It seems the longer I’m involved with jazz, the less I understand it. I’ve been immersed in it now for nearly 50 years in many ways – studying it, playing it, reading about it, collecting records, listening to it, and more recently writing about it and teaching it – and yet at times I feel I know less and less about it and would be hard-pressed to offer a succinct definition of its essence. If it even has an essence anymore.

Part of it is the truth of that old saw: the more you learn about a subject, the less you know about it, or so it seems. As knowledge of jazz expands, so do the boundaries; the forest keeps getting bigger to the point where you can’t see it for the trees.

Perhaps this is as it should be, because jazz is not a simple music, though often at its best it seems so. But it’s quite complex, and part of the problem in trying to get a fix on what jazz actually is, is that it never stands still. It’s constantly shifting and expanding, taking on new influences while also exerting an effect on other types of music. Like many things in the digital age, this cross-pollination process has sped up in recent years, leading to a bewildering array of hybrids, which I call “hyphen-jazz”: Acid-jazz, smooth-jazz, jazz-rock, vocal-jazz, Latin-jazz and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. Well, okay, these are contrived terms to describe narrow sub-genres of varying validity, but increasingly I hear people asking – and often ask myself – “Well, yeah, but what about ‘jazz-jazz’”? Does that exist anymore, and if so, then what the heck is it?

Read more: Notes Toward a Definition of Jazz, Part One: The Forest and the Trees

Clockwise from top left: Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker & Gerry Mulligan, Lee Wiley, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan. Sarah Vaughan photo by William P. GottliebFebruary is the shortest month of the year, which is merciful, because it is also surely the bleakest. By the time it rolls around, winter has been with us for what seems like an eternity, with still plenty to come. The festivities of Christmas and Hanukkah are a distant memory and the bloom is off the rose of the new year. Of course there’s Valentine’s Day on February 14, but even that special day of celebrating romance is a mixed blessing to some, and many have sworn off it. Those not blessed with a partner, or who have recently lost one, find it lonely and painful. And even many with partners find it an empty and contrived occasion filled with pressure, a cash-in day for florists, candy makers, card companies, swanky restaurants and the like.

Despite these misgivings, I thought it might be interesting to explore the history of the song most associated with the day, My Funny Valentine, one which has become an essential part of jazz history and its repertoire, and also one which has been much misunderstood. It has been recorded over 1,600 times by more than 600 artists, both instrumentally and vocally, and is permanently associated with Frank Sinatra, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Miles Davis, among others. It was written in 1937 by perhaps my favourite songwriting team, Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart. Rodgers had the supreme gift of writing simple, pure melodies which stuck in the ear and which he would often flesh out with more interesting chords. And Hart stood alone as a lyricist; his words had great wit and charm, ironic humour, interior rhythm and often plumbed emotional depths worthy of poetry. As a team, they were incomparable; Rodgers’ later songs with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein are far less successful simply because the words don’t work nearly as well. (As an aside, this didn’t stop Cole Porter’s “beard” wife, Linda Lee Thomas, from asking pointedly of Rodgers & Hart after meeting them at a party: “Two guys, to write one song!?”)

Read more: My (Not So) Funny Valentine: A Brief History

On two recent performances I experienced epiphanies which reminded me of something that often gets overlooked amid the hubbub and organized chaos of gigs: that, at the core of live jazz there is a process of generosity and giving, an exchange of gifts, which is the essence of what we celebrate during Christmas and other religious holidays. The exchange is circular, as there is an unspoken pact between jazz players and their audience which goes something like this: give us your attention, your ears, and we musicians will give you our very best – or at least try to – and make some music, out of thin air, you’ve never heard before and will never hear again. This commitment to playing one’s very best holds for all good musicians, but because jazz involves so much improvising, and thus risk, the giving in a jazz performance is much more personal, coming from deep inside the musicians themselves in a sort of spontaneous, high-wire communion. It has very little to do with money. Yes, musicians are paid for performances and must be – after all, it is their work and they have to survive like everyone else. But the level of effort and commitment put forth by jazz players has nothing to do with how much a gig pays; indeed I’ve been involved in many sessions and after-hours jams where there is no money involved and everyone plays out of their skin. Why? Simply because they love music and wouldn’t think of letting it, or each other, down. Jazz players give to each other, too.

Read more: Circular Exchange - Jazz and the Spirit of Christmas

Through the years, jazz in Hamilton has often been overshadowed by the bigger scene in Toronto, just as Toronto jazz has been dwarfed by the huge and active scene in New York. Part of it has to do with economics and sheer size, as jazz, not being a popular music for some time, has always required a large population base in order to flourish. Generally, the bigger the city, the bigger and better its jazz scene. While all sorts of jazz musicians have come from very small towns, they have cut their musical teeth either on the road or by moving to bigger cities. Part of it also has to with Toronto tending to see itself as the centre of the universe, as many big cities do.

None of this has been fair to Hamilton, which has had its own interesting jazz scene for many years and continues to. For one thing, Hamilton, like its steel-producing sister city Pittsburgh, has produced a remarkable number of significant jazz musicians for a city its size. For example, guitarist Sonny Greenwich is from Hamilton, and it’s hard to think of a more singularly original voice in the entire history of Canadian jazz. Granted, like musicians from Pittsburgh who gravitated to New York in search of more work, Greenwich settled in Toronto and later Montreal, but he got his start in Steeltown.

So did saxophonist/arranger Rick Wilkins, another hugely important figure in Canadian music, jazz and otherwise. Being so quiet and mild-mannered, Rick is perhaps the ultimate insider in Canadian music. By this I mean that one could randomly pick 100 people on the street aged 60 or older and ask them if they’d heard of Rick Wilkins and maybe one or two would answer yes. But all of them would have heard lots of his music in some form – a saxophone solo with the Boss Brass, countless scores for television or movies, an arrangement on somebody’s record, a jingle – often without realizing it. Most of his career has taken place in Toronto, but he was born in Hamilton. Torontonians who are boastfully proud of their city’s rich jazz history would do well to remember that an awful lot of the major contributors have come from somewhere else – Vancouver, Winnipeg, Northern Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and yes, Hamilton.

David BraidA more recent example is pianist/composer David Braid, who has had a major impact with his sextet, the more recent quartet, The North, and as a composer and educator. He grew up not far from Mohawk College in Hamilton and, as much as any Canadian jazz musician, has taken his music abroad with frequent tours in China, Russia, Europe and elsewhere. There have been other important Hamilton-born jazz players – pianist Bruce Harvey, two excellent trumpeters in Jason Logue and Steve McDade, and no doubt many others I’ve forgotten or overlooked.

Mohawk and more

The jazz program at Mohawk College has had a major impact as a centerpiece of jazz in Hamilton in several ways. It draws talented young players from the surrounding region, provides a venue for concerts and has attracted, as teachers, important musicians, some of them previously Toronto-based, who have raised the level and profile of jazz in Hamilton in recent years. 

Mike Malone and the Writer’s Jazz OrchestraSome musicians who were full-time faculty, such as the late trombonist Dave McMurdo and trumpeter Mike Malone, moved to Hamilton from Toronto, reversing an age-old tradition. McMurdo had a huge impact on Hamilton jazz as a teacher and by starting his Mountain Access (sometimes affectionately known as “Mounting Excess”) Jazz Orchestra, which provided an outlet for writers and players both from Toronto and the Hamilton area. Malone has continued this with his Writer’s Jazz Orchestra, which performs regularly in and around Hamilton and at Toronto venues such as The Rex. More recently, the Hamilton-born, gifted pianist Adrean Farrugia and his equally gifted wife, singer Sophia Perlman, who both teach at Mohawk, have moved from Hogtown to Steeltown, perhaps attracted by a city that’s less hectic, more affordable, and still offers opportunities for cultural expression. With the Toronto jazz scene shrinking in recent times, the worm is beginning to turn toward smaller cities.

Hamilton has also boasted attractive musical venues and organizations through the years, often created and sustained by dedicated music lovers and arts activists. Liuna Station is an excellent example. It was originally a CN Railway station which had fallen into disrepair until a guild of local artisans was commissioned to give it a lavish facelift. The result is a unique and splendid venue for concerts as well as other functions. I’ve played there numerous times with the likes of Oliver Jones and David Braid and was bowled over by its extravagance. One of my favourite places to play in Hamilton was not really a jazz venue but a small Polish restaurant on Main St. called Izzy’s, named for its cheerful and generous proprietor Isidora, who loved jazz, cooking, jazz musicians and Irish whiskey, not necessarily in that order. I’ll never forget playing there one night with the Mike Murley Trio when Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, Dave McMurdo and Mike Malone were in the audience. Wheeler and Winstone were in Hamilton as artists-in-residence for a week of clinics and concerts at Mohawk College, another example of how that institution has boosted jazz in Hamilton.

Steel City Jazz Festival

Hamilton boasts many other long-term jazz outlets – the Corktown Pub, Artword Artbar (on which more later), Fieldcote Park in nearby Ancaster, The Pearl Company, as well as concert venues at Mohawk College and McMaster University. Hamilton has also staged its own festival for the last seven years, The Steel City Jazz Festival. This year’s festival runs from November 6 to 10 and will feature shows at Artword Artbar, the Corktown Pub and The Pearl Company. It will return to its roots by showcasing pianist Paul Benton, a longtime seminal figure in Hamilton jazz, in its opening concert, and by focusing on the past 30 years of jazz in the area.

Other artists will include the Nick McLean Quartet, the Sextet of Smordin Law artist-in-residence Jason Logue, the Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble and Mike Malone, playing as part of the ECJ quintet led by bassist Evelyn Charlotte Joe. This year the festival is also launching performances at the legendary Corktown Pub – George Grossman’s Bohemian Swing featuring Brandon Walker on November 7 and Blunt Object on November 8. It’s a diverse and interesting lineup.

Farewell Artword, hail Zula

Unfortunately, this year’s festival will mark the end of one of Hamilton’s best music venues, Artword Artbar, a café-bar on Colbourne Street which has been hosting jazz and other interesting music and theatre for the past ten years. Proprietors Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford have sold the building and its future use is unclear, but it won’t likely have to do with music or the arts. This is a decided blow to the local scene and one hopes someone will step in with an alternative space at some point. I only played there once, some years ago with the Mike Murley Trio, and very much enjoyed the experience. Artword Artbar has (had) good natural sound and a relaxing, casual, grassroots feeling which combined the best of both worlds – a small concert space and a rustic pub – one which encouraged audiences to listen and inspired artists to play their best. It will be missed.

But not all is lost… finally, a word on another force in Hamilton jazz, one largely unknown to many Torontonians, including yours truly until recently: Zula, a bold and independent arts organization dedicated to presenting adventurous and under-the-radar music against long odds in Hamilton. It is the brainchild of music lover and arts activist Cem Zafir, who originally founded Zula in Vancouver way back in 2000, transplanting the concept to Hamilton when he moved there in 2012. It is supported by the Ontario Arts Council and has gathered a board of local artists including Donna Akrey, Chris Alic, Neil Ballantyne, Gary Barwin, Ted Harms, Connor Bennett, Taing Ng-Chan, Kay Chornook, Andrew Johnson, Heather Kanabe, Neal Thomas and above all Zafir, whose non-conformist and creative spirit is the driving force behind it all.

Since 2014, Zula has staged the Something Else Festival, presenting under-known and adventurous musicians from Canada and abroad who one would never expect to hear in Hamilton, never mind a larger city like Toronto. Such as William Parker, Samuel Blaser, Dave Gould, the Lina Allemano Four, David Lee, Ken Aldcroft and many more. Zula often coordinates with the equally adventurous Guelph Jazz Festival, another good example of uncompromising music flourishing in a smaller population centre against long odds, largely due to the vision and dedication of its founders.

So, as we’ve seen, bigger is not always better and jazz continues to grow in Hamilton, with all signs indicating that it will continue to.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

NOV 2, 8PM: Royal Conservatory of Music. “Music Mix Series: Toronto Sings the Breithaupt Brothers’ Songbook.” Jackie Richardson, Kellylee Evans, Denzal Sinclaire, Heather Bambrick, Patricia O’Callaghan and others. Koerner Hall. A lineup of first-rate Canadian singers performing the witty and artistic songs of the Breithaupt Brothers.

NOV 8, 7:30PM: Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts. Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express and Larnell Lewis Band. Works by Monty Alexander and Larnell Lewis. Monty Alexander, piano; Hassan Abdul Ash-Shakur, bass; Jason Brown, drums; Andrew Bassford, guitar; Larnell Lewis Band. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre Partridge Hall, 250 St. Paul St., St. Catharines. An attractive doubleheader featuring Monty Alexander, who needs no introduction, and local drummer Larnell Lewis, who has become something of a force in recent years.

NOV 21, 7:30PM: Ken Page Memorial Trust. Jim Galloway’s Wee Big Band. 40th Anniversary celebration of swing-era music with special selections from Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Martin Loomer, guitar, arranger, leader. Arts and Letters Club, 14 Elm St. Licensed facility. Even after the death of its founder, this band is always worth hearing because it is so unique and has been left in the capable hands of its chief arranger/transcriber and longtime rhythm guitarist, Martin Loomer.

Nick Fraser TrioNOV 30, 8PM: Zula. Nick Fraser Trio: “Rock on Locke.” Nick Fraser, drums/composition; Tony Malaby, saxophones; Kris Davis, piano. Church of St. John the Evangelist, 320 Charlton Ave. W., Hamilton. zulapresents.org. $15 or PWYC. A concert by a very interesting trio featuring three of the most inventive players on the local scene, or any other for that matter.

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.

I mentioned in my last column that I injured my left shoulder in a fall on June 20, just as the Toronto Jazz Festival was starting – timing has not always been my long suit. Like most accidental falls, it was silly and avoidable, but only in hindsight. I was about to put out the recycling bin, which was quite heavy owing to some stranger mysteriously filling it with an outrageous number of wine bottles. My neighbour Gary was standing at the bottom of the steps and, noticing I was struggling with the weight, decided to lend a helping hand by grabbing the bottom of the bin and pulling it. The sudden yank caught me off guard and I did a spectacular twisting tumble down the steps – the international judges would have given me 9.5s across the board for clumsiness, which has always been my long suit. Just as well I play the bass, but as I was about to discover, I wouldn’t be playing it for quite a while.

I was lucky in that the bin broke my fall and prevented my head from smashing on the pavement, preventing a concussion. But otherwise I was buggered; I’d landed in an awkward position with the left arm bent up behind my back at an angle I was pretty sure was not natural. My wife Anna, and Gary, helped me to my feet and the arm felt dead; I couldn’t move it or feel anything except a dull ache, which started to intensify.

John AlcornI iced the shoulder, which seemed to be the main problem, and took some Advil for the inflammation. As the shock wore off the reality set in – I could barely move the left arm, certainly not enough to play the bass. The next night I was to play a festival gig at Jazz Bistro with John Alcorn which I had been looking forward to because it involved such wonderful players – Drew Jurecka on violin and clarinet, Reg Schwager on guitar and Mark Micklethwaite on drums. I hated to do it but there was nothing for it except to call John and tell him he needed to get a sub, no easy task on such short notice. He took it well and, incredibly, Neil Swainson was available to take my place. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to cancel out of other upcoming gigs as well, and made the necessary phone calls.

An aside: Neil also subbed for me on a Pilot gig a few days later with Mike Murley, Harrison Argatoff and Harry Vetro. When a bassist as good as Neil is available twice on short notice during Jazz Festival time... well, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

The morning after the fall I awoke and soon noticed another problem: my left wrist and hand were incredibly sore and swollen, roughly the size and colour of a ham hock. I hadn’t noticed this at first and immediately iced the hand, trying to fight off the growing panic that my issues were worse than I had first thought. It was a losing battle. An irony – one that I could have done without – is that my wife Anna has been suffering for months from a similar injury to the same shoulder, enduring a lot of pain and limited mobility. I wondered if it would be the same for me and how we would cope with basic daily functioning now that we both had broken wings. I realized it would be weeks, maybe months, till I could play the bass and this sent me to a dark place. Playing the bass and just schlepping to gigs has become harder with aging, but this had taken it to new level.

I came out of this despair after about a day or so. Despite having a deep cynical streak, I’m a cockeyed optimist at heart – probably one of the reasons I chose a “career” in jazz – and I began to feel more philosophical about the setback. I heard a voice inside me saying, “Steve, you’ve been pounding on that big goddamn log for 45 years now, you’ve given at the office, so maybe having to take a break from it for a couple of months is not the worst thing ever. Try to enjoy the summer, kick back and relax, watch some baseball, see how the other half lives.”

This small optimism was helped by my first visit to East Toronto Orthopaedic & Sports Injury Clinic, where I met Mackenzie Merritt, the splendid young man who would be my physiotherapist. He examined the arm and tested it for range of motion and told me I likely had a full tear of the supraspinatus tendon in the shoulder, part of the rotator cuff, a diagnosis later confirmed by an MRI. I explained to him about being a jazz bassist and tried to demonstrate the movements that bass playing required of the left am, which he understood immediately. He said this was typically a slow-healing injury and that I was probably looking at six to eight weeks of rehabbing before I would be able to start practising again. He showed me some simple exercises designed to increase strength and range of motion in the shoulder and also to loosen it. He also told me about “muscle guarding,” essentially the mind protecting the muscles by “telling” them not to do certain things which might be painful. He said there would be pain but the good news was that I couldn’t do further damage to the muscle unless I had another fall calamity.

This was heartening and I set about faithfully doing the exercises, while gradually the swelling and soreness in the hand and wrist subsided. I began weekly physio appointments where Mackenzie manipulated and stretched the shoulder and ramped up the difficulty of the exercises I was to do at home. These involved stretching and lifting the arm at various angles to increase flexibility, and some resistance training to strengthen the muscle. Gradually I began to notice improvement; there was still soreness but I was able to do more with the arm.

Meanwhile, back at the bass ... I was concerned about getting rusty and losing my calluses, so I began just plucking the open strings to keep my right hand in shape, which was pretty boring. Toward the end of July I decided to try lifting the left arm up enough to get on the fingerboard and begin fingering some notes. There was an initial pinch but I found that if I angled the bass back toward me – or better still, sat down – I could use my left arm to actually play some. It was a Eureka moment and I began practising this way a little every day, increasing from about ten minutes to half an hour. I was usually quite sore afterward and was concerned but Mackenzie told me not to worry about it, that this was progress.

I had an upcoming gig with the Mike Murley trio on August 18 at the PEC Jazz Festival, with my son Lee filling on guitar for Reg Schwager, and I decided I’d made enough progress to manage doing it. As it approached I grew more anxious – it would be my first real performance in over two months and practising is one thing but actually playing for a solid hour on stage is another. It was a leap of faith because until I was out there and got a tune or two under my belt, I had no real idea how the arm would hold up or how long I’d be able to go. What if I had to suddenly stop? What if my left hand wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do? I stanched down these doubts, telling myself it was like riding a bicycle and that Mike and Lee had my back; there are no two musicians I trust more than them.

In the end, the concert was a kind of out-of-body experience, but it went fine. I felt a pretty serious burn in the shoulder after the second tune, which went away, only to return a couple of times later. Playing wasn’t as easy as it should have been but that was to be expected; I was really rusty. But the arm held up, none of the tempos slowed down and I didn’t have to stop playing at any time, so overall I was pleased. We closed with Just in Time at a “manly” tempo which I was able to keep up with and I even managed to solo on it – not the best solo I’ve ever played, but I had enough gas left to pull it off. Best of all, both Mike and Lee said that I sounded like myself.

The following Sunday I had a Jazz In The Kitchen gig, which would raise the stamina ante some. Murley’s concert was just one hour, whereas this would be two one-hour sets, with no amplifier and playing with drums, so there would be some more grinding involved. It was the first JITK gig in some time and there were some unique emotional stakes involved. For one thing, others in the band were also in the process of physical recovery. John Loach, who co-hosts and plays trumpet, had been suffering from embouchure issues since the spring from dental surgery gone wrong. Saxophonist Perry White is suffering from multi-concussion syndrome and has had to greatly reduce how much he can play. Patti Loach, who always plays a piano piece before each concert, had broken her collarbone in early July in a biking accident. So I had company among the walking wounded; only pianist Mark Eisenman and drummer Mark Micklethwaite were healthy.

Beyond this, there were memorials involved. Just days before the gig, Patti and John’s good friend Tex Arnold, a first-rate pianist and composer based out of New York, died suddenly after suffering multiple strokes. They were devastated, but in tribute to him decided to play his arrangement (for Margaret Whiting) of a complex and obscure song called The Coffee Shoppe. They brought it off brilliantly, injuries be damned. And this was the first JITK since John Sumner died in June. He’d played on the vast majority of the nearly 60 concerts we’ve done and his absence was palpable. We played a trio version of Django dedicated to him.

I’ve always thought of JITK as an easy gig and in a lot of ways it is, being held in a relaxed, small venue with good sound and a listening audience. I told myself to take it easy, but it’s a funny thing. Once the music starts and the players start coming at you with all that energy and intensity, you can’t take it easy, you have to match them. I found myself digging in for all I was worth, pain and all, sweat streaming everywhere. It hurt and I started to develop some serious blisters but I was overjoyed to be back where I belong, in the crucible of a jazz band creating in the moment. It was one of the most emotionally satisfying gigs I’ve ever done and when it was over I realized I was mostly back. Amen to that.

JAZZ NOTES QUICK PICKS

OCT 5, 7:30PM: Yamaha Canada Music. Yamaha Canada Jazz Orchestra Featuring Bobby Shew. Led by Rick Wilkins. Walter Hall. 416-408-0208. $25. A rare Toronto appearance by the estimable veteran trumpeter Bobby Shew, with Rick Wilkins directing the band – enough said.

OCT 13, 4:30PM: Christ Church Deer Park. Jazz Vespers: Tribute to Ray Brown. Dave Young. 1570 Yonge St. 416-920-5211. Freewill offering. Religious service. A tribute to one of the great jazz bassists by one of our best, Dave Young.

OCT 24, 7:30PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. U of T 12tet. Walter Hall. 416-978-3750. Free and open to the public. A first-rate ensemble of U of T jazz students directed by trombonist-arranger Terry Promane.

Warren VacheOCT 31, 5:30PM: Ken Page Memorial Trust. The Irresistible Spirits of Rhythm Halloween Jazz Party. Warren Vaché, cornet; Guido Basso, trumpet/flugelhorn; Ken Peplowski, reeds, Houston Person, tenor saxophone; Russ Phillips, trombone; and others. Old Mill Toronto. Call Anne at 416-515-0200. $200. Complimentary cocktail reception, gala dinner service and grand raffle. Not sure who the “others” are, but the list of headliners alone makes this attractive, even at that price.

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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