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.
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?