Seventy-five years ago, a five-year-old boy, already noticed by many for his musical talent, was waiting backstage to perform his rendition of the jazz standard In the Mood at a gathering of the Union United Church in Little Burgundy. It was his first public appearance in the variety show, a regular event where people recited poems, sang, tap-danced, performed comedy sketches and played music.
It was a groundbreaking moment, because that child would become a world-class jazz pianist, organist, arranger, composer and recording artist. It must have been memorable, but Oliver Jones doesn’t remember the clapping, the cheering and the big smiles of encouragement that must have surrounded him.
“What I remember distinctly is being backstage, and hearing the mistress of ceremonies say “Master Oliver Jones,” that’s how they called young children back then. The lady said, ‘Go out,’ but I said, ‘No, they called ‘master.’ They had a bench that was a little too high, and though I was OK at home, I couldn’t get up. I heard people start to laugh, when this lady, Mrs. Wade, picked me up and put me on the bench.”
Jones recalls being annoyed at the people laughing in the front seats. “I played my little tune and got off, but for the next 20 or 30 years, Mrs. Wade always asked if I needed a hand.”
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Though he doesn’t remember more of the audience reaction, he figures it was good, since “they didn’t throw anything at me. I still remember being very indignant that they were laughing, but it was all part of growing up.”
The Union United Church, founded in 1907, holds a special place in the heart of Montreal’s black community. “I was raised and baptized in that church,” Jones says. “Whether you were Muslim, Protestant, Baptist, Presbyterian or Church of England, most of the people in the church were black. It was a meeting place where they felt comfortable back then, in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. A lot of times they were not invited to other churches and were not welcome. The church became a meeting place for youngsters, a wonderful place to go after school.”
Many well-known leaders, notably the great Oscar Peterson and Judge Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré, the first black judge in Quebec and the first black dean of a law school, were nurtured within the church.
The children learned music, dancing, and enjoyed many other activities. “It was the nucleus of our existence, a safe place, that we truly felt was ours.”
The church has been under renovation for some time, with another building being used until the work is completed. Jones is the honorary chair of the fundraising campaign.
“It is a big undertaking but everyone is working extremely hard. My contribution has been to lend my name and help out with concerts, to try to be able to get back home.”
Sunday, May 11, Oliver Jones will join several well-known artists including a surprise guest, one of Quebec’s most beloved entertainers.
Celebrating 75 Years of Musical Excellence at the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, 7141 Sherbrooke W. on Sunday May 11 at 7 pm. 1-888-790-1245 Info: 514-818-2424 x 7927.