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Oliver Jones: Turns out it was the right time to focus on jazz

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When Oliver Jones returned to Montreal in 1980 after 16 years accompanying pop singer Kenny Hamilton in Puerto Rico, he took a gamble on playing the music of his childhood in Little Burgundy.

It was a big gamble: Was it the right time to focus on jazz?

As it turned out, it was, and the move was propitious: He accepted an invitation from bassist Charlie Biddle to perform weekends at the new jazz club on Aylmer St. that bore Biddle’s name. It didn’t happen overnight, but after several years pianist Jones became a true jazz star.

It was quite an achievement for the son of Barbadian immigrants.

The crowds turned out at Biddle’s and they cheered, often wildly, as Jones delighted them with his warm and authentic piano style. His reputation began to spread through the swinging thrust of the jazz revival of the time.

“It was a tremendous lift, a confidence-builder, and it just kept on going,” Jones recalled in a recent conversation. His talent came to the attention of the bookers at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and they hired him almost immediately.

“At the festival I opened for Tony Bennett and he came over to Biddle’s and sat in with us. I opened for Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald,” he said with obvious pride.

But broader recognition was not immediate: It happened gradually, with a record deal, the first CD recorded by Jim West and his fledgling Justin Time label. A high profile and regular gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel’s Voyageur Lounge opened doors, as did continued jazz-festival exposure.

As his fame spread, Jones toured Canada starting in 1985 and left Biddle’s the following year. He continued playing, recording, and touring globally, achieving recognition for his artistic mastery that justified his return to the music he loved. For much of the 1990s his schedule covered an astounding 200,000 kilometers a year.

Jones never forgot his roots – his father worked as a mechanic in the CPR’s Angus shops – and as his fame spread, he rarely refused invitations to perform for causes, including this fall, raising funds to restore the Union United Church, Canada’s oldest Black congregation and the church of his youth. 

For these reasons, Jones, 82, received this year’s Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Distinguished Community Service Award.

Jones chatted about his remarkable career in the living room of his Côte St. Luc condo, where a Yamaha baby grand piano is the centerpiece. The walls are lined with photos, testimonials, and a portrait of him at the keyboard, with bassist Biddle.

When he was growing up, Jones said, Union United was the only black church around. He continues to perform benefit concerts because “it’s important for me to give back to the community.”

Every year, he does a minimum of 15 benefits, which he credits to the outlook he inherited from his parents and the Black community in the working-class district of Little Burgundy.

“Back then I never saw a Black police officer, I never saw a Black clerk in any of the stores, or a Black nurse.” His parents told him one day that would change, and it has.

In nominating Jones for the Goldbloom award, historian Dorothy Williams noted that his life “exemplified hard work, tenacity, inspiration and selflessness.”

Before the hard work it took to master the piano there was Jones’ almost innate ear for music and ability to reproduce what he heard.

“It had to be a gift from God. I started playing at about age two. My father (Oliver Wesley Jones) loved Bach, he sang in the church choir, and he studied piano.

“When he came home and tried to practice, I would scream and holler until he put me on his knee. He always said I was the reason he didn’t become a great artist –because I interrupted his lessons.”

Jones would spend hours as a toddler playing tunes on the piano that he had heard on the radio. They lived on Workman near Atwater, a block and a half from the church, where he first saw Oscar Peterson play. “I couldn’t believe anyone was able to play that fast,” he recalled.

“Oscar Peterson had a great influence on me, and other musicians in the area.”

Jones’ teachers insisted he and other students play only the classics, but his heart was in the more popular swing and boogie-woogie styles. “My parents couldn’t understand why I wanted to play what they called ‘woogie-woogie.’ ”

Jones has won 11 Félix awards and three Junos, was named to the Order of Quebec and Order of Canada, and was granted honorary doctorates by McGill, Laurentian and St. Francis Xavier universities.

As critic Mark Miller has written, Jones’ style was “a long-lost link to the halcyon days of jazz piano in Montreal.

“He also brought something of the church to his playing … creating a dichotomy between the fundamental and the fanciful that only a pianist with Jones’ technical finesse could reconcile,” Miller wrote.

When Jones relaxes at home he tends to play pieces by Bach and Gershwin, the composers whose music he finds most fulfilling. He shared a love of Gershwin with the late media mogul Izzy Asper, who hired Jones to play in Winnipeg at private parties. Asper, Jones recalled, would fly in from Toronto on his private plane to take in a Jones performance.

Jones also set the record straight on his retirement plans, which he first announced   in 2000. “At the time I gave away all of my written music and almost all of my records. I only kept the classical music, which I listen to the most, especially Bach.”

But in 2004, the Montreal Jazz Festival invited him to play alongside Oscar Peterson and he couldn’t refuse. “I hadn’t touched the piano in four years until that night at Place des Arts, but for me, it turned out to be the most outstanding night of playing.”

Though Jones had played duos with such legendary figures as Jay McShann, George Shearing, Hank Jones, and Dave Brubeck, he had never before played with Peterson. “I told him, ‘I will play with you – as long as you only use your thumbs.”

Though a stroke had limited Peterson’s use of his left hand, Peterson “could play more with his right than most pianists with both hands.”

The next day, the calls started coming in. He agreed to do ten concerts. He ended up doing 84 that year­ — so much for retirement.

This year’s concert series, Jones said, will end his public performing career. The fact that he is blind in one eye and only has limited vision in the other adds to the strain.

Once retired, he hopes to work as an ambassador promoting Canadian artists. “If I can help them get the exposure they need, I’ll be happy to do so.”

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