Like many musicians, I’ve had some odd moments in my career, perhaps none odder than hearing the great Irish tenor John McCormack for the first time in a Moscow hotel room about two in the morning. I was with guitarist Oliver Gannon and drummer John Sumner, the three of us well on the way to being in our cups. The occasion was a concert tour of the Soviet Union in September of 1986 with Vancouver saxophonist Fraser McPherson, or “Fraz” as we called him. Fraz was really too jazzy a nickname for him, he looked less like a jazz musician than anyone I’ve ever met. Tall, balding, distinguished-looking, with thick horned-rim glasses, bushy Lionel Barrymore eyebrows and a stentorian rumble of a voice; a nervous, serious headmaster’s demeanour and the omnipresent three-piece suit, he looked more like a diplomat or a banker. Musically he was conservative too, but a wonderful player, knew hundreds of tunes and liked “four beats to the bar, no cheating”. He played sort of like Zoot Sims, but not as freewheeling or loose-limbed, more buttoned-down. I came to love Fraz for his fairness and for the wry humour behind his sternness, as well as for all the tunes and musical discipline he taught me.
For me it was the last of three such trips to the “big fridge” with Fraz and the most grueling, partly because of the schedule – thirty concerts in thirty days. And the “arrangements” for looking after us were much more disorganized and paranoia-inducing than on the earlier trips; maybe a sign that the usual obsessive order of the Party – the “yessir, yessir, three bags full” – was collapsing a little with glasnost and perestroika. Things were a little loose on that trip, a little rough. Part of it was the transportation – Russian vehicles are not renowned for their comfort or suspension, many of the rides were about as smooth as falling down cement stairs. And then there was Aeroflot, which roughly translates into English as “slaughterhouse ovens of the air”. All topped off by the young, inexperienced lady who was our appointed guide, she was in way over her head.
Anyway, the band – Fraz, Ollie, Sumner and I – dealt with these trials in the time-honoured jazz way – we hung out and drank. Vodka, a lot of it, usually every night in my room because I smoked and the other guys didn’t. This trip also proved momentous for me because it was the first time I met and played with Sumner. By tour’s end, he and I were very close and several months later he and his wife Juanita moved from Vancouver to Toronto for good. As Bogey once said, it was the “beginning of a beautiful friendship”, one which resulted in an awful lot of jazz education for me through listening to his immense record collection.
Sumner is not an easy guy to get to know, he’s standoffish, masking his essential shyness with a kind of deadpan reserve. I broke through this very early in the trip when I noticed he and Ollie were both wearing white Reebok sneakers and commented, “I see you guys were both with Lionel Hampton – ‘Hey, Bob-A-Reebok’ “. This brought the hint of a smile from him and he may have decided then and there that we might have some stuff in common. I discovered that he had immaculate timing, both on and off the bandstand. The very first thing we played was a run-through of “I’m A Lucky So and So” with Ollie as a trio tune, before our first concert. He took a two-bar break after the melody chorus, and neither Sumner or I came in on one of the first bar. We both entered on the and-of-one – cha gong-ging-gang – and kind of looked at each other with wide grins. Things were gonna be OK in the time department – as he put it, “Never play one if you can help it, it’s the most overrated beat in jazz, except when it isn’t.” Can’t argue with that.
His timing off the bandstand was even more amazing and often came from his huge, ancient shoulder bag, which I dubbed “the leather closet”. Whenever anything was needed, he reached in and delivered an amazing range of items, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Cassette tapes, cans of beer, napkins, towels, screwdrivers, duct tape, a Swiss Army knife, cheese and crackers, water, sandwiches, Vaseline, a travel pillow, lip balm, aspirin, bandages, Grand Marnier – you name it, he had it, producing whatever was necessary at precisely the right instant.
Like the night after a concert in Moscow when we waited 40 minutes for our ride, which never showed. This had never even come close to happening before and was not on. We were tired, starting to get stressed out and our “guide” suggested we leave the bass and drums at the hall – where we were playing again the next night – and take the subway to our hotel, like this was Sunday in the park or something. We were none too happy, although seeing the Moscow subway, which was like an art gallery, was quite amazing. Anyway, Sumner put his headphones over my ears and said, “Never mind this horseshit, check this out“. It was a very abstract drum solo, with all kinds of spaces, I had no idea who it was. Then the drummer went into this amazing bebop Afro-Cuban feel, some arresting piano entered and what followed was the greatest version of “Night and Day” I’ve ever heard. I didn’t know it at the time of course because I’d never heard it before, but it was Bill Evans, Sam Jones and Philly Joe, on Everybody Digs Bill Evans. I’ll never know just how Sumner knew that I needed to hear that very track at that very moment but he was right, it was just what the doctor ordered. It melted away the chaos that was swirling around us and took me to the land of jazz. Boris, Natasha and the KGB seemed like they were a million miles away instead of around every corner and behind every lamppost, the nefarious blackguards.
Sumner did that a lot on the trip, we spent an awful lot of time listening to some great music, old favourites and a lot of things I’d never heard before, it’s how we bonded. Getting back to “the Irish”, it was much the same that night with the McCormack tape. After a particularly grueling set of journeys, we were back in Moscow at the huge Hotel Russia, exhausted and increasingly disgruntled, morale was slipping. We were hanging in my room as usual and Fraz, being many years our senior, had called it a night. Ollie Gannon was quite homesick on that trip, he missed his wife and Vancouver, but also grew nostalgic for his original country, Ireland – he’d emigrated from Dublin when he was about twelve. That night he told some stories about growing up in Dublin and about how funny his Irish father was. Like when Ollie showed him the first record he’d done with Fraz, Live at the Planetarium, and his father said, “Now, that’s an awfully funny name for a record, why would a fella be after wantin’ to live at the Planetarium?” This and other stories cracked us up and as Ollie grew almost maudlin about Ireland, Sumner slyly reached into his cosmic bag and pulled out a cassette tape and slipped it into the player. This was the first thing we heard:
It stopped Ollie dead in his tracks – “McCormack?! Oh, my God!” – as tears began rolling down his cheeks – not of anguish, but of joy and surprise. Here we were, about as far away from Ireland as you could get, both geographically and spiritually speaking, and Sumner had magically produced the greatest of all Irish tenors. You could practically smell the peat fire and taste the Jameson. We were enthralled and Ollie was delighted, laughing at the brogue and some of the other Irish idioms in the delivery. It was just what he’d needed and once again, Sumner knew it instinctively. I began to realize just what a lovely man he is, especially when it comes to sharing music; he knows what it’s for.
As for me, I’d never heard McCormack before, didn’t even know who he was. I’d heard Irish tenors sing before, but never on this level. He got to me right away, I felt he was taking me back to some home I’d never known – it’s complicated. I have an Irish background on my father’s side, but he never had much use for the place, found all things Irish to be sectarian and narrow, like his bigoted, Orange Lodge mother. And yet, in many ways, my father was about as Irish as they come – free-thinking, insanely funny, delightfully profane, given to towering bouts of rage that collapsed into hilarity, a wonderful storyteller and he’d give you the shirt off his back. The way McCormack got to me that night in Moscow – just as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Charlie Parker had the first time I heard them – was the first stirring within me that I was in any way Irish, something that would be further awoken when I visited Ireland a few years later. McCormack also made me realize for the first time that soul music is soul music, and that all peoples have it. Even white folks.
There were many more adventures and travails on that trip and when I got home and had recovered, one of the first things I did was to go out and buy a record called John McCormack Sings Irish Songs. I’d no sooner returned home from buying the record, when the phone rang – it was Sumner calling from Vancouver, the first time we’d spoken since the tour ended. The coincidence of it amazed me – like I said, the guy has some timing. Here’s “Foggy Dew” with the non-rebel lyrics, but very fiery and passionate nonetheless, accompanied by a great pianist with crack timing:
I began to read up on McCormack, about how he won an all-Ireland singing contest in 1904, the first prize being a scholarship to study operatic singing in Italy. James Joyce, no mean singer himself, finished second. McCormack went on to have a career in opera but not entirely a successful one – he had the singing part covered, but was no actor and knew it, he never mastered the dramatic aspects of the job. He did have a great career as a concert artist, singing Irish songs, German lieder and popular standards and he also became the first great recording star of the twentieth century, before there were records. These performances and many more were recorded “acoustically” onto metal RCA cylinders. They sound scratchy, but have a tremendous depth of resonance even today. And I love his voice and the sound of the Irish band, the low brass and bright woodwinds reminding me of Jimmy Giuffre and Gil Evans, crazy as that may sound. One day I was playing the McCormack record and my father came over unexpectedly, a passing-by visit. As soon as he came through the doorway and heard the voice, he froze – “I can’t believe it, it’s him….”. He hadn’t heard McCormack in forty years and definitely wasn’t expecting to now. He said everybody, Irish or not, had a McCormack record when he was a kid; it was taking him back to a place he wasn’t sure he wanted to visit. He asked for a whiskey, not something he ever did and I went to take off the record but he said, “No, leave it on, it’s good to hear him again, he was one of the best parts about my growing up.”
Here’s perhaps his most famous record. The high note at the end, so long, so soft, sustained and ethereal, then the swoop down low, is one of the most wondrous, magical things I’ve ever heard. It’s not of this world, really.
It’s funny, many real Irish people find McCormack “too Irish”, but I absolutely love him, I think he’s one of the greatest singers of all time. When I’m in a certain mood, like now, nobody else will do. This reminds me of my good friend Mark Eisenman, who was once leading a band – me, Sumner and Alex Dean on saxophone and clarinet, Irish goyim all – at a Jewish wedding. When it came time to play Hava Nagila, as it always does, Mark was the only one who didn’t know it. It was hysterical, we couldn’t believe it and afterward, we were all over him about it. “Merv man, these are your people, your tribe, how can you not know that tune?” He just kind of shrugged and said, “I dunno, I never liked that one – it’s too Jewish.” That killed me then and still does, I’m on the floor.
One last musical wish for a Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everybody, one with more of a jazz flavour from another great tenor. By the way, this is not what they mean by “black Irish”. Although……top of the mornin’, Gates.
© 2015 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.