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Back Home With Canada's Greatest Living Jazz Musician

Jul 12, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 5:15 pm

A week ago, Oliver Jones — the greatest living jazz musician in Canada — played his hometown Montreal International Jazz Festival, one of the world's largest. "Oliver Jones Plays Oliver Jones," read the bill. It was the first time, he said in a conversation earlier last week, that the pianist, now 77, would be playing strictly his own tunes for an entire set.

The show was an affirmation of his legacy, in Canada and abroad, and — backed by his trio of Jim Doxas on drums and Eric Lagacé on bass — he played brilliantly into the night. Highlights included "One More Time," the swinging title track of his 2006 release, and "Lights of Burgundy," a wistful ballad recorded in 1985 and named after the poor, black neighborhood in Montreal where he grew up, Little Burgundy.

For the final song, however, Jones strayed from the script. He chose the late pianist Oscar Peterson's powerful "Hymn to Freedom," which wound up a fitting conclusion to the show. Earlier that evening, Jones had presented Canadian vibraphonist Peter Appleyard with the Festival's Oscar Peterson Award, a prize bestowed to a great Canadian jazz musician. Jones received the award himself in 1990.

Peterson, who died in 2007 at the age of 82, was on everyone's mind that night. He usually is when one thinks about Jones and Montreal jazz, and with good reason.

Oliver Jones and Oscar Peterson grew up 12 doors away from each other in Little Burgundy, also known as St. Henri. During the closing gala of the 2004 Montreal Jazz Festival, the two played a memorable duet performance. Jones had come out of retirement for the show.

"It was very emotional," said André Menard, the festival's artistic director. "Oliver was relieved that it would finally happen, that he would share the stage with Oscar, and he said something very funny. He said, 'Well, to be on the same stage as Oscar Peterson, for me, is a great feeling, but I wish I had his money.'"

It was a humorous way of getting at a simple and maybe uncomfortable truth. Despite his success, Jones has never enjoyed the kind of international fame that Peterson had in his life. It could simply have to do with timing: Peterson was born about nine years before Jones, and got a relatively late start to playing jazz professionally. It could have to do with the fact that their virtuosic styles, rooted in the gospel vernacular, seem so similar.

But as the jazz critic John S. Wilson wrote in 1986, Jones' style "is done in a context that is reminiscent of the big, buoyant melodic structures that were created by Erroll Garner." They are different pianists.

Born in 1934, Jones grew up during a particularly robust period in the history of Montreal jazz. The two black jazz clubs in the city, Café St. Michel and Rockhead's Paradise, hosted some big performers passing through on their North American tours: Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan.

Jones soaked it all in, and even performed around the city himself. At the age of 9, he started playing for hospitals, church events, dances and variety shows, occasionally doing trick piano on the weekends. "I did a lot of that," he said. "I won a lot of insignificant prizes doing that." At the same time, he was training formally in classical piano. He started around the age of 6, studying for about 12 years with Daisy Peterson Sweeney, Oscar Peterson's sister. (She was Peterson's teacher, too, further reinforcing the two pianists' connection.)

"It was fun, it was amusing and I had done it for quite a few years," Jones said of his performing around Montreal. "But up until the time that I was 17 or 18, I really didn't take it seriously. I didn't think of it as being a step to becoming a pro musician, and especially a jazz musician. That was unheard of, other than Oscar and a few others who really had the talent."

He explained that he really wanted to do studio work, writing music for different bands. And eventually he got that chance, which took him to Florida and then Puerto Rico in 1963. He had been hired as the music director for the pop band of the Jamaican singer Kenny Hamilton. They had a four-month contract to work in the lounge of the Americana Hotel in San Juan. It turned into a 16-year residency.

Jones, who brought his wife and son with him to Puerto Rico, doesn't lament the time he spent away from Montreal, and jazz in general. In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, clubs and casinos were relocating to Puerto Rico. A revolution in salsa was coming on. Movies were being made there on a regular basis.

"It was a wonderful time," Jones said. "Puerto Rico was really starting to flourish, so I was there during that heyday."

The band did work for Bob Hope, touring internationally with the comedian on USO shows. Jones also got work independently; there weren't that many American pianists in Puerto Rico at the time, he said. Because he knew all of the popular show tunes — songs he had grown up with — he did a good amount of work for the singers and dancers who needed arrangements for the Las Vegas-type shows in vogue at the time. Jones said he was able to buy a home with the money he made.

In 1980, though, the band's contract finally expired, and Jones, then in his mid-40s, returned to Montreal, where he was given a professorship to teach music at McGill University. He hasn't gone back to Puerto Rico since he left 32 years ago.

Jones had intended to go back to doing studio work upon his return to Canada. But the opportunities in the field had dried up, so he started performing at Biddle's Jazz and Ribs, a club in the city run by Jones' friend and musical partner, bassist Charles Biddle. (The club is now called the House of Jazz.)

"It was the first time that I really had the opportunity to play jazz on a regular basis," Jones said. His playing caught the ear of Jim West, who was in search of musicians to record for his new jazz record label, Justin Time.

"I went to have dinner at Biddle's, and I was with my wife and another couple, but I wasn't paying attention to them at the table," West said. "I was listening to the music. I was fascinated. I couldn't believe how good it was."

West approached Jones about recording, and in 1983, the pianist put out his first record for the label, Live at Biddle's Jazz and Ribs, with Biddle on bass and Bernard Primeau on drums.

Two years before, Jones had performed, in a duo with Biddle, at the second edition of the Montreal Jazz Festival, whose program also included Tom Waits, Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck. Jones was, bit by bit, gaining exposure, and the success of his inaugural record — and its follow-up, the solo album The Many Moods of Oliver Jones — allowed him to start touring. He toured a lot: 200,000 miles a year most years, he said, from Spain to New Zealand to Australia to China to Japan to Portugal to France.

By the time he decided to retire at the end of 1999, Jones had, he said, played every year at the Montreal Jazz Festival, opening for performers like Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

Since he came out of retirement for the show with Oscar Peterson in 2004, he hasn't stopped recording and performing. Jones lives in Florida for half the year and Montreal for the other half. When he comes back to Canada in April, he tours — about 50 shows in a six-month span, he said. He plans to record another album in October, which will be his 23rd for Justin Time.

"He's a real treasure," said Doxas, 35, who has been playing drums in Jones' trio for the past seven years. Indeed, next year Canada Post is putting his image on a stamp for the fifth issue of its Black History series — an honor not usually bestowed on the living.

Doxas emphasized Jones' generosity toward younger musicians, including Doxas himself. "My particular case is very explanatory," Doxas said. "He wanted some younger musicians to 'burn the fire under his butt,' that's what he always said."

"Wherever we go," Doxas added, "[Jones] always takes the time to give master classes, to listen to young musicians play, to get their CDs, to listen to their CDs."

Jones explained that his four years in retirement may have been the most interesting in his life. He worked on staff at McGill University and Vanier College, both in Montreal, and served as director for the du Maurier Arts Council, which supported performing arts across Canada. He feels strongly about promoting Canadian achievement, and Doxas called him "an ambassador for music and an ambassador for Canada."

The week before his Montreal concert, he spoke about his future.

"I know that I'll try to stick around for another couple of years," Jones said. "But after that, if I do anything at all, it won't be teaching but perhaps to motivate young musicians and artists and try to make sure that they get the opportunity to be heard and seen and get the exposure — which was very elusive in my era."

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer.

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