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Now is the time to know
that all you do is sacred
– Hafiz

Photograph Barry Thomson

Photograph Barry Thompson

There was a time when travelling abroad was exotic, a unique experience, when individuality was embedded in each culture, when a rare gift, something personal and unknown, could be brought back home in the carryon bag. A treat to open my daughter’s eyes, wide. A time when legends still lived in the lexicon of myth.

Let’s begin the story in Copenhagen where John Tchicai was born on April 28th, 1936 to a Danish mother and a Congolese father.

My first visit to Copenhagen was in 1967, a tourist, one stop on a tour taking me through Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and France. First Class, organised and guaranteed by Thomas Cook of London. My memories are scattered, confused, the time-lines merging, references not sequential; so reading in the Guardian newspaper an article suggesting that not since Shakespeare had declared something was rotten in the state of Denmark had the inhabitants been so disgruntled, was not a good start. It seems that Ikea, the Swedish all-conquering furniture firm, had quite shamelessly named its fanciest futons, tables and chairs after Swedish, Finnish or Norwegian places, while reserving Danish place names for doormats, draught-excluders and cheap carpets.

The few highlights of Copenhagen in memory are wandering the amusement park and pleasure gardens of Tivoli, visiting museums, photographing the Little Mermaid. And not to ignore the cuisine: meat balls, potatoes, cabbage, røde pølser (an overlong red sausage) purchased in the street from a pølsevogn (sausage wagon), and a variety of sharp-tasting pickled fish, all washed down with a mug of Carlsberg lager or a shot of Aquavit, that seriously dangerous schnapps distilled from potatoes and grains.

I have arrived too late to participate in the musical revolution that had taken place at Jazzhus Montmartre, with Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray announcing that Nefertiti the beautiful one had come; where Albert Ayler played personal versions of standard repertoire, bouncing with Bird’s Billie; when Archie Shepp and Don Cherry with futurist John Tchicai crepesculed with Nellie, and Don with Albert jubilantly singing songs for mothers and children; and Don again with his all star international band, players from the Argentine, Germany, Italy and Sweden proclaiming that spring was there; just missing tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon with a marvellous band that had included the Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu and the brilliant local bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, he on track to becoming an international figure.

Twenty years on and here I am again, no longer a tourist, preparing to perform on the stage of Jazzhus Montmartre, and even though it’s no longer the original funky cafe, reopened at another location as a high-end restaurant, I’m not concerned, still dreaming among the spirits inhabiting the shadows, inspiring me as I solo on Duke’s – What is it? – “Echoes of Harlem”. We’ve travelled up, John and me, in his sporty automobile, a German Ford is what’s remembered, although this may not be. He loves to drive at high speeds, cruising at 200 klicks on the autobahn, getting us to our destination ahead of the van that the other four saxophonists were travelling in. I’m rushing ahead, the back-story invisible, there’s a need to reveal some of the history, how and why we came to know each other.

This is really about John, my memories of him, what happened to the two of us together, rather than touring with the De Zes Winden (The Six Winds), although without that invitation back then in 1986 our paths may have never crossed. The invitation from baritone saxophonist Ad Peijnenburg came as a surprise, out of the blue, and apart from alto saxophonist Paul Termos and John Tchicai the members of De Zes Winden were unfamiliar names. Although I’ve never said it before, out loud, it was John being in the band that convinced me to set off on this adventure. After all he had been one of my musical heroes for the past quarter-century, the honour of playing with him obliterating any objections I might have about joining a group of Dutch musicians unknown to me.

6 winds posterThere are six saxophonists, our horns ranging from bass saxophone up to my Eb sopranino – a wide range of pitches, textures, styles, gathered together to rehearse a program of mostly original compositions, develop a program to present ten concerts in fifteen days.  For me there is some discomfort in the idea of performing with five players that were strangers, exaggerated by the fact that back home I’m sheltered within the safety of my own band, so I’m sceptical as to whether six saxophonists of such diverse styles could indeed become one voice. And my reading ability is being tested, never having to interpret complex scores such as these, my education being minimal lessons many years ago with casual teachers. Much to my liking the rehearsals take place at the Amnesty International Centre. Everyone is willing to offer assistance, help me along, John’s advice being that if there are too many notes for me to handle just leave some out.

This first tour was a quite wonderful experience, a circuit around Holland – Utrect, Rotterdam, Otterloo, Middleburg, Alkmaar – forming new friendships, discovering the secrets of group interaction, being inspired by the presence of a musician who created music I imitate. I’ve dug out the poster of that first tour, sending a tremor of wistful yearning for those times trilling through my wires, making me pause just for a minute, gather my senses.

The pinnacle of the tour, the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, the paramount club for jazz and improvised music in Holland, is where the compositions honed throughout the preceding week will be recorded. The tour, though not completed, feels that way. Maarten Altena, one of Holland’s premier bassists, explained the large audience. “They just love saxophone bands in Amsterdam”. The response was most gratifying, including the contributions of Molly, a musician’s dog that barked along with the applause. Most of the material on the lp De Zes Winden – Live At The Bimhuis And More (BvHaast 064) was to come from that wonderful night in Amsterdam.

Kampen Om 7 Eren

Increased Cosmopo

Swamijis Mood

One more concert in Eindhoven, perhaps at the request of my Dutch sponsor – wanting his money’s worth, was outdoors at a city celebration of some kind, and then to really complete the tour we head south to the 13th Century Belgium town of Kortrijk, close to the French border, to perform in the town celebrations of the Sinksen Feesten (Whitsuntide). We have been billeted in a suitably seedy hotel. There were three concerts, one in a club – unremembered, the other two outdoors on stages set up around the town square.

The first of the outdoor concerts is in a marketplace where the holidaying locals, unhappy with our music, show their derision by throwing tomatoes, triggering Tchicai – his over six foot stature making him an imposing figure – to leap from the stage and chase them through the crowds, honking loudly on his tenor saxophone. The final event is as the horn section for an electro-funk band called the Simple Tones. And quite suddenly it’s all over.

Me and Tchicai have celebrated our birthdays – both born under the astological sign Taurus. I heard a giant wind organ on the promenade of Vlissingen, a Dutch seaside town where the ships of the Royal Netherlands Navy are built, and hung out in a favourite bar called The Black Tulip, the plastic replica in the window the closest I ever came to seeing one, a bar where English hooligans were banned; rode bicycles along cobbled streets, meandered through the countryside, visited a seaside town resplendent with windmills, played in a Rotterdam street band – one of them the master of Molly the applauding dog, and drank Trappist beer in Belgium pubs.

On the next tour the following year we go further afield, up into the north of Holland, across into Denmark, a rest period in Copenhagen. Dinner at John’s apartment, another birthday celebration for me and John in a school where he teaches – closed for the holidays, toasting ourselves with Aquavit purchased for cheap on the ferry. More rehearsals, and the concert at Jazzhus Montmartre.


The author, John Tchicai, Franz VermeerssenPhotographic Collage David Prentice

The author, John Tchicai, Franz Vermeerssen
Photographic Collage David Prentice

In a most peculiar manner John Tchicai’s connection to Canada occurred way back in his youth. In an interview with Danish writer Roland Baggenaes he said: Shortly after the war (WW2 1939 – 1945) I started going to Sweden to buy records, 78s, because it was difficult to get any records in Denmark. One of the first records I got was one with Moe Koffman and otherwise I just bought what I could get.

In 1948, the twenty year-old Moe Koffman was named Best Alto Saxophonist in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Jazz Unlimited poll. As a result of this and other acknowledgements he received, Koffman was offered a record contract with Main Stem Records in Buffalo, New York. His first recordings, under the name Moe Koffman and the Main Stemmers, were two bebop 78-RPMs, all four sides having Bop in their titles.

Holland is a cramped, miniature world, tiny towns close together, most hardly more than a few hours drive apart, causing me to make asides about the grandeur of Canada, boast about the majesty of the mountains, the vast dimensions of our lakes, the largest, Lake Superior being twice the area of Holland; how modern and convenient life can be in Canada. One of the saxophonists, who shall remain nameless, became irritated at my boastfulness, doubting my version of the wonders of my adopted homeland, takes to calling me Billy Bullshit.

June 23rd, 1988, a Thursday, the plan was to start off the Canadian tour in Toronto, my home town. It would have seemed, considering my local reputation, that this was a no-brainer, that the jazz festival would jump at the chance of hiring an officially sponsored international group, especially one that featured a legend of the sixties avant garde and me, a local hero. To my great disappointment this was not to be. The artistic director, a dixieland saxophonist, was unable to insert our music into his program.

A group of friends, outraged at this decision decided to present us at the hippest cafe in downtown Toronto, one, where over the years we had constantly introduced the conservative population to the wonders of surrealistic fantasies.

Meanwhile down at Harbourfront, a government sponsored culture complex, a separate mini-festival is taking place under the rubric New Jazz Series. The B Series features John’s old mate Archie Shepp, who is, on the same evening as we are appearing, performing in duet with pianist Horace Parlan. I’ve been recruited as compere. Archie is delighted to hear that John is in town and when his work is done heads straight for the Rivoli, which is packed to capacity. Of that concert Steve Vickery wrote:

…the inclusion in the Rivoli performance of John Tchicai’s “Increased Cosmopo” was a blessing, with the composer soaring through the tune invoking the spirit from his early teachers, Ayler and Coltrane. Vivid sound textures rushed out from the ensemble, creating a sort of mutual hypnosis of performers. The feeling of being caught up in a canopy of sound that lifts the listener out of the present and freezes them in the space between one breath and the next is something that is collectively acknowledged in the room but is not spoken of.

And later in the two page article Steve wrote:

The first four selections I inadvertently missed, walking in out of the rain and scrambling to catch the name of the composition the ensemble was playing. It was Tchicai’s “Smoke Signals”, that made use of a reoccurring theme interlaced with solos from alto, tenor and sopranino. Smith seemed determined to blow the tiny sopranino apart but contented himself with a muscular, growling solo as the bass and baritone saxophones passed the theme back and forth. John Tchicai, certainly the best known member of the ensemble, as a result of his participation in the founding of “free jazz” demonstrated his powerful command of the tenor saxophone, a wondrous moment for this listener to hear the weight of music history that is contained within one man’s sound.

There ain’t no more iconic symbol of Canada than Bob and Doug McKenzie, that pair of fictional beer-swilling television brothers wearing, with pride, plaid flannel shirts and tuques while hosting the Great White North. A right pair of hosers. How’s it goin’, eh? Being as how the band are of Dutch origin it seems unlikely they’ve heard of these two Canadian legends. So when we arrive in Calgary, home to numerous Western Wear & Tack stores filled with stereotype paraphernalia, to serve as a treat for our baritone saxophonist leader we search out the legendary red and black plaid flannel shirt and matching hunting cap. The store is gigantic, everything you could need; boots, saddles, ten-gallon hats, belts, ornate buckles, jeans, ropes, whips, spurs, knives, hunting rifles, shotguns and row upon row of plaid shirts, the perfect Canadian commemorative gift. The only problem is finding one with a label that sez “Made In Canada”. Even here, in the most Canadian of emporiums, everything is “Made In China”. A knock-off. Only in Canada, Eh? Pity… The solution, so as not to disappoint our guest, is to remove the offensive labels with a razor blade. He’ll never know.

Not all of the program producers were enthusiastic about the Six Winds’ music, the director of the Victoria Festival, legendary for its conservatism, completely ignores us, and Saskatoon festival offers to fit us in as the opening act of the lone avant garde concert. The Phil Woods Quartet!

Back then the cross-Canada festivals were organized by Westcan Jazz, presentations happening in six cities, four of which the De Zes Winden have been invited to. Next stop Vancouver, the jewel of Western Canada. Unlike Toronto, the program producer Kenny P. books us in for a week, treats us like the international stars we think we are. The memories are succinct, fragments at best. There were a couple of outdoor concerts, one on the forecourt of the Pacific Centre, where a long-tone chord is joined by ten large air horns atop a nearby building giving forth the first four notes of O Canada. A regular noontime signal. The Granville Island stage comes to mind, our bass saxophonist wandering about among the mob of children, playing a rendition of the Teddy Bears Picnic.

Me and Tchicai had been offered other gigs, just the two of us, which in Europe we had turned down – all or nothing at all. Here the opportunity seemed perfect. After a weird gig with the six saxophones at Yuk Yuk’s comedy club at the Plaza of Nations, we are joined by American saxophonist Vinny Golia, and the local superstar rhythm team of Clyde Reed and Greg Simpson for a concert at the Discovery Theatre. It’s Canada Day, a statutory holiday. The venue is less than desirable, a general admission-free event filled with families milling about, bored parents with impatient children filling their weekend with a visit to a “jazz festival”, visually annoying as they swarm from one side of the amphitheatre to the other, instantly realizing that this was not the entertainment they had expected. Not a dixieland lick or chick singer to be heard. The music is all by John, simple snatches of melody suitable for an unrehearsed band. Rollicking improvisation as one critic would describe the afternoon. John does draw some of the crowd into his web with unexpected get-down vocals.

Our feature concert is at the Cultch (Vancouver East Cultural Centre), a beautiful, old, abandoned Methodist church that became a concert venue in 1973. Perfect for De Sez Winden acoustic music, six saxophones filling the woody space full. Two years later when I came to live on Hornby, a local artist, now a friend, told me that he was there on that night and thought the music to be squirrelly. The dictionary describes squirrelly as informal, restless, nervous, unpredictable, eccentric or mad. He should have been a professional critic.

Heading back east we make a brief stopover at the Edmonton Festival. The one memory from that is a humorous story regarding nudity. In Holland there is a tolerant attitude toward the naked body, the Dutch, in general, not being a prudish people, are comfortable with their bodies. We’re lodged in a sterile commercial hotel, beige with prairie prints screwed to the walls, the most interesting feature being a fitness centre complete with a full size swimming pool. Me and John have finished our morning swim, retired to the changing rooms, when suddenly a commotion breaks out in the swimming pool area. Whistles are blowing, the guard shouting loudly at someone to “get out of the pool”. One of the six-winders, his English sketchy at best, has been swimming laps, oblivious to the hectic commands being direct at him, doing what comes naturally back home. Naked.

It’s almost over, the last tour I will do with John, back to home-base in Toronto to record for Sackville Records the music we have honed on this tour, the result being Elephants Can Dance – Sackville 3041. Long out-of-print

Pachanga No. 7

Arthur Bull, the author, John TchicaiPhotograph Barry Thomson

Arthur Bull, the author, John Tchicai
Photograph Barry Thompson


Once again me and John are to have a final night together at Clinton’s, a quintet with Arthur Bull guitar, Doug Willson bass and Richard Bannard drums, playing a collection of music we have become familiar with and a couple of unrehearsed standards thrown in. A humorous rendition of “I Can’t Get Started”, a tune neither of us really knew, using the clumsy reading as a joke, with John playing my Eb alto clarinet and him allowing me to play his antique 19th century Adolphe Sax soprano.

We kept in touch casually, me moving here to the island permanently and him travelling about, continuing on with De Sez Winden for a couple more seasons, for most of the nineties relocating with his wife to Davis, California, eventually returning to Europe, settling near Perpignan in southern France where he passed into the spirit world on October 8th, 2012.

The last time we wrote each other was September 2010, exchanging books. His gift was “silent solos – improvisers speak” a collection of poetry to which he had contributed. Tucked inside the book was a greeting card that came from the West Edmonton Mall, the illustration a colour photograph of The Daring Drop Of Doom.

Only the most daring will experience the Drop of Doom, a 13-storey free fall ride at Fantasyland. Are you daring enough!

A souvenir from back there in July 1988.


Material From My Collection:

Chapter 27 of Rant & Dawdle, and Issues 221 (August/September 1988) & 222 (October/November 1988) of Coda Magazine have been referenced in the construction of this memoir.

Cecil Taylor Trio – Nefertiti, The Beautiful One has Come – Revenant (November 23, 1962)
Albert Ayler – My Name Is Albert Ayler – Black Lion (January 14, 1963)
Archie Shepp – & The New York Contemporary Five – Storyville
(November 15, 1963)
Archie Shepp – Four for Trane – Impulse (August 10, 1964)
Albert Ayler – Copenhagen Tapes – Ayler Records (September 3 & 10, 1964)
New York Art QuartetESP (November 26, 1964)
New York Art Quartet – Mohawk – Fontana (July 16, 1965)
New York Art Quartet – call it art – triple point records (http://www.triplepointrecords.com)
Five lps of uncirculated music from 1964-1965
Personal reflections on this project will appear in an upcoming posting.
Don Cherry Quintet – Live At Cafe Montmartre 1966 – ESP (March 31, 1966)
Archie Shepp & Horace Parlan – Goin’ Home – Steeplechase (April 25, 1977)

BVHaast Recordings (http://wbk.home.xs4all.nl/BVHAAST.html)

silent solos – improvisers speak (ISBN 978-3-00-030557-3)
buddy’s knife jazz edition (Koln, Germany) (http://www.buddysknife.de)

All four music examples composed by John Tchicai