Last month I wrote about the general decline in jazz clubs, and the concert hall or festival stage having become almost the only way of seeing and hearing “name” performers.

It got me thinking about the early days of jazz in Canada when, in fact, there were no jazz clubs as we have come to know them. For much of the following historical information I am greatly indebted to Mark Miller and his richly informative book about the early development of jazz in Canada: Such Melodious Racket, a must-have if you’re interested in the history of the music.

Toronto has a wealth of theatre history and plays a role in bringing ragtime, which was a precursor to jazz, to Canadian audiences. Shea’s Victoria was built in 1910 at the southeast corner of Victoria and Richmond, and with 1,140 seats was considerably larger than the original Shea’s Theatre on lower Yonge St. In 1911 a group called  the Musical Spillers played a week there, sharing the bill with humourist Will Rogers. The Spillers had been touring the Pantages circuit, featuring “original ‘rag time’ music on six saxophones, three cornets, three trombones and six hundred dollars worth of xylophones.” In the same year, a saxophone ensemble called the Brown Brothers, sons of Canadian cornetist and bandmaster Allan W. Brown also played Shea’s with the Gertrude Hoffman Revue.

The next Shea’s Theatre stood from 1914-1956 on its new location, (a fire destroyed the previous theatre on Victoria Street), on Bay Street opposite old City Hall, until it was demolished in 1957 for new City Hall. Incidentally, the pipe organ was eventually relocated to Casa Loma. With 3,663 seats it was one of the largest vaudeville theatres in the world – one of the big four, including the Orpheum in Los Angeles, Loew’s State and the Palace in New York, and it attracted the best vaudeville acts. In late 1917 a group called the Verrnon Five, “expert exponents of the new music known as jazz,” appeared there, and the Toronto Globe reviewer wrote that they “succeeded at times in making a diabolical noise, thus justifying their claims to [being] a ‘Jazz’ company.”

It would be a major overstatement to call these events jazz concerts, but for thousands of people it was their first introduction to this new music. (The jazz concert as a formal occasion came to Toronto much later – at the Eaton Auditorium in October of 1945, a month before Charlie Parker’s first appearance at Massey Hall.) So, in a sense, we’ve gone full circle, from early “jazz” being presented in theatres to jazz being presented in concert halls. It has to be remembered, of course, that in those early days there were no jazz clubs in Toronto to go out of business!

Toronto the Good

When we talk about alcohol we think of prohibition and speakeasies in the U.S., but not everyone thinks of Canada – although Ontario, for example, introduced Prohibition measures from 1916 to 1927. There were exceptions however. Ontario’s wineries were exempted, and many breweries and distilleries remained open to serve the export market. It was also possible to ask your doctor for a prescription of rum or whisky – strictly for “medicinal” purposes, of course. This sort of legislation reminds me of the old joke: “Why did the Canadian cross the road?” “To get to the middle!”

Even when I arrived in Toronto in the mid-60s I can remember my amazement when I went to my first official liquor store (to this day a government monopoly) where there were no bottles on display. It was illegal to have even a glimpse of the liquid pleasures in store – and I had to fill in a form giving my name, address and what I wanted to purchase. It was a far cry from the Glasgow I had left; but that was then and thank goodness things have changed.

Footnote: In a conversation with Mark Miller before finishing this piece, he told me that he had unearthed some interesting information, after Such Melodious Racket had been published. At 14 King Street East, opposite the King Edward Hotel, in the years 1917-18 there was an establishment called the Cafe Royal that imported jazz bands from the United States!

24aSee  Hear

The partnership between jazz and visual arts has been a sometime feature of programming at the McMichael Gallery. On October 18, 2009 at 1:30 you can enjoy an afternoon of jazz with Tara Davidson, and on November 1st the featured artist will be Alberta-born Colleen Allen. They’re both outstanding reed players representative of the younger generation of established and highly creative players on the local and international scene. The Gallery is at 10365 Islington Ave., Kleinburg. 905-893-1121.

24bMeanwhile, the Jazz Vespers at Christ Church Deer Park, 1570 Yonge Street, continue and on Sunday, October 11, 2009, Joe Sealy (piano) and Paul Novotny (bass) will be featured, followed by the Dixie Demons on the 18th, and Tara Davidson and Mike Murley on the 25th.

Degrees of jazz

The University of Toronto continues its presentation of Small Jazz Ensembles on Wednesday evenings, at 7:30pm in Walter Hall in the Edward Johnson Building.

There’s no admission fee and you have a chance to hear the work of the next generation of musicians. Also, one of the clubs where young players have a chance to get their feet wet in the school of hard knocks and mix with established players is The Rex on Queen Street West, which continues to programme 19 bands per week, including top student ensembles.

There is music out there, so get out and hear some of it live.

Jim Galloway is a saxophonist, band leader and Artistic Director of the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival. He can be contacted at: jazznotes@thewholenote.com.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. It is, of course, the start of a new season. Goodbye to the festival merry-go-round and hello to September Song.

It is interesting, albeit somewhat disheartening, to observe the downward spiral in Toronto – and you can substitute almost all the cities in North America that had a reputation for being “jazz” centres – since the glory days when there were touring bands and a circuit of clubs within driving distance which made it possible to go on the road with a group. There were places for musicians to hone their skills, and a recording industry in which the major labels at least paid lip service to leaders such as Horace Silver, “Cannonball” Aderley and Thelonious Monk, to name only a few. I can remember when The Cav-A-Bob, a club at the foot of Yonge Street, actually hired bands  for a month at a time – bands that included such great jazz players as “Doc” Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Rudy Powell, Red Richards and Buddy Tate!

But the cutbacks kicked in, and a group which normally would have been a sextet became a quintet and the first musician to be left at home would invariably be the bass player, unless, of course, he happened to be the leader. Not much point in going to see the Mingus band if he wasn’t there! The economics of the business became tougher and eventually, instead of an organized group touring, individual artists would come to town and play with a  local rhythm section for a week, sometimes two weeks, until the week became maybe Thursday through Saturday.

Eventually all of those venues fell by the wayside and we are now in a situation where a week-long engagement in a club just does not exist in this city. Today, the concert hall or festival stage has become the only way of seeing and hearing “name” performers. It is a fact of life, and we have to accept it.

So what is in store for Toronto jazz audiences this fall? Quite a lot, as a matter of fact, given the above realities. One of the big events is the opening of Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music and on September their first jazz concert will feature the Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny White Trio with Sophie Milman opening for the main attraction. This new venue is something the city has needed for a long time, a custom-designed performance space with a capacity of just over 1,000 seats. It is beautifully designed, and if the acoustics sound as good as the hall looks it will be a winner.

Located across the street from the Roy Thomson Hall, Quotes Bar & Grill will get underway on September 18 with a new season of Friday evening jazz from 5:00 to 8:00 pm. It’s the fourth year of presenting “Fridays at Five,” featuring the Canadian Jazz Quartet with a guest instrumentalist each week. Saxophone great Pat LaBarbera is the featured guest for the launch. This club has really caught on with fans who like their jazz straight ahead and swinging and it’s a great way to start the weekend.

Looking ahead a little farther, on Thursday September 24 Roy Thomson’s sister venue, Massey Hall, will present Ornette Coleman. His revolutionary musical ideas have been controversial and  his unorthodox manner of playing changed the way of listening to jazz for a lot of people. His primary instrument is the alto saxophone, although he is also a violinist and trumpeter and began his playing career on tenor sax in an R&B band in his native Texas. He has influenced almost all of today’s modern musicians and some of his compositions, such as Lonely Woman and Turnaround have become minor standards.

The Home Smith Bar at The Old Mill is becoming a little oasis of jazz in the West End of the city. Starting September 11, a jazz vocal series called Fridays to Sing About! will run every week from 7:30 to 10:30 pm. Carol McCartney kicks it off with John Sherwood on piano and Dave Young, bass. The following weeks will feature Melissa Stylianou and Heather Bambrick. Meanwhile, the Piano Masters Series will continue on Saturdays, with the cream of local pianists in solo, duo or trio settings. It is a piano player’s heaven because The Old Mill, showing an admirable commitment to their jazz policy, recently installed a new Yamaha C3 grand piano – and the musicians love it!

26AlexanderThe Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander’s career is well documented: Canada’s first black Member of Parliament, observer to the United Nations, a Companion of the Order of Canada and Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1985 to 1991. But perhaps less publicized is his great love of jazz. The Jazz Performance and Education Centre, (JPEC) is presenting A Tribute Evening to Lincoln Alexander on October 1 in the Glenn Gould Studio, featuring some of our leading Canadian artists, including Archie Alleyne (drums), Peter Appleyard (vibes), Guido Basso (trumpet and flugelhorn), Russ Little (trombone), Joe Sealy (piano), and vocalists Arlene Duncan, Michael Dunstan, Molly Johnson and Jackie Richardson. Full details can be found at www.jazzcentre.ca. It is a fitting tribute to a great Canadian.

So you see, there is quite a lot of live jazz to hear in the coming weeks – and I’ve only mentioned a few of the venues in town.

It’s true: “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” but “Nevertheless,” “The Music Goes Round And Round,” and even although I can’t truly say “It’s All Right With Me,”“I Can Dream, Can’t I?” I hope “Autumn Leaves” you with a good feeling, and that you will enjoy some jazz listening in the coming weeks. Just make sure that some of it is live.

It’s June and the festival season kicks into overdrive with events from coast to coast, and groups of musicians doing the festival circuit. For the most part, they arrive, play the concert and move on, without many opportunities to hear other musicians and hang out. That’s life on the road. Another phenomenon, the jazz party is, from a social point of view, somewhat different: for three or four days a group of musicians have the chance of spending time together and socializing.

Last month I was in Midland/Odessa, Texas, for their 46th annual jazz party: a three-day event featuring a lot of the usual suspects, including, among others, Harry Allen, John Allred, Jake Hanna, Ken Peplowski, Bucky Pizzarelli, Allan and Warren Vache, and relatively new additions such as bassist Nicki Parrott and pianist Rossano Sportiello. Over the course of the weekend I was reminded of how much pleasure is derived from the social aspect of these get-togethers. The party circuit is made up of a relatively small band of modern day minstrels who travel huge distances to make their music. For example, Warren, Rossano and I saw each other three times over a period of three weeks in May, but to do so we each travelled over 10,000 miles!

Read more: Sumer Is Icumen In

The human voice is the oldest form of musical expression, and in its earliest use was untexted: think of throat-singing and Celtic mouth music, for example.When one considers some of the current pop-music trends, thinking of the voice as a musical instrument might be a challenge, but even the spoken word can be like music to one's ears. Actor James Earl Jones, for example, has a beautiful voice, although he had to overcome a severe stuttering problem and into his teens he had to communicate with teachers and classmates by handwritten notes! From an earlier generation Ronald Colman had a wonderful, resonant voice that made music just by speaking.

This being the choral issue of The WholeNote, I thought I would give voice to my thoughts on vocal jazz groups. The beginnings of the music go back to ceremonial chants, work songs, field hollers and chain gangs, giving us the origins of the blues, which, in turn became an integral part of jazz. In other words, the roots of jazz were very much vocal, although early jazz bands used singers only intermittently.

Read more: Words and Music

Who is 90 years old, male but known as “mother”, brought new meaning to the word vibrato, can hear a wrong note from fifty paces, has more yarns than a knitting store and still plays a sexy saxophone?

The answer is Gordon Evans, one of the great musicians in Canada who celebrated his 90th birthday last month. We had a party for Gordon and rarely has a room been more filled with love and good vibes. Musicians, friends and admirers were there - young and old - all with lives touched by Gordon Evans.

22_Gordon Evans1

Read more: Jazz Notes: April 09

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