My Best Birthday Gift Ever – Music

Some highlights and stories from this year’s very enjoyable Prince Edward County Jazz Festival.

I’ve had my nose to the grindstone pretty good for a while now and this has had me feeling every inch of my age and then some. My birthday came and went on August 16 in Picton and joining the 56-year-old club would normally have lead to some angst and hand-wringing over what a drag it is getting old, as The Rolling Stones once put it. Funnily enough though, one of the many nice things about this Jazz Festival was that it gave me a whole new perspective on age and aging, I’m not quite as worried or bugged about it anymore.  At least not all the time, only when I’m schlepping the damn bass around.

For years I was often by far the youngest guy in most bands, but this is no longer usually the case for obvious reasons. The house rhythm section for a lot of this festival was me, with Bernie Senensky on piano, age 67, and Brian Barlow on drums, 60 and also the Creative Director of the whole works. This requires of him an awesome level of organization, versatility and energy which he has in spades; the man runs on fumes, makes espresso seem slow. So here I was, much older but again the youngest guy in the band, a small, selfish comfort made irrelevant because these two came at me with so much musical energy, moxie and spirit at all times that I never even considered their age.  Have you ever noticed that when you see someone at the top of their game and really having fun, you don’t even think about how old they might be?

Beyond that though, the whole PEC Festival hammered home the idea that jazz is a music for all ages to play and/or enjoy.  For example, take the opening event, a kind of jazz dinner/concert at a local inn, preceded by a wine-tasting.  The band was the above rhythm pals, with the great trumpeter Guido Basso, 74, and trombonist Russ Little, who much to my surprise is 70 (age seemed to be in the air because people knew my birthday was coming up.)  We had all played together often in various groups, but this particular combination had never been assembled before.  Our challenge was to build a band out of thin air in front of an audience with no rehearsal, our only prep being talking over a few tunes during dinner.  I wasn’t in the least worried about it because I knew the rhythm section would be comfortable, Guido is a master of impromptu charm and Russ is quick on his feet.  Guido was just coming off a painful infected cyst which had swollen his knee badly and had him bed-ridden for a few days but he was looking hale and fit and knowing him, he’d probably been practicing in bed.

It felt like a real band within eight bars because all of us listened, knew what we were doing and nobody was trying to prove anything.  Guido played two choruses on “Gentle Rain” that I swear were as good as anything I’ve ever heard him play in 40 years of listening to him.  That’s saying something – a brilliant solo full of light, melody and passion, made all the more impressive by seeming effortless.  As this dawned on me while he was playing, I looked out into the audience and spotted our 85-year-old friend Terry Sheard, a lifelong jazz fan.  His face was flushed from the wine and the joyful intentness of listening and his eyes caught mine and widened, seeming to say “?” while mine said “!”.  In other words, “Wow, can you believe how great Guido is playing?”  It’s not something Terry or I will soon forget.

Another jazz old-timer named Jon Baird approached me on the break and asked if Guido was going to be democratic enough to have me play a bass feature and if so, what would I play?  I answered that I wasn’t sure to both questions and Jon suggested I should play “Willow Weep For Me” because he’d heard me play it years before at a concert and really liked it.  So sure enough on the next set, Guid turns to me and says “Steve-o, what would you like to play?”  I wasn’t expecting it, so naturally I said “Um… Willow Weep For Me, in G.”  It wasn’t till after the concert was over that Guido and I talked and we realized that Baird had set the whole thing up, approaching Guido after talking to me and casually asking “Hey Guido, why don’t you feature Steve on a tune?”  The sly old bugger had put one over on us and we chortled.  It was a really fun concert, we’d fooled ’em again and it gave me the sense that some special things might be on their way in the coming few days of music.

Speaking of special oldsters, the Friday night main concert in the theatre featured a hot quintet from New York led by legendary drummer Louis Hayes who is now 75, but plays like a kid.  He started his career playing with the great Horace Silver Quintet in 1956, the year I was born.  The other guys in his band are between 30 and 40, tops.  They arrived in Toronto by plane at 1:00 p.m. that day, went through immigration, got in a car to make the three-hour drive to Picton, arriving late for their 6:00 set-up and sound check.  They’d hardly eaten or slept all day and just had time for a check-in and freshen-up before their 8:00 concert.  I heard the last few tunes they played and nobody was putting out more energy than the old guy on drums, except maybe his trumpet player Jeremy Pelt, who is a force of nature and built like a brick you-know-what.

Following the main concerts Bernie, Brian and I played an after hours jam session gig from 10:15 – 1:00 at a nice bar-restaurant.   The whole Hayes band came in after their concert to have dinner and unwind, which they did with a vengeance.  Bernie was in full Liberensky mode, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the piano in an attempt to impress the big boys from the Apple.  It was absolutely hysterical yet breathtaking, causing me to think Bernie must be the guinea pig for the new Viagra for pianists.  We were panting just trying to keep up with him on the first set and took a break, surveying the Louis Hayes band table – bottles, glasses and food all over the place, it looked like The Last Supper of Jazz.  Jeremy Pelt was drinking vodka like it was water and it wasn’t even making a dent in him – later he and the bassist Richie Goodes sat in and sounded marvellous.  Brian asked Louis if he wanted to play a tune on the next set and Louis looked up at him from his chair, a glass of wine in one hand and a martini about the size of a bird-bath in the other.  He peered lazily over his ultra-hip specs and said, “Baby, this ass is stayin’ right here in this chair.”  We broke up, but noticed that later in the evening Hayes had the energy to mosey over to the bar and hit on our friend, the singer Tabby Johnson, who’s about 60 and a voluptuous fox of the soul-sister variety.  She got a big kick out of it while managing to foist off his slick moves.  He also wasn’t shy about getting several eyefuls of my wife Anna’s cleavage – it was just a riot, I thought she and Tabby would die laughing.  Who am I to bitch about aging when I see a guy enjoying himself like that at his age, after the killer day he’d had?

On the other end of the age scale, each year this festival names a “Rising Young Star” and this year it was a tenor saxophonist named Claire Devlin, who had just turned 18.  Cripes.  The RYS gets to play one tune with every band in the festival, so Claire had the chance to play with Emily-Claire Barlow, Hayes, the George Shearing tribute band and The Boss Brass, while also sitting in nightly with us at the club.  It was quite a week for her, there was pressure, but she acquitted herself well.  She doesn’t quite know how to swing much yet, but has a beautiful sound and can play a melody, which is half the battle.  She also gave a concert of her own at a church, accompanied by just Bernie and me – about eighty years of experience to her five.  If I do say so myself, we gave her an awful lot of tailor-made musical support to help bridge the extreme generation gap.  It was nice, but there was one surreal techno-geezer moment.  One of the tunes on her list was one I’ve played but couldn’t remember, so before the concert she asked if I would play it just from the chord changes written out.  Normally I would say no to this because I like to see the melody too, but I could tell she really wanted to play it and was really nervous with her folks there and all, so I said sure, no sweat.  I was expecting a piece of sheet music, but she had it on her iPhone, just dialled it up and put it on a music stand.  I could have killed her but was also laughing at myself, a half-blind old fart trying to read a chart about the size of a wallet over his shoulder, squinting away the whole time.  Jesus, kids these days.

The multi-generational jazz thing continued on a Saturday afternoon jam session concert in the theatre, hosted by Guido with the rhythm boys.  We played a couple of tunes to open, then were joined by some of the young local jazz talent, most of them under twenty.  Cripes again.  There was a good alto player, plus Claire, a young pianist-singer named Hanna Barstow and her brother, who couldn’t have been more than fourteen, playing drums.  There was also a young guy who played some impressive piano and my jaw dropped when out of the blue, a ravishing young beauty with a stunning head of Esperanza Spalding hair approached me and asked if she could use my bass.  I was speechless but delighted at the relief and a chance to hear somebody else play the bass for a change.  I also must confess that my inner lech was looking forward to watching this femme fatale play my bass, it wouldn’t hurt the eyes at all.  I adjusted the end-pin for her, said “Take it away” and went to the wings to ogle…. I mean listen.  Her name is Marika Galea, she isn’t very big and I knew she was struggling with my bass, which is set up for muscle.  She did OK though, after the tune she said, “Wow, the strings are so high” and I sympathized, saying “Yeah, it’s a bit of a pig to play in the summer.”  I’ve got to hand it to her though, she was game for another go later, playing a lovely duo version of “The Days of Wine and Roses” with (the by now drooling) Bernie on piano.  She played the melody on bass and took a couple of nice choruses, she was adjusting well.  I think she’s going to be a good one – she has guts and perseverance, which is mostly what playing the bass is all about; I wish I’d had more of a chance to speak with her.  All of these kids are talented, on the right track and one of the great things Brian and the festival board have done is to commit to involving them, it bodes really well for the future and keeps the old boys on their toes.  It also made me realize that one of the silver linings of aging is the accumulation of experience – there’s just no substitute for it and it’s a two-way treat to both share yours and pick up on that of others.

I wanted to catch the George Shearing tribute concert that night, featuring a quintet led by Don Thompson on vibes with fellow Shearing alumni Neil Swainson on bass and Reg Schwager on guitar.  Bernie Senensky and Terry Clarke on drums rounded out the group, which had given a sensational concert earlier this year and I know that Bernie had done a great job playing the complex piano parts.  I missed it though and it wasn’t my fault, Anna had booked a surprise birthday dinner for me.  It was pretty deluxe and our only chance to have a quiet dinner together, so how was I to refuse?  I heard from one and all that the concert was a great success though and that everyone had played brilliantly, hardly a surprise.

Sunday’s concerts were the cherry on top of the sundae for all this re-gestalt of the age thing though, starting with the 10:30 Jazz Mass in church and culminating with The Boss Brass reunion concert at 8:00 in the theatre, the sold-out climax of the festival.  The Mass was a 9:00 call for us after a late night and I was feeling a bit rubbery when I got up (Wallace you moron, why did you drink that last litre of red wine, when are you gonna learn?), but by the time I was set up in the church with a coffee intravenous I was feeling pretty revved, I had a good feeling about this one.  Brian Barlow has had a lot to do with creating the idea of jazz being used in church services, both here in Toronto and in Picton.  At first glance it might seem an odd notion, the devil’s music in God’s house and all that, but it works beautifully and lots of people love it, myself included.  Churches are great spaces to play in – not only are the acoustics usually very good, but the nature of the setting makes both the audience and the players more contemplative and attentive.  I always try to play my very best, but more so in church – not because I’m particularly religious – I’m not.  I don’t have any problems with God or anything, but his fan club is another story sometimes.  My mom was very religious though and I always feel like she’s in the house, so I play for her and give it everything I’ve got.

This was going to be a full Sunday service with ongoing musical content from the trio, the choir and Tabby Johnson, who came up in the black gospel tradition and can sing that style in her sleep.  We’d already had a good rehearsal and Brian had written some terrific arrangements of some gospel-style hymns for the band to back the choir with.  The choir itself was very good for such a small community, most of its members were in their 70s with the exception of Brian’s daughters Hanna and Elizabeth, the “hardest working girls in show business” at this festival.  The choir director is a lovely old English gent named Michael Goodwin, an accomplished musician who I would guess is about 80.  The minister was a young, progressive guy with an almost over-active humour gland, fully on board with the jazz in church idea, insisting before the service that everybody have fun.  He even gave a sermon with a story in it involving a train and when he gave us the cue, the band made choo-choo sound effects, bringing the house down.  You could feel that the choir and congregation were pretty pumped, this doesn’t happen every Sunday.  What I wasn’t prepared for though was Bernie’s piano playing, which put the whole thing over the top.  I’d heard rumours that he’s a terrific gospel pianist but holy shine-ola, he sounded like Ray Charles and Oscar Peterson combined, and in the morning for God’s sake.

Anyway, the whole thing rocked, couldn’t have been better.  Tabby sang the hell out of Ellington’s great religious song “Come Sunday” and the band and choir burnt the joint down on the gospel hymns with Tabby wailing over top.  The average age of the congregation was probably about 75 and they were pretty much all white, but they got down, did some testifyin’.  When we closed with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and followed with “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”, I looked up and these old darlings were dancing in the aisles, clapping with a real beat on two and four, whooping and singing, it was just wonderful.  I felt…..uplifted, elated.  For the umpteenth time, I realized that this is what music is for, to connect people and bring them joy, to make ’em hoot and holler and dance, to shake the dust of the world from their shoes.  These oldies were acting like kids because they were having so much fun, even in church.  Amen to that and Hallelujah.

The Boss Brass concert was more of the same only of course better, more secular and with sixteen horns instead of a choir.  This occasion was a big deal, exciting but bittersweet, bringing death, absent friends and old memories into the equation.  The Brass was the best jazz big band Canada has ever had, starting out in the late ’60s but mostly petering out by the late ’90s because it was no longer feasible to keep a 22-piece jazz orchestra together.  The founder/leader of the band and creator of almost all of its music was of course Rob McConnell, a legendary jazz musician and character, who later put together a ten-piece band I was part of which proved much more manageable.  Rob died a couple of years ago after some very rough years of declining health and many key members of the Brass have also passed on.  The last few times the Brass played were generally sporadic and sad affairs, the band was rusty and Rob wasn’t strong enough to really lead it properly.  Everyone wanted this reunion to be special, to do Konk’s memory and his great music justice.

Even though everyone was generously paid, this was still a labour of love, especially for the organizers Brian and Guido, who had the unenviable task of trying to assemble 22 musicians in one place for both a rehearsal and the gig.  They also had to track down the charts which proved a challenge, then they had to choose a dozen or so of Rob’s best arrangements from the hundreds in the book.  Most of the spadework fell on Brian, who told me he began to understand why Rob was sometimes so salty and impatient – he’d had to do all the contacting for years by phone, at least Brian could now just send out a group email.

Brian and Guido decided to use the guys who were with the band the longest, who helped to make it what it was and they did a fine job of this; at least everybody present had been a member at some time or other, most for long periods.  I was with the band from about 1982-94 and was really proud to have made the cut and be part of this.  A really classy touch was having free tickets and accommodation provided for two key retirees – trumpeter Erich Traugott and guitarist Ed Bickert, both revered by all.  Erich is 84 and Ed will turn 80 later this year.  I knew Ech was coming but was surprised and delighted that Ed made the drive from Toronto on his own, he doesn’t often venture very far without his daughter Lindsey.  I still see Ed now and then, but when I saw Erich before the concert at a restaurant, it brought tears to my eyes.  He was who the band tuned up to, trumpet royalty, a lovely guy, it was so nice to see him looking well and happy.  Also nice was having the retired veteran jazz broadcaster Ted O’Reilly on hand to emcee the concert, he was an unofficial but integral part of the band for over 25 years, coming on all our road trips and earning the nickname “Ted O’Roadie.”

Most of the guys in the band this night were more or less my age, but luckily some of the old-guard elders were there – Guido of course and, back after a long absence, Russ Little.  One of the original trombonists Bob Livingstone was there too, still playing well at 79 and looking even more like a bemused friar than ever.  Our pianist was Don Thompson, 72; he started with the band as its percussionist, became the bassist in the ’70s and the pianist after I came aboard.  His beautiful playing on “My Bells” gave me goose-bumps during the concert.  Terry Clarke was on drums, he would turn 68 the next day, still a kick-ass dynamo, the best drummer the band could possibly have.  I know these guys are older and sometimes they look it, but they sure as hell don’t sound it.

Leading and conducting the band was one of Canada’s least-known great musicians, Rick Wilkins.  Rick is now about 75 and health problems have forced him to retire from the saxophone, which he played in the band for 30 years.  We call him Clark Kent because his mild-mannered exterior and glasses hide a Superman of music, he’s one of the best arrangers and conductors in the business and a huge musical security blanket, everything always goes smoothly when he’s in charge.  We had a rehearsal about two weeks before that went pretty well considering, a bit ragged at times.  Everyone took their music home and did some serious wood-shedding though and we had a second rehearsal the afternoon of the concert where the band was in much better form and the sound gods were also on our side.  Standing behind me on a riser was Barlow, playing all manner of percussion instruments while functioning as band cheerleader  – “Yeah Guido, go you babies, swing you mothers…whooeee!”

Before the concert I thought I felt nerves, but it was actually impatience.  I couldn’t wait to get started, I felt the band was going to play its butt off and it sure did.  It was a thrilling concert, one of the best I’ve ever been involved in and probably the most emotionally satisfying.  Everyone played really well, there was a lot of great spirit, some sweat and wet eyes.  Even though Rob obviously wasn’t there, through his great writing he was present in every note we played, this concert reminded me more of what the band felt like in its heyday.  I may be wrong, but I think I played as well with the band this night as I ever have – it meant more this time, I got some closure and redemption for past gaffes, making just one small boo-boo when my eyes skipped a line.  We were all pretty spent by the end and as one of us put it, “There wasn’t a dry seat in the house.”  Tired as I was, I would gladly have played more, didn’t really want this to end.

This festival was really smart and classy,  Brian Barlow and the other people involved deserve all the credit in the world for putting it together, for involving local, Toronto and international musicians, young and old, male and female.  All of the music featured was real jazz, which is refreshing and yet there was variety, something for all tastes.  I also liked the scale of it, they stayed small and went for quality and not just quantity.  I think this is the way to go – after all, jazz, even big band jazz, is chamber music and requires some intimacy in its presentation. Kudos, folks.

So, the brilliance of the seniors and the promise of the youngsters left me in a much better mood than when I arrived in Picton, I’ve decided to shelve the age anxiety.  I realized I’m really lucky to still be doing something I love with such great cohorts and that music can keep you young, at least in your mind.  I also realized that I need to start taking better care of my body so that I can be around, playing the bass for another 20 or 25 years.  I wouldn’t mind seeing if I can maybe reach the horsepower level I’d heard from some of the Oldsmobiles this week.  Mostly I had something reaffirmed that I already knew – you have to have fun and stay in touch with younger people to keep from feeling your age and getting old.

© 2012, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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