By now we’ve all heard that Ed Bickert passed away on Thursday, February 28 at the age of 86. Our hearts go out to his family, especially his daughter Lindsey, his sons Jeff and Tim, and his grandchildren. Written tributes have poured in and will continue to, both in Canada and “south of the border, down America way”, as Ed made an indelible mark internationally. I’ve wanted to write something about him sooner than this but just couldn’t, not straightaway, for a whole host of reasons…. mostly having to do with the difficulty of processing the death of somebody so singular and important, despite having had a lot of practice at it.
With someone as sparse as Ed, maybe the most fitting tribute would be to choose his greatest recorded performance – which of course would be impossible – and simply post it with a brief statement like “This is who Ed Bickert was, what he was all about and we should all remember and treasure him. He was unique.” It’s tempting, and Ed would probably have preferred that. But it’s not really my style, and I think Ed deserves more, better than that. And besides, what does “He was unique” mean? How was he unique? Let me count the ways………
I’ve written my share of obit pieces about musicians and don’t feel I have a full-length or ‘straight’ one about Ed in me. No, this one is too hard, too personal, too close to home. My parents died within 14 months of each other 2007-08 and, strange as it may sound – and I hope not unseemly – the news of Ed’s death felt a bit like losing my parents, only filtered through music. I’ve had a number of musical fathers, but none more so than Ed. I wrote a piece on him a while back which already expressed a lot of what I have to say about him, his music and what made him such a key presence in Canadian jazz. Bill Kirchner recently commented that this earlier piece could serve nicely as a eulogy, maybe more so because it was written when Ed was still alive. At any rate, I’ve re-posted that story at the end of this for those who haven’t read it; or, heaven forbid, want to read it again.
The musical side of Ed has been well-documented over the years and is well-known to most of us, so I’ll stick more to remembering Ed as a person, an equally priceless aspect of him. What follows will be mostly some observations about his one-of-a-kind character and values, his inimitable sense of humour, and a selection of stories about him which hopefully will help ease the bump of his passing. They worked for me, a little.
It says a lot about the quiet power of Ed’s presence on the scene for many years that even though he retired from playing in the early 2000s and we saw him less and less often in recent years, he was still very palpably with us. In all that time since he retired, hardly a day went by without him crossing my mind somehow – a memory of a choice line, a good gig, a record date, or just wondering how he was doing. And people – fans, musicians – would often ask after him, or mention that they’d just heard one of his records on the radio or wonder had I seen him lately, how was his health, and so on. He was sort of gone, but not forgotten, and his gradual withdrawal was no preparation for this loss. Now that he’s really gone, he’ll never be forgotten.
After all these years, I can honestly say there hasn’t been anyone in music I’ve liked more than Ed as a person, or admired more as a musician. And his personality and playing were bound together; he played like he was and was like he played. He couldn’t be summed up with any one word, but three keep coming up again and again when I think of him: integrity, intensity, and pithiness.
Regarding his integrity, he was honest and straight-up as they come, a man of his word. He was unfailingly polite and tactful when necessary, but make no mistake about it: Ed Bickert was a living, breathing no-bullshit zone, on the stand and off. As for his intensity………. well, who among us who saw him in action can ever forget the sight of him playing? His eyes shut tight, head tilted back and slightly to one side, cradling the Telecaster with a slight grimace of effort on the lined face. He was off somewhere, a mask of pure concentration, which is what intensity really is. And let me tell you, as compelling as this could be from a distance, if you were standing right next to him playing along, his intensity of focus could be white-hot, no exaggeration. And his pithiness? Well, he so often found the choice phrase, whether with his guitar, or with words.
As is often true with unique and memorable characters, there were many paradoxes at work in Ed and I once described him as a “closet extrovert.” He liked things quiet, but not too quiet; orderly, but not to the point of boredom. I found if you waited him out long enough without saying much, he’d get a little fidgety, clear his throat a couple of times and start the conversation, which with him was always interesting and led to unexpected places.
There was the dichotomy between his shy reserve and his palpable presence in a room or on a bandstand. It was the old story of the quiet guy who doesn’t say much but when he does, it’s worth hearing and people listen. Some of it was that clear, almost-deep voice that could have been a broadcaster’s. And beneath the formidable bushy eyebrows, those Rocket Richard eyes that could glare with such stark effect, sometimes for humorous purposes or when surprised, or to offer a silent admonition to somebody to pipe down. His very quietness served to amplify everything he did.
Or the split between the implicit complexity in his layered playing – but also its simplicity, and his simplicity as a person. He was very no-frills when it came to things like musical gear, food, cars, clothes – you know, stuff. He didn’t like a fuss or anything too fancy. For example, once after recording Bye Bye, Baby in San Francisco, the Concord Records people took the band and wives out for dinner at a very swanky restaurant in what had once been a mansion. We had our own private dining room and an absurdly attentive waiter. It was quite over the top and so was the menu. It took us about half an hour to each decide what extravagant food to order and when it came to Ed, he looked at the waiter and said “I’ll never be able to eat any of this. Could I just get a tuna sandwich on brown and a small side salad, please?” Only Ed could have pulled this off and the waiter was very gracious in saying “Yes, of course, sir.”
And above all, the contrast between his often grave mien, especially when it came to music, and his celebrated sense of humour, which was a big part of his persona. For such a serious guy, he was awfully funny in a dry, left-field and subtle, spontaneous way. Looking back, especially after he retired, it occurred to me that none of it – being the kind of guy he was, managing his vast but delicate talent, the music business, the clubs, the noise, the adoration, the road, planes, hotel rooms, all those people – was ever easy for Ed. It all weighed on him. And his multi-faceted sense of humour, while a natural part of him, was also a defense, a release which helped him to cope and keep from going under. And into the bargain, it kept a whole host of musicians royally entertained for years. Quiet, yes, but never boring.
He delighted in making food puns, coming up with menu items like the “seizure salad”, “cream of washroom soup”, and “liver with young ones.”
And he had a quick wit with word-play. One year Ed played on three, or maybe even four, of the five Juno-nominated records for Best Jazz Album. When attention was drawn to this he drawled “I guess I’m just Ed-biquitous.” Brilliant.
His humour could also be droll and arch, with a self-effacing edge to it. As in this story about Jim Hall, with whom Ed had a guitar mutual admiration thing going. One time when Jim was in Toronto he made a point of going to hear Ed play in a club. After the set he went up to Ed and complimented him on how great he sounded and that he was playing better than ever. Ed fixed him with those eyes and simply said, “What would you know about it?”
He also noticed odd funny things and filed them away for future comic use. Like the cryptic sign on The Riverside Church which he drove by a thousand times on his way west from Scarborough to the downtown jazz clubs. It read: IS GOD COMING? ASK JIM 416 964 5562. One time he was playing a week at George’s Spaghetti House in a band with Michel Donato – who drove the same route downtown – playing bass. There was a bar or two on one of the tunes they played where Michel couldn’t figure out what chords Ed was playing and no matter what he tried, his bass notes clashed. Finally he gave up and went over to Ed on a break and asked him what chords he was playing there and Ed, knowing Michel must have seen the church sign many times, fixed those eyebrows on him, smiled and said “I dunno. Ask Jim.”
I wonder if Michel ever managed to pry those chords out of Ed. He could be a little hard to pin down about such information, he liked to pretend that he didn’t know much about chords and didn’t have perfect pitch. It’s not that he was secretive or proprietary, I think he just didn’t want to come off looking like a know-it-all, even though he pretty much did know it all.
His humour often defused tense or irritating situations. Like the time at a Boss Brass concert in Michigan when I realized too late that I’d forgotten to put the pickup back on my bass after removing it to use on another bass the day before. With no amplification I was properly buggered as far as being heard and wasn’t looking forward to breaking this news to Rob McConnell. Ed went into his Western persona and declared, “Well son, I reckon you’re just gonna have to bang on that log for all you’re worth and Walter Page it!!” It made McConnell laugh and much to my relief someone produced a pickup for me to borrow. Whew.
Years later after Jim Vivian took my place in The Boss Brass, he was at the same venue and was struggling with the house amp, which had about 50 buttons and dials. No matter what he tried it still sounded awful. “Ed, I don’t know what to do with this thing, it sounds like shit.” Ed’s advice was succinct as always: “Easy, just find the ‘it-sounds-like-shit knob’ and turn her all the way to the left.”
Whenever Toronto musicians gather, there are bound to be Ed Bickert stories told and I suspect this will continue for decades as they’re handed down. I hope so, anyway. Stories about his wit, his disdain for technology, his cowboy persona, his deadpan Pilgrim modesty, how great he played, or just how funny he could be. As if to illustrate this, in the past week percussionist-drummer Brian Barlow sent me some stories about Ed that I’d either forgotten, or hadn’t heard, each of them illuminating a different aspect of his personality. Brian played with Ed many times in a myriad of situations over the years, including with The Boss Brass during my years in that band, and kindly gave me permission to share these stories. They helped prod me toward writing this piece, so thanks to Brian. The first one illustrates Ed’s lifelong battle with electronics, which he basically hated:
Ed and I were among a small group of players engaged to play on a film soundtrack for a couple of days. The music was actually quite nice, and what was written for Ed was perfect for his style of playing. At the end of the second session the composer informed us that one of the things we’d have to play the next morning was a source cue that was supposed to be a heavy rock band. He asked Ed if he had any pedals, specifically a distortion pedal that he could bring to the session. Much to my surprise, and everyone else’s, Ed said that he did.
So the next morning we were working away recording cues when the composer said, “Ed, this is the cue that needs the distortion pedal”. Ed reached behind his amp and pulled out a box. He opened the box and took out a rather large pedal unit that was still wrapped in the original plastic. The power cord still was tied with the original plastic twist tie. It was obvious to me that Ed had, for some reason, bought this thing but had never had it out of the box.
We all waited while he unwrapped it, plugged it into a power outlet, and inserted his guitar chord. When he was ready the composer counted in the cue and when Ed began playing it was quite extraordinary. It was like Hendrix times ten. Maximum distortion with very little of the original signal. We ended the cue and the recording engineer, who had apparently almost been blown out of his chair in the control room, asked Ed if he could back off the distortion a little and give him a little bit cleaner and quieter signal. Ed looked down at the floor through a haze of cigarette smoke (those were the days when you could still smoke in the studios), and stared at the various knobs on the box. It was obvious to the rest of us that he had no idea what any of them did, and he didn’t care to find out. He finally said, “I think this is an either on or off situation” and the composer said, “Lets just go without the pedal effect then”. Ed said, “Good idea” and proceeded to unplug and pack the thing up. He wrapped it in the plastic and put it back in the box, probably never to be seen again. I loved it.
This one demonstrates Ed’s no-frills attitude toward chord nomenclature, despite being a noted harmonic wizard:
Rob Piltch and I were remembering a great Ed story which had to do with the Boss Brass. (I’ll refer to Rob as Piltch to avoid confusing him with the other Rob, i.e. McConnell). We were playing the Tralfamadore in Buffalo and Piltch was subbing for Ed. There was a new chart that we hadn’t done before and after we ran it down at the sound check Piltch came over to me to ask about a specific bar that he couldn’t play. He wondered what I was playing, but at that point I was playing congas so was of no help. The bar contained an eighth-note rest followed by seven eighth-note slashes, and above each slash was a very complicated chord symbol. The tune (the name of which I don’t remember) went at a fair clip, and Piltch couldn’t find a way to play all the chords. He had tried everything he could think of, including just playing the tri-tones, but it was too fast for even that to work. We did the tune that night and I guess he somehow struggled through that bar.
Several months later Piltch again subbed in the band and in the interim we had played that chart several times with Ed. When Piltch saw that we were again playing that tune he had a look at the part and with a big smile on his face brought it over to me to look at. Ed had taken a pencil and scratched out all seven chord symbols and above them had written ‘F’. Not Fmaj7 or F13 or anything else, just ‘F’. We cracked up. Piltch played the chart that night and said afterwards that of course Ed was right. The chord in that bar was indeed ‘F’. It was yet another example of the simple elegance and absolute ‘rightness’ of Ed Bickert.
I’d forgotten these next ones, which show how Ed could use his wit to settle a score, and the almost Joe Venuti lengths he’d occasionally go to in order to make a point with humour:
I don’t know if you remember the time with The Boss Brass at the Bermuda Onion during a sound check when one of the horns thought there might be a wrong note somewhere. Rick Wilkins wasn’t sure so Rob asked Ed to check it out. Ed took the cotton out of his ears, and listened as the horns played the section in question. Rob agreed that something sounded wrong and turned to Ed for his opinion. Ed said, “I don’t know. For a while now you’ve been using a lot of notes I don’t like”.
It was priceless. I realized at the time that it was Ed’s way of paying Rob back for giving him a hard time at a recent rehearsal when he accused Ed of not playing loud enough. Ed had initially retaliated by getting those Marshall amps delivered to the Bermuda Onion which I’m sure you remember. He had a very subtle way of dealing with things, which I really loved.
And this final one illustrates Ed’s comical indifference to musical accessories. The Madeline mentioned here is of course his beloved wife, almost as much of a character in her own way as Ed, and who passed away in June 2000:
One Christmas Madeline asked me if a new case for Ed’s guitar would be an appropriate gift for him. (As I’m sure you remember, his gig bag was a really flimsy, plastic beige thing that looked like it came from K-Mart). I told her to go to the Twelfth Fret because they knew his guitar, and would know exactly what was needed. I did tell her that it would have to be a soft gig bag and something not too bulky for Ed to find it acceptable.
Sure enough, when I was working with Ed at the Top ‘o the Senator just after Christmas, he showed up on the first night with a new gig bag. I commented on how nice it looked. However, a few nights later I came in to find Madeline at the bar looking rather unhappy. When I inquired as to her problem she informed me that Ed had taken the gig bag back to the Twelfth Fret. He told her that it affected the sound of his guitar. That didn’t sound right to me so I went up to the bandstand to ask Ed what happened to the new case. He told me that it affected his sound and went on to explain that his old case was so flimsy that he could fold it up and put it in the back of that old orange Roland amp of his. It muffled the speaker slightly and he liked that. The new case of course was far too big and bulky to go in the back of that little amp. I asked why he didn’t just keep the crappy old case folded in the amp permanently and use the new case to protect the guitar. But, as the words were coming out of my mouth I knew that was far too complicated a solution. He kept using the old gig bag until he retired.
I’d like to offer two of my favourite memories about Ed, neither of them as funny as Brian’s, but each of which demonstrates his generosity and thoughtfulness toward other musicians.
In 1985, Ed recorded his third release as a leader for Concord, I Wished On the Moon, with Rick Wilkins on tenor, Terry Clarke on drums, and me on bass. Before the first session began he drew Terry and me aside and told us there wasn’t going to be a lot of solo room for bass and drums because he wanted to focus the attention on Rick’s tenor playing, which he didn’t think was well-known enough compared to his celebrated arranging. Ed added that he hoped we didn’t mind. As a leader, this was typically generous and self-effacing of Ed, and we were delighted for Rick. He’d been Ed’s close colleague and neighbour for so many years and shared many musical qualities with him, which could be summarized as mild-mannered-but-deadly. And far from minding, it made our job as a rhythm section that much clearer and easier, allowing us to focus our energy on providing a groove. Ed did like a groove and sure knew what to do with one.
It was a happy and cohesive two days and toward the end of the first productive session there was a little time left and Ed wanted to try a take on “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” as a ballad featuring himself with bass and drums. Correctly surmising that I didn’t know the tune – in fact, I’d never even heard of it – he produced one of his patented simple lead sheets with the no-frills, no-extension chord symbols. We ran through it briefly so I could get the sound of it in my ears, then did a take. The process was perhaps my fondest single memory of making music with him: one take, simple, clear and eloquent, bye-bye. It’s a beautiful and sparse tune he’d played for years and he just owns it. It’s pointless to have a favourite Ed Bickert track among so many great ones, but I think this may be mine; it shows everything he could do as well as anything. I didn’t have a whole lot to do with the track’s success but I must say having a ringside seat at the birth of this masterpiece was thrilling. This clip has a follow-along transcription of what Ed plays which only serves to further hammer home its perfection:
The following is probably my favourite memory of Ed and what a truly great guy he was. In the mid-’80s I taught for a few years at the Summer Jazz Camp run by Phil Nimmons for a week each August in Manitouwabing, near Parry Sound. The students were mostly teenagers in late high school, at a beginner-to-intermediate level. They were organized into various ensembles and there was no time for private lessons, but each day began with master classes for each instrument starting at an eye-watering ten o’clock. I had the bassists in the bottom half of an old barn, the top half having been converted to a makeshift concert hall.
With such a motley group there wasn’t time for much but to focus on some basic fundamentals and I usually assembled them in a circle and warmed them up on some scales, some pointers on fingering and so on, then turned to some basic jazz concepts. I figured if I could get them walking through the blues with decent notes and a sound and maybe a simple head like “Blues In the Closet”, it would be progress. The trouble was there was no piano in the barn for me to bang out some chords on and without these there was no context for them to play off.
One year Ed was the special guest and at breakfast he sidled up to me and asked what I was getting up to with the bass players in the barn – I think he dug the rusticity of it. I said mostly getting them to walk through the blues but that it wasn’t going so well, they weren’t really hearing it yet. He asked if it would be any help if he dropped by and played a few “grips” (his word for chords) and I jumped all over it. “That would be great, thanks Ed.” “Okay, I’ll drop by a little after ten one of these mornings.”
I didn’t tell the students about it because I didn’t want them to have time to get nervous and I thought it would be a nice surprise. Sure enough, the next morning Ed opened the door and entered haltingly with his guitar and amp, sporting one of his best country outfits: a short-sleeve checked shirt, brown corduroys held up by bright red suspenders and some New Balance jogging shoes. For you movie buffs, Ed standing in the doorway reminded me of that classic scene in The Searchers when John Wayne on the front porch is seen from the darkness inside through the open door. Time kind of froze in suspense.
Before I could say anything the air went out of the room for a second as the kids realized who it was and the collective thought-bubble read, “Holy moley, it’s Ed Bickert!” As he set up, I told them Ed had come by to play some chords on the blues for us and when he was ready, I said we would go around the circle walking a chorus each starting with me, then counted off a B-flat blues at a medium clip.
What followed was a master class in blues comping for all time. Ed played all kinds of stuff – big ringing chords, little sharp chords, some Freddie Green 4/4, some clusters, chords arranged in strings to form riffs like a saxophone section, some Red Garland block chords, push beats, Charlestons – and each chorus was different and built on the previous one. It was gorgeous, incredible, just steaming. He sounded like the Basie band in all its glory, reduced to an essence.
And lo and behold, the students, with somebody driving them and giving them something so deep to play off, started to dig in and sound…. well, if not great, then certainly a lot better. They were loving it and I could see the light bulbs going on over their heads, like “oohhh…”. We took it out and Ed said, “Not bad, not bad at all. Let’s try it in F, a little faster” and counted them in. And it was more of the same. I realized fully for the first time what a treasure he was, because he played just as for real and intensely – his eyes closed and everything – with these beginners as he did with the pros. He couldn’t help himself, he didn’t know how to do it any other way. It gave me goosebumps.
He’d given more than enough but with time winding down I asked him if I could pick his brain a little with a question and he said, “Sure thing, shoot.” I asked him what he wanted most from a bass player and his answer surprised me. I expected him to say something about note choices or playing in tune, but without any hesitation he said, “Well, I like a bass player to play good strong time with a big sound. If they do that, everything else falls into place.”
He couldn’t have known it, but his answer backed up everything I’d been stressing all week, namely “I don’t care if you play four Cs in a row – get a sound and play me some TIME!!” I could have kissed him right on the cheek, but thought better of it and just thanked him. After all, he was Gary Cooper and I ain’t no Grace Kelly.
I have a few regrets when it comes to Ed. I wish I sometimes had behaved a little better around him, been a little less rambunctious at times. I sure wish I’d played better with him, but that’s par for the course. Believe it or not, I once actually chewed him out after a set with The Boss Brass at Donte’s in North Hollywood. Between tunes Ed offered the advice that my D string was a little sharp, meaning no harm. But I was dealing with a lot at that moment, including not being able to hear myself properly, and something snapped inside of me. I held back till the set was over, then walked over to him and gave it to him good and proper. The older guys were incredulous, especially Rob McConnell – “Jesus, Stevo, you yelled at Mr. Ed? Wow, way to go!”
Of course I regretted it almost immediately and more and more as the hours went by. The next day when I bumped into Ed, he drew back from me in exaggerated mock-horror, which was very funny and generous of him and made me realize he wasn’t holding a grudge. It also made it easier to offer my abject apology and all was forgiven. Most of all I regret I didn’t stay in touch with Ed more in recent years. I’d think of calling him and something would come up or distract me, but mostly I would think, “Aw hell, Ed would probably rather I left him alone.” But these regrets aside, knowing Ed, playing with him so much and learning so much from him is perhaps what I’m proudest of in my career. He’s one of the people who has made being a musician so worthwhile for me and a lot of others. Being with him was always most Edifying.
I’d like to leave now with another favourite excerpt of Ed at his elegant and pithy best. It’s his sixteen-bar solo on “My Shining Hour” – the bridge and last eight – from a record we did with Rosemary Clooney of Harold Arlen tunes. It was one of the happiest record dates I’ve ever been part of, with Warren Vache on cornet; Scott Hamilton on tenor; Dave McKenna on piano; Ed, me, and Jake Hanna on drums.
Like many of Ed’s solos, you wouldn’t change a note and it has an almost deja vu quality like you’ve heard it all before, but not quite. The simple phrases are drawn from the well of jazz tradition but are coloured by Ed’s special sensibility, with each perfectly placed nuance – a twang here, a bend there, the graceful use of octaves – making it sound new each time I hear it. And it’s suffused with the blues feeling that ran so deep in everything he played. It also illustrates something I want to stress in his playing which is often overlooked amid all the justified commentary about his harmonic acuity and melodic gifts: that he swung hard and had great natural jazz time. Zoot Sims-Ray Brown-Milt Jackson kind of time. Killer time. It supplied grit to go along with all the subtlety.
My first wife Kathy loved this solo by Ed so much she got so she could sing along with it. “It’s perfect” she said. “They should put it in one of those time capsules and send it into space with ‘Ed Bickert, Genius From Planet Earth’ stamped on it.”
Or, as Jake Hanna was fond of saying, “It’s simple, yet it says it.” Doesn’t it, though?
We’ll never see the likes of Ed Bickert again. He can’t be replaced, but he can be remembered, and will be. And thank goodness for all the wonderful records he left behind, we can pay him a visit any time through them. So long, Ed, rest in peace, and a heartfelt thank you for everything you gave us all.
© 2019, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.