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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of them, apparently. 

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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