B.P. – The Price Was Right

Tax season is never a fun time for musicians, or anyone else for that matter. But for me, this annual April bother is always tempered by the memories it brings of Bob Price, who was a very fine jazz bassist, a wonderful guy and an accountant to boot. He’s been gone a while now and I always feel the pang of missing him in early spring, but it’s also pleasant to remember him and how lucky we were to have a stalwart like him on the local scene. Bob did the lion’s share of tax returns for Toronto’s jazz players for decades; discovering and using his services was a kind of rite of passage for a local musician. If and when you began making a little money in music, you soon found out that self-employed tax issues were beyond your ken, so you’d ask around and invariably the answer was, “Go and see Bob Price, he’s the guy, the best.” Being a veteran player himself, Bob knew the ins and outs of a musician’s life and the tax angles, so nothing surprised or ruffled him, he’d seen it all.

God only knows what he had to deal with over the years and the various musician’s tax messes he cleaned up, certainly a couple of mine for sure. No matter what the problem, how disorderly your record-keeping or how delinquent you’d been, Bob would sort it out with patience, humour, discretion and a slug or two from his trusty bottle of J & B, never too far from hand. Bob of course played for years in pianist Norm Amadio’s trio, which worked all the time and was a kind of shambolic, floating, Marx Brothers-style jazz party. I always figured his survival of this made the numerous tax snarls he was presented with seem like small potatoes, a picnic by comparison. Anyway, I’m not here to talk about his accountancy, but rather to tell a story about how I came to appreciate what a good bass player he was. The first few times I heard Bob play many years ago, I was not in the least impressed and this says much more about me at the time than it does about his playing.

I first became interested in jazz when I was about fifteen or so, say 1971. I was studying and playing a little guitar at the time, an uncle lent me a few jazz records by people like Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk and these eventually got through to me and piqued my interest. I still wasn’t playing jazz, didn’t know any people my age who were into it yet. I began reading a lot of books about it, trying to sort out who was who and what was what. Like a lot of young people, my opinions were far ahead of my experience, knowledge and ability, many of them formed or borrowed just from my reading alone. I couldn’t play at all yet, didn’t know anything about the realities of being a musician, but was on a bit of a high horse, making snap judgements about who could play and what was good and so on. Also, like many young people, I tended to be impressed by things that were overtly, well…. impressive. Great solos, lots of energy and notes, aggression, expressiveness, edgy risk-taking. In short, heaviness, man.

Eventually I fell in with a couple of guys in high school who shared my jazz interests – trumpeter John MacLeod, and guitarist Greg Stone; we became fast friends. John was the most advanced of us, deep into music even back then and looking ahead to a career in it, which only seemed a dim possibility to me, like most things then. John had a little after-school band that played mostly Dixieland, and I was pressed into service to play bass in it because Greg was already the guitarist, much better and more equipped than I was. Through this, another window for learning about jazz opened – actually trying to play it and going out to hear it live, something I would have been too intimidated to do on my own back then. We got into the habit of going weekly to one of the two main jazz clubs at the time – either George’s Spaghetti House, which featured Moe Koffman’s Quintet monthly and local bands the other weeks, or Bourbon Street, which featured famous American headliners accompanied by local rhythm sections (often for two weeks at a stretch, believe it or not.) Going to both hear and see music performed live and up close was a huge learning accelerator, we were lucky there was so much of it around and easily accessible. How we afforded this I still don’t know, but somehow we managed it.

I preferred Bourbon St. for both musical and financial reasons. I was a bit of a snob, so the famous Americans interested me more, plus the club was divided into two sections – the dining room where the stage was, and next to it a bar/lounge. This meant you could go there without eating, unlike George’s. You could go into the bar side for a small cover charge, nurse a couple of beers (how I was served these I don’t know either, I was underage) and for this absurdly low price hear a couple of sets of really good music, even see it if you were lucky enough to get a table with a view. We were so broke at the time that we used to cook up schemes for prolonging our visits, like going to the washroom when the waitress was coming around to take drink orders, or pretending to make a call from the pay-phone just outside the bar. Or, we would take turns standing just inside the open archway which connected the two rooms. The music sounded better there without the tinny bar-side speakers, at least until someone tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to sit the hell down and stop blocking their view.

Our timing was lucky in that Bourbon Street was in its heyday then and beginning to attract attention among American musicians, mainly due to the high quality of the local musicians backing them up – people like Terry Clarke, Jerry Fuller, Ed Bickert, Don Thompson, Carol Britto, Bernie Senensky, Dave Young, Michel Donato and others. Certain combinations rose above the normal star-with-local-backup level and became more collaborative, as when Paul Desmond more or less came out of retirement and played there, hearing Ed Bickert for the first time and confirming what many locals had known for years – that Ed was special, a great, unique guitarist worthy of international recognition, which he started to receive after recording with Desmond. Similarly, Jim Hall played there with Don Thompson and Terry Clarke and a fine interactive trio was born, documented by a celebrated recording from the club. Terry has worked often with Jim Hall ever since. There was a palpable feeling of excitement and pride among local musicians and fans about these performances and what they showed about the high level of Toronto jazz talent. John, Greg and I somehow managed to elbow our way into hearing a lot of this despite our nonexistent or marginal incomes.

During this period my two favourite bassists on the scene were Don Thompson and Michel Donato, both brilliant, but very different players. Don was really lyrical, with a light touch, great ears, played very in tune and was a melodic, eloquent soloist, venturing up high into the upper registers of the bass seemingly without effort. Michel was more of a caveman, very strong and rhythmic, with a huge, fat sound. He didn’t often play that high on the bass, but everything he played was funky, had tremendous weight and power and his solos were very imaginative and unique in their use of sound, space and time. They both killed me and for a time I couldn’t make up my mind between them, not that I was anywhere near to playing at their level anyway. As I said, my opinions and expectations were way ahead of my capabilities and bassists who couldn’t step out from the shadows like these two just didn’t impress me then – if a bassist wasn’t a good soloist, I just didn’t want to know about him. Even though I was sort of playing the bass then, knew how hard it was and so should have known better, I wanted to be dazzled. So I took ensemble work, rhythm playing, quarter-notes and other basic skills like knowing tunes, playing good notes in tune and so on for granted – anybody could do that (except of course me at the time.) Really, I wish I could go back in time, find the young me and kick him right in the ass. I tried doing this to myself the other day, but only fell down.

So, when I heard Bob Price back then I wasn’t impressed. He didn’t solo much at all, preferring to stay out of the spotlight and had a very calm, almost phlegmatic demeanor when he played, which didn’t give off much energy. To me he was just OK, functional; his playing did the job, but that was all. Also, his appearance wasn’t cool, didn’t appeal to my teenaged sensibilities at all. Whereas Don looked like Jesus Christ with his longish hair and beard and Michel, with his big moustache, huge arms and leather vests looked like an ethnic blacksmith, Bob looked clean cut, bland, always in a suit and tie. He looked like, well, an accountant (which I didn’t even know he was at the time) and I was just young and dumb enough to let this colour my judgement. My opinion of his playing rose drastically and forever though, after being taken to school when hearing him up close in fast company one night back then that I won’t soon forget.

It was a Friday night and some friends and I went to Bourbon St. to hear Paul Desmond, accompanied by Ed Bickert, Don, and Jerry Fuller. I’d heard them before a few times from the bar side, but this night we arrived early and somehow scored a table for four right in front of the bandstand and were flush enough to eat and stay for the whole evening. I was really excited, looking forward to hearing this wonderful band up close for a change. My stomach sunk though when in walked Bob Price to the bandstand with his bass in tow. Oh no, I thought, Don’s subbed out…and he’s sent in this stiff ? I was crestfallen, I’d so looked forward to hearing Don and was practically panicked about how the band would sound without him, but there was nothing to do but try and enjoy the music anyway. I overheard Bob telling Desmond he didn’t want any bass solos, and Desmond said something like “no problem, it’ll seem like old times.” They started playing and in short order it was clear that even without Don, the music was going to be really special this night.

Being so close to the musicians was a big help, it was like being on the bandstand, except all you had to do was listen, and I surely did. Desmond’s gimlet sound and piping inventiveness, Bickert’s glowing-ember chords and the lovely splang of Fuller’s ride cymbal were all right there and under it all you could really hear and feel every note from the bass. I focussed my attention on watching Bob while also listening to the others and a lot of things became clear to me for the first time. What I had mistaken for bland indifference in his playing manner was actually intense concentration – he was listening for all he was worth. Even though he barely moved, there was the glisten of sweat on his brow within a couple of choruses. He really knew all the tunes inside out, only used music for an original by Desmond called “Wendy” and didn’t look at that for long, he was a quick study. I’d never noticed how deep and warm his sound was, the notes were really in tune, round and long, but with a very slight gap between them that made each one sound distinct and defined. His pulse and walking lines were really solid and he had a beautiful sense of using the various registers of the bass at the right times, his volume was also perfect. I also noticed from the body language of the rest of the band that they were enjoying him too – after the first tune there were smiles and relaxation all around, Bob and Jerry were really locked in. True, I missed Don’s bass solos, but I noticed that the absence of these meant they played a few more tunes than normal on each set, not a bad thing. Also, the lack of bass solos balanced the band – Desmond and Ed stretched out and played solos, while Bob and Jerry played time – what a concept. Bob didn’t make a single mistake or wrong move that entire first set, and only got better as the night continued.

Although I was relieved the music was really satisfying and happy to have been so mistaken about Bob’s playing, my young mind was reeling with inward bewilderment and self-recrimination. How could I have been so wrong? I felt a bit like the Grinch after discovering that Christmas still came for the Whos even without presents, trees etc. The music had come without any bass solos or other trimmings and had been terrific all the same. Another bassist had brought his very different stuff to the table and the music hadn’t been worse or better, just different.

It was a bit of a breakthrough moment for me, I began to see the need to reassess my priorities and thinking. I had been way off base about Bob Price and so probably about some other things too. Maybe I should forget about bass solos for a while, maybe learn some tunes and concentrate on playing better time. I resolved to become less judgmental and began to appreciate professionalism and teamwork among musicians more from then on – it wasn’t so much about this guy or that guy as it was about people playing well together for the good of the music. I’d noticed the way the band circled the wagons a bit that night, making it as easy as possible for Bob to fit in, but at the same time, sitting that close made me realize what a hot seat he’d been on, subbing for Don in a band that had so much prior chemistry going. The fact that he came in cold and didn’t allow the level to drop only made the job he did more impressive. And it was no fluke, Bob knew what he was doing.

The evening came to a climax with a great performance on the final tune, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”, in E-flat. The groove that Bob and Jerry had found all night was now almost inevitable, carved into the air – it’s like that sometimes. In his own way, Paul Desmond was a wonderful blues player, the simplicity of the form brought out an exploratory and more extroverted side in him. He really had at it that night, playing a lot of choruses with long, looping lines and wide interval jumps up to the very highest register of the alto and beyond. I could very happily listen to Ed Bickert play the blues for the rest of my life and he also really lit it up that night. As Ed’s solo wound down, Desmond looked back to Bob as if to say, “C’mon, take some” and Price nodded yes with a smile – he was going to take a solo after all. Well, yes and no. Bob continued to play walking quarter-notes for about eight choruses and these became the solo. I’d heard about this kind of thing before, but had never really heard anybody do it live, it was great. He used slightly more adventurous note choices and some rhythmic punctuation – drops and rakes and so on. Ed and Jerry played beautiful stuff around him in support and I remember how intently Desmond listened to all of this with his head cocked toward the bass, eyes closed and a smile playing across his face. Bob’s bass lines were like little melodies and suddenly this made me realize who he reminded me of, it had been bugging me all night – Bob sounded like Percy Heath, a real favourite of mine. Needless to say I came away from this a big Bob Price fan and I’ll never forget Desmond’s ironic comment as he turned to shake Bob’s hand at the end of the night with a Jimmy Durante grin on his face, “Nice goin’ kid!”

Around that time I began to get to know some of the Toronto musicians better and to realize further how out of line I’d been about Bob – he’d long been held in high esteem for his bass playing and character, his geniality and reliability. A couple of guys told me how good Bob and Terry Clarke sounded as a rhythm section – they didn’t play together that often but I owed it to myself to hear them when they did. Happily, I did hear them – a few times playing with Jim Galloway and Ian Bargh and another time sitting in together at a Jazz Festival jam session. They really did sound great together, seemed to bring out the best in each other. I knew Terry pretty well by then, and once asked him about playing with Bob and why it seemed so easy. As I recall, Terry said that Bob consistently played straight down the middle of the beat, that his sound and the length of his notes were just right, really blended with his cymbals and made the time feel very relaxed and secure. I mentioned that Bob’s playing reminded me of Percy Heath’s and Terry nodded, telling me a story about playing with Percy many years earlier, before there was any bass amplification. Terry was quite young when Percy sat in one night and the band played a blues. After twelve bars, Terry looked over and Heath was already just drenched in sweat, eyes shut tight in concentration. Terry said he’d never forget it, he could hear every note, it was really intense but patient and the time was right down Broadway. I remembered the sweat on Bob’s brow after just two choruses that night with Paul Desmond – that’s how serious guys like Bob Price and Percy Heath were about the quarter-note and getting a good sound. I was beginning to realize that for bass players, this is the name of the game and it’s played for keeps.

Soon after hearing him with Desmond, I approached Bob in a club, introduced myself and told him how much I’d enjoyed his playing that night. He was a soft-spoken, modest guy and he gave me his best sheepish smile while thanking me, saying “Hey, that calls for a taste, let me buy you one”, which was typical of him. He told me that he’d really enjoyed that night too and that he’d never listened so hard in his life. This led to a pleasant conversation and eventually to us getting to know one another well over time, although as fellow bassists we never played together. He had a terrific sense of humour, always had some choice jokes, stories and witty comments. B.P. was a gentleman, a nice fixture on the Toronto jazz scene for a long time. I feel much richer for having known him and believe me, this has nothing to do with the money he saved me on my taxes over the years.

© 2012, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “B.P. – The Price Was Right

  1. A lovely tribute to Bob Price– a fine man, and a solid musician. It’s wonderful that BP’s remembered so well, and accurately. I’m sure most big cities have a talent like Bob’s — thoroughly capable yet under-recognized. Thanks, Steve, for recollecting that sort of man, and that sort of humble attitude that real professionals bring to the bandstand.

    As well, it’s a self-revealing post from Steve Wallace, who has become a fine memoirist/writer in addition to his musical skills. Thanks for your insights. They come from a rare combination of knowledge and experience.

  2. Bob had some great lines. He told me he was playing a gig one night – “Be sure to miss it if you can.” His answering machine message for a time was “Sorry I can’t take your call but I’m doing a rehearsal for an audition to play at a benefit.”.

  3. Hey Steve, thanks so much for your wonderful essays! I have really enjoyed the nicknames post, and now this excellent one about Bob. Truly edifying. Looking forward to catching up on your back catalogue. Keep up the good work!! All the best, Phil.

  4. I really liked Bob. I used to hang with him at the end of the bar at the Rex…and to play with him once in a while…I always remember playing a trio gig at Rhodes with Bob and Norm Amadio. I called “East of the Sun”…and Norm said, “West of the Moon”…and Bob said,…”Could we just play one or the other?!”…

  5. Steve, what a beautiful ode to BP. I am so glad Reg posted it or I would have missed the love! My sister Betty and I loved Bob. There was no one like him and you said it just right! Thank you. Can’t wait to read more of your writing.

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