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Stored away on the shelves of my workshop are hundreds of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes, dissolving, stuck together. Music from tours broadcast on the radio that nobody listened to, or so I was informed by the CBC jazz programmer. They’d received eighteen letters, she’d said, all but one negative, claiming that our music with the German avant garde trombonist was not jazz, not even music to their ears. And how many letters do you usually receive? I asked. Well usually two or three – or none. Well then, progress. Mary was her name, that much is still there in my retrieval system, she was a ‘jazz fan’ who loved ‘chick singers’ and not much else. If it didn’t swing, have recognizable sing-along melodies, traditional values and… little wonder serious art evaporated into obscurity.

Years ago I unpacked the boxes, hundreds of wondrous recorded events, intending at the time to digitalize everything, evidencing them, the champions of the new wave, make them into compact discs so that future generations could resource them, know what had come before. Not knowing that all this technology would be obsolete before the end of his–story.

Baking the reel-to-reel tapes in a convection oven at a steady temperature of 130 degrees, restoring them enough for the transfer, rescued from the deterioration that had begun through chemical breakdown due to age, shedding, the glue holding the oxide particles on the tape an unstable formulation. Sticky-shed syndrome. Ampex 406 they were, purported – at the time – to be of the highest quality.

There had been so many tours, rambling from coast to coast, the occasional gig in America, several trips to England and Holland, generating a small reputation as representatives of an obscure art form, working with radical feminist politicos, ban the bomb groups, cabalistic poets, the cream of the European, English and American free jazz players. On a trip down into New England and upstate New York, our car, a red Russian job, attracted attention. One time in Poughkeepsie, while visiting with Joe McPhee, a small group of church ladies had asked to meet us, worried about communism arriving in their neighbourhood.


And the German trombonist. In memory that first time is a chilly October night in the far east, starting off the tour at an intimate venue in Quebec City. A darkened semi-circular bleachered amphitheatre. It seems to not be true, the posters advertising the tour as beginning at the Music Gallery in Toronto, Sunday, October 7th, 1979 – a full five days before the evening when my story begins. Friday, October 12th.

The next day the Quebec Nordiques hockey team, just integrated into the National Hockey League, are playing their first away game against their dreaded enemies the Montreal Canadiens. The train leaves the station far too early in the morning, the trio a tad groggy from swilling back, at the gig, numerous glasses of complimentary red plonk. From end to end the train is packed solid with Nordiques fans all geared up in blue and white jersey’s. The logo seems to be a clumsy illustration of a blue, white and red woman’s high-heeled shoe with a round button on the toe, the hem bordered by a row of large fleur de lis. Even at this time of the morning they’re already pissed, shouting and hollering in Quebecois French, singing bawdy songs, the annoying repetitious chanting of Nordiques Nation. Non-stop for the entire three hour journey. Nowhere on the train is it possible to obliterate the obnoxious racket.

The Nordiques will lose to the Canadiens on that Saturday night, 3-1 against, and naturally enough nobody came to the quartet’s avant garde concert, their German guest not being a commercial attraction. The promoter, a university professor who’s not a sports fan, is unaware of the monumental importance of the hockey game, and is convinced that the low attendance – eight all told – is because Dave Brubeck’s in town. Not the legendary quartet featuring altoist Paul Desmond, instead a group of minor significance, his son playing electric bass. Can you imagine that? Electric bass! On to Theatre de L’Ile in Hull then returning to Toronto for a three day break.



The German trombonist has envisaged, being a European, that they are to cross the country by train, not understanding the magnitude of the journey. Sat around my living room table in Toronto, a map spread out, soon enough clears up his misconception, the distance we’ve already travelled being roughly the mileage from border to border of his homeland, and the next gig in Winnipeg, to be recorded for the radio, some fourteen hundred miles to the west.

He seems to not much like our trio , making asides as to our ability, as though only Europeans were privileged to play freely improvised music, a copyright embedded. The sketchy compositions not to his liking. But let’s not stereotype Germans eh! So yeah some of them exude a peculiar arrogance, a bit over the top, too much of Joseph Haydn’s “Deutschland über alles” still hanging about on their belt buckles. He has a total misunderstanding of the Canadian way, thinking that a newspaper labelled ‘Free’ meant that it was from the political left, and on a solo trombone feature gradually stifled the horn’s voice by ramming pages of the local newspaper into the bell, all the time muttering – Ja, wir haben die Winnipeg Free Press, causing the audience to burst into spontaneous laughter. Indignant, he shouted angrily – Das ist kein Witz.

Fancy remembering so much about Winnipeg, home of Winnie the Pooh, the loveable fictional anthropomorphic bear created by AA Milne, who once said: If you live to be 100, I hope I live to be 100 minus 1 day, so I never have to live without you. And the hotel bar where the entertainment, The Human Juke Box, was an annoying bloke by the name of Al.

Years later – after I had been living on Hornby Island for some time – a local character engaged me in conversation. It seemed we had, in a variety of ways, a shared past. I remember hearing your band on the radio, he’d said, Live in Winnipeg. A weird German trombonist was your guest. In the host’s on air interview he [his name was Dave] asked how you liked being in this city. It’s fine, you replied, I’ve never been in Halifax before. After 11 days on the road locations become blurred, only the music leaves any impression.



The tour continued on west to Clouds ’n’ Water Gallery in Calgary, The Art Gallery of Edmonton, Open Space in Victoria and ending on October 27th at Western Front in Vancouver.

End Notes:
Recorded in concert at Open Space, Victoria – October 26th, 1979
Back From Lunch, Kerplunk, Little Boo
[All sketches composed by Bill Smith]

The German trombonist is Gunter Christmann [https://www.allmusic.com/artist/g%C3%BCnter-christmann-mn0000944375/biography]

NAME: David Lee [bass], David Prentice [violin], Bill Smith [alto clarinet & soprano saxophone]

Photograph by Rod Heinz [http://rodheinz.tumblr.com/]

This story is partly based on a chapter from Spirits Rejoice [http://rantanddawdle.ca/2012/10/05/spirits-rejoice-%e2%80%a2-book-one/]

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Comments can be sent to classicimprov@yahoo.ca