Jim DoxasMTL Jazz Notes

As a professional artist, the sounds that came before my generation have greatly influenced me. Oftentimes, it’s human nature to look elsewhere for inspiration, and not at what’s in one’s own backyard. Of course, many times there is great reason to cast a wide net, but as I journey on my musical path, I seem to come back home more often to listen and explore those musicians who have traveled a similar path to mine. Many of those paths lead to Little Burgundy in the Sud-Ouest, where Montreal’s musical scene once flourished.

Little Burgundy was there because it had to be there. As 90% of Black men were train porters, the neighbourhood provided convenience to the two major train stations, Bonaventure and Windsor, but the community also ensured employment, acceptance and safety. The railroad may have been the bedrock of the community, but it was the people, their pasts and hopes for the future that made it such a vibrant and special place. Little Burgundy was the heart of Black Montreal.

Though less overtly pronounced than our neighbours to the south, racial discrimination in Montreal was extensive. Although Little Burgundy was diverse and included both Black & white, English & French, the culture and identity of the borough was unequivocally Black and centered around the pillars of the Union United Church, the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the Negro Community Centre. It was through these organizations that Blacks could escape the racism they suffered in the predominantly white world in which they lived. Their strength was in the community that they built in order to raise their children with the hope for a better life. It was in Little Burgundy that Black people from Nova Scotia, the Caribbean and the United States found a home in the “City Below the Hill.”

There was a time not so long ago that Montreal was the epicentre of nightlife and entertainment, and the city still has a certain mystique that is felt today. Prohibition in the US from 1920 through 1933 brought exponential growth to the city’s nightlife and entertainment scene, however, this started to change in the late-40s and early-50s with the advent of TV and the emergence of two young Montreal lawyers, Pacifique “Pax” Plante and Jean Drapeau. These two ambitious men were tasked with “cleaning up the city.” The aftermath of the Morality Squad’s raids on nightclubs began to erode the vibrant nightlife of the city. Also in the late 1960s, a twelve-year urban renewal project tore apart most of the north end of Little Burgundy, making way for parks, metro stations and the Ville-Marie Expressway.

Although music was impacted during this time, it survived and rose above the restrictions that were imposed. Some of the most notable include Joe Sealy, Reg Wilson and of course, Oliver Jones and Oscar Peterson. Many others also had their life positively shaped by the vibrant, musical environment of Little Burgundy. Retried pianist Oliver Jones recalls the heyday of the community in which he lived and thrived. Jones reflects on his early days; “Music gave us the freedom to express ourselves in a way that no one could take away from us.” His memories include the knowledge that most families had at least one member who played the piano and singers would gather around. Jones added; “Music provided an alternate route to employment other than being a porter.” Jazz followed his classical piano lessons. He reminisced that his parents were more familiar with traditional hymns, and that jazz was certainly not the norm. Oliver added; “Music became the most important part of my life and jazz gave me the ability to stretch out and gain the basic techniques needed to be a piano player.”

When asked how he came to play the piano, Oliver responded, “As a child I wanted to play baseball and run track and field, but I feel that the piano chose me.” Oliver was the youngest in his family and spent his days alongside his mother and the piano. He depicted; “I was hypnotized by it!” Over the thirteen years that I had the privilege of being his drummer in the Oliver Jones Trio, I spent many wonderful hours listening to his stories about growing up in Little Burgundy.

The Peterson family lived just ten doors away from the Jones family, so it was no surprise that Oliver, at the age of 8 or 9, would sit on the Peterson’s steps and listen to Oscar practice. In fact, Daisy Peterson became Oliver’s piano teacher. She taught many of the neighbourhood children and had a huge impact on the musical fabric of the community. In many interviews, Peterson reflected on his days in Little Burgundy. Many local children were encouraged to have a basic knowledge of music. In a CBC interview, Peterson recalled that his father had high expectations of his children and they were expected to master the piano. This regime was meant to instill a strong work ethic and a sense of pride in each child. Initially trained classically, Oscar Peterson said he quickly became “hooked” on jazz thanks to his older brother Fred, who “fooled around” on the piano playing the emerging musical form.

Céline Peterson, Oscar’s daughter, added “Dad never forgot where he came from and carried his Little Burgundy upbringing with him throughout his career. He was fiercely proud to be from Montreal. I feel fortunate to have a connection to the rich musical history of this neighborhood.” Little Burgundy afforded Peterson the chance to explore and perfect the genre even as he set his sights beyond the Montreal scene.

For the people of Little Burgundy, playing music (and playing it as well as one could) became a way of life. Musical education was inherent in the neighbourhood; people frequently sang and played instruments at church and family gatherings. This prevalence affected all who lived in the community and drew people closer together, giving them great strength.

Eventually, Montreal’s golden age of entertainment faded away from the legacy of the Black community, but the individuals will live on not only in our great city but throughout the world. When I talked to Oliver Jones about this article a few days ago, we were recalling a trip we made to Tokyo a few years ago. We stayed in a beautiful hotel in the center of the city, and the opulent hotel bar played exclusively Oscar Peterson. We looked at each other and grinned.

Jim Doxas is an award-winning jazz drummer who has performed with many of North America’s finest musicians, and has performed on more than 150 albums. He also lectures and teaches percussion at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music and at Concordia University. To learn more about Jim and his music, please visit: www.jimdoxas.com

Editor’s Note: Jim performs regularly with his own group and with other first rate jazz musicians at the UpStairs Jazz Bar & Grill at 1254 Mackay, just below Ste-Catherine St. I’m happy to report that the club has re-opened with live music, restaurant and bar service, following public health guidelines. Please visit: www.upstairsjazz.com for show information, or call 514-931-6808 for reservations.

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