KITCHENER, Ont. April 27, 2015 — Oliver Jones, one of Canada's finest jazz pianists, takes the stage for the first time this year Saturday night at The Registry Theatre
The 80-year-old Jones had a heart attack in February, under went a triple-bypass surgery and had to cancel gigs scheduled for March and April. But as soon as he was able, the veteran jazz artist was rehearsing his trio and planning new recording sessions.
While quietly recovering, Jones wondered if his music had suffered.
"So far the piano feels the way it did for the last 75 years," Jones said in an interview from his Montreal home. "So I am looking forward to it."
He is bringing the regular members of his trio to Kitchener — Éric Lagacé on bass, and Chet Doxas on drums.
"Tremendous musicians and wonderful friends," Jones said.
The recipient of 150 awards, including the Order of Canada, Jones was born and raised in a working class neighbourhood in Montreal called St. Henri. (www.justin-time.com/artists.php?lang=en&aid=283). That neighbourhood holds a unique place in the history of jazz music in Canada. It was a crucible of black culture that produced a long list of leading jazz artists, including Oscar Peterson, Joe Sealey and his brothers Charlie Biddle, Nelson Symonds and Louis Metcalfe.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the area had two popular jazz clubs, Café St-Michel and Rocky's Paradise. Peterson wrote a beautiful piece called "Place St. Henri" in homage to the streets where he grew up. Jones has written about 20 pieces about the people and places around that neighbourhood.
"It was wonderful because of the atmosphere around St. Henri," Jones said.
Today, the area is rapidly gentrifying, especially among the old factories along the Lachine Canal that now house expensive condos. Jones now lives in Côte Saint-Luc, but regularly visits St. Henri
He was nine years younger than Peterson. Both attended the Royal Arthur elementary school, and the Montreal High School. Both played in the Union United Church. Jones grew up about 10 doors away from the Peterson house. He would sit on the front porch of the Peterson home and listen to Oscar play. For years, Jones took lessons from Oscar's sister, Daisy Peterson.
"I got so hooked on listening to and trying to play jazz as a youngster," Jones said. "I guess like everyone in the neighbourhood, I was very, very impressed the first time I heard Oscar Peterson, and there were quite a few other wonderful jazz musicians living in the same area."
His jazz career had to wait, though. In 1964, Jones became the musical director and pianist for the Jamaican-born calypso-and-pop singer Kenny Hamilton. For 16 years Jones was based in Puerto Rico with Hamilton's band. When the band toured, Jones would spend his down time watching jazz shows in New York, Chicago and elsewhere.
"I had a lot of years of wishing and hoping and dreaming of playing jazz," Jones said.
The break came upon his return to Montreal in 1980. His childhood friend from St. Henri, the bass player Charlie Biddle, had opened a jazz club downtown called Biddle's Jazz and Ribs. It would become one of the most famous jazz clubs in Canada, known simply as Biddle's. He offered Jones a regular gig.
"That's what got me started more than anything else, the gig at Biddle's with Charlie, and then a couple of years later running into Jim West," Jones said.
West was so moved by Jones' playing he founded a label to record him. It is called Justin Time. Jones made his first recording for that label in 1984, and never stopped. He has released 23 recordings on Justin Time, and has active plans for two more.
When Jones started playing at Biddle's, the Montreal Jazz Festival was just starting as well. Jones played it many times, and credits the festival with elevating his profile as a jazz artist. In 2012, in recognition of a great career in jazz, Canada Post issued a stamp with Jones' image.
Jones was 60 the last time he played in Kitchener. The show Saturday is the first since his heart attack and operation. It is the beginning of the last chapter of a remarkable career.
"I am feeling all right," Jones said. "I have to take it easy, and be patient. I walk every day, a little exercise."