, particularly after the festival season ends in early July. There was still jazz to be heard at the usual Toronto venues in July and August, but many of the gigs I attended or played were sweaty, sparsely attended affairs, owing to so many people being away on vacation or simply trying to dodge the stickiness of the city. Even The WholeNote takes a break and it was certainly a slow summer for me and many of my colleagues in terms of work, but I didn’t mind so much because a lot of the time it was too hot to play jazz, or even think about it.

But now that September is suddenly upon us and the jazz programs resume at York University, Humber College and U of T, live jazz will be back in full swing, pun intended. The two are not unrelated; increasingly, the Toronto jazz scene is impacted and shaped by the young musicians studying and playing the music, interacting with so many of the city’s veteran jazz players – the usual suspects - teaching it. There have always been promising young players on the Toronto scene – I myself was one of them over 40 long years ago – but I can’t remember a time when there were so many as now, and their presence will be felt at the clubs in September and the coming months.

For one thing, the students form a large and enthusiastic audience at jazz gigs, and for another, Monday nights at The Rex will again feature student ensembles from U of T and Humber playing short sets. This allows for a wide array of styles ranging from the contemporary to the traditional (“traditional” now meaning “bebop,” not Dixieland.) I plan on attending these regularly and I urge Toronto jazz fans to do so as well. Not only to support the students, which is important, but because these evenings offer a kind of one-stop-shopping opportunity to hear varied and interesting music played by talented young people who represent the future of jazz. Well-known Toronto players not only direct these groups but often play in them as well. This interplay between the young and old(er) can produce satisfying musical results; jazz is grown this way.

I want to touch upon one group that has sprung out of this student-teacher cooperation which will play a couple of times in September and which I find interesting, despite the fact that I’m in it: Harrison Squared. It’s named after two young men who graduated from the U of T jazz program in April: drummer Harrison Vetro and tenor saxophonist Harrison Argatoff, with tenor saxophonist Mike Murley and me cast as the mentoring oldsters. Not that either of these young men need mentoring, as both are well on their way as advanced players; we all simply enjoy playing together. We’ll be playing at The Rex on September 1 and on September 30 at The Emmett Ray, another venue where young Toronto players can be heard frequently and to advantage. There are plans to record early in 2019, which I look forward to.

The group hatched out of a chance encounter between Harrison Vetro and me in early 2016 at U of T. His drum teacher, Nick Fraser, was on tour and asked me if I would teach Vetro a lesson, reasoning that he might benefit from some pointers from a veteran bassist. We worked on a few tempos and rhythmic feels and I liked his drumming straight away: it was quiet but intense, creative yet swinging. About halfway through the lesson he asked if it would be okay if his friend Harrison Argatoff joined us on saxophone for a few tunes. Glad of some melodic content I said sure thing, while wondering what was up with all the Harrisons all of a sudden – my ensemble that year had a very fine guitarist in it named Harrison Bartlett. Like Vetro, Argatoff is a thinking, creative player, very much in the Lennie Tristano/Warne Marsh vein. I cautioned Argatoff not to play so far behind the beat and told Vetro not to follow him when he did so, but otherwise I really enjoyed the instant musical chemistry between us. We resolved to get together and play again but scheduling made this difficult, so finally the two Harrisons took the bull by the horns, landing a gig at The Rex in September of 2016 and asking Murley and me to join them; thus was a band born. We didn’t rehearse, just agreed on a selection of standards and some out-of-the-way jazz originals. The gig had a very open, spontaneous feeling and was immensely satisfying – having played together on countless occasions, Murley and I enjoyed the stimulus of playing with fresh partners and the Harrisons upped their game playing with such muscular and experienced veterans!

In their own words, here are Vetro and Argatoff on what they’ll be up to musically in the near future:

Harrison VetroHarrison Vetro: “I’m leading my own project called Northern Ranger. I will be releasing a CD under this name on October 20 at Gallery 345 in Toronto. It has been funded by the U of T Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association. The album features Lina Allemano, Harrison Argatoff and Andrew Downing, as well as a few others. This is a student/teacher project and we had Nick Fraser come into the studio as a producer. It was a lesson in leading a band, making decisions as a band leader, using studio time efficiently.

The Northern Ranger album is inspired by the Canada 150 celebration and is a series of compositions following my cross-Canada travels in 2016 and 2017. My curiosity for Indigenous music propelled me to visit specific locations within the six Indigenous cultural areas in Canada: Arctic, Subarctic, Northwest Coast, Plateau, Plains and the Eastern Woodlands. My compositions offer a new perspective on the landscape of Canada.

Proceeds from this album will assist outreach programs for youth with limited access to music education. I have a tour booked for this album release and will be performing at The Jazz YYC (Calgary) and Yardbird Suite (Edmonton) winter jazz festivals, as well as The Bassment in Saskatoon and some other dates on the east coast this November. I have also been invited by Jazz YYC to give an improvisation workshop in a high school on one of the reserves in the Calgary area.

I also have a residency at the Tranzac on the fourth Wednesday of every month, where I will present new music.”

Harrison ArgatoffHarrison Argatoff: “Having graduated from U of T this past spring, my current plan is to continue making music in Toronto. This fall I’m excited to be releasing my first CD, Dreaming Hears the Still, a collaboration between pianist Noah Franche-Nolan and myself. The CD exclusively features our original repertoire, most of which uses precise composition as a framework for improvisation. I am also currently working on music for my solo saxophone project and the Harrison Argatoff Quartet (both of which are in their infancy). Having grown up a Doukhobor in the interior of British Columbia, teachings of pacifism, communal music making and respect for life and nature have deeply affected my personal and artistic endeavours. I’m currently focusing on developing a modern approach to music through original composition for a variety of ensembles, and also for solo performance. My music combines the study of free improvised music, traditional jazz music and contemporary classical music.”

As their words indicate, both young men are interesting and dedicated creative young musicians and I hope many of you will come out to hear them in action with Murley and me at The Emmett Ray on September 30, as well as in their own future ventures.

Toronto’s young jazz players and students will also be taking a significant part in two September music events. One, the Toronto Undergraduate Jazz Festival (TUJF), taking place September 4 to 8 at The Frog pub, Mel Lastman Square and Jazz Bistro, is devoted entirely to them. And, as in the past, young players will have a role in the upcoming Kensington Market Jazz Festival, September 14 to 16. Both of these festivals are covered in detail elsewhere in this issue.

Miss Aretha. A brief word on Aretha Franklin, whose recent death packed a momentous, end-of-an-era kick in the gut even though we knew it was coming. Her music transcended musical genres, politics, international boundaries and even race; only a handful of artists have made so many feel so good for so long. As we mourn her passing, we can only feel grateful to have had her here on earth with us for so many years. Few thought of her as a jazz artist but her early records on Columbia belie this, as did her piano playing; she was a great singer but the real magic happened when she sat down at the piano to accompany herself. R.I.P. Aretha.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

William ParkerSEP 4, 8:30PM: The Frog, TUJF. The Anthony D’Allessandro Trio. A chance to hear one of Toronto’s best and hardest-swinging young pianists in an intimate setting playing his choice arrangements of standards and jazz classics.

SEP 13, 8PM: Guelph International Jazz Festival, River Run Centre. A double bill with the Nick Fraser Quartet featuring Andrew Downing, cello, Rob Clutton, bass, and Tony Malaby, guitar; and Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones. A chance to hear one of Toronto’s most creative bands and a highly adventurous international one.

SEP 15, 10:30AM: Royal City Church, Guelph International Jazz Festival William Parker, bass. One of the giants of contemporary avant-garde jazz in a solo performance. ‘Nuff said.

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.

The 32nd TD Toronto Jazz Festival will run June 22 to July 1, with 23 ticketed shows in various venues and approximately 150 free concerts. For the second straight year, the festival will be centred around Bloor-Yorkville, with seven core venues: outdoor stages on Cumberland St. and Hazelton Ave., The Pilot Tavern, Heliconian Hall, the Church of the Redeemer, the Isabel Bader Theatre and the Village of Yorkville Park. This year’s festival also has some new initiatives, including four ticketed concerts at Trinity-St. Paul’s; an opening night celebration co-produced with the Royal Ontario Museum called “Jazz Club,in which the ROM will be transformed into a giant nightclub featuring jazz, swing and dancing throughout the evening; and a partnership with CBC Music and the JUNOs rotating between two Yorkville stages and highlighting Canadian musicians who were either nominated for, or won, JUNO awards this past year. The showcase will feature eight bands on June 30, including David Braid/Mike Murley, the Okavango African Orchestra, Hilario Durán, Shirantha Beddage, Autorickshaw, Beny Esguerra and New Tradition, and more.

With the festival fast approaching, I sat down for a conversation with Josh Grossman, now in his ninth year as artistic director, about this year’s festival and its continuing evolution.

Josh Grossman - Photo by Marie ByersWN: Walk us through the move away from Nathan Phillips Square into Yorkville, which began last year. What has this change brought to the festival?

JG: There were programming-flexibility and other issues involved in having the big tent in Nathan Phillips Square as the festival’s central venue. These involved noise by-law requirements which limited us to three shows a day – one at noon, one in the late afternoon and one in the evening – and we wanted to be able to present more. Also, the tent held 1,200 people and the pressure of filling it for ten straight days proved to be a challenge. The sound was often less than ideal and so was the atmosphere – we lacked the budget to decorate the square to give it more of a festival feel as it had during the Pan-Am Games. The move to Bloor-Yorkville allows us to present smaller shows, but more of them, and in a variety of indoor and outdoor venues that provide more flexibility and variety. Also, with its pre-existing history, Yorkville provides a village-within-a-city feel that makes a jazz festival feel like more of a festival, which is hugely important. It has a built-in community and neighbourhood vibe and offers many other advantages. It’s in the centre of the city, easily accessible by public transit and, with seven venues, it offers a flexibility of programming. It’s also close to some of the hard-ticketed venues such as the Danforth Music Hall, Koerner Hall, the ROM and Trinity-St. Paul’s, so there’s a sense of concentration. We want people to be able to catch a variety of shows each day by simply walking or taking a short subway ride. Because Yorkville is relatively small, many of the venues, even the outdoor ones, offer an intimacy which suits the music being presented. Heliconian Hall for example, where we’ll be presenting ten free concerts, holds just 100 people, has wonderful sound, a good grand piano and a great stage. The Church of the Redeemer is similar and both these venues have a history within the city, which it’s nice to take advantage of.

What has response from the Yorkville community been like?

Local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and the Bloor-Yorkville BIA have been very supportive, which has allowed us to increase the Yorkville footprint of the festival this year. It’s helped that CEO Howard Kerber, who formerly ran TIFF in the community for several years, has been involved. There are still noise by-law issues – no more than 85 decibels and nothing past 11pm – but most shows will wind up by ten. And the local businesses certainly appreciate the influx of 5,000 people into the neighbourhood.

Apart from affordability, availability and avoiding repetition from year to year, what drives your selection of acts for the festival?

We focus on the audience in Toronto, being aware of who’s popular in the city, and of the increasing cross-cultural aspect of the community with an eye toward promoting this. With the ticketed big-name shows we look for variety; we want the acts to be exciting and vibrant as well as financially viable. It’s certainly not a matter of me as artistic director just indulging my own tastes; there have been many times I’ve wanted to bring in an artist I love but have been shot down by the board. It’s surprising, but there are a number of artists with huge international jazz reps who simply don’t sell well in Toronto. The free concerts are easier because there’s no box office pressure and the possibilities are almost endless.

There’s a perception that the festival has grown smaller in the last couple of years – is this true?

Not entirely. There have been slightly fewer big-name, hard-ticketed events the past couple of years, but the total number of presentations has held steady at 170 to 180. Part of the perception that we’re smaller is we no longer involve, under the festival umbrella, many clubs which present jazz part time. This is largely because they didn’t allow us input into their booking of artists. The exceptions this year are the Home Smith Bar, The Rex (which does its own booking but we wanted to maintain a partnership with because it presents so much jazz year-round) and The Pilot Tavern, an obvious choice given its location and long history.

I’ve often thought that with jazz festivals, smaller can be better.

Yes, we’re finding that can be true – that musical quality and variety matter more than size.

You’re likely sick of this question – as am I – but what do you say to the inevitable criticism that there are acts in the festival that aren’t really jazz?

So when we bring in someone like Willie Nelson, or Alison Krause this year … I’m not going to argue that they’re jazz artists, but they serve a certain purpose in attracting large audiences, which helps the bottom line, which in turn helps us afford other artists. But whether they’re jazz or not, nobody can argue that they’re not great musical artists. And there’s a hope that their fans, who may not have been exposed to jazz before, may catch some other shows and say “Hey, I like this, why haven’t I heard this before?” Also, it’s not really fair, because those critics often seize on one or two artists out of the 170 being presented, most of which in some form are legitimately jazz. The music has evolved and cross-pollinated so much that it now comprises many elements of world music, R&B, soul, blues, funk and so on, so who can say anymore in absolute terms what jazz is, or isn’t? Particularly in the summer, jazz becomes a bigger, more inclusive tent. Besides, some of these more popular artists can surprise you – for example, a few years ago the Steve Martin booking was roundly criticized, but in my opinion his performance offered more improvisational content than a lot of the so-called “straight jazz” ones did that year.

How long does putting together each festival take?

With all the logistical challenges and coordination of booking, organizing and planning, it’s pretty much a year-long process. The team generally allows itself some time off to bask in the afterglow of the current festival, then it’s on to organizing the next one.

What would you like to say about this year’s festival?

I’m pretty excited about it, the expanded presence in Yorkville and some of the new venues, artists and initiatives being offered, such as blues legend Bettye Lavette heading up a Blues Revue for the first time in the festival and the first-ever Toronto appearance by The Bad Plus featuring their new pianist, Orrin Evans; the Industry Exchange, a new series being held in the Stealth Lounge of The Pilot, aimed at promoting emerging local talent from diverse musical backgrounds. The Yorkville venues have given us the flexibility to present a lot of Canadian talent, both established and lesser-known. I feel we’re offering a program with a lot of range, featuring some legends such as Herbie Hancock as well as some newer artists, in some of the city’s most attractive venues.

Bettye LavetteAll told, you’ve done seven or eight of these, so what do you consider a successful jazz festival to be – how does that look?

Well, attendance and the bottom line are important of course and it helps if the weather cooperates. But mostly, it’s the vibe of the festival, the feeling of its interaction with the city itself, positive feedback from audiences, seeing familiar faces and some new ones at the shows. Having artists express an interest in returning is always nice and often happens because this is such a vibrant city with so much musical talent. And it’s a good sign when I see a lot of local musicians in the audience.

Full disclosure! Aside from playing two Yorkville concerts with Reg Schwager’s Songbook and the Barry Elmes Quintet, I plan on being one of the local musicians in the audience Josh Grossman spoke about. I like the eclecticism and look of this year’s lineup, some of the new initiatives and the overall scope and size of the festival. Above all, I feel its setting allows for some musical intimacy and the potential to be what a jazz festival should be at the end of the day – festive. I wish everybody an enjoyable time at this year’s festival and a happy summer of listening.

To see more detail about this year’s lineup and schedule, visit torontojazz.com

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.

Quite unexpectedly and after a long hiatus, I began teaching again in September of 2016. Mike Murley, director of the U of T Jazz Program, hired me to lead a small jazz ensemble with one unusual wrinkle: not only would I be coaching the group, I would also play bass in it. This two-headed function took some getting used to but has the advantage of being very hands-on: the students seem to benefit from playing with an experienced bassist and playing with them gives me a very palpable sense of their strengths and weaknesses, of what they need to learn.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being back at it, having the chance to pass on my knowledge and also to be involved with young people again – their energy, their enthusiasm and their curiosity – which has made me feel more connected and relevant. It’s also been inspiring to meet and teach some of the impressive young players we’ll be hearing from in the near future, even if this means they’ll be stealing gigs from me and my colleagues.

This column will profile two bassists – neither of whom I’ve taught – who are graduating from the U of T Jazz Program: Bernard Dionne, who has earned his master’s degree in jazz performance (double bass), and Irene Harrett, who has earned her bachelor’s degree in the same category.

Bernard DionneAt 60, Bernard Dionne is a late bloomer and hardly a typical graduate. I first met Bernard way back in the summer of 1991 when I taught him for a week at the Interprovincial Jazz Camp at Manitouwabing run by Phil Nimmons, and we have stayed in touch ever since. Even then, at 33, he stood out as a mature student amongst all the teenagers, which may have prepared him for his similar experience at U of T. Bernard hails from Quebec City and has been interested in jazz and playing the bass since his teens. He earned a bachelor of music education degree and spent 29 years teaching in the Ontario French School system, first in Ottawa and then in Toronto. All the while he continued to play and study jazz bass, doing whatever gigs his schedule would allow and becoming a regular at weekend jam sessions.

He was able to retire a few years ago and was determined to use his newfound spare time to get more involved with the bass fulltime and to study composition and arranging. The master’s program at U of T seemed ideal as it requires achievement in both playing and writing, so Bernard decided to apply. Realizing he needed to up his game for the audition, he took an intensive round of lessons from the superb Toronto bassist Neil Swainson while practising constantly. And it paid off; he was accepted. His enrollment coincided with my return to teaching and, knowing nothing of his master’s plan, I was surprised to see him in the hallway one evening and was delighted for him.

It was a very intensive two years for Bernard – studying bass with Jim Vivian, composition and arranging with Terry Promane, and improvisation with Mike Murley, while playing in ensembles and completing numerous written assignments on jazz history and the like. He worked very hard and it showed in his master’s recital in early April, which I attended. He led a group which ranged from a piano-bass duo to a trio to a sextet with three horns, playing a varied program which included some of his original compositions and his arrangements of standards and jazz tunes by others. I hadn’t heard him play in some time and was immediately struck by how much he’d improved in all areas: a big, meaty sound, a confident rhythmic attack with a strong beat and incisive bass lines, gutsy and melodic solos with good range and an engaging way with the sizeable crowd on hand. His writing was also impressive: his originals included a very Quebecois-tinged folk song A La Legrand which showed his Scott LaFaro side; La Vida, a Chick Corea-inspired samba which demonstrated his admiration for Eddie Gomez; and For D.H., a modal-Latin composition in 7/4 written for Dave Holland. His more bluesy side came out in his arrangement of Christian McBride’s funky In a Hurry for sextet. It was an impressive and well-received recital; a satisfying culmination for an individual who has worked so hard to come full circle.

With much the same group, Bernard staged a concert billed as “100 Years of Jazz Bass” on April 21 at Alliance Française de Toronto. Along with some of the works discussed above, the evolution of jazz bass was fleshed out with compositions by (or associated with) Wellman Braud, Jimmie Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers. I very much wanted to attend and perhaps review this concert but couldn’t as my own band, Lesterdays, was playing a concert the same night. The concert occurred after the deadline for this article but judging by Bernard’s recital it was a great success, aided by the intimate and good-sounding venue which has become one of Toronto’s best.

Very much a Francophone, Bernard plans on moving to Quebec City and becoming involved fulltime in the jazz scene there, where he is sure to have an impact.

Irene HarrettIrene Harrett is 22 and has just finished the four-year Jazz Program at U of T, earning her degree with flying colours. Mature beyond her years, she has become something of a linchpin in the program both because of her musical skills and her active involvement in organizing jams and gigs and also by playing in the U of T big band, one of the school’s focal ensembles, for the last two years.

She was born in Etobicoke, not far from the Humber College campus, which held some early musical advantages. Bassist Corky Monahan, formerly of the TSO and for many years married to the late Tom Monahan – principal bassist of the orchestra and the dean of Canadian bass teachers – lived in the neighbourhood and she was able to study bass with her at the local high school. This gave her a thorough grounding in bass technique – bowing, correct fingering and hand positioning, tone production and so on; fundamentally, she’s a very sound bassist. When her interests turned to playing jazz she was able to study with Neil Swainson, who had begun teaching at Humber. At U of T she has studied with Dave Young, Jim Vivian and Andrew Downing. As she put it to me: “There’s no such thing as a bad bass teacher in Toronto.” (Obviously, she hasn’t studied with me.)

Recognizing how talented and hardworking she is, Monahan and Swainson arranged a deal for her to acquire a fine old German bass from Heinl’s which bears the nickname “Frank,” after the younger son of founder George Heinl. A large instrument, it is what is known in bass parlance as “a cannon.”

I first heard Harrett play at The Rex in a trio led by pianist/singer Hanna Barstow with her brother Keith playing drums, and later on the same stage in a seven-piece U of T ensemble. I was immediately impressed by the authority of her playing: a big deep sound with a percussive edge, a powerful attack, good pitch, notes and a general bull-dog attitude of playing the bass like a bass – someone who can be heard and felt from the back of the room. The U of T ensemble was particularly powerful and after hearing her with it I complimented her, saying that her attack and the length of her notes – long but clearly defined and slightly bright – reminded me of the old bebop and Latin-jazz master Al McKibbon. This was met with something of a blank stare but I assured her it was a compliment. From that moment I resolved to write about her at some point.

That she’s been in very high demand to play for other students’ year-end recitals both at U of T and at Humber is an indication of how highly she is regarded among her peers, as these performances come with considerable pressure and carry a lot of weight. She told me that last year she did 11 of them, including four back-to-back in one day, leaving her ill with exhaustion. This year she’s holding it down to five or six, though three of them came on April 14. I adjudicated the first of these, a recital by a wonderful trio led by third-year-piano student Josh Sinclair, which only increased my admiration of her playing. Along with the strengths described earlier she showed an open-minded, adventurous inventiveness and fine all-around musicianship in sight-reading and negotiating complex ensemble parts.

I asked her about her plans after graduating and she replied that she wants to take a year off school to let the dust settle, to practise and digest the many musical concepts that have been coming at her fast and furious. Also to investigate creating more gig opportunities and networking with students at other schools and with fellow bassists, a fraternity she has found to be welcoming and supportive. After that, she plans on returning to earn her master’s degree at U of T, an essential as she wants to teach at the university level in the future. She also feels that the process of pursuing a master’s degree puts you in touch with so many others in the jazz world – students and teachers alike – all of whom can be learned from. She’s very community-minded and is always seeking to learn and improve, and to help others do so.

As for gigs, Harrett has been asked to lead a series of jam sessions this spring and summer at the 120 Diner. The evenings will start with her trio, followed by opening the stage for sitting in; the first of these was April 3 and the next one will be May 16. She is quite excited by this opportunity and has also been doing some playing at the Tranzac and The Rex, as well as some concerts and private gigging. I will be adjudicating Irene’s recital on April 27 – well after the deadline of this article – and I look forward to hearing not only her playing, but some of her compositions too. She feels positive about the future and I feel optimistic about a jazz future with players like Irene Harrett in it; we’ll be hearing a lot from her.

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.

St. Patrick’s Day came and went between this issue of WholeNote and the last, so I thought it would be fun to acknowledge my Irish descent – the key word being descent, as in “into madness” – by taking a look at the grand legacy of Irish jazz piano. There have been many more fine Irish jazz pianists than many people realize and here they are, in chronological order:

Ellis LarkinsEllis Larkins – Larkins hailed from Baltimore, County Cork. He was something of a child prodigy, performing with local orchestras by the age of ten. After graduating from the distinguished Peabody Conservatory in his hometown, Larkins became the first jazz pianist to attend the famed Jewel Yard School of Music in Dublin and began his long career after graduation. Larkins had a gossamer touch resulting in a translucent sound, a deft harmonic sense and a sensitivity which made him a great accompanist, especially of singers. He spent many years as a vocal coach and was the regular pianist for a number of fine vocalists including Mabel Mercer, Sylvia Syms and the First Lady of Irish Song, Ella Fitzgerald. Along with his own natural reticence, this supportive role meant Larkins was one of the more overlooked Irish pianists, although musicians like Ruby Braff, with whom he often recorded in a duo, knew his true worth.

Harold McKinney – McKinney was born into a musical family in that hotbed of Irish jazz, Moughtown (pronounced “mow”), County Monaghan. One of his brothers, Bernard, played the euphonium and another, William, was a bassist. They bear no relation to the William McKinney who led the seminal Irish big band McKinney’s Flax Spinners. Harold McKinney might have achieved more notoriety had he left Moughtown for Dublin, as did many of the city’s younger pianists, but he preferred to remain there in the role of elder and mentor, for which he was much treasured.

Dave McKenna – McKennna was from the Aran Islands and eventually emigrated to Boston and later New York, where he was the favourite pianist of such American-Irish greats as Bobby Hackett and Zoot Sims. A huge, anvil-headed man with massive hands who looked like the captain of a whaling boat, he was the most two-fisted of Irish pianists, developing a driving and very full style often displayed in solo outings. His two-fistedness was often seen offstage as well, with a pint of Guinness in his left hand and a small one of Jameson’s in his right. He was also renowned for his almost limitless repertoire, often weaving seemingly disparate songs into long and ingeniously witty medleys.

Tommy Flanagan – Easily my favourite Irish pianist, Flanagan was part of the large wave of young musicians, many of them pianists, to emerge from Moughtown in the mid-1950s. His very fluent playing showed both the delicacy of Teddy Wilson and the toughness of Bud Powell, his two main influences. He was very much of the lace-curtain school of Irish jazz piano; there never was one who played with more lilting grace or elegance. Like Ellis Larkins, he was naturally standoffish and served a long apprenticeship as a sideman, including several stints as Ella Fitzgerald’s accompanist in the 1960s and 70s. He appeared on hundreds of records, including a couple of seminal ones in Irish history: Giant’s Causeway Steps with the great Ulster tenor John Coleraine, and The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, with Eire’s most celebrated plectrist. Eventually in his forties, Flanagan lit out on his own as a leader with a long series of fine trio records. By the time he died in 2001 he was known as “The Poet of the Piano.”

Armagh J. O’Malley – Born Fritz Peterson, O’Malley eventually adopted a more Irish name taken from his home county in Ulster. He later emerged in the centrally located Shightown with a fine trio, which exerted considerable influence on both the repertoire and rhythmic approach of the mid-1950s’ Miles Davis quintet, bringing him lasting fame in spite of indifference from many critics. Despite virtuosic technique, he played with a very sparse, probing style, often concentrating on the piano’s upper register, and displayed a brilliant knack for arranging unlikely pieces for piano trio, using ingenious vamps and interludes to fully integrate the bass and drums. He was one of the first jazz pianists to become a Steinway Artist and is still going strong. He will turn 88 this July, a special age for a pianist given the number of keys on the instrument.

Wynton Kelly – In contrast to Tommy Flanagan, Kelly developed a hard-swinging, funky, blues-infused style of great craic and spirit much more in keeping with the thatched-roof school of Irish jazz piano. He hailed from the large Dublin borough of Brooke Lynn and went on to form important associations with Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery, often in the company of his long standing trio of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobh, who hailed from the small port just south of Cork. He died far too young, but Kelly was the most joyous of Irish pianists.

(For those not familiar with the designations lace-curtain and thatched-roof Irish, the former tend to be more urban and genteel, more prosperous and “of the quality” as the Irish would put it. Thatched-roof Irish are more lively, down to earth and working class, often dwelling in modest rural cottages. The following old joke may help drive the distinction home: What’s the difference between lace-curtain Irish and thatched-roof Irish? The lace-curtain Irish take the dishes out of the sink before they pee in it.)

Roland Hanna – Hanna is another of the fine pianists to emerge from the hyperactive Moughtown jazz scene. He had an eclectic modern approach and was one of the few players influenced both by bebop pianists and Erroll Garner. A great favourite of that noted jazz fan Queen Elizabeth II, he was knighted by her and thereafter known as Sir Roland Hanna, causing no small dismay among his more republican fans, some of whom referred to him as “that poxy royalist bastard.” He survived a couple of knee-capping attempts but eventually won over his doubters by remaining true to his Irish musical roots of lyricism wed with inventiveness.

McCoy Tyner – Tyner came to prominence as a young man when he joined the classic 1960s quartet of renowned Ulster tenor John Coleraine. Tyner developed a rhythmically powerful attack using the 6/8 rhythms and triplets common to Irish jigs and reels, while exploring the modern applications of traditional Irish modality using Uilleann pipe modes and the quartal harmonies of the puntatonic scale. Apart from the Coleraine quartet he made many fine trio recordings as a leader.

Chick O’Rea – O’Rea began in his teens as a percussionist, playing the bodhran in traditional Irish groups. His inherent brilliance as a pianist soon took over, as did his more modern tendencies. He was one of the key Irish pianists in the fusion movement as leader and sideman and has shown a restless spirit in switching back and forth between both electric and acoustic bands and instruments. Indeed, #Corea (as he hashtags himself these days) has at times had difficulty deciding whether he wants to be a popular musician or an uncompromisingly creative one and this dichotomy shows in his music. His 1978 release The Leprechaun was an unabashed exploration of his Irish musical heritage.

Joanne Brackeen – Against all odds, Brackeen (nee Joanne Grogan) managed to break through the more hidebound strictures of traditional Irish society, demonstrating the deeply matriarchal roots of the small island, all those priests notwithstanding. Early in her career she accompanied the noted Irish tenors Stan Getts and Joe Henderson before establishing herself as a leader. Her style can be a little on the challenging and explosive side, but her inventiveness could also be very lyrical and melodic. She often performed with the Irish rhythm team of bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Aloysius Foster.

Todd O’Hammer – O’Hammer is a stalwart of modern Irish bebop, both as an active sideman and as a leader of his own trios. He has performed with such veterans as Charlie Rouse, Johnny Griffin, Art Farmer, and George Coleman, and regularly accompanied the singer Annie Ross. His playing is steeped in the jazz tradition but he continues to look forward, always sounding fresh.

Rossano SportielloRossan O’Sportiello – At just 43, O’Sportiello is the most recent arrival on this list, and yet he is something of a stylistic throwback, often performing in a mainstream/swing style of catholic breadth. He is a dynamic virtuoso in the tradition of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, also showing a fondness for such pianists as Ralph Sutton, Barry Harris and the aforementioned Dave McKenna. He has built a solid international reputation working with many fine jazz artists as well as through his own recordings. Toronto fans may know him from his sparkling performances at the last few Ken Page Memorial Trust All-Star fundraiser concerts at the Old Mill.

So there you have them, the great Irish jazz pianists. To all music fans, sláinte, and a belated Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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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