R.I.P. Lenny Boyd

Sometimes bad news comes in waves, as was the case recently when the Toronto jazz scene lost two of its stalwarts – bassist Lenny Boyd, who died on June 6, and drummer Archie Alleyne, who passed on June 8. Both had long careers and there will undoubtedly be forthcoming obituaries detailing their lives and many achievements. I have no intention of doing that here, even if I could, but I would like to share some memories, as each man had a large impact on my musical life in very different ways. Because this may run to some length, I’ll follow this piece about Lenny with a separate one on Archie to come.

At this point, Lenny may be less known than Archie to local jazz fans, except for older ones. He was more active as a player in the Toronto jazz spotlight during the 1950s and ’60s, because for thirty years or so beginning in 1974 he was mostly devoted to teaching full-time in the jazz program at Humber College. This commitment took him away from playing publicly to a large extent – a shame, as he was a very good and quite original bassist, as we shall see. He was my first bass teacher and, with the exception of a few lessons here and there with other people, he was my only bass teacher; I could hardly have had a better one.

When I made the transition from guitar to bass in 1973, I’d been taking guitar lessons from Gary Benson at a music store near Coxwell & Danforth. I told Gary of the switch and that I needed some bass lessons and he said there was a guy right down the hall named Lenny Boyd who would be perfect. He introduced me to Lenny and we arranged for weekly lessons – it was funny, same place but different room, different teacher, different instrument. I’d been playing bass on my own for a few months in trumpeter John MacLeod’s Dixieland band at high school, feeling my way around the instrument instinctively based on what I knew from playing the cello and guitar, which only took me so far.

Lenny had both classical training and vast jazz experience and got right down to business curing some bad habits I’d fallen into and making sure I had a solid grounding in playing the bass right. He talked about posture, how to hold the bass properly and play it from a balanced position. He insisted I begin practicing with a bow because, even though it’s not used much in jazz, bowing is the only way to tell if you’re playing the bass in tune, which of course I wasn’t – some things never change. He’d studied under Ray Brown in the early ’60s when the Oscar Peterson trio and Phil Nimmons briefly ran a Toronto jazz school called The Advanced School of Contemporary Music, in fact Lenny won an award as the most improved bassist while there. So he recommended that I use the Ray Brown method for right-hand pizzicato – locking the thumb against the fingerboard down toward the bridge and plucking with the side of the first finger, which got more meat into the strings and made a bigger, more percussive and cutting sound. Most of all, he talked about the importance of proper left hand technique, not only for intonation, but also in producing true notes and a sound. He made me pay attention to pressing down the strings firmly with an arched hand so that they would ring, using the ‘balls’ of the fingertips, pointing out that it was the thumb on the neck, parallel to the fingers which provided the fulcrum and guide to all this, the power. He also told me where to buy a copy of the Simandl book, one of the essential bass methods. We’d be working out of this for some time as it takes a bass student very systematically through the various hand positions and fingerings with scales, etudes and other technique-building exercises. His teaching style was gentle but firm, he never let me away with much – if he felt I’d shucked my way through something, he’d make me go back and practice it some more before moving on the following week.

Our lessons were divided in half between these more technical bass matters and jazz considerations. Every week Lenny would have me write a bass part for a standard, one chorus in “two” and one chorus in “four” with a walking bass line. He’d have me play these and critique some of the note choices, pointing out ways to get more flow into the lines, where to use passing tones and where not to, etc. He made me aware of the impact that certain well-placed and choice bass notes could have, not just harmonically but rhythmically too. Also to be mindful of using different registers and different directions in walking – up and down – to create more variety. He also lent me his copy of The Ray Brown Bass Method until I could afford to buy my own, it had some great exercises and examples of walking bass lines.

And he wanted to know who I was listening to – a lot of Paul Chambers, Percy Heath and Ray Brown mostly – suggesting I also check out Wilbur Ware and Leroy Vinnegar. These lessons began to pay off, as I developed more sound, accuracy and better pitch, felt more confidence in different keys and moving up the neck gradually. The great thing about Lenny’s teaching was that he slowed things down, made me do things right. He knew from experience that when playing live in a band, a whole bunch of things come at a bass player in a hurry, so his methodical approach was a good counterbalance to this. As he once put it, “You’re supposed to sound good when you’re playing, but when you’re practicing you should sound awful – don’t practice what you can already do, practice hard stuff you can’t.” It was good advice.

He also told me about some of his playing experiences over the years, but only when I asked, and usually not during lessons. I’d heard from Gary Benson that Lenny had played with Miles Davis so I asked him about it over a coffee or a beer one day and he said, “Yeah, once, but it’s not like I was in his band or anything like that, it was just one night”. He explained that Miles came to Toronto with his quintet in 1956 to play the  Town Tavern and, while Miles and Philly Joe Jones made it across the border, Red Garland, John Coltrane and Paul Chambers were detained and missed the first night. So on short notice, Lenny, pianist Norman Amadio and guitarist Ed Bickert were pressed into service as substitutes. As was his wont, Miles didn’t exactly make any of the subs feel very comfortable, but it was an unforgettable experience anyway. Lenny told me the best thing about it was getting to know Paul Chambers that week when he arrived, the beginning of a nice friendship between them over the years – Lenny said Paul was one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. He also told me about playing a week with Bud Powell and Elvin Jones at the Colonial during that time. He said Elvin was fun to hang out and play with, but Bud didn’t say one word the whole week until toward the very end of the last set Saturday night, when he leaned over to Lenny and asked somewhat grimly, “Is it time yet?” Bud wanted to take Lenny out on the road with this trio, but the notice was too short for paperwork to be arranged and it didn’t happen, a shame, though Lenny was quite busy on the local scene. He also told me that he got to know Charles Mingus pretty well in the early ’60s, when Mingus used Lenny’s bass for a recording project/documentary for the CBC.

Our lessons mostly took place during my last year of high school and I was undecided about what to do after graduating. Lenny suggested studying bass and music full time, saying I had the ability and certainly the interest, so why not give it a shot? He looked into various music schools, saying he’d heard good things about the fairly new jazz program at Humber College. As a few of my friends from high school were going there, I was already leaning in that direction. We took a break from lessons over that summer and I worked in a sweatshop textile factory to earn money toward tuition. The first day at Humber, I was a damp mess of panic and disorientation, but this eased completely when I heard that, lo and behold, Lenny had been hired over the summer as head of the bass department, with Murray Lauder, another really good one, also aboard. This was fantastic, with Lenny there I had someone I knew and felt was in my corner, plus we’d be able to continue the bass lessons where we’d left off. My anxieties continued for a while, but Lenny shepherded me through some ups and downs in my early days at Humber, always steady and encouraging.

He also gave me some of my earliest real professional experiences when he began sending me in as a sub on a steady gig he had for a long while at Julie’s Mansion on Jarvis Street, in a trio led by pianist/vocalist Dave Thompson, with Don Vickery on drums. It was mostly a commercial gig, but they snuck in some jazz whenever possible. Playing for the first time with Don – and with Jerry Fuller, who subbed in one night – were my earliest encounters with the lift-off potential real jazz drummers offer, which turned my head around and opened up possibilities I hadn’t dreamed of.

To show what a mensch Lenny was, when I decided to drop out of Humber early in my second year I’d already paid my tuition, so Lenny insisted on giving me the bass lessons I’d paid for. Mind you, not at Humber, which was a very long trek for me, but by making house-calls at my parents’ place once a week on his way to Humber; not many guys would have taken that much trouble. When these Humber-paid lessons ran out I continued studying privately with Lenny, who by this point had really personalized his teaching by writing a whole series of his own etudes, each with particular “traps” or trouble-spots, but each musical enough to be a little composition in its own right.

He was a lovely, intelligent man, slightly shy with some nervous mannerisms, a wry sense of humour and with a wide range of knowledge and interests – good food, Russian literature, theatre, classical music as well as jazz. He was also an interesting musician with a very individual voice on bass. He was well-versed in bebop and the playing of bassists like Oscar Pettiford, Brown, Chambers and Sam Jones, but was also interested in more adventurous and modern music. It was through Lenny that I first heard Ornette Coleman’s records and he told me to pay attention to all that Charlie Haden did to make that music happen, ditto for Jimmy Garrison with John Coltrane and Gary Peacock with a number of people. I was already aware of Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans, but Lenny mentioned that you didn’t have to be a high-register speed demon to make an interactive contribution on the bass in highly creative music, pointing to the deeper, slower, more bass-like playing of Haden, Garrison and especially Wilbur Ware, whose solos were based around very imaginative rhythmic displacements more than linear melodic ideas. Knowing that I’d played cello, he also lent me his old copy of Eric Dolphy’s Out There, which featured Ron Carter on cello along with George Duvivier on bass; hearing the interaction between them and Dolphy with no chords introduced me to textural possibilities I’d never heard before. I was also surprised that a guy like Duvivier, who I thought of as an older, more straight-ahead player, was even on this record, but as Lenny said, “George Duvivier is a great musician, good playing is good playing.”

Though Lenny was a conservative and careful teacher, as a bassist he was anything but. His playing was adventurous and quite abstract, a highly personal distillation of Haden, Mingus, Ware and Garrison, while not sounding quite like any of them. He was still using real gut strings (at least the D and G) as late as the mid-’70s, the only guy I knew who was still doing so. He used the darker sound and higher flexibility of the gut strings to great effect in his playing, especially while soloing. His time-playing was straightforward, but his solos were full of a wide range of very expressive sounds and effects – long glisses, smears, double stops, strumming, wide interval leaps, short melodic fragments amid rhythmic displacements – it was very idiosyncratic, he didn’t sound like anybody else and I admired him for it. I’ve often felt that if Toronto had been less conservative and had more of an avant-garde scene, Lenny would have had a wider forum.

For those of you who don’t know Lenny’s playing, he can be heard to great advantage on the record Collages, which every Canadian jazz fan should have in their collection. It was done in 1967 and features Duke Ellington as a piano soloist – a role he didn’t often take even in his own band – on six compositions by three distinguished Canadian jazz composers, played by a band of Toronto’s best musicians. Two pieces were contributed by each of Ron Collier (who worked closely with Ellington as an orchestrator/librarian during this period and was the driving force behind the record), Norman Symonds (who had more of a classical, third-stream approach), and Gordon Delamont, who taught virtually every Canadian arranger of note during his life. The big band varies in size and personnel from track to track, there are strings on two pieces and Lenny sounds really good on bass throughout with some of the greats of Canadian jazz from that period – Freddie Stone, Guido Basso, Butch Watanabe, Moe Koffman, Bernie Piltch, Eugene Amaro, Rick Wilkins, Ed Bickert, Jerry Fuller and others, not to mention “the piano player”, no slouch.

When I started to work more on the jazz scene I eventually stopped taking lessons with Lenny, who was busier and busier as the Humber program grew, so we saw less of each other than I would have liked, but I have some nice memories nonetheless. When he and his wife Adele bought a house in Bolton, I was part of the crew of mostly students who helped move them from their Thorncliffe Park apartment. Two weeks after my first son Lee was born in May of 1981, I left for a two-week tour of Russia and when I returned, Lenny came by the apartment to see the baby. We had a nice long visit, I regaled him with some tales of my Russian adventures, we had a few vodka toasts, listened to some records and got caught up. I also remember getting a call from Lenny on a Friday night, about a year after I’d left Humber. He apologized for the short notice, but said he wasn’t feeling well and asked if I could cover for him on a gig at a downtown hotel. I had to really rush to change and get there with the bass, and I just made the nine o’clock start. Much later, I found out that Lenny’s “illness” was caused by a little too much tequila at a Humber faculty party – the sly bugger, we had a few laughs over it.

Lenny oversaw the instruction of countless young bassists during his time at Humber, his positive impact there is incalculable, he turned out some good ones. Some time during his long stint he was dubbed “Papa Smurf” for his white hair and whiskers, glasses and kindly, slightly shy manner, a nice sign of the esteem and affection in which he was held.

I’ve tried with words here, but I owe Lenny Boyd more than I can say, he was a great teacher and one of the best people I’ve ever known. I want to thank him and to say Godspeed Lenny, and rest in peace.

© 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “R.I.P. Lenny Boyd

  1. I enjoyed his playing many times in Florida………..many didn’t know him…….his only claim to fame was that he played with Ellington.
    Love your article.

  2. Excellent article.
    . I put a picture on Facebook of a small group Lenny and I played in.. Check it out Steve as I was unsure of the Vibe player’s name…I believe it was Bob Erlinsen??

  3. Dearest Steve thank you, thank-you for you wonderful tribute to our Father Lenny Boyd it comes from the heart. I learned some things I didn’t know. I appreciate it.
    Play on Little Wing
    Randle H. Fox (Adele & Eron Boyd too)

  4. A very, very nice article Steve. He was a very geneous and kind man. One of my memories of Lenny while studying at HC in the latter seventies was a recital our combo was giving in front of the entire music department and I was about as nervous as I could be. My G string went badly out of tune, I knew it but was so nervous that I couldn’t find the the confidence during the set to fix it ( sad I know) until Lenny quietly came up and got me fixed up without any ado and for that I was forever indebted to him. He was a great guy. RIP Lenny and thanks for invoking some great memories Steve.

  5. This is just great Steve. I have fond memories of him from my days at Humber. I studied with Murray Lauder but every time Lenny heard me play he always had a great piece of advice to share with me, he was always interested in helping. I wish I could have gotten to know him as well as you did. Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts.

  6. Steve, thank you it felt good hearing about Lenny as an educator and a musician. The gig with Miles Davis was at the Town tavern. I found it was funny that he was called “Poppa Smurf” , his granddaughter Maya as a child used to call him ” Dumbledore” except when Christmas came around then he was Sanata !

  7. Little did Lenny guess that the hand that wielded the bow would eventually write such a beautiful testament to him. Touching but also educational for the light it casts on so many great players. Steve for music and musicians you are the Peypes of our time .

  8. Hello Steve, I was the “crew of mostly students” in the early 80’s who helped Lenny move. I’m still playing and working hard, mostly at six-string guitar, after another Lenny (Breau), now. Regards, Steve Litman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.