Jazz drummer Claude Ranger was a legendary figure long before his disappearance almost 17 years ago.
But his last years away from the music scene and the mystery surrounding his fate have only served to enhance his iconic status, even as his family, friends, and fans are
perplexed and saddened by it.
The Claude Ranger story was waiting to be written, and Mark Miller, the Toronto-based jazz writer and photographer, took up the challenge producing a fascinating and in-depth chronicle of the drummer’s life and his music, including the state of the jazz scene in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver while he lived there.
Claude Ranger, Canadian Jazz Legend (Tellwell Talent, 279 pages, $38, Kindle Edition, $7) begins with the time “on or about November 2, 2000” when, according to his friend, Ivan Bamford, Ranger left his one-room apartment in a subsidized housing complex in Aldergrove, B.C., never to return.
The Montreal-born musician was 59, living alone, apart from his wife and four daughters, and to this day, the RCMP inquiry into his whereabouts, launched in 2001, has been inconclusive.
Ranger had sold his drums and after 30 years stopped playing the jazz he loved, and living the life that went with it. Both, as Miller writes, were characterized by “a remarkable sense of immediacy, a love of risk and no particular concern for consequence.”
What that meant was being at times extraordinarily busy and in demand. In 1989, at the du Maurier International Jazz Festival, Ranger would play with seven different bands in 10 days, a total of 13 concerts. For a quintet of his own, one of its members recalls, Ranger organized but one rehearsal. But saxophonist Rob Frayne has a different memory.
“Claude would throw down charts and we just played them. I don’t remember rehearsing even once. He’d say, ‘Play like the bomb will fall at midnight.’ He meant the nuclear bomb. ‘Play like these are your last moments on earth.’ That was his approach, and he took it very, very seriously.”
Ranger was a perfectionist with his own high standards and concept for how the music should be played, and not be played; if he didn’t like what someone in a band would be doing, he could just stop, which in jazz is equivalent to spitting in your face.
Born in Montreal to a working class family – his father was a labourer and truck driver – and raised in the northern Plateau Mont-Royal and Rosemont, he first picked up the drums as a teen when he joined the army cadet corps. After private lessons, he quit high school and spent the next two years just practicing at home, with his first gig at 17.
He grew into his own style, influenced at first by early beboppers Max Roach and Miles Davis’s Jimmy Cobb, then by John Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones, and Davis’s Tony Williams, who had replaced Cobb.
This book, of course, is much more than simply a biography of a drummer: it also offers an overview of the jazz scene in Montreal at the time, then, following Ranger as he moved west, of the Toronto, and Vancouver scenes, where he ended his performing career.
Ranger had his own trademark stage presence, with a lit cigarette perpetually hanging from the left side of his mouth and a bottle of beer by his side.
Miller’s remarkable black and white photograph on the book’s cover, with the freshly lit cigarette and ash hanging from the tip, as he was playing at the Montreal International Jazz
Festival in 1986, and several more inside, are exactly as I remember Ranger playing in Montreal.
Toronto saxophonist Ron Allen, who worked with Ranger in 1980, says the cigarette cum ash was “a symptom of the absolutely disciplined carelessness that he had …The way it would hang, defying
gravity – he knew it was intimidating, he knew it was attractive, he knew how to seduce.”
But that image could not be divorced from his dramatic role as a drummer who made music, rather than simply keeping time or enhancing what others were doing.
In Toronto he “cut a compelling figure” and was a living antidote to what Miller describes as “the prime conservatism of a scene still largely defined by the values of the 1950s.”
Writing in Coda magazine, Bill Smith marvelled in a December 1974 review at “the incredible Ranger, Canada’s master of percussion dynamics, sitting there at his tiny drums providing dialogue at every level necessary.”
Drummer Buff Allen tried to learn by listening to Ranger after he refused to offer lessons. “It wasn’t a special style, or a technical style, it was his emotional power. That’s something you can’t learn. It’s
innate” Allen remarked.
But Ranger could not stand it when bandmates would play the same all the time, even if they were the top musicians in Toronto and, as multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson says, Ranger would “just start playing free, right in the middle of a straight-ahead tune.”
Ranger “really could play time. He had a groove that was unbelievable. But if the bass player was pushing, he couldn’t deal with it. He’d get really angry and he’d stop playing, or he’d play free. Sometimes he’d get up and walk away. He just couldn’t stand it.”
The book is replete with this kind of learned appreciation from fellow musicians, some of Canada’s best, who played with Ranger, as well as Miller’s own insights. He knows the instrument, since he is a drummer himself, and is the author of ten other books on jazz and jazz musicians, and a keen music journalist who had covered the scene for 27 years for the Globe & Mail.
The book is also a review of Ranger’s major gigs, his CDs, and a complete discography in annex. But above all, with scores of interviews, including with Ranger, references to reviews and his own profound knowledge of the scene, we learn how Ranger and his music fit the varied and evolving scene in Canada’s three major cities, and his ultimate refusal to accept and adapt to conditions that did not meet his standards and expectations.
In the end, as Miller notes, Ranger’s way of dealing with situations that he could no longer bear was to walk away.