chessThere is an indescribable beauty that comes from a quintet working as one on stage to dazzle an audience. The most amazing, calming physical sensation accompanies those moments where your preparation and instinct have successfully married one another. At the chessboard, it is also this beautiful. The drums, bass and piano are like your rook, bishop and queen. The jazz happens from move one to checkmate. The applause from the audience is the hand reached out to you from across the board.      — Michael Shand

I was recently digitally flipping through an old DownBeat magazine from 1937, and came across an article on musicians who played chess by mail, by forwarding moves on penny postal cards. It made me think of our current state in the global pandemic, and how people are finding creative ways to connect without the ability to be in the same room.

As a pastime, chess has enjoyed a resurgence during COVID-19, in part due to the acclaimed Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit. I have not been immune to this trend; learning the intricacies of bishops, rooks and knights has helped to fill the long hours at home. But as a musician, my interest also stems from stories about our jazz heroes playing chess.

From Anthony Braxton playing in Chicago’s Washington Square Park for money, to Charlie Parker setting out the board during breaks at the Rainbow Ballroom in Denver, Colorado, to Dizzy Gillespie playing on a plane against Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren, there is a rich history of jazz musicians dedicated to the game. Several even incorporated it into their musical work – trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson’s group Sicilian Defense, organist Freddie Roach’s album Good Move! and Charles Mingus’ album Chazz!. Art Blakey was also a chess player – the first track on The Big Beat (1960) is The Chess Players by Wayne Shorter. (I’m tempted to add that America’s greatest blues record label is named Chess Records, but it was named after Phil and Leonard Chess, the brothers who owned and operated it. So let’s just leave it there.) 

Is this devotion still around? In fact, fans may be surprised to learn chess is as popular as ever in the jazz community in Toronto and environs, in part fuelled by a recent swell of interest among young musicians who, like me, have started to play online on sites like chess.com. Here are short interviews with four musicians (from earlier this spring) explaining their love of the game!

Read more: From move one to checkmate

February 20, 2020: Harrison Squared, at Buckingham Palace (Calgary!) Left to right: Vetro, Argatoff, Wallace and Murley. Photo credit Buckingham PalaceWith the COVID-19 pandemic having passed the one-year mark – and with recent ominous developments indicating we’re likely looking at another year of it – and with the university teaching year just finishing, this article will be a kind of retrospective diary of the past annus horribilis from the perspective of a jazz musician and teacher.

Lest I forget

In February of 2020, about a month before COVID hit North America, I did a tour of Western Canada with Harrison Squared, a quartet co-led by two young musicians named Harrison – Harrison Argatoff (tenor) and Harrison Vetro (drums), with saxophonist Mike Murley and me aboard as greybeard mentors. The band was born out of a few sporadic gigs, but some chemistry was there and we’d just released a CD called Trout in Swimwear, so the tour was a chance to promote the CD and for the band to coalesce with eight concerts spread over two weeks. The first day was the most gruelling: an eye-wateringly, early-morning flight to Vancouver, renting a van and taking the ferry to Nanaimo, then driving to Courtenay to do our first gig in a club that night, with just hours to spare. That our first gig was in Courtenay was significant for me as it’s become like a second home – my sister-in-law Fran and her son Kyle (like a third son to me along with my own two) live there, and her cousin Frank is just down the street, so I’ve visited many times. However, the tight schedule didn’t allow much time for socializing. 

Read more: How did I not see that coming? A (Lost) Year in Retrospect

From Left: John Sumner, drums; Steve Wallace, bass; and Mark Eisenman, piano in 2007, playing a Carmen Unzipped cabaret with Jean Stilwell. Photo byPeter MartynJazz is not easily boiled down to any one element but when you get right down to it, learning to play jazz is largely about learning how to listen. Really listen, hard, to many things simultaneously while making spontaneous decisions based on what you’re hearing. This is true of all music to some extent but especially so with jazz because it’s so unscripted: there’s often very little on paper to tell you what to play or how to play it, or when. The best jazz is like a coherent conversation between musicians using sounds instead of words, and what makes it coherent – or not – is whether the “conversationalists” are not only speaking the same language, but also really listening to one another. 

As a player you have to learn to divide your ear to monitor many aspects at once: the form and structure of the tune being played; the melody, which you try to hold in your ear even after it’s been abandoned; the harmony and its variations; the dynamics; the rhythmic pressure/development and other minutiae; all while trying to hear the big picture, the overall arc of a performance. You have to listen to yourself closely, but also to what everyone else is doing. But while doing all this listening you also have to act and react instantaneously – to not only listen hard, but fast. Hesitate, even for a second, and you’re lost.

Read more: Listening Fast and Hearing Long

Many would agree that 2020 was the worst we’ve ever been through and we were all anxious to see the end of “The Year of Living Covidously.” So good riddance, 2020, and don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out. But of course the root of all our problems and suffering – the pandemic – hasn’t gone anywhere and simply flipping over to January of a new year on the calendar hasn’t solved it, any more than anything else we’ve tried. And Lord knows we’ve tried lots, at least most of us. Masking up, staying at home, social distancing, keeping our bubbles small, working from home (that’s if you still have a job), forgetting what eating in a restaurant or hearing live music feel like. Stores and schools closed, then open, then sort of half-open, then not. And still the numbers go up as we chase this invisible enemy, to the point where The Myth of Sisyphus no longer seems a metaphor but something we’re living on a daily basis. Keep pushing that boulder.

None of this is to say that we should join the ranks of the anti-mask loonies or herd-immunity-at-any-cost-COVID-deniers, not at all. We have only to look south of the border to see how well that hasn’t worked, as Samuel Goldwyn might have put it. Clearly we must stay the course with these mitigation measures because they’re the best tools we have and, just as clearly, we would be even worse off without abiding them in the last year. It’s just that after nine months and counting of cave-dwelling isolation… well, it’s getting harder. To quote one of Mose Allison’s more sardonic later songs – “I am not discouraged. I am not down-hearted. I am not disillusioned… But I’m gettin’ there… yeah, I’m gettin’ there.”

Mose Allison. Photo by Mose Allison

Read more: New Year, Same Old

1 GIMME THAT WINEThere’s no use sugar-coating it: this coming winter promises to be the darkest in living memory. Mix the harsh weather we Canadians can always expect this time of year with the fact that COVID-19 numbers are on the rise everywhere (Toronto is about to re-enter a modified form of the spring lockdown as I write), and you have a recipe for Bleak on Toast with a side of Dismal. 

Normally, we can look forward to Christmas and/or Hanukkah to provide an oasis of celebration in the midst of all the cold and ice and snow, but with the lockdown measures set to extend at least 28 days from November 23 on, these holidays will be a lot less festive this year. The best we can hope for is to celebrate them with a vengeance next year and in the meantime, thank God the LCBO is still deemed an essential service. As Lambert, Hendricks & Ross once famously sang, “Gimme that wine (Unhand that bottle).” Cheers.

I’m tired of writing about the effects of COVID on musicians and live music and I suspect you are tired of reading about it, too. Let’s just say it’s been devastating, that many of us have done our best to do a technological end run around the pandemic, and leave it at that. The real question becomes how do we get through the next couple of months with our sanity and spirit intact? I’ve already recommended alcohol, but that doesn’t work for everyone. We’re all going to be cooped up inside so we have to learn to enjoy that as best we can. Cooking, baking, reading a good book or watching some classic movies all help; watching the news, not so much. And of course staying in touch with friends and family by phone or email or Zoom is really important. But above all else, I find listening to music helps the most. Since CDs have become almost obsolete, I came to regret having amassed such a huge collection of them, but no longer. I’ve spent a lot of the past eight months revisiting my collection and it’s been time well spent.

So, in the spirit of “bring it on” which helps Canadians withstand the winters, I’ve decided to offer a menu of songs which address the “joys” of winter – not Christmas or Holiday songs, which we all know – but rather songs which actually have to do with winter itself. If you’re reading this online, I’ve included YouTube links to each in the hope that housebound jazz fans will get some enjoyment out of these gems. 

Read more: Antidote to the Winter of Our Discontent: A 51:48-Minute Playlist
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