Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend
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 skillsnot to mention his intelligible proseprovide 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 functionsa 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)