Here we are at December, with all of the closures and quarantines having pretty well confined most musical groups to such measures as Zoom sessions. We even hear that Christmas will be delayed until some time in January, so Santa can quarantine for two weeks. So, with time on my hands, and since December happens to be my birth month, I decided to do a bit of reminiscing instead. 

Early band days

My plan was to start by referring to a band photograph I’ve been looking at from time to time for the past many months. Of course when I actually went to get it to refer to it, Murphy’s Law prevailed. It has disappeared and is not likely to reappear until this column has arrived at the printer. Ergo, rely on memory.

My band days began in Windsor when two school pals told me about the band that they played in. Jimmy Rees (cornet) and Keith Finney (tuba) took me to a rehearsal and introduced me to Mr. Arthur Laley, bandmaster of the High Twelve Boys Band, an all-brass band in the British tradition. As the name implies, the band was sponsored by the local High Twelve Club – High Twelve being an organization of Master Masons placing a special emphasis on youth support, and so-named because, long ago, noon was known as “high twelve” and the time to call off from labour for lunch. 

The band owned all its the instruments, so there would be no significant financial problems for me. Having been given a small toy drum some years earlier, I mentioned that I would like to play drums. Mr. Laley diplomatically informed me that the band did not have an opening for a drummer at that time. He suggested that he could both provide a baritone horn and that he could teach me how to play it. Thus began a lifelong interest in brass instruments.

Most young bands at that time were “Boys Bands”. However, at High Twelve there was a difference. Two of Mr. Laley’s three children were girls. One was the lead cornet, the other was the lead trombone and the son was the lead euphonium. In addition to the weekly band rehearsals, there were sectional rehearsals in Mr. Laley’s basement on other nights. Our summer months were busy too  –. with parades, small tattoos and competitions in various towns in Southern Ontario, to which we were usually fortunate to have a sufficient number of interested parents to drive us. 

Read more: Time to Reminisce

Last month, the Kensington Market Jazz Festival and the Canadian Online Jazz Festival provided concrete examples of virtual engagement on a large scale, showing programmers, audiences and musicians what digital festivals can look like. Musicians, meanwhile, have spent the year grappling with questions of engagement on a deeply personal level. 

With live audiences largely inaccessible, being a professional musician in 2020 has also meant being a recording engineer, a videographer and a social media planner. It has meant paying more for an upgraded internet connection, purchasing studio monitors and interfaces, and soundproofing apartment bedrooms. It has meant, in a virtual world, that musicians must contend with an idea of themselves as a brand, a glowing, disembodied presence on the screens and speakers of listeners. 

This month, I spoke to six different musicians – saxophonist/vocalist Emily Steinwall, drummer Jon Foster, producer/keyboardist Adrian Hogan, guitarist Rod Rodrigues, drummer Robert Diack and guitarist (and WholeNote contributor) Sam Dickinson – about their experiences with the great virtual shift. What follows are extracts from our discussions that involve home recording, livestreaming, brand maintenance and authenticity. Many thanks to these interviewees for their generosity and honesty; all told, I received close to 7,000 words worth of material, enough for several months’ worth of coverage at my standard word counts here.

Read more: Going Digital: Six Musicians Reflect on the Great Virtual Shift

1 GIMME THAT WINEThere’s no use sugar-coating it: this coming winter promises to be the darkest in living memory. Mix the harsh weather we Canadians can always expect this time of year with the fact that COVID-19 numbers are on the rise everywhere (Toronto is about to re-enter a modified form of the spring lockdown as I write), and you have a recipe for Bleak on Toast with a side of Dismal. 

Normally, we can look forward to Christmas and/or Hanukkah to provide an oasis of celebration in the midst of all the cold and ice and snow, but with the lockdown measures set to extend at least 28 days from November 23 on, these holidays will be a lot less festive this year. The best we can hope for is to celebrate them with a vengeance next year and in the meantime, thank God the LCBO is still deemed an essential service. As Lambert, Hendricks & Ross once famously sang, “Gimme that wine (Unhand that bottle).” Cheers.

I’m tired of writing about the effects of COVID on musicians and live music and I suspect you are tired of reading about it, too. Let’s just say it’s been devastating, that many of us have done our best to do a technological end run around the pandemic, and leave it at that. The real question becomes how do we get through the next couple of months with our sanity and spirit intact? I’ve already recommended alcohol, but that doesn’t work for everyone. We’re all going to be cooped up inside so we have to learn to enjoy that as best we can. Cooking, baking, reading a good book or watching some classic movies all help; watching the news, not so much. And of course staying in touch with friends and family by phone or email or Zoom is really important. But above all else, I find listening to music helps the most. Since CDs have become almost obsolete, I came to regret having amassed such a huge collection of them, but no longer. I’ve spent a lot of the past eight months revisiting my collection and it’s been time well spent.

So, in the spirit of “bring it on” which helps Canadians withstand the winters, I’ve decided to offer a menu of songs which address the “joys” of winter – not Christmas or Holiday songs, which we all know – but rather songs which actually have to do with winter itself. If you’re reading this online, I’ve included YouTube links to each in the hope that housebound jazz fans will get some enjoyment out of these gems. 

Read more: Antidote to the Winter of Our Discontent: A 51:48-Minute Playlist

The team at the Glenn Gould School films their fall opera double bill, Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins + William Bolcom’s Lucrezia. Photo c/o The Royal Conservatory.How do you teach opera during a global pandemic?

This was the question facing the team at the Glenn Gould School (GGS) in Toronto, tasked with planning its annual fall opera production. It was April 2020, and no one knew how long newly-imposed COVID-19 restrictions would stay in place, or what might be happening six months in the future when rehearsals were officially scheduled to begin. Little did they know at the time that they would be working on a new, operatic hybrid of stage and film – rehearsed, sung, and recorded for online consumption. 

“My meetings in the spring and early summer were all about ‘How can we do this? What kind of project can this be?’” explained director Amanda Smith when I spoke with her in November 2020. “Just trying to pay attention to what was happening in the world and what would be safe meant that it took several months to figure this out, always looking at the potential of what we could create.”

Read more: This fall, the GGS adapts opera for online – plexiglass and all

The UnCovered: Notes from the Heart ensemble, recording the full cast finale in front of Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music. Photo by Dahlia KatzAs Halloween approaches, I would normally be looking forward to going to Toronto’s beautiful Koerner Hall for one of my favourite events in the fall music theatre calendar – The Musical Stage Company’s annual UnCovered concert. Clearly, this won’t be taking place this year as it usually does, so I got in touch with company founder and artistic director Mitchell Marcus to find out about how the company is reinventing itself in response to the pandemic. What struck me most in our conversation was a sense of renewed emphasis on the importance of creating, maintaining and expanding community through the sharing of music and storytelling. 

Mitchell MarcusCommunity has always been at the heart of Musical Stage’s mandate, he told me, but with the company’s rebranding in 2017, and recent explosive expansion, “perhaps we have lost a little bit of that.” But with the intense process of the last seven months it has come very much back into focus. Like other companies forced to pivot when theatres were shut down in the middle of March, MSC has leapt into the new world of experimentation: with small outdoor physically distanced live shows (Porchside Songs); with rehearsals and workshops conducted online via Zoom; and, most prominently, by reimagining their signature annual theatrical concert, UnCovered

Read more: MSC’s UnCovered Reinvented

trioMethod for the Madness

Toronto weather the third week of October is still comfortably moist and mild. In the park across from my midtown street, mature deciduous trees are still tenuously holding to a blend of burgundy, flaming red, orange, yellow and green – a reminder of the kind of weather that used to signal the fall live music harvest in the times before. Sadly all live concert bets are off during this last quarter of the current year, but The Music Gallery (MG), proudly billing itself as “Toronto’s Centre for Creative Music,” is an example of an organization that continues its programming by all available means. 

Going on 44 years, presenting and promoting “leading-edge contemporary music in all genres,” the MG has its current sights set on an ambitious project involving 15 musicians, six video artists, plus audio and video mixer technicians. Receiving its webcast premiere on November 20, Exquisite Departures is curated by Tad Michalak; the work is part of the MG’s Departures Series which Michalak has been running since 2014. 

The Exquisite Departures title and structure derive from what began as a 1920s Surrealist game – and which is variously seeing new life these days as a way of bringing creative methods to distance madness. As described in “Exquisite Corpse” and Other Coping Strategies in the July/August 2020 WholeNote, the basis of the original Dadaist game was for players in turn to write something, folding the page to hide part of what they had written before passing it on to another player who would have to continue it without seeing all of it. The (sometimes) enriching fun came when the whole thing was presented, with the missing parts revealed. 

And also recently in The WholeNote, in Lessons Learned from the CEE’s COVID-Era Experiences, David Jaeger reported on a Canadian Electronic Ensemble project titled  “Pass the Track” –devised by the six-member CEE in response to not being able physically to meet to make music. Using a process similar to exquisite corpse, Pass the Track relied on a process of layering audio tracks digitally sent from one CEE member to another, each adding another audio layer. It was all mixed and edited by the CEE’s Paul Stillwell who also enhanced two of the pieces with captivating digital animation. (For more details please visit canadianelectronicensemble.com.) 

Read more: Exquisite Departures in trying times

Baroque for BabyThe cognitive benefits of musical studies are well-documented and often repeated – used to attract and draw in prospective students to music schools and studios across the world. For many parents, music lessons for their children is as much an investment in their future as the pursuit of cultural understanding and artistic accomplishment – a résumé-building, college-application-enhancing tool in some future well beyond the horizon.

But while the decision to undertake musical studies is often pragmatic, even when it is not it should be initiated as early as possible, exposing even babies’ ears to the widest possible range of symphonies, songs and sounds and encouraging our little geniuses to connect with as much aural diversity as possible. As a parent, it can be challenging to consider such things, especially when entering one’s fourth Baby Shark marathon of the day, but Tafelmusik is helping make the introduction of classical music to our youngest family members slightly easier with their latest album, Baroque for Baby.

Read more: Testing the Waters: Tafelmusik’s Baroque for Baby

From both a local jazz and personal perspective, I didn’t think it could get any worse than 2019 where, as I wrote here previously, in rapid succession the deaths of Ed Bickert, Gary Williamson and John Sumner robbed the Toronto scene of three of its best musicians, and for many of us, of three long-standing and treasured friends. Norma Thompson and Rochelle Koskie, two great ladies who had adorned the Toronto scene for decades, also passed. In the middle of all of this I fell and tore up my shoulder pretty badly – very small potatoes compared to dying – but for a time the injury called into question my future as a bass player. And about a month later, my good friend Patti Loach had a bad cycling accident and tore up her clavicle. Pianist Norman Amadio made it through 2019, but just barely, dying on January 21, 2020 after a long decline. But his death, coming before the pandemic hit us, seems like last year, too. Several times back then I said out loud that on a close-to-home level, it was the worst year I could remember, ever. How wrong I was.

Cortege

2020 has seen more deaths of jazz musicians than any other year in memory. Not all of these were COVID-related, but many were. Here’s a partial list – the ones I can remember off the top of my head – and it’s not even Halloween yet: Lee Konitz, Ellis Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Annie Ross, Holli Ross, (no relation but also a wonderful singer), Steve Grossman, Henry Grimes and  Giuseppi Logan (days apart in April), Johnny Mandel, Jimmy Cobb, Lennie Niehaus, Eddie Gale, Helen Jones Woods, Robert Northern, Cleveland Eaton, Keith Tippett, Gary Peacock, Ira Sullivan, and two men who were not musicians but who each had a major impact on jazz for many years – Chicago-based promoter Joe Segal and writer/critic Stanley Crouch. 

And this doesn’t include musicians in other fields – Bill Withers, Peter Green (for my money the best British blues guitarist of them all), Charlie Daniels, John Prine (broke my heart), Eddie Van Halen and many others I’ve no doubt forgotten. Like the ballpark hawker says, “Get yer program, folks, you can’t tell the (dead) players without a program!” There have been more jazz obit notices in my email than nuisance promotions lately. The virus taketh away and then it taketh away more.

Read more: Jazz in the Kitchen: The COVID-19 Sessions

As we sit in anticipation of small white crystals on our lawns, rather than those colourful bright leaves, we have to realize that our community music is going to be very different this year than the rehearsals and concerts we have been accustomed to. While the social aspects of community music have almost entirely disappeared, along with the leaves, with so many advances in digital technology we are seeing amazing adaptations across the musical spectrum.

Tech Talk

In last month’s issue of this column I mentioned that New Horizons Band of Toronto, in collaboration with Resa’s Pieces, would be working with Long and McQuade Music for a “Tech Talk Workshop.” Other than the fact that the venture was to consist of a few online Zoom sessions of advice from specialists at L & M, details were rather sketchy at the time. Since I was not able to participate in the first of these in order to find out more for myself, I asked Randy Kligerman from New Horizons what sparked the idea and how the first session worked out.

Read more: Music for Life

Billy Newton Davis (KMJF)A month ago, as I was putting together the October edition of this column, it seemed as though the live music scene in Southern Ontario was beginning – cautiously, carefully – to reassemble itself. Clubs were posting listings on their websites; artists were beginning to advertise gigs on social media; it was possible to plan a night out. Then, on October 10, restaurants in at least three regions were ordered closed for indoor seating and live music was put on hold once again. While there are still some clubs that are presenting shows, including The Jazz Room in Waterloo, there is a cloud of uncertainty hovering over the industry: venues, musicians and patrons alike. If case numbers go down, will venues be permitted to reopen? If they reopen, will audiences feel safe (and motivated) enough to seek out live music? 

Meanwhile, amidst the gnawing uncertainty, two organizations have committed to presenting major jazz festivals in November, in streaming formats, with a full range of venues, from clubs to concert halls, involved, playing their part in keeping the music alive.

Read more: Rolling with the Punches: A Tale of Two Virtual Festivals

Debashis Sinha. Photo by Shigeo GomiIt was quite a pleasant surprise this month, after months of inactivity when I received the October listings to see that there is a variety of different performances coming up in October. If you are a fan of new and experimental music, you will once again be able to indulge in listening to what’s currently going on, even though these events will be limited to livestream. One of the upcoming concerts that caught my eye was a performance by Debashis Sinha, a sound-based artist comfortable working in a variety of media. He combines his experiences as a South Asian Canadian who trains with master drummers from various world music traditions with a love of electroacoustic music and technology. His work, Adeva (version000_01), will be performed via livestream on October 24 in an event produced by New Adventures in
Sound Art and Charles Street Video. 

I began my conversation with Sinha by inquiring into how his South Asian Canadian identity has impacted his creative work. Growing up in Winnipeg within the context of a very small Indian community that itself was a mixture of different Indian cultures meant that they all shared a hodgepodge of cultural expressions. “For me growing up, everything was all mixed up together. This has fuelled a lot of the work and the exploration that I do with mythology and storytelling by imagining aspects of my culture, its deities and trying to fill in the blanks.” 

Read more: Adventures in Sound Art: Machine Language and Livestreams
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