33_jazz_notes_markmiller2-1Mark miller is probably the finest author of jazz books that this country has ever produced. There. Having stated my case right off the top, I am pleased to say that there is a new addition to his now substantial body of work. It is called Way Down That Lonesome Road, the story of Lonnie Johnson in Toronto, where he lived for the last five years of his life from 1965 to 1970.

There might well be a lot of readers who would ask “Who was Lonnie Johnson?”

Well, he was born into a musical family in New Orleans, in 1899, and was destined to be a pioneer jazz guitarist, credited with being the first to play single string solos on that instrument. In his early career he was pretty well regarded as a blues player although he wasn’t happy to be pigeon-holed as such. But he went on to make recordings in 1927 with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five as a guest on I’m Not Rough, Savoy Blues and Hotter Than That, and in 1928 with Duke Ellington on Hot and Bothered, Move Over, and The Mooche.

The book covers in some detail the early career of Johnson, but the meat of this work deals with the years spent in Toronto and no one is better qualified than Mark Miller to tell that story.

But in the grand scale of things, Lonnie Johnson is overlooked, like so many other musicians. And therein is a clue as to what makes Mark Miller, the author, click.

He is drawn to the stories of musicians who made significant contributions, but have been neglected because they weren’t “stars.”

Who else would have so diligently researched and written an informative and entertaining book on the life and music of Valaida Snow or an equally rewarding look at the life of Herbie Nichols — again, hardly household names. He likes to look for the overlooked.

It came as no surprise when I learned that Miller was researching a book on Lonnie Johnson’s final years when he called Toronto home. It is a fascinating read set at a time before Yorkville became fashionable and traditional blues and jazz were relatively popular. To those readers who were around in the days of “flower power” and hippies, the book is a nostalgic trip down memory lane and a detailed study of Johnson’s life in a town where he felt welcome.

Another important side of Miller’s life was his time as a reviewer and critic. He was the sometimes controversial jazz columnist for Toronto’s Globe And Mail newspaper from 1978 to 2005. His reviews showed the same insightful and well-crafted standard of writing which is now so clearly evident in his books.

His views were at times open to question with some of his readers, but nobody could ever deny the quality of his writing.

Some of those same readers were of the opinion that Miller had a definite preference for the more contemporary and “avant-garde” players and are surprised, for example, that he would devote the time and energy to a book on the aforementioned Valaida Snow or Lonnie Johnson. A look at the contents of A Certain Respect For Tradition, a volume of his selected writings, will in fact show a knowledge and appreciation of a broad spectrum of the music. Mr. Miller does indeed have a refreshingly open mind to his chosen craft.

He eventually elected to give up writing his pieces for the newspaper. By way of explanation he had this to say: “The business of jazz, the media in general and the Globe in particular have all moved in new directions. Their various interests, and mine, simply diverged.”

Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall, given that nowadays the mainstream media have by and large abandoned coverage of jazz. In the last few years more than half of all arts journalists were either dropped or moved to other positions. On the other hand there are arts blogs now competing for attention online by the hundreds of thousands. But the lack of arts coverage in conventional newspapers speaks volumes about where we are culturally right now.

When asked to name some of his favourite musicians the list ranged from contemporary bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons to Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers via Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk and Gil Evans – it was a Gil Evans recording that first opened his ears and mind to jazz – showing a healthy open-minded approach which is reflected in the subject matter of the ten books he has had published.

Looking at the evolving nature of the music, Miller sees a future in which jazz will be seen as a small period of time in the overall development of improvised music in which melody, rhythm and a melding of musical influences from other cultures played an essential part and after which the texture of jazz changed radically, evolving and reinventing itself while still retaining its creative force.

If there is a tougher way of making a living in jazz by playing, then it surely is surviving as a writer about jazz. It is also a lonely occupation with no instant feedback from an audience, no applause for a well written chapter or a well-placed turn of phrase.

The loneliness isn’t necessarily a hardship. Some writers enjoy the solitary working life and I suspect that Miller fits the description. But that sits quite comfortably with his personal life in which he admits to enjoying tv, sports and the company of friends.

He might also have included his interest in photography, but since his next project is likely to be a book of his own photographs, perhaps that now goes into the “work in progress” category, eventually to become book number 11 in the ongoing tale of this Miller.

As always, happy listening and, I might add, enjoy some reading. (In fact, you might want to start with a short excerpt from the preface to Mark Miller’s Way Down That Lonesome Road.below.)

Jim Galloway is a saxophonist, band leader and former artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz. He can be contacted at jazznotes@thewholenote.com.

Here is an excerpt (from the internet) from the preface to Mark Miller’s Way Down That Lonesome Road: Lonnie Johnson in Toronto, 1965–1970. It gives a taste of Johnson, and just as importantly of what makes Mark Miller tick.

I want all you people to listen to my song

I want all you people to listen to my song

Remember me after all the days I’m gone

Mr. Johnson’s Blues, 1925

So sang Lonnie Johnson on the very first recording that he made under his own name, 86 years ago in St. Louis, mindful even then of his own mortality. If he has indeed been remembered after all the days, and now decades, since his death, 41 years ago in Toronto, it has been largely for his early and essential contribution to the histories of both blues and jazz.

… These, at least, are among the memories of some of the many people whose paths he crossed in Toronto between 1965 and 1970, the final years of his life — the years that serve as the time frame of this book. As much, however, as Way Down That Lonesome Road is a biographical study of Lonnie Johnson in this period, it is also a social and cultural history of the scene that he encountered in Toronto. As such, it takes its lead from my book Cool Blues, which found in the visits of the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker to Montreal and Toronto in 1953 an opportunity to bring the modern jazz communities in each of those cities back to life. And like Cool Blues, Way Down That Lonesome Road (which takes its title from a song that Johnson recorded in 1928) is populated by a cast of secondary characters — musicians, critics, friends and fans — who have stories of their own to tell.

… The story of his years in Toronto combines both — the happiest of times and the hardest, a Dickensian sort of paradox, albeit in a tale of just one city. This is that tale; here is that city.

— Published October 19, 2011 by The Mercury Press/teksteditions © Mark Miller 2011

A topic i haven’t touched on in this column is the relationship between jazz and ships. As I write this, Guido Basso is about to take a band for an eleven day cruise on the “Seven Seas Navigator.” I’ll be doing the same later this month with my Echoes Of Swing band on Holland America’s “Noordam.” And we are certainly not the only ones sailing off into the sunset; there are jazz cruises galore all over the world taking jazz fans and musicians out on the deep blue sea.

25This led me to doing some research into the early days of jazz and the riverboats which cruised the Mississippi. The first steamboat to cruise the entire length of the lower Mississippi was theNew Orleans” in December 1811 and steamboats, as a feasible means of transportation, lasted until the early part of the 20th century.

So where does jazz come into the picture? Enter a pianist named Fate Marable, because the story of jazz on the Mississippi steamboats can’t be told without him. Many of the bands had been integrated, but not the passengers, and Marable, hired by the Streckfus Line had led a mixed band in 1916. He subsequently organised a band of black musicians to play on one of the excursion boats–not ragtime players, but jazz musicians. The year was 1919 and the band included drummer Baby Dodds and an 18 years old Louis Armstrong! Other musicians who were, at one time or another, members of Marable’s band included Henry “Red” Allen, saxophonist Tab Smith, who subsequently played with Count Basie, Gene Sedric, who later joined “Fats” Waller and bass player Jimmy Blanton who was destined to find fame with Duke Ellington. According to trumpeter Bill Coleman, Jelly Roll Morton was hired for a short time by Marable and it is perhaps worth noting that one of Morton’s compositions was called Steamboat Stomp.

Marable was not always easy to get along with and was a stern taskmaster, demanding a high level of professional conduct from his musicians. Woe betide any player who screwed up on the bandstand and if it happened too often he was fired. Sometimes Fate delivered the bad news by placing a fire axe on the offender’s bunk!

But there is no doubt that Fate Marable was an important figure in the spread of jazz from New Orleans, and river boats helped to float the careers of many a musician.

On a smaller scale I can remember the “Jazz On The Lake” cruises in the 60s right here in Toronto when hundreds of fans would descend on the waterfront and crowd onto one of the Toronto Island ferries for an evening of jazz when more than the water was flowing.

Many of the cruises in Toronto were presented by a promoter called Ron Arnold and in the course of digging for some information, I came across the following, from Pro Tem, then the student weekly of York University, and dated October l5, 1965:

“JAZZ CANADIANA with the Nimmons ‘n’ Nine orchestra has begun its 1965-66 season on CBC radio. One of the few jazz programmes broadcast on the AM band, Nimmons ‘n’ Nine welcomes an audience at the CBC studio, 509 Parliament Street. Doors open at 8:00pm and the performance goes from 8:30 to 9:30pm.

“NO TICKETS ARE REQUIRED — all you do is walk in. As a bonus, the management offers door prizes of Phil Nimmons’ latest LP. Concert dates for the next two months are October 15 and 29, November 12 and 26.

“Ron Arnold, Toronto jazz entrepreneur is bringing the second annual Canadian Jazz Festival back to Casa Loma, much to the delight and interest of this writer. Once again seven bands will be playing in the medieval cloisters of the dungeon, library and great hall of the castle, and the concert masters will be Dave Caplan, Toronto Star’s Man About Jazz, and CKFH announcer Phil Mackellar.

“The feature attraction is going to be a panel discussion at seven o’clock. This should be of particular significance since it will set traditional against mainstream when Pat Scott of the Globe is met in public by his archrival, Phil Mackellar. Frank Kennedy of the Star and John Norris of CODA magazine round out the panel which will be augmented by guest composer and teacher Gord Delamont.”

Note: The featured bands at the 1965 Casa Loma event mentioned here were Moe Koffman, Rob McConnell (big band), Rob McConnell (sextet), Don Thompson, Paul Hoffert, Jim McHarg and Jim Scott. I find it interesting that the writer of the article described a panel discussion as being the feature attraction of a jazz evening that featured so many important musicians!

Back to the present: the November meeting of the Duke Ellington Society will be held on Friday November 18 at the Toronto Reference Library, 789 Yonge St. The evening will be titled “The Duke in Canada” and I’ll be there with a quartet playing the music of Ellington and Strayhorn. You don’t have to be a member to attend and admission is free.

Earlier the same week on Tuesday, November 15, from 6pm to 9pm, there will be a “Jazz Party” at Quotes Bar & Grill, 220 King St. W., Toronto, with an all-star line-up of musicians and it is sure to be a memorable evening. Regular readers may remember that three months ago I wrote about Kate Weich who passed away June 16 of this year. The event is a celebration of her life and there will be a $20 cover charge at the door, all of which will go towards a bursary to be established in her name at York University

As always, happy listening.

Jim Galloway is a saxophonist, band leader and former artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz. He can be contacted at jazznotes@thewholenote.com.

jazznotes_gershwinjazznotes_herbiehancockA legend is a person, extremely well known, whose fame and achievements make him a source of sometimes glamourized tales or exploits. Well, this article is about two musical legends, the late George Gershwin and, still with us and going strong, Herbie Hancock.

On October 22, at Massey Hall, Hancock will perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue with the Massey Hall Orchestra, led by Alain Trudel, Canadian musician, composer and conductor who began his career playing the trombone, but has more recently turned to conducting. He is currently artistic director and principal conductor of the National Broadcast Orchestra and Orchestre Symphonique de Laval. He is also conductor of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Rhapsody In Blue has an interesting history. In 1923 Paul Whiteman, leader of the most popular orchestra of the day, approached George Gershwin about composing an orchestral jazz work. Gershwin sketched out some themes but took it no further than that. He was, to say the least, somewhat surprised when the New York Tribune of January 4, 1928, contained an article announcing that a jazz concerto by George Gershwin would be premiered by Paul Whiteman at the Aeolian Hall on February 12.

The evening was billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Although at the time he had Broadway commitments, and a jazz concerto was farthest from his thoughts, he rose to the occasion, once more demonstrating that very often the deadline is the ultimate inspiration. And so, on February 12, 1934, towards the end of the programme, George Gershwin’s first large-scale work was performed with the composer himself playing the piano solo. The audience included Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Leopold Stokowski, Serge Rachmaninov and Igor Stravinsky.

It was a huge success; over the next ten years it earned Gershwin over $250,000, and this was during the Great Depression! Gershwin later said that the inspiration for Rhapsody’s title was James McNeill Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold.

Fast forward to Massey Hall, Toronto, on January 19, 1934.

It was indeed a gala evening with Gershwin at the piano and Charles Previn, yes, the father of André, conducting the Reisman Symphonic Orchestra. The programme included Catfish Row, Symphonic Suite from Porgy and Bess and, of course, Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra.

Gershwin signed a programme that evening as a memento for a fortunate member of the audience. Through the Independent Online Booksellers Association, I found a programme for that evening boldly signed by the composer over his printed name. You can have it for a mere $2866.18.

Like many musicians, Gershwin was something of a wit, but probably no match for his good friend, fellow composer and pianist Oscar Levant. At a Manhattan party in the 30s Levant said, “George if you had to do it all over, would you fall in love with yourself again?” Gershwin’s barbed response was, “Oscar, why don’t you play us a medley of your hit?”

After Gershwin’s, death an admirer with musical aspirations wrote an elegy for him and took it to Oscar Levant. Levant reluctantly agreed to hear the piece. After the man had finished playing it, he turned to Levant, looking for his approval. “I think,” said Levant, “it would have been better if you had died and Gershwin had written the elegy.”

Herbie Hancock, the principal performer on October 22, hardly needs any introduction. He started with a classical music education and was regarded as something of a child prodigy. When he was 11 years old, at a young people’s concert with the Chicago Symphony, he played the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 5.

His early jazz work was with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins and later with Oliver Nelson and Phil Woods.

In 1963 he joined Miles Davis’ “second great quintet” with Ron Carter on bass, a 17-year-old drummer named Tony Williams and, eventually, Wayne Shorter on tenor. From this point on his career blossomed and is still flowering five decades later. His Empyrean Isles (1964) and Maiden Voyage (1965) were two of the most influential jazz LPs of the 60s and throughout the intervening years he has remained a creative force, being recognized as one of today’s major voices in contemporary jazz. More recently The Imagine Project, released in 2010, was recorded in many locations throughout the world, features collaborations from various artists, was complemented by a documentary and was released in CD, digital download and vinyl.

In a career spanning five decades there are few artists in the music industry who have had more influence on acoustic and electronic jazz than Herbie Hancock. In his autobiography Miles Davis said, “Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him.”

Given his classical background and his creative genius, he is an ideal choice for this very special evening of the music of George Gershwin.

It is worth remembering another Gershwin quotation: “Life is a lot like jazz … it’s best when you improvise.”

And the concert will, of course, be acoustic. Happy listening.

Jim Galloway is a saxophonist, band leader and former artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz. He can be contacted at jazznotes@thewholenote.com.


With the Toronto International Film Festival coming up I thought it would be good timing to have a look at some aspects of jazz on film.

jazznotes_warrenvache2It would seem that even back in 1927 there was some confusion about what constitutes jazz. Why else would they have called the movie The Jazz Singer when its star, Al Jolson — certainly a great entertainer — was no more a jazz singer than W.C. Fields was a spokesman for the temperance movement.

But long before that, a less well-known fact is that the group known as The Original Dixieland Jazz Band showed up in a rare 1917 film titled The Good For Nothing. It was, of course, a silent movie so the ODJB could be seen but not heard; but pianist Eubie Blake and singer Noble Sissle made some experimental short sound films in the early 1920s.

jazznotes_thejazzsingerThe remarkable video collection At The Jazz Band Ball (Yazoo Video) has some of the best clips of the 1925–1933 period. The most famous so-called jazz film of the period is Paul Whiteman’s The King Of Jazz. There is a short sequence showing violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang, but overall the movie is disappointing. Also worth looking for is the pioneering 1929 black movie Hallelujah which in one nightclub segment features Curtis Mosby’s Blue Blowers on had purchased a Panoram machine, a full 1,889 soundies were released. Add to this number the jukebox shorts made by the producers of other presentation systems and the number of shorts is well over 2,000. It is the most complete audiovisual picture available of popular music in the 1940s. Obviously a sound investment.

But the first merging of a motion picture projector within a jukebox device was developed in 1938 by Los Angeles dentist Gordon Keith Woodard and tested in several Los Angeles area taverns. In fact, over the next few years close to 30 projection systems and/or film products were on the market.

Along with television came Snader telescriptions in 1950, made specifically as fill-in programming — TV’s very first music videos. They were around for three or four years and all of the top jazz/pop/country stars made these three and four minute films in the thousands and almost all of them were filmed with multi-cameras and live mics. No playbacks or lip-syncing!

Moving into the 40s, Hollywood gave us Birth of the Blues (1941) which features the Jack Teagarden band; Cabin in the Sky (1943) with Ethel Waters and Lena Horne, Duke Ellington’s music and Louis Armstrong; and Stormy Weather (1943) with Lena Horne, Bojangles, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and the Nicholas Brothers.

In the 50s along came the bio-pic: Young Man with a Horn (1950), loosely based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke; The Glenn Miller Story (1953); The “Benny Goodman Story (1955); The Five Pennies (1959), about Loring “Red” Nichols; and The Gene Krupa Story (1959). They were all highly fictionalized but probably did introduce a lot of people to jazz.

Somewhat closer to reality were The Gig (1985) with Warren Vaché, Round Midnight (1986) and Bird (1987).

Limitations of space mean that I can only scratch the surface of this fascinating topic, but mention should be made of a few of the many significant documentaries: The Last of the Blue Devils, a feature-length portrait of Kansas City’s old-time jazzmen made by Bruce Ricker, who died in May of this year; and a couple by Toronto filmmaker Brigitte Berman, BIX (1981) and Time Is All You’ve Got (1986), about Artie Shaw, which received an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Nowadays, there is a vast amount of jazz available on the internet. All you need is time.

Mention of The Gig and Warren Vaché gives me a natural lead-in to the fact that Vaché and an all-star line-up of Canadian and US musicians will be in Toronto for The Ken Page Memorial Trust Gala on September 15. The KPMT supports Canadian jazz and jazz musicians with an emphasis on education. It will be held again at The Old Mill and you can find all the details in the ad in this issue of The WholeNote. Please check it out and I’ll hope to see you there for this worthy cause.

Jim Galloway is a saxophonist, band leader and former artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz. He can be contacted at jazznotes@thewholenote.com.

More and more I am convinced that, with very few exceptions, the place to enjoy the jazz experience is in a small performance space. There are the few exceptions — Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett, Sonny Rollins, to name three — who can fill a large concert hall and play jazz. But when they are gone, what then?

p24_colonial_tavern_photopage_24_town_tavern_photoForget the days of touring bands — the glory days of places like the Colonial Tavern and The Town Tavern. I can remember when I first arrived in Toronto I could shuttle between The Colonial and The Town in the sure knowledge that whoever was appearing, the music would be good — and sometimes unforgettable. In any case, that all but ended years ago, when rising costs made touring bands pretty well a thing of the past and bringing in a guest artist to perform with a local group was the solution. At least for a while. Now we are left with fond memories of clubs like Bourbon Street, The Montreal Bistro and The Top Of The Senator.

Festivals are committed, if they want to survive, to presenting less jazz and more widely based music, much of it by groups often past their “best before” date who have no more than a passing reference to jazz.

So, more and more it seems to me that friendly watering holes and relatively small concert venues will be the future of jazz.

The Not So Merry Month Of June

p25_jazznotes_davemcmurdoSummer came in with a cold blast of bad news. We lost Dave McMurdo, who had been ill for some time with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but it was a heart attack that eventually felled him at age 67. It is a sad loss to the jazz community. McMurdo, originally from Vancouver, where he studied music at the University of British Columbia, was a dedicated man and took life very seriously as a musician and as a devoted teacher. He moved to Toronto in 1969, was for some years a member of Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass, and the lead trombone player in Nimmons ‘N’ Nine Plus Six. The Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra was formed in 1988, giving McMurdo the opportunity of having his own compositions and arrangements performed. He also invited contributions from such other prominent musicians as Mike Malone, Reg Schwager, Don Thompson and Phil Nimmons.

His death leaves a hole in the fabric of the Canadian jazz world. I shall miss his sartorial elegance and dry wit.

We also lost one of my favourite piano players and a friend when Philadelphian Ray Bryant died on June 2, at the age of 79, after a long illness. Bryant was part of a very musical family. His mother played piano in the local church, his brother, Tommy, was an accomplished bass player while his younger brother, Len, is a singer/drummer. Not only that, his sister, Vera Eubanks, is the mother of three sons who have each made their mark in music — trombonist Robin, guitarist Kevin and trumpeter Duane.

After a few years with local bandleader Mickey Collins, Bryant joined Tiny Grimes and His Rocking Highlanders, an African-American rhythm and blues group which sported the full kilt and tam o’shanter!

His break came in the 50s when, as house pianist at Philadelphia’s Blue Note club, he had the opportunity to play with artists such as Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. From there on his career was soon established.

Bryant had an extremely personal sound on piano, making him instantly recognisable after only a few bars of music — a rare talent, but then Ray Bryant was just that — a rare talent.

Kate Weich

This next part of my column is about a well-loved member of the jazz community who was not a musician, but for a number of years was behind the bar of the Montreal Bistro. Kathleen Weich was her name, but everybody knew her simply as Kate and I don’t know anybody among the regulars at what was for a long time, our favourite watering hole in town, who didn’t like Kate.

Kate was born in Victoria, British Columbia. She completed the Visual Arts Program, with Honours, at Grant McEwen College in Edmonton and did her BFA at York University in Toronto where she made her home.

She was efficient, hard working and ran a tight ship, but was a warm and caring person with a dry sense of humour. But at the same time, like so many workers in the restaurant business, Kate’s job running the bar at the Bistro was a means to an end. I don’t mean that she didn’t enjoy her work at the Montreal Bistro, but her real love was painting.

She wanted to be able to support herself from her painting — and that’s even tougher than being a jazz musician — but eventually she did, becoming in the process a highly respected member of Canada’s art community. I’m happy to have one of Kate’s paintings hanging in my house. That painting which I see every day, is even more meaningful now. Kate fell prey to cancer and passed away on June 16. She will be missed.

Speaking of her own work she said, “My aim is not to present a finalized view of a given subject. I hope to offer a place where you can contemplate and bring your own visions.”

And that is not so different from the goals which jazz musicians set for themselves.

Jim Galloway is a saxophonist, band leader and former artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz. He can be contacted at jazznotes@thewholenote.com.

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