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Mister Mustard has requested that I reveal the time frame of my stories. This one takes place at the beginning of the 1970s when he resided in the attic of our community house on Ross Street. The area around College and Spadina was yet to be gentrified, home to the Jewish garment district, the inhabitants inner city working-class, a motley collection of artists and Chinese families displaced since 1965 by the building of a new City Hall down at Queen and Bay streets.

Our local watering hole was Grossman’s Tavern on the corner of Spadina Avenue and Cecil Street, a short two-block walk. The tavern filled nightly with local folk, among them three wonderful artists who will become musical friends. Gordon Rayner, Graham Coughtry and Robert Markle.

A decade before this story [1962] they would, with other visual artists, concoct the Artists’ Jazz Band. They gathered in a studio above the First Floor Club, an after-hours jazz club on Asquith Avenue created by Howard Matthews, husband of the legendary singer Salome Bey. In this very club, just a month after arriving in Toronto, I would attend a rare solo performance of pianist Lennie Tristano.

Blowin’ Round The Wind [8:26]

Sometimes I think that it is mostly by chance I’ve become part of Toronto’s musical history, taking advantage of opportunities presented, a trait that has supported me throughout an interesting life. My association with Coda Magazine and the Jazz & Blues Centre giving me the opportunity to meet numerous musicians, artists, writers, dancers… some who would become life-long friends. For this story, leading me to the Artists’ Jazz Band, it’s bassist Terry Forster who is my conduit.

We often hung out on Saturday afternoons when he would be the bassist about town, playing with swing and dixieland bands. His history is interesting, coming as he does from a traditional jazz background in England. In the late fifties being the bass player of choice with Mick Mulligan’s Jazz Band featuring singer George Melly. In Canada his real talent is revealed with bebop bands, eventually moving on to the musical freedom of the Artists’ Jazz Band.

Our paths first crossed in the early seventies when I was beginning to participate in improvisation. Artists’ loft scenes existed and fortune smiled on me when invited to play with the Artists’ Jazz Band one evening at Gordon Rayner’s loft. Two blocks over from our house on Ross Street. The evenings were very party-like and many of the players were at best amateurs; myself included. The group — in various combinations — as I remember from all those years ago was Gord, Graham, Robert, Terry, Jim Jones, Ross Mendes, Gerald McAdam, Kenny Baldwin, Harvey Cowan, Nobby Kubota and Michael Snow. It’s too long ago for exactitudes. Saxophonist Kenny Baldwin, bassist Terry Foster (from whom the invitation had originated) and Michael Snow were seasoned professionals, ironically — or in retrospect perhaps not — often playing in dixieland bands, and other conventional jazz configurations that Toronto was famous for. The music of Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor was in the air, but unlike today’s imitative retro-jazzers we were part of the energy and spirit of the time.

A Good Peace [7:01]

By the time I became involved it had become a weekly convocation most Friday nights at Gord’s loft half a block up Spadina from
Grossman’s Tavern, an evening of free jazz helped along with a couple of bottles of wine, the energy elasticated with a good pipe of hash to assist in the concentration. Friends trying their luck at the odd bluesy standard, but mostly just on-the-spot composition, raggedy versions of joyful noise. All night long. A private affair.

Three months prior to the first of these recordings, a sunny day in June, I am about to become the “father of the bride”. My eldest daughter has decided formal and has arranged for suitable rented attire right down to the tuxedo, bow tie and cummerbund. I’ve insisted that I wear my trademark red Doc Martins and keep my ponytail.

More joyful noise as the chattering guests congregate, prompting me to seek quietude. I wander away, amble about the churchyard and find a convenient bench. On the ground sits a large black feather, an augury of undiscovered messages. Being still the hipster I poke it through the elastic band holding my ponytail in place. The wedding is a great success, and as the after-party flourishes one of my daughters takes me aside to tell me the sad news that Robert Markle has died in a car accident. I am to go, now the ceremonies are complete, to Gord’s house where he is waiting there for me with Graham.

In September 1990 we gathered together at Jim Jones’ studio, a collective homage to our departed friend. Without Robert’s brawny tenor saxophone the music goes somewhere else, off to his star orbiting up there in the heavens, brighter than most.

A Summertime for Robert [ 7:30]

These musical samples of “An Artists’ Jazz Band” feature Gordon Rayner [drums & percussion], Graham Coughtry [trombone & vocals], Harvey Cowan [electric violin], Jim Jones [electric bass], *Gerald McAdam [guitar], Bill Smith [sopranino saxophone]

* Neither Harvey Cowan or myself could remember who the guitarist was, so we have assumed it was Gerald McAdam who I have been unable to locate. I have also been unable to locate Jim Jones who recorded this session.

End Notes:
Terry Forster, Robert Markle, Graham Coughtry and Gordon Rayner have all passed into the spirit world, in that sequence, spread over twenty years.

Bill Smith Ensemble left to right:
David Prentice, Terry Forster, Bill Smith, Gord Rayner
An Artists’ Jazz Band left to right:
Gord Rayner, Robert Markle, Terry Forster, Bill Smith, Graham Coughtry, David Lee, David Prentice

Photographs can be made larger by clicking the image and then clicking the revealed image.

Off The Wall – a film by Derek May – https://www.nfb.ca/film/off_the_wall/
Artists’ Jazz Band Historyhttp://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/artists-jazz-band-emc/
Toronto Jazzhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZjHV_NmY8o
Cowboy & Indian –  a film by Don Owen – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK_DOAe7Vpc

The music is spontaneously improvised. Listening with earphones is recommended.

Comments can be sent to classicimprov@yahoo.ca