Norman Marshall Villeneuve bops away at House of Jazz

Norman Marshall Villeneuve makes those drums sing. (Photo by Irwin Block)

Norman Marshall Villeneuve is back in town, and the party’s on.

Norman who? you might ask, if you weren’t part of the Montreal jazz scene in the 50s and 60s.

But for jazz mavens, “Norm” is well known as an integral part of the homegrown talent and groove that has produced more than its share of world-class musicians.

These include his cousin, Oliver Jones, and Oscar Peterson – all of whom grew up and developed their piano talent in Little Burgundy, and drummer Villeneuve whose classic and colourful bebop sound can be heard today in a variety of Montreal venues.

Norman has been playing live music since the early 1950s, here and in Toronto, where he moved in the 1970s, until his return home to Montreal last year.

Many children raised in Little Burgundy studied piano with Oscar’s sister, Daisy Peterson Sweeney, but Villeneuve’s sense of rhythm and timing first developed as a child tap dancer, until he took up the drums, at age 14.

“I took two lessons, then I just listened to records,” he recalled. His model was Art Blakey and the legendary Jazz Messengers, who toured the world and presented some of the greatest players.

With his Norman Villeneuve Jazz Message, Villeneuve is on a similar quest, and he hires some of the best.

We caught up with him last month at a swinging noontime concert at the St. James United Church on Ste. Catherine St. with Felix Strussi on piano and Olivier Babaz on bass.

He led the group in such medium-tempo ballads as Autumn in New York, but also revved things up with the all-time bebop classic, A Night in Tunisia.

While he was a tap dancer, Norman went by the surname Griffith, his adoptive family. He later returned to his mother’s married name, Villeneuve.

He recalls playing in the show-band at Rockhead’s Paradise, the former music hall on Mountain and St. Antoine, and also at its legendary ground floor lounge. It was dark and smoky, featuring a long bar with a music stand at the back and a Chinese restaurant around the corner.

“I worked the Montmartre Café, and around the corner at the High Hat Café. We backed the strippers.

“Montreal then was a wide-open city. You played to six, seven o’clock in the morning,” he said with a chuckle.

He also worked on the road, including a stint with the Kenny Hamilton Band that featured Oliver Jones, and then moved to Toronto in 1974.

“I moved to get work. I had a good day job in maintenance and other things, but I did get food on the table for my wife and daughter.

“Music didn’t happen until a few weeks later. I played music at night and on the weekends. I worked at George’s Spaghetti House, and I had my own group that I called the Norman Villeneuve Jazz Message.

“I had arrangements for over 55 tunes with piano, bass and two horns.”

I picked up his eponymous and self-produced CD with three horns, and it is swinging, straight ahead and fun.

Over the years, Villeneuve has played with such jazz luminaries as Jackie McLean, the innovative alto sax player; Ray Draper, the noted tuba player; horn player Julius Watkins; and vibraphonist Terry Gibbs.

A year ago, he felt it was time to “come back home.”

“I’m 76 now, I’d like to spend the next 10-15 years here he said with a big smile. He also looked forward to some playing opportunities.

“I was playing every Wednesday night in Toronto for four years at Chalkers Pub when my old friend George Durst dropped in.”

Durst, the entrepreneur who started Biddle’s Jazz and Ribs on Aylmer, now called House of Jazz, and other music venues, told Villeneuve: “When you come to Montreal, come to see me.”

Durst has just opened a new House of Jazz at 1639 de l’Avenir Blvd. that serves up the same ribs and chicken menu. It has that sparkling Las Vegas look with dozens of chandeliers, and similar up-tempo and contemporary jazz.

In keeping with a traditionalist bent, the Laval House of Jazz is featuring Villeneuve Friday nights from 6:30 to 9, with such stalwart pianists as Jean Beaudet, John Roney, Josh Rager and Felix Strussi.

“It’s all in the Art Blakey tradition,” Villeneuve stresses. He’s collected 61 Blakey albums, and has been listening to them since he was 12.

“He’s my mentor,” Villeneuve says.

When you look at Villeneuve, smiling as he develops percussive devices to enliven each song, you really do get the message: Music is his life, and he’s loving it. So do we.

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