Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Conversation with the Late Doug Riley - 1988

Music scenes are the creation of players with great ability and draw power. I’m sorting through stored cassettes and recall with nostalgia and sadness the names passing between my fingers; pause and reflect on the moment I interviewed. The big six band leaders and community organizers are all there – Moe Koffman, saxophonist/flutes – gone since 2001, Doug Riley, keyboards – 2007, Jeff Healey, vocalist/guitar – 2008, Rob McConnell, arranger/trombone - 2010, Jim Galloway, saxophone/TD Jazz - 2014 and Archie Alleyne, drummer - 2015.

Noise keeps a community alive. All six made big noise. Rooms were packed, international artists dropped in; there was always a buzz. Those days are far behind with the closure of music venues, a fractured music scene and the lack of engaging bigger-than-life personalities. There was always apprehension musicians bred in classrooms would be short on life experiences, favor blandness over edgy, and fail to build a following. It seems those predictions are playing out in real time in the jazz scene.

With that in mind, I thought I’d revisit an interview from 1988 at CIUT 89.5 with one of Canada’s and certainly Toronto’s most revered and celebrated musicians. Galloway and McConnell took some shots from detractors; Riley, took no bullets or heat. It was always a lovefest!

BK:  You seem to have a firm footing in all idioms of music.  Is this what stimulates you?

Doug:  Yes, it does.  It helps me in all aspects of my writing – film, scoring, commercials, or the various recording artists I work with.  I try to touch as many bases as possible.

BK:  What would a normal work day consist of?

Doug:  A normal workday begins with me waking up, which can be the most difficult task of the day.  I usually go to my office around 10:30 a.m.  Once there, I examine my mail, review any video cassettes that have come in and then decide on what I want to work on that day.  I always try to write for three or four hours.  If I’m going into the studio that day or the following day, I prepare myself for whatever is happening recording wise.

My day is usually a combination of things, but much of it is dealing with priorities and focusing on which projects require the most attention immediately.  Also, setting myself up for whatever sessions I may have that week.  I often have to book contractors, orchestrate, arrange, and get the music off to the copyist.  I try to prepare for sessions with three hours of homework for every hour spent in the studio.

BK:  I remember you took a sabbatical from doing commercial work.  Has that ended?

Doug:  I’m doing a lot of commercial work now.  It’s lucrative and I find it very challenging.  Every project is different.

BK:  Your Company is called Dr. Music.  Is this the same title used by your band in the ‘70s?
Doug:  I actually had that name, Dr. Music, before the band came into existence.  It was when we were touring and recording that the band adopted the name.  I left the name in limbo but when I formed the new jingle company, I decided to use it because many people associated Dr. Music with me.
BK:  What motivates you to take on a project?

Doug:  Apart from the financial end, I think the script and the concept make the difference.  If' it’s a recording project, obviously, the artist and the material make a big difference.  If it’s a film there are a lot of different things.  A film takes a lot of time to score properly, spot it and go through all of its various aspects.

BK:  Do you choose which films you score?

Doug:  I have turned films down, but there are not that many to pick and choose from.  I wait for the right one to come along before I commit myself to the project just because of the amount of time a film project takes.

As far as writing chamber music, or so-called “serious music”, those kinds of projects come along in the form of grants, either Canada Council or Ontario Arts Council grants.  They are, for the most part, commissioned by artists or conductors of orchestras.  Again, it’s a major commitment.  I wrote a piano concerto for Elyakim Taussig and Mario Bernardi, for the National Arts Orchestra, which basically took six months of my free time to compose.

BK:  How do you maintain a balance between the various projects you’re involved with?
Doug:  You have to be very selective.  Otherwise, some projects that are peripheral prior to taking on a major commitment would automatically go by the wayside.

BK:  You received your Bachelor of music, in composition, at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto in 1967, and then completed half of your master’s degree in ethnomusicology.  Is there a certain period or culture that interests you most?

Doug:  I was particularly interested in Canadian Native music and I spent two summers living on Iroquois reservations, collecting and transcribing music in the field.  I am also very interested in the music of Java Bala because of the Gamelon Orchestra techniques.  I’ve incorporated a lot of their orchestral techniques in the modern music I write.

BK:  Have you collected any artifacts along the way?

Doug:  Yes, most of them are with the university in the faculty of Music, and all of my transcripts are in the National Archives in Ottawa, but I have some items I collected when I was on the Iroquois reservation’; water drums, turtle rattles, mating flutes.  These are all authentic items, not the kind purchased in souvenir shops.

BK:  In what period of your life were you involved in this research?

Doug:  This was while I was a student in my last year as an undergraduate and during my post graduate year.  My professor felt I was equipped to handle something like this so he procured a Canada Council grant for me, which meant it was a commissioned project.  I’ve always been interested in ethnic music of any kind.

BK:  when did your interest in rhythm and blues surface, and what was the first group you worked with.

Doug:  I can’t remember not liking R’n’B.  The natural evolution, I’m not sure which comes first, whether the blues and jazz influences came out of R’n’B or R’n’B influences came around as a result of the blues and jazz.

I guess my first major influence in R’n’B was Ray Charles.  Later, I ended up arranging an album for him called Ray Charles – Doing His Thing.

BK:  When was this out?

Doug:  1969

BK:  What styles of music were on the lp?

Doug:  Jazz and R’n’B compositions plus a couple of ballads backed by a big band consisting of four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, a rhythm section and a full 16 piece string section.  There was a lot of leeway to do pretty much what we wanted.

BK:  There are a lot of gospel influences in your playing.  Many of the radio and TV commercials of the ‘60s and ‘70s were rooted in this tradition and much of what was heard can be attributed to you.
Doug:  My father played a lot of Mahalia Jackson in the house and, of course, Ray’s influence was always a present.
BK:  Did you listen closely and try to absorb the spiritual feel of the music?

Doug:  I used to play along with Mahalia’s records.  At the time, I wasn’t thinking about how this would be useful later but, as it turned out, that kind of playing fits remarkably well into R’n’B settings.  People like Billy Preston brought it to the forefront.

I was also involved with Tommy Ambrose in a series of shows called Celebration, on CTV.  Every week we would have gospel guests from the U.S.; a lot from the bible Belt.  We had a cookin’ gospel band with a choir of eight which had to adapt to each artist.  Boy was that fun.

BK:  The pianist Bill Evans played an important role in your musical development.

Doug:  During my late teens he became a major influence in my life because of his musical way of thinking.  It was much more introspective than the gospel, R’n’B thing, which is based more on feel and high level musically.  It consists of very complicated structures with rhythms within rhythms.
He’s always fascinated me with his complete control of the instrument.  Technically, he could do about anything.  His playing was influenced by the classical composers:  Ravel, Scriabin and Chopin.  Evans certainly affected my playing, there’s no question about it.

Bill and I also became close friends and we spent a lot of time together.  He’d stay at my house on many of his trips to Toronto.  He always told me not to copy, because it could be the worst thing for me to do.  What I did get from him, in terms of melodic and harmonic conceptions, I tried to apply to my own style of playing.

BK:  Were you and Shawne Jackson in the house band at the original Blue Note Night Club?

Doug:  Yes, The Silhouettes.  It was a band that I had when I was 16 years old.  When the original house band, The regents, left the Blue Note, saxophonist Steve Kennedy stayed on and Al Steiner called me while I was playing at The Peppermint Lounge on Bay Street and we brought our own band in.  Steve joined the band, along with Diane Brooks as a vocalist.  We were there for three years so Shawne used to come and sit in with the band and perform in the floor show.  Later, she came in as a soloist with a band called The Rogues.  That was Domenic Troiano and Whitey Glan.  This was The Blue Note, on Yonge and Walton, just south of Gerrard.

BK:  That was quite a hotspot...

Doug:  It was unbelievable.  Everybody who came into town like The Band, Jesse Davis, Junior Walker and the All-stars would come to The Blue Note after their performance to jam.  Stevie wonder would drop by, and the Supremes, Jimmy Reed and all of the blues legends.  It was the best education you could ever get.  We backed most of these greats.

BK:   Where would they be performing?

Doug:  The Colonial, Le Coq D’Or, the Zanzibar, the Edison Hotel, the Brass Rail.  On our breaks we’d go listen to them play.  We’d play until 3 a.m. so they’d have an opportunity to loosen up after their engagements.  No alcohol, just coffee.  I was only 16 years old then.

BK:  What were the most impressive performances you can remember from those days?

Doug: There’s three I’ve got to mention that come to mind immediately.  One was Miles Davis with Jack DeJohnette on drums, Chick Corea on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Wayne shorter on tenor.  Weather Report was another and the other one was the Bill Evan trio with Marty Morrell on drums and Eddie Gomez on bass.  Bill’s thinking is more melodic and harmonic.

BK:  Did you catch Bill Evans’ last performance here? 

Doug:  Yes, I did.  Marty wasn’t playing with him then; Pat’s brother, Joe LaBarbera was.  Marty was sitting with me at the table and said, “This is the best I’ve ever heard Bill play.”

BK:  Were the Blue Note years also the beginning of your recording experience?

Doug:  Yes, this is when I first started in the studio.  Ben McPeek gave me my first job in the studio and I remember how scared I was.  I went in all the hot players in town were on the session; Moe Koffman, Guido Basso, Rob McConnell and Ron Pullen was playing drums.  I was just shaking.  They wanted me to lay an organ solo in the track and I can remember trying to control my hand long enough to play a solo.  When I had finished, all of these guys came up and congratulated me.  After that I was called for other sessions.

BK:  When was Dr. Music formed?

Doug:  In 1971.  I was approached by Allan Blythe and Chris Beard to put together a background, on camera, choral group for the summer replacement of The Andy Williams Show, which was hosted by Ray Stevens.  The show was called Who is Ray Stevens.  Ray had quite a few novelty hits, but not many people knew his name.

For thirteen weeks I was the choral director.  The group consisted of musicians from the Blue Note and from the original production of Hair, which I was also involved in.  That’s where the singers came from, four guys and four girls.  They sounded so great together that we started getting asked to perform on other shows:  The Barbara McNair show and Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s Show, Rolling on the River, and the very early pilot series of Music Machine, with Moe Koffman as musical director.

Then we were offered a recording contract from GRT Records and along with that, requests for concerts.  We put a band together with four rhythm players, four horns and eight singers.  When it came time to determine the name, it was suggested we use the name of my company at the time, Dr. Music.

BK:  You had a few hits from the first lp, which consisted of a rich blend of harmonic and melodic textures.

Doug:  Steve Kennedy’s tune, Road to Love, interested Bell Records in the States.  They were the company who were successful with the Fifth Dimension, so we signed with Bell.  Actually, Sun Goes By became a hit south of the border.  Rosalie Tremblay got it off the ground in Windsor and it took off in Detroit.  She was so strong in radio that on the second album I took it to her, and when she didn’t like one of the mixes, I went back and remixed it.

BK:  Do you have any plans to record a new jazz lp soon?

Doug:  I have had plans for the last four years to do something.  The closest I’ve come is a duet thing I did with the flutist, Jeremy Steig.  We’ve recorded the whole thing but I haven’t secured a label.  It’s just flute and piano.  He came up from New York and we recorded in my house with my Hindeburg Steinway.  We had all the equipment set up.  It was done on reel to reel through a Fostex eight track board.

BK:  You’re playing on the soon to be released Brass Connection album.

Doug:  It was fascinating because Doc Hamilton brought in trombone players from all over the place to appear as guest soloists.  Ian MacDougall flew in from Vancouver, Carl Fontana and Bill Watrous came up from L.A., and Bill Holman arranged two of the charts.  I think it’s going to be a benchmark album.

BK:  Do you enjoy composing for dance and is this a complicated process? 

Doug:  I like writing for dance and movement, or something that has theater involvement.  It is even more satisfying than working in film because it’s in your imagination, rather than viewing frames of film going by.  Working with a good choreographer, as I did on two ballets, is a very exciting and creative process.  It’s time-consuming and very complicated.  The movement has to be choreographed as the music is written.  Each segment of the music has to relate to a place in the ballet.  We would have preproduction meetings that would last for hours as the choreographer relates what he sees and how the story unfolds.  Then, I would go away and write the music as I conceived it.  After this, we would get together again and begin working on the movement.

The second ballet we did was based on a string quartet.  I had written and was composed in three movements.  This was called sessions for Six or Sessions for Twelve, depending on the number of dancers to be used.  This became a piece that the National Ballet performed on tour in Europe.  The music was already written, but Rob Icove came up with the idea that in between each movement of the string quartet we would have a completely different band, So I wrote three rock movements which were played by rock musicians in between the string pieces.  The string quartet was a twelve-tone sound which added stark contrast to the rock, but I’m more interested in doing a solo piano album now.  I’m presently writing music for it, and it will be jazz.  It’s fairly atonal type music but with melodies.

Blues Summit Eight and Those New Faces

Pops drove his boys to gigs the first few years. I was 16 and have no memory how I copped a $15 gig in Corydon, Indiana – the second capital of Indiana Territory in 1813, with a very popular one-armed trumpet player. I do remember weeks prior, I was immersed in the blues, having returned from studying with Oscar Peterson in his summer program, 1963 in Toronto. I asked Oscar what he listened to and he handed me two jazz piano albums, Claire Fischer - Surging Ahead and Junior Mance - Live at the Village Gate.

Once back across the border and situated behind the family, far-from-tuned spinet piano, I began to punch out a blues scale. But it took a trip across the bridge from Indiana to Kentucky and a record store on Liberty Street in Louisville, to find the Junior Mance side.

Drop the needle and my world changed. Oscar played me this slow blues from Mance’s soulful recording called “Smokey Blues.” Peterson speaks, “everything you need to know about the blues is in that track.” I took his words to heart and played over and over and over and copied lick after lick.
Meanwhile, that gig? I’m on the bandstand with my employer. Trumpet man starts calling tunes, of which I knew three or four. Rather than demean and kick my ass all over the bandstand he says, “Blues in F.” At that moment, the body settles and I exhale a big sigh of relief.

We play 15 minutes of easy-flowing blues: trumpet man blowing a raggedy New Orleans style and me stabbing between all those white notes for blues gravy.

We finish the jam and a big smile gets tossed my way. “Kid, you can play the blues. Let’s try one in B flat.” So, goes the night. We may have played “Satin Doll” or “Take the A Train” another time or two, but the engagement, in whole, was given over to the 12-bar blues.

During set breaks, the folks in the lounge patted me on the back. Night’s end, Mr. Trumpet man invites me come again. Best part, I had $15 in my pocket. How big was that? I used to dream; if I only had $10 in my pocket.

Whenever surrounded by - or working with - young aspiring artists, I always keep those first gigs in mind, that sensation – the meet and greet with heroes.

I was thinking about this over the weekend as I sat at a table in a room of talent buyers from festivals and events spread across the country, all participating in Blues Summit Eight. It was the “speed pitch:” – four minutes to convince and sell yourself sessions.

Representing the Beaches International Jazz Festival, now in year 29, is always a pleasure. We have a limited budget but plenty of venues and big crowds. My go-to point person on reviewing young talent, and talent in general is a passage lifted from an interview I did with Warner president Steve Kane.

Bill King: What qualities do you look for in a new artist?

Steve Kane: As we hear a new artist, we hear the songs. We see their work ethic and see their drive. It’s that self-assuredness.

BK: Is there a checklist?

SK: Yes, there’s a mental checklist.  I’ve got to tell you at the top of this checklist – Does this artist know who they are? Do they have a sense of self? Do they have a sense of where they want their career to go? There’s a lot of manufactured pop in this world and we all live in that world and have since the days of the Bobby Rydells or Bobby Shermans. It’s always existed. Sometimes I think the modern era - the current era - takes a lot of hard knocks, as if we invented this. It’s been going on for years and there have always been those two tracks.

When we sit with a young artist we need to know how fully developed they are in their sense of self. Sometimes this takes time."

From “speed pitch” time,  it was then onto mentoring sessions. The same thinking was applied.
Music is always in need of renewal. Players are always in need of renewal: far too many become stagnant and unwilling or incapable of shedding old ways and bad habits.

The pitches? “We can play anything; a blues set, a Bossa Nova set, we known Latin songs, great dance music, lots of swinging jazz...” To me, that’s not a band looking to break from the pack. That’s treading in bathwater.

Here are four newcomers who made an impression on me this past weekend. By impression I mean, how they handled themselves in one-on-one sessions. Where they go with their careers is still a matter of luck, big breaks, talent and perseverance.

Seventeen-year-old blues guitarist/vocalist Spencer MacKenzie: Spencer lives and breathes his passion. He also plays with great confidence and reverence for tradition. The Mackenzies are dedicated parents who cart Spencer from point A to B. The young prospect has a gentle, easygoing manner that comes across in crowds. Spencer took home a trophy from Maple Blues Awards night – New Artist or New Group of the Year. MacKenzie comes from the Niagara region of Ontario.

  River City Junction. Here’s a band that plays around two hundred dates a year in Brockville, Kingston, Smith Falls, Perth, Gananoque, Ottawa and Montreal region. The husband and wife team of Jason Fryer – guitar/vocals – Caroline Addison – lead vocal/drums – and bassist Tom Joanisse exude big charm and sincerity. River City Junction is a working-class band. They borrow from the classic rock and blues songbook and stay honest to their loyal fans. It’s the spot-on lead vocals of Addison that stands out and gives the band a fighting chance.

Pianist/singer Jenie Thai from Edmonton, now residing in Toronto: Jenie came with questions and loads of confidence. Living in Toronto and playing in an atmosphere of high expectations and big competition should bring even greater maturity. Here’s what we know about the fine young pianist. From her website: “In 2008, Jenie diversified her education attending Grant MacEwan's Jazz and Contemporary Music Program as a performance major. Upon graduation, Jenie was offered a part-time teaching position at Grant MacEwan University and gained acceptance into Paul McCartney’s international music school based in Liverpool. In January 2014, Jenie Thai represented Northern Alberta as a semi-finalist in the 30th International Blues Challenge held in Memphis.”

Guitarist/singer Lucas Haneman from Montreal: Lucas sat down front of me with a broad smile cutting from ear-to-ear. Lucas is sightless and at no time during the presentation did he release his grip on me: Positive, engaging, and one hell of a fine musician. More about Lucas.  “While in high school, he performed in many national jazz bands and received a CBC Galaxy Rising Star Award at the 2005 Ottawa International Jazz festival.  In 2010, he graduated from Concordia University with a BFA in Jazz Studies (where he received the prestigious Oscar Peterson scholarship in 2008.) “Haneman (is) a guitarist with an almost frighteningly broad stylistic reach and tone that ranged from clean and warm to distorted and aggressive.” - John Kelman, All About Jazz Magazine website.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Testimony of Robbie Robertson

An exceptional read often winds its way through one’s life. Such is the case for Robbie Robertson’s memoir – Testimony.
Brooklyn, New York bassist Stu Woods and I roomed together on the road from 1968 - 1969. "Road," being those weeklong jaunts up and down the Atlantic coast; others -upstate New York - Poughkeepsie, the Catskills – even Tony Mart’s Showplace in Atlantic City. We played non-stop soul music for dance crowds. Monday to Wednesday, the house was usually good. Come Thursday to Saturday, there were lineups down the block.
Stu and I loved listening to music. I mean... every breathing moment we were spinning discs on my portable Hi-Fi - one of those $40 traveling companions you detached two speakers, spread them apart and assumed you were hearing in stereo. Not a chance! Volume was minimal as was bottom end. Who cared? It was always about the LPs that traveled with us. Packed in a carry-with-you bag, a few jazz sides – Miles Davis Kind of Blue – some Jimi Hendrix – a couple soul sides and the prize: The Band, Music From The Big Pink – summer 1968.

Woods and I replayed and replayed the LP, nearly scrubbing the grooves away. Big Pink was light years beyond the psychedelic yarns spun by San Francisco bands or the Long Island jams of guitarist Leslie West and Mountain. This was roots music with a different vibe.

Robertson’s autobiography, Testimony, sat nearby weeks before I cracked it open. A good book talks back at you, if you keep ignoring it. Christmas Day, it practically screamed, “Stop for a minute, put down that fucking iPad and read me!” That was it – me, Robbie Robertson, the recliner and a whining dog at my side.

Where to begin?
I believe this is the first time I’ve got a historical sense of the true soul of Toronto’s music scene. Robertson spells it out through the first hundred pages. You hear and visualize Robertson’s memories of growing up around an oddball assortment of characters... his first guitar and searching out mentor musicians. The early days with his own band, The Rhythm Chords, with local entrepreneur and bassist Pete Traynor... the mean streets of Toronto...the neighborhoods... the small-time criminals... a tight-knit family, are all there. Then the big break with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. The pace then quickens and rolls.

Robertson paints with words. Testimony isn’t a dry read – “back to back facts and figures” and self-absorbed trope: It’s the story of us; our city and the young players who ventured beyond, but never strayed too far.

Robertson’s take on Hawkins is priceless. More than a few of us were Hawks at one time and can attest to the posse of crazies, starry-eyed girls and the sheer laziness of the big chief. You didn’t just play in a band, you were part of a traveling circus. At times, a big musical jolt; at others, a night at “Caligula’s retreat,” as Ronnie would call it.
The early days with the Hawks, Scott “Magoo” Cushnie played piano. Robertson and the “encyclopedic” Cushnie became solid companions. Scott and gang (guitarist Bob Yeoman, bassist Rick Birkett, and drummer Frank DeFelice) would form their own fan-band - Jericho - back in 1970. We lived as a commune in an eight-room apartment complex above a grocery street on Hallam Street. A good eight hours by day were reserved for a complete runthrough of the Band catalogue. “The Night the Drove Old Dixie Down,” still reverberates the back of my skull as if Jericho was on a band break.

Robertson’s departure with the Hawks and bond with Bob Dylan is worth the price of admission. These chapters detail a friendship – a learning forum for anyone close by. Dylan gone electric and the details of those painful nights on stage absorbing insults, demeaning as they were, cleared a path for Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko into the next life. It’s a wonder any of these players would seriously take to the big stage again.
Big Pink – Woodstock, New York – the basement recording studio; hours and hours at the typewriter writing lyrics and experimenting with sound. Garth Hudson fiddling with his souped-up Lowrey organ; Dylan drop ins - more lyrics – words and melodies coming fast and furious. “I Shall Be Released," "Chest Fever” with Hudson’s Bach-like organ intro; “The Weight," "Tears of Rage," "To Kingdom Come," "This Wheel’s On Fire.”
It's rare for a group of musicians to rent a space, isolate themselves and get busy. Distractions are always close by. We tried it with the first Canadian band I was part of, Homestead. We moved to a farm owned by Bobby Orr in Newcastle, Ontario. It was four months of hell and few moments in the music room. Robertson and crew stayed focused, passionate and kept a rigorous writing schedule.
It was playwright Neil Simon’s memoirs that most impacted me on the way a good writer seeks discipline. Simon set a time – early morning to noon or so, then walked away. Robertson and cast booked early afternoon until nightfall and kept with the schedule and Dylan in the mix. Work gets done.
The beauty of this read? There are no greasy salacious details. People smoke pot, others have serious drinking issues and flirtations with heroin. Unlike the miserable Greg Allman book (My Cross to Bear) – Robertson keeps the narrative running as if in real time; absent long nights of debauchery. Spare us all.

Greenwich Village of the '60s - Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick and Allen Ginsberg - they inhabit Robertson’s world. The record deal – negotiations, manager Albert Grossman, producer John Simon, the Hit Factory with Jerry Raganov, the Beatles, the Stones. A world of new music became home for a Scarborough boy whose mother Rose Marie Chrysler was a Mohawk raised on Six Nations Reserve south-west of Toronto. He then later discovers his biological father, David Klegerman, was Jewish and a professional gambler. Those chapters read like the epic film, Once Upon a Time in America starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Joe Pesci. The friendships, strong family bonds, hooligans, and petty crime. There had to be a song or two in there.

Robertson and the Hawks held down a steady gig at Tony Marts – Showplace of the World in Atlantic City. This was one huge nightclub with three bandstands and thousands of teens. Stu Woods, me and the Brooklyn band played during the last days of October 1968 as the cold winds off the Atlantic were blowing in. As we were hauling equipment, Marts pulls us aside and reads the riot act. “You’re on an hour, off an hour, don’t be late or you’re gone. I expect class and no grass. And lastly, see the girl over there? Hands off, she’s my daughter and she’s a teenager.” I turn around and witness this young woman carrying more weight than Marts himself, and respond. “No problem.” Marts looks at me with a scolding eye. “Hands off!”
Stu Woods and I along with drummer Roy Markowitz auditioned for the Janis Joplin gig at the old Atlantic Studios owned by Herb Abramson. Albert Grossman was present. Roy and I got in and Stu found a home with Grossman and company playing bass on Dylan’s Self-Portrait, then Don McLean’s American Pie, the Pozo Seco singers, Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Tie a Yellow Ribbon, Janis Ian, Jim Croce, Bette Midler, Todd Rundgren and on. Not bad!

As with Robertson’s Testimony, I thoroughly enjoyed Levon Helm’s at-times bitter read – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band from 2000. Together, we get a complete view inside of the hearts and minds of one of the great bands of this past century. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Conversation with composer/arranger/musician Chelsea McBride

How extraordinary to celebrate a 25th birthday with a concert/CD release of original music of one’s own invention with a 19-piece big band? That occurred last night in Toronto at Lula Lounge for saxophonist/composer/arranger Chelsea McBride’s latest undertaking - The Twilight Fall.

Vancouver’s McBride is a member of an expanding women’s movement that is enriching the Toronto jazz scene. It’s been a long, challenging history for women instrumentalists in a music once governed by patronizing, chauvinistic men. Inclusivity is a result of hard-fought victories dating back decades when saxophonist Jane Fair and bassist Rosemary Galloway fronted their own bands. The late 1980’s and the ascension of bandleader/saxophonist Jane Bunnett began the dismantling of barriers and the break with the “ boys only club”. The lineage of women bandleaders locally is impossible to dismiss: Dr. Kira Payne, Carol Welsman, Colleen Allen, Laila Biali, Brandi Disterheft, Tara Davidson, Elizabeth Shepherd, and, most recently, Alison Young, Rebecca Hennessy, Naomi Higgins, McBride and others.

Thursday past, McBride dropped by CIUT 89.5 fm (The Bill King Show) and we settled in for an hour-long chat.

Bill King: Chelsea, you are working a series of bands – the Socialist Night School, a big band jazz unit – fusion pop band, Chelsea McBride and the Cityscape – The Achromatics, a Latin/soul music nonet – a video game cover band called Koopa Troop and not to long a go you were a graduate of the Humber Bachelor of Music Program. What gives?

Chelsea McBride: Chelsea and the Cityscape is a pop band formed first with a couple classmates. I was looking for a place to play my tunes and I didn’t know what I was going to do at the time. So I called people I trusted and brought them together and said, 'here are songs that don’t make much sense, but they’d be fun to play.' I started the big band after I ran out of school-sanctioned opportunities to workshop my big band writing. Something else I was trying to get into – so I just started my own. The Achromatics is the brainchild of Jay Vasquez, who is a guitarist and vocalist I play with a lot. It’s very much a collective project and the theme of that band is diversity and mixing cultural influences. We come from very different musical backgrounds. The Koopa Troop is the idea of the guitarist in the band, Wilson McLeish. We all dress up as video game characters and play your favourite tunes from classic video games and current video games. Anything nerdy is fair game.

B.K: You are having too much fun. I discovered you from the TD Discovery Series Special Projects initiative. Created by Toronto Downtown Jazz, this encourages the creation, development and presentation of special projects by jazz musicians in the City of Toronto. I was impressed with your writing for big band. Where does this come from?

C.M: I’ve been songwriting a long time and been around music all of my life. I was like nine or 10 and thought I’d try writing. At that time, it was whatever a 10-year-old‘s attempt at writing a pop song is. Not particularly sophisticated or exciting, but that’s what got me into it.

When I was in high school playing saxophone a few years and starting to double instruments, I was getting into “honor bands” - new territory for me. I played in a high school “jazz intensive” at the Vancouver Jazz Festival for three years. I thought about saxophonist Eli Bennett, who is very good - he played in the band for three years - and I thought maybe I should try out. I got in, but, by far, I was the weakest person. I then knew I had to practice and practice.

Playing in that setting allowed me to take what I was working on with songwriting and start writing for large ensemble. I think it was Grade 11 or 12 when I started writing for big band. I was then picked for the national honor band in Grade 12 and I remember flying across the country for my first meeting with Terry Promane (associate professor and jazz coordinator at the University of Toronto) and he explained what was expected and the plan. When he got to the end of his talk, he asked if we had any questions and I said, 'well, I’ve brought this chart in for big band, can we try it?' He did let me try it and it was fine and I decided then I was going to write for big band.

I workshopped some charts with the B-band at Humber under faculty member Mark Promane and he was awesome. Second year, my big band director wasn’t as enthusiastic. It was a huge shame. The entire point of being at school is to learn. I mean if the chart is so terrible and not worth a read, I get that. I got the runaround and it was not fun. I couldn’t get it played in class so I started my own band.

I called 18 people and said, 'let's all get in a room together.' I wanted to hear how it sounded. I wasn’t the only one – you could count them on one hand. It was me and my charts. It’s mostly been that over the history of the Socialist Night School big band. It’s open for others to bring in music too.

B.K: Are there arrangers you draw inspiration from?

C.M: I’ve played so much big band music throughout the later years. At 16 and not playing much big band, it was an interesting place to start. I played a lot of classic Count Basie, Sammy Nestico arrangements. I remember playing a lot of Duke Ellington charts in high school because of the Jazz at Lincoln Centre program. I remember them being really demanding. The clarinet parts of Ellington’s “Diminuendo in Blue,” which is super virtuosic and in a high register, I couldn’t play most of the notes at that age. Being assigned that music and told to play was a great way to get good fast.

I was also getting introduced to composers/arrangers Maria Schneider and Daniel Jamieson, who I ended up studying with and working for. We played music from the Jazz Institute in Chicago, then run by Nicole Mitchell when I was in it. I discovered arrangers Bob Brookmeyer and Vancouver’s Darcy James Argue, who became somewhere between influence and hero for me.

B.K: How did you read his charts? They are so complex.

C.M: His charts are so impeccable. He’s so focused on the copy side of it. Just because it’s clear and easy to read doesn’t make it any easier to play. My band will say this about my charts as well. It looks hard on paper but easier to play.

B.K: The concept of your new big band album, The Twilight Fall?

C.M: It’s about this odyssey – the life cycle of you. It’s the story of your life – the dreamland you may inhabit the rest of your life. It started as commuter dreams. What happens when you fall asleep on a long train ride. This is you re-experiencing everything you’ve lived.

B.K: What about the recording process?

C.M: When we were in mixing and recording, I found myself conducting myself – trying to remember all of the cues – the parts – the long score. I must have a visual association to this music. I must see what the measures look like as they pass.

B.K: Your dad was in radio
C.M: He’s been in the business, I think, 30 years. He was on the radio when I was very young. He was morning man at z95.3 in Vancouver. Matthew McBride.

I grew up listening to the music he played on radio. A lot of  '70s and '80s pop music. I remember being quite young and Dad went in to do a blindfold test of five-seconds-a-song and you had to guess what it was and he knew all of them. I thought to myself, of course, my Dad knows everything. He was the kind of guy who would break new artists on the radio. It’s a unique upbringing, for sure. One you don’t realize until you pause and look back.

B.K: What’s his thoughts on your music?

C.M: He says I’m responsible for getting him into jazz. I came into the music through the singers; listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Then it was the saxophonists – Coltrane – Charlie Parker – Lester Young; because I listened to the Basie band.
My parents are super supportive and enthusiastic about the whole thing. They’ve been following me through this journey.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Me and Mrs. Mirvish

For 12 years, I rented a one-room, third-floor flat facing Markham Street across from The Green Iguana Glassworks and my buddy Darrell Dorsk in Mirvish Village. The room served as home office for the Jazz Report magazine - published by myself and Huntsville, Ontario high school teacher Greg Sutherland. Greg and I hung in 19 years and wisely retreated when advertising dollars began to dwindle.

During those 12 years, Markham Street rarely bustled with activity. It was a fading shell of good intentions. The main attraction was the cut-rate price for the Sunday edition of the New York Times that brought activity every Sunday to David Mirvish Books – next door to my hideaway. Cars rolled in and out – families gathered, then dispersed.

Each August, the Mirvish family threw a street party. The top of Markham street was roped off and a stage was rolled out. Stars from various Mirvish-supported musicals would sing and dance while Ed and wife Anne sat patiently under unrelenting heat. Cookies and pink weiners were served along with a few rides for the kiddies. Ex-mayor David Miller designated August 12 as “Ed Mirvish Day."
Early years, it was Italian restaurant Carlo and Adelina’s Place that drew the most attention.  When in town on a film shoot, actors John Travolta and Robert De Niro could be seen coming and going. Slathered with the most sumptuous garlic cream sauce, my partner Kristine and I often dined on the veal and chicken. Lunch time, I’d order a takeout veal sandwich and vinegary salad and listen to three recurring versions of “Time to Say Goodbye” while chef Vince and Adelina Nicolucci assembled my prize. Sadly, Adelina never fully recovered from the death of beloved Carlo.
Suspect Video, attached to Honest Ed’swas my go-to film library. From directors Ingmar Bergman to Aleksandar Zarkhi, I rifled through foreign films – each with a small story to tell. Coated in black, the room was a sweltering claustrophobic hull during summer visits. I’d often choke on noxious cigarette smoke and chuckle at all the glam-boy toys and alien figurines behind plexiglass. Yet, it was a cinephile’s pleasure palace.

Darrell Dorsk played the best jump blues sounds. The Green Iguana Glassworks had been in play for over 30 years. Open the front door and a bell sounded and alerted Darrell of your arrival. Through stacks of bike parts, old frames, past soldering irons, sheets of glass, memorabilia or the funniest quotes about Richard Nixon, Darrell would come flying down the stairwell and quickly engage in conversation. It was always an epic performance.
As  years pass and both Kristine and I nurture a growing passion for photography, David Mirvish Books began to play a central role in our education. Mirvish had the most eclectic books: Essays on photography, picture books and “how-to.” Mirvish also carried the Jazz Report. In fact, I always got a chill seeing our magazine racked at Coles, Book City, Mirvish, even at Pearson airport on newsstands.

Eventually, photography won out over jazz storage space and we became a photographic studio. This is where I captured portraits of Jeff Healey, Kirk MacDonald, Emile-Claire Barlow with Eliana Cuevas and Dione Taylor, Archie Alleyne, Doug Riley, Phil Nimmons, Shakura S’Aida, and hundreds more.
Once Adelina called it quits, Butler’s Pantry moved in. We were thrilled to have a new restaurant in the area, one saxophonist (the late) Dr. Kira Payne and I had been frequenting, on lower Roncesvalles.  From time-to-time, Kira would pick me up and we’d spend an afternoon talking literature, music and art, while feasting on the jambalaya.
During the big changeover, a music guy and architect Mike Clifton and pal Barush Zone moved below The Green Iguana and opened a used CD shop. Another place to hang and socialize.
Let’s get to Mrs. Mirvish. Evidently, Markham Village was a gift from Ed to wife Anne. Anne was a grand supporter of the arts and yearned to create an artist colony in Toronto. This very unique and quaint street was preserved and shared with artists of all stripes. My building housed painters, a seamstress and downstairs -  The Art Zone, specializing in stained glass, operated by jazz saxophonist John Johnson’s wife Kathryn Irwin and her sister, Jane. The building became one big family.
Rents! This is what sent my head spinning. My flat ran $150 a month – front window space main level; $400 a month. Entire floors, $1,500 monthly. There was basic electricity, but each renter was responsible for their own hydro line and paid according to usage.
It was mid-summer and Butler’s Pantry had been open a short time. Kristine and I would take the window booth to the left; Ed and Anne, the middle booth. There were days I’d walk in and Ed would be sitting alone and he’d ask, “Have you seen Anne?” I’d vow to look out for her.
Ed had no idea who I was. There were times Anne would be situated waiting for Ed and I’d walk through the front door and she’d ask, “Have you seen Ed? I’m to meet him here.” I’d keep an eye out. The ritual was so damn sweet!
One afternoon, I heard a cry for help and noticed a woman had stumbled and collapsed in front of Butler’s Pantry. I quickly hustled across the street and was met by Mike Clifton. Mike helped her up as I pulled a chair onto the sidewalk. The woman was in severe pain and I didn’t recognize who she was.
The next hour was spent in conversation – the history of the street and artists who had come and gone. She then introduces herself – “I’m Anne Mirvish, and you?” I point to an upstairs window across the street and tell her I rent from the family. She then gives me a history lesson about the building and asks, did I know her son David? I explain my fascination with the bookstore and what we did as a magazine and truly appreciated the rented space. She then says, “You must visit me at the pink building front-end on Markham near Bloor.”
A couple days pass and the telephone rings, “Bill, is that you? It’s Anne – could you meet me at David’s store? You were so very kind staying with me. I want to talk to you.” We arrange a time.
I show as scheduled and before me stands Anne. “Bill, I’m painting a portrait of Lincoln Alexander. When I get farther ahead, I want you to come by my studio.” At this moment, I’m hers. “I’m just going to run downstairs for a minute and when I get back, we’ll talk some more.”
I hang around the front desk, skim through a few art books and no Anne. Then an attendant says, “you might as well go about your day, she won’t be back.” What? “Once she goes to the basement she starts sorting through carboard boxes and rearranging. This could take hours.”
True to habit, that’s what occurred. How could one not embrace and savor?
I ran into Anne on several other visits to Butler’s Pantry. Each time she’d introduce me as the nice man who helped her recover from the fall. Ed was always gracious, then asks what I did. I tell him I’m a musician and my photo appears on a post in the women’s shoe-wear section courtesy of Gino Empry, when I played the jazz club Lites with Pat LaBarbera. “It’s an honor to be part of the great names that cover the walls of your store,” I say. Empry notified me first floor was reserved for the Barrymores, Angela Lansbury and the biggies and how fortunate for me to make it to women’s shoes. I asked Gino – “what if they think I have a foot fetish?” He didn’t get it.
Honestly, I was never as taken with Honest Ed’s as I was attracted to Mirvish Village and I will cry boulder-size tears if the street is leveled and replaced with spiritless condos. Honest Ed’s? Fine with me. But please, please keep Anne’s dream in play!
Anne Mirvish passed away September 20, 2013.

The Golden Age of Doo-Wop and the Last Knights of Song

Those first train rides to Brooklyn were salvation compared to those creep-zones linking Hollywood and Vine and along Sunset Boulevard. Brooklyn was all about families –Jews and the Italians. Hollywood –predators and chicken-hawks.

I loved the noise, the hugs and being called “Billy”. I also loved the respect bestowed on musicians in New York of the 60s. Coming from a large family with Italian roots, I understood the calming sensation of being surrounded by loving women on my mother’s side- pots of steaming pasta, shelves filled with cakes and pies, ham so salty you’d have to pause and cleanse the palate to savor the next plate. Nobody spoke in time - everyone interjected to a broken beat. Conversation was a boxing match; the victor – the last word.

Traveling coast to coast across America, I logged some serious mileage. Not that of a rock star gobbling pavement to the next gig, but just a guy making his way from point a to point b, c, and d.  I never felt a bond with the west other than scenery. Cacti are a lovely sight from a distance but a thousand of miles of prickly needles extending as far as the distant horizon could never compete with four-stories of aging brick tenements - the sound of street traffic and haggling vendors. This was when I felt most alive.

Backside a cash register on 8th Avenue in lower Manhattan was a musician advert – “looking for a Hammond B-3 player – plenty of R&B work up and down the Atlantic coast – call Vic.” Each week I’d drop in the record center and sort through new titles. On one such occasion I’m thumbing through the jazz section and pull out a side with vibraphonist Gary Burton and a guy standing next to me says, “don’t buy that one, this one’s better, Lofty Fake Anagram, he says.” He then introduces himself as Al Kooper and goes on telling me which Gary Burton sides impress him. At least he had an opinion!

With only a weekend gig playing solo piano at Louie Jordan’s downstairs next to the Bitter End CafĂ© to occasionally rely on, I dialed the number from the cash register. The next year or so was a baptism in East coast rhythm & blue; Italy, American style - big humor and doo-wop. Up and down the coast, crazy gigs, a weeklong, sometimes two, back of a van.

This flashback comes courtesy of a Facebook video post by Johnny Scupelliti (Johnny Doo Wop from the Reactions). Johnny sings with my old Brooklyn bandmate – Vic Bonnadonna – stage name, Vic Donna. Vic was a local teen sensation following on the heels of Frankie Avalon and other boy-toys of the era. Good looks, wavy hair, big smile and easy-going. Vic was signed by Atlas Records and paired with popular Harlem doo-wop group the Parakeets and went on to record two sides with the group as Vic Donna and the Parakeets.

These days those singles are a collector’s find; the big score. When Vic and I hooked up he’d finished his days with the Compliments, another doo-wop unit.

That video I’m talking about has 133,000 plus Facebook views, 2465 shares and is from December 2015 at the Brooklyn Doo-Wop Club. Men now in their mid-seventies gather and sing their old hits, those of a generation who hung out on street corners and harmonized acapella.

Doo-wop is a music born on the street corners in African-American communities of New York City, Detroit, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles in the 1940s. Big popularity arrived in the 1950s and early 1960. The first recording to use the words “doo-wop” was in the 1955 hit, “When You Dance” by the Turbans. Late fifties, the Italians got on board and became significant partners in the rise of the music’s popularity. There have been various revivals over the decades but as I write, only a small pocket of engaged folks still follow the singers and music. Vic, Johnny and crew move from place to place and set up monthly doo-wop celebrations and still sing with great skill and passion. I found Vic’s telephone number and here’s his story.

Bill King: What is the Brooklyn Doo-Wop Club all about?

Vic Donna: It’s not there anymore but there’s another one in New Jersey where I live. It’s a club where all the guys who used to hang out and sing on the street corners in the 50s - anybody who may have recorded with one of the doo-wop groups of the time like myself, even those who came out of the woodwork and wanted to be a singer. We go to different corners. Some even go into rest rooms for the echo like we did when we were teenagers. There’s a place here now that’s a restaurant everybody goes to with a disc jockey, sound-system and open mike; kind of a thing if you have a group and anything that has to do with the fifties. They remember me from the two records I made back in 1957 with the Parakeets. It’s my claim to fame over there. I didn’t even know about this until I moved back from Las Vegas. Out west there was nothing, but here, people still loved the sound. There were a couple groups working in Vegas and I was in one. Our group was put into the Las Vegas Museum of Music Hall of Fame.

Bill: The Parakeets?

Vic: You used to make fun of the name.

Bill: I would still do that! That was the thing at the time – the “bird groups’ The Swallows, The Ravens, The Orioles, The Penguins, The Crows, The Flamingos, The Blue Jays and The Larks – the others were drawn from cars.

Vic: They sang like birds. It was on the Atlas label - a small label from Harlem. It was an all black label and I was the only white guy on the label.

When I came back people would walk up to me and ask, “are you the Vic Donna who made those records in the 50s?” Somebody had spread the word. Not long after, people started asking me to be in groups. I worked for a while then formed the new edition of the Vic Donna group. In Brooklyn, there was an old record shop called Rhythm Records that sold rare antique records from the 50s. All of the guys who sang that music or were familiar with that music used to hang out there. They’d even hang around and sing in the shop. That’s how that Brooklyn Club got started. The record shop closed and we had nowhere else to go. A friend of mine got a hold of this place in the marina which had a bar, the one you see in video, and they let us use the place once a month to go and sing. Eventually, that closed to so now we do it in New Jersey.

There are a lot of on-line radio stations keeping the music alive. There are shows still coming from campus stations like Rutgers. Once a week they have an hour or two of doo-wop music. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately. From my background and what I know and the quality of my group, we are now one of the best-surviving groups around and have built a nice following.

Bill: Brooklyn of your youth?

V.D: It’s pretty much like it’s portrayed in movies. On the street where I lived there were a couple recording groups that had hit records in the 50s. They were my mentors. One time we did the Ted Steele Show. He had a show much like American Bandstand, but it was just local New York. Once every day he’d have a different group of kids from various schools and let them dance to their music. Sometimes you’d cut out of school. The kids arranging all of this told him about our group and put us on the show. It was the first time he had a live group on the show. From that performance, I got a call from someone associated with Atlas Records wanting me, not the group. They were looking for another Frankie Avalon. I talked to the group and explained and at first I, didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to leave the group. The guys in group said, “Vic, are you crazy? This is a big shot for you. Go ahead and do it.” The Parakeets were from Newark, New Jersey and already had two records out. They were supposed to be my back-up group. The record should say, “with Vic Donna, backed by the Parakeets”. Instead, it said Vic Donna and the Parakeets. When it started being played on the air, that’s how the DJs attributed and when the gigs started coming in – that’s what they wanted.

B.K: Who were some of the other doo-wop groups in your neighborhood?

V.D: Cirino and the Bowties – they were in the early Allan Freed rock & roll movies and he toured them. Teddy Randazzo and the Three Chuckles – The Caribbeans and a lot of other groups who never made records, just on the corner.

I put out a CD in 2009 by myself. I didn’t have a group then and did all the voices myself.

Hanging around with record collectors I’ve learned one thing. They have heard everything that has been made during the '50s and are constantly looking for things they’ve never heard before. I said to them I have a lot of songs we sang on the street corners that never made it to the studio – stuff by the Parakeets and the Fi-Tones. So, I put them on an album and put it out there and made my money back, plus some. I didn’t even know how to market it. I just put them in a couple oldie record stores. When I got the Vic Donna group together we did an album too. We didn’t lose or make money.