Such Melodious Racket: The Lost History of Jazz in Canada

Such Melodious Racket: The Lost History of Jazz in Canada, 1914-1949

by Mark Miller
(Mercury Press, Toronto, 288 pages, paperback, $19.95)

by Stuart Broomer

copyright © 1998 Stuart Broomer

With his three previous books, Mark Miller has shown himself the most diligent and thorough writer ever to tackle the subject of jazz in Canada, though there may be something in the national character that drives research. After all, Tom Lord's massive discography is compiled in Vancouver. But this general history arrives only after a Canadian jazz discography and a Canadian jazz fake book have appeared. In a sense, Canadian jazz history has been both continuous with, and peripheral to, the music's American history. Hence its invisibility. There's something of that in the shape of Miller's history, ranging from the first traces of ragtime in Canada to the triumphant debut of Oscar Peterson with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1949.

Most remarkable may be the early chapters when Miller traces the jazz presence in Canada prior to 1930. He has combed the country's archives, summoning ancient newspaper files, telephone directories, and city registers to chart forgotten engagements and lost musicians. It is less a dry historical record than a loving tracing of seeds thrown on a cold hard ground. In 1914 Bill Johnson's band with Freddie Keppard -- the very group that would ultimately evolve into King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band -- appeared in vaudeville shows in Winnipeg and other western Canadian cities before it ever went to Chicago. This is a mythic trace as well as an isolated fact, and there may be an ultimate kinship with Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje's treatment of Buddy Bolden, Coming Through Slaughter, in the simultaneous senses of loss and retrieval that drive both jazz history and Canadian history.

The litany of bands and musicians that emerges as Miller criss- crosses the country is remarkable, touching on the great, the merely exotic, and the devoted. Though Jelly Roll Morton's 1920 stay in Vancouver is not a surprise, his 1923 stay at Crystal Beach on the shores of Lake Erie is. At the opposite pole there are Mme. Zenda and her Famous Psychic Jazz Band, playing "any melody called for by thought transference," and Tom Brown's Saxophone Six, an all-saxophone band with five members dressed as clowns and the leader in blackface.

The character of race relations in Canada in the early decades of the century is as broad as the country, and the book touches on much of it, ranging from the appearance of mixed bands in Alberta in the early twenties (along with the Ku Klux Klan) to an anecdote of McKinney's Cotton Pickers appearing at a "battle of the bands" in Toronto. The musicians had to make themselves scarce as soon as they left the stage. There are accounts of union locals that refused jazz musicians membership on the basis of their music and others that excluded them on the basis of their race. While Canada has long prided itself on a history of racial "tolerance," at least relatively, it may come as something of a shock to learn that the Montreal and Toronto unions effectively excluded blacks from membership until the 1940s.

Race undoubtedly plays a part, too, in the obscurity of the book's most arresting figures. Throughout, the reader is introduced to the unknown musicians responsible for the music's continuous Canadian presence. There is Miller's candidate for the country's first identifiable jazz musician, George Paris, a drummer who traveled with the boxer Jack Johnson and who organized a jazz band in Vancouver in 1917; there is Ollie Wagner, whose career, beginning in Edmonton in the 1920s, spanned both the country and six decades. Though his style is compared to Coleman Hawkins, Wagner was never recorded and at one point was reduced to operating a shoeshine stand. Perhaps the most remarkable of these men in terms of his ultimate musical impact is the pianist Steep Wade, active in Montreal from the late-30s to the early-50s. He was a critical influence on what was unquestionably the country's finest talent pool, ultimately including Oscar Peterson, Milton Sealey, Paul Bley, and Oliver Jones.

As the history crosses the decades, one becomes conscious of the odd elisions that took place in Canada's jazz history from the rise of swing to the rise of bop, and the particular economic and social factors that would limit the substance of the country's jazz presence. The country's small and scattered population base would ultimately dictate a move to the most common musical ground, whether at home or abroad. Thus a group of London, Ontario, "hot" musicians -- the Lombardo brothers -- would become the world's most famous "sweet" musicians, just as Oscar Peterson would become one of the world's most popular jazz players by transposing the energy of a swing band to the piano, and Moe Koffman would have the unique distinction of creating a "bop pop" hit in "Swinging Shepherd Blues." Just beyond the time frame of Miller's book, the conflicts between "sweet" and "swing," and then "sweet" and "bop," would ultimately resolve themselves, for worse not better, in the lucrative Toronto studio scene and the notoriously bland "jazz" that it gave prominence.

In its range and method this is a fascinating book, for its evocative illustrations as well as its text. While much of it will be primarily of interest to Canadian readers, its accounts of the music's early dissemination will engage anyone with a passion for jazz history.


[This review originally appeared in Coda: The Journal of Jazz and Improvised Music, No. 280, July/August 1998. It is reprinted here by permission. -- Editor .]


C o m m e n t s

Lost History of Jazz in Canada 1 of 3
Pierre Brosseau December 06, 04

My father was a jazz and dance band musician. His name was Roger Brosseau. In the early fifties he was named the second best tenor sax player in Canada by the musicians guild after Nick Ayoub.

He led his own band called Al Rogers and his Orchestra when he was 18 years old and later on played for the followig bands of which I have photos with discographies:

John Otis and his Orchestra Johnny Anderson's Orchestra Al McGowan and his Orchestra Blake Sewell and his Orchestra Jack Bain and his Orchestra Maynard Ferguson and his Orchestra Paul Doyle Quintet

A photograph of the Jack Bain Orchestra doing a home cut of My Melancholy Baby and the mp3 can be downloaded at: http://pages.infinit.net/brush/home.htm

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