Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sunday, January 10, 2010

April in Paris

Having lived through a London winter - lots of rain and fog punctuated by brief periods of sunshine and an occasional light snowfall - Judy and I planned a trip to Paris. I needed a new trumpet as I had progressed as much as was possible on the leaky trumpet I bought in a pawn shop in Montreal to replace the one that had been stolen. Also, I wanted to see about getting a gig in France for a small group I had put together over the winter that included Neil Michaud (bass) and Galt McDermott (piano). Neil’s claim to fame had been playing a week in Montreal a decade earlier with Charlie Parker. Galt, also from Montreal, subsequently left London for New York where he gained instant recognition by composing the music for “Hair”, the great Broadway hit of the ‘60s.

With these projects in mind as well as sightseeing and checking out the music scene, we left for a ten day trip to Paris in April. We arrived in Paris after a British ferry “ride” from Dover to Calais replete with strong tea and hard crumpets, and an overnight trip to the Gare du Nord on the super fast and comfortable French railway. Our new bible in hand, “Paris on Five Dollars a Day”, we set out for the rue de la Harpe in the Latin Quarter where we found a small, really pleasant and well-maintained Dutch hotel. It had one of those cage elevators and ‘lo and behold’ - a bidet!

We got up the next morning and went to a café across the street. There, I had what was to become my standard Paris breakfast: a Gauloise cigarette, a strong cup of cappuccino and a croissant. The cobwebs blown away, I was ready for a day of sightseeing, reconnoitring and just digging the Paris scene. The city was resplendent in the beautiful spring sun. It was easy to see why so many songs and musical scores centered on the composers’ fascination with this beautiful city on the banks of the Seine.

One evening, we enjoyed a concert by the Modern Jazz Quartet - John Lewis (piano), Connie Kay (drums), Milt Jackson (vibes) and my favourite bassist, Percy Heath. Afterwards, the night still young, we ambled up the rue de la Harpe and checked out a jazz club. Outside was a picture of the main attraction, boogie woogie pianist and New Orleans blues singer – Champion Jack Dupree. I had never heard of him and the entrance to the club gave no hint of the action inside.

As we walked in we were greeted by a tableau that could only have been believably reproduced by Toulouse Lautrec. It was like walking into an artist’s rendition of a Paris club and a New Orleans neighbourhood party rolled into one scene.

Champion Jack was in full swing and quite unbelievably there was Percy Heath accompanying him on the bass, leaving behind the minimalist constructions that were the hallmark of John Lewis’ cerebral compositions, and getting down with the blues roots of the music he loved to play. Champion Jack was in fine form, playing stride and boogie woogie piano to accompany some very bawdy blues lyrics that he composed himself. He seemed particularly happy to introduce a tall, slender and singularly attractive, black woman who sang a couple of songs with the band. An audience of Parisians going to a favourite haunt for a swinging night out seemed to be very much in tune with the entertainment. This venue was a warm introduction to the music and lyrics of Mr. Dupree.

A striking contrast was provided a few nights later at le Blue Note de Paris. I was really looking forward to hearing the Bud Powell trio with Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke. It was mid week and the club was virtually empty save a few seemingly bored habitués. The trio played a set that exhibited the fluidity of Bud’s phrases and the technical virtuosity of its members - Bud on piano, Kenny Clarke on drums and an excellent French bassist. It seemed to me that while these musicians would never play a set that would disappoint musically, that this night they were just playing the set by rote. It lacked humour and passion and the patrons were equally downbeat.

I spotted a “strung out” Chet Baker in a corner of the room and went to speak to him as, along with Miles, he was one of my early influences on trumpet. He asked what I was doing in Paris. When I mentioned that I was here to buy a trumpet, he said he was selling his and that I should meet him the next day in front of the club.

The next day at noon we went to the club. Chet was standing on the sidewalk. After a short conversation with a tall, very uptight junkie it hit me that I couldn’t take advantage of his bad situation to acquire this trumpet. I knew that depriving him of the tools of his trade would haunt me every time I took that horn out of its case. We walked away in different directions. He was headed for a pawn shop and I was relieved that he would eventually get his trumpet back and that I didn’t finance his next ten “hits” of heroin.

The following day we went to check out the home of the famous “Martin (Paris)” brass instruments. We arrived at the address, rang the bell, and were summoned up the long dimly lit stairway. We entered a room that looked surprisingly like a kitchen. Monsieur Martin, who appeared to be in his late sixties, introduced us to his wife, a short, stocky lady who was stirring a huge black iron pot on top of the stove. It was filled with gold lacquer in which she dipped the brass cornets, trumpets, and flugelhorns that were so carefully hand crafted by her husband.

On the wall were autographed pictures of world famous trumpet players surrounding a picture of Jean Baptiste Arban the great 19th century trumpet player and educator. As the couple of trumpets ready for purchase were of too small a bore, we thanked them and once more left empty handed.

We eventually went to the Selmer factory where I bought a large bore, lightweight trumpet that along with my Giardinelli 7B mouthpiece helped me to produce a full sound in the middle and lower registers where I was wont to play. This task having been accomplished, we attended a pre-arranged meeting with a respected French music agent.

He was a shrewd but diplomatic man. Unlike British show biz agents he didn’t have to put one through a degrading, inconclusive audition. We spoke for a while and he told me that he could book me in several resorts in the south of France but that bringing a whole quartet from London was out of the question. I had yet another decision to make. I thanked him and said I would not be taking his offer. There were many reasons to not accept this opportunity, but the main one was my lack of confidence in the chemistry between me and the random musicians that would be available as 'sidemen'.

Our business in Paris finished, it was time to leave this glittering jewel, this city, to return to the more familiar surroundings of London.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

London Three

Notting Hill

Returning from the Isle of Wight (the scene of Jimi Hendrix' last live concert in 1970), I found new living quarters in Notting Hill at the top end of Portobello Road – a still famous antiques market. Pembridge Road is a very short street extending Portobello Road to Notting Hill Gate. 38 Pembridge Road was a small townhouse where the owner, Dr. Dempsey, had a surgery on the main floor. The two upper floors were converted to four typical London "bed-sitters" that would have been called bachelor pads in North America. In the basement lived the housekeeper and her husband.

Mrs. Strang kept the premises spic and span during the day and retired to the basement in the late afternoon where she and her husband drank until they went to bed. The good Irish doctor had office hours three afternoons a week and seemed to avoid contact with the tenants. Consequently, we had a clean and private existence in the middle of one of the most interesting neighbourhoods in London. It was a good thing that I found a pied-a-terre as quickly since Judy, my fiancée, was coming to London in a few weeks.

While the gas fire that required shillings to keep it going, the telephone in the hall and the bathtub in the basement weren't exactly selling points when Judy arrived, the really lovely young couple downstairs helped to make her arrival a more pleasant experience. Ian, a young law student, came first in the London bar exams and became V.P. of Thames Hudson Publishing while we were living there. His wife Nathalie was a French translator from Nice who worked for the British civil service. Ian loved Dizzy Gillespie and Nathalie became a fan of Les Double Six de Paris, an excellent French vocal group that predated The Swingle Singers and The Manhattan Transfer. I mention this as every time I visited them they played the album "Dizzy Gillespie and Les Double Six". I grew to love the album both because it is a tour-de-force and because of the memories it evokes of Ian and Nathalie. You can hear a couple of tracks if you click on box.net under Guy's MP3s at the right of this page.

Other than rehearsal bands, gigs during the winter in London were sparse and mainly one-nighters. Judy and I both got day jobs at Selfridges Department store on Oxford St. between Trafalgar Square and Oxford Circus. Selfridges was an American style department store like Macy's in New York or Eaton's in Montreal. Judy got a permanent job that she liked in the bedding department. I worked in the stationary department over Christmas where the only memorable event was the day that a very grumpy Marlene Dietrich came to buy $70. worth of Scotch tape.

Diagonally across the street from 38 Pembridge Rd.was the Prince Albert pub (my "local"). Around the corner and just steps from the Prince Albert was the Ballet Rambert dance studio where Mike Westbrook's Band held weekly rehearsals. Mike got a new trumpet player (Henry Lowther) while I was away, but I got to replace him for several weeks. During that period, we did a concert with Cornelius Cardew, an avant-garde composer in the John Cage idiom. As we mostly ad-libbed from strange musical notations, I really enjoyed playing this concert.

I introduced John Warren to the band and befriended John Surman, one of the best baritone saxophone players I ever heard play let alone had the privilege to know. Amazingly John Surman, John Warren, and Mike Westbrook are all still working and recording. Among the other young musicians in this band who were to achieve well deserved reputations in the world of British jazz were Malcolm Griffiths (trombone), Mike Osborne (alto sax) and Alan Jackson (drums). The band was a veritable "hot house" for young musical talent. Mike Westbrook was eventually awarded an OBE for his innovative musical works and for pioneering mixed media presentations in England.

John Warren played flute and saxophone in the band. He then formed his own band that showcased his music and subsequently formed a musical partnership with John Surman that produced the album, "The Brass Project". John's latest offering, "Following On" is being released February 15, 2010. Following upon his "Finally Beginning" and "Northern Brass" albums it completes a compilation of John's excellent composer/arranger skills. These recordings exhibit John's maturity and a devotion to the jazz riffs and rhythms that formed his art.

John Surman has become a dominant force in jazz improvisation. His strong technical skills as a saxophonist and mastery of the music he loves carve a niche for him as a store of musical information for those who follow in his footsteps. Influenced by those who came before him he continues to add to the music lexicon as evidenced by his playing on his latest CD "Brewster's Rooster", where he is accompanied by jazz greats John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack de Johnette.

Getting encouragement, advice, and friendship from these musicians was priceless. Their devotion to their craft, and persistence in their quest for mastery of their instruments and the musical forms in which they travailed was a stark reminder of what it took to join the elite of the British jazz fraternity.

Friday, November 13, 2009

London Two

During the last few weeks before I left for the Isle of Wight, John and I spent a lot of time listening to the Steve Lacy record I brought from Montreal. The long lean lines of Steve's soprano solos and Don Cherry's pocket trumpet solos became etched in my brain.

It was my good fortune to find out about a new London rehearsal band just a short stroll up Ladbroke Grove and around the corner on Elgin Crescent. On my way up Ladbroke Grove that evening a motley group of teenagers led, in a single file, by a young, red haired girl crossed the street in front of me, came to a stop and stared at me. I have no idea, to this day, what this was all about. I continued on my way and entered Mike Westbrook's house where the sounds of a band tuning up wafted into the street.

At the door stood a tall, young man who greeted me warmly and invited me to play trumpet with them. Kind and non-judgemental he made me feel at ease and we started playing. Mike's love of Duke Ellington's music, and his own devotion to writing music that went to the heart and soul of his instrumentalists was evinced by the full sound that his band produced. He asked me to get in touch with him when I got back from the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight

I arrived at Yarmouth, Isle of Wight having taken a very short ferry trip from the English mainland. After a cab ride to Norton's Holiday Camp, I was shown to a self-contained cabin that I shared with Peter Hampton, the band's drummer. Pete was already there and, with an East London accent, welcomed me to our home for the next four months. It was good fortune that we were billeted together as we quickly became fast friends for the duration. We haunted the Norton bar during our breaks and after work and never a cross word was uttered between us.

I had never heard of Holiday camps prior to coming to England. They were a post-war phenomenon that was capitalised upon by a guy called Billy Butlin who just kept building his chain of vacation sites across the British Isles. Holiday camps were usually populated by working class families who went there for an annual vacation and a bit of organised fun. Norton's was a slimmed down version owned by "the Major", a retired army Major.

Pete and I checked out the dining hall, a barn like structure with long tables and pretty crummy food. The "punters", as the campers were called, seemed to be oblivious to the fare. It was my impression that they were there for a good time and that nothing would stand in their way; and nothing did. One had to factor into one's observations, culled from a North American perspective, that the most devastating war of the 20th century was raging across Europe and in their own country two decades earlier. I read in the paper that the traditional sausage was now required, by parliamentary edict, to contain at least 14% meat. Other big headlines that summer were the Great Train Robbery, the Profumo Affair, and Stirling Moss failing his test for a motorcycle driver's permit.

The band consisted of trumpet, piano, bass, drums and the leader (Len Lewis) on clarinet. The guys were all very professional, despite the fact that most of them had other jobs in the off season. Our work on stage went very smoothly and the rhythm section was surprisingly tight. We got to play some jazz when Len asked me to emcee and sing some for the revellers. I sang a few Slim Gaillard bebop riffs and the band got to adlib. Much to Len's surprise it added to the party atmosphere and became a nightly feature.

Several weeks into the gig the piano player eloped with one of the waitresses and we were looking for a new piano player. We lucked out musically as Percy Roberts was a middle-aged, professional pianist from Australia. He brought his wife Betty with him as both were blind (I think from birth). His main influence was George Shearing (a great British, blind jazz pianist) and he could play just like him, although he had his own style. The rhythm section, which also included a good young bassist, Colin Cooper, jumped a level with more varied chords and faultless accompaniment.

During the day our new friends fit right in with the activities at the camp - a tribute to their tenacity, and a testament to the kindness of the band members and the rest of the people at the camp. They particularly enjoyed our afternoon excursions to the King's Head Pub in Yarmouth which was a 15 minute walk from Norton's. The Kings Head was said to be the watering hole for pirates and sailors in the nineteenth century, and the local dialect was still similar to that in old pirate movies. Pints of draft Guinness were still pulled at the bar from wooden barrels in the basement by an expert publican. One day we couldn't find Percy and Betty when we were leaving for the pub, so I pinned a note on their cabin door telling them we were at the King's Head. About an hour later they wandered into the pub and asked why we didn't invite them. I piped up, "But, I left a note on your door". Everybody broke up laughing and I finally realized my mistake.

Once a week I was invited to sit in with some of the "jazzers" at a neighbouring Holiday camp. They were working London musicians notably "Miff" Mole, an alto player, and "Duke" Pearson, a drummer. Can you believe these names? They were a bit nuts and a lot of fun. We jammed one afternoon a week and got away from the strictures of our summer gigs.

We did a bit of sightseeing on one of the prettiest islands off the coast of England. The months flew by quickly as is the case with most summer seasons, and it was soon time to return to London.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

London

Ladbroke Grove

John Warren and Bill Hartley met me at the boat train and sort of tried to hide their disappointment when they found out that I only had a half crown (Tube fare) left to my name. They were obviously expecting a new, large cache of Canadian funds to appear on their doorstep.

Having glossed over this contretemps, we took the tube home and arrived at their digs on Basset Road in Ladbroke Grove. It was a foggy evening in London. I had arrived at the tail end of one of London’s worst killer fogs and catarrh was the word of the day in this working class district in the north end of Notting Hill.

The next night (things moved rather more swiftly in London than in Montreal) I was “sitting-in” with a blues band in a London pub. Hartley had arranged this and invited a few friends. Fat John’s Blues Band was a good working pub band, and getting it together with them was a real pleasure. Fortunately, Hartley thought I had played well. It seemed to me that a first attempt at making it in a totally new environment focuses one’s efforts, and propels one’s playing to a different level. It was an interesting night.

The next day, after a couple of futile attempts to find alternate “digs”, we three decided I was to live on Basset Road until I got a gig. We occupied the basement flat in a large, run-down house owned by Russian émigrés, Count and Countess Lapin, whom Hartley had dubbed Bunny. They claimed to be Russian nobility. Bunny was a pleasantly weird landlady and the Count was definitely off his rocker. He could be seen any afternoon sitting on the roof of his house with a large, old-fashioned brass telescope surveying his new kingdom.

The neighbours were equally colourful. Across the street was a baritone sax player, a friend of an excellent British jazz trombonist that we knew from Montreal. They both played in the Guards band at Buckingham Palace, and in the palace dance band put together from the personnel of the Guards band for palace parties. Living in the basement flat next-door was a working Calypso pianist (Russ Henderson) who was also musical director of the steel band that led off the Notting Hill Festival every year.

Evening light in Ladbroke Grove was eerily beautiful. The setting sun filtering through the smog cast a pink hue throughout the Grove - a special treat combining nature’s best gift and man’s worst efforts. It’s not surprising that Ladbroke Grove was a home for hippies and bohemians and eventually became a breeding ground for punk and ska bands. Out of the Grove came groups like Motorhead and The Clash.

It was important to me on an existence level to not impose on my hosts for more than a month. John, a budding jazz music composer and arranger, was not working as much at his part time job at the post office and we were living on Arnold’s bread and jam. Hartley, who had a really good job at Reuters as an overnight re-write editor would bring us fish and chips for breakfast that he bought for us on Portobello Rd. at the end of his shift. At night we drank beer at the Prince Albert Pub in Notting Hill before Hartley went to work.

Archer Street
While many jobs were advertised in The Melody Maker, a newspaper that in the 50’s and 60’s promoted Jazz music and musicians, the fastest way to get work was by attending the weekly get-together of London musicians on Archer Street. London had streets for everything. For example, Jermyn Street was where you went to get made-to-measure shirts. It blew my mind to find out that there was a street for musicians to swap leads for jobs and gossip about the latest trends and happenings on the London music scene.

Archer Street was off Piccadilly Circus just behind the Windmill Theatre, next to Soho and the Berwick Street Market. Every Monday hundreds of musicians would fill the street: glad handing, making contacts, swapping phone numbers and getting gigs from those who were there in search of sidemen for their bands. When the pubs re-opened in the afternoon - they closed between lunch and tea time so that some work might to done to move the country forward - the crowd of musicians spilled into them.

I really liked working the street as I could use the skills I had acquired in Montreal getting gigs and setting up venues for Montreal musicians to jam. Just to underline the point, I immediately got a really good gig on the Isle of Wight for four months. Len Lewis the leader of the quintet invited me to his house in the outskirts of London, where he and his wife ran a wool shop. In the summer he led a band at Norton’s Holiday camp. He fitted me up for a tuxedo. We arranged for the cost to be deducted from my wages, and I had my first paying gig in England starting three weeks hence.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Going to England

Well, I finally got a BA degree and, due to a really bad Canadian economy in the early 60's, was offered a job as a dish washer. Music gigs were very sporadic and short term. It was obviously time to make some decisions to alter an unpromising immediate future.

My friends John Warren and Bill Hartley had left Montreal the previous year and settled in London, England. They had written and suggested that I join them. I was aware that prospects in England might not be very different, but with a bit of courage and some ingenuity I could at least make a living and see London, meet some new musicians and get to play some different gigs.

Ron Egli, another friend of ours gave me a going away party - lots of friends - a really great bash! One young actor, Paul Hecht, gave me an ear-opening Steve Lacy LP (Evidence) that I brought to London. Well, there was no going back. Judy booked me a 4th class passage on the SS United States leaving from NYC and I bought an overnight bus ticket to the "Big Apple".

What is it about New York City and coincidences? As soon as I got on the midnight bus I was sitting with Al, a New York bebop alto player who was returning home after spending a year of his life in Montreal playing the odd gig and generally "boosting" to feed a heroin habit. It was an odd moment as I knew that it was Al who stole my trumpet at a jam session at the McGill Student Union. Due to a youthful tolerance born of a fixation on more important things like inhabiting a vibrant musical space called Jazz, I soon passed on the negative and got to know Al a bit better. For his part he seemed moved by contrition to showing me a few of his hangouts in New York.

When we got off the bus, it was mid-morning. We had something to eat and went to Jilly's, a small but famous bar where musicians and show-biz people went to relax and to "meet and greet". We had a drink and went to Birdland at noon where Al said John Coltrane practiced every day with his bass player Jimmy Garrison and his drummer Elvin Jones.

Birdland at that hour was cavernous and empty save for the three musicians in the far corner. Coltrane was practicing long "sheets of sound" with Elvin and Jimmy Garrison propelling his solos with wild, energetic rhythms.

When the music came to an end, Al brought me over to introduce me to the band. Before he could say anything, Elvin jumped up from behind his drums and said with an ear to ear grin, "Guy, how are you man? What brings you to New York?" Al was a bit taken aback, but I had met Elvin after a Monk concert in Montreal. After a few pleasant exchanges, I told Elvin that I had to make my way to the port to board a ship going to England. It was a tough decision-hanging with these guys or going to the boat and completing the first leg of my journey. Fortunately discretion overcame the urge to throw away my trip to England, and Al took me to Giardinelli's.

Trumpet players in the fifties and sixties coveted the the mouthpieces made by by Mr. Giardinelli. Buying a new one at his store in NY was high on my agenda. Another NY coincidence: the guy working behind the counter was Kenny Dorham – a truly great bebop trumpeter and member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. After a perfunctory "hello" to Al, Mr. Dorham helped me pick out a mouthpiece (7B). He was there to sell trumpet mouthpieces: not to make small talk. A few fleeting moments with one of my early, jazz trumpet player heroes, and it was time to thank Al and take a cab to the Port of New York.

The SS United States

This was the largest and fastest passenger ship plying the Atlantic at that time. Because it was built with a view to conversion as a troop ship it had 4 classes. Great for me as I could only afford a 4th class fare in the bowels of the ship.

Probably because we were still docked in NY, strange events kept occurring. I took off my suit and started to relax in my cabin when a cabin mate showed up. A tall, handsome, dapper 28 yr. old Frenchman spoke to me in French and said he had to meet some friends onshore, but that he would be back before the ship sailed.

Moments later a ship's steward arrived with trays of hors d'oeuvres. After a tense discussion we determined that the roommate had ordered them and would be back soon to sign for them.

Well the ship sailed and he never came back. He was obviously trying to throw someone off his trail, and I won't bore you with speculations as to why this seemed necessary. The steward, swearing and muttering, came back to pick up the trays and a third cabin mate, a very grumpy guy, changed his cabin assignment. I had a 4 bunk cabin all to myself for the rest of the voyage. The rest of the trip was uneventful and quite pleasant. We spent the day in the third class bar and ate in the third class dining room.

I met a beautiful, I guess you could say old-fashioned, girl from Philadelphia in the bar and spent each afternoon in the bar with her and several other guys making small talk. She was going to a US army base in Frankfurt to live there with her husband.

The last two nights on the ship found me in the first class ballroom with a new friend, the drummer with the ship's orchestra - The Meyer Davis Orchestra. This was an offshoot of a famous New York society band. The drummer (very competent and professional) and I spent the the last two nights bemoaning the fact that it wasn't The Miles Davis Orchestra and he spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of what he called "panama green".

I didn't go to bed the last night as I had promised my new friend from Philly that I would meet her on the deck to watch the sunrise and watch the boat dock at Le Havre where she was meeting a train to Frankfurt. It was really magical. When we docked, the port of Le Havre was bustling and looked like an impressionist painting with French sailors in their unique, but colourful uniforms and berets with red pompoms. I said goodbye to my new friend and we wished each other good luck.

When the boat left Le Havre for Southampton, I knew this brief respite from mundane considerations, like earning a living, was over.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Nuages

The Little Vienna

Stanley Street, in the early sixties, was my very favourite street in all of Montreal. It was lined on one side with coffee shops and European restaurants. The back door of Sir George Williams University opened on to the street next door to the Stanley Tavern.

Across the street was The Little Vienna Restaurant – a really good, 50 seat, no compromise Viennese establishment owned by Mr. (Fred) Nash.

Mr. Nash was a short, jolly restaurateur from Vienna. He had a quick smile and a pleasant word for everyone entering his premises. He was a competent entrepreneur with a heart of gold – a combination that usually has a short shelf life. His potato soup was to die for, and word of mouth made his restaurant a favourite for jet setters and business people from Germany and Scandinavia.

As I had developed a friendly relationship with Mr. Nash and a gastronomical one with his potato soup, Billy Georgette suggested that I approach him to hire a jazz group several evenings a week. Billy was a young bebop piano player with a bent for promoting jazz and jazz musicians in Montreal.

Mr. Nash went for the idea with gusto and Billy convinced him to hire the René Thomas Trio (guitar,bass,drums) as the house band and to let Billy book New York musicians on the week-ends to be featured with the trio.

René Thomas

A Belgian guitarist and a disciple of the great Django Reinhardt, René had taken up residence in Montreal for several years and was known in Europe and New York City as an established, virtuoso guitarist. Sonny Rollins said in 1958, when René joined his orchestra, that there was no other guitarist in the States with more talent. His melodic playing on ballads and the fluidity of his guitar solos on up-tempo tunes made every evening memorable.

Among the featured musicians booked by Billy was Duke Jordan, a bebop pianist who played on many Charlie Parker recordings and gigs. J.R. Montrose and Bobby Jaspar, both excellent tenor saxophone players, were among René’s favourite guest musicians.

J.R. Montrose came for the week-end and became a regular, coming back for week long engagements. By the end of the first three nights they were playing as though they had played together for months. Each had their own musical voice that meshed seamlessly and without compromise. Their collaboration was so successful that they made a recording with J.R.’s rhythm section in his home town in New York State. The album Guitar Groove became a favourite of mine. I have included a link (box.net) to a couple of tunes from the album at the right of this page. This is pretty much what one could hear any night at the Little Vienna.

Bobby Jaspar and René Thomas, both Belgians, played together and recorded from the ‘50s until Bobby’s death in Europe in the ‘60’s. When Bobby was booked to come and play at the restaurant the anticipation and excitement were palpable. Mr. Nash and René would tell everyone how wonderful it was that Bobby and René were to be re-united in Mr. Nash’s little club. They didn’t tell you this to get you there but because they were both genuinely excited.

I went to the club on the last night of this engagement. Half way through the first set a distinguished gentleman came and sat at the table in front of ours. He had a blue blazer and grey slacks and looked like he had just come from dinner at a yacht club.

Big smiles and waves from the bandstand as this gentleman took his seat. It was none other than Dr. “Toots” Thielemans, a world famous harmonica player from Belgium whose rendition of “Bluesette” made the pop charts. He was coaxed to the bandstand where he pulled a harmonica from his blazer pocket and played a couple of tunes flawlessly, ending with everyone’s favourite; “Bluesette” in ¾ time.

He left the club immediately after the set was over and I couldn’t help wondering if this well tailored gentleman was off to a midnight meeting with his bank manager. At the end of the evening one had to pull René and Mr. Nash from the ceiling.

Good vibes, excellent cuisine and great jazz. Who could ask for more?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Yesterdays

Gil Coggins

In a short biographical sketch, Eugene Chadbourne writes, “…Davis was actually only 16 years old when Coggins met him. The pianist was only two years Davis' senior …, an army soldier stationed at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri. As for Davis, he had a gig playing his trumpet at a bowling alley near the base. The tap dancer Honey Coles was also Coggins' sergeant in this period. Coggins eventually played on sessions with Davis that were released on labels such as Blue Note and Prestige.”

I met Gil in Ste. Jovite at a small hotel in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. In my early twenties, I had been listening to his piano playing on an old Miles Davis album for seven years. We were getting to know each other prior to starting a two month summer gig at the Pines Hotel.

Marvin Jay, with whom I had collaborated in bringing Monk to Montreal for a concert, hired me to play a summer gig and asked me to find a rhythm section. I immediately phoned Freddie McHugh who had filled in for Monk’s bass player at the aforementioned concert. He said he would do the gig if he could get his friend Gil Coggins to play the piano.

It was a funny line up as Marvin sang, emceed and played cocktail drums with Freddie on bass, Gillie on piano and yours truly on trumpet. While it was adequate for week nights with a small crowd, the band needed to be more dynamic on the week-end when the room was packed with customers.

Once again Freddie rode to the rescue. He convinced Pierre Beluse, the first chair timpanist with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, to play with us on the week-ends. After the first night Pierre, an excellent jazz drummer, was hooked. Wild horses couldn’t have dragged him away from playing with Gillie and Freddie every week. He became the final third of the best rhythm section I ever played with. I don’t know if I’m more amazed that this summer happened or that I’m sitting at a computer writing about it 45 years later.

A summer to remember

Gillie was a tall, gentle man who put me at ease within a few minutes of getting together. We developed a camaraderie that was to continue unabated for the rest of the summer. His musical abilities, combined with a real desire to get along, set the members of this odd band on a path to playing well together and enjoying each other’s company.

For his part he seemed to be happy to leave behind the New York hustle and to chill out in the clean mountain air and the pastoral ambience of the outskirts of a small town in the Laurentians. The hotel was a friendly place with an excellent French cuisine.

Gillie’s chords, arpeggios and fill-ins were all struck with authority and a care for each note that one only heard among the great jazz musicians of the era. He only demanded that one play notes and phrases that were thought out and had meaning in a musical context. I learned that spaces had meaning and that they framed the notes before and after them.

The moment I will always remember was on the first set of the first night of the gig. We played Miles’ version of “Yesterdays”, the one I had loved for years. Suddenly Gillie’s intro and chords, played just as I had remembered them, led me into playing the melody as in a dream – a dream I’ll never forget.

We had lots of time for shop talk and listening to “sides”. Among our favourite LPs were “Somethin’ Else” with Miles and Cannonball Adderley, and Ahmad Jamal’s album “But Not for Me”.

Gillie told us how much he enjoyed jamming in Sonny Rollins living room in Brooklyn on Saturday afternoons and raved about a new young pianist who played there called Cedar Walton. He always wore a sweater that Cedar had given him that he bought in Scandinavia.

We didn’t have much to do during the day, and the few excursions we made outside didn’t add much to our well-being. Once on our day off we went horseback riding. Gil fell off his horse and sprained his wrist.

Another afternoon a loudspeaker car drove by the hotel announcing that Cab Calloway was playing at another hotel a few miles away. As it was on our night off we put on dress clothes and were about to phone a cab when one of the hotel patrons asked where we were going. We excitedly told him we were going to hear Cab Calloway. He informed us that he had gone the night before and that there was a really second rate group called Ab Alloway. Gillie, not being from Quebec, didn’t see the humour in the situation.

All good things must end ’though and on the day we left, Gillie gave me his Cedar Walton sweater and wished me well. I wore it out.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Autumn Leaves

The pilgrimage to New York to hear Miles Davis in person was probably conceived 4 years earlier when my father went to Chicago and came back with two 10” Miles Davis LPs. I was just starting to play the trumpet – an instrument my father had played in Montreal dance bands and “pit” orchestras in the early 40s. He just handed the albums to me and said, “Listen to these”.

One was a 1954 recording with Art Blakey (drums), Percy Heath (bass) and Horace Silver (piano). The other was a 1952 Miles Davis Sextet album with Gil Coggins on piano. I mention Gillie as he was to be (several years later) one third of the best rhythm section I ever played with. These two albums set off a decade long idolatry of one of the greatest Jazz trumpet players.

Anyway, I borrowed my father’s car for the week-end and drove overnight to NYC with all the anticipation and exhilaration that could be crammed into a 19 year old mind and body. After checking into a hotel, I went to Macy’s dept. store, bought a sport jacket and trousers that the clerk and I deemed appropriate for a night at the Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village to hear the Miles Davis sextet with Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), “Philly Joe” Jones (drums), John Coltrane (tenor sax) and “Cannonball” Adderly (alto sax). I left the store wearing my new “vines”.

I walked out into a beautiful autumn afternoon in New York - the kind of day that is venerated in song - and strolled along the avenues like so many tourists before. It was also a beautiful evening for a walk in Greenwich Village, as I honed in on my destination. Finally, after walking around in circles, I asked directions to the club and got there near the end of the first set.

The club was filled to capacity and an empty seat was found for me. It was the continuation of what seemed to be part of a day- long dream. It took a few minutes to fully realize where I was and who was playing. I was surprised to discover that Bill Evans had replaced Red Garland with the band, and that “Philly Joe” was subbing that night for Jimmy Cobb. By the time I had accepted the keyboard change and understood the new musical dimensions Bill Evans brought to showcase the work of the others in the group it was time for an intermission. 

Standing alone at one side of the club was “Cannonball”, a tall, heavy set man. I introduced myself, and told him I had come from Montreal. We had a really nice conversation. He explained that he left his job as a high school teacher in Florida to live out his dream of playing with Miles and that he enjoyed meeting me as I reminded him of his students. He really missed them.

He wanted to know what I was doing and I told him that the only jazz I was playing was in jam sessions, often with B.T Lundy and Walter Bacon, two Brooklyn musicians who had moved to Montreal in the late 40s. He brought me to a table reserved for the band and introduced me to Miles saying, “This is Guy from Montreal. He’s a friend of B.T. Lundy and Walter Bacon.”

Miles looked at me and said in a hoarse whisper, ”Hey man, how are you doing?” Paul Chambers came up to him and they left. The last set was about to start and “Cannonball” left me at the table to absorb the greatest music I have ever heard. 

The last set was a framework for a long, beautiful rendition of Autumn Leaves that featured each member of the band in extended solos, pushed ahead by a superb rhythm section laying down interesting chords and counterpoint to the soloists’ musical creativity.

The last soloist before Miles was John Coltrane, pushing the limits of his instrument with cascading walls of sound - scales and deep wells of inspiration each building on the last in a crescendo of motion and emotion and followed by a short lead-in to Miles offstage.

From the wings came one note on muted trumpet that seemed to convey the essence of the music that preceded him. An audible gasp from one table led to stillness from the crowd as we listened to Miles’ solo and his last note.

I don’t remember getting to the hotel, but was awakened from my reverie when confronted by four locks and latches on the door of the hotel room – a stark reminder that there was another side to the city that displayed all its autumn beauty and the creativity of its musicians in one perfect day.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Crepuscule with Nellie

crepuscule, definition:
the time of day immediately following sunset
"he loved the twilight"; "they finished before the fall of night"

twilight, dusk, nightfall.

How did it come about that Judy, my fiancée, and I would spend an evening with Nellie Monk and her husband Thelonius Monk?

Marvin Jay and I had discussed blowing the rest of the undergraduate society's budget on a Thelonius Monk concert with Henry Hall, the dean of Sir George Williams University (renamed Concordia). I can't recall the argument that convinced the dean to let us spend $12,000 to bring someone to Montreal who was known only to a hardcore group of Jazz fans in the late 50's.

The afternoon of the concert I was informed that Monk (piano), Elvin Jones (drums) and Charlie Rouse(tenor) had arrived for the concert, but the bass player was refused entry into Canada and returned to New York.

Pressed into action I contacted my bass player Freddie McHugh to fill in.
Freddie, 21 yrs. old and one third of the best rhythm section I  ever played with, was a devotee of Lester Young solos and Monk compositions.  He showed up ready to play and quickly fit in after a short practice session with the other sidemen.  Ten minutes before the concert, there was no sign of Monk and I was dispatched to the hotel.

Judy and I rushed up to Monk's room to be greeted by Nellie.  That was the start of a surreal evening.

"Come in" she said, then went on to explain that Monk had spilled some food on his tuxedo trousers and sent them to the concierge to be dry-cleaned.  Ouch!

We sat down and Nellie ordered peach Melbas for us and almost by magic set us both at ease in the face of what I considered impending doom. Over on the bed was this huge man in pajamas deep in thought.

We spoke in low tones and passed the time directing any conversation to Nellie. Their relationship was on a level of devotion to each other that resembled, to take a recent example, that of Michelle and Barack Obama.

She was in charge of making sure the show would go on, and he was psyching himself up to put on a focused , creative concert for the good folks of Montreal. Judy and Nellie got on great with little verbal interaction and finally, 45 minutes later the pants arrived. Whew!

We left the hotel in a snowstorm that registered a record snowfall for Montreal and got to Salle Wilfrid Pelletier an hour and fifteen minutes late.  Amazingly the crowd was forgiving and resembled a huge fan club, locked into a huge new concert hall by a raging snowstorm outside.

After the first four bars, it was obvious that the group was about to perform a memorable concert that would eventually exceed anyone's expectations.  Monk created long flowing pianistic phrases that could only have been hatched in a focused, creative mind.

Freddie's soft, but impeccable time-keeping was reminiscent of Percy Heath's brilliance.  He played a bass solo on the second number, and a bowed bass solo in the second half.  Elvin Jones and Charlie Rouse held it all together with great time and excellent solos.  Standing O's and elation all around.

After the concert, this fabulous evening with Nellie and Monk over, Freddie and Elvin invited us to go to the Chantecler, a speakeasy by the docks where Elvin sat in with Walter Bacon's band.  He broke Walter's snare drum head during an amazing, forceful solo.   Walter, always smiling, said he'd hang the busted drum head on his wall to remember the night Elvin Jones played on his drums.

Every time I hear Monk's wonderfully evocative composition "A Crepuscule with Nellie",  I remember that night and remember the strength and serenity of Nellie Monk.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Top 20

These recollections of an aspiring jazz trumpet player in the 50's and early 60's are meant to add to the folklore of this period of great advances in bebop.

My nephew David Thompson, an excellent jazz guitarist and all around fine person asked me to list the 20 albums that helped create that love of the music that has permeated the life of a septuagenarian.

"Think of 20 albums, CDs, LPs ....  that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life. Dug into your soul.  Music that brought you to life when you heard it.  Royally affected you, kicked you in the wazzo, literally socked you in the gut, is what I mean."

I guess he never thought that the first album - a compilation of Paul Robeson songs - would be an album of 78 rpm  records.  I used to listen to it in the early 40's  on a wind-up RCA Victor phonograph at my grandfather's house in Trois Rivières Québec.

 1.) Mah Lindy Lou - Paul Robeson (1944)single
 2.) Blue Flame - Woody Herman (1945)single
 3.) Well, Git It! - Tommy Dorsey (1946)single
 4.) Don't Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes at Me - Wynonie Harris (1950)single
 5.) I Stay in the Mood For You - Billy Eckstein big band (1950)single
 6.) Miles Blue Note Vol. 1 -  Miles Davis (1952)
 7.) Miles Blue Note Vol. 2 -  Miles Davis (1952)
 8.) 'Round Midnight- Miles Davis (1955)
 9.) Miles Ahead - Miles Davis & Gil Evans (1955)
10.) Art Blakey Live at Birdland Vol. 1 - Art Blakey & Clifford Brown (1957)
11.) Art Blakey Live at Birdland Vol. 2 - Art Blakey & Clifford Brown (1957)
12.) Daddy Plays The Horn - Dexter Gordon (1958)
13.) The Genius of Bud Powell - Bud Powell (1958)
14.) Genius + Soul = Jazz - Ray Charles (1959)
15.) Bird with Strings - Charlie Parker (1959)
16.) Lady in Satin - Billie Holiday (1959)
17.) Somethin' Else - Cannonball Adderly & Miles Davis (1960)
18.) Thelonius Monk at Town Hall - Thelonius Monk Orchestra (1960)
19.) Pier Gynt Suite - Duke Ellington (1962)
20.) Evidence - Steve Lacey & Don Cherry (1962)