A shorter and slightly different (i.e. cleaner) version of this piece on Archie Alleyne appeared in the September issue of WholeNote magazine, v. 121 #1.
June of this year brought a rash of deaths which rocked the jazz community – locally, bassist Lenny Boyd and drummer Archie Alleyne – and internationally, jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and third-stream-composer Gunther Schuller. I wrote memorial blogs about Coleman, Schuller and Boyd, who was my bass teacher. I held back in Archie Alleyne’s case because I just didn’t have another obituary piece about a good friend in me so soon and also because David Perlman, the editor/publisher of WholeNote magazine, asked me to write a piece about Archie in a future issue.
Oddly, it was while attending the early spring memorial celebration of Jim Galloway – another local jazz stalwart who passed away recently – that I first learned that Archie was seriously ill. I hadn’t seen Archie in some time and while looking for him at the gathering for Jim I was told that he wasn’t expected to live through the summer, a body blow. He didn’t even make it that far, dying on June 8th of prostate cancer. Perhaps it’s as well he went so quickly as he was suffering, but the speed of it was still shocking. Archie was such a zestful man, so integral a part of Toronto’s musical scene in so many ways and for so long that it’s hard to believe he’s gone. The palpable gap of his absence from the Galloway event was a strange kind of rehearsal for missing him, something we’ll all have to get used to.
I assume many readers will already know of Archie’s accomplishments both as a musician and a social activist promoting greater awareness of jazz, black culture and racial equality issues around these parts; he had tremendous energy and got a lot done. This will be more of a personal look at Archie, with some memories of him as I knew him, and as I’d like to remember him.
I first came to know Archie around 1979, when he hadn’t yet begun his comeback as a drummer. He’d left music in 1967 after a near-fatal car accident left him in hospital for almost a year and slightly realigned his handsome face, though later on he was still a lady-killer. After recovering he went into business as a partner in The Underground Railroad, a soul food restaurant I enjoyed eating and occasionally playing at. Even though he wasn’t playing in those days, I saw a lot of him at the various Toronto clubs I’d begun working at – George’s Spaghetti House, Bourbon St. and so on. He loved to go out to hear live music, hang out and have a few tastes, he was a very gregarious, social guy. Always dressed sharply, laughing, telling stories in that rich Billy Eckstine voice of his, musicians generally gathered around, he was hard to miss. Being green and new to the scene, I wondered who this hip, dapper character with an elder’s presence might be. Eventually I was introduced to Archie, little knowing that this would be the beginning of a long and eventful friendship that would include many memorable bandstand moments.
Not long after this he eased back into playing the drums, partly because the restaurant business was starting to founder, but I suspect also because he missed music and had been itching to return. Either way, the restaurant world’s loss was the local jazz scene’s gain. It took him a short while to get back into playing shape, but if he’d lost anything during his long layoff, it didn’t show much. Archie was never a flashy technical player anyway; he was mostly self-taught, a “feel” player, a natural-born swinger. All that he’d learned as the virtual house drummer at the Town Tavern from 1955-66 came back to him pretty easily. He and I started to play together here and there with some frequency. We developed a natural musical and rhythmic chemistry, mainly because he was easy to play with. He had a nice, relaxed ride-cymbal stroke and played good brushes; with him less was more. His playing could be summed up by something Lester Young suggested to him decades earlier: “Just a little tinkedy-boom for me, Arch, and we’ll go straight-ahead, no fuss, no muss.”
In 1983, Archie hired me to play bass in the quartet he started and co-led with vibraphonist Frank Wright, with the redoubtable pianist Wray Downes aboard. Playing in this group was a large part of my musical education. Not only was I by far the youngest member – I was used to that – but in this case, I was also the only white member. There was never any friction, no overt or serious lecturing on racial issues from these veterans. However, their stories of growing up in Toronto and coming up on the local music scene during the 1950s taught me that there were real racial barriers in Toronto of the kind I had previously (and naively) thought were restricted to the Jim Crow practices of America, especially in the South. Archie had a sense of humour about this, as in the following story: He and I often played backing up the great pianist Ray Bryant at the Montreal Bistro. Among my most prized photographs is one of me flanked by Ray and Archie. Just before Jim McBirnie took the picture, Archie said “You’re the cream in the Oreo, Steve-o!” The resulting laughter is all over our faces in the photo.
I have very fond memories of playing in the Alleyne-Wright quartet and being accepted in it despite my young years. Because of Archie’s belief in classy presentation, we were surely the only group to play George’s in full tuxedoes. I learned a great deal from Archie, not so much about the nuts and bolts of music, but more to do with comportment and the jazz history and traditions of Toronto, which he had absorbed so much of first-hand. He took joy not just in music-making, but in the personalities and stories of musicians, their eccentricities and individuality. He regaled me with tales about playing with such classic artists as Billie Holiday, Ben Webster and Lester Young; how they taught him not just about being professional, but about being a human being, about giving the music soul.
It was from Archie that I first heard Lester’s great line about the joys of fatherhood and his ambivalence toward changing diapers, which Archie heard from the mouth of the master himself: “Arch, I don’t mind the vinegar, but I can’t stand the mustard!” (Pres translation: I don’t mind the pee, but I can’t stand the poo.) And about the warm friendship that grew between Ben Webster and Toronto bassist Bob Price, who backed Ben many times with Archie at the Town – and how Bob and Ben once unforgettably danced a soft-shoe together while in their cups at a party. Or about how little you had to play behind Lady Day because the white-hot spotlight of her compelling persona focused everybody’s attention and magnified everything in the music – it was from her that the young Archie first learned the power of an utterly silent room. Hearing his impressions of these greats and others was not only fun, but it made them more real for me, it made me realize I was a small part of the continuum of jazz. As a result, I began to take playing jazz more seriously, while also enjoying and paying more attention to things that happened away from the bandstand, they were important too.
I well remember a special gig the quartet played at the behest of Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Lincoln Alexander at an event he hosted to honour Prince Philip. It was very private, a by-invitation-only affair and both men got on famously. There was no press of any kind, which allowed the two public figures to relax and enjoy themselves immensely, playing darts, drinking pints and conversing freely with everyone, both really enjoyed the music. It was my first inkling of how Archie was equally at ease with ordinary people but also with those from the corridors of power and privilege, mostly because he treated everyone the same. I soon learned that virtually everybody knew and liked Archie, including some influential figures – Alexander, Roy McMurtry and many others. Archie used this connectedness to further the black Canadian musical community whenever and however he could, it was one of his greatest gifts.
For various reasons the Alleyne-Wright quartet petered out, but Archie and I continued working together, often forming the rhythm section for out-of-town artists. I remember the two of us backing trumpeter Tom Harrell, just when drummer Terry Clarke had returned to Toronto after years of living in New York. Hearing him for the first time, Clarke remarked that Archie’s splashing ride cymbal, taste and simplicity reminded him of Billy Higgins – high praise indeed.
Archie and I also did a very memorable tour of Ireland and Spain with Montreal-based pianist Oliver Jones in the fall of 1989, the beginning of which we barely survived. Archie and I flew together to Heathrow Airport, from where we were to catch a connecting flight to Cork, home of the Guinness Jazz Festival. That very day the British Isles and the North Atlantic were ravaged by one of the worst storms to hit that area in the twentieth century, with untold damage caused by ferocious high winds and lashing rain. Out of this chaos we eventually caught an Aer Lingus flight which attempted unsuccessfully to land at Cork and Shannon. I’ve never been as certain of my imminent death as during that flight. The plane was being tossed around like a soda cracker just above the roiling sea, which seemed sure to swallow us up whole. Finally the pilot managed a miraculous landing at Dublin Airport, to the most heartfelt and relieved ovation I’ve ever heard.
That was just the beginning of our adventures, however. We still had to get to Cork, and we had no idea where our instruments were. We found Oliver with the alto saxophonist Herb Geller in tow, he shared a rocky car ride to Cork with us. Fortunately we had a few days off to recover and eventually my bass and Archie’s drums showed up on the tarmac in Cork, but not his priceless K-Zildjian cymbals. They’d evidently been stolen and I felt terrible that such a huge and irreplaceable part of his sound had been taken so unjustly. Some local drummers lent Archie good cymbals for the rest of the tour and eventually he bought himself some new ones, never missing a beat. That was Archie all over, mindful of the past but always looking ahead. I’ll never forget his ironic and good-humoured variation of the old Irish greeting – “Top of the mornin’…… motherf—–s!”
I’ll also never forget rooming with him the first few nights in Cork – because of the storm, hotel rooms were at a premium so we doubled up. After our Friday night concert with Oliver, the trio was invited out to a sumptuous place with an unpretentious name -The Oyster Tavern, which had been open since about 1789. As you’d expect, oysters were the house specialty – both fresh and smoked-on-the-premises – all with their ideal liquid accompaniment, fresh Guinness. Archie and I couldn’t decide between the fresh or the smoked so the waitress made it easy for us – “I’ll bring you a dozen of each for a start, lads” in her lovely, flat Cork accent. Those and more, followed by a ridiculously good steak with spuds, red wine and further Guinness. Somewhere in there, Oliver graciously accepted a turn at the brand new grand piano for a few solo numbers. I remember thinking “Uh-oh, it’s a Friday night crowd in Ireland and they’ve been drinking, they won’t listen at all”. I couldn’t have been more wrong; as soon as Oliver sat down to the piano a hush fell over the room. He regaled them with a charming set of solo piano which included “Danny Boy” and “Galway Bay” – he’s no dummy, he knew where to hit them. It was my first inkling that the Irish – my own forebears – are a far more polite, peaceable and sensitive people than they’re often portrayed as being.
The memorable part of rooming with Archie came later that night when we returned to our room. The digestion of our lavish intake had begun in earnest and there was gas – great billows of it from both of us. The air got pretty thick and at one point Archie chuckled, “Miles should be here – it’s like ‘Green Haze’ in here!” Finally it got so foul that I got dressed and set out for a walk and some fresh air about four in the morning. Archie said, “I don’t blame ya, and good riddance”, as he made one more flatulent contribution to the room’s “atmosphere”, falling out of bed as he did so. The next morning the cleaning lady was coming out of our room just as we were returning. She looked at us, raised her eyebrows and smiled sweetly – “Guinness and oysters last night, was it?” Archie was speechless with laughter, just collapsed.
In the years since, Archie and I played together less often and saw a little less of each other. Our relationship remained intact though, he was the type that kept his friends. He became more involved with his special projects, including the Evolution of Jazz Ensemble, which did a great deal to spread the awareness of jazz and Canadian black history in schools. He also formed Kollage, a band in which he gave many young musicians the opportunity to learn from his vast experience by playing under his direction. This passion for mentoring young musicians led to the establishment of the Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund in 2003, to recognize and encourage excellent young black jazz students in Canada. Archie Alleyne was an old-school musician who came up the hard way, self-taught and on the bandstand. He valued both classroom-oriented musical education as well as a more reality/experience-based approach – the AASF and Kollage allowed him to offer the best of both worlds. In late 2011, his vast contributions to this country’s society and culture were recognized with Canada’s highest civilian honour when he was elected a Member of the Order of Canada. This was greeted with great satisfaction and pride from Archie and his many friends and colleagues.
I regret that I didn’t see more of Archie in the last few years or before he passed. But I’m happy to have known him so well, very grateful to have shared so many musical experiences with him and to have learned so much from them. I know I speak for many Toronto musicians when I say that I’ll miss Archie a lot and also in saying a big thank you to him for leaving the city’s jazz scene a much better place for his presence.
© 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.