It is hard to believe that the musical force that was Vic Vogel has come to an abrupt halt. Victor Stefan Vogel, who died last month at 84, was more than the “monumental legend” of the Montreal jazz scene described by his friend André Ménard, co-founder of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.
For Vogel, music was at the very essence of his mind and body, a largely self-taught pianist, a ferocious trombonist, a musician who had his first gigs at 14 and then taught himself to write and arrange for large ensembles.
He used his income from these events to support and sustain the kind of jazz he loved. He was the go-to musician who led large orchestras at such mega events such as closing ceremony of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
And as the founder of Le Jazz Big Band, he hired talented young musicians and gave them exposure that boosted their careers. His Monday night big band rehearsals were held in dusty lofts and smoky bars.
I attended some of these sessions and remember how he demanded and received energy, passion, strong solos from his players — always with a smile — and peppered his talk with jokes and nicknames for his favourite players.
Trumpeter Joe Sullivan was “the Irishman,” trombone player Mike Wilson, who also played with the Orchestre Métropolitain, under former conductor Agnès Grossman, was “Agnes,” and as signs of love for two of his top soloists, trumpeter Ron Di Lauro was “Ronnie,” and saxophonist Dave Turner “Davie.” Andrew Homzy, the retired Concordia jazz professor, now president of the Nanaimo Jazz Festival, who played tuba for Vogel for 12 years, said that Vic was a mentor who would use the money he made from large projects to create employment for jazz musicians.
“Many musicians saw Vic as a mentor in terms of playing the music, improvising, interpreting, and phrasing,” he said from Nanaimo.
“Vic would hold court at the old Western Café, an ice-cream parlour on Ste. Catherine St. W. That’s where all the musicians would hang out. He was interested in making sure the younger musicians were aware of their future. He insisted they file contracts with the Musicians Guild so they would someday have a pension.”
Homzy recalled walking down Ste. Catherine or St. Denis with Vic and dozens of people saying, “Hey Vic, How’s it going? It was as if he knew all of Montreal, French, English — ethnicities of all kinds.” He was usually at the piano, leading and playing his solos, but the trombone was an important part of his musical personality, Homzy said.
He recalled Vogel often going to the long bar on the ground floor of Rockhead’s Paradise on St. Antoine and Mountain where he would play with legendary guitarist Nelson Symonds. According to Homzy, at the time he was the city’s top jazz trombonist, who played more in the style of an imaginative Roswell Rudd than the smooth sound of a J.J. Johnson.
“As a piano player, I still have a tape of him doing the old Jazz en liberté show, where he played this brilliant piano solo that was everywhere from Bud Power back to Fats Waller to Lennie Tristano with his own personality fused through all of it. He had a wide range of appreciation of jazz music from all eras.”
Trumpeter Joe Sullivan, associate professor of jazz at McGill, noted that while some of today’s jazz musicians have a tendency to play for their peers, Vogel believed you had to connect with your audience, and as such his music was very accessible.
“He played tunes from the great masters like Duke Ellington,and he’d do a lot of standards — kind of like a people’s guy. He was always cultivating his home base, the francophone community. He could talk to anybody, and he wanted to bring people in,” Sullivan said. Vogel composed and arranged to highlight his top soloists such as alto saxophonist Dave Turner, who remembers his first gig with Vogel in 1979.
“I was supposed to play the solo on Georgia. I stand up to play the solo and Vic says, “sit down, you got it” as he signals another musician to take over. It happened the following night as well. “I was so furious I said to myself, ‘I am never playing with that jerk again.”
Later that summer, Turner got a call to rehearse with Vic and showed up, trying to ignore Vogel, but playing “as best I could.”
A bit later, Vogel is sitting at the piano when he says, “Hey, Turner, I wrote this piece. It’s called Ballad for Duke and I wrote it for you. Nobody else is ever going to play this tune except you. And we just became close, close friends after that. I think he was just trying see what kind of personality I had.”
Turner and Vogel’s closest musical friends will be featured at a concert in his memory, scheduled for Monday evening, Oct. 21 at l’Astral, 305 Ste. Catherine W.