Monday, March 6, 2017

In Conversation with Pianists Danae Olano and Jenie Thai

Anyone who has ever sat in front of a piano understands what a charitable instrument it is. Let the hands and fingers drop to the keys and a sound comes upward. Maybe not the most appealing, but something that catches the attention. The piano summarizes the potential of all the instruments in an orchestra and allows you to play in combinations. You can be a big band, a string quartet, a rockin’ rhythm section, a mood changer, accompanist, or a singular artist in control of the most magnificent instrument on the planet! Did I just say that? No offense to all of you lute players out there. Just being a keyboard snob.

I had the good fortune to invite two young women with great skills and deep musicality around the microphone this week at the Bill King Show, CIUT 89.5 FM and talk piano. One comes from the rich Cuban traditions and intense schooling, the other from blues and New Orleans influence. Both are classically trained and focused on their careers.

Danae Olano was born in Havana, Cuba May of 1992. She obtained a Best Bachelor of Arts at the Conservatory of Music Roldan in Havana, then finalized her studies at the Superior Institute of Arts graduating cum laude. She captured a Juno prize in 2015 in the Best Jazz Album category with the band Maqueque, led by saxophonist Jane Bunnett.

Pianist Jenie Thai was born in Chiang Mai Thailand and raised in Edmonton, Alberta. She graduated Grant MacEwan Jazz and Contemporary Music Program as a performance major. After graduation, Thai was offered a part-time teaching position at Grant MacEwan University and gained acceptance into Paul McCartney’s International Music School based in Liverpool. She was nominated “Artist to Watch” 2013 and “Female Artist of the Year” 2014, from the Edmonton Music Awards and 2016 Maple Blues Award nominee as” Best New Artist of the Year”. In their own words.

Around the microphones are three classically trained musicians who have changed course. Jeni, did performing that repretoire live make you uneasy?
Jenie: Yes - much, much stress learning the music. I studied through a campus of music at the University of Alberta and having to learn pages of pages of really difficult repertoire over a few months, then perform.
Is it the performance in front of adjudicators or just an audience that unnerves?
I find with classical music it’s all about the notes on the page and not much room for error. When you are practicing by yourself – by the time you perform, you never really – I think - never really practice enough. By the time I do perform, it’s under high stress to play all of the notes correctly; the tempo – everything as written. With other forms of music, you can play whatever you want.
I must have been sixteen in the Louisville Academy of Music and it’s my first major recital – Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 11 in B flat – it took six months to memorize 28 pages of music. I remember that moment in front of the adjudicators and my head went blank with fear. You talk to yourself. Danae, you gave your first piano recital in Toronto – The Art of Piano – the Cuban Masters. Were you feeling the pressure?
Danae: A little bit. It was my first concert here – Larry Kramer and Jane Bunnett’s idea. They wanted me to play my music and arrangements and classic Cuba piano music. Music from the 19th century to nowadays. Cervantes, Lecouna, and do two pianos with Hilario Duran. In Cuba people, don’t know nothing about pianists like Emilio Grenet. Between jazz and Cuban style. And my music with violinist/vocalist Elizabeth Rodriguez and Jane Bunnett.
Two or three days before a test or audition or concert the music plays in my head and I can’t sleep. It wakes me up all night.
Jenie: Or your hands are playing all of the time on your lap. Then you mess up on a run on your lap. By the time, you get to the piano you don’t know it anymore.
I remember seeing a renowned concert pianist on an airplane with just a weighted keyboard, playing away – quietly go through the motions. Then there were masters like Horowitz who wouldn’t play for a decade- sit down and play the repertoire perfectly. That I don’t get! Do you have a daily practice routine?
Jenie: It starts with coffee and read for a bit and do the things I do every day, but rarely in the same order. I’ll be practicing piano and working on some writing. I like to run a lot. I often go for a run during the day. The rest depends if I have a rehearsal or a show or going to a show.
You play at Nawlin’s.
Jenie: Yes, this cool little club I recently started playing at with these great players; JoJo Bowden drums and Collin Barrett bass. I’m playing every Monday night at the Cameron House – it’s a residency with a full band – guitar, bass and drums backing me and every week I have a special guest songwriter.
How long have you been in Toronto?
Jenie: Since mid-October.
And your routine Danae?
Danae: I stay with Jane and Larry and they have a grand piano. I just have to go down the stairs and start to play. My home is in Havana and I have my own piano in my house.
Jenie, how did you come to play that New Orleans, blues style of piano? Did it find you – or you it?
Jenie: Kind of both. I came across some Oscar Peterson transcriptions from the recording Night Train. And some other albums too. I found a transcription of his composition Hymn to Freedom when I was in high school and asked myself, “What is this?” It was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard played in my life. I went to a record store in Edmonton and searched for Night Train and they had one copy left. Since then, I think I’ve gone through eight copies. I love Duke Ellington’s music too. In fact, that got me on this track and leaving Beethoven behind.
We don’t know why a certain music picks us. One day you’re listening to Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Prokofiev and then another music genre seeps in and you are captivated.
Jenie: It keeps changing. What I didn’t like to listen too when I was younger, I’m getting into now. I didn’t understand Thelonious Monk – the weird dissonances. Now, I think it just the cooilest. I’m excited for the next ten years and the stuff people are throwing at me now and what might hit me.
Are their other music genres you love to play Danae?
Yes, after sixteen years studying classical music I decided to get serious with jazz, Cuban music and my own. I try to improve my career as a pianist. I love classical music, but it makes me crazy.
I’ve had this conversation with classical pianists who marvel at the fact other musicians can improvise; free themselves from the written page. In the past, when teaching beginning students, I have them compose from day one.
Jenie: I like that you did that with students. Transitioning from reading music to playing music was very frustrating at the beginning. I knew I had the technique and knowledge how music kind of works. Then when I sat down with a chart in front of me and no other notes, I felt like an amateur and it was frustrating. I knew I could play the piano but didn’t know how to make those other sounds.
You don’t hear much blues in Havana, do you?
Danae: No, we don’t hear it. I listen a lot and read a lot about jazz music because in Cuba we don’t have jazz education in the schools. If you want to learn, you have to learn by yourself. It’s crazy because we have great jazz players but don’t have a program. In Cuba, they give you one audition in a year, for Cuban music. So many Cubans know nothing about our music.
I remember a piano recital in Old Havana a decade or so back of Cuban piano music in a church with doors wide open. I was one of a handful of people who showed up for this. I was astounded listening to the music. It was that connection between late eighteen-hundreds piano literature and the rise of ragtime piano in New Orleans, Kansas City and throughout America. Those syncopation’s and that Spanish influence is undeniable.
Danae: In Cuba, if you are not a superstar that people know about and you are doing a recital, there will be in the theatre like, ten people. All the people know salsa! It’s still one of the richest music’s around the world. When I play with Maqueque we mix all of the music we know. All of the musicians contribute to the arrangements in the band. You learn through the other musicians. Classical training gave me my technique and I apply that.
Does Jane Bunnett still practice all day?is
Danae: All day and all days!
I’m sure whoever stays with Jane does the same – it becomes routine. Jenie are you always exploring – looking to hear music you haven’t heard before?
Jenie: I don’t have to try too hard. There’s so much I haven’t heard. Actually, I’m looking to get a new record going. That’s my next big project. I have a busy summer coming up doing festivals out west and some in Ontario. I’m looking to enjoy Toronto in the summer. Everybody says it’s amazing.
If there is a place and time in history and a pianist, who would you want to sit close by and watch play?
Jenie: It would probably be James Booker. I’d want to ask him what to do with my tiny hands – how do I play 10ths? What would he tell me?
I’m fascinated with his playing and spent considerable time trying to sort out how he gets that tension between right and left hand and then it dawned on me – he plays in a major key with one and minor key in the other – on corresponding chords. Danae?
Danae: It’s a hard question and it depends on the style of music, but for me, one of the greatest pianists in Cuba was Frank Emilio. It’s just amazing. It’s the feeling in the way he plays.

Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843–1924

“The early decades of American popular music are, for most listeners, the dark ages. It wasn't until the mid-1920s that the full spectrum of this music -- black and white, urban and rural, sophisticated and crude -- made it onto records for all to hear. This book brings a forgotten music, hot music, to life by describing how it became the dominant American music -- how it outlasted sentimental waltzes and parlor ballads, symphonic marches and Tin Pan Alley novelty numbers -- and how it became rock 'n' roll. It reveals that the young men and women of that bygone era had the same musical instincts as their descendants Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and even Ozzy Osbourne. In minstrelsy, ragtime, brass bands, early jazz and blues, fiddle music, and many other forms, there was as much stomping and swerving as can be found in the most exciting performances of hot jazz, funk, and rock. Along the way, it explains how the strange combination of African with Scotch and Irish influences made music in the United States vastly different from other African and Caribbean music; shares terrific stories about minstrel shows, 'coon' a motley collection of performers heretofore unknown to all but the most avid musicologists and collectors.” Author David Wondrich…

Recently, I entertained the idea of ordering a DNA kit from National Geographic. A musician friend received the results, and the details were fascinating. Although his roots are in Ireland – there are bits and pieces of him all over Europe. I know my dad’s side of the family is from the Appalachian region of the upper south and my mother’s, Italy. This leads me to believe, musicians, have a deep connection with their earliest ancestral cousins. It’s why we choose the music we play and why some sounds connect with us over others.

Someone posted a request on Facebook recently looking for a good music biography read. Former Globe & Mail jazz columnist Mark Miller posted a few, and others he thought were impeccable reads. Stomp and Swerve by David Wondrich caught my attention. I’m forever caught up in tracing the origins of popular music. Much of what we know and understand is tied to the advent of recording technology of the late 1800’s. Long before, popular music was taking shape in the form of Irish jigs, Mexican and Cuban habaneras, Celtic sounds, and African influence.

The late 1600s saw the beginnings of “chattel slavery” – African blacks designated by race as property – some 12,000,000 shipped through the Americas and Caribbean (the New World). We also witnessed hundreds of thousands of Irish, Scots, English, and German prisoners, - itinerants, orphans, and undesirables, transported for the purpose of; “indentured servitude.” Many arrived in the Carolinas, Virginia, New England, Brazil and the West Indies. The West Indies - the Irish in Antiqua and Montserrat.
Along with the forced re-settlement came new sounds, new music, new language, and customs. You can hear that throughout the south – from Appalachian old-time country music, mountain swing, bluegrass, gospel, African-American blues, and ballad singing – the English ballads, Irish and Scot traditional music and hymns. It was within this melting pot, music would undergo revolutionary change. We began to move away from the waltz kings, the corny warblers, the march kings, and embrace America under the influence of immigrants. A new rhythm based music that borrowed from the brash howls of marching bands, the syncopations of Brazilian and Caribbean music, the poetic writings of authors with a sense of the true human condition, took hold - the poverty, the suffering, the repression, a critical sense of one’s surroundings.

Artists before audio documentation were searching and reveling in cross-rhythms and exotic melodies. The number of ragtime pianists with ample European style flashy chops and original works
extends way beyond the Scott Joplin’s of the era. Many survive on piano roll – the best-recorded technique of the era.

It’s that marriage of all that occurred between 1843 and 1924 I find absolutely fascinating. There is nearly eighty years of incredible musicians, music, and collaborations that got us to the Drakes, Metallica’s, Chick Corea’s and Willie Nelson’s. Wondrich connects the early decades and current times beautifully. Stomp and Swerve is written in such a way that it’s literate, insightful and extremely entertaining. You can find on Amazon or Google.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Conversation with Ted Woloshyn

It was late December 2,010 when I get a call from broadcaster Ted Woloshyn inviting me to bring some of my “singing divas” to his Saturday radio show at NewsTalk 1010, and serve up a bit of holiday cheer. I corralled five singers – the young women from Real Divas and blues singer Shakura S’Aida. At the time, Ted was filling out four-hours of magazine style radio. Through the afternoon we shared plenty laughs and discovered an easy bond between the two of us. A month later Ted calls and asks me to write a theme song for him. That I did – “King City Stomp” – which has endured the past six years. A few additional conversations and I’m music director for Saturday’s with Ted.

Roll ahead to 2017 and Saturday’s with Ted is solidly into year seven, and NewsTalk, soaring in the ratings game.

It’s been a grand ride sitting a few feet away from one of Canada’s broadcasting icons. This has been my doctoral in radio. In some ways, we are like the Odd Couple – a lefty and a righty politically; absent partisan anger. In fact, much has changed since those first car rides to CFRB at St. Clair and Yonge. Ted has stopped hammering ex- premier Dalton McGuinty and former mayor David Miller! In fact, very little politics, and more human interest stories – that up-lifting stuff; fine foods, great music, and positive vibes.

The past years with Ted we have witnessed some compelling stories. The death and memorial service of much beloved political progressive, Jack Layton, the untimely deaths of pop icons Michael Jackson and Prince. The bizarre reign of the Ford brothers – the allegations, investigations, and passing of former mayor, Rob Ford. Ted through it all has been the consummate professional. A Charlie Rose as opposed to Rush Limbaugh.

I’m forever indebted to station head Mike Bendixen and Ted for the half-hour music segment sponsored by Slaight Music – one of a kind in main-stream radio. That’s 300 plus guests, with multiple visits from singer/songwriter Marc Jordan, and Amy Sky, Sylvia Tyson, Ian Thomas, The Lemon Bucket Orchestra, jazz great Roberta Gambarini sings Willie Nelson. Country singer Iris Dement sings the theme from the Cohen Brother film, True Grit. Cuban jazz icon Arturo Sandoval blows jazz trumpet in a taxi; walks off the street straight on air. Local guitarist Donna Grantis drops by for a chat and learns a week or so later Prince and company caught a video of her on YouTube and fly her to Minneapolis. She scores the guitar position next to the great one in 3rdeyegirl. And who the hell gets to play improvised piano selections live on the air, anywhere? Big thanks to Roland Canada for keeping 1010 keyboard friendly.

Saturdays begin early. Ted first dials me when in my territory; the pick-up and a bit of conversation. Honestly, who would do this week after week for six years? Ted! That’s the kind of kind-hearted, honest, thoughtful, humble, and generous soul he is. I get to hear what’s on his mind and a preview of what to expect on the show and am reminded the Green Bay Packers are his team – Aaron Rodgers his quarterback.

Occasionally, we drop by Tom’s Place in Kensington Market, one of Ted’s long-running sponsors, and that’s when you realize the man is the “reluctant celebrity”. Folks line-up to engage Ted and tell him of a devoted family member who has followed him throughout his career and his charitable efforts; possibly a celebrated sports figure, a councilman, or the mayor himself; John Tory. Big respect!

It’s taken a few years to get Ted to say something. I was fortunate to corner him this week. Here’s a bit of that conversation.

Bio facts about Ted Woloshyn. (born December 1953) is a Toronto broadcaster. He hosted The Ted Woloshyn Show, mornings from 5:30 to 8:30 on CFRB-AM in Toronto, Ontario, Canada from 3 November 1996 until 15 December 2006. He currently hosts Saturdays with Ted from 12 to 3 pm on Newstalk1010. He previously worked for Toronto-area stations CFNY-FM, CILQ-FM and CKFM-FM. Woloshyn currently lives in Mississauga, Ontario.

Ted started his radio career in 1974 at CHIC in Brampton. He moved on to work in Peterborough, Montreal, Hamilton, and finally, Toronto. Ted began hosting the CFRB morning show in November 1996, following in the footsteps of the legendary Wally Crouter.

As of September 2016, Woloshyn writes an opinion column in the Toronto Sun Woloshyn hosted Saturday with Ted Woloshyn on NewsTalk 1010 (CFRB-AM) from 2010 and on.

What troubles you the most with the way news is disseminated today?
That depends on who or where it’s coming from.  I think our national broadcasters do a terrific job, whereas at times, some broadcasters are not in full understanding of their stories or their roles and they lack depth. What some people believe should lead a newscast makes me shake my head. The answer could be, you get what you pay for.

How would you describe the Ted Woloshyn Show?
It’s like a weekend newspaper…or what they used to be like; with a combination of news, current affairs, entertainment, food, and some opinion delivered I think in a comfortable style.  But then again, I don’t listen to it, so what do I know.

Have you always had an interest in far-reaching topics?
Yeah, I think so, certainly more so since I started working in talk radio. I’m often amazed at filmmakers who produce documentaries on topics I would never have considered and find them to be fascinating. I think the real trick for me is not so much in finding those far-reaching topics but turning them into compelling radio.

You’ve also tempered your on-air commentaries on political figures you see making a mess out of government. Is the pull-back more to do with accepting there are things beyond your influence and a change in the direction towards advocacy; with a smile and diplomatic touch.
I think that by the time my show rolls around on Saturday those who deserve to be dumped on have been. I don’t think I’ve ever hidden my dislike for what Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne have done to this province.  But, it does get to a point where the audience says, “Ok I got it now, move one.” Diplomacy, I’ll agree on.  Smiling at Wynne not so much. But I’ve probably mellowed.

What is the first section of the newspaper you read in the morning?
I start from page one, unless I’m looking for a specific story or if it’s available the fashion section.

You are a huge sports fan. When your team loses, do you take it to heart?
I used to but not anymore. Now, I take it to my wallet.

Life is complicated and you are always thinking. Are there moments you wish you could shut it all down and sit by yourself on a beach with a beer and a book?
Yeah, an I’m glad for that because if I didn’t I’d probably be living a boring life. And yes, a beach, and a beer and a book work for me. But not necessarily by myself, because then I would get bored.

If so, what would you be reading?
Biographies, mostly because I find people fascinating. How they plan, how they deal with adversity and how they engage with others.

You are strong ties with Toronto’s Ukrainian community and enjoy conversing with those who drop by your show of the same heritage. Are you terrified of the damage the Russians are doing in that area of the world? The Russians interfered in the recent U.S. election – there is evidence they are doing the same in upcoming elections in Germany and France. Do you have a theory what the end game may be for them?
Vladimir Putin is a frightening man with one main goal and that is to reunite the Soviet Union.  Part of that plan includes destabilizing other nations, creating chaos as he did with the Presidential election and as you mentioned, the upcoming elections in Europe. People need to pay attention to him because I think he’s capable of anything. I truly believe he is without a conscience or a soul.

Working next to you the past six plus years, one thing amongst many things that stick with me is your insistence on fact checking. No item should air unless vetted beforehand. Have you always been this principled?
Not in high school, but talk radio audiences contain many a stickler for facts and seem to be waiting for you to screw up and the idea of looking like a complete idiot, is not one I cherish.

When you first entered radio, what was your ambition?
At first, to work in top forty-radio at CHUM.  I never made it there but the old CHUM sign hangs outside our studio, so I guess I came close.

Comedy and you have a lifelong relationship. You have spoken many times you preferred the Johnny Carson style of late-night hosting to that of the politically partisan voices. In this current climate, have you views changed?  
Johnny would take on both sides in a measured way but in the last few years’, late night hosts too often sound like they are shills for the Democrats. I realize Trump is magnetic for comics but where were the Obama jokes all those years.  There weren’t any because the Obama’s were often guests.

Who makes you laugh now?
Chris Rock, Louis CK, Jann Arden are a few but there are so many now that are very good.

You have read extensively about the Kennedy’s and in some way or another researched every aspect of JFK’s presidency, from butlers to mistresses. Why the fascination?
I think it’s more of a fascination of all Presidents and the intricacies of the White House. We’re missing that in Canada I believe, not so much in our leaders but our version of the White House is a topic for a home improvement show.

Tom Mihalik of Tom’s Place and you have a long-running friendship. Tom is a sponsor of your show. The Mihalik’s arrived from Hungary in 1956 during after the Hungarian Revolution. Does the history of the region of the world link both families?
To a certain degree, but I think our friendship has many aspects it to it, especially respect for one another.

Both Tom and you are no strangers to charitable causes. You with the Breakfast Club, golfing event, Sports Hall of Fame, organ donor programs. You always make time for the least vulnerable. Has service to others always been a motivating factor in your life?  
Yes, and I think that anyone who has the great opportunity to be on the radio needs to utilize that opportunity to help others. I think it’s the responsibility of everyone who sits behind a microphone.  It doesn’t matter what the cause may be.

You’ve interviewed the greatest names in sports. Your favourite or best interviews? Red Kelly, Cito Gaston - Don Rickles was a lot nicer than you may think. Dozens and dozens of musicians.  But, I can’t say I have a favourite. I do however have moments in my career that will stay vivid in my mind; like the attacks on the World Trade Centre

I was on the air when the first tower was hit and for weeks after I spoke to witnesses, first responders and one man who was in a group who were split on their decision to leave or take the stairs to the lower level. He left and on his way down heard a man yell from under rubble.  He pulled him out and helped him down to ground level. He was totally beside himself in tears as he told me the story and then went on to say that he and the man he saved had become close friends.

On the first anniversary of the attacks a number of shows were broadcast from New York including the morning show.  We stood outside the Carnegie Deli talking to people on the street about how the last year had been for them. The sun was shining brightly on a beautiful New York morning just as it had been one year ago. Afterward, Mike Bendixen my producer at the time and I went to the Verizon building with its broken windows and twisted metal frame staring out over Ground Zero.  CBS, with whom we were affiliated had taken the second floor and set up a broadcast row for their affiliates, including CFRB along with a main set for Dan Rather and various anchors.  It was surreal to say the least.

I’ve been there when a George Chuvalo, a Sandy Hawley, the late sports broadcaster Bill Stephenson, Cito Gaston, - great baseball, football, boxing, horse racing figures recognize you in a room and they make a point of coming over for the big hug and “how’s Teddy” doing. How does that make you feel?
Very special and honoured to be honest.

You inherited the most difficult job in radio – morning man at CFRB in 1996 replacing icon Wally Crouter, who sat in the seat a good fifty years. You held on for ten. Any regrets?
I’ve always said I didn’t replace Wally, because no one could replace him. I simply followed and it was the greatest honour I could have ever imagined, and he was such a great supporter, as was Bill Stephenson. I’m very appreciative to the Slaight family for the opportunity. As for regrets; I don’t have time for regrets.

How would you describe the Ted Woloshyn show and your biggest champion - the relationship between you and program director Mike Bendixen?
Mike’s a very good friend whom I first met when he was an intern and I guess about 20 years old. To see what he has accomplished makes me very happy, but I’m not surprised.  He claims I did him a favour because I pushed for him to be my producer, but honestly, I did it for my own good and the good of the show. I could tell this guy was going to do well. I believe he possesses a great radio mind. And I don’t think that’s a very large club.

With nearly a half century in radio approaching – how would you like to see the years ahead play out for you?
It is literally something I’ve wanted to do since I was about nine years old and playing radio with a Seabreeze turntable and the base of a lamp without a bulb that I pretended was a microphone. I think I’ll always want to have some involvement in radio, it’s a very special place for me.

Friday, February 10, 2017

In Conversation with singer - Stacey Kay!

It was the summer of 2010 when a message arrived on Facebook from a gentleman who knew my work with singers and had come across a recent graduate from Sheridan College in the music theatre performance program he thought I should have a look and listen to. At the time, he was semi-managing and borrowing her voice for his original songs.

Everybody needs someone champion their abilities and push out beyond the breakfast table.

A video existed of the young singer on YouTube and a couple of comedy skits. First up – the music video – the May 2, 2008, Sheridan College Awards show. Surrounded by percussion, acoustic guitars, 23-year-old Stacey Kay sounds off on a Tom Waits song, “Jesus Gonna Be Here.” The video quality is of the time – blurred and low-res - you can barely see her face. But then the voice comes into play. What a set of pipes – perfect pitch, big emotion absent affectation and senseless embellishment. A full, rich soulful tone. A voice that could ring up Broadway or command the radio airwaves. And what stage presence!.

I replayed, and replayed and searched around for more videos. I then convinced her acting manager to put us in contact with each other. Facebook is deep in marauding predators and one understands that a formal introduction is mandatory. Stacey responded and invited me down to Kensington Market to a performance of her with a comedy/vocal troupe. Damn, was she ever stellar! One of a kind.

I have never wanted to manage an artist, that being a skill I prefer to dodge – so I invited Stacey to sing background on a single I was producing with Jane Bunnett & the Afro-Cuban Blues Project, “War on Poverty.” Shakura S’Aida had already laid down a testifying lead vocal and I figured the best way to introduce Stacey was to include her in the background vocals. Honestly, this could have gone either way. Both singers were on equal footing! Shakura, being the kind of person who welcomes and promotes young talent, made this a comfortable fit.

Eventually, Stacey came aboard with the Rockit 88 Band – played a few dates – even Canada’s Walk of Fame and recorded a single, then in the first year of Rhythm Express. Throughout, I kept Slaight Music appraised of this talented young woman and they signed her.

Stacey has big dreams. Early on, she’d confide in me that appearing on SNL was her goal or to simply meet Martin Short – which she eventually did. She also worked day and night driving a van loaded with promotion items to keep her dream on course. We’d both scour YouTube for the most outrageous laughs. Then comes the big question. What to do with Stacey Kay?

Stacey is Bette Midler wrapped in Etta James. She’s got big soul pipes and a polished theatrical stage presence. She can rap, she can belt, she can ballad, she can reinvent a song - she can! Eva Cassidy could sing anything; Stacey falls in the same category.

The past few years she’s been driving her a cappella group Eh440 all over North America and having a blast. Kay reserves ample time covering current pop hits a capella, and posting videos. Since 2010, the volume of video work is remarkable. Kay understands the medium and toys with it judiciously. The new single is called “Never Stop Lovin’ You.”

Rather than include a video of her making, I’ve chosen a special night at the Orbit Room, October 2011. Gary Slaight coaxed me into a CD release party behind my piano, bass and drum trio side, Five Aces. Somewhere during second set he insists Stacey and John Finley get up and sing together. That’s Jon and Lee & The Checkmates' legendary John Finley. The impromptu performance is pure magic. Everything I imagined of her potential was there to witness.

Stacey’s back home for a breather and I posed a few questions. Here’s that conversation.

What was the first song you ever sang?
“Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from The Lion King. It was also the first song I sang in a singing competition and won first place! My mom and dad tell me that it was after that day that they knew this might be a serious career for me.

Was there anyone you saw on stage you wanted to emulate?
Growing up in the '90s, I always loved the Spice Girls - they sang, danced, wore crazy clothes, they acted in their own movie, they had a really cool “show” that wasn't just about the singing. They all had different personalities, different stage clothes; they were five different characters. It was at that point when I realized, 'I am a character in real life, why not do it on stage too?' I was obsessed with watching their every move. I knew one day I would be on stage, just like those five girls.

Did you have early formal training?
Yes, a little. I was trained in Cambridge, Ontario, on-and-off with various singing teachers and dance teachers! They mainly taught me how to warm up, etc. Much later I found out (at the age of 18) that I had nodules on my vocal chords… because I was singing and speaking improperly throughout my childhood. I had to take a year off from singing to heal. To all the children out there learning how to sing properly? Training and practice are very important if you want to become awesome - but you need to constantly check in and see if you are receiving the proper training and your voice feels okay. It’s so hard to know! My parents knew I needed singing lessons, but how were we to know I was singing improperly?

How did you come to combine singing, theatrics with getting comfortable on stage?
My parents made me practice all the time. My dad is a counselor and we talked a lot about our feelings growing up - this truly helped because we also talked about confidence and individuality. At an early age, my parents put me in singing competitions (country music singing competitions, actually)! These were in front of huge audiences with a live band - and I did these competitions every year starting at nine years old. These competitions are truly the beginning of why I am so confident on stage. I had to learn how to perform with a band. I was all by myself up there and had to sing my heart out! From that point on, I also became a member of the local theatre in Cambridge (Galt Little Theatre) and acted in many plays. These opportunities combined are the beginning of the person I needed to be, coming on stage.

You’re incredibly outgoing. Do you ever get any flack for this?
I am lucky that I am outgoing because not everyone is. Being outgoing also makes me fearless on stage. But most outgoing people also have very strong-minded opinions. Which I think is amazing! But sometimes you can also take it too far. Example: I have something to say about everything even when it has nothing to do with me! Sometimes in certain situations, I need to learn to just… shut up! There are pros and cons to being outgoing - but  99% of the time, it has been a positive thing in my life.

Your time at Sheridan College. What were those years like?
Sheridan is an amazing but scary place. Coming from the city of Cambridge, there weren't many performers who were going to pursue a career professionally in the entertainment business. I remember the first day walking into class, hearing people warm up, watching people stretch a leg over their head, listening to a room filled with intelligent people speak: I realized from that moment it was going to be harder than I thought. If I wanted to keep up with all the amazing talent in this school, I was going to have to work my butt off. I did exactly that - but it meant I didn't get a lot of sleep and didn’t have much of a life outside of school. We had 22 classes a week, six days a week. When were we supposed to do homework? That’s why no one slept. They have since changed the program to four years instead of three years (phew)!

There was also an interesting dynamic between students and teachers. Some teachers didn’t like me, didn't like that I wanted to sing like Christina Aguilera and rap like Missy Elliott! They thought I was a joke and I wasn’t pristine enough for the program. They were trying to change me, and I had to make the decision to fight for the person I am. Teachers are not always right, and sometimes you only realize that after you’ve graduated. The Music Theatre Performance Program not only taught me about music, dance, and theatre, it taught me about life and how to deal with high-stress situations. It taught me how to deal with other human beings. I feel like I can do anything after graduating that course. Although I have made it sound like the hardest, scariest place to be, I would recommend it to anyone who wants to pursue a career in music or theatre…. because the real world is harder and scarier!

What was your first performance after graduation?
I was really lucky and got a part in a play at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto - an amazing professional theatre people would die to be a part of. I had no idea how awesome it was until someone got mad at me for not knowing. It’s not like I was being unappreciative in any way. I had no idea the people I was working with were Stratford actors, award-winning playwrights (Morris Panych), and how much of an honour it was to be a part of this theatre. I just didn’t know how big of a deal it was at the time! At the same time, I was singing and writing my own music and trying to figure out where I “fit” in the music scene in Toronto. My friend Lili Connor put on a show in Kensington Market and asked me to sing in it. It was that show where I met Bill King (the awesome guy writing this article) and he showed me a whole other bigger, (and slightly scarier) world in the music industry! (Thanks Bill!)

Have you always been fully confident of your career choice?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Not everyone can say that, but yes. This is what I have to do! I am a performer, I was born a performer and I will die a performer. Have I been confident in every single choice I’ve made within this career? Absolutely not. It’s tough to know the right and wrong thing to do… but I try to mix up “the feeling in my gut” with a little common sense, and so far, that has worked out for me.

You worked a series of odd jobs while staying focused on your career. Would you recommend all aspiring artists find outside work?
Yes! This career is awesome, but most of the time you don’t make a lot of money. There are certain gigs where I’ve made tons of money, but then an opportunity doesn’t come up like that again for a while and you can’t live life just waiting for those big paycheques. It’s a very inconsistent career - and I had to accept that.

When I was first starting out, I was a server at many restaurants. I did promotional work and handed out free samples on the side of the road while driving a big van shaped like a Hershey’s chocolate bar. Crazy jobs that put money in my bank account. This money paid for my photo-shoots, the songs I recorded, the videos I made, the equipment I needed. These things helped me get to the point I am at today! This life is not for everyone - I have accepted that there is always going to be an “unknown” with my job. BUT I would rather that, than do a stable job I don’t love, just to make money. I would be so unhappy.

You distance yourself from distractions and stay focused on your career. How have you been able to say no in an industry littered with mishaps and big loss? 
You mean distractions… like alcohol and drugs for example? Well lucky (and sort of unlucky) for me I have a slight allergy to alcohol. I get red and itchy and I lose my voice immediately. If I take a sip it sounds like I have strep throat. I don’t drink at all. But I will also be the first and last person on the dance floor - so it’s not like I ever needed it to have fun! This has forced me to be confident in every situation. This career is filled with that kind of life - drinking at parties, drugs in the bathroom, getting high before shows - it’s never been the Stacey Kay way. I want to point out that I’m not against any of it at all, it’s just not the right thing for me specifically. I should figure out how to be myself, and be my confident self as this is happening around me.

When are you the most satisfied?
I recently had a satisfying night: I did a show and my boyfriend (my bass player), my best friends (other bandmates) were with me on stage. My boyfriend and I made up a dance to do to one of my songs and everyone in the audience went crazy because they’ve never seen him dance! (He’s awesome by the way). My whole family was there, and then I got to hang out with my family after and laugh, talk about the show, and analyze the night. It’s very satisfying for me to analyze things. I am very close with my family and don’t get to see them all the time because of my career choice. When I get to do all these things at once? Very satisfying.

You are signed to Slaight Music. How has the experience been?
Slaight Music is a company who funds artists, and I have been with them for a long time now. They are really great people and have introduced me to awesome people in this industry. They have invested long-term in my career and partnered me with great producers and songwriters. They genuinely care for their artists!

You embrace social media. What’s the upside for you? The downside?
I’m going to be brutally honest. I hate social media so much - I think it is the thing in the future that is going to ruin relationships. But it is part of my job. One thing with this industry is that you have to constantly change with the times, and if you don’t you get lost in a pile of musicians who want the same thing as you. I have to post pictures and videos and hope that I get likes and views - because that has turned into the 2017 way of measuring success. Facebook is a crazy thing, though. Facebook is now highly competitive with YouTube, because Facebook wants to be the most popular place to watch videos. They hide posts with YouTube videos in them or a post that even mentions YouTube! (I’ve done many tests). This has changed a lot for me. A video I would usually get 50K views for is now being hidden and no one can see it. But that’s a change I’m trying to get used to and I will figure it out :) Okay okay, I’m being a Debbie Downer.

The more positive side to social media is that I love making videos with my bandmates. I love singing music, I love that I can share what I’ve done with people all over the world! But I must know when I post videos; for every two amazing comments, there is going to be a very rude one. Once again - a test of confidence, and it’s the hardest one of all. People forget that there is actually a real person reading, 'You’re fat, you sing bad,' on the other end. But, Beyoncé gets those same comments and she is freaking amazing! I always think about Beyoncé when I get mean comments. I also was lucky enough to have a video go viral when I rapped in a Walgreens in South Carolina! (Comment from Debbie Downer: a guy stole the video and called it “Mum raps at Walgreens,” didn't put my name on it, and he has collectively over 35M views on the video.) Still cool though :)

EH440 – how did this come about?
Eh440 is my a cappella band! Young Stacey didn't ever think that she would be singing a cappella in a band that pays her bills! Those country music singing competitions I spoke of earlier? I met Janet Turner there. She was my biggest competition, but we were also friends because she is the nicest person of all time. Years later, I get this phone call asking if I would be interested in joining this a cappella band. I thought to myself, 'a cappella is lame' and imagined myself singing doo wop in a barber shop. But I never turn down any adventure! I met with Janet, Joe Oliva (bass singer), Mike Celia (a singer/songwriter from Toronto, who also didn't know anything about a cappella) and Luke Stapleton, aka, “The Human Record,” who is a beat-boxer. Once I heard beat-boxing in real life, my mind was blown. This sounded amazing to me, and they said, 'sing whatever you want, rap, riff, be yourself' and I knew that this would be something great. Joe said they were looking for 'five voices that didn’t have any earthly business being together.' They wanted the opposite sound of a typical a cappella band. We have been in a band together for five years now and travel the world. We are constantly on tour and it’s so much fun. Eh440 is also very respectful of my solo career, so I can do both things!

What are your long-term goals? Is there someone’s career you’d most like to channel?
Long term goals are: keep performing. I used to think, 'I’m going to be famous one day' and that was my goal as a teen. But that goal has changed. I’m okay with not being famous if I keep doing what I am doing. I want to mash up the career of Martin Short, Tony Robbins and Beyoncé. Ha! Sounds crazy, right?! Let me explain. I love the kind of concerts that Beyoncé puts on; full production, dancing, singing, videos, and lights. She is the boss and knows what she wants and I love that. Martin Short was on Saturday Night Live (my dream), and he had a one-man show called, Fame Becomes Me (but with a full cast - hilarious right)?! Lastly, I also do motivational speaking at high schools around Canada and the US, and speak about positive body image, staying confident and working hard. This would be something that I think I could make a business/career out of after I stop touring with Eh440 and my solo band. Right now? I keep pushing forward, and keep working as hard as I can to do what I do and be the best that I can be. I want to do everything! 

You participated in America’s Got Talent. Good? Weird?
Good and weird. It was a reality TV show. So yes, they made me fake cry. Yes, they tried to get me to argue with other contestants. Yes, they edited the show in a different way, than it actually happened. But how cool is it that I got to be on national television? I got to sing for Howard Stern, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and one of the original people who inspired me at a young age: Mel B from the Spice Girls. They also said, how many people are in your band? I told them nine. That’s a huge band. But I got to bring every single one of my friends and band mates to perform on stage with me, and my sister and Janet sang backups for me! Why not, right?

There is no doubt you have great pipes. How do you preserve and protect?
Not drinking alcohol “reallllly” helps. But also, because I sing so much, it’s like I am working out my voice at a gym every day. I can sing higher and lower than I ever have before. I can sing for two hours straight and not be tired. Having good sound onstage is also important to me because then you are not straining your voice. Technology and in-ear monitors really help. Warming up is also important. When I don’t warm up, I can’t sing for as long. I can’t hit notes as easily and I can’t rap as fast! If I don’t do certain mouth exercises before a show, I would never be able to rap as fast as I do. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Case Against La La Land

I’ve verbally slapped myself more than a few times trying to coax an emotion anywhere near the excitement academy members lustfully oozed awarding the motion picture La La Land a record-tying fourteen Oscar nominations. “La La” is being touted a great musical – a breakthrough homage to musicals past and blueprint for future adventures.

Going in, I was willing to let the hype carry me as far as dignity would allow. I’m the guy who bought the score book for West Side Story and sits in front of the piano and marvels while flipping page to page at the notes scattered before me. How the hell did Leonard Bernstein come up with these glorious melodies, spectacular transitions, the orchestrations, and out-worldly harmonies? This is a page turner up there with the greatest novels ever written.

Late summer I caught Woody Allen’s Café Society. Reviews were all over the place from hate to love. Allen deserves our respect – at least that of musicians. Woodman plays honest with the music. Café Society is set in 1930s Hollywood and stays true to the moment with classic’s such as “Manhattan, My Romance, This Can’t Be Love, Mountain Greenery”, perfectly situated underneath the sumptuous visuals. For a film that received little fanfare and less publicity, it’s still pulled in $43,700,000 at the box office so far.

My partner and I fought for a clear view of the giant screen at the Varsity Cinema and fixed eyeballs straight ahead. “Bam” – the big opening – a lavish dance number in, around and on cars. Yes! This is grand. Wait! What the hell is going on with the song? I’m hearing this shallow vacuous non-stick sing-a-long that could have been borrowed from a mid-1970s Saturday Night Live skit. Remember the one with the Andy Williams like sweater kids, bopping to a white rhythm? Or at least one invested in humor much like those Lawrence Welk bip-alongs. Loved the title, “Another Day of Sun.” O.K. – move on. Here comes the story.

Jazz boy meets coffee shop girl. Jazz boy thinks about the big jazz jam; coffee shop girl wants to get into film. Jazz boy suffers for his art so he repeatedly plays this insipid whole tone piano riff as if this chunk of nothingness needs mastered. Where’s “All That Jazz?” I’m ready and willing.

Boy lands gig in super-club. Christmas time – Christmas music. Boy wants to blow some far-out jazz. Owner demands he play from a restricted list. O.K. Let me digress a bit. I’ve played at least fifty-five Christmas seasons and jazz-upped the songs. Never have I been fired for freshening the music up with a jazzy embellishment or harmonic rewrite. In fact, that’s when people drop by the piano and give you that –Wow! sign and the owner says thanks, “Great night!” Maybe west coast Christmas gigs in La La Land are quite different than the social parties we on the east coast are privy.
Composer Justin Hurwitz crafted the score for La La Land and last year’s other celebrated music film, Whiplash – another fairy tale of teacher abuses student to greatness. Bullshit!

I have greater animosity towards Whiplash than I do for La La Land. “La La” doesn’t reside in an institution of greater learning.  And nobody’s getting slapped around or demeaned – it’s just good old jazz suffering. I think?

As a film La La Land is fun. A diversion from day to day brain sucking Trumpettes. It’s sweet, likeable and a must needed reprieve from the dullness of work. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are perfectly cast and benefit from a finely tuned and witty script. That said – I gave the film a second and third try. Second visit lasted ten minutes; the third – 44 minutes. Couldn’t do it. One thing kept nagging at me – the fucking music! Beyond tolerating.

I’m neither here nor there with musicals – usually middle ground. I loved the musical Chicago – the songs were out of my love zone but I could sing them and got their choreographic purpose and occasionally perform with aspiring and celebrated vocalists. Serious craft!

I really enjoyed Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge set in 1900 in the Montmarte Quarter of Paris – the grand old cabaret house. I loved it so much it was a first stop when visiting Paris, a couple years back. Even the academy bought in, awarding it eight Oscar nominations back in 2001.

Golden Globes! This is when I hid in my imaginary mind shelter. No – say it ain’t so! Word leaks in - “La La” captures Best Original Score and Best Original song for Hurwitz.

I can get past the score thing even though I’ve heard grand music coming from Moonlight and other nominees. And let’s not forget Toronto’s own – Michael Danna’s Oscar win for Best Original Score from Life of Pi in 2013. Sheer brilliance!

But “Best Original Song”, this is where I push my damper pedal to the floor. “City of Stars “had me pulling my ears and lips off in the cinema. It was if the melody was produce-clichés run through a Veg-O-Matic - then formalized by a thought computer. How do you make something from nothing? You don’t. You just pretend it’s something. From the song’s introduction to film’s end that galling melody poked at me like an implement of Inquisition torture.

Movies are made to entertain and carry us beyond the normal and help us temporarily escape. My partner hates war movies and anything that has to do with Nazi’s. I appreciate. Anyone who has spent their life as a working musician has entertained every tone, chord, melody, score, chart, recording the ears could handle. We are somewhat sensitive to bland. Shitty? Bring it on. Never bland. The greatest crime of all.

Until recently I’ve lived mostly alone with my impressions of “La La” until I came across a musician’s forum on Facebook. Not an ordinary gathering of bar band musicians or weekend hopefuls – but the crème of the industry. In parting, here are a few of their thoughts. The names have been withheld to protect the not-so-innocent and that potential film composing gig.

“Watching all the nominations for the SAG awards I was transported by Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight and Lion, I had a great time watching Hidden Figures and Girl On A Train....but when it came to La La Land - I was embarrassed - it seemed like a high school.”

“Horrible songs. Well, you can't have anything.”
“The "jazz" was very white and west coast, totally lacking in soul or character or edge.”
“I totally agree, La La is an insult to singers, dancers, songwriters, and arrangers.
“Couldn´t agree more. His "jazz theme" was a joke.”
“The word, according to Zappa is, "Sears" - are those real musical songs or are they Sears songs? i agree. They were shallow and plastic; nothing memorable.”
“Totally agree. It's like when people ask me if I liked the movie Whiplash. FAKE!!!!!!!!”
“That's the best description of those songs I've heard yet. "Pretend Songs." Although I greatly appreciate everything that went into that movie, you can't really compare those particular songs to an actual, bona fide songwriter's songs. Just my personal opinion; so no haters please. I'm thrilled they made a movie that employed so many musicians & dancers.”
“Cruise ship quality. Typical of Broadway musicals. Trite clichéd lyrics.”

“Exactly. Nothing melodically memorable, nothing harmonically logical or interesting and absolutely nothing lyrically to say. (I nudged the woman next to me and said I would tell my 8th graders to try a new angle, find a catchy melody.....something ...”

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Conversation with the Late Doug Riley - 1988

Music scenes are the creation of players with great ability and draw power. I’m sorting through stored cassettes and recall with nostalgia and sadness the names passing between my fingers; pause and reflect on the moment I interviewed. The big six band leaders and community organizers are all there – Moe Koffman, saxophonist/flutes – gone since 2001, Doug Riley, keyboards – 2007, Jeff Healey, vocalist/guitar – 2008, Rob McConnell, arranger/trombone - 2010, Jim Galloway, saxophone/TD Jazz - 2014 and Archie Alleyne, drummer - 2015.

Noise keeps a community alive. All six made big noise. Rooms were packed, international artists dropped in; there was always a buzz. Those days are far behind with the closure of music venues, a fractured music scene and the lack of engaging bigger-than-life personalities. There was always apprehension musicians bred in classrooms would be short on life experiences, favor blandness over edgy, and fail to build a following. It seems those predictions are playing out in real time in the jazz scene.

With that in mind, I thought I’d revisit an interview from 1988 at CIUT 89.5 with one of Canada’s and certainly Toronto’s most revered and celebrated musicians. Galloway and McConnell took some shots from detractors; Riley, took no bullets or heat. It was always a lovefest!

BK:  You seem to have a firm footing in all idioms of music.  Is this what stimulates you?

Doug:  Yes, it does.  It helps me in all aspects of my writing – film, scoring, commercials, or the various recording artists I work with.  I try to touch as many bases as possible.

BK:  What would a normal work day consist of?

Doug:  A normal workday begins with me waking up, which can be the most difficult task of the day.  I usually go to my office around 10:30 a.m.  Once there, I examine my mail, review any video cassettes that have come in and then decide on what I want to work on that day.  I always try to write for three or four hours.  If I’m going into the studio that day or the following day, I prepare myself for whatever is happening recording wise.

My day is usually a combination of things, but much of it is dealing with priorities and focusing on which projects require the most attention immediately.  Also, setting myself up for whatever sessions I may have that week.  I often have to book contractors, orchestrate, arrange, and get the music off to the copyist.  I try to prepare for sessions with three hours of homework for every hour spent in the studio.

BK:  I remember you took a sabbatical from doing commercial work.  Has that ended?

Doug:  I’m doing a lot of commercial work now.  It’s lucrative and I find it very challenging.  Every project is different.

BK:  Your Company is called Dr. Music.  Is this the same title used by your band in the ‘70s?
Doug:  I actually had that name, Dr. Music, before the band came into existence.  It was when we were touring and recording that the band adopted the name.  I left the name in limbo but when I formed the new jingle company, I decided to use it because many people associated Dr. Music with me.
BK:  What motivates you to take on a project?

Doug:  Apart from the financial end, I think the script and the concept make the difference.  If' it’s a recording project, obviously, the artist and the material make a big difference.  If it’s a film there are a lot of different things.  A film takes a lot of time to score properly, spot it and go through all of its various aspects.

BK:  Do you choose which films you score?

Doug:  I have turned films down, but there are not that many to pick and choose from.  I wait for the right one to come along before I commit myself to the project just because of the amount of time a film project takes.

As far as writing chamber music, or so-called “serious music”, those kinds of projects come along in the form of grants, either Canada Council or Ontario Arts Council grants.  They are, for the most part, commissioned by artists or conductors of orchestras.  Again, it’s a major commitment.  I wrote a piano concerto for Elyakim Taussig and Mario Bernardi, for the National Arts Orchestra, which basically took six months of my free time to compose.

BK:  How do you maintain a balance between the various projects you’re involved with?
Doug:  You have to be very selective.  Otherwise, some projects that are peripheral prior to taking on a major commitment would automatically go by the wayside.

BK:  You received your Bachelor of music, in composition, at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto in 1967, and then completed half of your master’s degree in ethnomusicology.  Is there a certain period or culture that interests you most?

Doug:  I was particularly interested in Canadian Native music and I spent two summers living on Iroquois reservations, collecting and transcribing music in the field.  I am also very interested in the music of Java Bala because of the Gamelon Orchestra techniques.  I’ve incorporated a lot of their orchestral techniques in the modern music I write.

BK:  Have you collected any artifacts along the way?

Doug:  Yes, most of them are with the university in the faculty of Music, and all of my transcripts are in the National Archives in Ottawa, but I have some items I collected when I was on the Iroquois reservation’; water drums, turtle rattles, mating flutes.  These are all authentic items, not the kind purchased in souvenir shops.

BK:  In what period of your life were you involved in this research?

Doug:  This was while I was a student in my last year as an undergraduate and during my post graduate year.  My professor felt I was equipped to handle something like this so he procured a Canada Council grant for me, which meant it was a commissioned project.  I’ve always been interested in ethnic music of any kind.

BK:  when did your interest in rhythm and blues surface, and what was the first group you worked with.

Doug:  I can’t remember not liking R’n’B.  The natural evolution, I’m not sure which comes first, whether the blues and jazz influences came out of R’n’B or R’n’B influences came around as a result of the blues and jazz.

I guess my first major influence in R’n’B was Ray Charles.  Later, I ended up arranging an album for him called Ray Charles – Doing His Thing.

BK:  When was this out?

Doug:  1969

BK:  What styles of music were on the lp?

Doug:  Jazz and R’n’B compositions plus a couple of ballads backed by a big band consisting of four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, a rhythm section and a full 16 piece string section.  There was a lot of leeway to do pretty much what we wanted.

BK:  There are a lot of gospel influences in your playing.  Many of the radio and TV commercials of the ‘60s and ‘70s were rooted in this tradition and much of what was heard can be attributed to you.
Doug:  My father played a lot of Mahalia Jackson in the house and, of course, Ray’s influence was always a present.
BK:  Did you listen closely and try to absorb the spiritual feel of the music?

Doug:  I used to play along with Mahalia’s records.  At the time, I wasn’t thinking about how this would be useful later but, as it turned out, that kind of playing fits remarkably well into R’n’B settings.  People like Billy Preston brought it to the forefront.

I was also involved with Tommy Ambrose in a series of shows called Celebration, on CTV.  Every week we would have gospel guests from the U.S.; a lot from the bible Belt.  We had a cookin’ gospel band with a choir of eight which had to adapt to each artist.  Boy was that fun.

BK:  The pianist Bill Evans played an important role in your musical development.

Doug:  During my late teens he became a major influence in my life because of his musical way of thinking.  It was much more introspective than the gospel, R’n’B thing, which is based more on feel and high level musically.  It consists of very complicated structures with rhythms within rhythms.
He’s always fascinated me with his complete control of the instrument.  Technically, he could do about anything.  His playing was influenced by the classical composers:  Ravel, Scriabin and Chopin.  Evans certainly affected my playing, there’s no question about it.

Bill and I also became close friends and we spent a lot of time together.  He’d stay at my house on many of his trips to Toronto.  He always told me not to copy, because it could be the worst thing for me to do.  What I did get from him, in terms of melodic and harmonic conceptions, I tried to apply to my own style of playing.

BK:  Were you and Shawne Jackson in the house band at the original Blue Note Night Club?

Doug:  Yes, The Silhouettes.  It was a band that I had when I was 16 years old.  When the original house band, The regents, left the Blue Note, saxophonist Steve Kennedy stayed on and Al Steiner called me while I was playing at The Peppermint Lounge on Bay Street and we brought our own band in.  Steve joined the band, along with Diane Brooks as a vocalist.  We were there for three years so Shawne used to come and sit in with the band and perform in the floor show.  Later, she came in as a soloist with a band called The Rogues.  That was Domenic Troiano and Whitey Glan.  This was The Blue Note, on Yonge and Walton, just south of Gerrard.

BK:  That was quite a hotspot...

Doug:  It was unbelievable.  Everybody who came into town like The Band, Jesse Davis, Junior Walker and the All-stars would come to The Blue Note after their performance to jam.  Stevie wonder would drop by, and the Supremes, Jimmy Reed and all of the blues legends.  It was the best education you could ever get.  We backed most of these greats.

BK:   Where would they be performing?

Doug:  The Colonial, Le Coq D’Or, the Zanzibar, the Edison Hotel, the Brass Rail.  On our breaks we’d go listen to them play.  We’d play until 3 a.m. so they’d have an opportunity to loosen up after their engagements.  No alcohol, just coffee.  I was only 16 years old then.

BK:  What were the most impressive performances you can remember from those days?

Doug: There’s three I’ve got to mention that come to mind immediately.  One was Miles Davis with Jack DeJohnette on drums, Chick Corea on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Wayne shorter on tenor.  Weather Report was another and the other one was the Bill Evan trio with Marty Morrell on drums and Eddie Gomez on bass.  Bill’s thinking is more melodic and harmonic.

BK:  Did you catch Bill Evans’ last performance here? 

Doug:  Yes, I did.  Marty wasn’t playing with him then; Pat’s brother, Joe LaBarbera was.  Marty was sitting with me at the table and said, “This is the best I’ve ever heard Bill play.”

BK:  Were the Blue Note years also the beginning of your recording experience?

Doug:  Yes, this is when I first started in the studio.  Ben McPeek gave me my first job in the studio and I remember how scared I was.  I went in all the hot players in town were on the session; Moe Koffman, Guido Basso, Rob McConnell and Ron Pullen was playing drums.  I was just shaking.  They wanted me to lay an organ solo in the track and I can remember trying to control my hand long enough to play a solo.  When I had finished, all of these guys came up and congratulated me.  After that I was called for other sessions.

BK:  When was Dr. Music formed?

Doug:  In 1971.  I was approached by Allan Blythe and Chris Beard to put together a background, on camera, choral group for the summer replacement of The Andy Williams Show, which was hosted by Ray Stevens.  The show was called Who is Ray Stevens.  Ray had quite a few novelty hits, but not many people knew his name.

For thirteen weeks I was the choral director.  The group consisted of musicians from the Blue Note and from the original production of Hair, which I was also involved in.  That’s where the singers came from, four guys and four girls.  They sounded so great together that we started getting asked to perform on other shows:  The Barbara McNair show and Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s Show, Rolling on the River, and the very early pilot series of Music Machine, with Moe Koffman as musical director.

Then we were offered a recording contract from GRT Records and along with that, requests for concerts.  We put a band together with four rhythm players, four horns and eight singers.  When it came time to determine the name, it was suggested we use the name of my company at the time, Dr. Music.

BK:  You had a few hits from the first lp, which consisted of a rich blend of harmonic and melodic textures.

Doug:  Steve Kennedy’s tune, Road to Love, interested Bell Records in the States.  They were the company who were successful with the Fifth Dimension, so we signed with Bell.  Actually, Sun Goes By became a hit south of the border.  Rosalie Tremblay got it off the ground in Windsor and it took off in Detroit.  She was so strong in radio that on the second album I took it to her, and when she didn’t like one of the mixes, I went back and remixed it.

BK:  Do you have any plans to record a new jazz lp soon?

Doug:  I have had plans for the last four years to do something.  The closest I’ve come is a duet thing I did with the flutist, Jeremy Steig.  We’ve recorded the whole thing but I haven’t secured a label.  It’s just flute and piano.  He came up from New York and we recorded in my house with my Hindeburg Steinway.  We had all the equipment set up.  It was done on reel to reel through a Fostex eight track board.

BK:  You’re playing on the soon to be released Brass Connection album.

Doug:  It was fascinating because Doc Hamilton brought in trombone players from all over the place to appear as guest soloists.  Ian MacDougall flew in from Vancouver, Carl Fontana and Bill Watrous came up from L.A., and Bill Holman arranged two of the charts.  I think it’s going to be a benchmark album.

BK:  Do you enjoy composing for dance and is this a complicated process? 

Doug:  I like writing for dance and movement, or something that has theater involvement.  It is even more satisfying than working in film because it’s in your imagination, rather than viewing frames of film going by.  Working with a good choreographer, as I did on two ballets, is a very exciting and creative process.  It’s time-consuming and very complicated.  The movement has to be choreographed as the music is written.  Each segment of the music has to relate to a place in the ballet.  We would have preproduction meetings that would last for hours as the choreographer relates what he sees and how the story unfolds.  Then, I would go away and write the music as I conceived it.  After this, we would get together again and begin working on the movement.

The second ballet we did was based on a string quartet.  I had written and was composed in three movements.  This was called sessions for Six or Sessions for Twelve, depending on the number of dancers to be used.  This became a piece that the National Ballet performed on tour in Europe.  The music was already written, but Rob Icove came up with the idea that in between each movement of the string quartet we would have a completely different band, So I wrote three rock movements which were played by rock musicians in between the string pieces.  The string quartet was a twelve-tone sound which added stark contrast to the rock, but I’m more interested in doing a solo piano album now.  I’m presently writing music for it, and it will be jazz.  It’s fairly atonal type music but with melodies.