Canada and the world lost another great musician with the death of Jeff Healey on March 2, 2008. Only 41, Jeff succumbed after a lifelong fight with the cancer that had taken away his eyesight when he was a child. He was most famous for his achievements as a blues/rock guitarist and vocalist, but he had a very interesting jazz side, too. He took up the cornet as a youth, and I first met him when he was about 16, at Grossman's Tavern, Spadina Avenue, Toronto. We were both sitting in. I was on trombone, and Jeff was on cornet. He was about 16 at the time.
When Jeff returned to Toronto from his blues tours around the world, he loved to play and sit in with other bands. Jazz was his main hobby. During the decade of the 1990s, a favorite jazz hangout for him was "C'est what?" on Front Street, Toronto, where he was a regular guest with the Hot Five Jazzmakers. He would sit in with the H5JM and hone his skills on cornet (later it was trumpet) until his chops gave out. Then he would dazzle us all with unique interpretations on his acoustic guitar and his incomparable vocals, of which I have never heard the like.
Jeff had an enviable collection of classic jazz 78s, which were filed on shelves without their covers. Once 'round his apartment, he asked me what I would like to hear. I asked for "Swing Out" by Red Allen. He immediately went straight to it, out of the thousands of 78s on his shelves, identifying it by its feel, the label and the grooves! It was hard to remember sometimes that he was blind.
His radio shows for Jazz FM and CBC, entitled My Kind of Jazz, provided a small oasis of classic jazz for traditional fans, in a milieu of largely mundane jazz programming by the media.
We posted a Youtube of him recently sitting in with the Hot Five Jazzmakers and English pianist Neville Dickie. The year was 1992. He was 26 years old and singing and playing like his idol, Louis Armstrong. The tune is "Sunny Side of The Street" You can view it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXJiduuW944. Form your own opinion!
Jeff eventually tired of touring with his blues band and decided to spend more time in Toronto with his new family. He formed his own jazz band with former "Hot Fivers" Reide Kaiser, piano; Colin Bray, bass, and Gary Scriven, drums, forming the nucleus. It was called Jeff Healey's Jazz Wizards and became very popular in Canada over the past several years. Jeff opened a club called Jeff Healey's Roadhouse, which featured jazz matinees on Saturday afternoons. A memorial/benefit concert is to be held there on Sunday, May 4, from 2-9 p.m. Local groups will be donating their services, including the Jazz Wizards; The Hot Five Jazzmakers; The Happy Pals; The Silverleaf Jazz Band and the Grand Bouche Swingtette. Proceeds are to go to the Daisy's Eye Cancer Fund and to a trust for the education of Jeff's children. A similar event will be held on Saturday, May 3, at the same venue, for Jeff's numerous blues and rock fans.
Jeff revealed the magic of traditional, classic jazz to a younger generation who would otherwise never have learned of its special appeal. For us jazz veterans, this was one of his most important achievements.
The Happy Pals will be fielding a band again at the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans, and the Magnolia Brass Band will take part in the Friday morning (April 11th) session as usual.
The KBR International Jazz Band, which originated in 2003 as a Kid Bastien tribute group, will field three Canadians this year -- Joe Van Rossem, trumpet; Janet Shaw, reeds; and Brian Towers, trombone/leader. Malc Murphy from England is back in the drum chair, and Geoff Coates makes the long trip from Spain to play banjo again. Marcello Bona from Switzerland plays piano. Minnesotan Bill Evans, who plays trombone with the Pontchartain Owls, is the regular KBR bassist.
KBR (King Bolden Rules!) is an International band whose members meet just once a year for this event. This will be its sixth annual appearance at the festival. The pub action for us visitors will be at the Mississippi River Bottom, 515 St. Phillip St, where KBR kicks off with its first gig on April 9. Other visiting international bands will be on stage there, too, and there will be the usual action at Fritzel's bar on Bourbon St., where KBR kicks off at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 10. The international bands have their own stage for the weekend festival, the Continental stage on Bourbon Street. Hope we'll see some of you there. Stop by and say hello!
Closer to home, the Canadian Collectors' Congress will hold its 37th meeting at the Days Hotel, Toronto Airport East. The event runs from Friday, April 25, to Sunday, April 27. Gene Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to attend. During the Conference, the CCC will announce its award for the best traditional jazz album issued by a Canadian band during the year 2007.
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