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Brief Encounters 2 & 3

Always there must be a story. Evoking a description of an experience as a csharpminor-invertednineteenthchordinthebridge or some such gobbledygook tells nothing of the sharing. One particle of the entire picture – maybe. Live. Alive. Musicians. Listeners. Talkers. Waiters. Bouncers. Perhaps it’s a Tuesday – so it’s the assistant manager of whatever venue that’s in attendance, poncing about, self-important. All this and more. And you, author of impressions, centred among all these elements, offering up your part, your opinion, seeing and hearing your version. Only!

I’ve no intention of becoming a reviewer, making outlandish claims of knowledgeable perfection, just a story, a personal version from listening, watching, and generally being enamoured by the brilliance of a variety of wonderful artists. Two are Canadian, locals with whom I have shared personal histories, one from an exciting time in my tattered history; the other, an improvising musician that showed me the way forward.

“These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet. We live in the small window between them, the space we’ve only recently come to think of as still, and really it’s no smaller than anybody else’s window.” Margaret Atwood – “The Bad News” from Moral Disorder (McClelland & Stewart)

I’m not really sure why this particular paragraph has surfaced, it could be because it’s in the book I’m currently reading, a desperate attempt at convincing myself that Margaret Atwood is an interesting writer. Certainly she has written a great number of books and achieved that doubtful “she’s the greatest Canadian writer” accolade, but as Anthony Braxton once told me when I was just starting out – “If you find yourself becoming too popular it’s likely you are doing something wrong”. I’m Paraphrasing!

This then, is back then, the experience of all four, though because of recordings they are still a major part of everyday, and they are and always will be of a quality that few will attain in the not yet.

Two of the four, Donnie Walsh and Richard Underhill, as I’ve hinted, are friends, giving me a special insight, individual personal times spent together, an opportunity to decide if seeing them on film, up there on a digital stage, is enough, can compensate for all those times at Grossman’s, the Brunswick House, the back room in the Cameron, even Lee’s Palace where too long ago to remember I shared the stage with Margaret Atwood at a feminist benefit, our trio integrating music with the magical poet songstress Maya Bannerman.
donnie & bill

Me and Donnie go way back, Grossman’s there at the end of the sixties, Monday nights were it? Too far back for a clear evocation. An extract from Rant & Dawdle might help:


What a pair me and Mister D made, him a dedicated blues bloke, enamoured – just like the Dead, Elvis and the Stones – by the lazy, slack-jawed singing, piercing harmonica and hypnotic electric guitar grooves of Jimmy Reed, and me struggling to learn the rudiments of the tenor saxophone, dabbling in simple chord sequences and freely improvised noise. There’d been the odd occasion at Grossman’s, a quiet night when the noisy inebriates wouldn’t know or care, where I’d been invited to sit in with the band, honk a few out-of-tune choruses on a simple blues; nothing serious.

Saturday it must have been, hanging out with the New Orleans crowd after an afternoon of Cliff “Kid” Bastien’s Happy Pals, endlessly quaffing jugs of draft, and then off we all toddled, Mister D, Bradley visiting from New York and me, back to hang out at my house, just around the corner at 20 Ross Street, order a take-out pizza, dig some sides and get high; not a care in the world.

‘Round about midnight might have been the time, the phone rings, and there’s the dude who’s promoting gigs for night-hawks in the basement of Cinecity, a hip theatre on the corner of Yonge and Charles streets specializing in art and foreign films, wondering when the band will arrive. What band would that be? Under the circumstances it has completely slipped Mister D’s mind, the excellent hashish and wine obliterating this or any other engagement. Jim Milne and Cash Wall are still awake, a rhythm section at least, an up-&-comer guitarist who lives just up the road a bit on Washington at Huron is terrifyingly thrilled to join the spontaneous aggregation. Mister D, who always carries his harps for emergencies such as this, sez – “grab yer horn man, we’ve got a gig”.

Stark, dingy, black painted basements were all the rage, disguising the grunginess, mimicking the night that the sparse clientele was escaping; the bored, the lonely, the weirdos, submerged in the artificial after hours culture of a city that closed down at midnight.

We five are tucked into a dimly lit corner, the ceiling barely affording headroom; three – when abstaining from the addictive joys of drugs and booze – blues players of some quality; one a hopeful, and yours truly technically incompetent. “Just keep playing that far out shit”, Mister D sez, “it’ll be cool”.

Musically not much is remembered from that night, perhaps I was saved by Albert Ayler’s spirit looming, or bravado gathered from the excessive consumption of illegal substances egging me on. What is recollected is Bradley, who was not a fan of this primitive art form, saying: “Man that’s the best fucking blues band I’ve ever heard”.

So watching two videos; “Flip Flop and Fly, 40 Years of the Downchild Blues Band” and “The Legendary Downchild Blues Band, 40th Anniversary Celebration Live at Massey Hall” – both gifts from Donnie on my 75th birthday celebration in Toronto – are bound to start my elderly mind racing.

To say that “Flip Flop and Fly” was a staple of the band would be an understatement. It’s fame and fortune in some ways aligned to that Joe Turner song. The ladies, waiting outside of Massey Hall for the concert to begin are asked to recall one tune they remember Downchild playing. Out from all their mouths, almost in unison, it pops. Flip. Flop. Fly.

My history with Donnie and some members of the band is stuck back there in the sixties, the information lodged, the time being where my musical association resides. Both these CDs are outside of my personal world. Not confirming my historical being even though for a smattering of frames one of my low-light grainy photographs – Donnie and tenor saxophonist Dave Woodward with Buddy Guy – appears, a flash, a tiny part of an experience. Just the pondering, the moments I shared in Grossman’s, the smell of draft beer served in plastic jugs, the fading to brown pictures filling the wall, formica topped tables swilled with beer – spilt, sticky, an enthusiasm for their exuberant music, are all that I respond to. You though, if you’ve not been this close, could really enjoy this 2-DVD set. Donnie out front sucking and blowing that harp (in any key), Jane Vasey doing that magic at the piano, rompin’, rollin’ striding along with Donnie; Dan Aykroyd being a Blues Brother, guest shots from James Cotton, Colin James, Jeff Healey, a funky horn section, all exciting stuff that for me is just a film, a good one with fine music, but not my time with them. My pleasure derived from the old footage that’s mixed in with the concert.

And so with the second film, the “40th Anniversary Celebration – Live at Massey Hall”, is again a great night out, but not a personal moment and as I’ve decided not to be a reviewer the same advice applies. A great night of blues from Canada’s premier blues band. The live performance with guests similar to “Flip Flop and Fly”, a straight concert presentation without all that history.

I could add another ingredient just to make it personal, one that takes me back home to Bristol, to the Aardman Animation Studios and the brilliant team of Peter Lord and Nick Park, who used “Flip Flop and Fly” as one of the tunes in the soundtrack of the hilarious movie “Chicken Run”. Instead I’ll stay with my very last memory, true or not, of a duet, Donnie and Jane at The Edge, a club run by two legendary promoters both called Gary – on the corner of Church and Gerrard. There’s a small stage in what may have been a bay window, the light, dust mote bespangled, seeking to filter through a crack in the dusty curtains. Perhaps it be one of those Sunday afternoons, wine and a sandwich and beautiful music.

Now flip, flop and fly,
I don’t care if I die
Now flip, flop and fly,
I don’t care if I die
Don’t ever leave me, don’t ever say goodbye…


Sometimes it appears as though the whole world around me has become submerged in tedious parochial convention, that certain elements, especially in the political arena, are no longer connected with anything we had planned. The sixties in some way a false prophet, a decade of imagined liberation from capitalist control. There were, of course, high moments releasing us from the mundane, like when in 1964 Dizzy Gillespie ran for president with his beliefs in the civil rights movement, withdrawing from Vietnam and recognizing other international powers with different principals to America – such as China, it did seem for a moment that sanity could be instilled in the American psyche. He even went as far as to suggest that Miles Davis would be head of the CIA. How proudly we wore his campaign button. 

Dizzy’s campaign song was based on his bebop gem “Salt Peanuts” and went something like:

Your politics ought to be a groovier thing
Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!
So get a good president who’s willing to swing
Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!

Two decades on, the early eighties, a performance art group – The Hummer Sisters – decided they had had enough of the pedestrian attitude prevalent in Toronto and ran a campaign called “ART versus Art: This is no Job for Politicians”, the main contender to the mayoral position being one Art Eggleton. He of course won, but much to our delight the Hummers came second with 12,000 votes.

This morning [January 9th/2014] as I begin this portion of my ongoing story, an e-mail has arrived informing me that saxophonist Richard Underhill has announced he will run for mayor of Toronto in the upcoming October election. Looking back over the tunes associated with him I suggest he might use – considering the damage Rob Ford has done to this city – Dave Parker’s “Out of My House, Roach”, from the 1986 Shuffle Demons hit recording “Streetniks”.

By the time I meet Richard Underhill, somewhere in the early eighties, our band of improvisers has already made an impact on the elitist Toronto music scene with numerous cassettes, two long-playing records of the trio with David Prentice and David Lee, and two recordings with American guests Leo Smith and Joe McPhee. Live residences at the Subway Room of the Spadina Hotel on Monday nights and Saturday afternoons under the auspices of Johnny O in the back room of the Cameron.

It’s said that stories repeated enough times become a known fact, occasionally contribute to legend, especially it seems in the history of jazz. When researching Richard Underhill’s early adventures I discover in a discography that he had recorded with our band on the cassette titled “The Bill Smith Ensemble – Live In Toronto – Onari 007”. Shuffle Demon Stich Winston is indeed the drummer. On another occasion it’s true we did collaborate – our two bands uniting – for a Music Gallery concert.

Before I ramble on too far into irrelevant memories it should be clarified where this road is leading. What, if any, the point might be. The original intention was to investigate the idea whether a DVD of a performance was in any way a substitute for the real thing, if it could compensate for the disappearance of the night club – those smoky, slightly mysterious venues, my favourite places to hear jazz music – impersonate the social aspect, the gathering around the checkered table-clothed table, dimly candle-lit, of like-minded friends sharing that night’s “menu special” and a bottle of wine, putting us as close to earthly paradise as one is likely to come.

Free Spirit

Is that what I get from watching the DVD of “Free Spirit”, sat here in my study gazing at pictures on the screen of my computer, the sound encapsulated, travelling out through wires to a pair of high quality earphones clamped to my head? I think not.

Here we are with a group of players to whom I have little personal connection, a club I’ve never visited, and a band that if your heart still resides with Miles, Mingus, Cannonball, Horace Silver and Jackie McLean then there is no question as to whether you will like this music. Not the Shuffle funk Richard’s reputation demands. Here he is on alto saxophone leading a superb band of locals embellished by trombonist Ronald Westray a refugee from the Lincoln Centre Orchestra and now holding the Oscar Peterson Chair in jazz performance at York University.

I would have to say that the CD is a jazz recording, studio tight, the compositions all clocking in around the five minute mark, a certain feeling of control apparent, the brilliant band a standard jazz quintet format – two horns (alto saxophone and trombone) with a piano ([Dave Restivo]/bass [Artie Roth]/ drums [Sly Juhas] rhythm section. The compositions, all it would seem penned by Mister Underhill, have a post-bop sensibility about them, neat tunes constructed with the intention of allowing solos to arise naturally. Good stuff.

The DVD a different kettle of fish. Right off, jump straight in to “Surfing”, the rhythm section now augmented by guitarist Eric St-Laurent, immediately setting the groove, establishing the scene; smoking solos all round, the shape of things to come. Two other changes to the ensemble is the very energetic drumming of Larnell Lewis and the additional rhythm of Michael DeQuevedo’s djembe, supplying the music with a funky grooviness that so delight’s the happy audience. The compositions, again by Mister Underhill, are extended romps, the briefest around seven minutes and the longest a tad over seventeen, allowing all the players to stretch out and – as we used to say – strut their stuff.

So to end this story: One summer, sometime at the end of the eighties, Michael Century, who had been one of my students at York University and had created the Banff Centre’s Inter-Arts program, invited me, Ken Pickering and Robert Kerr as guests, to witness the creative jazz program he had designed in collaboration with bassist David Holland. [http://vancouverjazz.com/bsmith/2006/01/dave-holland-interviews-1973-1989.html].

Kenny P. has a fantastic automobile, a 1985 Audi Turbo 5000, which he will not let either of us passengers drive. He claims we kept goosing him to go faster, faster, let this magnificent German machine have its head. Anyway, we head back across the Rockies and decide to take a lunch break at a diner in Salmon Arm. More or less halfway. As was often the case in those days, humour followed us everywhere, and realizing we were in the birthplace of Richard “Shuffle Demon” Underhill decided to try out our sense of humour on the young waitress. “Could you direct us”, I inquired, “to the square where the statue of Shuffle Demon Richard Underhill stands?” Hardly missing a beat she replied, “Don’t be silly, there’s no such a statue in the square”.

“You know who he is?

“Of course, my dad was his math teacher”.


End Notes

Mister Downchild…
Photograph of Donnie Walsh & Bill Smith by Erin

…and the Shuffle Demon

Brief Encounters #4 will feature “Sunshine Daydream” from 1972, a 3 CD & 1 DVD set of the Grateful Dead from 1972.