Monday, May 30, 2016

A Conversation With Music Journalist Nicholas Jennings

I’ve had a casual relationship with music journalist Nicholas Jennings through the years; always a fan of his writing and passion for music. We served together on a panel years back for one of those Ontario Arts giveaways and mostly saw eye to eye. We just happen to be sharing duties with a not so generous singer hell bent on not freeing any grant money to other female singers. This is why I’m not a big fan of these practices other than you do meet some lovely folks who you’d likely never spend a solid three to six hour sit down most days. We picked up on what was going down and made sure the deserving was fairly treated. I invited Nick to drop by my radio show last week and just as suspected – he’s someone special. Here’s part of the conversation and you can also catch the whole shot on Podcast.

Bill King: Born in England and recently home. Family visit?
Nicholas Jennings. Yes, just a quick trip. I was born in London but moved to Toronto when I was still basically in diapers. I’ve been a Toronto boy all of my life.

B.K: You didn’t return to catch The Pretty Things?
N.J: I didn’t go back to see The Pretty Things but am very pleased to have been there in London – 1963 as the Beatles were breaking. It led to my two lifelong passions – music and English football.

B.K: You started as a musician and songwriter..
N.J: I was trying to write songs but never successfully.

B.K: It’s really, really hard.
N.J: To get it to actually work in three minutes – oh my God. I played drums and could actually sing. That was my contribution to the bands I was in. Then I realized at one point – if you can’t sing and told by your teachers you can write and your dad was a journalist, maybe I should just start writing about music. I went to Ryerson and that is what I mostly focused on, music, from the git go.

B.K: What was your dad’s specialty?
N.J: He was a history buff but didn’t actually write about history professionally. He was a proper political and current events journalist. He started on Fleet Street in London then got head-hunted by Maclean’s here in Toronto. After he got settled he sent for the family as you did in those days, once you got a job in the new country. My sisters and mother all came over and joined him.
He worked for Maclean-Hunter and fast forward a number of years and there’s his son working in the same journalism empire. My dad went from Maclean-Hunter where he was editor of a number of trade magazines and then became the editor of the Mirror chain in Don Mills, North York, and Scarborough.

B.K: Did you read your dad’s columns?
N.J: Absolutely. He got me writing sports stories for the Don Mills Mirror. He was kind of gently encouraging that.

B.K: What did he say when he read your pieces – was he critical?
N.J: No, he was thrilled I went to Ryerson because one of the journalists he admired, J.D. MacFarlane, was dean of the journalism school so he figured I’d get the proper training there. I think I did. Ryerson journalism was the great education. Even better was starting at Maclean’s as a fact checker back when magazines paid to have articles ruthlessly fact-checked. There isn’t the money for it so much anymore. Your job was to verify every single fact in a news story with three independent facts. You had to take the writer’s facts and find three independent sources to confirm them. You became an instant expert in the subject of that article; in the moment and intense research.

B.K: You had to leave your desk – not so much today.
N.J: No Internet then. You went to the Maclean’s library and went through actual newspapers or reference books. You got on the phone more than not. I’ll never forget one of my assignments was to check Barbara Amiel’s column. Her and Allan Fotheringham were the two prominent columnists for the magazine. People wondered why she got to continue writing for the magazine when she outraged so many people. The simple answer was she generated more letters than the “Foth.”

B.K: Much like Ann Coulter – just upset everybody – draw attention.
N.J: So one day I was asked to fact check Barbara Amiel. She was calling the Salvatore Allende government of Chile the most repressive and fascist in history. I got on the phone and was talking to experts in Washington – the United Nations and there was nothing to bear that out so I went to Barbara Amiel and said, “Barbara I think you are going to have to change this it, just doesn’t hold up factually.” She says, “well change it to one of the most .. instead of the most.”

B.K: It was coup director General Pinochet that was dropping opponents from helicopters, torturing and rounding up 10,000 suspects in soccer stadium – murder and disappearance.
N.J: I know! It was Pinochet who killed Victor Jara the great poet.
Maclean’s was a great education, the fact-checking and rigor for making sure everything was accurate and then I got my chance to write about music. The critic at the time had no taste for African American, African Caribbean music in general – nothing black. I don’t think it was a racist thing.

B.K: Probably no connection..
N.J: The entertainment editor at the time said, “Nick, how’d you like to write about King Sunny Ade?” The thought, oh my God, that’s all I’m listening too right now. Syncro-system and JuJu music. One of my very first pieces for Maclean’s was a two column profile of King Sunny Ade. I got to interview him.

I sort of continued what I had experienced a decade earlier working at the Riverboat. I was financing my way through Ryerson and got a part-time job in Bernie Fiedler’s Riverboat basically pulling cappuccinos, washing dishes and heating up really lousy apple strudels.  Whenever I had the opportunity I’d head straight up the stairs with the tape recorder and interview whatever visiting artists were there and then write about those artists for the Ryerson student newspaper. You take your advantage where you see them. You see an open window you leap through it.

B.K: Talk about songwriting – the deeply tragic news Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie is suffering terminal brain cancer. He’s a guy who got people’s attention, especially in this country.
N.J: I do think that Gord Downie belongs in that class of songwriters with Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young, he tapped into this country and feelings about what it is to be Canadian. Very few have successfully done this. The achievement there, he’s done it poetically and done it in a way that inspires people from all walks. That’s the beauty of the Tragically Hip. They appeal cerebrally to the more literate minded and they appeal as just a great rock band to those who just want to pump their fists. I think Gord Downie has written some remarkable songs.  When I was with MacLean’s I was lucky to go on the road with them in B.C., toured with them for over a week – hung out backstage and on the bus just trying to soak up as much of what it was that made the Tragically Hip tick and Gord Downie tick. He’s an enigmatic figure, not an easy one to decipher. I certainly got his dedication to his craft.

B.K: First big writing gig?
N.J: Probably in The Eyeopener Ryerson, a student newspaper – Steve Goodman or it could have been Mendelson Joe.

B.K: There’s one you could easily tackle.
N.J: Speaking of being ahead by a century Mendelson Joe would be one of the performers in the 70s who would not perform if anyone smoked while he was playing. He wouldn’t tolerate conversation during his sets. He would stop in mid song and stare at you these hate stares. I found myself completely drawn to him because he was so out there. I consider myself lucky he didn’t eat me up during the interview.

B.K: Rolling Stone was the bible of music writing. Were you a big fan?
N.J: Oh yeah. I was reading Creem, I was reading Rolling Stone and whenever I saw it I would be reading the English magazines as well; NME, Melody Maker and so on.

B.K: There was some great writing.
N.J: There was great writing. Writers were given space not only physical but stylistically. You were allowed to sort of “wax on” as they used to say, lyrically and take a sort of a left field view of a subject. Lester Bangs was the most iconoclastic, the most singular stylist. I loved all of that stuff.
I think initially I was really drawn to singer/songwriters. For me it was always about the poetry. It was later - something about the rhythms that hooked me – that’s what led me into reggae and hardcore African music.

B.K: It got really “burned-out” writing record reviews.
N.J: I still write record reviews but you don’t get the physical space to go at it. I figure if I can zero in on one or two tracks I think people should hear – I guess it’s the frustrated DJ in me that makes me want to turn people on to a great song. If nothing else, however short the reviews are today I can trigger interest in a particular song.

B.K: The books..
N.J: I wrote Before the Gold Rush because I couldn’t believe there hadn’t been half a dozen books written on the Toronto music scene. You just have to look at New York, Los Angeles, Liverpool or London. All of the other great music cities in the world have had countless historical accounts of what those cities have given the world. I’ve always thought Toronto had a music history second to none. That wasn’t just “boosterism” on my part, I truly believe. 

B.K: We had to come to terms with it.
N.J: It’s that insecurity – that Canadian/Toronto insecurity – are we really good enough?

B.K: We had to make an international statement and we did that with the Alanis Morissettes, the Celine Dions, now Drake and The Weeknd..
N.J: It’s been a battle getting Canadian’s celebrate their own music. I wrote Before the Gold Rush then the documentary Shakin’ All Over largely about it although we branched out and covered other scenes in Canada. Toronto for me was kind of the epicenter, not out any kind of “Torontoist” bias, just by sheer size. Toronto is the largest city and it had the biggest music scene. When I wrote Gold Rush I told the story how Denny Doherty made his way from Halifax to Toronto, Ian Tyson made his way from Vancouver to Toronto. There was a natural migration here because this is where the opportunities were.

There was the bar scene on Yonge Street, the coffee house scene in Yorkville, and sometimes they’d overlap but they were almost like two worlds. There was a point at which they crossed over. The songwriting that was born in Yorkville with Ian and Sylvia “Four Strong Winds” and Gordon Lightfoot with “Early Morning Rain” – Joni Mitchell “Night in the City” which was actually a song about the night life in Yorkville. Those songwriters inspired the musicians who were in the bars down on Yonge Street.

So you have Robbie Robertson coming up to Yorkville and checking out the singer/songwriters. You had David Clayton-Thomas coming up to Yorkville to hear the singer/songwriters and that led them into song writing.

I do walking tours of both Yonge Street and Yorkville, I’ve been doing that a number years. My really not so secret hidden agenda is drawing attention to this in order these plaques go up.

B.K: Years ago I was there as part of the plaque unveiling for the Colonial Tavern – then the plaque disappeared.
N.J: I think that was vandalism.
There is already a plaque in Yorkville for the Riverboat although some truck on delivery backed into it on Hazelton Lane and knocked it over. It was quickly restored and re-erected. We just had a ceremony to unveil the next three Yorkville plaques which will be for the Purple Onion, the Penny Farthing, and a general Yorkville music scene plaque which will have a map showing where all of the clubs and coffee houses were. That was a great event. Five hundred plus people turned out at the former Rockpile – the Masonic Temple - to see the plaques unveiled and to hear Gordon Lightfoot talk and hear Luke & the Apostles the resident band at Purple Onion give a great set.

This summer we are going to unveil the first two Yonge Street plaques for the Town Tavern and Club Bluenote to be followed by Le Coq d’Or and Friar’s Tavern and others.

B.K: We all have a magazine, something we latch onto as kids that feeds this passion. Mine was Downbeat. As much as I enjoyed reading the record reviews what really got me a buzz was reading the club listings and Toronto’s always stood out. Moe Koffman was always at George’s Spaghetti House ..
N.J: Lenny Breau

B.K: You’d seen the Town Tavern and Colonial and recognize names like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk..
N.J: Cannonball Adderley..

B.J: This made me think this was a very hip city – the ability to pay for this talent.
N.J: This is what I tell people on these tours of Yonge Street and I get these wide-eyed looks. The fact of the matter, Toronto starting in the 50s was a far more welcoming home for black musicians.
I tell the story Archie Alleyne told me about when Cy McLean and the Rhythm Rompers from the Maritimes came to Toronto and the owner of the Colonial decided to book them. At that point there weren’t any black bands playing on Yonge Street – that would be the late 40s. If they were playing in Toronto they were playing in less high profile spots in Toronto. The day the Colonial booked Cy McLean it broke the color barrier and the floodgates literally opened. All of the hotels along Yonge Street started booking black artists. Then a lot of African/American artists started coming up here, hearing it was welcoming, hospitable, you got treated fairly.  You could stay anywhere and didn’t have to go and sneak in the back door. By the mid 60s it was the black artists from the Caribbean that started making their way to Toronto. All for these artists who eventually made their home here deeply enriched the cultural landscape – Jackie Mittoo, Leroy Sibbles, Lord Tanamo.

B.K: Update us on the Sam sign..
N.J: It’s been a long process but we saved it. We did get Ryerson and the city commit to remounting it. It’s going to be restored and hopefully by the end of summer – it had to go through all kinds of tests, wind tests, engineering studies and what else but it will go on top of a city owned building in Dundas Square and will be prominently visible and light up again, both spinning discs. It will serve as a great reminder of the neon glory and role music, record stores and clubs played in the lives of people in this city.

B.K: Let me point this out – all of this caring work you are doing is all volunteer.
N.J: It’s something that needs to be done. That’s all I can say. My wife calls it a hobby I call it a good hobby.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Conversation With...Billy Vera

Early 80s American expatriate drummer/singer Billy Reed and the Street People bounced between the El Mocambo and a few other dance oriented clubs around Toronto playing a mix of Tower of Power, Al Green and Billy’s big hero, Billy Vera. I can’t begin to express the number of conversations where Vera’s name would pop up. It was if Billy inhabited Billy. Both were from the same region of upstate New York and both had a grand passion for roots rhythm & blues. 
 I’m a real sucker for musicians whose passion’s run deep – so deep they become archivists. In fact, I’ll go a foot or two farther – guys like Warner Music’s Steve Kane, York University’s Rob Bowman, Slaight Music’s Derrick Ross – folks with a profound love for specific genres that extends beyond hits to the very core of music - folks we all enjoy that big conversation with.

I knew going in Vera was my kind of guy. Enjoy!

Bill King: What are you going to do for an encore?
Billy Vera: I’m still moving along. I just put out my first photo book – pictures I took some years ago when I first moved out here. It’s called VINTAGE NEON: Los Angeles 1979. It’s basically a photo book of old neon signs with commentary and then later in the year my memoir is coming out called Harlem to Hollywood and currently I have an album called Billy Vera Big Band Jazz which is something I’ve wanted to do for many years.

B.K: Where would we find these?
B.V: On Amazon. I have a publishing deal for the photo book and then Hal Leonard will be publishing the memoir. There’s also a documentary in the works also called Harlem to Hollywood. They’ve just about finished the filming – the talking heads, then it goes into the hard part – the editing process. We’ve got some great interviews in there with Dolly Parton, Dionne Warwick, Mike Stoller, Nona Hendryx of LaBelle, Joey Dee from Joey Dee and the Starliters; a bunch of great people.

B.K: You were born in Riverside, California..
B.V: Yes, my dad was stationed in Riverside at March Field and was in the army air corp during World War 11. He was a bomber pilot who taught the boys how to fly B 24s. He got hurt as they were about to go overseas. They were driving down to San Diego to ship him out when some stupid kid threw a rock through a window and blinded him in his right eye. So we were sent to Springfield, Missouri where there was an army hospital and my mom began singing on the local radio station – KWTO. Her guitar player was a young fellow named Chet Atkins.

After he got better we went to Cincinnati for five years where my dad had worked before the war as an announcer and my mom became a singer on WLW which was a huge station that could be heard from Toronto down to Brazil and in forty states. When I started second grade we then moved to New York.  Then dad got a job as staff announcer on NBC where he remained for thirty years – mom tried to do a solo career and that didn’t work out. She learned to sight read music and became one of the Ray Charles Singers on the Perry Como Show and on Como’s records.

B.K: Is this how you would eventually get close to the New York rhythm & blues scene?
B.V: I remember vividly I was in six grade and one morning one of the kids said, “did you hear rock n’ roll last night?” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Alan Freed man, 1010 Wins Radio” so, I listened to radio that night and fell in love with rock n’ roll. As time went by I found I liked the rhythm & blues records and started playing around with the radio and up at the right hand end of the dial were all of the black stations. There was more music I liked there. I became infatuated by that kind of music.

B.K: You could go from Maine to New Jersey those days and the club scene was all about rhythm & blues six nights a week and a player could work seemingly forever.
B.V: Yes, but we pretty much stayed close to home. We lived in the suburbs just north of the city in Westchester County, White Plains area. We lucked into a job at this club called the Country House later known as the Deer Crest Inn and it was the top club in the whole area. We’d have hit record acts on the weekends. Our job was too play two dance sets and back up whatever acts didn’t bring their own bands, which was most of them. It was a great education in (a) learning how to read music and (b) what works and what did not work in terms of performance.

I remember the first weekend we had to back acts and it was sort of trial by fire. The Friday night was Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles and Saturday with Little Anthony & the Imperials which were the two acts that had the most difficult music to read, but we came through it and before long we were known as the best back-up band in the whole tri-state area.

B.K: When did the songwriting begin?
B.V: I started fooling around with it about age fourteen and by the time I was eighteen I started taking songs around and the first song I ever took to a publisher got recorded by Ricky Nelson, “Mean Old World” and it became a hit record for him. It was sort of beginner’s luck. It was a song I’d written for this new girl singer, Dionne Warwick. I didn‘t realize Bacharach and David had her all tied up. That led to a staff writing job at a publisher April Blackwood Music and I remained there for five years. The boss said you need a little seasoning and put me under the wing of this fellow named Chip Taylor who was about four years older than me and I learned a lot about the craft of writing songs from him.

B.K: Your first hit for yourself was 1987 – At This Moment?
B.V: I had national hits in the 60s’ - not huge but still national. Chip and I wrote a song called “Make Me Belong to You,” which became a hit for Barbara Lewis on Atlantic Records. That gave us entre to the head guy up top Jerry Wexler.  We wrote a song we pitched as a duet for a couple Atlantic artists and made a demo and took to Jerry – he liked the song and liked my voice. He said get rid of the girl on the demo and I’ll record you on Atlantic.
I was a friend of a girl in Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles – Nona Hendryx who had a voice I felt blended well with mine. She and I recorded “Storybook Children” then the manager got into the act fearing Nona would quit the group if we had a hit. We then auditioned about twenty other girls then Wexler suggested this girl Judy Clay who was an adopted cousin of Dionne Warwick. We liked her voice and recorded with her and it became a hit record. We were the first racially integrated duo singing love songs and that is what led to us appearing at the Apollo Theatre where we became a popular act.

We had a follow-up hit called “Country Girl, City Man,” at which point, Judy who was signed to Stax Records and me to Atlantic witnessed the distribution deal between the two dissolve and we could no longer record together. Wexler found a song for me on a Bobby Goldsboro album called, “With Pen in Hand,” and did a little research and found it was not going to be the follow-up single to Bobby’s big hit “Honey” so he called me in and I recorded for myself on Atlantic and that became a hit. After that, the music, the culture and everything else changed radically in the late sixties. That style of blue-eyed soul singing went out of style. I had no more hits – the 70s’ were about survival.

B.K: You hit with Dolly Parton “I Really Got the Feeling?”
B.V: I didn’t have a hit for about nine years and then in 1978 “I Really Got the Feeling” got to Dolly Parton and became a #1 country hit for us.

B.K: What a great feeling!
B.V: I didn’t know what was going to happen throughout the 70s – what am I going to do with my life. I’m working these crummy clubs and playing survival gigs – trying to make a record and failing. That put me back into the business.

B.K: One of the pivotal moments in my music education was a series of box sets you assembled for Capitol Records early 2,000 – combo, cocktails etc. “Pachuko Hop” – which we recorded with Saturday Night Fish Fry.

B.V: The cocktail combos.. “Pachuko Hop’ was on Jumping Like Mad. A fellow named Pete Welding at Capitol before he died put me in charge of his blues series – Capitol Blues. I did five, six, seven whatever it was, albums for that series.
B.K: You found some great material and I was impressed how deep you dug into the Los Angeles music community archives. Chuck Higgins who recorded the original “Pachuko Hop” lived in our apartment complex in Hollywood. He’d pack his sax every other night and show up at some event and play his hit song, a monster hit among old school Latinos.

B.V: I’ve done a couple hundred reissue CDs over the years and one on Chuck Higgins for Specialty Records and I included of course “Pachuko Hop.” I looked him up in the union and found him and interviewed for the liner notes and found out he went on to teach music at a local college here. He wasn’t much of a sax player in terms of skill, he could never be a bebopper for sure but he played with a lot of feeling.

B.K: Kind of from that “honkers” and “shouters” era. There was also a great version with big band – I don’t know where you found that.
B.V: That was Ike Carpenter. Carpenter is sort of an unsung hero. I really dug deep to find as many records as I could on him. He was a big Duke Ellington fan apparently because he recorded a lot of Duke’s songs in his early years. Duke is my number one or two heroes. Ike is one of the few who recorded Duke Ellington songs and got the real feeling. He got the harmonies right and really captured that Ellington feel.

B.K: You did three albums with Lou Rawls?
B.V: I did four. We had a great time. That came about also through Capitol. Bruce Lundvall was running Blue Note Records by that time a subsidiary of Capitol. He and my friend Michael Cuscuna who is one of the all time great jazz producers thought I may be able to help when Bruce signed Lou to Blue Note. Up until that time Lou was making a lot of what we call “Vegas style disco albums,” trying to recapture the Gamble & Huff era and not doing a very good job of it. His record sales were dismal. Bruce’s idea was let’s take him back to when people fell in love with Lou Rawls in the beginning; back to his jazz and blues roots and have him record some of my songs too. Michael and I made a good team. Each of us has different skills. Michael knows all of the great musicians so we were able to use some wonderful people; Richard T, Cornell Dupree, Fathead Newman, and George Benson. I’m good at song selection – working with singers and musicians to get the most out of them. It was a really good team.

The first album we did with Lou, “At Last” went to #1 on the jazz charts. We then did two more for Blue Note using a lot of the same people and they were all top five albums. Lou and Blue Note went their separate ways and about five years later his manager calls me up and says he can’t get Lou a record deal and I said, “You’re kidding?”  He said, they just want kids - no one his age. I thought that was nuts. He asked if I had any ideas.  I’m not above using a gimmick, sometimes two names is better than one so I said, what about “old brown eyes sings old blue eyes?” Lou Rawls sings Sinatra. He ran with the idea and still couldn’t get a deal.

It was at a time I was doing a lot of reissue work for old Savoy Records a jazz label and sounded them about it and they said yes. Then I came up an idea and presented to Lou – if the record company is going to pay for this album – you are going to make a small percentage if and when they recoup their investment. I said what if you pay for the album, you own the album and license to Savoy. That way if we record “Come Fly with Me” and American Airlines doesn’t want to pay for the Sinatra version they can get the Lou Rawls version for a lot less and then you can make all that extra money. He thought that was a good idea.

Lou financed the album. We went into Capitol’s big studio A where Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nancy Wilson and Nat Cole made all of those classics. Even with Savoy’s not great promotion skills the album remained on the jazz charts six months. Lou died not long after that.

B.K: Billy and the Beaters.
B.V: Still working the Beaters in southern California when we can. I also do gigs with the big band and having a ball with that. It’s a big eighteen piece band. I have some of the finest jazz players in L.A. willing to play for the miniscule money I get.

B.K: You must feel the radical technological shift – the dwindling dollars in CD sales – the streaming?
B.V: I do sell online with iTunes. It depends on the style of music you’re selling. I think for teenage music they don’t care about CDs or albums but a lot are becoming interested in vinyl again. My audience is older and wants something they can hold in their hands – read the liner notes etc.

B.K: Through all of the years working with singers and you being a terrific singer yourself and come across a voice with great potential what advice do you give them?
B.V: The most important thing is to believe them when they sing. You get a guy like old blues singer Jimmy Reed who had a range of about six notes you believed every word he sang. In that sense he was a great singer. He didn’t have the power of a Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin but he had that believability – that soul, that feeling – the ability to express emotion without sounding phony.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Rhythm Express “Day in May” featuring Maiko Watson

Season two for the Rhythm Express has seen an alteration in the front line with the addition of former girl group member - Sugar Jones, winners of the first season of Popstars in 2001 – Maiko Watson. Sugar Jones scored a #1 hit in Canada with “Day’s Like This” and has sold over 200,000 recordings.

With the relocation of supreme frontline vocalist/guitarist Selena Evangeline to London, England the call went out for a side-mate to compliment the steady presence of singers Michael Dunston and Ammoye Evans. Express drummer Everton “Pablo” Paul consulted with daughter Liza Paul, a gifted playwright /performing artist herself and Maiko’s name was put forward. 

First season the Express explored the voluptuous catalogue of ska, reggae, funk, soul and New Orleans classics. Year two – it’s all about the originals - a band caught up writing their own material. Watson not only brings a voice packed with punch, clarity, big soul and immediacy - she’s also a gifted composer/writer. Evidence of that is the universally accepted – Soul Nation – lyric scripted with partner Michael Dunston – another member of the Express with a flair for writing on point, additionally expressed in his timely message in Black Lives Matter/The Ghetto – from 2015.
Recently, the rhythm section caught fire with the original, “Welcome to Funkastan,” a throw-back to the James Brown/Sly & Family Stone, Earth Wind & Fire era. 

Singer Ammoye is riding the number #1 position on the reggae charts with “Sorry.” Jesse “Dubmatix” has been touring, a big presence in the European reggae circuit – both as a performer and producer.

For the Express, it’s all about the studio - that one new single each month. 

Entering June we have a gem, “Day in May” a collective write between rhythm section and Watson. Maiko sculpted a gorgeous neo-soul melody and poignant lyrics over a rhythm/chord base. It all starts with the four-piece; an idea, a scrap of paper, a feel and then turned over to the front line.
Day in May is both sensual and timely. It’s the seasons in big change; rebirth, empowerment, the flowering of new relationships  - resolution!

Set free, Watson pushes the harmonic structure with vocals vertically stacked over free-flowing melodic motifs that weave, intersect and cross one another – having more to do with a finely crafted jazz solo than contrived radio fare. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t fit radio – on the contrary. With summer’s heat and long restful nights, tempos slow and melt into an aural/visual mix.
You can catch the Rhythm Express at the TD Jazz Festival June 25, 2016 – 12:30 p.m. Nathan Phillips Square. Joining the front line, singer/songwriter extraordinaire Julian Taylor!

Lead vocal/backgrounds Maiko Watson
Executive Producer/drums: Everton “Pablo” Paul
Producer/arranger/keys: Bill King
Engineer/guitar: Shane “Shakey J” Forrest
Graphic Design/bass: Jesse “Dubmatix” King
Day in May: Lyrics Maiko Watson - Composed: Watson, Bill King, Everton Paul, Shane Forrest, Jesse King.

7 Arts/ Side Door records

Bill King Reminisces About New York City

Photo: Bill King
Photo: Bill King
New York, New York – Time to Travel!

As summer nears that travel bug starts snapping at the feet. I began thinking about the closet and most invigorating journey the past few years and hands down, it was New York City. My long time partner grew up on Long Island and I lived there during the sixties, in fact we met the far end of the island and spent our first weeks together roaming the streets of New York.

Most revisits are a letdown; never as imagined – memories jumbled and remembered objects out of place. Here’s how we celebrated!

My partner Kristine made the plans – outlined our schedule. I fully trust this about her. Lincoln Center for Herman Leonard Photographic Exhibition, MOMA, Blue Note with Roberta Gambarini and Roy Hargrove – Central Park – and shopping. As soon as she mentioned shopping I understood this to be my chance for a nostalgic run through the Soho district – my home for two years in the late sixties.

If you haven’t flown Porter Airlines then you are missing one of the joys of flying away from Toronto. The small passenger plane is a delight. Unlike Air Canada there’s food awarded that tastes like someone actually prepared it with government regulations in mind and leg space far from the crippling leg crunch courtesy Air Canada.

We arrived at Newark International with little fanfare. The day was the same shade of dim gray as our surroundings. I scan the airport thinking of ways to make this a touch more appealing – like a bit of color. How about Chinese lanterns or gangland graffiti?

We decide to catch a train into Penn Station and cab it from there. A taxi ride is over $75 - train $15. That’s a better deal than a taxi ride from Davenport and Spadina to Queen’s Park in Toronto. One is a mere mile or so the other a small continent away.

The ride through New Jersey was everything I envisioned it to be. I thought I saw Tony Soprano whacking a guy near an excavation site. I just waved hoping New York wasn’t as drab and uneventful.

As soon as the train pulled into to Penn Station I could sense the energy level rise above nuclear? The jaunt through Penn terminal out onto 34th street was exhilarating. Everything was beating at an allegro tempo. I could sense my pulse rise in anticipation.

The drive to the Waldorf was a battle for road space and visual treats. A cab ride in Manhattan is more a drill than casual outing. Traffic flows without mishap due to aggressive interplay between cabs. An open space is for the taking. You either capture or sit idle.

The Waldorf Astoria.

Luxury around our house is a movie, a measured amount of calm and two dogs near comatose.

As we enter the sumptuous surroundings the smell of steaming roast beef soars by the nostrils. The aroma was almost too hard to resist until notified the brunch in the lobby could be purchased for a mere $100 a person. At that moment I began looking for the Tootsie Roll dispenser.

The Waldorf is all history and wealth. There’s a sweet fragrance throughout - a pleasant odor one can’t fully identify. In my mind it must be a combination of flowers, antiquated wood and carpet. I kept in mind Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Winston Churchill, the Kennedys, Haile Selassie and even the frightful Henry Kissinger had all stayed there.

All thoughts of the Best Western quickly vanished once our room key unhinged the door. The change of scenery certainly put us in the right frame of mind. Kristine found nirvana in the girlie room off the bathroom. I had no business there other than ‘rite of passage’.

My youthful days in New York were never quite this luxurious. I lived in a two room renovated flat in the lower east side. At the time it was a delight compared to my neighbors. I would slump on the fire escape and watch a Latino couple directly across the narrow street scream and slap each other around. The punch ups a daily occurrence. I once called the cops after hearing the young woman plead for her life. Later the police told me the woman chided them in a profane laced dressing down to butt out.

The New York in front of me showed no signs of its diminished past. The streets are cleaner than Toronto – in fact, I felt as safe as I did forty-seven years ago when I first set foot on Canadian soil.

Where did my old nemesis go? The insane guy who selected a ‘forever life’ position top of a trash can between my apartment building and subway stop.

Everyday I’d make the journey to either a gig or rehearsal or movie and this horrific guttural sound would emanate from his perch. ‘Hey shithead, I’m going to kill you. You just wait and see.” Those threats shook my ass. I kept thinking about wait and see. When was this? Was there a specific date or time of day or night? After a few months of intimidation I learned of my tormentor’s posturing in a nearby bar.

The old men who watched this act instill fear in passersby knew the man was mentally challenged but never let on. For them it was comic relief. “Hey boy, you scared of that fellow – he won’t do you any harm – that’s just him. He’s a retard,” says one of the ancient specimens glued to a pint. Then the room howled in unison. I wondered what happened to the menacing guy – did he now have season tickets to Knicks games?

The time spent at Lincoln Center honoring jazz photographer and icon Herman Leonard was definitely a high point. The faces in the many photographs are the prime faces of jazz. The splendor of the images attest to the remarkable skill Leonard achieved with a camera and a couple lights which he attributes to time spent with portrait master Yosef Karsh.

The event was not only a triumph for Leonard whose career didn’t receive much traction until he turned 69. At 90 the man is an eloquent speaker and as robust and fluid as any man thirty years younger. Leonard would pass away only months after our encounter.

The grand portraits reveal much of each jazz artist. They aren’t snaps on the fly. They are carefully considered images that bring the inner regions of the soul forward as well as Leonard’s true understanding of light – much like the celebrated painters of old. Light illuminates!

From a social stance this was the place to be if you were a jazz photographer. John Abbott who has photographed over 250 CD covers was in attendance as well as Chuck Stewart - whose work appears in Leonard Feather’s Jazz Encyclopedia, Esquire Jazz Book, Downbeat, The New York Times, Life, Paris-Match, Carol Freidman – who in the 1990s was chief photographer and art director of Blue Note Records, sports photographer Neil Leifer famed for his captivating images of sports legends Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and derby winner Secretariat among others.

The night for Kristine and I was an explosive mix of social and artistic splendor.

Now, for the New York trapped in memory.

I have long anticipated seeing my old neighborhoods - retracing a few of the endless walks that seem to linger until exhaustion. I could still envision the train rides from downtown to uptown across to Brooklyn - cold searing winds sweeping through each open subway door - the smell of urine – the fearsome thugs who stalked the unsuspecting.

Well, the moment I slipped on board at 51st Street heading to Bleecker Street I realized the city in decay was buried and a polished jewel has emerged in its place.

The riders were no different than the latte set at Starbucks in my neighborhood. Laptops were at full face and clothes creased to perfection. Nowhere to be found were the rambling inscriptions of urban warfare that once defaced every neutral space.

As I began my stroll along Bleecker I saw the change – I mean big change. The tenements that once housed impoverished immigrants were now commandeered by glistening youthful faces. My first impression? A middle-aged person could get deported out of the Soho district for being over thirty. These are gorgeous young people – handsome men and attractive women co-existing in a world of their own design. The longer my stride the more streets I pass with much the same in common. Cafes, trendy shops, exquisite building makeovers – all part of a more vibrant youthful New York.

A walk down Bleecker Street sealed the past for me. The Bitter End was still in play. I stood for a moment and thought about that steamy humid air-thick evening I lounged in front of the club sneaking a view and listening to a dreamy looking Joni Mitchell sing in that angelic voice. Joan Baez did this for me years prior but Joni was something refreshing and alluring. There were the nights Neil Diamond packed them in – the comics – the folk singers – the soul-thumping Electric Flag – the jam sessions. I then I set my sights on the Café Wha – my first gig in the city.

In 1968, I’d been thrown to the curb by the band I had arrived with as they quietly exited back to California. New York scared them shitless! The night we arrived I remember standing under an awning with a cool rain lighting the neon streets and the four of us thinking – what’s next? Under the same protective skin was a guy who played drums with a band called Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys. He was affable and gracious enough to direct us to the Café Wha in search of employment. This we did the following day.

We copped an afternoon audition and just as fast the band vanished. No word, no warning. I’m left stranded with my portable organ and truck full of jazz sides and clothes. Those items remained for a week or so at some guy’s residence courtesy a local street hustler.

I was now homeless with no compass.

I slept in a telephone booth then beneath the Four Winds Café now the Blue Note jazz club. I hung next door with Jesse the wino from Louisville, Kentucky who’d arrive each summer drunk and serve life according to Jesse’s limited rules then return home for rehab. Jesse loved the women and hated the tourist.

The basketball court at 3rdStreet and Avenue of the Americas still casts a spell over the area. The greats from Harlem and players from NY University and lesser known would test each other in combat late afternoons. Early on – guys like me would take a few blows from the court managers and play a few hours of three on three.

One early morning while I was rising from my overnight sleep nightmare I was awoken with a takedown a few doors from the Café Wha. A gentleman began a quick sprint down McDougall with a few cameras in chase when suddenly police emerge from all sides and wrestle to the ground. The guy then begins screaming for them to get the hell off. Suddenly, a crew of ten or fifteen men catch up and yell at the cops – “that’s James Coburn – James Coburn you just threw to the ground. We’re making a movie here.” The police retreat and Coburn coolly brushes down his garment and offers a hand. They were doing just that – filming outside the Café Wha in a VW hippie bus and down the street- The film – The President’s Analyst.

As I was reminiscing a young woman approaches with a clipboard. “Would you sign my petition and donate to a worthy cause,” she begs. I hear her out. “Do you believe in equal rights for gays and do you believe in same sex marriage?” I tell her I’m from Toronto and we’re doing quite fine in those areas. She informs me of the persecution going on in America against gays. I tell her to keep up the battle and that she will eventually prevail. Then I remind myself outside of this cultural oasis lies Rush Limbaugh’s America.

The rest of my walk does nothing to rekindle the aromas and edginess of my past. Everything smells lovely even the fuel. Where’s the two inch thick pizza cooking through an open window, the grimy dude with the oily cloth wiping car windows down, the broken glass, the badly painted hooker, where’s Travis Bickle?

I never expected to relive the past in high definition so I’ll let history remain stowed away in grainy black and white. As for Kristine, she likes her New York just the way it is – inviting, exciting and youthful and above all – an hour’s flight away. Let’s get ready to travel!

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Conversation With ... Jane Siberry

Jane Siberry is that Toronto/Montreal connection that owes much to Joni Mitchell and those coffee houses, nights at the Riverboat and Leonard Cohen – artists who paint with words.  Too often those who practice the gruelling art of songwriting are accepting of a lesser phrase and common lyric and charge on. Not the case with a Siberry, Mitchell or Cohen. The written word is as precious as the fluids we drink, the air we inhale and food we depend on for survival. I caught up with Siberry this week and posed a few questions.
Bill King: Where are you with the recording situation now, you said in the past you’ve abandoned the traditional ways?

Jane Siberry: I’ve just finished recording and haven’t gone on to any new stuff. But what I will do when I have time and inspiration – I will just do one song at a time. I like the idea. It’s not so daunting as doing a whole recording and get it all out. It was a long process to make the last recording.

B.K: You went a different route on … crowd sourcing to raise funds, and it went very well.
J.S: Yes, and to add to that – that was about 25% of the full cost of it. It was over five years and I had Peter Kiesewalter, a Canadian producer who did a version of the record too. It’s been a circuitous route.

B.K: Does it take a long period for you to advance songs from the written page to a recording?
J.S: It can. I’m pretty particular and can’t tell till I hear it. If I have ideas for people to sing with me I don’t know until I hear it and if it’s not right I just keep trying. I often write right in the studio and what I use is what I first come up with.

B.K: Do you favor a particular backing instrumentation?
J.S: I love it – playing around with songs and particular instrumentation and I love working with real musicians.

B.K: The touring?
J.S: I have been touring and found oddly, that’s the only way I can support the recording was to keep going out and touring. I may have preferred just concentrating on the recording but it got me out of the malls. It also keeps your different set of skills up which you use in the studio too. You just probably don’t hear about it because it’s mostly in the States is part of the reason. I continue performing – I do birthday parties, bar mitzvahs.

B.K: What would you do for a request like that?
J.S: People invite me to the strangest things and I tend to do them because I really enjoy it. I’m doing like a girl’s birthday party and she has a tattoo of one of the lines in my song and her sister wants to do a surprise thing for her. I’m going to go to her party and play two songs. I quite like it.

B.K: The Globe & Mail asked me last year to name a couple epic concerts I was moved by. I often point to two I have actually teared up in. One was yours at Massey Hall back in the 80s’. I can’t explain why – but I wasn’t alone in that room. It was the voices, the ethereal sounds and high emotion.

J.S: As I started to find my footing as a musician and even in the beginning I would find people, when they tuned in to the emotional part of it – that’s what people seemed to really like. I started noticing that and Massey Hall was another leap for me because it was the first time I could actually hear myself when playing with a band. I could get super quiet and hear it come back like a crystal from the back and thought, this is what music is supposed to be, not struggling to play with a band and get through the songs. I’ve kept that and when I play with bands, to get that clarity where people can hear every word – I can feel them and they can feel me – I can hold space for the listener if you know that term, I think that’s where a lot of magic happens. So when I arrange stuff with a band I never let the drummer play any cymbals when I’m singing. I usually don’t play with drums anyway – I’m just sort of sick of drums. It used to be just tapping my foot and then it exaggerated into this assault and battery. It just means musicians have to groove better with no drummer. It all works. I like how it works without drums.

When you drink you really like loud drums. I don’t drink anymore, maybe that’s why.
What I’ve learned as I continue learning and doing salons – about 100 of them all over the world in people’s living rooms, unamplified - I’ve even got where I don’t play guitar when I’m singing live. I stop a lot. You really sense the circle frayed when they can’t hear the words. That circle of connection. It’s made me play guitar and piano differently.

B.K: Has the subject matter in your songs changed much over the years?
J.S: It’s a relief to talk about music, Bill, instead of personal details. I like to talk about this.
It has changed a lot and I at a certain point, probably when I changed my name and wanted much, much less talking with people and many fewer possessions. I also decided I didn’t want to smokescreen people with my lyrics. I’m much more direct in who I write to so the songs aren’t as abstract without anchoring them to you, the person I’m listening too. It just seems super important to connect more than ever these days. Beyond that there is a whole kind of music in my head I haven’t even got to – the kind of music I’m supposed to write? I haven’t even got near and can’t even say what it is but it has to do with the lyrics.

B.K: “I thought I was holding the music hostage because of the money” – do you still feel that way?
J.S: If someone had a sore shoulder and I could make you feel better if you’d pay me, you have to let go of all of that. You just have to be of service. I haven’t sorted out the debt thing. That’s been like an albatross around my neck for like fifteen years. I don’t know how to do it but as far as music goes, I’m not going to hoard it. I hope the universe will draw music out of me in a way and not make me feel heavy from debt. Debt is energy. I don’t want to think how I’m going to make a living from music. I’d pay way more than I do to make music.

B.K: 2006 you pared things down and got to the essentials.
J.S: That was my hope. My understanding of that is – that’s the exterior version of what’s within me and what I really want is to pare down the possessions inside me.  It’s a discipline. They should have martial arts courses about this.

B.K: You have a fine fall touring schedule.
J.S: Yep – beginning here, then the UK –North America November – December. I’ll have a proper release of this recording Ulysses Purse sort of like a slow motion release. That’s what my hope is, to play concerts with a collective of musicians. I remember when I released When I Was a Boy it took a long time to mature in the air – it was sort of like a sleeper. I don’t know how to really say it. You can tell when it’s too new and hasn’t put down any roots or something. It feels that way with this one too.
I give my music to people up north where I am, I have a cabin in Northern Ontario. I’ll give it to the guy that owns a gas station or someone else or the people in the church and their reaction isn’t instant like, oh I get it yet it’s meant for everybody. It takes a longer time for cables to hook up with people when hearing my music. 

B.K: I remember the great conductor/pianist Andre Previn when he had a television show in the 60s’ telling the audience don’t listen to a recording one time and turn away – listen five, ten, twelve times and let the music sink in. Do you think that’s required today as we pay less attention?
J.S: I think it takes a while for one to hook up with the artist. I like repeated listening too. It’s with remorse I often don’t do that. At least when I do listen to music I try and turn down the lights and honor their music. It’s so easy to be careless with something so precious.