Montreal in the Summer – Music, Memories and All That Jazz
I live in a city that comes alive each summer with music. It fills the air whether you’re downtown enjoying the Montreal International Jazz Festival, or walking through parks and neighbourhoods. I grew up in a house filled with music. We weren’t the Rankins or The Osmonds). We didn’t play instruments. We played records.
Before founding the family business my father rose to success in the Montreal radio scene. He ascended quickly from top salesman to General Manager of CJFM, the FM sister station to the wildly popular English-language station, CJAD-AM. As such, he also became the target for every music producer and record distributor who wanted their artist played on his station.
Dad would regularly come home with stacks of “For Promotion Only” albums that had holes punched in the corner of the sleeve so they couldn’t be sold. We had a wall of records reflecting every musical style imaginable. Being somewhat of an audiophile, we were set up with a stereo cabinet that also had the unique feature of having detachable speakers which we placed in such a manner as to provide a convincing version of surround sound. It was called Quadrophonic Sound at the time. Still, whenever I hear John Gary’s interpretation of “The Impossible Dream”, I am transported to that living room and my father sitting in entranced silence.
“Harlem of the North”
Dad, who loved music, used to regale us with stories of the historic “jazz” clubs of Montreal. Montreal was North America’s sin city before Las Vegas was a twinkle in Frank Sinatra’s eye. From the Prohibition era to the early sixties, all the jazz greats and musical giants played here in clubs like Rockhead’s Paradise. Legendary entertainers like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, often went to the club after their shows. Sometimes they would perform impromptu sets on stage with the house band. It was located in Little Burgundy, the same neighbourhood that gave us Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones and I have lived for over the past twenty years.
Rufus Rockhead broke many colour barriers and contributed greatly to making Montreal the musical mecca it’s become. He was immortalized in 1989 by the city by having a street named after him just a stone’s throw from where I am writing this.
I was too young to attend Rockhead’s Paradise in its day (it’s true) but I did go to several of the jazz clubs of my time, including The Rising Sun on Ste-Catherine St., opposite where the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal’s Maison du Festival is located today, in the Quartier des spectacles. For more on the Montreal Jazz History, check out this article from my friend, Richard Burnett. “Jazz in Montreal. from the Roaring Twenties to Today”
Over the thirty years that I attended the festival, I was privileged to see so many music legends perform live. For years I would show up at the PDA (Place des Arts) box office at 5:00 am the day the tickets went on sale to the public, with all the other diehards. I sat before icons such as Ray Charles – Miles Davis – Nina Simone – Aretha Franklin – Dave Brubeck and the legendary Ella Fitzgerald before they passed away. Of the ones still with us, I count among my favourites, George Benson – Stevie Wonder – Diana Ross – Diana Krall and Holly Cole. As I mentioned in last August’s article: The “All the World is a Stage” Issue, “Attending a live performance is a communal experience. Our reaction to what’s happening onstage is shared with the rest of the audience.”
Speaking of Diana Krall and Holly Cole, I’ll share this fan’s story with you. One Sunday while strolling down Sherbrooke St. after seeing Diana Krall at Place des Arts, who do you suppose I saw walking towards us? You guessed it. Gathering my courage, I quickened my pace to get near to her and stage a “close bumping” incident as an excuse to start a conversation. She was convivial and we had a wonderful chat until in mid-sentence she turned her head to her companion and shouted that she left her wallet at the Holt’s counter. With a quick “lovely to meet you”, she rushed off to retrieve it.
A similar experience happened with Holly Cole. We had seen her perform over twenty times and her concert at the Cabaret Lion d’Or was classic Cole. Just this April, she just released her record, Live Album: The Holly Cole Trio, Montréal, that features selections from her show. The next day in Toronto while snaking our way through the crowds of Church Street, we spotted Miss Cole. She was wearing a white dress with red polka dots and wearing huge Jacky O. sunglasses – not easy to miss even with the street resplendent with drag queens.
Gushing like a schoolgirl, I told her how big a fan I was and how we had delayed our trip to Pride just to see her perform the night before.
She seemed genuinely flattered and like Diana Krall, I found her friendly and down to earth. Maybe, it’s a Canadian thing.
If I had to choose three performances that I will never forget, these three top the list: Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Ray Charles. I felt like an eye witness to jazz history. Ella Fitzgerald & Ray Charles were the epitome of personality and professionalism. They gave everything they got despite their advanced ages at the time. Nina Simone was what you would have expected, brilliant and cold as a diamond. Regardless, the electricity that charged through the audience was an experience that only performers of their calibre could create.
Who contributed to the musical soundtrack of your life?
Here are a few musical quote gems (and ear-worms) I find particularly summery. Enjoy.