Happy 90th to The Jazz Angel

 

Sheard

Surely, Toronto has had no better jazz fan and supporter than Terry Sheard, pictured above at the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival last August. As he will turn 90 this February 25th, he’s also been one of the most enduring. I think Terry might agree that his enjoyment of music has helped keep him young despite his advancing years; something certainly has, because he has more jump than many people a third of his age. He’s very well-known and well-liked in local music circles, but for those who don’t know him, well, let’s just say that over the years he has made a huge contribution to the growth of jazz in Canada, one which has perhaps been equalled only by our most important musicians – people like Oscar Peterson, Phil Nimmons, Rob McConnell, Ed Bickert, Guido Basso and a few others.

That is a bold statement and I’m sure Terry would protest it, both because he idolizes musicians and is self-effacing to a fault. But it’s true, so I don’t see how I could avoid making such a claim on his behalf, even if he’d rather I didn’t. Simply by showing up to thousands of jazz performances over the years he has been supportive enough, but that’s just been the tip of the iceberg with Terry. He has also been tireless in promoting awareness of the music and helping to organize this, both through his own enthusiasm and considerable verbal powers, and in his seventeen-year role on the board of CJRT, Ryerson University’s non-profit radio station, which began in the early 1970s. Mind you, this wasn’t Terry’s job, he was not a media professional, his field was investment banking. Taking time out from his busy and highly successful financial career, not to mention raising a family, Terry acted as a very hands-on volunteer to do whatever he thought necessary to further jazz in this country. And further it he did. He was the Director of Publicity on CJRT’s board and would be the first to admit that he knew next to nothing about P.R. when he started. But, he’s very astute, knows people and has an unerring sense about how to put money to good use. Combining these skills with his unshakeable conviction that jazz – and Canadian jazz in particular – was important, deserved and needed support, he helped CJRT start a very big cultural ball to rolling, one that continues to roll to this day in the form of JAZZ-FM.

Music was always front and centre in the station’s non-commercial programming, which included classical music, folk, blues, and children’s programs. Jazz was broadcast five weeknights and Saturday mornings on Ted O’Reilly’s show “The Jazz Scene”, which had a huge impact in spreading awareness of jazz among its listeners – I can attest to this, because I was one of them, constantly. When I first got interested in the music as a teenager, I had very few records and only a little knowledge about this mysterious, vast subject and I can’t overstate the importance of Ted’s show and how much I learned from listening to it, it was a godsend. Terry Sheard and others at the station came up with imaginative ideas to use this show to promote music in other ways, such as doing live fund-raising broadcasts from clubs like Bourbon Street and instituting an annual series of live concert/broadcasts known as “The Sound of Toronto Jazz”, which not only provided work for Toronto’s musicians, but spread the word about them.

But Terry’s contributions didn’t end there, not by a long shot. I’ve no wish to embarrass Terry, to “blow his cover” as he might put it, or to portray him as a “fat cat” or high-roller, which he isn’t – he was still working up until just a few years ago. Let’s just say that over the years, where he has seen fit to do so, he has personally helped to finance a myriad of jazz projects – recordings, tours, festivals, concerts, education – and his patronage has done a lot of good. He has done so mostly in his own, free-form way, improvised much like the music he loves, leading several of us around town to think of Terry as “The Jazz Angel”, a fitting nickname because he’s an angelic character, but also in the theatrical sense of the word. For Terry, the satisfaction in this has been that the given musical projects moved ahead rather than foundering, reward enough for him.

As a long-time fan of big band music and good arranging, Terry became an ardent admirer of Rob McConnell’s The Boss Brass from its inception in the late-’60s and his support of the band in its early days – financial and otherwise – proved extremely fruitful. The band had everything going for it from the outset except a suitable recording outlet; its only releases were on the Canadian Talent Library label, which specialized in short instrumental covers of pop hits suitable for “easy-listening” radio play. Terry knew instinctively that the band wouldn’t get anywhere without making good records that represented their abilities and went to work helping to realize this, which in part consisted of convincing Rob that an album of his full-length jazz charts would do well. This finally culminated in the 1976 release of the band’s first proper record, The Jazz Album – at last, people could buy a Boss Brass record that sounded like the band and this one was very well-received, in Canada and beyond. Making sure this was not a “one-shot deal”, Terry was at the centre of a lot of behind-the-scenes activity – organizing support and financing, etc. – surrounding the series of Boss Brass albums that followed, which included Big Band Jazz, Again!, Live in Digital (from the El Mocambo), and Present Perfect. These led to the band garnering an international reputation and doing some work in the U.S. at festivals and clubs. For Canadian jazz, the importance of the band’s ascendancy can hardly be overstated; because of it, people around the world began paying attention to these great musicians and to other good Canadian ones. Perhaps more importantly, Rob’s writing and the band’s excellence raised the bar and inspired several generations of aspiring young Canadian musicians – again, I know this for a fact, because I was one of them.                                                                     

Much to my surprise, I found myself playing in the band by 1983, and it was during my early years in the Brass that I first heard the name Terry Sheard, though I still didn’t know him. Rob and some of the other guys spoke of him often and fondly, mentioning his generosity and great enthusiasm for the band. Occasionally if a round of drinks for the band arrived mysteriously during a live set, Rob or somebody would say, “Must have been Sheard…”. I came to think of this shadowy benefactor as a kind of jazz “Deep Throat”, who turned up in clubs instead of underground parking lots. Eventually, the band became self-sustaining, landing a contract with Concord Records and Terry turned his philanthropic eye to other jazz projects.

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I didn’t really get to know him until 2001, when I played my first jazz cruise as a member of Guido Basso’s band. Terry and his wife Judy (now sadly departed and greatly missed) were among the group of Toronto cruisers who paid an extra fee for exclusive access to our concerts. Terry had booked a lavish suite-cabin and was disappointed it didn’t come with any kind of stereo system he could listen to his CDs on. I’d brought along a portable CD-player, some decent travel speakers and a bundle of CDs and, hearing of his plight, I rang him up and took the pile down to his cabin, telling him to enjoy them for the whole trip. He looked at me like I’d handed him the keys to the Kingdom, saying, “This is splendid, my boy!” and we’ve been pretty tight ever since.

It was easy getting to know the Sheards, they went out of their way to hang out with the musicians and seemed most comfortable with us, talking music and hearing our stories and jokes, good conversation and laughter flowed easily in their company. This was further fuelled by the patented, late-afternoon Sheardian cocktail party in their suite, which became a fixture at least once per cruise, if not twice. Terry’s first order of business was to invite the band and their spouses, the rest of the guest list was determined later. Terry and Judy were great casual hosts and everyone enjoyed these small shindigs immensely because they were so unforced.

These cruises became annual events and the Sheards always came; even after Judy’s unfortunate passing some years ago, Terry continues to attend. Sometimes on his own or in recent years with either one of his daughters Robin or Susan, or his daughter-in-law Josee along. He would never consider missing one. I’ve been on six or seven cruises and have come to know Terry well, both at sea and on dry land. Becoming friends with him has been one of the nicer things to have happened in my life in the last fifteen years or so. He’s terrific company – classy but informal, cheerful, funny, well-read, with a zesty sense of humour and a ready, self-deprecating wit. He has two laughs which come into play regularly. His short, penguin-like guffaw, which often accompanies one of his own funny lines – and the longer, more paroxysmal one, with head tilted back, eyes closed and his whole body shaking, usually at a choice remark made by somebody he’s with. It’s only when he feels that musicians aren’t being shown proper respect that his generally sunny outlook darkens, this gets his dander up. I would have to say that even with his enormous accomplishments in business and as a jazz supporter, Terry’s greatest achievement may be that he’s simply a very nice man.

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His jazz patronage has always been fuelled by his love of the music, the simple enjoyment of listening to it, which goes way, way back with Terry and is the aspect of him I’d like to focus on. He has a keen ear and an amazingly sharp memory for small musical details which have touched him, sometimes many decades ago. There are various kinds of jazz fans; the intellectual types who read a lot of books, the historically inclined ones who like to gather minutiae of information, the record collectors and others. Terry certainly enjoys his records, but to him, jazz is mainly a music best enjoyed live and in-the-moment with other people. He loves the connection between a good band and an attentive audience in a suitable venue, the give and take that occurs amid the sociability of a performance setting, the “nowness” of it. I find this remarkable, that a guy his age mostly sees jazz in terms of the present and not the past, and that he often has kept an eye on the music’s future as well, and continues to. He’s always looking forward to the next gig, the next concert, the next cruise.

His earliest memory of an interest in music dates from when he was six and stems from his father, a prominent attorney and a fine pianist, who would often play some Chopin or Debussy before going out of an evening. Terry clearly remembers one night when he was in his pyjamas and about to be sent to bed, peeking down through the upstairs bannister on his father picking out the melody to “I’ve Got Five Dollars”, an odd little Richard Rodgers song that’s been one of his favourites ever since. His parents noticed his interest and arranged for some piano lessons with a good teacher, but Terry’s work-ethic and sight-reading ability never quite matched his ear and eventually the lessons petered out. He caught the jazz bug for good one summer when he was twelve and discovered a wind-up record-player and some 78s by Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman at the family cottage. He was entranced, Shaw’s “Nightmare” knocked him out, but Ellington soon became his favourite. He loved Duke’s composing and the way his arrangements made use of his many great soloists and their colourful personalities. This would have been 1937-38, a great time to become an Ellington fan, as his band would soon enter its peak with Ben Webster and Jimmie Blanton aboard.

Soon he was avidly reading Down Beat, collecting records and as he entered his teens, these were supplemented by going out to hear bands live, often with his older cousin Joe acting as chauffeur. Somewhere just north of Toronto, they heard the John Kirby Sextet, something not many can claim. Terry also heard the Ellington band several times during those years, in Toronto and Ottawa. He went to a dance where the Goodman band played and has a very clear memory of stepping on to the dance floor as the band launched into Eddie Sauter’s great chart on “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, which remained his favourite arrangement of that song until he heard McConnell’s, 35 years later. What he remembers best though is a dazzling little piano intro that Jess Stacy played to set up the tune. Terry was probably no more than fifteen, but he can still hear it in his mind to this day, saying it was one of the greatest things he’s ever heard. This is an example of the phenomenal musical memory mentioned earlier and if you listen to Goodman records from then, Stacy did that kind of thing a lot, he was really something.

Terry and some friends also went to hear Goodman’s band with Big Sid Catlett at the band-shell of the CNE; it must have been 1941, because that’s the only year Catlett played with Goodman before being fired. After the concert, Terry’s gang bumped into Sid, who was wandering about the grounds looking a little lost. They introduced themselves and Sid explained he was looking for the rest of the band, he was afraid he’d been a little slow in packing up his drums and getting some “refreshment” after the show and might have missed the bus which was taking them to Union Station. So Terry offered Sid a lift and they dropped him at the station, the suspension of Joe’s car a little the worse for wear from Catlett’s massive bulk. What a classic story – I’d give anything to have met Big Sid, but knowing someone who did is the next best thing.

After World War Two service in the Canadian Navy and university, Terry began working for Dominion Securities and was sometimes posted in other cities. During 1949-50 he worked at the New York branch and took advantage of this by frequenting Greenwich Village clubs, where he heard the one and only Pee Wee Russell, not something one would soon forget. He worked in London, England from 1950 to 1953 and he and Judy were married there in September, 1950. Judy had a couple of elderly aunts in England who kept an eye on the newlyweds and took them on a post-Christmas visit to Paris in January, 1951. Skimming through the jazz listings of a local newspaper, Terry noticed with delight that Django Reinhardt was appearing at a nearby club and was soon calling a taxi, taking Judy and one of the aunts to hear him. He proudly reckons they were some of the very few Canadians ever to hear the great Django live; they were almost certainly the last as he was gone not long after that. Many years later Terry met his idol Ellington and was able to shake his hand as he helped Duke hail a taxi in the rain outside the King Edward Hotel, somewhat aghast that no one from the hotel was doing this for the maestro.

Terry has a son and two daughters, each of them artistic. His son Gord is a fine pianist and arranger, an expert in Brazilian and Latin music, holding a Doctorate in Ethnomusicology and heading the arranging and composition department of the jazz program at Humber College. His daughter Robin is a talented artist specializing in oil paintings and pastels, her work has been exhibited and sold around the world. His younger daughter Susan teaches school and is an accomplished flautist. One of Terry’s favourite music stories concerns Gord, who as a youngster showed a keen interest in ragtime and stride piano. Terry arranged for Gord to study with John Arpin, who was Canada’s finest exponent of those styles. Father and son were both members of the Ontario Ragtime Society and through this, Terry met Eubie Blake for the first time in 1970. At one of the Society’s “Annual Ragtime Bashes”, Gord was onstage playing Blake’s “Fingerbusters” and Blake was sitting near Terry, listening. He reached across and said, “I never would have believed a white boy could play it that good.” It cracked Terry up but also filled him with pride. These are but a few of the choice stories from his trove of jazz memories, but Terry takes equal delight in hearing others tell theirs.

I find it interesting that Terry became a fan when jazz was popular music and never saw any reason for this to change, even though it did; I’ve often thought his efforts on behalf of the music were a dogged attempt to restore it to its former glory and rightful place, come hell or high water. I can almost hear him saying, “Well, it’s only right that the best musicians, the most creative and inventive ones, should also be the best-known and best-paid….”. As a realist, he knows this is a losing battle, but he’s had a lot of fun trying to make it happen.

A Jazz Epiphany with Terry

Because he’s been listening for so long and is so knowledgeable, going to hear live music with Terry is a very rewarding experience, as I found out a couple of years ago, when Terry was a mere kid of 88. The setting was a little place called The Flying Beaver Pubaret, where singer John Alcorn had been presenting a songbook series on Wednesday nights, backed by Reg Schwager on guitar and me on bass. I’d booked the night off to do another gig, which fell through and Reg was off on the road somewhere. On this night, my son Lee – who has made quite a name for himself as a terrific guitarist with a vast repertoire – would be playing and the bassist would be Michael Herring, who’s also very good. As I was unexpectedly free, I decided to go hear them and invited Terry along, knowing that he would enjoy the listening ambience of the room and the all-Gershwin program Alcorn had planned – the Great American Songbook is like mother’s milk to Terry.

As the set began, Terry fell into a listening trance, punctuated by occasional comments delivered under his breath, such as, “Wow, Lee sounds like a young Charlie Christian“. Mostly though, it was the songs that were getting to him. It was slightly unnerving but also quite inspiring to suddenly realize that, not only was Terry intimately acquainted with all of these Gershwin tunes, but he’d known most of them from the time they were first written. These were the songs of his life, the musical signposts that had decorated his past, not just some old sheet-music from a dusty attic. After one he commented, “I can remember whistling that one on my way to school in Montreal when I was about ten years old” and after another, “That’s one of the first tunes I ever danced to, I must have been thirteen or so.”  Far from seeming like rambling nostalgia, Terry’s memories brought these tunes vividly to life; the past and present began to melt into each other and I tingled as I realized what was happening.

Here were three generations or more….. Terry at 88, more than old enough to be my father, and me at 56, listening to two young musicians – one of them my own son – backing my old friend John, who’s roughly my age. The unspoken, invisible link hanging in the air between all of us was our mutual love of this music and these great songs, it was a magical and silent communion. It made me think of a wonderful essay “The Web of the Game” by Roger Angell, who writes about baseball much as Whitney Balliett wrote about jazz, with a poetic, elegant prose style. In the piece, he describes going to a 1981 collegiate ballgame between Yale and St. John’s with a friend and the fabled Red Sox pitcher of old, Smoky Joe Wood, who was then about 91. The game turned out to be a classic; a nail-biting, twelve-inning pitchers’ duel which ended 1-0 and closely mirrored a famous World Series game that Wood tossed in 1912. Wood’s pithy recollections of it and the tense drama of the game they were watching merged, making the past and present fuse together, bending time and memory. They were caught in the web of baseball just as we were now caught in the web of jazz, but we were in no hurry to escape.

It was powerful and something I’ll never forget. Dictionaries define “epiphany” as ” the sudden revealing of the essential nature or meaning of something”. What was revealed to me that night was that these songs and this music are even more timeless and important than I’d previously thought, they’re for always and I felt reassured that people will be listening to jazz long after I’m gone.

When the gig was over, Terry had a chance to meet the musicians and talk with them. He told Lee how much he admired his guitar playing, also telling him the story of hearing Django, as if to say, “So I know what I’m talking about, young man.” He then turned to John, saying how much he enjoyed his singing, what a good idea the songbook series was and how more people needed to know about it. He said, “I know where I’ll be the next few Wednesdays – right here – and I’ll see if I can drag a few other people out. I notice you’re doing Rodgers and Hart next week – have you ever heard of that tune of theirs ‘I’ve Got Five Dollars’?” He told the story of hearing his father play it about 1931 and John said that he’d sung it once or twice, which really impressed Terry. He was having such a good time holding court with the band that I was able to pad off to the bar and pay our tab, the only time I’ve ever been able to buy Terry any drinks. He glared at me when he realized, but smiled at the sneakiness of it, saying “Very clever….don’t ever do that again.”

Terry came the next week and John, Reg and I did “Five Dollars” for him, a very nice moment which closed a long memory-circle for him as it was the first time he’d heard it sung live. Here’s a version I happen to know Terry likes, sung by Lee Wiley in 1940, with Max Kaminsky on trumpet, Bud Freeman on tenor, Joe Bushkin on piano, Artie Bernstein on bass and George Wettling on drums:

                                                           

Terry’s 90th birthday falls on a Wednesday and I don’t know where he’ll be or what he’ll be doing, hopefully he’ll be celebrating by having a bang-up dinner with his family. But I know where he’ll be the next day, just as he is every Thursday – at the weekly evening jazz session at Kama on King Street, a couple of blocks from his apartment, enjoying a scene he largely helped to create. Listening intently to the Canadian Jazz Quartet and their weekly special guest and having a taste or two, jawing with old friends and the band during the breaks, swapping stories and laughs. If you were to see him in his natural habitat like this, you wouldn’t guess he was 90, you might say, “Wow, there’s a guy who really enjoys himself and knows what life is all about”. This is because, as someone said after seeing Phil Nimmons play ten years ago, when he was “only” 81 – “when someone is having that much fun, you don’t think about how old they might be.” Exactly.

Toward the end of the famous movie It’s a Wonderful Life, the angel Clarence appears just in time to prevent a distraught George Bailey from killing himself and then grants him his wish that he’d never been born. In the spooky sequence which follows, George sees with growing horror just how nightmarishly worse his little town would have been without him and learns of the huge difference even one life can make. Terry has made just such a difference and I shudder to think of the state jazz around these parts would be in without him over these many years.

So, I’d like to take this chance to wish Terry Sheard a very Happy 90th Birthday and to thank him for everything. May there be more to come and, above all Terry, thank you for simply showing up all these years, time and time again. It just wouldn’t have been the same without you.

Sheard 2

The above picture is of Terry Sheard at his birthday celebration on February 19th at Kama. Both photos appear courtesy of Ted O’Reilly.

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Epilogue – Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the birthday bash for Terry mentioned above. It just about killed me to not be there, but, as fate would have it, my grandson Charlie’s third birthday was celebrated that same day, at the same time, but in the west end of town. The 19th was one of the coldest nights in living memory, which prevented me from dropping by Kama for at least a quick drink and birthday greeting to Terry before heading on to Charlie’s party. It’s probably just as well though, because if I had gone I would never have found my way out of there, it was a great hang, packed to the rafters. Terry’s family were all there of course, including his grandchildren. There were the Kama regulars and the Canadian Jazz Quartet – Frank Wright, Ted Quinlan, Pat Collins and Don Vickery, with pianist John Sherwood added for the night. And thanks largely to the efforts of Fay Olson, who said it was the “easiest sell” of her long career in promoting jazz, at least thirty-five of Toronto’s best musicians showed up to wish Terry a Happy Birthday and to play for him. They included Guido Basso, Pat LaBarbera, Alistair Kay, Alex Dean, Mike Murley, Mark Eisenman, Bernie Senensky, Neil Swainson, Barry Elmes, Terry Clarke and many other worthies. I can think of no better tribute, no clearer indication of the universal affection and esteem in which Terry is held. By all reports, he had a marvelous time and was one happy guy by the end of the evening.

I felt badly about not attending, but knew Terry would understand – he knows as well as anybody that family comes first. I did think to call him on the 25th and wish him a Happy Birthday. He thanked me for this piece, protesting that it was a “tad exaggerated”, then said, “Say, if you’re not doing anything tomorrow night, why don’t you meet me at Kama, Russ Little is the guest and you don’t want to miss that.”

So I did go, joining Terry at his table during the first set. I hadn’t heard Russ Little play trombone in some time and knew that he was recovering from serious illness. I was bowled over by how good he sounded – perhaps never better – and by his choice of tunes and how graciously he led the band. I said as much to Terry as the set ended, and that’s all it took. In no time, he’d built up a pretty good head of steam, about how  goddamn much jazz talent there is in this country, both young and old, and how it needed to be better-known and have more venues and so on. Terry was just getting warmed up when Russ joined us, his twinkling eyes meeting mine as if to say “Here he goes again”. I can’t speak for Russ, but what went through my mind was, “Wow, this guy never stops and never will. Terry Sheard’s passionate caring about jazz and its well-being in this country knows no bounds”.

Amen to that and cheers to him.

 

© 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

13 thoughts on “Happy 90th to The Jazz Angel

  1. I think this may be the first time I’ve read such a tribute: from a player to a fan. It’s usually the other way around, but never so well-done…

    Thanks, Steve for helping the rest of us honour Terry.

  2. Thanks Steve. My sentiments exactly. I wish I could have been at Kama for this. I miss seeing him every week and hearing about his ‘goings on’. I am sure to see him when I am back in July. Maybe you too! Cheers,

  3. Steve;
    The turn out of top-notch colleagues of yours at the Kama last Thursday for the “Jam for Terry” was a musical tribute for Terry of the same level as your story.

    There were more musicians that showed up to play a tune or two for the Jazz Angel than would have been needed to fill all the chairs of the Boss Brass.

    Thanks for using your special skill as a writer to pay such respect to our mutual friend Terry Sheard.

    Jon Baird, Goodwood, Ontario, February 22, 2014

  4. Wonderful tribute Steve.

    Funny that you mention that scene from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ when George returns to the nightmare of Pottersville. I always get a kick out of the fact that the main street is suddenly rampant with, heaven forbid, Jazz Clubs! Of course, knowing you and some of your musician friends, maybe Frank Capra had a point…

  5. Steve, reading about myself a couple of months later I am, as always, amazed at your fluent dexterity in the English language, First,as one of your respondents said, it is a great honour for a listener to receive such an article from one of the most respected musicians of our time.. Second, reading it again I’m struck by your perception. The facts you noted are correct. I am grateful for your story.
    Terry

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