Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend

David A. Orthmann BY

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Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend
Mark Miller
279 pages
ISBN: 978-1-77302-559-9
Tellwell Talent

The ultimate impact of a man's life is not always synonymous with the things he leaves behind. Such is the tacit premise of Mark Miller's exceptional biography of Canadian jazz drummer, composer and bandleader Claude Ranger. Shortly before disappearing without a trace in November of 2000, Ranger burned all of his compositions, none of which had been published. His discography consists of twenty, difficult to find LPs or CDs as a sideman, many poorly recorded and some in less-than-ideal settings. (Several other sessions were issued on cassette or never released.) Ranger was a prolific creator of useful, independence exercises for the drum set, which he sometimes shared with young trapsters, yet shunned the idea of publishing them in book form.

Despite the scant evidence, Miller makes a convincing case that Ranger had a major impact on jazz in Canada during the mid-to-late twentieth century, years in which the music struggled to find a foothold. In a career that spanned thirty years as a jazz musician, Ranger hopscotched between Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, in a never-ending search for work and for comrades who would help fuel his artistic imperatives. If not for the willingness of dozens of his associates to share their memories, as well as firsthand observations by Miller, a longtime Canadian jazz journalist and author of several books, it is likely that Ranger's considerable accomplishments would be lost. The magnitude, quality, variety, as well as the passion of the recollections, all guided by Miller's storytelling and organizational skills—not to mention his intelligible prose—provide a window into Ranger's music, life and times.

The contrast between the banality of the commercial situations in which Ranger worked, and the (not always realized) promise of greater personal fulfillment in playing jazz loosely situated "between post-bop's structuralism and the avant-garde's relative freedom" (p. 31-32), is one of the book's salient themes. Ranger cut his teeth in variety shows and cabaret acts, playing behind dancers, singers, comedians, jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists, acrobats, unicyclists and trained animals. (p. 38) He excelled at the timing and coordination required to accentuate a dancer's kick or a comedian's punch line without breaking the flow of the music. (p. 36) These gigs served as valuable learning experiences and taught him a portion of the skills needed to realize the goal of becoming a jazz musician, yet they ultimately proved to be boring and frustrating. Throughout most of his career, when jazz work was scarce, he reluctantly broke a vow to play only jazz, retreated to the commercial realm, and usually regretted it. Though his peers report that Ranger was capable of playing very well in any situation, no matter how simple or repetitive, as the years went by he experienced increasing difficulty in turning off his creative side for the sake of earning a night's pay at weddings, business events and other private functions—a reality that many jazz musicians accepted as a matter of course. (p. 90)

Performing jazz on his own terms was a holy grail that Ranger relentlessly pursued. A contemporary once said that every jazz gig amounted to an important event in Ranger's life. (p.18). Though Miller wisely refrains from armchair psychology, the evidence gleaned from the book's interviews suggests that, for Ranger, playing jazz in an unfettered manner was an act of self-affirmation, and an all or nothing proposition. He was driven by the desire to "go further" (p. 46) with the music, to take things beyond "the way everyone does it on record" (p. 53). A band mate claimed that he "always wanted to do something that was fresh, where there was less history and more now." (p. 178) A commitment to taking risks and playing in the moment without fear of the consequences was indeed a way of life for Ranger. Even in the face of dire financial circumstances, he treated business as usual performances as an anathema. "When Claude played with guys who played the same all the time," observed one of his students, "no matter how good they were, that would enrage him, absolutely enrage him." (p. 131) Although he sometimes found kindred spirits (saxophonist Brian Barley and bassist Michel Donato are two good examples) and enjoyed many gratifying moments on the bandstand, ultimately a profound sense of discontent with conservative musical values and the limitations of existing jazz scenes compelled him to move from Montreal to Toronto and, eventually, to Vancouver. On the cusp of middle age Ranger told a critic that he had spent most of his life "playing this style, that style, but not expressing myself. I was losing myself, and once you've done that, you've lost everything." (p 135)

Miller's book is filled with praise for Ranger's musicianship. For instance, bassist Michael Morse describes his initial musical encounter with Ranger as a transformative experience. "The first couple of bars I played with Claude were one of the most distinct memories of my life...my understanding of 'jazz time,' of time, of music, of everything, just completely changed." (p. 72) Tenor saxophonist Michael Stuart describes the reaction of musicians to Ranger shortly after the drummer's arrival in Toronto in 1972. "I don't think anyone looked at him and thought, 'Man, this guy's going to get a lot of studio work,' or whatever. It was more an artistic thing. 'Here's an individual, he's got his own sound, he's got his own personality, and he wears it when he plays. It comes through his instrument.' Everyone was amazed." (p. 88)

The flip side of Ranger's prowess as a jazz musician was the difficulties caused by his attitude toward less-than-stimulating playing situations. The man who was perfectly capable of performing in a professional manner in any musical setting could also be a genuine liability on the bandstand. Sometimes he played badly if he didn't like the music or the motivation of his colleagues. Bandleaders often hired him, hoping for the best, yet fully aware that the worst of Ranger was a distinct possibility. The drummer often expressed his displeasure in a couple of ways—start playing free time in the middle of a straight-ahead tune, particularly in response to a perceived lapse on the part of a bassist (p. 131); or, simply stop playing and walk away. (p. 131)

Beginning with descriptions of Ranger's set-up—unusually small drums, cymbals hung high and tilted almost vertically (p. 9) —Miller, combining his own descriptions with the impressions of interviewees and quotes from critics, does a remarkable job of capturing the drummer's sound and the ways in which he imposed his spirit and will on the music. It's not just a theme included in a few pages or a single chapter; rather, Ranger's drums and cymbals are present throughout the entire book. Clearly, it was very important to Miller to get as close as possible to making Ranger's artistry come alive in words. In addition to helping the reader understand why bandleaders tolerated the drummer's erratic behavior, it also may be the author's way of reminding us that, despite Ranger's trials and tribulations, this is what's really important.

The breadth of the commentary on Ranger's drumming amounts to a panoply of perspectives, making it impossible to arrive at a simple summary or explanation. It's as if each contributor offers a significant piece of the puzzle. Miller writes a vivid description of "small drums tuned tight—hard, unyielding surfaces sharply struck—and his cymbals brash." (p. 57) Writer and broadcaster Claude Rachou claims that Ranger was "a mixture of the poet and stampeder." (p. 115) Critic Kevin Whitehead notes that, "At the kit, his patterns and strategies change from bar to bar..." (p. 203) Guitarist Tony Wilson marvels at the drummer's ability to swing, even during "free" or "out" jazz. (p. 224) Saxophonist Seamus Blake comments on "that intensity, that beat—that forward motion where it feels good all of the time" (p. 225) Saxophonist Coat Cooke describes the effects of the "centeredness" and "drive" of Ranger's ride cymbal. "His 'feel' was so powerful, and the groove was so deep." (p. 225) Saxophonist Michael Stuart comments on an unpredictable element—a smashed cymbal or an accent—in the midst of Ranger's groove. (p. 224) Saxophonist Kirk McDonald remarks about Ranger's ability to layer rhythms in such a way that a soloist was free to explore more than one avenue in the music. (p. 226) Saxophonist Perry White claims that "Claude's drumming was really as much melodic as it was rhythmic." (p. 227) Drummer Buff Allen marvels at Ranger's emotional power, and asserts that it's "something that you can't learn. It's innate." (p. 111) Perhaps the most significant comment about Ranger comes from bassist Andre Lachance. "I'd never played with anybody who listened to me like that. It just felt like whatever I did, he was going to make it sound good." (p. 226)

Most biographies of jazz musicians are about a known quantity; that is, the subject has attained star status (on jazz terms, anyway) and amassed a substantial, readily accessible performance history on recordings, if not other media. We want to know what makes them tick, the details of their private lives, as well as the trajectory of their careers, because we love—or, at least have a healthy respect for—their music. Ask any jazz fan outside of Canada about Claude Ranger and they're likely to draw a complete blank on the name. It's a tribute to Miller's skills as a researcher, writer and narrator that, by the conclusion of Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend, we come to recognize the importance of the accomplishments of a man whose music is virtually unknown. The book makes us wonder about the possibility of the discovery of other idiosyncratic jazzmen and women, who have toiled with distinction in local or regional scenes, recorded rarely or not at all, yet never received genuine recognition. Their stories deserve to be told by an author as sympathetic and accomplished as Miller.

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