The Jubilation Choir is celebrating twenty-five years of glorious singing. Trevor Payne – Founder, Director, recipient of the Order of Canada and numerous other awards visits with The Montrealer

Born one of five children in Barbados, Trevor Payne’s life journey brought him to Montreal where he grew up in Rosemount; became a successful rock ’n’ roll band leader and musician; studied music at McGill; continued in linguistics at Université de Laval; Black Music History at Howard University; and eventually founded the world famous Montreal Jubilation Choir. Here’s the story of his talent being discovered and nurtured, his musical travels, and his faith.

“My father played clarinet and saxophone in the Barbados Police Band – he worked on the police force as a detective. So I guess I have music in my genes,” remarks Trevor at the beginning of our interview. “Hundreds if not thousands of men from Barbados joined the Canadian forces during WWII in part because of the promise of immediate Canadian Citizenship after the war. My father was one of those soldiers.”

Trevor continues; “After the war, my father came to Montreal and got a job as a porter with CN, working in Windsor Station. He then brought my mother and two older brothers; and then a few years later my other brother, me and our grandmother who had been looking after us during this four year transition period. Along the way my sister was born in Montreal – completing the 5 children family.”

Looking out the window at his snow-covered back garden, Trevor notes; “My mother sent us a picture of her bundled up in a winter coat, hat, scarf and gloves. It frightened me. We had no concept of that kind of cold.”

“My father was a strong-willed man and he insisted on us growing up anywhere but downtown; where most kids were lucky to make it to 12 without getting in trouble with the authorities.

He was afraid of the influences we would find in places like Rockhead’s Paradise and the pool rooms of St. Henri. Lots of people grew up fine, like Oliver Jones and Oscar Peterson – but that was my father’s thinking.”

Trevor continues; “We moved to Rosemount – where we encountered a whole lot of other problems as the only black family in the neighbourhood. Kids calling us all kinds of name on the way to school – you name it. My Dad encountered criticism from his co-workers, who thought that he considered himself above them by choosing to live in Rosemount.”

“We were far from rich – but not poor. My mother had several jobs. She cleaned toilets in Simpson’s, made sandwiches at Windsor Station, and took in sewing.”

Trevor’s exposure to music was almost accidental. “When I was 9 or 10, we spent the Christmas Holidays with another Barbadian family living in Longeuil. They had a piano, and I started picking our notes of songs playing on the radio. By the end of two weeks, I was playing along with both hands.”

Upon returning to Rosemount, his father said that he heard that Trevor had been playing the piano very well during the holidays.

“He asked if I’d like to take lessons. I thought that this was remarkable – my father was asking my opinion and offering me a choice – something he didn’t usually do.” Chuckling at the memory, Trevor continues; “I thought this was quite adult, and so I replied that I didn’t want to take lessons. In my own ‘adult’ analysis; I figured that I was saving him some money and that he’d be pleased with my reasoned response. Instead, he told me to go to my room and stay there until I changed my mind.”

“I started my lessons with a lady a few blocks away. We didn’t have a piano – so she let me come an hour early to practice before my lesson. After 3 or 4 months she told my father that she had done all she could, and that I should go on to a higher level with another teacher.”

“I was enrolled in La Conservatoire Royale du Musique on Ontario Street, and it wasn’t too long before my teacher recommended that I go to McGill.” Trevor sighs, “All the while I said to myself; ‘I’m not enjoying this.’ It was the sixties; I was a teenager and I wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll.”

“I got a job playing at Roberto’s Lodge in St. Adolphe and that was it for me. I eventually put together a band called Trevor Payne and the Triangle, with Gerry Mercer on drums (now with April Wine), Rayburn Blake on guitar, and Pierre Senecal on keyboards.”

The band was booked by the then fledgling impresario Donald K Donald. “Donald still comes to our concerts. If it wasn’t for him, I might never have followed this path.” Trevor enthuses about his long-time friend; “Donald is the sweetest guy in the world – with a heart equally big. He gave so many of us a start.”

However the rock ‘n’ roll business began to wear thin for Trevor. “I felt that I had to improve my skills as a musician, and that I’d be able to play a better brand of rock ‘n’ roll.” It was time for Trevor to go back to McGill. “I had every intention of becoming a better musician, and then coming back to rock music.”

‘Life’ – and Daisy Peterson Sweeny would soon change those plans.

“Daisy Peterson Sweeney, Oscar Peterson’s sister was the ‘de facto’ piano teacher for black kids in St Henri. She taught Oscar, Oliver Jones and many, many more.” Trevor leans forward to make sure I’m getting this right. “Daisy used to have group classes for kids who couldn’t afford individual lessons. She’d take just 25 or 50 cents, and knowing that these kids didn’t have a piano at home, she’d give them as little as 4 bars to learn a week. She’d have recitals where a kid would only have to play one page – because she knew the importance of performance.”

“I was studying music at McGill and Daisy called me saying; ‘Trevor, I’m going to have my yearly piano recital at Union United Church. I’d like you to come and show these kids that there is so much more available to them. You’re studying music at a university level, and I want you to play the violoncello’.”

Trevor laughs; “I really didn’t want to play the violoncello; and I suggested that it would be better if I taught her students a song and that I’d conduct their performance.” More laughter from Trevor; “I’d do anything to get out of playing that violoncello!”

So – with Daisy’s agreement – her class would sing a song under Trevor’s guidance. “At the first rehearsal; there must have been 30 or 40 kids – some weren’t even Daisy’s students. The audience at Union United Church went berserk! We did an encore and had to sing the same song again…”

This was good news for the Church, and shortly thereafter the Minister telephoned Trevor; and asked him to organize a permanent youth choir. Trevor was studying in Boston during the summer of ’74 and he assembled material that he could use in the coming fall for the choir.

Much to everyone’s pleasant surprise 60 youth presented themselves at the first audition. “I was overwhelmed – I threw up my arms and said – ‘You’re all in the choir – let’s get started’. This was the beginning of The Montreal Black Community Youth Choir.”

The 75th Anniversary of Union United Church was in 1975, and the congregation had a major celebration planned. For the anniversary, Trevor was asked if he could include the senior members of the choir as an intergenerational choir. It was to be a momentous occasion.

In October, 1982, with Trevor Payne conducting and Oliver Jones playing the organ, the Montreal Black Community Youth Choir and the Union United Church Choir performed together as The Montreal Jubilation Choir.

That performance would mark a major change in many lives: Trevor Payne as Director and Choirmaster; the Choristers; and in the years to come – the many young musicians who would come to accompany the choir. Little did they know that The Montreal Jubilation Choir would perform for hundreds of thousands of people; travel the world; win competitions and provide a lifetime of musical enjoyment and fulfillment for each member. Each one with a story; a passion for singing; and a pride in their dedication – coming together for the joyful purpose of singing as one wonderful and powerful voice.

The first album was recorded in 1985, again with Oliver Jones contributing. Since then there have been a total of 11 recordings; including the newest release – Jubilation XI – a compilation of 12 favourite recording over the past 25 years.

Oliver Jones comments; “Trevor has done so much for so many people; encouraging young musicians who have played with the choir, giving a chance for talented singers to gain recognition, and providing a wonderful opportunity for musical fulfillment for those members who are happy singing in the choir.”

Still true to its origins, The Jubilation Choir donates a significant amount of money to charity organizations. “With just the proceeds from our Christmas concerts” Trevor notes, “we have donated well over $one million to community organizations including: Sun Youth, St Columba House, The Old Brewery Mission, Dans La Rue, Chez Doris, and Alcoholics Anonymous. We have donated almost all the seats for Friday night’s performance this year, either as free tickets or as tickets sold by an organization as a fundraiser – we give the tickets – they sell them and keep the money.”

Along the way, Trevor was awarded the Order of Canada. In a voice choked with emotion, “You cannot – I mean you absolutely cannot imagine what that award means to me. There are twenty to thirty thousand nominations a year; which are narrowed down to twenty, thirty or fifty awards.”

“There I was, sitting amongst UN Ambassadors, and some very dedicated people. When I leaned forward to receive my award, I whispered in Governor-General Romeo Leblanc’s ear; ‘I have no idea why I’m here. His reply; ‘That’s what most people say – let me assure you that we don’t just give these away…’ Indeed they don’t. The 10 Supporting Reasons for Trevor’s investiture include his contributions to Montreal’s Black Community, founding the Montreal Jubilation Choir, his teaching, leadership and motivation of young students at John Abbott College, his role as a mentor to young Black students, his significant fundraising efforts for community groups, and his enhancement of Canada’s international image.

Later at the celebratory dinner, Trevor was seated beside the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who is the Chairman of the selection committee. “I found out that he was a huge fan of The Jubilation Choir.” Trevor had asked his mother to accompany him to the Awards ceremony at Rideau Hall; “They treated her like Queen Elizabeth!”

During our conversation it is apparent that Trevor is a deeply spiritual man. “My Grandmother lived her faith as a totally committed Christian, and it affected me. You cannot grow up in a black family and not be aware of spirituality.”

“I don’t think you can be an artist without having a strong sense of spiritually.” Continuing; “When we’re performing, we have Christians, Jews, Muslims, and everyone else up singing and dancing. They’re all reading from the same book! To me – this is what spirituality is all about. That’s what God meant. This is about Jesus who walked amongst everybody.”

Outside of music, Trevor has a passion for cooking, gardening, and chess, having studied with Russian master Roman Pelts.

Who knew that the 10 year old boy picking out popular songs on a friend’s piano would have such a magnificent impact on so many people’s lives – sharing the joy of Gospel Music with a spectrum of people that includes Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela and the audiences at The Montreal International Jazz Festival, the world’s largest jazz festival. It’s the thoughtfulness of providing free tickets for the Christmas Concert at St. James United Church to people a little down on their luck – seeking peace and inspiration with the music of the Jubilation Choir – that provides a glimpse of this man’s humanity, his humility, and his faith. Thank you Trevor – for giving us so much joy.

For more information about The Montreal Jubilation Choir, their recordings and Professor Trevor Payne C.M., please visit the website:

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