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Toronto Jazz Band
Toronto Jazz Band

 

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Toronto Jazz Band


Jazz Era

Memories of a Jazz Era that time has forgotten...

For several years, a theme park located on the Toronto waterfront, known as: "Ontario Place," held an annual jazz festival called: "The Ontario Place Jazz Festival." This truly was an international festival as the artistic line-up had the very finest names in Jazz traveling from all parts of the globe to perform there every year.

The best part was the admission price. For $4.00 Canadian, you got into the park and could listen to Jazz from 2:00 pm until the close at 11:00 pm. A really full day of listening to great Jazz, all for four bucks!

The venue where the annual Jazz festival took place was an outdoor covered bowl called "The Forum," that featured a revolving stage and great site lines from every seat. If memory serves me correctly, the seating capacity was: ten thousand people, including those that chose to sit on the rolling hills surrounding The Forum.

It was there that I really began to discover who the greatest names in Jazz were, and what it was that made them great. The line-up of great talent always included names like: Oscar Peterson, Maynard Ferguson, The Buddy Rich Big Band, The Boss Brass, Chick Corea, Pat Methany, Chuck Mangione, Uzeb, Toshiko Aikioshi, Nexus, Lew Tabakin, Spyro-Gyra, Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorious, Moe Koffman, Count Basie, Phil Nimmons, Louis Bellson, and several more of the most successful performers in Jazz.

Two things always remained as questionable variables for the musicians performing at The Forum: the weather, and the quality of the sound. Depending on the time of year (usually late spring to the first long weekend in September), and the winds that blew off of Lake Ontario, you could be sitting in a winter coat listening to jazz, or you could be sitting beside someone wearing a bathing suit. There were always radical weather shifts.

In addition to the weather being a constant issue for performers, the sound quality was never something you could rely on as being consistent. With the Toronto Island Airport (now called the "City Centre Airport") being very close and with planes taking off all of the time, the sounds emanating from the stage were often obscured.

Couple this with the fact that the sound was usually monitored by one professional sound man and a lot of students working part time that had no training whatsoever in concert sound mixing, and the results for the performers could sometimes be disastrous!

In spite of these two continual distractions, the consistency and quality of the performances displayed during the annual Jazz festival were always excellent.

I specifically remember a time when Michael Creighton, one of the performers with the percussion ensemble: "Nexus," had to come out before the afternoon sound-check and place a heating pad on the top of his congas’ so as to keep the skins from cracking in the cold. It used to get that cold in the covered bowl!

Another time, I remember hearing Oscar Peterson play. At this particular concert, he had the great musician from England, Martin Drew, on Drums. The Buddy Rich Big Band had been the second last performers to finish that year’s festival, having played for two solid hours. The closer was Oscar and his amazing band.

The night as I remembered it was pretty chilly, so if you didn’t have proper clothing you would not have enjoyed yourself. It was clearly an uncomfortable evening for those on stage.

After several standing ovations, Oscar was heading toward his final offering of the evening, and in the middle of a blistering rendition of "Cherokee," the place erupted with applause. The revolving stage had turned in such a way that I had an amazing view of Oscar’s hands. He was burning! His fingers were a blur, and the musical lines that were coming out of the piano defied description. (And remember, the temperature was moving from chilly to downright cold!)

I was so fixated on his hands that it took a few moments to realize why the place was going crazy with applause. Buddy Rich had just walked out onto the revolving stage and was heading directly toward the drums! For me this was a dream come true; seeing Buddy play with Oscar. At that point, I thought the concert could not have gotten any better!

Right in the middle of an amazing piano solo, Oscar’s drummer Martin Drew saw Buddy coming, and while keeping time on the ride cymbal, stood up to let Buddy sit at the drumkit.

Once the transition had been made from Martin to Buddy, and the resultant applause died down a little, I saw and heard something that I never thought I would ever see or hear: It was so cold, Buddy’s right hand badly cramped up and the song noticeably began to slow down.

It was very interesting to see what happened amongst the band members as this once in a life time event took place. Neils Pederson, on bass, just kept the same expression on his face; Martin was still leading the audience in applause, and Oscar grinned very slightly and continued burning through his solo.

At this point Buddy’s right hand was so cramped from the cold (and possibly from not warming up); he had to play the jazz ride rhythm that he would easily have played with his right hand, with both hands. In spite of this happening, Buddy somehow pulled it together, and as his hand started to warm up, he just took the band to a whole different level.

To see how Buddy recovered, and to observe the way the band responded to this very rare occurrence, was a true lesson in professionalism. I was sitting in the front row of The Forum watching this take place, with about thirty of my drum students at the time. What an amazing lesson in grace and composure!

There was another time when I went to hear Toshiko Aikioshi and her big band, featuring tenor sax player; Lew Tabakin. Toshiko is a very gifted composer/arranger/piano player that wrote the most rhythmically and harmonically complex music with the most intriguing melodies.

On this particular night the weather was perfect, and surprisingly, there was very little noise from the island airport. Unfortunately, the sound system was feeding back; in much the same way as it would at a big Rock concert. The person controlling the sound was having a very difficult time in getting the main speakers to stop from squealing, and now even the band, as professional as they were began to show their annoyance.

I had heard Lew Tabakin on a number of albums, and I knew that he was a world-class player, but what I saw next was something I will never forget. Lew was standing at the mike, taking a long unaccompanied sax solo. The sound system had yet again begun to feed back in the worst way imaginable.

While still playing, he slowly walked away from the microphone and the band. He arrived in the middle of the stage; a good twenty feet from any microphone; and for the next ten minutes played a sax solo that was unbelievable. I am certain that the person sitting in the last row, way up on the hill would have heard every note Lew played during the whole ten minute display.

I looked around to some of the sax players I knew that were sitting in the audience, and their jaws were on the floor. It’s one thing to play your instrument in a large vacuous space and have the sound resonate and project. It’s a completely different playing experience when you have ten thousand bodies absorbing the sound. Lew had redefined the power of sound projection for every horn player in the audience that night.

Then there was Maynard and his big band! Maynard Ferguson was, and still is, one of the all-time heavy-weight champions of the trumpet. His ability to articulate in the altissimo register (really high notes), coupled with lightning-fast technique was always so exciting!

At the time Maynard’s band was playing four charts that I just couldn’t get enough of: "The Theme from Rocky; Maria, Palliacci, (someone please E-mail me the correct spelling), and Get It On." Of course at this concert, they played them all!

You had to hear these guys play! Every member of the trumpet section was a virtuoso and when it came to playing high notes, these guys had "iron chops." (Musician vernacular for the super-human ability to consistently perform what "mere-mortal trumpet players" could only dream of).

I remember idolizing the drummer: Peter Erskine, as I still do today. He just drove that band so hard! The combination of Peter’s drumming and the amazing trumpet section were almost too much to handle. This was an "adrenaline junkie-big band lovers" dream! The energy output from that band, if somehow transformed into "electricity based hydro-watts," would have powered several major cities at the same time. If there was ever a big band on steroids, it was Maynard’s band!

Once again something happened that I had never experienced.

They were playing an arrangement of a song I had not heard before. It was a pretty easy going arrangement, almost out of character for the band, then it happened: Right in front of me, (I was sitting in the front row), not twenty feet away; the whole trumpet section turned to face the direction that I was sitting. Peter kicked the groove into high gear and they hit a really high note and a dynamic level that I can only describe as "Blastissimo!"

You won’t find "Blastissimo" in any musical dictionary or theory text. It is a dynamic level somewhere between fortissimo (as loud as possible), and the concussive blast of a rocket ship taking off.

For lack of a better way of describing the experience of hearing this, I actually felt the blast and it scarred the daylights out of me. Not only did this blast have the effect of physically knocking me back in my seat; I was sitting amongst a number of people that actually screamed! I wasn’t the only one to be powerfully impacted by this knock out blast.

Then there was Chick. The very first time that I had the good fortune of watching Chick Corea perform was at the Ontario Place Jazz Festival. More than any other instrumentalist, Chick had a very profound effect on the development of my drumming.

When his album "Light as a Feather" came out in the mid seventies, I bought, practiced to, and wore out three copies! My drum teacher at the time recommended that I transcribe some of the great Brazilian drumming on the album, as played by Airto. This really helped me in understanding how to play "jazz sambas."

My drum teacher then recommended that I listen very carefully to the way Chick accompanied the various soloists on the different tunes. Not only did he play the most tasteful background accompaniment figures from a harmonic perspective, his rhythmic comping was out of this world!

It was then that my drum teacher assigned me the lesson to be able to play the jazz samba ride cymbal pattern, bass drum, and hi-hat ostinatos (an ostinato is a pattern that is repeated over and over again), while playing the same rhythmic patterns that Chick played while accompanying soloists, with my left hand.

This was a great lesson that taught me to listen to more than just the obvious parts of the song and solos that captured my attention. Chick was always so subtle, so appropriate, and so musical; his comping ideas opened me up to a whole different way of accompanying soloists.

When I saw Chick play for the first time, everything seemed to come together and fall into place. Thanks to some great guidance from my teacher at the time, I was able to see and hear far more of the concert than I would have been able to, had I not had that guidance.

To this day, Chick still has a very special place in my musical heart, for all that he has accomplished and all that he has inspired. Whenever Chick Corea comes to your city to perform, please make it an imperative priority to buy front-row tickets and attend his concert.

Every couple of years, Chick plays at the "Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival" hosted by Canadian saxophonist Jim Galloway. The next time Chick comes to Toronto to play, do your best to secure front-row seating; you’ll be glad you did!

Finally and quite possibly, the most important performer that I saw at The Ontario Place Jazz Festival was: Mr. Steve Gadd. The first time I saw Steve play, he was with Chuck Mangione.

To digress for a moment; at the time, I was really into the drumming of people like Alphonse Mouzon, Lenny White, Jerry Brown, and Billy Cobham. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t get enough of Billy’s playing during the period when he was with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. These were the "Uber-Drummers" of the day, the "Drum Gladiators," so to say.

Back to Steve! Although I had heard Steve play and loved his drumming, this event was another one of those that lead to everything falling into place. The point in the concert where Steve had the opportunity to let loose and play a long drum solo, was very different than what I expected.

Steve was also one of the premier drum gladiators of the day and he was also recognized as one of the most innovative musicians to ever pick up a pair of drumsticks. (Check out his drumming on: Paul Simon’s "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover!")

What I expected at this point in the concert was to hear an amazing display of technique and flash. Steve chose a completely different path. He just played the best feeling groove that I have ever heard, with only the slightest deviation from the main pattern.

No flash; he didn’t take the drumset apart and put it back together with blinding speed; he just played the deepest, most musical groove I had ever heard.

Well it appeared that every other person in the place felt the same way I did. Half way through his solo, which was really only one beat with slight embellishment, the audience spontaneously rose to its feet and gave Steve a standing ovation that lasted for the rest of the solo.

One of my former drum teachers used to tell me that it wasn’t always a good idea to play as fast as you can for as long as you can, whenever given the opportunity to solo. As a matter of fact, he used to tell me that he hated it when musicians would take their instruments apart and put them back together, whenever they had a chance to solo. He felt that it just showed off their insecurities and after a certain point the "wall of sound" became indistinguishable and unmusical.

Once again, sitting in the front row of The Forum, I had my circuits fried. Here was one of the best drummers in history, the most recorded drummer ever, given the chance to "blow chops" (drummer vernacular for "showing off to the extreme"), and all he did was play a very simple beat!

This is where I became profoundly aware of the fact that in drumming and in life, it doesn’t matter how much you say that counts. You did not need to use a lot of words to convey an important message, and you did not need to play a lot of notes to convey your musical message.

What was prophetic about Steve’s approach to his solo is "What He Said and The Way He Said It!" He chose a very simple way to convey a very eloquent message. Not a lot of words, but the right choice and the right application at the right time, combined with a very sincere passion.

More than 25 years have passed since that night, hearing Steve play live for the first time. It is not an exaggeration to say "Steve Gadd has influenced the musical application and approach to drumming more than any other drummer in history!" Utilizing the most succinctly eloquent and simple vocabulary, coupled with the deepest expression of feeling (groove), Steve single handedly changed drumming as we have come to know it and changed my perspective forever.

Those are some of the high points from my recollections of the Ontario Place Jazz Festival. There was a soul to that festival that has endured to the point of endearing memory that will never be forgotten by many who attended. For several young musicians like myself, there has never been anything as unique as that festival and the learning opportunities it provided.

Please bring back the Ontario Place Jazz Festival.



 


 

 

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