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.

This column will offer more questions than answers, more speculations than solutions, and may offend some. This is not intended and I will try to deal with any potential fallout later on, but first, the idea for this column, which was suggested by a musical evening several months ago.

This past November 6, I attended the gala concert by John MacLeod’s big band, the Rex Hotel Orchestra, held in the dining room of the Old Mill. The event doubled as a launch of the band’s new CD, The Toronto Sound, and was an unqualified success in both musical and box-office terms.

The 19-member band played all the selections from the new disc over two generous sets, most of them arranged and composed by MacLeod himself, with single charts provided by Rick Wilkins (Canada’s greatest living arranger, also present this night and a major inspiration to MacLeod), and band members Terry Promane and Andy Ballantyne. Like MacLeod himself, the very absorbing music reflected both traditional and modern elements, sometimes within the same piece, and there was tremendous solo work all around – along with their stellar ensemble playing, just about everyone in the band is an accomplished jazz soloist.

John MacLeodIt was a special evening, but perhaps more so for me than most. John MacLeod and I met in high school some 45 years ago where we began playing jazz together; indeed, you could say John was responsible for me taking up the bass (I was an aspiring guitarist at the time when he inducted me into the Dixieland band he began leading after school hours). We have been musical friends ever since and have played together countless times in all kinds of bands, including the Boss Brass for many years. Going so far back with him and sitting just a few feet away, listening to the rousing sound of his compositions emanating from this band he created, I was overwhelmed: I felt enormously proud of him, and for him. The band has been around for years now, but this felt like a step forward, a culmination of much blood, sweat and tears, and probably some laughs too. Oh, and by the way, the beautifully recorded CD sounds every bit as good as the band did live. Buy one immediately, if not sooner.

As is often the case with musical events at this particular venue, this one was presented through the auspices of JAZZ.FM91 and bore its imprimatur. Ross Porter and Jaymz Bee each made (mercifully) brief speeches, and Fay Olson was her usual tireless self in organizing and promoting the whole affair. But the real founder of this musical feast, and of the CD it celebrated, was an individual who I won’t name because he’d likely prefer to remain anonymous, so I’ll call him “DT,” short for “Deep Throat”. A passionate jazz fan since the mid-1930s (!), DT has been a major benefactor of jazz in this city since the late 60s, when the Boss Brass and CJRT-FM got under way. He has drummed up interest in jazz with his considerable oratorical skills but time and time again has put his money where his mouth is, so to speak, by donating to countless recordings, tours, festivals, bands, concerts, broadcasts and other jazz projects.

In the case of MacLeod’s new CD, DT not only footed the considerable bill for its overall production, but also contributed to the promotion of the event as well by inviting at least two large tables’ worth of people – friends, musicians and/or both – to attend as his guests and picking up the tab for everything – admission, dinner, drinks. I would have attended anyway, but Mrs. W and I were among these guests and it wasn’t the first time I’ve been floored by DT’s class and generosity.

DT is getting on and in the last couple of years has expressed a concern for the future of jazz in Toronto and a keen desire to get local government involved in supporting it beyond the usual cosmetic ribbon-cutting measures. He is well connected and has been trying to sell local politicos, including our mayor, on the idea of establishing a permanent performance home for jazz in Toronto, funded by both public and private money. He was hoping this could perhaps be a part of the Massey Hall revitalization project, for example.

DT was hoping to use the release of The Toronto Sound – a partially strategic title – as a means of demonstrating to local politicians the viability of jazz in Toronto – the high quality of the music and the enthusiastic support for it among local music fans. He invited Mayor Tory and others to attend, only to run into a brick wall of shrugging indifference.

This apathy caused DT no small chagrin, so I’ve decided to take up his cause here by asking a few pointed questions. Why is it after all these years that jazz in Toronto still doesn’t have a dedicated and permanent performance centre, the way other art forms like opera, ballet, theatre or symphonic music do?

Yes, we’ve had clubs, but those have taken a hit in recent times. Wouldn’t you think a city the size of Toronto, where jazz is taught at three post-secondary institutions (York University, U of T and Humber College) and which boasts a 24/7 jazz radio station in JAZZ.FM91, could support – and deserves – such a venue? The TSO has Roy Thomson Hall, the COC and the National Ballet of Canada share the Four Seasons Centre and there are numerous other venues for various forms of theatre and dance.

Most, if not all, of these rely upon some sort of government funding as well as a well-orchestrated pipeline of private donors to keep them running. I realize jazz – usually the out-of-town, big-ticket variety – occasionally sneaks into these places as an interloper – and that jazz is sporadically heard at Koerner Hall, Massey Hall, the Sony Centre and other theatres. I also realize jazz is not as big a ticket or as entrenched as some of these other art forms, but neither is it a cultural Johnny-come-lately; it has existed for over a century now and has a long and rich history in Toronto. The talent has certainly always been here but the support for it has been sorely lacking in any official sense.

I’m not suggesting that jazz needs anything as grand as some of these cultural palaces. I’m proposing a centrally located and modest-sized concert hall with the usual amenities, seating perhaps 400, with an adjoining club space for more casual presentations, the screening of jazz films, lectures and so on.

So why is jazz treated as a second-class citizen here? Is it because it’s seen as an American import? Well, don’t look now, but most of the music played at the aforementioned venues is European in origin. And if nationalism is your game, then consider this: as a primarily improvised music, jazz comes from inside the musicians playing it, so jazz played by Canadians is directly Canadian. When you listen to a Mike Murley or a Neil Swainson or a John MacLeod play, you’re listening to quintessential Canadians.

The notion of a dedicated jazz centre isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Many cities in Europe, which values art and culture more highly than North America does, have full-time state-sponsored jazz orchestras with composers-in-residence performing and broadcasting regularly in state-of-the-art venues. Canadian composers are frequent guest artists with these groups – why doesn’t Toronto have something like this?

Harley Card Quartet at the Yardbird Suite, November 2017We needn’t look as far away as Europe though. Let us consider Edmonton, which for 60 years now has had the Yardbird Suite, entirely run by volunteers from the city’s jazz society. It’s easily the best jazz club in Canada and recently received a much-needed renovation, courtesy of the Alberta Heritage fund. Yes, that’s right, government money being poured into jazz. The recently and lamentably departed Tommy Banks, an Edmonton cultural icon and senator, likely had much to do with this, but that only demonstrates what political support of jazz can achieve. If a smaller and more isolated city like Edmonton has this, why can’t Toronto? What’s our excuse?

My advocacy for a full-time jazz performance centre is not intended to take anything away from other Toronto jazz institutions such as The Rex, Jazz Bistro, Home Smith Bar, JPEC, or JAZZ.FM. Their contributions are all laudable and essential – it’s just that Toronto jazz could use more of a central home which could work hand-in-hand with these other sites and organizations.

Such a centre would not only require political support, but that the Toronto jazz community mobilize itself and get organized. So if all you hardcore jazz fans – and I know you’re out there – want to know what you can do, try writing a letter to your local representative urging greater support for jazz. Or the next time you’re in a club that doesn’t have a cover charge for the music, suggest to the management that they institute one so the band could be paid better. I know it sounds crazy, but it might just work. For years now, Toronto has in its heart of hearts wanted to be New York. Well, New York has Lincoln Center and Toronto has nothing of the kind; New York also has citizens who know that jazz costs money. Coincidence? I think not.

If any of this sounds bitter or querulous, it’s not. I’m not personally bitter because I’m 61 and have been playing jazz successfully for over 40 years, with just about everybody imaginable. I’ve had my innings; it’s the future of jazz and young musicians I’m speaking on behalf of. This may seem like a longshot jazz fantasy but we have to start somewhere, perhaps with just the articulation of this simple wish and idea. Besides, as the old song asks, I can dream, can’t I? 

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.

Since the last issue of The WholeNote went to press, the jazz world suffered the deaths of three major and long-term contributors: producer George Avakian, innovative singer Jon Hendricks – both on November 22 – and on December 21, trombonist Roswell Rudd. Momentous losses indeed, but at least these blows were softened by the realization that each of them lived long, productive lives – Avakian was 98, Hendricks, 96, and Rudd, 83.

I had a mild heart attack on the morning of November 23 and the subsequent fallout took me out of my routines and away from the jazz grapevine, so I completely missed the passing of Avakian and Hendricks and it was some time before I heard the news. And Rudd’s death came amid the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations, so I was late hearing about that too. Given all this and the significant contributions each made to jazz, I feel it’s only right to use this space to pay tribute to them.

George AvakianAvakian became an obsessive jazz fan listening to the radio as a teenager and while attending Yale University began to amass a huge record collection and to write a relentless series of letters to the Decca and ARC record labels, urging them to reissue the back catalogues of bankrupt imprints such as Brunswick and Okeh. In 1940 Jack Kapp of Decca responded to these letters and hired the young Avakian to produce his first record, Chicago Jazz, featuring Eddie Condon and musicians in his circle. Consisting of six 78s issued in a set with Avakian’s copiously detailed liner notes, this was considered the first jazz album long before the emergence of the LP. It was a success in every way and set the tone for future Avakian projects while also raising the bar for jazz releases in general.

George Avakian - photo by Ian CliffordThe rest, as they say, is history – jazz history. CBS acquired ARC in 1940 and decided to form a subsidiary called Columbia Records. Eventually they asked Avakian to supervise a reissue series and the young man leapt at the chance to comb through the company’s vaults. Using the format he established at Decca, he created box sets devoted to Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, among others. In the process he discovered many unreleased sides, including some priceless Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, which he included in the reissues.

After war service he returned to Columbia, responsible for popular music at large, but always with an eye toward strengthening and promoting the label’s jazz roster. During this time Columbia perfected the LP format and Avakian was immediately alive to the possibilities of exploiting this new technology for both marketing and artistic purposes. He brought Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis to the label just as each was set to become a star, while continuing to produce albums by Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Art Blakey, Tony Bennett, Buck Clayton (he co-produced the trumpeter’s legendary Jam Session LPs with John Hammond), Eddie Condon, J.J. Johnson and many others including classical and folk performers.

He also became a pioneer in live jazz recording, issuing many performances from the Newport Jazz Festival and other venues. He supervised the first issue of Benny Goodman’s historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert and also Duke Ellington’s legendary 1956 Newport performance, which did so much to revive Ellington’s career. His tenure at Columbia was studded with too many masterpieces to mention, but highlights would include Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats; Erroll Garner’s Concert By the Sea; such Miles Davis classics as ’Round About Midnight and Miles Ahead; many by Brubeck such as Jazz Goes To College and Jazz Red Hot And Cool, as well as the aforementioned classics.

He elected to leave Columbia in 1958, but was hardly done. He created the record label at Warner Brothers and soon after moved on to RCA where he produced Sonny Rollins’ celebrated comeback album The Bridge, as well as his notable encounter with Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Meets Hawk. While there he also produced a superb series of Paul Desmond records with Jim Hall, which did a lot to cement Desmond’s identity apart from Brubeck.

Avakian also branched out into artist management at this point, overseeing the phenomenal mid-60s success of the Charles Lloyd Quartet at a time when many jazz artists were feeling the pinch of rock ‘n’ roll. This brought Avakian into contact with Keith Jarrett and he shepherded the pianist through the early part of his career as both his manager and record producer, helping to launch one of the most influential and successful careers jazz has witnessed in the last half century. There’s much more, but enough. Suffice it to say that it’s impossible to overstate the positive impact that George Avakian had on jazz, or to imagine it without him.

Jon HendricksEddie Jefferson and King Pleasure are generally credited with inventing modern, bebop vocalese – the practice of putting lyrics to an instrumental jazz solo and singing it, a kind of scat with words. But Jon Hendricks took the idea and ran with it, making it more popular while broadening its horizons and raising its vocal and literary (i.e. lyric writing) standards. And with the formation of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in 1957, for which he is best known, he translated it into a vocal group art. L, H & R remade the idea of the vocal group – they weren’t The Modernaires or The Four Freshmen or The Four Lads – they were funnier, rawer and swung more. They were hip, baby.

Jon Hendricks on his 90th birthdayDave Lamberts and Annie Ross were both formidable vocal talents and ideal partners, but Hendricks was the driving force behind the group both organizationally and musically, doing most of the arranging and the lion’s share of the ingenious lyric writing. His skill at this was unsurpassed, earning him the title “The Poet Laureate of Jazz” as well as the “James Joyce of Jive”. He had an uncanny gift for shaping and infusing words which made sense into the jagged and acrobatic rhythms of jazz solos. His pithy lyrics always had something to do with the original soloist involved or with the title of the given tune; they told a story and were always delivered with swing and feeling. Hendricks went on to do much more after the eventual breakup of L, H & R and his witty performances, ever alive with both tradition and inventiveness, always fostered the idea that jazz could be both fun and high art.

Roswell RuddMuch of his career took place outside the jazz mainstream and was interrupted by several hiatuses, so Roswell Rudd may be less known than these other two except to hard-core jazz fans. A New Englander, Rudd began his career in the mid-50s playing trombone in a Dixieland band at Yale University called The Eli Chosen Six. The group recorded two albums, including one for Columbia, which show Rudd entirely at home in the gutbucket trombone tradition of men like Kid Ory and Jimmy Archey.

Roswell RuddBut like Steve Lacy, a frequent collaborator who also started his career in traditional jazz, Roswell was equally interested in the expressive abstraction of free jazz and spent his career in that astringent field. He performed around New York and on records with Lacy (sometimes offering highly personal takes on the music of Thelonious Monk), lifelong friend Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, John Tchicai, the New York Art Quartet, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and his own groups. His playing – always interesting, human and very alive – was both intelligent and emotional. He could definitely blast but had the kind of projecting sound that could be heard at the back of a room even while playing quietly. His musical oeuvre combined both adventurous and traditional elements and offered the paradox that jazz, even in its earliest forms, was always iconoclastic, always subversive.

I had the unexpected pleasure of getting to know Roswell Rudd in 2007, so his death is more personal for me. I took part in a week-long recording project led by Toronto percussionist Geordie MacDonald which yielded a suite over two CDs called Time, After Time, a collaboration of 18 Canadian musicians with Rudd aboard as a ringer/featured guest. He was a joy to be around both musically and personally, a mensch who radiated integrity and unpretentiousness. I remember his humour and energy and him entertaining us on breaks by sitting down at the studio’s (intentionally) beat-up old upright and playing some highly personal stride, boogie-woogie and Monk.

Here’s the kind of guy he was: he took down the names and addresses of every musician on the session and some weeks later each of us received in the mail a beautiful folio of Herbie Nichols compositions, signed with a nice note from Roswell. He was a long-standing expert on Nichols and had assembled and published the book himself. It was a gesture of extraordinary generosity and the book remains one of my most prized possessions.

“Jazz is dead” predictions have continuously been trotted out through the years but I have to ask: how is jazz going to die when it’s had the devoted and passionate commitment of brilliant men like these, among so many others? 

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.

Jazz musicians earn part of what is laughingly referred to as their “living” by doing what they call “jobbing gigs,” on which they provide all-purpose music for various functions. Guido Basso calls what is generally required on these gigs “jolly jazz”: a variety of familiar songs – standards, bossa novas, maybe even the odd jazz tune – well-played at tempos which are danceable, or at least listenable. Not that anyone at these dos actually listens – the music is generally intended as background to deafening chatter – but just in case. The time-honoured m.o. of these gigs is “faking” – that is, playing umpteen songs without using any written music. Even when all of the musicians involved know a lot of tunes, there is a certain amount of repertorial Russian roulette involved. Nobody knows every song – well, Reg Schwager maybe – but even if you know the given song, it may not come to you until after it’s over and it’s too late. Generally though, faking works and it cuts down on schlepping music and music stands.

But a couple of bullets are added to the faking Russian roulette pistol every December, when seasonal music is thrown into the jobbing mix. Both the risks and stakes suddenly go up as musicians are naturally expected to play Christmas standards – familiar and dear to all – but which they haven’t played for a whole year. (By “Christmas standards” I mean more modern seasonal songs with some kind of jazz element such as Walking in a Winter Wonderland or White Christmas, as opposed to traditional carols which are generally performed by roving choirs or brass ensembles.)

On the face of it, faking seasonal standards doesn’t seem like such a challenge, because we all know how these chestnuts (no pun intended) go, right? But you’d be surprised. Not all Christmas standards are as simple as they seem, some are quite complicated and after a year in mothballs they can prove a little elusive. Even the easier ones – such as Santa Claus Is Coming to Town or Let It Snow – present challenges because they don’t behave like other songs. Often their middle sections – or bridges – go into the key of the dominant, which very few other songs do. And because the bridges often occur only a quarter of the time, they’re harder to remember. I’ve been on many a seasonal gig where a faked Christmas tune is going along swimmingly until the middle is approaching and everyone gets a panicky look on their face which says, “Where the hell does the bridge go?” It’s ironic, but the seeming simplicity of the easier seasonal songs confound jazz musicians who spend the rest of the year negotiating the fiendish complexities of songs such as Lush Life or Round Midnight without a hitch, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Being accustomed to complex harmony, jazz musicians playing simple Christmas tunes are a bit like cryptic crossword experts who have difficulty solving regular crosswords.

There are two harmonically complex seasonal standards though: The Christmas Song, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, each of them a must-play. Both are ballads and their slow tempos exacerbate the chord change clashes which lurk around every corner. Taken in the key of E-flat, The Christmas Song has two quick and tricky modulations in its first eight bars alone: to the key of G-Major then immediately to G-flat Major. These key changes come as something of a surprise if you haven’t played it in 12 months, but even if you do remember them there are all sorts of chord-change options to trip over before the modulations. Altogether this makes faking Mel Torme’s classic for the first time in a year a sweaty experience.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas may be the best of the lot and is somewhat easier, but still has its scary moments. It’s smooth sailing up until the beginning of the bridge, which can start on one of two chords fraught with conflict for a bassist and a pianist. Again in E-flat, the first chord of the bridge could be A-flat Major 7, or the “hipper” option – an A Minor 7 flat-five chord which has all the same notes save for the all-important root. Notice the roots are a semitone apart, and there’s the rub. As the bridge arrives, a bassist has to make a split-second decision about which root to play, with a 50/50 chance of being dead wrong and sounding like an idiot. If he or she chooses the A and the pianist plays the A-flat chord it sounds awful and vice versa; it’s a game of chord-change chicken. If I had a dollar for every time I zigged when I should have zagged in this situation, I’d be a rich man. The smart solution would be for the pianist to omit the root altogether and leave the choice up to the bassist. But no, that would be too easy, and not many pianists think this way. This may seem like a small detail and it is, but the trouble with these clashes is that they leave you frazzled and jar your concentration, which can lead to further clunkers along the way.

The big problem is that these seasonal faking mishaps occur in a context riddled with expectation, memory and the potential to spoil the seasonal mood. It’s an important time of year and the people at a seasonal gig know all these tunes intimately from years of hearing them on records and in movies, usually in more deluxe versions with strings, choirs, Bing Crosby, etc. Messing up a Christmas tune leaves the band with eggnog on its face and is like messing up a national anthem – everybody hears it right away and sometimes offence is taken. As in, “Who hired these bums and how much are they being paid? They can’t even play White Christmas, for crying out loud!”

Ted Quinlan - Photo by Sanja AnticBut not all the disasters of seasonal gigs come from faking tunes; some of them have to do with the merrymaking of the audience. Here are a couple of Christmas party stories to illustrate this. About 15 years ago guitarist Ted Quinlan hired saxophonist Mike Murley, drummer Ted Warren and me to play a Christmas party, held on the third floor of The Senator, for a small company. Ted is prized for his musical versatility and his whacky sense of humour, both of which came in handy on this gig. After no time at all it became clear that the people weren’t going to pay any attention to the music, all was din. We were playing God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman when, thinking of the lyrics, I glanced over at Ted, who had a typically maniacal grin on his face. Somehow I knew this meant that he was going to yell out “Satan!” from the carol’s fifth line and when the time came we both bellowed “Satan!” at the top of our lungs. Nobody noticed except the other two guys in the band, who proceeded to join us with “Satan!” in the next choruses. I still don’t know how we managed to get through the tune with all the laughing, but we had to take a break afterwards from sheer exhaustion.

A few years later, singer John Alcorn hired guitarist Reg Schwager and me – his regular band – to play a Christmas party for a small law firm, held in a private banquet facility in a downtown restaurant. It was a fairly intimate party with the people close at hand, some of them even listening to the music. All was going well until we came back from our second break and noticed that suddenly everybody was drunk. Particularly a large East Indian gentleman who really had the lamp shade on, like Peter Sellers in The Party, only louder. Alcorn called Route 66 – not a seasonal song, but a good party tune. As he began singing it, the Indian guy bellowed out “Oh goody, it’s Route 67!” and began dancing a ridiculous teetering boogie only he understood. Reg and I both doubled over laughing, but still somehow managed to keep playing. Alcorn didn’t bat an eye though; his face was a mask of composure and he kept singing as if nothing had happened. That, ladies and gentleman, is professionalism.

So these are a couple of examples of musicians getting their own back amid the minefield of Christmas gigs. A few years ago some of us found a new way of having fun with seasonal music: a mashup game in which we combined the names of Christmas carols/songs with jazz tunes and standards to form wacky new titles. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing Sing Sing,” “Joy Spring to the World,” “Sippin’ at Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night in Tunisia,” “What Child Is This Thing Called Love?” and “O Little Rootie Tootie Town of Bethlehem” were among the first of these; later I expanded the game to include readers and wrote a piece about it. If you’re interested, google wallacebass.com and look for the title “Birth of the Yule” (or use the direct link:
wallacebass.com/?p–4462).

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a joyous and safe holiday season and a Happy New Year. The latter usually comes with resolutions, some of which are easier to stick to than others. A few years back I resolved to stop taking New Year’s Eve gigs, only to discover they’d disappeared. All New Year’s resolutions should be so easy to keep.

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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