Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Don Francks (1932 – 2016) Hanging with the Jazz Don!

Don Francks.jpg

I used to bust Don’s chops and remind him – he danced with Fred Astaire. I’d play YouTube clips from Finian's Rainbow just to watch Francks dance and sing, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” then say – you can retire now – you were it; so hip and handsome and there you are in Panavision.

I met Francks in a waiting room at Mt. Sinai Hospital October 1972 – my partner Kristine was just steps and moments away from pushing big life outward - son Jesse. Francks was dressed in First Nation colors and sporting a big smile. We sat and chatted and began talking music. He was a jazz guy – be-bop hipster who spoke like a landlocked Greenpeace activist. Save the planet – save the children and play jazz flute.

I brought a notebook to record that very special moment. He asked to borrow it – removed a few colored felt pens and began drawing - then inscribed something about long-life and earth wishes for young Jesse. I was walking a fine line between hippie and indecision – never considering I’d crossed over, yet still looking the part and a bit suspect.

Through the years we’d occasionally cross paths – then late 1980’s Don called and tells me how much he likes the Jazz Report Magazine, at the time a jazz newsletter and could he contribute. He lent us photos from his hot jazz days, recalled bandstand episodes; addressed the record industry in not so complimentary words and sang the praises of the forgotten art of “hippterisim.”

I lived only blocks from Francks apartment on Tischester Avenue, a block north of St. Clair Avenue and Bathurst Street and would occasionally drop in. The front room was dark, dusty and the atmosphere buried in layers of pipe tobacco. Don would pull a recorded side and play some Don Costa, an under-sung jazz pianist sentenced to playing television shows – Astor Piazzolla – someone whose music I should know – the bandoneon – the tango, the music of Argentina. While all this is going on Don is driving a different classic car - a mad passion up and down Bathurst Street.

I often wondered what Francks was up too since he spoke few words – mostly smiled, spoke in riddles – or waited until you responded to your own questions. It was always perplexing and entertaining.

Quiet Don was one of the busiest working actors in Canadian film and television history. Franks was blessed with a classic radio voice – not that fake announcer stuff but a round solid storytelling voice that commanded your ears. Francks was never absent work – he got the roles – many roles – McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) … as Buffalo – The Wild Wild West (1966) Ben Casey (1965) – Riel – voice X-Men – Avengers – four year run La Femme Nikita – Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – in fact, 168 screen credits.

I often hear the same thing from people – “if I could have only been a musician – played an instrument – just sang” that would be a dream living – a dream life. Francks was no different. Don wanted jazz return to the popularity of his youth - much like the enviable world of current “pop heroes,” Drake and Bieber – music with a boundless a perimeter and millions of listening fans. Time doesn’t co-operate or stand pat - nor does music. We’ll miss you Don and that era when people partied to Sinatra, talked Lenny Bruce, sang along with Joe Williams, those Easy Rider days – and you, a denim-clad rebel who lived the jazz cause and sang for all the right reasons.

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