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Lorne Lofsky: Steward of the Canadian Guitar Tradition

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I think it's time for Canadian musicians and artists of all stripes to spread the news a bit more effectively around the world. We have something to say.
—Lorne Lofsky
Guitarist Lorne Lofsky rocketed to fame when It Could Happen To You (Pablo Records, 1981), his debut release as a leader, was produced by fellow Canadian Oscar Peterson. Lofsky has since toured and recorded with a wide range of musicians from all around the world, including Peterson, but his hometown of Toronto has been his base for more than 40 years. In that time he has witnessed many changes in the scene of that dynamic, cosmopolitan city, and has contributed to many of them as a player and, beginning in 1978, as a teacher at York University. Now retired from teaching, he tours internationally with the Canadian Jazz Collective, an all-star group that he co-founded to spread the gospel of Canadian jazz. He took a moment at the beginning of a Collective tour of the U.S. to reflect on the state of jazz in Canada and on his long and storied career.

All About Jazz: First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk today and for providing a window into the jazz scene in Toronto, one of North America's great cities.

Lorne Lofsky: I grew up in Toronto, born and raised. I live about half an hour north in a small town called Newmarket. It's basically the Toronto area. It's quite nice up there. We really quite like it.

AAJ: Toronto seems to have all the ingredients necessary to be the next great jazz town. The state of musicianship is quite good and listening to so much music from Canada, there seems to be a recognizably Canadian sound among jazz players. Do you hear that as well, and if so, can you say what might characterize that sound?

LL: Well, that's an interesting question. Speaking from my perspective, in my formative years, I was very fortunate to hear and play with some of my predecessors. One of them principally was a gentleman by the name of Ed Bickert.

Canada produced a lot of great musicians on a lot of instruments, but being a guitarist first, I concentrated very much on my principal instrument and I went out to hear Ed and the great Lenny Breau. Do you know the name Sonny Greenwich at all?

AAJ: Yeah absolutely. So you heard him, too?

LL: The three of them were playing around Toronto quite often and even though Lenny was born in Maine, he grew up in Winnipeg. So I think of him as being Canadian. Anyway, the three of them were all incredible musicians and all completely different. They'll have a completely different approach to music, a different voice on their instrument.

I would say, even from that perspective, that there was a Canadian thing happening. A lot of Canadian guitar players are definitely influenced by Ed and Lenny. In a secondary fashion I certainly was. So that would certainly contribute to a Canadian sound, if only to kind of a legacy that was established by predecessors. And probably the same would be said for people on other instruments as well.

There is a sound for sure. I don't know if I can describe it in words, I would find that very difficult, but there is a certain identity to Canadian players—and certainly to Canadian composers. That's where I really hear it.

Canada for decades has been a real hotbed of all types of music, whether it's legitimate classical or avant-garde jazz or Dixieland, and quite a cross-section of genres or sub-genres. And it would be nice if Canada was recognized a bit more on the world stage in terms of getting its due, in terms of the people, the musicians that it's produced.

I think Canadians have to be a little bit better at blowing our own horn, so to speak.

AAJ: That wouldn't be very Canadian though, would it?

LL: Well, I know. That's the thing, but I think it's time for Canadian musicians and artists of all stripes to spread the news a bit more effectively around the world. We have something to say.

AAJ: It's funny. There's been a kind of mini-renaissance and a lot of influence exerted by Joni Mitchell lately, but if you ask 20 American music fans about Joni Mitchell, they'll think she's from California, and it's probably the same with Neil Young as well.

LL: Well, yeah, but the thing is, too, they really sort of hit their international stride once they were in the United States. You can see why people honestly think that they're actually American born and raised.

AAJ: Exactly. Although the band you co-founded, the Canadian Jazz Collective reverses that trend with trumpeter Derrick Gardner. So, the musical traffic goes both ways, doesn't it?

LL: Well, it does now. Derrick was on faculty for 10 years teaching in Manitoba. though, he's back in Chicago now. I think I met him originally at a music camp called JazzWorks that Judy Humenick, the Canadian Jazz Collective's representative, has been running for decades. One year, Derrick was on faculty, and that's when I first met him. Then we struck up a musical relationship that culminated in him becoming part of his band.

AAJ: Can you talk about the musical history you have with the other players in the band?

LL: The three co-leaders in the band, myself, Derrick Gardner and Kirk MacDonald, an incredible saxophonist and composer, were all represented by Judy as individual artists. She came up with the idea of combining our talents into a group and featuring our different musical voices, and compositional skill sets, etc.

The drummer, Bernd Reiter, is Austrian and he's a charter member of this group. Kirk knew him from playing with him in Europe and Kirk suggested him for a couple reasons. One is that he's well known in Europe and he's a fantastic drummer.

Kirk's daughter, Virginia MacDonald is a great clarinetist, and then we have Neil Swainson on bass. We have a wonderful pianist by the name of Brian Dickinson. I've known Brian about 40 years. I've known Kirk for about 45 years, and I've been playing with him for that long. So we're really old friends and musical associates. Our incredible bassist, Neil Swainson, has played with all sorts of people, including Woody Shaw and George Shearing and the list goes on and on. And I've known Virginia since she was born.

So I've known the bulk of the band for decades. There's enough common ground in terms of our musical influences and likes and dislikes, and what have you, that it creates an interesting chemistry in the band.

AAJ: It must be pretty interesting chemistry for a father and daughter to be touring in a band.

LL: Yeah, but Kirk practices about as much as I do, and that's saying a lot, and Virginia does the same. So she grew up in a very positive environment, musically and otherwise. She comes by it honestly, and she's got a great work ethic and she's working really hard. Like father, like daughter in this case.

Everybody's a really strong player and we all get along very well. There's a nice mix of material. So, yeah, it's been a lot of fun. It's been quite rewarding, you know?

AAJ: Going back to Toronto and the scene there, since you have been on that scene for 45 years, how has it changed?

LL: Toronto itself has changed, so the scene would have to have changed. When I first came on the scene in the very late '70s, there were two main clubs. One was called George's Spaghetti House, and one was called Bourbon Street. That was also back at a time when musicians would be hired for six-night-a-week gigs.

When I first got on the scene and played at Bourbon Street, I was backing up internationally known musicians. It was a great training ground for me. There's nothing like learning the trenches, but I had a chance to do this. I had a chance to play with people like Chet Baker and Jimmy McGriff and Carl Fontana and Bob Brookmeyer and Pepper Adams and a whole litany of other people. And most of the time it was for two weeks, occasionally one week. And it was like going to school, you know?

There isn't anywhere in Toronto right now—and hasn't been in forever—where you could get a six-night week in a club. It's usually one-nighters, and if you're lucky, you get two, and if something is a very, very special occasion, you might get three, but that's like winning the lottery. So in that regard, it's more challenging. You can't make a living playing jazz. That's a fact and it's been like that probably everywhere around the world for a very long time.

But having said that, the other thing is with the exponential growth of music schools everywhere, you have a huge supply and a demand that has basically stayed the same. There's all these people of various ages and skill sets that are vying for a lot of the same gigs. So it's much harder.

I feel really bad for the younger generation because they need the experience of playing. They'll never have the experience that people of my generation had.

AAJ: Some of them were probably your students. Where did you teach?

LL: At York University. Thinking back now, there was a very small handful of students decided to make this their life's work. Most of the people that I was at school with, the bulk of us went on to have performance and academic careers, but I haven't noticed that as much in terms of the students that I taught. A very small handful actually stuck with it, and it did something with it, and if they did go on to do music, most of them didn't do jazz. They opted for something else and probably for economic reasons.

The jazz audience is fairly healthy, but if you compare it to the audience that would listen to rap and hip hop, or pop music, or metal music, or shred music, there's a much bigger market for those styles of music.

I can see why a young person these days, even if they love jazz, might realize that they're never going to be able to make a decent living and make the rent, have a house and have a decent life from playing jazz. It's not viable, you know.

That's why I tell a lot of my students—or did tell them—that if they want to pursue music as a life's journey, they better get some teaching skills as well, or some other skills that are under the umbrella of music, whether it's music management, recording, going to law school and becoming an entertainment lawyer, whatever.

There's any number of things you could do that has to do with music, other than being a hardcore jazz player.

If you're just doing that, and especially if you're not teaching, you're gonna have to have another job, you know, without a doubt. But there's so many great musicians on all the instruments, not just in Toronto, but across Canada, and everybody's trying to carve out their own little niche.

AAJ: Let's talk about some of them. Who was in your rhythm section at Bourbon Street, maybe Don Thompson and Terry Clarke?

LL: Yes, it was them sometimes. It was Dave Young, Steve Wallace, Neil. For a little while, David Piltch, brother of Rob Piltch, one of my oldest and dearest friends, and a great guitarist.

AAJ: Who else would have been playing with them?

LL: Occasionally, Kieran Overs, and drummers like Terry Clarke, Bob McLaren, Norman Marshall Villeneuve, people like that. Oh, and Claude Ranger. He's no longer with us, but Terry is still. I just played with Terry the other week. He's almost 80 and he's playing his ass off. He just sounds great. Before he moved to New York, I did a couple of gigs with him and Ed Bickert, and I had a two-guitar quartet that lasted about eight or nine years with Neil Swainson, and Jerry Fuller, a great Canadian drummer.

My very first job at George's Spaghetti House was with Dave Young and Jerry Fuller and a great saxophonist named Jerry Toth who gave me my very first job at George's in the late '70s. Toronto has changed. First of all, it's grown. It's a big city and it has big-city problems like a lot of other places do but there's a lot of good energy here and a quite vibrant scene in a lot of different ways.

So yeah, it's generally quite positive. Still wonderful.

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