Toronto Jazz Festival 2008
“ Each day brought a wide variety of music... These primetime concerts, held in the evening, meant that audiences always had something memorable to take home with them ”
I will never forget my excitementyears agoat learning that it would be possible for my family to live in Toronto again. I had been researching a book on Charles Mingus and often listened to one of my favorite vinyl recordsThe World's Greatest ConcertJazz at Massey Hall. Not only was it a gem because of the dream band, Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Max Roach on drums and, of course, the man I came to admire in an unabashed wayCharles Mingus on bass... But the historic concert and recording took place at a venue in downtown Toronto. For me, that meant Toronto was a jazz city, like New York, Newport, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco, among others in the US... Rio and San Paolo in Brasil... The Hague in the Netherlands, Montreux in Switzerland, and, yes, even Bombay in India!
So, in Toronto... I fully expected that jazz would be the music on the street. I knew of CODA magazine and Sackville Records, wanted and would eventually meet John Norris... I fancied my chances at writing for the magazine or landing a gig writing liners for Sackville.
But life deals cards face down. And you never know what's coming down the turnpike. No sooner than I finished Trinity College, in England I took off for Europe, got into advertising, rode a wave as a copywriter throughout the seventies and eighties, haunting the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Hague and the Jazz Yatra in Bombay for years, meeting and interviewing some of the most interesting musiciansfrom Max Roach, Miles Davis and John Lewis to Larry Coryell and Dannie Richmond... before ending up in the State of Virginia. Then back to London. I landed a contract with a British publisher and shuttled between London, England and Dubai, writing furiously and jamming sometimes with Cuban friends at Trader Vic's at the Park Lane Hilton and, happily, with a 'son' band when they opened in Dubai, UAE as wellthis last and most wondrous experience, thanks to my dear friend, jazz aficionado and Machito-factotum, Jackie 'el padrino' Laugenie of Trader Vic's.
So it was that I ended up staying in Dubai for two decades before I finally came to home to Toronto. One of the first things I can remember doing after the bags were unpacked and the family settled in, was making my pilgrimage to Massey Hall. There I woke up the spirits of my past and listened to the echoes of that historic concert. I heard the ghostly echoes of Parker's horn and Dizzy's trumpet. I looked for Bud Powell, following the direction from which the flurries of notes on "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" were coming from. I gasped as I saw, in my mind's eye, Mingus and Roach flying across strings and skins. "Hot House" and "Salt Peanuts..." I found myself singing the solos in other keys too! Bebop was my heartbeat that day in September.
My son and I had been careful to look for any jazz we could catch while we were downtown. There was plenty to sample in the core and at the western edge of the city. The Montreal Bistro was aliveand well and kicking with a Sackville artist...I cannot recall who exactly, but I seem to recall it may have included Don Thompson on bass and Terry Clarke on drums. There was jazz at The Home Smith Bar at the Old Mill Inn, The Top O' The Senator, jazz in a couple of other small clubs; and jazz from CJRT with Bill O'Reilly and even CBC Radio. And jazz was also heard, booming out of Sam the Record Man, Toronto's legendary record store, where the uninitiated werewith a solid recommendationalways gently, but authoritatively ushered into the jazz fold.
That was thenand although it may now seem to reside in the dark distant past, it was only as but as late as in the 1990s.
Today, however, the scene has changed. Legendary clubs such as George's Jazz Roomonce the only venue to feature leading Canadian musicians such as the late Moe Koffman and Doug Riley and where CBC Radio also recorded some of its finest live broadcastsand Bourbon Street, located at 180 Queen's Street West booked Jim Hall and Paul Desmond, both of whom made terrific recordings with Don Thompson on bass, and also housed local rhythm sections with pianists, Bernie Senensky and Carol Britto, and guitarist, Ed Bickert. At Basin Street, the second-floor room also hosted jazz and at least one famous musicalSalome Bey's Indigo. And all of those venues were active well into the eighties.