How do you interpret twenty-five years of Beaches Jazz history
when you are not inclined to invest much time looking through a rear view mirror,
yet this day begs for a bit of reflection.
In 1989 festival president Lido Chilelli and I came together from opposite directions,
both arriving at the same junction.
I was producing and hosting the nationally syndicated Jazz
Report Radio Network and publishing the Jazz Report Magazine when executive
producer Bruce Davidson asked me to look for a location suitable for a jazz
festival. Bruce had an in at Vickers and Benson ad agency who were contemplating
such an undertaking through Amstel Beer.
I jumped on my bike and began cruising
along the Lakeshore eventually finding my way to Kew Gardens east of Woodbine
Avenue where I heard music playing in the distance. That afternoon is just so happen to be
Rosemary Galloway’s Sisters of Swing. We chatted briefly and Rosemary explained
weekends during the summer the Toronto Musician’s Association through
their Trust Fund subsidized concerts in parks.
The rustic green platform serving as a performance stage was in need of repair
and not nearly large enough to house a full blown festival yet I assured Bruce I
had found a sweet location. The two us of then made the drive east and Bruce was
instantly sold on the venue – one surrounded by trendy shops, a ball diamond,
gorgeous park and lake nearby.
The next step was Amstel’s move – get their beer in local pubs
A few weeks pass and I get a call from musician John Cleveland Hughes
from Lido’s in the Beach inquiring if I’d like to be part of a new jazz festival coming
in the Beaches at Kew Gardens. At first I thought John had chatted with Bruce
but that wasn’t the case. He told me an Amstel representative had been by Lido’s
in the Beach and was trying to get the beer on tap. John went on to say he
wanted me involved as emcee and help with booking.
In no time a festival was born and the first held – July 25th-
30th 1989. The first days show’s were held at Lido’s in the Beach –
the 29th and 30th in Kew Gardens. John and I mixed the
program up with Carlos Lopes Group featuring the late Earl Seymour – Rick Lazar
and Montuno Police – Brian Hughes Group – Memo Acevedo’s Latin unit. The two
days brought over 10,000 people together in the community and $10,000 to our
designated charity Senior Link.
I could go year by year and this could turn into a long
winded dissertation but let’s try this.
The early years were a mix of enthusiasm, ambition,
excitement, and challenges. Politics would come in play - both a positive and decisive
factor in surviving to the present day. Mayor’s have come and gone – June Rowland,
Barbara Hall, Mel Lastmen made the customary Sunday journey expressing kind words
to a captive audience extolling the virtues of community and jazz festival. Tainted politicians
used the same platform to only batter and undermine a couple days later the first decade and most
of the second. We spent many hours at city council defending and guarding ground earned by running a successful populous festival. I won’t even go there
other than to say – everything you see on television about politicians is true.
Councillor Jack Layton was present every summer and spoke
glowingly about the music and organization. Layton was one of the people you
engaged backstage. You knew he was a polished politician yet he would drop his
guard and embrace his playful side. He didn’t come with handlers – just a bike
and oversized cell phone that looked like it was smuggled off a World War 11 battlefield.
We realized we didn’t have the dollars to import marquee
acts so we did what we were destined to do – build from emerging talent in our community. Hire
local and provide a big stage and publicity for our own. We did that starting
day one. I knew being a musician the chances of getting on a stage near a
touring international act was near impossible. We were still battling the
Canada is inferior mindset. So, we set out to change that.
The same can be said for ethnic diversity. BIJF has changed
in accordance to the immigrant make-up of our city. That has also altered the
way we program. Latin, jazz, blues, world music, indigenous and nearby. We are
now a music festival with many shades, rhythms and attitudes.
Another contentious issue
was breaking the gender imbalance. Women in jazz was difficult for
hard core jazz devotees who saw jazz a private men's club. You
can thank Molly Johnson, Rita Chiarelli and Jane Bunnett for opening doors and
swinging them wide. Twenty-five years ago a woman had to be a singer to stand alongside
men, those few who played an instrument were rarely bandleaders. Then come Lorraine Desmaris Trio, Lee Ping
Ming, Liberty Silver, Brandi Disterheft, Julia Cleveland, Emile-Claire Barlow,
Carol Welsman, Ingrid Jensen, Alex Pangman, Suzie Arioli, Ranee Lee, Heather
Bambrick, Lorraine Klausen, Michelle Wilson, DaTalle – singers and
instrumentalists. Twenty-five years later the bandstand is a much different inclusive
I’m often asked for a memorable moment – my favourite
experience. I still like recalling when I was in my early forties - the beginnings and wife Kris and I would ride our bikes from St. Clair and Bathurst area
most every day and back at night through the wooded areas – truly exhausting but exhilarating.
Eventually, Lido took mercy on us inviting us camp over the Saturday night to
Sunday to relax and conserve energy. That was always a family blast!
Shows? I will never will forget Steps Ahead with Billy Kilson
drums, Darrell Grant’s band with Brian Blade drums; mesmerizing! The New York
Voices, Johnny Pacheco’s band, Nathan and his Zydeco pals, Dave McMudro Jazz
Orchestra, Joey DeFrancesco, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Hilario Duran, Robi Botos,
Francois Bourassa Trio, Jody Drake, Bobbi Sherron. Booking the great Ernie Andrews after catching the
documentary South Central on PBS and hearing him recorded with the Gene Harris
Philip Morris Big Band was one of those dreams come true. My kind of singer.
Andrews was a handful and a hoot. We combed downtown Toronto for
the best chicken dinner and fine vodka and just talked music. That voice cut
through the sheltering pines and dense bush near the Alex Christie band shell and embedded
in the landscape for eternity.
And there is Betty and Jerry Davis who come every year; first from Kansas
City, then Memphis, outside Chicago – wherever they are at the moment. They never miss
a year and bring with them that kind middle American charm.
Biggest letdown? Possibly three years back.
The rains were torrential
and we were pleading mercy having booked young singing star Hal Linton from Barbados and my
hero Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie’s fame who was killing with a new recording ‘Salty.’
Christ sake I love that man’s voice.
The rough weather was unrelenting and it looked as if the lake had
moved inland back of stage. Linton and band couldn’t get out of
van buried in three feet of water - so back to hotel and return trip home. Saturday was toast – first time ever.
The years in between have been amazing – the talent the hang - so
many players and conversation with people. The street scene with hundreds of thousands dancing
and celebrating. The nightly visits and greetings to players - the heat, sore feet, the exhaustion.
Sunday comes and the rains persist yet we can still get players on stage. Hall is
backed by guitarist Tommy Talton – a good player and band. By now I’m
physically and emotionally drained. Hall’s standing back stage fiddling with
tenor saxophone and I introduce myself and tell him what a fan I am – I
rarely do this. The band begins and rain picks up. My brain is screaming inside – bring
Jimmy on – that voice, that voice. One song passes, another, another, another
.. no Jimmy – he’s backstage toying with sax reed meanwhile Talton’s doing all the singing.
Another song passes, then another .. I’m at the end the platform and ready to jump in and drown myself
when Hall walk’s on stage and band begins again – I feel a rush – then Talton starts singing
again and Hall just plays sax. Goodbye! I told stage manger Rico Ferrara I'd had enough and was going home. Never
saw my Jimmy sing.
A few major occurrences helped dig deep roots for the
festival. I’m guessing it was year three when we hired publicist Martine Levy
who at the time was handling PR at the Blue Note club now tops at DDB Publicity and
as solid a person and partner as there ever has been and a delight and her team, Rogers
Cable television and Kerry Gordon who videoed the early years - the two of us would
book a day and film intros and extros making each main-stage performance a
compact half hour show played endlessly for years on Rogers Community access television.
Joey Cee’s tireless work on programs, art and pounding the community testifying to the BIJF
virtues and steady cheerful demeaner; assisting wherever needed. Lido, who has been the driving force for all of this. We have high-fived each other numerous times and battled the enemy when confronted. Pat, Rico, Julie, Joanna, the volunteers, families,
neighbours, those who do the structural hands on poles in the ground work. My
family - Kris and Jesse and band mates, you da best!