Don’t Even Mention My Blue Suede Shoes

  The Name Game. As if jazz fans don't feel confused and isolated enough already, there are some snarly name-duplications around just to make matters worse. Take the name Tommy Flanagan, for example. Most jazz fans would think of the pianist, but the general public might think of the Scottish actor. Google is neutral and offers up about an equal number of hits for each, though the actor's come first. Or Tommy Williams - is it the jazz bassist (who hardly even many jazz fans know about), the equally obscure rock bassist, or the Republican Senator from Texas? But surely the granddaddy of these is Carl Perkins, who could be the star-crossed and now little-known jazz pianist, or the rockabilly musician who achieved lasting fame for writing "Blue Suede Shoes". This pair is really confusing as they were both musicians and were active during the same period. (Just to show that confusion also swirls around song titles, it's quite possible to get "Blue Suede Shoes" mixed up with Charlie Parker's "My Little Suede Shoes" if you're not firing on all cylinders. I'm still waiting for someone to request "My Little Blue Suede Shoes" on a gig but, so far, no luck. However, at a Christmas party I once played at, I had the supreme pleasure of witnessing a very drunk East Indian man react to John Alcorn singing "Route 66" by bellowing "Oh goody, Route 67!", sounding for all the world like Peter Sellers in The Party, only much louder. I still don't know how Alcorn managed to continue more [...]

Early Days, Big or Small, Part Two

It's sort of funny, but because I played bass for ten years in Rob McConnell's big band The Boss Brass (and later, about another decade in his Tentette), some people may think of me as this ace big band bass guy. I suppose it makes sense in a way, they were both very good bands and playing in them became part of my skill set and profile. For sure, I learned a lot about playing in big bands from being in those two groups, and knew a lot more about it with a few years in the Brass under my belt than I did when I joined. And I don't mind people thinking of me as a good big band player, I'm enormously proud to have played in those bands and miss them now that they and Rob are gone. It's just that if people had seen me in my first year in the Jazz Programme at Humber College, well.......let's just say that if there had been a yearbook, I'd have been voted "Person Least Likely To Succeed In A Big Band." By the time I first attended Humber in 1975, I'd improved some as a bass player. I had some basic technique and could play a little jazz, walk a bass line and get through some tunes, though I hadn't done many professional jobs yet. And thanks to my guitar studies with Gary Benson, I had a good grounding in theory and harmony, understood how chords worked and so on. My audition at Humber went pretty well and on the strength of this, the bass teachers - Lenny Boyd and Murray Lauder - slotted me into the top big band ensemble, known as the "A Band", run by the great veteran trumpet more [...]

In Praise of Gary Benson

Yesterday brought the sad news that guitarist Gary Benson, a fixture on Toronto's jazz scene for many years, died at the age of 75. It was not entirely unexpected as Gary had been very ill for some time, but the news will hit those who knew him in the jazz community hard nonetheless. He was a fine player and an even better person, we'll all miss his even-keeled, modest personality and sense of humour, his jokes and wonderful impersonations. My thoughts go out to those who were closest to him - his family of course - and his cohorts in The Canadian Jazz Quartet (Frank Wright, Duncan Hopkins and Don Vickery, who played weekly with Gary for many years until his illness struck.) His passing has hit me very hard as well, because Gary was my first music teacher way back when I was in my early teens, playing guitar instead of bass. It's no exaggeration to say that Gary taught me most of what I know about music and gave me a great foundation for everything I later learned in playing the bass. Good beginnings are very important and all the riches of the jazz life I've enjoyed - the friendships, laughs, stories, the satisfaction of playing, listening to and talking music for so many years - stem from starting out with Gary. It was he who got me interested in jazz in the first place and all the invaluable information he gave me made learning to play it a lot easier. My parents bought me a little flat-top guitar for Christmas when I was about eleven - it was a Winston, from the more [...]

Early Days, Big or Small? Part One

In connection with the post on The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess, I wanted to include some more general commentary on jazz and big bands, some of it personal and involving my very early days as a jazz fan and player. As that piece was overly long, I'll take up the subject again here. Big bands are not for everybody, they sometimes form a dividing line in jazz not unlike Dixieland. By this I mean that there are jazz musicians and fans who don't care for big bands at all, and others who prefer them, some exclusively. The first group finds them to be too loud or bombastic, not intimate or free-wheeling enough, that they place too many limits on the creativity and space given to improvising soloists. In short, they feel there's not enough jazz played in big bands. These are the people who go running to turn the volume knob down if they hear a big band record on the radio, or who ask, "Why don't the trumpets shut up, and why do the soloists only play one or two choruses, when are they gonna stretch out a little?" Those who can't get enough of big bands love the roaring excitement of them at full blast, the greater range of dynamics, sounds and colours that more instruments can provide. The shouting brass, the sax solis, the sizzling backgrounds, the shorter solos, the chugging rhythm, the increased organization that more written material and ensemble teamwork can bring. When listening to small groups these types might be apt to ask, "So, where's the beat?" Or, "When are more [...]