Flyin’ Blind With Mr. Ed At the OK Corral

A nicely edited version of this piece can be seen at: http://music.cbc.ca/#/blogs/2012/11/Ed-Bickert-the-Gary-Cooper-of-Canadian-jazz

This story concerns the guitarist Ed Bickert, who’s had a huge impact on jazz in Canada and certainly on me and other musicians of my generation who came up listening to and playing with him as an elder statesman.  A lot of this will be written in the past tense, which doesn’t feel quite right because Ed is thankfully still very much well and among us.  On the other hand, a lot of what I’ll describe happened years ago and, because Ed decided to retire from music a while back for his own reasons, his playing is literally a thing of the past, sorry to say.  It lives on though, through his many fine recordings and the values he instilled in a lot of musicians.  Like many, I really miss hearing him, miss playing with him, miss his presence on the scene, what’s left of it.

Apart from his wonderful playing, and despite being a quiet and modest guy, Ed functioned as a powerful aesthetic compass and edit-button in the jazz played around these parts, a kind of jazz-bullshit antidote.  Whether he was on the bandstand with you, or just in the audience with those radar ears and forbidding eyebrows, you felt Ed’s presence, sharpened up and were a lot less inclined to indulge in any musical wanking.  He’s from the West and has an aspect of “The Marlboro Man” about him – in fact, that was one of his nicknames, reinforced by decades of “professional” smoking.  If you think of jazz as a western and Toronto as Dodge City, then Ed was our Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”  With him in town, you weren’t a-gonna scare the womenfolk by goin’ into double-time, burn down the saloon by playin’ too many notes or rile up the horses by takin’ too many extra choruses.  No sir, you was a-gonna say your piece as plain and simple as you could, then mosey on.  Less is more, git along little dogey.

Cowpoke-lingo and kidding aside, Rob McConnell told me much the same thing about playing with Paul Desmond, another quiet, mild-mannered guy with huge ears.  Paul and Ed had formed a great musical kinship in the mid-1970s, playing in Toronto at Bourbon St. with Don Thompson on bass and Jerry Fuller on drums, recording both in New York City and later live at that club.  During one of their engagements, Ed’s father died suddenly and he had to fly back home for the funeral.  There was no question of finding a suitable guitarist as a sub, there wasn’t one, so Ed hired Rob on valve trombone to replace him.  I was lucky enough to hear one of those nights.  At first I was disappointed by Ed’s absence, but the music was wonderful, though very different without Ed’s chords.  It was reminiscent of the records Desmond and Gerry Mulligan had made together with just bass and drums – lots of weaving melodic interplay and improvised counterpoint between the two horns.  I’d always admired Rob as a jazz soloist and thought his playing deserved as much recognition as his more noted arranging.

Years later when I came to know him well, Rob talked about those nights with Desmond.  Despite being as nice and welcoming to Rob as you could imagine, the sheer power of Paul’s quiet, melodic inventiveness exerted itself as an oddly intimidating example.  Rob said he loved playing with Paul, but spent every minute walking on egg-shells, listening and thinking intently, desperately trying to not play any licks or something rash that would break the delicate melodic spell.  It was some of the best, but most careful playing I ever heard from Rob.  I was about twenty then and I’d heard numerous pretentious jazz types wax poetic about this kind of thing in their hip, deadpan voices – “It’s not the notes, man, it’s the spaces you leave between them that count.”  “Oooohh, that’s really deep”, I always thought, “go tell it to someone who cares, lame-o.”  The example of Desmond and Rob together was pretty convincing though – I was beginning to think there might be something to this listening and leaving space stuff.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch with Ed – musically speaking, he’s unique and known for many things.  The intense focus and swing of his playing, his beautiful, clear tone, pithy and graceful solos, great feeling for the blues, his deadly sense of chord voicing and sensitive comping.  His playing was extremely consistent, he never seemed to phone it in and never sounded like anyone else.  Though a very quiet and private man, Ed always wore his heart on his sleeve when he was playing, eyes closed in concentration.  A whole lot of feeling and soulfulness came out of that battered-looking Fender Telecaster.  His playing could be lyrical, sophisticated and elegant, but there was also some grit and earthiness there, and in this regard he reminds me of vibraphonist Milt Jackson, another great musician Ed played very well with.  Both are heavily, but not exclusively, rooted in the blues – it informs their phrasing, ideas, sound, where they leave spaces and so on.  Ed could also make more pure music just accompanying people than most musicians could when soloing or in the spotlight.  This was my favourite aspect of his playing, great though his solos could be.

Above all, his ears are legendary – he heard absolutely everything, even when they were stuffed with cotton balls, as they often were.  This made playing with him scary, pleasurable though it was.  Whenever McConnell’s big band, the Boss Brass, was rehearsing a new arrangement and Rob wasn’t sure about a note on a chord he’d voiced out for the horns, he’d always ask Ed, who’d never written a chart in his life.  His ears are like fleshy satellite dishes, I swear I actually saw them rotate and swivel a few times, as if by remote control.  He also has a huge repertoire, knows hundreds and hundreds of songs inside out.  This at long last brings us to the story I wanted to tell.

Years ago, Ed, Jerry Fuller and I were playing a gig at Bourbon St. backing up Scott Hamilton and Warren Vache.  Scott and Warren were the vanguard of the new “young mainstream” movement and they played a lot of older, obscure tunes.  Some of these I knew, and Ed did a great job of navigating me through some of the ones I didn’t.  One night before the first set we were sitting around and Scott said he felt like playing “I Love You Samantha”, an esoteric Cole Porter tune that Bing Crosby sang to Grace Kelly in “High Society”.  Ed said he didn’t know it – this was the first and only time I’d seen him stumped by a tune, but it wasn’t that surprising, nobody around town ever played it.  What was surprising was that by some flukey miracle, I did know it – I was usually on the other end of this stick.  I’d heard and liked it on one of Scott’s records and had played it many times with Fraser MacPherson.  I offered to jot out the chord changes on the back of a paper place-mat so we could play it, and Ed reluctantly agreed.  He did his usual masterful job of comping armed with this scratchy chart, but when it came time for a guitar solo, he shook his head and pointed to me – “You got it.”

I asked Ed about this after the set and he said he just wouldn’t play a solo on a tune from the chords alone, he had to know the melody, otherwise he felt he was flying blind, couldn’t hear anything meaningful to play.  At the time I was surprised that a guy like him, who had so much experience, chord knowledge and big ears would be so timid in this way, but it came to make sense to me later on.  I was much more willing to fly by the seat of my pants, but more often than not this just resulted in a lot of pretty iffy bass solos.  I’ve since found that even if I haven’t played or practiced a song’s melody, if I’m at least familiar with it in my mind’s ear, I have a much better shot at expressing myself well on a tune, soloing or not.  Even when I don’t have as much time to practice as I’d like or don’t have the bass with me, I practice mentally by sorting out the melodies to tunes in my head so I’ll be ready when I do play them – it helps.  Ears first, then fingers.

Ed’s fastidiousness in this regard was part of a perfectionist, self-critical streak in him that I once had a ‘close encounter of the indelible kind’ with.  Sometimes, even if you’re in shape and really playing a lot you go through slumps as a jazz player, bad stretches where you just can’t seem to do anything right.  I experienced a bad one years ago during a run of six straight weeks playing with Ed and others in various circumstances.  I was getting buried under an avalanche of too many tunes I didn’t know and a bunch of other information I was short on.  Too many things were coming at me too fast and I couldn’t seem to keep up.  My pitch and sound were all over the place, I was struggling with the instrument, then my time started to become tentative.  My confidence and nerves were shot, it was getting so I almost dreaded playing.

This all came to a head during a week at George’s Spaghetti House and on a break one night I was sitting at a table with Ed, drinking coffee.  I was really down, close to tears, wanted to unburden myself to him and apologize for all the blunders and bum notes of the past few weeks.  Before I could say anything though, Ed fixed me with those penetrating eyes, his deeply lined face grim.  In his clear voice he said, “Steve, have you ever gotten to the point where you can’t stand the way you sound anymore?  That’s where I am now, and man, it’s really bad news.”

At first, I thought he’d read my mind and was just saying this to buck me up.  But I looked at him, astonished, and no, he really meant it, he was absolutely dead serious.  It scared me stiff, the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stood up.  Jesus Christ, I thought, if a musician as great as Ed Bickert can’t stand the way he sounds, then what do my worries amount to, what’s to become of my woeful self ?  Misery loves company, so in a sense it made me feel better to know that I wasn’t the only one struggling, but I also couldn’t help but feel that Ed might have liked the way he sounded more if I’d been taking care of business on the bass better.  This really did happen, I’ll never forget it and what I took from it is that sometimes you just have to suck up the bad times and hang in there, it’s all you can do.  As the comedian Denis Leary once said, “Life is tough, get a helmet.”

I was very lucky to have played so much with Ed and learned an awful lot from him, mostly by example – he was never one to say too much.  It took a while to register, but mostly what I learned from him is the importance of clarity and simplicity, both in playing the bass and music in general.  In life and jazz there are mysteries and paradoxes – some of these are real, others are merely created by misunderstanding.  Ed played beautiful chord voicings, or “grips” as he calls them.  He learned some of these by listening to pianists like Bill Evans, choosing to play the more interesting upper partials of a chord.  To Ed, these only have meaning and sound right if the root is played underneath them.  Being young, curious and having occasional wise-guy tendencies back then, I thought Ed’s voicing choices also meant that I could be more free and easy in my note choices, occasionally avoiding the root, a la Scott La Faro.

BUZZZZZ. ERRORRRR.  I noticed when playing with him that Ed would now and then bark out a root way down low on the E string, about ten times louder than anything else he played.  It was never nasty, but jarring and gradually I read the message Ed was sending.  “Play the root, dummy, so I don’t have to.”  Once this sunk in, I began to see Ed in a whole new light, became less intimidated by him, while admiring him just as much.  To me, he was a kind of genius, but there was no ivory tower, he was human like everybody else in the sense that he needed a bass player, somebody to support him with something basic and fundamental underneath him so he could do his thing.  I thought to myself, Well, hell – I can do that. Why didn’t you just say so?  Of course, he had been saying so all along, just not verbally.  I’ve since become better at reading people’s body language and other signals to glean what they want and need, at least on the bandstand.  Off it, sometimes not so much.

It’s taken a long time to learn this, but sometimes when playing jazz as a rhythm section guy, you have to throw out everything you think you know about different styles and all your preconceptions and just listen and consider who you’re playing with, what they need.  There is no absolute right or wrong, all you can do sometimes is react instinctively, adjust and try to figure out on the fly what’s right for the music and the people you’re playing it with right then and there, at that very moment.  When you’re not sure about the musical direction or approach that is going to be taken, it’s a good idea to start with less, play simply – this way, you can adjust, add more as you go along if it feels appropriate.  It’s a paradox, but if you keep an open mind, the more you know, the more it seems that every time you play is like the first time, only hopefully better.  The slate is wiped clean.  Context is everything, and in jazz it’s ever-shifting, because the music being played is improvised and the blend of people involved is always changing.

Ed’s message of simplicity was further reinforced in an experience back then with that same band – Scott, Warren, Ed, Jerry and me.  We were playing at a club in Ottawa, and for the last number of a long first set, Scott called “Tickle Toe.”  I love that tune, but I was pretty tired, and it’s a tough one on bass.  It’s in a hard key, B-flat minor, then moves to E-flat minor, which is even tougher, then D-flat major, no picnic either.  Also, it’s very intense, you can’t skate through it, you have to knuckle under and play hard.  We started and, being worn out, I just played very simple notes, sticking to mostly roots and fifths, focussing on the beat.  Both horns were really jumping, and Ed and Jerry were just steaming along on either side of me.  I was playing pretty lame stuff, but the music felt great anyway.  After quite a few choruses, the last thing I wanted to do was play a bass solo, but Murphy’s Law applied and I had to.  Out of gas, I just played simple riff-like melodic phrases interspersed with some brief walking lines.  Jerry was laying down some nice Jo Jones under me and I noticed Ed was really listening, comping up a storm, buoying me along.  When we were done, I was a bit sheepish and discouraged, thinking to myself, Oh well, better luck next time.

Uncharacteristically, Ed turned around to me and said “Yeah, Steve. You laid down all those nice notes and time for a bunch of choruses, then still had enough left to play a good solo.  Nice goin’.” My jaw dropped, and I stammered my thanks, thinking, Huh? What’s he talking about? I didn’t do anything special, I just played a bunch of really simple, basic……aaahh.  Right.  Keep it simple. You’re not in this alone, give and you will get back.  Embrace the obvious, end the mystery.  Simple isn’t always easy or fun, but often it is what’s needed.

Writing about Ed like this gets me going and there are many more memories and stories I could relate, certainly a lot about his wit and sense of humour.  Ed’s a reticent guy though and in consideration of this, I think I’ll leave off here.  Not brief exactly, but about as close as I’ll ever get.  You know, I reckon I’ll get off the horse, tie her up to a post, mosey on in to the Dry Gulch Saloon and wet my whistle with a sarsparilla or two.

© 2012, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Flyin’ Blind With Mr. Ed At the OK Corral

  1. Great stuff about Ed Bickert. I loved reading it. I remember flying up to Toronto (from Long Island, NY where I live) to meet Ed for the first time. It was about 1978 or so. What a nice guy he is and his late wife Madelaine was charming and outgoing. She loved him and seemed perfect for him as he is so shy. Ed was playing with Milt Jackson, Don and Terry at Bourbon Street. I was transfixed watching and listening to him. I am an attorney who is also a guitarist. Lawyers say I would be better suited to music and musicians say it is a good thing I went to law school. I have the honor of being mediocre at two disciplines! Thanks Steve for your great playing and wonderful insights.

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