7 years ago

Volume 18 Issue 5 - February 2013

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  • February
  • Toronto
  • Jazz
  • Arts
  • Symphony
  • Musical
  • Theatre
  • Quartet
  • Soprano
  • Orchestra

BY ORI DagANAfricville

BY ORI DagANAfricville Suite achievesone of the highest artisticpinnacles possible: itbrings into the light a storythat many Canadianshave been blind toIt’s a frigid afternoonin Regent Park, butspring is in my stepas I set foot in thePaintbox Bistro at555 Dundas Street East,and not merely becauseit’s a cool space. I’m hereto interview two genuinelygifted Canadian musical icons, both alike in dignity and warmth.Jackie Richardson is on stage at the tail end of a rehearsal, infusingDuke Ellington’s “Take Love Easy” with her trademark combinationof swing, soul and sincerity. She’s backed by pianist Stacie McGregor,bassist Artie Roth and drummer Archie Alleyne; along with trumpeterAlexander Brown, the five will be performing in celebration of Alleyne’s80th birthday the following evening, which launches a new jazz seriesat the promising Paintbox.Pianist, composer, music director, recording artist and recentlyappointed Member of the Order of Canada, Joe Sealy, who will playhere in late April, arrives right on time. He greets the musicians warmlyas they get off the bandstand, and before long Sealy, Richardon and Iare seated comfortably on the colourful couches in the adjacent room.I’ve asked Sealy and Richardson here to discuss Africville Stories, areworking of Sealy’s JUNO-winning recording Africville Suite (1996),which will be performed as part of the Jazz Performance and EducationCentre (JPEC) fourth annual gala at the Toronto Centre for the Arts onthe evening of Saturday, February 23.But before we arrive at Africville — Canada’s oldest black communityuntil it was destroyed for the sake of “urban improvement” in the1960s — I want to know a bit about how these musicians got to wherethey are today. How did it all start?“My parents decided to buy a piano because they thought I mightgravitate towards it,” reveals Sealy, a Montreal native whose paternalgrandmother was a descendant of two of the Africville community’sfounders. “So when I was about six or seven, this piano showed up atthe house. And I looked at this curious piece and of course started fiddlingaround with it. So eventually they said, ‘Well, if you’re gonna beplaying you may as well take lessons.’ Well, I hated the lessons, so Iquit (laughs). So then one of our neighbours came over and said, ‘Ourson is taking piano lessons, would you mind if he practised on yourpiano?’ My mother said yes, reluctantly, but then she laid down thelaw: ‘If I’m gonna have to listen to some other kid playing on this piano,you’re gonna practise on it too!’ So that’s how I got back to lessons ... Butto be honest, it wasn’t until I was 20 or 21, that I really decided this iswhat I was going to do. I quit university because I wasn’t doing well,and I joined the navy. They sent me to the east coast, and while I wasout there I became secretary and treasurer of the jazz club, and one ofthe guys from Halifax was going to Berklee. So we had some money,and he brought up some people: Gary Burton and Butch Axsmith andSteve Marcus ... so I said to Skip, ‘Does everyone in Berklee play like thatdown there?’ And he said yes! So I applied to Berklee, got accepted, andwas given an honourable discharge to go to school. And that’s when Idecided to be a musician, when I was 21.”Richardson, who moved to Toronto from Donora, Pennsylvania, withher parents and six sibilings at the age of seven, began singing in church,encouraged by her grandparents. “It was the First Baptist Church inDonora and my grandfather was a deacon. My grandmother went everyday, twice on Wednesdays and three times a day on weekends. I wasvery attached to my grandmother and went with her whenever I could.”Inspired at first by the voices of the congregation, she made her professionalsinging debut at the age of 16 with a Motown group called TheTiaras. “I came in as a replacement, which was really funny because Icouldn’t really sing. I earned my place as a choreographer until I couldstay in tune after a year or so.” Anyone who has ever heard Jackie singmight find it hard to believe that she had ever missed a pitch, but thereyou have it.She’s shared the stage with Celine Dion, Maureen Forrester, AnneMurray, Oliver Jones, Martha Reeves, Mavis Staples and many others, butRichardson’s impeccable delivery transcends song lyrics and extendsto characters just as much, if not more. Acting credits include Cookin’PHOTogrAPHS BY Air’LeTH Aodhfin8 February 1 – March 7, 2013

at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter, for which shewon a Dora Award, The Gospel According to the Blues, for which shewon a Gemini, and Ain’t Misbehavin’, her first collaboration with JoeSealy, who was the production’s music director.“I think that was in 1980,” Richardson recalls. “We closed the PortsDinner Theatre, which was really unfortunate, ‘cause it was a real favouriteplace of mine. We did nine months at the Ports and three months atthe Premier Dance Theatre.”“Was it that long?” asks Sealy. “It seemed like a month!”The Toronto jazz scene sure was different in those days, wasn’t it?“Ah yes, I moved to Toronto in 1976,” says Sealy. “At that time we hadGeorge’s Spaghetti House, Basin Street, Bourbon Street, the ColonialTavern. One of the jazz clubs that opened in the late 1970s was calledYellow Fingers at Bay and Yorkville. And Meyer’s Deli in Yorkville hadjazz on the weekends. Oh, and the Chick ‘n’ Deli of course!”“An institution, that place was,” says Richardson. She pauses, andslowly adds, “But the norm being six days a week, I mean, I can’t believethat that’s gone.”Sealy agrees, with sadness. “It was a real great training ground, I meanthat’s how musicians learned to play, is doing it six nights a week. Allmy gigs up to that time were like that, I was totally used to playing sixnights a week. Then it started to go down to weekends and then to nothingat all. Now you have private gigs and that’s it really. Back then whenyou got a gig it was a week or a month, but it was always six nights.”“One of the really great gigs that we had back then was at the BellairCafe,” Richardson says, adding with genuine enthusiasm, “It was twoyears, six days a week. It was AWESOME! You’d have players comingin from across the street — there was a club across the street that hadbig bands, big orchestras sometimes, once in a while Gladys Knight orpeople like that — but when they had the dance bands, it would be 20minutes on, ten minutes off. So the guys would walk in the door, andif we were playing, they’d start playing, walk up to the stage, do theirlittle thing and walk out. We were a trio and we never knew how manypeople would be on the stage on any given night!”“That’s why I applaud Colin and Joan,” says Sealy, referring to theHunters, who are set to open the Jazz Bistro, formerly the Top o’ TheSenator. “They are trying to bring that back and they have a great shotof doing it because they are committed to the idea. I know I’ll get somework there, I’m not expecting six nights a week of course. I’m just gladthat it will be there, so I’ll have some place to go. I mean, when theMontreal Bistro was open, and I had nothing to do, that’s where I wouldgo. It was my second home. There’s no place like that now.”Which bring us to JPEC — the Jazz Performance and EducationCentre — set to present Africville Stories as part of their fourth annualgala. Inspired by New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, JPEC is a nonprofitcharitable organization, the brainchild of Ray Koskie, a retiredlawyer and Rochelle Koskie, a retired teacher, jazz enthusiasts and partnersin crime together for over half a century.“Some of the musicians who we’ve known for years came to us andasked us if we could help them by trying to create some kind of a facility,which we decided to do on a strictly volunteer basis,” says Ray Koskie.“We put together a group — business people, musicians — and formulateda committee which began to consider various options, one of whichincluded a trip to Jazz at Lincoln Center where we were given a tour,an explanation. Because that was based on a not-for-profit charitableorganization, we thought that would be a better idea than opening afor-profit private club. That was the beginning.”“Our mandate includes reaching out to persons of all ages, especiallychildren, who are our future audiences,” says Rochelle Koskie.“Our outreach program sends musicians to schools that have little orno music programming. Response has been excellent, and from themonies raised from the 2013 gala, we hope to broaden the number ofschools in the program.” Find out more about JPEC and how you canget involved by visiting to Africville: Shifting the focus back to Sealy’s AfricvilleStories, in preparing for this story, I was able to locate a copyof the Africville Suite album (thank you, L’Atelier Grigorian!).Thelonious Monk said it best when he pointed out that “writingabout music is like dancing about architecture,” so all I can say is thatFebruary 1 – March 7, 2013 9

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